Gifts under the tree this year can sneak in some money-based education.

BOSTON (MainStreet) -- Personal finance experts always say early education is crucial for money management success later in life, and games, for everyone from pre-schoolers to college kids living off loans and mom and dad's generosity -- can be the spoonful of sugar needed to swallow a dose of education.

Lessons can creep almost undetected into video games such as The Sims, Roller Coaster Tycoon and World of Warcraft that stress strategy, planning and, in their own way, money management.

>>Classic Board Games -- Reinvented

Of a more intentional nature, U.S. Bank(:USB) has partnered with Build-A-Bear Workshop(:BBW), through its online, virtual town of Bearville to teach kids the fundamentals of banking. Kids can play with "Bear Bills," deposit and withdraw them via virtual ATMs, learn how to count change and even earn make-believe interest with a certificate of deposit.

Kids.gov, a government site, features games and tools designed to teach children about saving, spending and earning money.

The Council for Economic Education offers the virtual world of Gen I Revolution. The online game consists of 15 interactive missions in which students complete a variety of activities to help them learn personal finance concepts. In "Angela Faces the 401(k) Challenge," a character questions the benefit of planning when retirement is "so far in the future." The player's is to "convince Angela to invest in a 401(k) plan now to build wealth over the long term," and the game incorporates lessons on compound interest and saving.

Earlier this month, Visa(:V) launched Financial Football, a free video game paired with a curricula for high school and middle school students in 34 states as part of Practical Money Skills for Life, a free financial education program.

Financial Football "puts students' fiscal knowledge to the test in an online simulation game environment by combining the structure and rules of the NFL with financial education questions of varying difficulty," said Santana Moss of the NFL's Washington Redskins at a launch event in Washington, D.C. Visa has also released the game as a free Apple(:AAPL) iPhone app on iTunes, along with an optimized HD iPad version.

With shopping days left until Christmas drawing to a close, we took a look at some games available for children -- naughty and nice alike -- who would benefit from some covert lessons in personal finance, business and all manner of money matters.

Monopoly
Monopoly may not be as fascinating to today's kids as slaying dragons in Skyrim or slapping the Joker around in Arkham City, but the board game's staying power is undeniable.

The game of buying green houses and red hotels in in a flat cardboard fantasyland based on Atlantic city has been a top seller since 1934. More than 275 million copies have been sold in 111 countries and 40 languages. Hundreds of different editions of the game have been published based on everything from Elvis to Family Guy, even as the most popular continues to be the classic "Number Nine" (known as such by its original product number, it is the familiar Atlantic City version nearly identical to Charles Darrow's original submission to Parker Brothers).

If there is a knock on the classic game, it is that it can be too plodding for the short attention span hardwired into a channel-surfing, iPod-shuffling generation.

As such, the game has evolved. There are traditional but streamlined versions built specifically for tablets and smartphones. Others have extracted key elements and built them into a whole new experience for video game consoles such as Microsoft's(:MSFT) Xbox 360, Sony's(:SNE) PlayStation 3 and Nintendo's Wii and DS.There is even a version for Amazon's(:AMZN) Kindle and a version available on the online gaming site Pogo.

For kids and teens addicted to Facebook, there is a social media fueled, free-to-play Monopoly Millionaires

Electronic Arts(:ERTS) has licensed the game from Hasbro(:HAS) for the new, electronic variations, including the Facebook App, in which fans will find familiar features but that "the more friends a player has, and the more often they visit their friends' boards, the more success they're likely to have in the game."

Customization is another feature, allowing players to decorate their boards for a more personalized and expressive experience.

Fortune Street
Think Mario Brothers meets Mr. Monopoly and you have a good idea what Nintendo's new Wii game, Fortune Street, is all about.

Nintendo characters such as Mario, Luigi and Princess Princessa are your avatars as you battle against other players to accumulate wealth through stock market and real estate deals. In a move sure to make the anti-Fed, gold bug crowd happy, investing successes are converted to gold, which is apparently the monetary standard in the land of talking mushrooms.

Among the advice offered by Nintendo for its would-be Wii moguls:

"Play the stock market like a pro for some serious dough. Compare stock prices of the various districts and determine which are likely to go up in value. If you own stock in a district, you earn big when that stock rises, whether you own property or not. You can also affect the stock price by selling off your own shares."

It also advises this rather sneaky strategy:

"Be sure to keep an eye on your opponents. If you see one making a move that is likely to push up stock prices, jump on the bandwagon and buy those stocks too. It's a little technique we like to call freeloading."

In Mario-land, apparently, real-life warnings to resist following the herd and chasing headlines goes unheeded. There is no word on whether Yoshi will attempt to collateralize Donkey Kong barrels in future editions.

The Game of Life
When money games enter the conversation, The Game of Life often plays second fiddle to Monopoly.

But Life is far more realistic. In battling to have the greatest net worth among players, you'll face numerous challenges: Should you go to college and take a huge loan to do so? How will debt payments and interest affect your net worth? How does your decision whether to seek higher education related to your earning potential, given that doctors and lawyers earn the best pay in the game?

In a twist that might resonate with Occupy Wall Street protestors, even a great education is no protection from landing on a wrong square and arbitrarily losing the great job all your finances are built around.

The game's conflicts include tax brackets, health care costs, lawsuits and debates over buying insurance coverage. Should you raise a family? Can you afford to buy a house? Can you rein in your spending?

You can "invest" in numbers and collect whenever another player spins that digit. Is such a gamble -- a simplified variation of the stock market -- going to pay off, or should you just take your chances with the game's lottery?

If only the game could throw in a make-believe 401(k), it might be the prefect financial education tool.

The Logo Board Game
For the kids at home who are more interested in brand management than kickball, the Logo Board Game challenges players to identify correctly and answer questions about product logos, from the Jolly Green Giant to Go Daddy.

The game was launched by game-maker Drumond Park in 2009 with a U.K. version and was one of the three top-selling adult games in that country. That success spawned international versions, including the new U.S. variation out out by by Spin Master, a Toronto-based company that has had gaming partnerships with Cartoon Network. (The company is also behind this year's go-to gross-out toy, the Doctor Dreadful line of edible goo-making devices including the Stomach Churner, Zombie Lab and Wax Snax/Snot Shot.)

Given the need to recall a lifetime's worth of corporate branding mnemonically lodged into your brain, this may be one game where adults earn a competitive edge over younger players.

-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

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