Gamers with kids are always asking for recommendations on what to play with them. It is arguably the most common type of question posted in the Gaming with Kids Forum at Board Game Geek. Usually, it takes the form of something like, “My child is X-years old – what games do you suggest?” Or maybe it’s in regards to specific titles. I’ve asked variations of it myself. I mean, we all want our progeny to grow in the hobby we adore so much!
Of course, such questions can prove problematic. Everybody’s kid is different. Some parents have the honor roll student on the bumper sticker. Others have the child that beats that one up. And then at all levels in between. Recommendations understandably fail to account for personal preferences, situations, and family dynamics. Not to mention, invariably there’s always some poster who must have the Mozart of gaming and suggests Puerto Rico for a 7-year old. I always ignore that guy.
I’ve written about gaming with kids before, but thought I would take a slightly different tack this time. My daughter just “graduated” Kindergarten and I enjoyed that year as she blossomed into a wider variety of games – even ones that surprised me. Rather than list universal pointers and tips and bullet-points, I’d like instead to throw some anecdotal thoughts your way which may prove practical or enlightening.
First, by way of framing the remainder of my thoughts here, I cannot stress how much I advocate strongly for “the right game at the right age.” When I first jumped back into gaming, my boys were 7-years old and in the first grade. I started with a title completely familiar to me, basically out of nostalgia: Axis & Allies. Yeah, I know. All I can say for myself is that I was ignorant back then. They slugged through it because it looks really cool and it’s fun to throw dice. Sure, they learned how to play it – at least the mechanics. But even four years later, the scope, depth, and nuance of the design’s strategy largely eludes them. Now you know why I ignore the “My 7-year old plays Puerto Rico” guy.
That said, I think the greatest thing I learned this year is how much better young kids discover games through observation. Their transition into the hobby can be eased tremendously by playing with you, rather than against you. This was a new idea to me. Back in the post-Axis & Allies days, I’d teach a game to my boys, line up on the other side of the board, and we just sort of stumbled through together. After all, you learn from your mistakes, right? Through some bumps, and plenty of trial and error, they struggled their way through most every title, eventually. Today, they do very well learning new games, grasping all but the heaviest brain-burners with surprising ease. However, there was often frustration along the way. Plus, there are some mechanics, styles, themes, and elements that they shy away from – I think mainly because of unfavorable previous experience.
With my daughter, that all happened differently. I’d like to say that I was brilliant and planned it all out like this. The truth, though, is it just developed naturally. Rather than lining up against her competitively (other than in a specific kids game, that is), she would play on my team. Sometimes she even played with one of her older brothers. As a father, let me tell you that warms the heart, because you know that you’ll be separating them a couple hours later for pestering each other non-stop! Rarely did these partnerships involve game play decisions, but she was always excited to move pieces, count points, draw cards, and most of all…roll dice, of course! All the while, we’d explain in quite basic terms what we were doing at the moment and oftentimes why. She was an observer, for the most part.
The point is that I didn’t have to teach her the game in a traditional sense, but she was learning it nonetheless. More significantly, this process exposes her to a variety of styles and mechanics. No, she doesn’t grasp them in the same manner that we do, but she was still becoming acclimated to them. It avoids frustration and confusion, reducing stress. Finally, it builds off of her enthusiasm and curiosity because she could join on her terms – as well as come and go as she pleased.
I’ve also noticed that her interest in “dad’s games” increases when granted a bit of independence with them. Namely, she likes to set them up for us to play. Of course, this causes more than a bit of trepidation on dad’s part! With small games and card games, it’s mostly straight forward. Sleeping Queens or Hugs or Carcassonne requires laying out some cards or tiles. However, I was floored the day I walked in the living room to see Steam Park’s many cards, stands, rides, boards, and tokens perfectly sorted, piled, stacked, and ready to play! Now, this is only when those games are already upstairs. I don’t let her take anything down from the shelves on her own and risk being crushed by an avalanche of boxes! But she really enjoys the organization and seems to relish the sense of involvement. At the same time, she becomes familiar not just with a particular game’s bits and pieces, but with general components universal to the hobby.
While my daughter showed more and more curiosity in my games this past year, she also routinely gravitated back toward “her” selections. In other words, don’t forget about the kids’ games. Whether you think they’re boring, overly-simplistic, or mind-numbing, they are designed for specific reasons: to teach kids basic gaming concepts. That doesn’t mean play them a few times as an introductory learning tool and then discard them. Don’t worry: frequent replays will not hinder your child’s development nor hold them back in any way. In fact, just the opposite. Kids this young learn through reinforcement and repetition. It will also minimize frustration and stress levels since they aren’t constantly learning new rules and/or mechanics.
Modifying advanced games to make them simpler for kids is not always as positive as it sounds, either. I know this is a common tactic for many gamer parents, and I’ve practiced it to some degree with my own. It can be successful. However, I recommend doing so sparingly. When first getting my boys into gaming, we house-ruled and altered games quite liberally. The problem is that they didn’t want to play by the real rules when they were perfectly able to grok them later.
With my daughter, there are several types of games that prove problematic to modify on her level. Anything with a moderate amount of reading is difficult to work with, especially when information needs to be hidden. GUBS is one such family-friendly example that nonetheless works poorly for a Kindergartner first learning to read. Any game which requires a build up or a series of moves to accomplish some object is not terribly conducive to altering. In the very simple Kingsburg, we tried nixing the normal end-of-year battle and playing so that advisers provide immediate buildings, rather than having to plan how to acquire resources over time. But it dawned on me that changes like these are just making a kid’s game out of a strategy game, losing the original design’s identity and uniqueness – everything that defines it as a strategy game. I might as well just stick with games already specifically designed for kids. Those will conduct my daughter along the hobby path just as much as, or more than, my arbitrary changes to a complicated design not meant for her in the first place.
A change that has worked well for us without significantly altering game play is one that we made in Steam Park. Normally, players roll their action dice together as fast as they can, keeping what they want and re-rolling others as often as they wish. The first one satisfied with his/her selection locks them and nabs the best bonus token available, leaving the less valuable bonuses (and penalty) to the slower rollers. It’s chaotic and frantic, but in a fun way. For adults. But for kids, it’s just so much stress. So instead, we roll simultaneously in rounds, still allowing the player who stops first to grab the choicest bonus token. It’s a minor variation which takes almost nothing away from the design, making an already family-friendly title accessible to young kids, as well.
Besides Steam Park, there are other non-children’s titles approachable to little kids. Carcassonne is an excellent example, and one my daughter hasn’t had any issues with playing as is. She can also handle the basic pick-up and deliver title Cinque Terre. In that vein, I’m fairly confident she’d be able to play something on the level of Ticket to Ride, though we don’t own that one. Those are accessible to non-reading players. A title which does require a little reading which she enjoys is the little known Villagers and Villains. A number of the cards have special abilities or powers described by text. However, you play with these exposed, so we can easily help her. And they’re not so many of them that she’s memorized a lot, anyway.
So there are simple, adult titles, which young kids can learn the rules to and play. However, that doesn’t mean they’ll grasp the nuance and subtleties of fundamental strategy. Nonetheless, you can see the gears start to turn as they take in games above their genre. Still, if you pull these out for your 5-7 year old, keep such “complex” games very basic.
Kindergarten seems to be a prime stage of development in which children begin to move beyond merely mocking a game’s rules/moves. My daughter may not yet fully conceptualize everything, but she is starting to. Kids’ games certainly plant the seed at ages 3 to 5 (and maybe still a bit older). Kindergarten is when you can fertilize that with hardier nutrients. Just don’t pour it on too much, lest you drown them out. Emphasize playing with them, instead of against them. Don’t be too quick to toss out those kiddie games. And give them a sense of ownership in your collection. As long as you’re not throwing designs at them before they’re ready, baby steps will go a long way into growing your little gamer.