With GenCon kicking off today, Indianapolis and the House That Peyton Built have become flooded with the most hardcore and experienced of tabletop gamers, myself included. GenCon is truly an adult toy store, from meticulously-created miniatures and dice to thousands of out-of-print and rare cards for the biggest TCGs. Hidden amidst all this nerdy frivolity, though, are games that the whole family can enjoy, and chief amongst those are the games from Peaceable Kingdom.
Peaceable Kingdom has been around for about 15 years and has been making games for 5, with a focus on making games for children that are about cooperation and playing together, as opposed to battling each other and making each other cry. “We really focus on bringing kids together around board games, where they learn to communicate, work together, share,” said marketing manager Rachel Sunday. “A lot of people hear, ‘cooperative games,’ and think, ‘oh, everyone’s a winner.’ Kids learn how to win or lose as a team, rather than against each other.”
The first thing I noticed in the games is the eye-catching art and design, which, while obviously simple, is on par with even the big adult games. Every game has a familiar feel to it, but each one is flavorful and unique. While Race to the Treasure conjures up fond memories of Pipe Mania/Pipe Dreams from the old PC gamer days, the game puts a cooperative spin on things, where all the players are working together to construct a path to the finish faster than a nearby ogre. Cauldron Quest gives the faintest of glimmers of Wiz-War, but is still a really unique puzzler about formulating a magic potion in opposition to an evil wizard; the game definitely seems to be a step up in difficulty from Race to the Treasure.
The crown jewel of Peaceable Kingdom’s lineup this year, though, is Mole Rats in Space. Designed by board game powerhouse Matt Leacock, the mastermind behind Forbidden Island, Pandemic, and Pandemic: Legacy, Mole Rats in Space is a deceptively difficult Chutes and Ladders with snakes and death for four players of any age. The object of the game is for all the players’ mole rats to navigate the space station via ladders and chutes/airlocks, collecting items, and escaping on a shuttle once all the necessary items are collected.
Nothing in life is ever simple, though, as the mole rats are stalked through the ship’s corridors by snakes of varying colors, whose sole purpose is to bite the players. Once a single player is bitten by snakes twice, the game is over and the mole rats lose. That’s not the only way the players can lose, though: if a snake escapes on the shuttle, the movement deck runs out of cards, or one of the mole rats are shot out of an airlock ala Event Horizon, the game also ends. Did I mention the game is deceptively difficult?
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Each player draws a single card with combinations of mole rat actions and snake actions on them, and on their turn they take the actions in the order on the card. Each player’s card is revealed at all times, so players can plan with each other how they want to move their mole rats and the snakes to keep everyone alive. At the end of their turn, after taking the actions on the card, the player discards their card and draws another.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Rachel Sunday to play the game, which is very fun, fast, and tense. I not only don’t care a tiny bit if you judge me for playing a game for children, I am also not ashamed to admit that our mole rats did not escape and it wasn’t even close (ironically the complete opposite outcome of Upper Deck’s Legendary digital game, more on that later). I wanted to play the game again immediately and redeem myself, due to my hyper-competitive nature in board games (well, all games), but I kept my cool and accepted my failure with grace and dignity.
Peaceable Kingdom’s tagline is, “Play with heart and soul,” and it’s not much of a stretch to say that they design their games with the same amount of heart and soul. I am all for getting kids out from behind their phone and tablet screens and playing together in the same space, and they share that same ideal. If you are looking for great, flavorful games that enourage your children and their friends to actually work together and communicate, you can’t go wrong with the games from Peaceable Kingdom.