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Think Outside The Book: Turn Your Ancestors Stories Into A Family History Game

This idea isn’t outside the book; it’s straight out of the box! The board game box that is. And it’s most likely the best idea for creative storytelling that I’ve had so far in this series. Because this isn’t just about creating something to share with others. It’s about making something that can involve the whole family. So, what am I talking about? Turning your ancestors and their stories into a one-of-a-kind family history game.

I love this idea. So much so that my brain is racing ahead with ideas so much faster than my fingers can keep up! And I thought publishing a family history newspaper was an exciting approach to sharing your genealogy research!

What is a game?

Before I get too excited, let’s break down the idea, explore the options and work out the feasibility. So, what exactly is a game? Wikipedia tells us that the definition is: “A game is a structured form of play, usually undertaken for enjoyment and sometimes used as an educational tool.

That definition sums up what I believe a family history to be.

  • structured storytelling
  • fun to read (or produce)
  • educating others about people and events of which they were previously unaware.

Therefore, I think that we are onto something with this idea.

Now ‘game’ is a very general term and can be anything from sports activity, tabletop, video or role-playing game. If you are anything like me, then your coding skills aren’t up for creating video games. Nor am I suggesting that we dress up like Aunt Dolly to re-enact her life (though that could be fun!). Sports could be fun for a family reunion, but not for creative storytelling. The tabletop option is the better idea for creating a family history game.

Formats for your family history game

One of my favourite things is when I can make storytelling something that the whole family can enjoy. After all, it took entire families to create those stories.

Being from a large family I know firsthand that it’s possible to expand most games to fit more players. Or scale it back to suit less. It all comes down to how you approach it, oh and a little creativity with the rules. My family are very creative when it comes to the rules of the game!

Now obviously this idea isn’t going to be right for detailed text-heavy chapters. But it is perfect for visual storytelling, small stories and snippets of information.

When was the last time you went to a toy or games store? If it’s been a while, then maybe only Monopoly or Old Maid come to mind when I talk about games. But there are so many different options available for how to tell the story. Basically, if you can imagine, then you can do it.

While researching this idea, I discovered that there are six broad categories of tabletop games.

Tabletop Games


Games where a board is integral and dice, cards or the board itself dictate movement and gameplay. Examples include Monopoly, Settlers of Catan, Snakes and Ladders, Clue, etc.

Tokens, markers and family history game board in use
Board game and pieces in use


Games that only require a pack of cards to play. Many use a standard deck while others need a unique and specific set of cards. Examples include Uno, Snap, Go Fish, Old Maid, Hearts, Gin Rummy etc.

grandfather playing a family history game with young girl and boy
Family playing card game


These type of games use dice as the central point of the play as opposed to being a method to dictating progression like in board games. Examples include Yahtzee, Bunco, Farkle, Liar’s Dice etc.

Five coloured dice on a table
Playing a game with six-sided dice


Where adding or moving tiles or blocks is the primary method of gameplay. Examples include Dominoes, Mahjong, Scrabble, Hive, Fjords, etc.

Mahjong tiles and dice in use
Playing a game with mahjong tiles

Pencil and paper

Games where the primary tools of gameplay are a pencil and a sheet of paper. Examples include Tic-tac-toe, Hangman, Sprouts etc. Other options can consist of games like Pictionary and Scattergories.

Boy and girl playing a family history game with pencil and paper
Children playing pen and paper game


Games involving one player performing actions to lead others to ‘guess’ a particular word or phrase. The best example is Charadeswhile other examples include Battleship, Mastermind, Taboo etc.

Woman playing a family history game of charades with her family
Family playing charades

While I can see ways to create ancestor centric games for these categories, the first two are the obvious choices. The variety of games available seems almost endless which makes these options are the most adaptable to creative storytelling.

Making a game of your ancestors

This section is going to test my typing skills as I try to keep up with the torrent of ideas! But I won’t bombard you with all of them because this would be an endless article. Also, everything boils down to being either:

  • an Ancestor Edition of your favourite game
  • a new game you develop that features your ancestors.

Game development can be time-consuming, so you may want to create an Ancestor Edition of your favourite game first. This option gives you a foundation to start building on if you aren’t sure where to start.

Before you begin though, set the outcome to make sure that your plan is within copyright regulations. Do you plan to sell the game or is it for personal use only? If you have any commercial plans, then make sure that what you create is all your work and ideas. Or that you are using a general idea such as playing cards rather than a trademarked one like Monopoly. Then it’s time to unleash your creative storytelling, genealogy research and collection of ancestors to tell your family history.

Turning family favourites into a family history game

I won’t delve into a detailed ‘how-to’ as that will vary depending on the game. Some ideas to get going creating an Ancestor Edition family history game are:

  • Start with changing names and images to fit your ancestors.
  • Adjust any additional gameplay elements (e.g. cards or instructions on the board) to be appropriate to your family.
  • Add in family jokes or stories to further personalise the game.
  • Even change the rules if that fits with the gameplay.

Over several decades my family have adjusted the game ‘Pay Day’. We added cards, created our own currency and changed the basic rules to suit our extended numbers. The only thing we haven’t changed (yet!) is the game board. So, this is an option for you as well. Start by adding in some extra cards or currency with Great Aunt Ivy on it or Grandpa Joe.

Whatever option you take, make sure that you have fun with it! And remember that you don’t have to wait to play the game to involve your whole family. Get your kids, cousins, siblings, nephews and nieces engaged in the production of it. After all, they are their ancestors too!


  • A great format for collaboration so you can involve the whole family in the creation of the game.
  • Suitable for sharing short stories or basic facts (EG names, address, family structure etc.)
  • No limit to the number of games you can create
  • Use your ancestor photos to create one-of-a-kind tokens
  • Ancestor Edition card decks make great genealogy or anniversary gifts
  • A fun way to engage the next generation or entertainment at family reunions


  • It’s difficult to tell a cohesive story unless the game board steps the players through the events.
  • Fixing errors in printed copies will mean reprinting.

Tools Required

The tools you use will be very dependent on the game you are creating. Use these as a starting guide but experiment with other programs and resources when the ideas start flowing.

Board games

  • Thick cardboard for the base of the game
  • Sheets of coloured paper for the currency (if required)
  • Cardstock for any cards necessary for the gameplay. Create these on the computer (see card decks for tips) or get creative and make hand drawn.
  • Sharpies or similar permanent markers to draw the board. Or make it on the computer and print on full-page stickers
  • Scissors, metal ruler, craft knife and glue
  • Create unique tokens adding photos of your ancestors to mini tent cards or buttons

Card decks

  • Start with a program that lets you move elements around the page. Some options include, PowerPoint, Google Slides, InDesign etc.)
  • Paper trimmer or metal ruler and craft knife to cut the cards to final size
  • A cardstock that is compatible with your printer. Try an internet search of your printer model and check the maximum recommended weight.

test a sheet or two before you attempt a bigger print run

Structure for your family history game

Plan out the game before you begin, especially if it’s not an Ancestor Edition of your family favourite. Once you know what you want the outcome to be, it’s easier to plan the steps to get there. Ask yourself these starter questions:

  • How will everyone play the game?
  • What type of tokens will the players have?
  • Will they use dice? If so, what kind and how many?
  • Are other elements such as instruction cards or money required?

Feasible or not?

After reviewing the options, advantages and limitations, I don’t think a family history game is a replacement to the book. It can be a fantastic accessory, but it’s not a suitable format to share detailed stories of your ancestor’s lives.

However, it is a fun way to get your relatives familiar with names and other relevant information. And maybe even to get your kids or grandchildren involved in the making of the game. Now, that’s a memory in the making! Plus, it is a great conversation starter and may prompt storytelling or reminiscing during gameplay.

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