For some reason I do not fully understand, there are two worlds of gaming - the Wal-Mart/Target/Toys R Us world of Monopoly and Risk, and the geeky world of strategic gaming.
It used to be that the strategic gaming world was just too complicated and arcane for prime time. I once spent a whole summer playing through a game called "War in Europe" from SPI. It had a 42-square foot map of Europe, thousands and thousands of counters, hundreds of pages of instructions, and simulated WWII in weekly turns.
However, there is now a whole slew of games in the strategic arena, mostly from Europe, that are very accessible. A number are not much harder to learn than Risk but are more fun and play a lot faster. Unfortunately, few of these have migrated to mainstream stores, so you may be missing them. Here are a few my family plays that are excellent places to start. I have put them in approximate order of complexity, from low to high.
[By the way, don't have a family or friends? Your in luck! At least 3 of the games below have very high quality iPad game apps with good to very good AI competitors]
- Ticket to Ride. Very easy to learn. Even visiting kids get the idea immediately. This is a railroad line building game. Start with the original North American version, it is the least complicated. Also, if you have an iPad, there is a very good game app port of this game.
- Small World. This is an absolute freaking classic. Totally fun, pretty easy to learn, fast to play. Sort of a wargame ala Risk but it doesn't feel like Risk. Very repayable because the army or race (e.g. dwarves, elves, giants, etc) you play changes each game as special powers are mixed and matched. As important to taking territories will be recognizing when your race has become senescent and when it is time to start a new race. If you have an iPad, there is an awesome Small World game app I heartily recommend.
- 7 Wonders. A new game that has quickly become a favorite. This game is typical of many modern strategy games -- there are many ways to score and you only have a limited number of actions, so the trick is figuring out your priorities. The play rules of this game are dead simple. The complicated part is deciding what action to take among many alternatives, since the scoring is complicated. Here is my advice on this game and for many of these games that follow. Just play the game once. This is what my kids and I did with 7 Wonders. They yelled at me at scoring time that they hadn't understood that such and such scored so well or poorly, but they understood it better with one play-through than by any number of times parsing the rules. This is our current favorite. Interesting dynamic here as after each card play, everyone passes his or her whole hand to their neighbor.
- Dominion. Similar to 7 Wonders in that it is a card game building to victory points. There is a constant tradeoff of getting victory points now or building up "infrastructure" that will allow more scoring later. It is more complex than 7 wonders as it has even more options and paths. I play it with my family but both this and the next game fall out of what are typically called "family" games.
- Race for the Galaxy. Again, similar to 7 Wonders and Dominion, just more complicated. A planet development game.
Here are some other family accessible games I can't recommend as much
- Settlers of Catan. This is a popular strategy classic, and is simple to learn. My kids think its kind of meh. It has a diplomacy negotiating element that does not seem to work well in my family for games
- Cargo Noir. I have only played this once, so I can't say how it wears. My kids liked it better than I did. It is easy to learn, but I thought the strategic options were a bit thin.
- Carcasonne. There are very few games I don't care for, but I have tried this game several times and it just does not click for me. But it is wildly popular, so what do I know? A game where you add tiles of roads and cities to try to score based one where you have put your mini people (meeple in euro-game speak). There is a high quality port of this game on iPad.
Here are some games I really love but are not appropriate for the entry level family
- Twilight Struggle - replay the cold war. My son and I played this and it was awesome, but it took some time to learn and was pretty wonky.
- Agricola - one of the reigning kings of hard-core Euro-style strategy games, this game is fairly complicated to learn (not helped by instructions that really need a re-write) and very complicated to master. The concept -- trying to keep a medieval family alive - bored the hell out of my kids but it is similar to many of the games above in that there are far more ways to score than one can pursue in a turn, and it has a very strong element of balancing immediate returns against investments in the future. I have never played Puerto Rico but my sense it is in a similar genre.
The Boardgame Geek website is a great place to learn about these games (I have just listed a few of the most popular of literally thousands of games). Their ranking of top family games is here. To give you an idea, Monopoly is rates #781 in family games and #7148 overall by their readers (though there is some geek snob factor in this, it really is not a very good game), so you probably have some good games to discover.
PS- Most all of these are on Amazon.