Do you remember when dodgeball and other gym teams were determined by hand-picking from a sea of kids? It was waving arms and everyone yelling pick me, pick me. The athletic were chosen first and the less coordinated last.

Fast forward to today and team box games may evoke those unpleasant childhood memories. It begins with a subtle suggestion that maybe we should put mom and dad on separate teams, or that we team grandma with the sharp video-playing teen. I know I’m not alone in wanting to maintain my game savviness, my nimble mind.

When we play challenging games, we are engaging multiple lobes in the brain and improving our cognitive functioning. This includes mental processes like attention, processing speed, logic and problem solving, learning and memory, flexibility and verbal fluency. Research, including the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging, shows that playing brainy games keeps us mentally sharp and reduces the odds of developing mild cognitive impairment.

Although most board games are entertaining, some are better than others at working our noggins. Here are nine that are both challenging and fun. They all use multiple parts of the brain, and the majority entail thinking under pressure.


A strategy game, Quarto involves deductive reasoning and logic. The game is played with a board and 16 pieces. Each piece has four different attributes: color, height, shape and consistency. The object is to line up four pieces that share the same attribute. The twist is that your opponent selects the piece you get to play, and vice versa.

Players:  2

Typical time to play:  20 minutes

Amazon rating:  5 stars


If you like puzzles, you’ll love Ubongo. This game involves spacial reasoning and visualization, all under the pressure of a sand timer. Players have their own puzzles to solve, with the interlocking geometric shapes based on the symbol rolled on the die. When a player completes a puzzle, he/she yells Ubongo and is rewarded with colorful gems, each worth different points.  It’s fast-paced and tons of fun.

Players:  1 to 4

Typical time to play:  25 minutes

Amazon rating:  4.5 stars


A great family game, SET is a fast-paced game of reasoning and visual processing. There are four attributes to each card: shape, color, number and shade. The object is to be the first player to find a set of three cards that have all attributes either all the same or all different. The person with the most sets wins. The larger the group, the more livelier the games.

Players:  2 or more

Typical time to play:  15 minutes

Amazon rating:  4.5 stars


Taboo is an awesome verbal speed game typically played with two teams. The goal is to get your team members to guess a secret word, without saying any of the listed words that are off-limits. The challenge is to get your team to guess as many words as possible before the sand timer runs out. The game is quite hilarious, requires quick thinking, and involves a dreaded squeaker that’s used if you use a forbidden word.

Players:  4 or more

Typical time to play:  30 to 45 minutes

Amazon rating:  4.5 stars


For a calmer thinking challenge, Rummikub requires logic, pattern recognition, sequencing, and the ability to think multiple steps ahead. Similar to the game of Rummy, players take turns placing colored numbered tiles in sets of three or more (runs or groups). The tiles can be moved around and the strategy comes as the board continually changes. This is an ideal game to play with adults and children.

Players:  2 to 4 players

Typical time to play:  30 minutes (depends on whether you have a time limit per turn)

Amazon rating:  4.5 stars


I was introduced to Mastermind in the 1970s when I babysat this precocious boy who loved this game and wasn’t keen to seek variety. Years later, he became an airline pilot and I rediscovered it with my own kids. A game of logic and deduction, players take turns setting a secret code with colored pegs. The opponent tries to match the code, with signals from the codemaker regarding correct colors and positions. It becomes more challenging when the codemaker chooses to duplicate colors.

Players:  2

Typical time to play:  15 minutes

Amazon rating:  4 stars


Bananagrams certainly gets the competitive adrenaline rushing. Players race to build crossword grids and be the first to use all of their letters once the collective pile is depleted. Unlike Scrabble, speed wins, not points. As players form their own words, the laughter and groans come when a player out of tiles shouts peel and everyone has to gather another tile. The basic game has 144 tiles, but there’s a double set with 288 tiles, ideal for larger groups. And, for those who want to avoid their reader glasses, there’s a version with larger, higher-contrast tiles.

Players: 2 to 8 (16, if double set)

Typical time to play: 10 minutes

Amazon rating:  5 stars

24 Game

24 Game is your match if you love numbers and want to stay sharp with your problem-solving skills. Each double-sided card contains two problems. There are four numbers, all of which must somehow equate to 24. You can add, subtract, multiply and/or divide, but use each number only once. The colored dots on each card indicate the level of difficulty, from easy to tough. I play this game solo when there are no takers for any games.

Players:  1 or more

Typical time to play:  Depends on how many cards selected and level of play

Amazon rating:  5 stars


My first introduction to this game was playing Stare! Junior with the kids. That was certainly my level of play, as the full-blown Stare! is a tough challenge requiring visual processing, memory and attention. The game is played with image cards. Each player is given 20 seconds to absorb and remember as many details as possible. The images vary and might be an illustration, poster, art piece or detailed scene. Once time is up, a player answers questions about the card and here’s where it gets tricky. What color shirt is the boy with the hat wearing? How many drawers does the desk have?  Thank goodness this game can be played in teams!

Players:  2 to 10

Typical time to play:  45 to 60 minutes

Amazon rating:  4 stars

Games not only bring people together and build relationships, but they work the mind and improve our cognitive function. That’s a win-win.

What board games work your mind? Comment below!

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1 Comment

  1. Some new ones we will need to try. The one we love is Pictionary, which is fun to play with a group. Some of the words are difficult and get you thinking.


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