Here’s a proposal: make me a game where my five and seven year old grandbugs will squeal with delight while playing, and yet give me and my wife interesting decisions while we are playing, too.
Sounds easy? It isn’t, of course.
It’s such a fine line to walk, one that German designers seem to have figured out a long time ago. What goes into a game to make it both entertains for children and enticing to adults? It’s a secret sauce that has no known recipe but sure feels right when you find it.
My family always asks me how I find games appropriate for the nieces and nephews. The BGG family games forums are a good start. Anything with HABA or Blue Orange is bound to get you in the ballpark. And of course, since 1989, the Jury in Germany has recognized amazing children’s games with the Kinderspiel des Jahres award.
Amigo is a game publisher that I think of when I’m searching my game shelves for a top flight card game to play with my family. Monster Expedition and Dealt! have given us hours of card playing fun. I’m not that familiar with their children’s offerings, so I practically jumped at the chance to play their award winner, Magic Mountain.
The mail delivered the package on a recent Wednesday, and the bugs were scheduled to come over on Friday. As Tom Petty said, the waiting is the hardest part. But quelle surprise! Gabby and Evelyn decided to come to our house a day early, so we cleared off the dining room table and started unwrapping that shrink wrap.
Inside this Ticket To Ride sized box we found a hinged, double layered main game board, plus a bunch of cute little miniature witches and magic students. The oversized rule book emphasized the fact that “There Were Only Five Rules!” to the game, which made my job of teaching the girls that much easier.
We set up the game board, with the risers that lifted the back half of the board, and dropped the “will o’wisps” a/k/a colored marbles in a bag for random picking and away we went.
The concept of the game is dirt simple. Get four students (at the basic level) down the trail and into the school before three witches arrive first. How to accomplish this feat is just a little bit trickier. The top of the game board has six trails that wind their way to the bottom of the board, with lots of criss-crossing each other on the way down. The students are hovering at the top of the trails, waiting for you to drop one of the marbles in place.
Gravity does the rest. And boy, do kids like watching the effects of gravity with bated breath, and hands clenched!
If the next spot is taken by a witch or student, that’s even better, because the player gets to skip over that spot to the next one unoccupied. And if by chance the marble hits the student at the new stop, it’s a great day in the magic neighborhood, because the student gets to keep advancing.
Once dropped, the balls bound and glide their way toward the bottom. When they hit the miniature magic students, everyone cheers and the player that round moves the mini student to the next available spot on the trail that matches the color of the marble that hit them. The golden trail meanders its way around the board, but in each branch, there are spots matching each of the five colors.
That’s the first thing that caught my eye about the game, and maybe the best part. As an adult, it’s fun looking at the potential routes — each path has ‘bumpers’ like in games such as Fireball Island that makes the will o’wisps going down in unexpected ways — and plotting the best way down.
It’s also a ton of fun to watch your little one’s gears turn quick enough to also see a nice little combo that advances the students. (Or your older one secretly pull for the witches to win by putting marbles down those chutes. To each their own.)
So what is in the secret sauce this time that makes Magic Mountain so sweet? It’s co-operative, it’s gorgeous on the table, and it’s a hoot. To get both adults and children excited about playing a game needs all of those things (working together, attractive on the table, fun game mechanics).
The fun is the hardest part to define, but here it is easy to figure out. It’s just gosh darn exciting to place a ball at the top, as an adult, and calculate a good guess as to the trajectory of the will o’wisp even while there’s a risk for a disastrous roll. The fact that my wife and I can do more calculations than the kids just means that our decision are a little deeper, but the randomness of the will o’wisp pulls coupled with the almost randomly ways that they bounce off the trail splitters keeps the kids in the game and not bossed around by an alpha gamer.
For those reasons, I can definitely see why it drew the attention of the jury this year. The grandbugs have been playing it non-stop since we got it. I even watched Evelyn teach her younger cousins how to play it the other night on a lazy Friday afternoon of family gaming. That’s the mark of a good game.
There’s some lagniappe here, too. A lot of the kid’s games that we play or review are pretty standard set ups. You play the game as written, or have to make up ways to punch up or soften the rules as needed, depending on the ages of the kids you are hosting. But, Magic Mountain anticipates that your family might outgrow it a bit as the kids get older.
In the back of the rulebook, the designers have already given a couple of ways to freshen up the game, and there’s even a little ‘cheatsheet’ on the game board that shows you the various difficulty levels one can choose with the game. Of course, it is something we could do ourselves, but the unexpected lagniappe of having it in the rules and more importantly, right there on the game board as a reminder about scaling up the difficulty, is much wanted our house.
All in all, this is one of the best children’s games we have played in a few years. It’s certainly a nice bump up from My First Orchard, and for me, compares favorably to another co-op game we’ve been playing, Ice Flows. I can see this one sticking around as a permanent addition to our children’s games library.
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!
— BJ from Board Game Gumbo
A complimentary copy of the game was provided by the publisher.