Valley of the Vikings: The Best Children's Board Game of the Year
Every year since 1979, a jury of board game critics has awarded the very highly-coveted Game of the Year award (Spiel des Jahres) to the best family board game released each year. The winners are undeniably great, and they often become quite famous. But, with a 7-year-old and a 3-year-old in the house, our family is actually far more interested in another award the jury gives out each year - the Children’s Game of the Year (Kinderspiel des Jahres).
The Children’s Game of the Year prize dates back to 1989, and many of our family’s very favorite board games were discovered by researching the prize and tracking down some of the past winners. In fact, just being one of the nominees for the year lets us know we really need to play that game.
This year the Children’s Game of the Year is called Valley of the Vikings (or Tal der Vikinger). It’s designed by Wilfried and Marie Fort, illustrated by Maximilian Meinzold, and published by HABA. And it’s actually HABA’s second win in a row. Last year they won the prize for a game called Dragon’s Breath - and that one is still one of our 3-year-old’s favorite games to play.
Disclosure: We received a copy of Valley of the Vikings from the publisher to allow for this article. We always choose to write about the things we love, and all thoughts and opinions are our own.
If you’re a regular reader, you’ve no doubt noticed how often HABA games seem to pop up on our board game lists - and there’s a lot of reasons for that. HABA is a German toy company that specializes in wooden toys, and that means their children’s board games have a reputation for fantastic wooden components. And we’ve found that their line of games contains some of the very best on the market for introducing young children to playing games.
So when we saw the news that HABA’s Valley of the Vikings had won Children’s Game of the Year, we were very excited to get our hands on it. We’ve simply always found great success with HABA games, and we’ve become accustomed to really trusting their track record when it comes to a fun family game night.
And this game is certainly no exception. As is so often the case with HABA, there are certain components that really stand out and definitely endear the game to our kids. In this case, it’s the Viking ships that each player has for storing their gold coin collection. A good theme always goes a long way with us, and the Viking ships are a really nice touch.
Similarly to last year’s winner, Dragon’s Breath, Valley of the Vikings is partly a dexterity game. While most board games come down to a combination of luck and strategy, dexterity games throw in some sort of component of physical manipulation of the game pieces.
And if you’ve ever played dexterity games with your little ones, you’re probably well aware that it’s a genius concept for energetic little ones who love touching things and being active. Dexterity games still make up only a very small percentage of our board game collection, so every single one of them are pretty memorable for our kids. And I think it’s a big part of why our 3-year-old gravitates towards Dragon’s Breath so often, and why Valley of the Vikings is a hit.
The dexterity portion of Valley of the Vikings consists of a mini-game of bowling on every turn. It’s the big annual Viking bowling competition, and you are playing the roles of the Viking bowlers. Each turn you must use the paddle to try to knock the ball into the colorful wooden barrels. And when a barrel is knocked over, the corresponding Viking is moved forward on game board - inching closer to falling off the dock.
Having your Viking move can actually be a good thing or a bad thing. If your Viking goes to far and falls off the end of the dock, you don’t get any gold coins that round. Then the other Vikings collect coins based on which space they are currently standing on. But each space of the game board is different, and sometimes you might want to strategically move your own Viking forward to land on a better space that offers more gold coins.
Our son loves the bowling part of the game, and he gets very excited about concepts like forming alliances. Far too often we gang up on Mom, but Viking bowling is a cutthroat world. He’s quick to pick up on strategies during games, and he’s pretty keen on letting others know which barrels he thinks they should go for on their turn - especially his little sister. She’s relatively unaware of which barrels she should be aiming for, and her big brother is not above telling her exactly what he wants her to do.
Even though the recommended age is 6+, the great news is that our 3-year-old can very easily play along with us. We don’t even have to bend the rules at all. And there’s a key rule in this game that makes that possible. If you don’t hit any barrels when you bowl, you always get to go again until you knock one down. Our little one certainly misses all of the barrels occasionally, and we all truly appreciate that the rules make it possible for the whole family to easily enjoy this one together.
There are a lot of great benefits for kids to reap from this game too. For example, the simple act of setting up the barrels requires a good sense of spatial awareness, planning, and prediction. When it’s your turn to reset the barrels, you have to think about which Vikings you want to move on the game board, and then transfer that information and use it to decide which color barrels you want to be easier (or harder) to hit when bowling.
And while our 7-year-old’s brain might be firing on all cylinders trying to figure out the strategy behind the game - our 3-year-old is reaping the benefits of working on her fine motor skills as she tries to use a little paddle to knock a ball into little wooden barrels. It can be very easy to underestimate these types of skills required in board games, and the impact they can have on kids and their growing brains - but they are a huge part of the appeal for me.
Valley of the Vikings is another hit from HABA that is going to fit nicely into our family game night rotation. It seems like our kids are currently at the perfect ages to enjoy this one - and in different ways. And because of the element of skill involved in the bowling part of the game, I can see us getting even more competitive in this one as the years go by and the kids get a little older. And I don’t foresee Valley of the Vikings leaving the shelf anytime soon.