Outside, the light is wan and the trees are bare. Inside, motivation is low and tempers are short. Let me check the calendar . . . why yes! It’s midwinter at our house!

As we trudge from January to February, it seems like we have to work extra hard just to cover the basics of school and life. Each family has a different remedy for this tired time of year. Some go hiking, some bake, some have gatherings (cautious and small this year, alas). In our family, we play games.

We’ve recently discovered a few new games that are perfect for a quick, fun break. These aren’t Terraforming Mars with two expansion sets, which took us three evenings to play through. The following games are easy to learn and don’t take more than half an hour to play. They’re just what you need to brighten up a sluggish winter afternoon.

  • Dragonwood (ages 8 and up, 2–4 players): This card-and-dice game for younger children was a favorite of ours for years. Using matching cards and special ability cards, players defeat monsters and collect points. The game caters to younger players but is interesting enough that adults won’t descend into zombified boredom while playing (I’m looking at you, Chutes and Ladders.)
  • Pictures (ages 8 and up, 3–6 players): I bought this game knowing it wasn’t really our style so might be a bust. Pictures is basically Pictionary, but you’re working with various materials instead of pencil and paper. Each round, you’re given a photograph to recreate. You may have to suggest a castle scene with a shoelace; a bee on a flower with wooden blocks; a caution sign with rocks and sticks; or a puppy using only little colored blocks in a grid. You score points both for guessing other players’ creations correctly and for other players recognizing which picture you created. It was easy to learn and surprisingly funny to play. Our family enjoyed it, and it will be a good game to pull out for company.
  • Kingdomino (ages 8 and up, 2–4 players): Build your 5x5 square kingdom with four different types of terrain, and score points by creating expansive forests, wheatfields, or spreading seas. We had to look up a video to understand exactly how to set up this game; once we understood how to do it, the gameplay was balanced and efficient. The tiles are large, colorful, and satisfying to touch. (For younger children, there’s Dragomino, but I haven’t played it so can’t recommend it one way or another.)
  • Patchwork (ages 12 and up, 2 players): If you’ve ever wanted to play the classic video game Tetris on your kitchen table, Patchwork is what you’ve been looking for. You choose from variously-shaped “quilt pieces,” trying to cover as much of your nine-by-nine square board as you can. I thought I was going to crush the competition at this game, I really did. Turns out that DJ played hours of Tetris when he was young, and Ranger has a devastating knack for choosing pieces that cover his board and rack up points. I’m hopelessly outclassed, but the game is short enough that I keep trying.
  • Trash Pandas (ages 8 and up, 2–4 players): In this push-your-luck game, you play as a raccoon, known in internet-lingo as a trash panda. You have to decide if you’re going to risk another roll and lose everything, stash a card for later points, or use a card to block your opponent. It’s fast-paced and inspires both laughter and shouting.
  • The Crew: Quest for Planet Nine (ages 10 and up, 2–5 players): This was our favorite game this Christmas. As far as gameplay goes, it’s a simple trick-taking card game. (One person plays a card, and all other players must play a card of the same color unless they’re able to play a trump card.) But it comes with a twist . . . or, rather, fifty of them. In The Crew, all players are working together to accomplish certain “missions.” For instance, one mission might specify that one certain person must win the green 8. With very limited communication, all of the players have to figure out how to play the round so that no one else wins the green 8. As the game progresses, the missions become more complicated. The cooperative play is fun, and the game is infinitely replayable because while the missions stay the same, you’ll never be dealt the same hand twice. Another perk of this game is that you can stop after any mission, so you can play for ten minutes or two hours, as you prefer. So far DJ and I, along with two of our friends, have completed 8 out of 50 missions. We’ve got a lot of fun ahead of us.

With these fast and fun games, you can afford to take a break from math and history while keeping kids’ brains going. So go ahead, make yourself some tea, butter some hot toast, and sit down for a spot of fun on an otherwise weary winter day.