Pros: Role playing opportunities, teaches very basic deductive reasoning, lot of fun for the youngest gamers.
Cons: Mind-numbingly boring for adults.
This is a tale of a cake.
A wondrous cake, given to us as an unexpected present by a dear friend several weeks ago. A layer cake, covered in glorious light blue frosting and exquisitely decorated especially for Chanukah with dreydels and menorahs. A cake which drew gasps of admiration from all who beheld it.
A custom-ordered, sinfully delicious Chanukah cake from the world-famous Butterflake Bakery in Teaneck, NJ. (If you are an observant Jew and, thus, keep kosher, then you have surely heard of Butterflake. If not, you have now. You're welcome.)
The bulk of the cake had been served to -- and savored by -- out-of-town friends on one of the nights of Chanukah. But a precious piece or two remained in the refrigerator.
And our five-year-old son knew it.
Mommy, said The Kid, I want some of that Chanukah cake.
My heart sank. I recalled having seen my husband eyeing the remaining slices a few nights before. A quick check in the refrigerator confirmed my worst fears.
I'm sorry, sweetie-pie. But the cake is all gone. Daddy ate the last piece.
His eyes bugged out in disbelief. My son, you see, still clings to the hope that he lives in a just world: a world in which the last piece of a delicious, beautiful cake, frosted in his very favorite color in the whole wide world, simply could not have been eaten without his knowledge. And certainly not by his own Daddy.
He rushed to the kitchen and searched the refrigerator. Hope springing eternal, he pulled out the step stool and climbed up to check the freezer. Nothing.
When he came out of the kitchen, stone-faced and shaking with anger, I braced myself for a major tantrum.
Mommy, I want you to tell me the truth. Did Daddy really eat that cake?
I had just opened my mouth to begin an apologetic answer when he continued, index finger extended accusingly.
And ... with what drink?
And then he broke into an ear-to-ear grin.
(Bear with me. All will become clear in time.)
My son, you see, is a game fiend. He judges the quality of a day by the number of games he's played. And one of his early favorites, a game he still enjoys, is Clue, Jr..
A simplified version of the classic board game, Clue, Jr. is designed for five- to eight-year-olds. Instead of figuring out who killed Mr. Body, with what weapon and in what room, this G-rated version has its young detectives determining who ate the cake, at what hour and -- wait for it -- with what drink.
The game has clearly insinuated itself into my son's consciousness in a big way. And for once, I was grateful for it.
As you've heard countless times by now, if you've been following my recent series of game reviews, I have spent the last couple of years searching out games that a child only recently graduated from Candyland and Chutes and Ladders could learn and enjoy and that an adult might find at least tolerable and at best genuinely engaging.
Clue, Jr. fits half of the bill admirably.
I'm not going sugarcoat this for you. (The cake had enough sugar to send us all into diabetic shock.) Clue, Jr. is not a game most adults will look forward to playing repeatedly. Despite all the superficial trappings of a strategic game and some slightly more involved mechanics, Clue, Jr. is closer to Candyland than to, say, Monopoly. The play proceeds quite predictably, with no really significant decisions to be made, very little in the way of defensive action and about as much suspense as a game of tic-tac-toe.
But for the typical four- or five-year-old, this game is thrilling and even, I dare say, somewhat educational. And so you will play it. Repeatedly.
Just the Facts, Ma'am
Clue, Jr. comes with a smallish sized, elongated rectangular game board featuring the ten rooms of a mansion in which the Case of the Missing Cake has purportedly occurred. The familiar colorful characters of the original game are all here: Mrs. Peacock, Professor Plum and all the rest. By moving these cardboard avatars around the board along marked paths and in accordance with the throw of a die, a player tries to land on specially marked spots that allow for a peek at a secret sticker located under the base of the character or under one of the various pieces of furniture scattered throughout the mansion. A lucky die throw may also allow you a free peek under your choice of character or furnishing.
Under each item of furniture is a picture of a drink (or a blank) and under each character is an hour of the day, a blank or a picture of the incriminating cake crumbs. The actual hour of the crime and the drink with which it was committed are located under extra plastic bases placed in the center of the game board. The drink pictures are fairly easy to identify even for non-readers (the glass of apple juice, for example, is accompanied by an apple) and the times of day are all on-the-hour ranging from 1:00 to 5:00.
Each player has a handy-dandy, super-secret detective note sheet on which to keep track of the clues he's found. Eventually (that is, after having systematically located every last clue), a player will triumphantly declare that I know who ate the cake! And at what time! And with what drink! The young aspiring Columbo makes his accusations, the evidence is revealed and Truth and Justice prevail once more.
Well, most of the time, at least.
While this game requires essentially no skill from an adult perspective, it's more challenging than you might think for a four-year-old. Firstly, he has to keep a poker face. Yeah, right. Your preschooler might be able to restrain his glee when he spies those telltale cake crumbs underneath Mrs. White, but my son, even now at five-and-a-half, may manage not to grin, but it's hard to avoid hearing the muttered 'can't let her know ... don't give it away.'
Next, there's the bookkeeping aspect. Each time a player gets a peek at a clue, he has to record which item he looked at (so as to avoid the inefficiency of choosing it again) and what clue he found under it. The cheat sheets are nicely pre-printed with pictures of the characters and pictures of the drinks; marking the hours requires nothing more than small integer recognition. But even though no reading is required, the process of correctly identifying and crossing off each item is one that a preschooler needs to learn and practice.
Our son has mastered the mechanics and strategy (what little there is) of this game and will likely not be as interested in it for much longer. But at age four, during one of the first few times we played this game with him, he made a mistake on his clue sheet.
Now, in most board games, if a child makes a mistake, you can find some recourse. But when a child stands up and dramatically proclaims that the crime was committed at 4:00 and then turns over a plastic disc to reveal that it was actually 2:00 . . . well, there's nothing you can do to fix that. The crying and wailing and gnashing of teeth is just unavoidable. Consider yourself forewarned.
On the other hand, if you are determined to allow your child to win the game (because he's declared that he won't go to bed until he wins) and if he can be trusted to record his clues faithfully and accurately, then it's an easy matter to throw the game in his favor. In our household, we have established a special house rule: grownups do not get clue sheets. Daddy and I have to remember the clues we've found, while The Kid gets to write his down. This all but guarantees him the win, even if we don't cheat on his account, as we're both over forty and our short-term memory skills are, well, short.
And that is perhaps the more important advantage of our house rule: it makes the game genuinely challenging for us oldsters, thus countering some of the mind-numbing boredom the game otherwise induces in anyone over the age of about eight. In truth, I suspect that the suggested age range for this game is a bit generous: I'd recommend it for four- to six-year-olds only. We've already started to introduce our son to the adult version of Clue and I suspect that Clue, Jr. will be relegated to the Good Will pile before too long.
All grumbling aside, though, if your child is ready to graduate from Candyland and Chutes and Ladders to something a bit more involved, Clue, Jr. will serve you well for a year or two. Your little detective will learn some basic deductive reasoning, get some practice using a writing implement and might even develop into a stand-up comic.
And doesn't that just take the cake?
Additional information and resources:
Special note: Clue Jr: The Case of the Missing Cake is a newly redesigned version of the game. Reviews of the previous version of the game, in which the object is to determine which child is hiding, in what room and with what pet, can be found here.
Manufacturer's site: http://www.hasbro.com/default.cfm?page=ps_results&product_id=9417
My suggested age range: 4 to 6
Official suggested age range: 5 to 8
Minor assembly required: Prior to playing the game for the first time, you will need to affix the stickers to the bottom of each of the plastic bases. Six special stickers are provided for the six sides of the die. Each time you play the game, you will need to follow a simple procedure to randomize the plastic bases and insert all of the cardboard avatars into their newly assigned bases. It takes all of two minutes.
Other games suitable for kids and adults alike:
Four Children's Card Games, Aquarius, Fluxx, King's Table (A Viking Game), The Game of Chips,
Kill Dr. Lucky, DuelMasters, Monopoly
Some excellent single-player puzzle games:
Rush Hour, Jr., Roadside Rescue, Hoppers, River Crossing
The Butterflake Bakery: http://www.cedarlane.net/?x=store-list&y=018