MIDVALE — The kitchen table is a big, character-filled old rectangular slab of wood that once graced a corporate conference room. Around it, Julie Daye gathers her family at the end of a busy week when activities had scattered them and kept them apart.
She looks at her husband, Ron; their youngest, Abraham, who's 15; and Jessica, who is leaving in October for a mission for the LDS Church, just like her brother Kristofer, who right now is in Canada.
"What shall we play?" she asks.
Playing games together is one of the ways the Dayes show each other love.
Tom Vasel has no trouble explaining how families benefit from playing games together. He grew up playing games with his four brothers and sisters and now has six children of his own with whom he continues a tradition he thinks is especially important at this point in history.
"We live in a changing generation where people are doing a huge amount of interaction that is not face-to-face, using Twitter, Facebook, texting. With games, you have to be face-to-face with people," he says.
But were he not convinced the world needs the up-close interaction, he'd still play. He's an involved dad and it's an activity his family enjoys.
"Though I'm a fan of video games and think they're fun, they don't promote interaction — even the most interactive ones. You're still facing a screen, doing what the screen tells you to do," says the Homestead, Fla., man, a math teacher and youth pastor at South Dade Baptist Church, who also does podcast/videocast for The Dice Tower to review board games. It's a point of pride that he reviews pretty much each one that comes out.
"With board games," he says, "you're communicating with one another. The only way to play is together."
Vasel says parents sometimes expect kids to oppose playing games. They like playing. Games have a tactile feel you don't get with a video game or iPad. There's something about picking up a piece and moving it that works.
He rattles off what can be learned from games, speaking so fast it's hard to keep up.
They teach negotiations, he says, and cooperation, and teaming up against other people, and realizing a bad bargain when you see it. Playing, if you play different games and not just the same one over and over, increases trading skills and builds dexterity. Board games can teach kids to count, to read a bluff, to negotiate with other people, to realize a bad deal or make the best of multiple choices, to think logically or spatially or simply how to outwit somebody.
He pauses for a breath, then adds, "They're fun."
Andrew J. Low, owner of Family Games Treasurehouse, a website that offers free instructions for hundreds of games across genres, compiled a list of the benefits he sees in regular family game nights.
Besides noting some wonderful family interactions, he says that playing games together helps build character. "Learning how to lose graciously is just as important as winning gracefully."
Others, from psychologists to teachers, note that game night is cheap, cheerful and a great way to keep conversations and interactions going as children move through the various stages and challenges of growing up.
Board games sales reportedly approached $1 billion in America a couple of years ago, bolstered some by the failing economy. CNN Money reported mid-recession that board games had spent a decade in the shadow of video games and sales had declined steadily since the '80s.
"But with the onset of the recession, as video games have suffered from the dip in consumer spending, their older, less-costly cousins — Clue, Candy Land, and the like — have benefited," wrote Fortune contributor Kim Thai.
That's one reason specialty board game shops have cropped up all over the country.
Russell Ahlstrom and his wife, Shyla, of South Jordan, took games with them to the hospital when they had both their babies. Ahlstrom, who works for Deseret Digital Media, a sister company to the Deseret News, grew up with games. "We'd play games every Thanksgiving and Christmas and continue to do so as we've grown older," he says. "We each have so many interests, but when we come together and sit down and play board games, we all share something in common."
They've always enjoyed the competition, he notes, though his mom always won. "It's become an in joke between us about how she always gets her boys to attack each other and then comes in to swoop up the win."
He says his games with his wife occur in a "mostly friendly" fashion. "To us, playing board games is about sitting down with each other, catching up, reliving memories and making more. The games are fun but aren't the important thing. It's the spending time together laughing and having fun."
Mike Compton makes a living off that fun but leaves the impression he'd be happy to do it for free.
Compton is manager of Salt Lake's Game Night Games store, a well-stocked hobby shop off 2100 South and 900 East. Amid the hundreds of board games and role-playing games and table tops and collectable card games, if you look closely you'll see a game that bears his name. He is the creator of "The Heavens of Olympus," a member of the Board Games Designer Guild of Utah, a genuine enthusiast.
Most people have seen and purchased games such as Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit or Life at a big store, he says. They haven't ventured to a hobby store like this one, with so many types of games and themes.
Most mass market games with familiar names have "baggage," he says, especially if you want to use games as a vehicle for a family to enjoy each other. They take a long time to play. And they eliminate players. So when Jamie lands on Boardwalk for the third time and is wiped out in Monopoly, he drifts away to do something else. Then Sara's gone, and Michael, and eventually it's not a family game at all.
Better for families, he notes, might be games that don't eliminate people, that take an hour or less and that allow for interesting strategic choices and good conversations. Games are a bridge for kids whose daytime lives revolve around school and the social intricacies of surviving it, and the parents' workday world.
"If you and I are playing a game together, the game is a shared context," he says. And the best part is often reliving it in the post-game conversation.
Games are also a way for parents to help kids develop good interpersonal skills, notes Vasel. Social media, instant messaging and texts have blunted how well people simply chat with each other.
Anson Bischoff and his girlfriend, Kyla Grant, are on familiar ground, back in the hobby shop looking for a game. Bischoff plays all sorts of games with his brothers and friends, and he's also part of the Great Move Game Club at the University of Utah. His uncle got him started by giving him a game as a present when he was 8.
He plays because they're fun and each game engages the brain in a different way, he says. Even reading the rules and figuring out a different strategy can be fun.
Game playing is the most sociable of hobbies. "To even use a board game, you need to be with other people," Bischoff points out with a grin.
People play games for two reasons and they choose their games accordingly, Compton maintains: They want to think. Or, they don't want to have to think.
If you have a lot of games, you can pick the one that suits your mood. Ahlstrom has more than 400 games, lots of connections with others who play and an interest in some of the game forums, like boardgamegeek.com.
Parents who hope games will help them connect with their kids need to pick the right game. A young child can be a good chess player but not do well at a game that requires reading or math. If you want a game for lots of people, strategy games are a poor choice. Otherwise, you make your move and "wait and wait and wait" until everyone else does and by your next move the board is messed up and your strategy outdated, Compton points out. Then again, two people don't do well with a game that thrives on multiple players.
Vasel has a list of family-friendly favorites, but says the best ones are only available in hobby shops or online. His favorite is Settlers of Catan. That made Compton's top 3, as well, as did Vasel's other favorites, Ticket to Ride and Carcassone. With Settlers, you learn to trade and negotiate, while Carcassone is a tile game that is different every single time. Ticket to Ride is a mix of luck and strategy that means even the little folks genuinely compete for victory, rather than mom and dad holding back while Jesse builds some skills.
For families with little kids, Vasel recommends different games, like Gulo Gulo, where you pull eggs out of nests of different shapes and colors without making it fall over. "Little fingers have the advantage." Or Catch the Match, for littles and bigs, in which you turn over two cards and there's only one thing exactly the same on both cards. The trick is to be the first to find that difference and all ages can be genuinely competitive.
The Dayes expand their game nights beyond family and many of their friends have been invited to play over the years. Ron's mom didn't grow up playing games and it's something she really enjoys. They don't necessarily play board games. They're fonder of Scattegories and Apples to Apples and a game played with Uno cards. Sometimes they choose Pictionary or Charades.
The week before Kristofer left for his misson for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Dayes set up a puzzle on the giant table and it was the foil against which they chatted and drew near without being too obvious or cloying. It was a puzzle made of a painting by fantasy artist James Christensen's "All the World's a Stage" and the kids, huge Shakespeare fans, quoted the bard as they worked the puzzle, simply enjoying "us" time.
And so the family's days unfold, the details revealed in the pauses between the laughter and the shouts.
5 for the family
Mike Compton from Game Night Games and Tom Vasel, board game reviewer, say these are five great family-friendly games:
Ticket to Ride: 2-5 players, mix of luck and strategy, .5-1 hour play time, ages 8 and up
Dominion: 2-4 players, lots of variety, uses card stacks, .5 hour or less game time, ages 8 and up2 comments on this story
Settlers of Catan: 3-4 players, trading and negotiating, about 1.5 hours play time, ages 12 and up
Carcassone: 2-5 players, simple, build maps a tile at a time, 45 minutes play time, 8 and up
Pandemic: 2-4 players, it's all of you against the game, ages 10 and up
Toy maker Hasbro promotes boardgames with a "Family Game Night" every year. This year it's Sept. 28 and the company offers coupons to help replace worn out games with new models. See www.familygamenight.com for information.