5 Tips for Playing Board Games With Younger Kids

I have two kids, boys, currently aged 5 and 7. We’ve been playing board games as a family almost from birth. Over the years, I’ve been constantly impressed by their ability to pick up and enjoy some of the most complex and involved modern board games.

The 21st century board game explosion has spawned hundreds of great games geared toward children of all ages. There’s nothing wrong with those games.

But I don’t think you should stop there. In my experience, kids are learning machines! Introducing them to more advanced games can be a great fun way to challenge their math, logic and reading skills.

Here are some ideas to help you choose games to play with kids.

1. Ignore Recommended Ages

The recommended ages listed on the sides of the board game boxes are almost always completely meaningless. Unlike recommended ages on LEGO boxes, board age ranges are an extremely poor gauge for complexity or appropriateness. These recommendations certainly don’t speak to the amount of fun a child might have with the game.

Sometimes it’s OK to use the age as a judge of relative complexity. For example, it’s fair to assume that a Haba game listed as ages 3+ is less complex than another game listed as 8+. But that doesn’t mean a 7 year old won’t enjoy Monza, nor does it mean that a 5 year old won’t be able to grasp Formula D with a bit of hand holding.

There may actually be a pretty good reason for the odd age listings. Games sold in the US market are subject to the The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which is (apparently) a very ambiguous law that regulates the safety of products sold to children under the age of 14 [source]. It can be costly and time consuming to go through the testing and approval process. Sometimes distributors will stick an “Ages: 14+” on the side of the box and I believe sometimes the regulator will set the age based on their own findings.

Exceptions:

  • Sometimes the age suggests inappropriate themes. For example, a 10 year old is probably not ready to face the violent moral dilemmas in Dead of Winter.
  • Obviously, if a kid hasn’t figure out how to not put small pieces of plastic in their mouth, you might want to stick to card games. There’s no real age limit on this 🙂

2. Game Length is irrelevant

If your kids are anything like most kids, the game length listed on the side of the box is several orders of magnitude longer than your kid’s attention span. But that’s ok. You don’t have to “finish” the game.

If they’ve never played the game before they won’t know the victory conditions. I’m not advocating lying to children. I’m just suggesting on coming up with more condensed victory conditions if you believe your children won’t have the attention span to get through the entire game.

In most cases, this can be done without changing a other rules:

  • If you’re playing a game with victory points, you can simply lower the total victory points needed to win.
  • If the game has a fixed set of rounds, knock off one or two rounds.
  • Or, simply set a reasonable time limit. This can work well with adventure games, or longer strategy games.

With some games that depend a lot of long strategy, you will lose that aspect of the game. But with the most complex games, kids will need more time to grasp the full strategy anyways. By playing shorter games, you’ll be able to keep them in the game, while teaching them bits and pieces of strategy.

3. Avoid “Take That” Mechanisms

Games with heavy reliance on “take that” mechanisms can be devastating to children. Maybe this goes without saying but, kids aren’t really accustom to the concepts of being screwed over or stabbed in the back. Doing something to take away victory points they just worked hard to earn IS MEAN and WILL make them cry.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to avoid playing those games altogether. I’m just suggesting avoiding take that or modifying the way you play those games.

For example, a key aspect of the Munchkin games is playing extra monsters and other cards against opponents in a fight. I simply don’t do this, I learned quickly that this does not go over well. It doesn’t take away at all from the humour or cooperative aspects of the game. One day they’re realize (or we’ll tell them) that they can play those cards against their opponents and it’ll open up an entirely new aspect of the game

4. Don’t Avoid Math and Reading

Games are probably the single best way to trick kids into learning.

Most 4 year olds can count the pips on a 6-sided dice. I’d argue that dice games are the best way to teach kids simple math.

Reading is a little more nuanced. Games with simple written commands can be a great way for kids to learn how to read. Card games with longer descriptions can be ok too. Kids are great recognizing pictures, once you’ve read the same card a few times, there’s a good chance they’re going to remember what the card does.

Card games with hidden hands and complex can be a little harder to play with kids who are still learning to read.  You might be able to play the face-up hands until they learn the game. But for some games where hiding cards is really important, this might not be an option. Use your best judgement, obviously.

5. Help Them Win

If you’re playing to win, you’re doing it wrong. Kids are going to have a more positive experience if they do well and have a strong finish. They’re not going to be very happy to watch you show them how to to lose.

Playing games with kids should be a fun learning experience. Take time to hold their hands. If you see them make a strategical mistake, take a moment to explain the implications of the move and talk about different things they could do and why they might be a better idea. DO NOT tell them what to do. Do give them the opportunity to disagree with your advice.

In Conclusion, Don’t Under-Estimate Kids

Candyland, Battleship, Monoply Jr, Sorry, playing cards and all those old staples are certainly one way to waste a rainy afternoon at the cabin. The modern offerings from the likes of Haba (I really don’t know any other modern kid-focused publisher, sorry) are a great iteration on the “kids game.”

But seriously, your kids are smart and they love play.

Obvious Caveat: Your milage may vary, all kids are different.

Is Wil Wheaton’s Table Top just a reality show for board game geeks?

Yesterday Wil Wheaton wrote a blog post (and corresponding reddit post) in which he apologized for “completely screwing up the rules” in at least half (10 out of 21) of the episode of Table Top Season 3. IMHO his apology is a text book example of how not to apologize. He spends the majority of the post singling out and publicly shaming a specific producer on the show – the “rules guy.” The way he’s handling this has made me lose a lot of respect for the guy, but Reddit thread covers that ground pretty well, that’s not what this blog post is about…

By placing so much blame on this producer and taking very little responsibility himself, he has revealed a lot about how the show works and I’m beginning to think it’s more reality show than documentary.

Ostensibly, Table Top is a show were Wil Wheaton plays his favourite board games with his friends. He presents each and every game with such passion, knowledge and excitement that it is not a much of a logical leap to assume that he’s played the game a few time and is at least familiar with the basic rules. In fact, he’ll often throw in a pro-tip, a specific strategy that he likes to employ during a certain point in the game or a funny antidote.

I no longer believe this to be the case. In light of his blog post, I now feel like Table Top is more like a reality show where Wil Wheaton the actor, plays the character of Wil Wheaton the board game geek.

If Table Top was authentic, if Wheaton was actually into the games, if he knew the rules; then he wouldn’t be blaming a producer so heavily. Sure the gamers might make little mistakes here and there, but anyone familiar with the rules should be able to catch the bigger mistakes. If not on the first or second round, then maybe a few rounds in and definitely when reviewing the episode.

The fact that they employee an expert to review the rules really demonstrates the “show-ness” of the show. I don’t think someone outside of the Hollywood film & television industry would even think to hire someone like this. They would rely on the combined expertise of the team.

Not only that, but throughout the series Wheaton really strongly presents himself as the expert. If this was actually the case, having another expert on the team should be completely redundant. But the huge amounts of blame levelled on this one producer implies an opposite and equally huge amount of distance between Wheaton, the games and the production process.

I would not be surprised if the games instruction consisted of hand-holding Wil and friends through game between takes. “Roll the dice, then draw a card and … action.”

Phewf.

That said, I think the show is still a great introduction to the world of modern gaming. It’s certainly much more accessible than something like The Dice Tower or Shut Up & Sit Down. But I don’t think I’ll be watching the series again…

This Week I Learned

Turns out being a dad and employed full time leaves little room for things like long blog posts. I came across a number of particularly fascinating things this week in my travels on the information super highway.

  • Monday: Protocol relative URLs
    Turns out, you can leave out the protocol (http, https, ftp, etc) when including a URL in html and browser will figure out what to do with it. This is particularly useful when including unsecured content on a secure page. I’m sure knowing this years ago would have saved me one or two headaches.
  • Tuesday: What Jason Calacanis Learned From Zuckerberg’s Mistakes
    In his weekly LAUNCH newsletter Calacanis talks about his take on rollout hiccups and privacy mistakes Facebook has make over the years. In his educated opinion “Facebook’s success — and mistakes — are based on its developer-driven culture, not because Zuckerberg is some evil mastermind.” Essentially, Facebook developers have historically been allowed to roll out new features with little to no oversight, allowing the site to iterate quickly, keep ahead of the competition and occasionally annoy foreign governments. He makes a convincing argument.
  • Wednesday: How a quartz watch works
    I already had a rough understanding of the piezoelectric effect as used inside digital watches, the video does an excellent job of explaining the concept. As usual reddit commentary filled in the gaps, explaining in detail exactly how the electronics translate the quartz vibration into time
  • Thursday: Google Bookmarks exists
    Someone leaked that Yahoo! would be shutting down delicious and the internet lost it’s ever-loving mind! Turns out there’s some hope for delicious. Anyways, I haven’t used delicious much since the days it was still called del.ico.us. As far as I can tell, Google Bookmarks has done a pretty good job of pulling out delicious’ most useful features, plus you get the added bonus of having your bookmarks appear at the top of Google results when your search is relevant – if you’ve ever starred something on a search results page you’ll already have some links in Google Bookmarks. I had actually been looking around for a good bookmark service, this discovery couldn’t have come at a better time.
  • Friday: Word Lense
    This iPhone(3GS+) app instantly text on-screen. As in, you point your iPhone at a Spanish sign and the words are replaced onscreen with the english translation. This is easily the most impressive augmented reality technology I’ve seen to date! We are truly living in the future.
    iTunes Link
  • Saturday: Boardgame Remix Kit
    I am a huge fan of the boardgame revival hitting nerdom over the past 10 years, as such, I’ve become quite bored of the classics like Monopoly, Clue(do), Trivial Pursuit and Scrabble. When I came across Boingboing’s post about the Boardgame Remix Kit I was absolutely blown away the creativity and simplicity. The kit is a set of tweaks, mashups and completely new games built on 4 classic board games. It’s available as a PDF for £2.99 on the official site or as an iPhone app for £2.99 ($4.99 in the Canadian store). Both are beautiful.

There you have it, my week in links. This post contains something like 13 links in addition to the main links, I really suggest you click them all.

Top 3 Board Games of 2009

Thinking back over 2009, I played a fair number of new boardgames. These are my top 3. None of these games were actually published in 2009, but I was introduced to all of them last year.

1. Pandemic

Pandemic is the most original and interesting game I’ve played since being introduced to the board game revival a few years ago. In short: it’s a fully co-op game where you work as a team to rid the world of viruses. You play with a team, each player has certain special skills.

With 3 ways to lose and only 1 way to win the game is also really, really challenging…in a good way. The gameplay mechanic is such that you’re essentially racing against the clock, in a losing battle against global pandemic on multiple fronts. Also because it’s a fully co-operative game, players often in a situation where they need to coordinate moves and ability.  I’ve found that the main opponent is often the players egos. We’re so used to competing against others for a solo victory that actually co-operating and managing resources amongst each other is the most challenging element.

The game is technically set up for 2 – 4 players. I’d recommend a full 4, the smaller games are essentially scaled down from the 4 player game.

Publisher’s Site
Best Dang Games Video Review
BoardGameGeek

2. Agricola

Agricola is a farming, resource collecting game. It is well balanced, complex and loads of fun. The starting conditions of the game are so variable that I have yet to come up with a general strategy for Agricola. It’s been the #1 game on BoardGameGeek for quite some time, the only reason I’m ranking it lower than Pandemic is simply because I think pandemic is a more unique game.

The game is playable with 1 – 5 players. Agricola is a little different than most games, you have an almost completely different set of starting conditions and a different deck of available cards depending on the number of players. This lends to it’s extreme re-playability.

Board Games With Scott extensive 30 minute video review
BoardGameGeek

3. Bang!

Published in 2002, this game certainly isn’t new and it’s not actually a board game. Bang! is a wild west theme card game. Each player has a hidden role card (except for the sheriff) and different win conditions based on their role, this guess and bluff gameplay element makes it a great party game. Additionally, players are dealt character cards with unique abilities and hit points.

I don’t think the game is as well balanced as it could be, it’s quite hard for the sheriff to win and extremely hard for the outlaws to lose. But the game is quick, lasting about 15 – 30 minutes, so you can easily play 3 or 4 games in a sitting. If you think of each game as a “round,” the fact that players change roles each game lends to great fun overall.

4 – 7 Players. I recommend at least 5.
PS. It’s translated from Italian, some of the rules a nonsense. Read the FAQ.

BoardGameGeek
Wikipedia

Most Over-rated Game of 2009: Powergrid, currently #3 on BGG. The mental math is extremely difficult and really takes away from the game experience. It’s also unclear what steps need to be taken in order to win, the win condition is not concrete enough. The art is nice though.

Most Anticipated Game of 2009: Battlestar Galatica. Seems fun. That is all.