The movie Game Night tells the tale of a group of friends whose weekly game night (isn’t it nice when the title of a movie is also the entire plot of the movie?) goes off the rails when their murder-mystery game intersects with an actual murder. Sounds intense, but let’s be honest: It takes far less than an actual death for a family game night to descend into chaos. Certain board games seem designed to sow conflict, to turn brothers against brothers, mothers against daughters. To celebrate the release of Game Night, the Ringer staff submitted their picks for the board games with the most power to cause years-long strife among family members.
Claire McNear: Ostensibly, the primary goal of Parcheesi, the American twist on the Indian game Pachisi, is to get each of your four pawns all the way around the board before the other players manage to do the same with theirs.
This is incorrect. The primary goal of Parcheesi is to exploit a rule that allows a single player to force every other player to a standstill that ends only when the first player so chooses. The secondary goal is to use this to inflict as much lasting bitterness and vindictiveness on fellow players as possible. Tertiary goal: Ruin every relationship in your family.
Parcheesi was big in my home growing up. The aforementioned rule stipulates that a player who lands two pawns on the same spot on the board creates what’s called a blockade, so that no other pawn — yours or anyone else’s — can pass the blockade until that player decides to break it up. Practically, at least for us firstborns enraged that younger siblings were receiving strategic board-game assistance from parents, this meant you could get half your pawns home and then spend the rest of your time screwing over other people as your blockade forced them to forfeit turn after turn. Is it cruel? Yes. Is it delightful? Yes. Would my relationship with my little brother be at least two degrees warmer had Parcheesi not set up blockading stalemates? I leave that for you to decide.
Danny Heifetz: Monopoly is about capitalism, and capitalism is about cheating. The reason nobody ever finishes a game of Monopoly is because the only logical outcome is class warfare. In the beginning of each game, the opportunity for prosperity is intoxicating. But initial gains, largely determined by randomness, snowball into entrenched wealth disparity that spawns all-consuming, borderline-omniscient robber barons who slowly sap your desire to continue. Parents who’ve spent years sacrificing real money for their children take the time to relish in this fantasy: taking the money they spent on their kids and investing it in real estate.
Paranoia reigns. You find yourself accusing your brother of stealing $12 from the time you made change 45 minutes ago. The rule book is dissected like a Supreme Court verdict to determine how much money is rewarded for landing on Park Place. The money may be fake, but the lingering sense of distrust that lasts hours after the game ends (read: after someone flips the board in a heated rage) is very real. Most board games are about competitiveness; Monopoly is about arguing with your family about money until you give up.
The Game of Life
Andrew Gruttadaro: The Game of Life is a great game — you go around a Candy Land–like board full of real-life hallmarks, picking up marital partners and kids and money along the way. Amazing stuff happens: You get these little tiles and all of the sudden you’ve opened a successful restaurant or climbed Mount Everest. And it’s impossible to end the game with no money due to devastating student loan debt, so that’s a bonus. But the problem with The Game of Life is its basic premise: it’s the game of life, and it’s extremely easy to place outsized importance on what happens and how you do in it, as if The Game of Life is more of a predictor than a board game based on the whims of a spinner that comes detached WAY TOO OFTEN.
The game, by design, begets conflict and intrafamilial judgments. Anytime my sister would win the Nobel Peace Prize or something, the rest of us would be like, “BAHA YEAH RIGHT YOU CAN’T EVEN SPELL,” mercilessly destroying the dreams of a 12-year-old. One time, when I got married in the Game of Life, I announced to the room that my bride would be named Jill (I think I was watching a lot of Home Improvement at the time?). I got dragged for weeks. “Jill sounds like a boring, stupid wife”; “Hey, how’s your dumb ugly wife Jill?” I was 10 years old! Siblings (and honestly adult relatives) can be vicious to each other; they usually don’t need a board game to do so. The Game of Life is a can of gasoline being poured over years of resentment, deep-seated grudges, and repressed emotions.
Jordan Coley: In Uno, feelings get hurt, especially when you’re playing with your family. During the summer days of my youth, my cousins and I would often seek refuge from the muggy Connecticut heat in the basement of my aunt’s house. When the Jerry Springer reruns got old and the Xbox controller with the broken joystick became too painful to use, we turned to Uno.
During our games, no feelings were spared. No punches were pulled. We molded Uno’s rules to the predilections of our cruelty. If one us put down a “Draw Two,” the next player could combat it by playing a “Draw Two” of their own. Sometimes we played multiple “Draw Two” cards at once. All of this is (definitely) against the rules and (completely) unfair. Often, when the dust settled, someone was saddled with a “Draw Six.”
It was a bloodbath.
These were lawless times, a time when “Wild Draw Four” cards were played at will, and if someone called out “UNO,” we made their life a living hell. Once, I was a card away from winning when my cousin Tamaron played a “Wild” card, changing the color to Yellow and forcing me to draw. He went on to win the game, and afterward mockingly told me that he had seen the Red Two in my hand before making his fatal move. I hate Tamaron now; he is my mortal enemy.
Donnie Kwak: Scrabble success for the average person is 25 percent related to words (the depth of your vocabulary), 30 percent luck (what tiles you get), and 45 percent strategy (how well you play the board). But the first 25 percent is responsible for nearly all Scrabble beef, a.k.a. the “Is that really a word?” arguments. On the continuum between pros who’ve memorized the Scrabble dictionary and novices who play only words they’ve used in life, most people fall somewhere in the middle — but it’s a big middle. To avoid Scrabble disagreements, play only with those closest to your approximate level. Here’s my house rule for games with people I don’t know well: three-letter minimum for words and you must be able to provide the definition of whatever word you play. That means you, the jerk who just dropped TSADDIQ.
Go: The International Travel Game
Shaker Samman: In the mid-1900s, British game maker Waddington released Go: The International Travel Game. It was a simple game with a simple premise: You and your fellow competitors are racing. You begin in London and must collect a number of souvenirs from different cities across the map (anywhere from three to five items, depending how long you want to play), exchanging currencies and booking travel. The first person to return to London with the required mementos wins. Throw in a few curveballs like Luck cards that can aid your journey, and Risk cards that can send you off course to destitute outposts like Perth or Vladivostok (the latter of which ensured your defeat), and you have all the makings of a high-stakes showdown.
In my youth, my cousins and I played the game on trips to my grandmother’s house in Syria. It was a relic of another era (the Soviet Union is represented on the map, and nearly every country in Europe uses a different currency rather than the Euro). After the war started, and our visits stopped, I made it my mission to find a copy stateside. Years went by without any luck, but in August, I finally found it. A week later, my relatives all crowded around the table to let the nostalgia wash over us. As the game went on, it was clear that there was potential for chaos. Three of us began our return trips to London with four souvenirs in hand. My aunt was the farthest, trapped at the far reaches of the board, followed by me, needing a few rolls to arrive, and my cousin, who was one roll from victory. But he made a fatal error and began celebrating too early. Just before he released the die, someone called out, “Don’t get cocky. You’ll roll a two and end up in Vladivostok.” Sure enough, when the cube came to a halt, only two dots appeared. He drew his risk card, and, as proclaimed, he was sent to the far ends of the Russian map. As he began to scream and stomp, I rolled a six. Two turns later, I won. We did not speak again for a week.
Alyssa Bereznak: Most people think of Risk as a classic geopolitical board game that requires players to engage in diplomacy and wartime strategy while battling for territory on a world map. But did you know that it’s also an incredibly efficient way to betray your loved ones? Eight-year-old me did not. And it’s with this naïveté that I entered into my first and last game of Risk against my teen brother and mom.
The year was 1996. We were running the short format where everyone takes a “mission card” and aims to compete it. Missions can include anything from taking control of whole continents to eliminating certain players. I drew a card that told me to to eliminate my mother, which I failed to keep secret. My brother convinced me that this was also his objective and suggested we combine forces. Just when we had her cornered, he revealed that he’d been lying the whole game; his mission was to eliminate me, and our alliance was an elaborate scheme to hit me at my most vulnerable point. Before that moment, it was implausible to me that a family member could be so deceptive. It was like finding out Santa wasn’t real. He would’ve won the game if I hadn’t quit out of frustration.
A game like Monopoly might be designed to mimic the inherently unfair capitalistic system. Scrabble frustratingly games the more illogical elements of the English language. But Risk is nothing but zero-sum geopolitics pursued to the most cynical ends. It’s not designed for fun, but to ruin relationships. Case in point: I held a grudge against my brother for about 10 years after that encounter. When I brought up “the incident” this week, he said he understood why. “Stalin probably felt the same way about Hitler in 1941,” he offered. Anyway, we’re good now. But that’s because we never played Risk again.
Hannah Giorgis: I have only the most pleasant of memories playing board games with my biological family. As a young child, I learned to play checkers at the behest of my grandfather, who would “secretly” let me win games against him so I’d develop “confidence” in my ability to “reason.” I look back on those games fondly.
In my church family, however — you know, my “brothers and sisters in Christ” — I was afforded no such luxury. The game was always the game. In our youth group at church (hey, Paradigm LA), casual challenges were serious business, and nothing could divide friendships and families and worship bands quicker than Taboo. What better way to torture people than to make them feel like they don’t know how to communicate properly? What quicker way to sow discord than to put people in charge of policing the opposing teams’ adherence to the rules by assigning someone a buzzer — and the ability to watch hawkishly over any player whose turn it is to shout out phrases that’ll help their teammates guess the word in question without using the most obvious clues? Tables were flipped over, alliances were broken, feelings were hurt. Electing to play Taboo is always an exercise in sadism, but I’ll never lose my faith.
Megan Schuster: Unless you’ve been living under a rock since 1974, you’ve heard of Connect Four. Connect Four is a sprightly two-person game with one simple objective: to get four of your checkers in a row before your opponent does. It’s a game of strategy and chance, psychology and wit. It’s also the reason my 14-year-old nephew and I are not on speaking terms.
What people don’t generally understand about Connect Four is the amazing opportunity it presents to roast your relatives — often in front of an audience. While multiplayer board games allow everyone to participate, if you’re playing Connect Four at a family function, most of the time there will be people hanging back and watching. That means — hypothetically, of course — that when your nephew drops a checker into the grid and cheers, thinking he’s won the match, there’s a group of people nearby to mock him as he realizes he dropped it into the wrong spot. The greatest L that can be taken in board games is group humiliation, and Connect Four provides an ample platform for just that.
Paolo Uggetti: Sorry! is a ruthless game fueled by sheer luck of the draw and a complete lack of empathy among a group of up to four people. There isn’t a greater feeling than that of drawing a Sorry! card with your family member a mere four spots from getting their final pawn into the safe zone. Growing up, I think I cheered for this moment louder than I did for any sporting event I’ve ever watched. The best part about it is that it rendered your opponents, in this case relatives whom you care for dearly, powerless. What better way to show your love for each other?
The simplicity of this game, unlike Monopoly, made it easy for my family to adopt it when we were fresh off the plane from El Salvador 14 years ago and barely knew any English. We understood what Sorry! meant. It also tore my younger brothers and me apart, as if that process needed any more help. It made us quickly beg for mercy, make the strident case for why replacing the other brother’s pawn was the better move, and even use pawns as weapons when the anger reached peak frustration.
I’m gonna bring Sorry! back in the Uggetti household. Pray that I survive to report back.
Game of Thrones: The Board Game
Miles Surrey: A Game of Thrones: The Board Game — not to be mistaken with A Game of Thrones: The Card Game or Game of Thrones: The Iron Throne — is a must-play, and by that I mean you must be willing to spend close to four hours of your life endangering friendships for the sake of acquiring fake castles.
It goes like this: You play with three-to-six players (I’ve always played with six, it’s much more fun and chaotic) and each player controls a GoT House. The goal is to acquire the most castles in 10 long turns, along the way creating allegiances, finding ways to transport your armies across Westeros, and getting hit by random wildling attacks, which are there only to ruin your carefully constructed plans. There’s a lot of other factors that come into play — the rule book is 28 pages long.
The sheer amount of time you spend playing this game — a good chunk of it just moving troops around — makes the decisive moments all the more crucial. One time as House Stark, I broke an off-table allegiance with House Greyjoy, taking over a vital stronghold in the final round to knock them out of first place. My Greyjoy friend, who ragefully and immediately left the apartment we were playing in, couldn’t believe my Starks were dishonorable. The last thing he said before slamming the door was, “What is dead may never die!”
Kate Halliwell: My family loves a good game night, and our most commonly played game is Trivial Pursuit. We’ve been known to branch out to more specialized versions — a three-hour game of Lord of the Rings Trivial Pursuit will go down in Halliwell family feud history — but we tend to default to the classic. Each game is quite the process; everyone prepares their warm beverage of choice, bickers over seating choices around the table, and my unbelievably nerdy dad and brother steal game pieces from the previously mentioned Lord of the Rings version to serve as their own personal avatars. (Who wants a red plastic wheel when you could be Aragorn or Gandalf?) It all goes downhill from there, as my trivia-obsessed father squares off against his three competitive triplets and my poor mother, who, for her part, couldn’t care less about any of it.
If you’ve ever played Trivial Pursuit, you know that the questions range from absurdly easy to “literally no one in the entire world knows this.” This leads to lots of grudges centered on certain family members lucking out with easy questions on the way to unearned victories. Here’s one I’ll carry with me to my dying day: What’s the only letter of the alphabet that has more than one syllable? Take a minute. You won’t need more than that, if you can … recite the alphabet.
My dad can.
He wins a lot.
I’m not bitter about it.
Board games are fun.
Settlers of Catan
Michael Baumann: The male members of my family have a ritualistic obsession with Trivial Pursuit; once my brother and I started beating our dad, our family power structure was thrown into an uneasy state of flux. But that’s nothing compared with the strain Settlers of Catan has put on my marriage.
In Settlers of Catan, the granddaddy of hipster board games, several players acquire resources required to construct roads and other stuff, while I get stuck with THE FUCKING SHEEP. EVERY TIME WITH THE FUCKING SHEEP. While everyone else is doing exciting stuff, I’m up to my neck in sheep. Sometimes you can trade in one resource for another, but not sheep, which have NO PURPOSE IN THIS GAME. Sometimes I’ll roll the dice in such a manner that ought to earn me wheat or bricks but NOT THIS TURN, MIKE, BECAUSE THE ROBBER IS ON YOUR SPACE NOW. WHAT THE MEDIEVAL FUCK IS THE ROBBER? I’m sure I’d learn what the robber was if I could HEAR YOU TALKING OVER THE SOUND OF ALL THESE SHEEP.
Fuck the robber. Fuck these sheep. Fuck this cold-brew drinking, clear-glasses-frame-wearing, wretched bullshit mess of a game and everyone who plays it.