The Train Set Syndrome (Another Guide to Gaming with Kids)


You know what I mean, right? Dad buys son a train set for Christmas. Dad builds train set with son. Dad and son play with train set. Dad buys more track, cars, and scenery to expand train set. Dad spends small fortune to build replica of West Virginia that takes up most of the basement. Dad now has new hobby subscribing to train set magazines and going to train set conventions. Mom decides on future Christmas presents for son.

I’ll be honest. Nostalgia was the catalyst in introducing my kids to hobby gaming. In junior high and high school I spent an inordinate number of late nights board gaming with friends. As this was before the influx of German hobby games to the United States, we played war games. Mostly it was Risk and the Milton Bradley GameMasters Series (Axis & Allies, Samurai Swords, Conquest of the Empire, and Fortress America). We also enjoyed some select titles of the old Avalon Hill and SPI hex and counter, strategy simulations. We even dabbled in painted miniatures. Oh, how the plastic and cardboard and tempers would fly!

Hence the reason I started my boys on Axis & Allies, which was way too soon for my boys’ age. After much greater success in switching to the simpler title, Risk, I decided to hop on the Internet (also not around back in my day) to see if there happened to be anything new in strategy gaming in the last 20 years. Oh, boy! You know how that story goes.

So honestly, there’s no doubt that I buy games “for my kids” because I like them, too. However, I want to be careful not to go overboard. And that’s hard to do these days with dozens of sites on the internet devoted to blogging, podcasting, videoing, and reporting on the industry’s every conceivable nook and cranny – and that’s not to mention the “Graceland of the Hobby,” Board Game Geek. Now, practically speaking, I’m not able to go too terribly extreme. I have a budget that restricts my purchasing power and a wife that already bemoans the space my collection takes up as it nears the century mark.

But beyond any practical points regarding healthy moderation, I’ve come to carefully consider how I present the hobby to my kids – or dare say I – force it upon them, even. It is easy to over-zealously cram the things we love down other people’s throats without realizing it and even with the best of intentions. And the last thing I want is to burn them out on gaming, which would be ridiculously counter-productive.

My wife and I are foster parents, so I’ve had the blessing and opportunity to play with a number of kids and variety of ages. Here’s just a few tips I’ve learned the last few years that may prove helpful. Some seem obvious, but it’s amazing how we often over-look the simple things.

Don’t play games over their heads

Let’s just begin with one of the more debated issues in gaming with kids. I strongly recommend keeping games age-appropriate concerning complexity. If you have 4- or 5-year olds, there are numerous kids games that are right up their alley. Stick with those. You can go to Gamewright, Blue Orange Games, or Haba, to name only three publishers, and you’ll be golden for a year or two as they develop and grow as gamers. Don’t rush them into Dominion, Memoir ’44, or Ticket to Ride.

There is nothing to prove. There is no shame in sticking with little kids games for your little kids. In fact, it’s healthier because that’s what those titles are designed for. These simple games teach your sweet, innocent offspring the basics of hobby gaming in a manner they can comprehend and enjoy.

Invariably you’ll need to alter the rules of even the most basic gateway games, like Carcassonne, in order to play it with young kids. Your Kindergartner may be able to pick a tile, match a tile, and place a meeple; but there’s a huge gap between knowing how to move things around and truly understanding how to play effectively. A 6-year old is not going to plan long term, effectively manage resources, or grok the subtlety of internal meta-gaming. The irony is that, in an attempt to get a youngster into gaming, the title is diluted of most qualities which make it great for the hobby. Plus they can easily get frustrated later on when having to learn the right way after they’ve been so used to a striped-down variant.

It was a frustrating experience teaching Axis and Allies to my 7-year old boys. But at the time, I didn’t know any better. Thankfully, they still liked the concept, so we put away that title and switched to Risk, which worked like a charm. Later on we revisited A&A, and other titles of the same genre, to much more success – although even still they struggle with the nuances and details of strategy. Now, at 10 years old and in the 5th grade, I’m still conscious of introducing games to them that fit their age-level, so that the hobby remains a source of enjoyment for them – not frustration.

Don’t play games when they’re tired

Speaking of frustration, that is probably the biggest factor that can turn kids off from gaming. It doesn’t take a psychologist to know that when we are tired, we get frustrated easier. Sometimes, capping off a busy day by winding down with a relaxing board game at night seems like a good idea. It often is with adults, but be careful here with children. The more familiar they are with the title you pick on these occasions, the better off you are. But even then, remember – fatigued kids have less focus and short attention spans which can translate into little patience and even shorter fuses. It behooves you to keep every gaming session as enjoyable as possible, so beware the late hours, especially on school nights.

Do have a variety of games

Have a selection of different styles, utilizing various mechanics and of an assortment of genres. This doesn’t mean you have to have 100+ games. Instead, it means to diversify your collection. The best place to start is with games they may already know or like, ones that are age-appropriate and popular “gateway games” within the hobby at-large. It’s very easy for kids to stick with what’s comfortable. A diverse gaming collection entices them to step out of that comfort zone, helping them develop as a more well-rounded gamer. Of course, there is a corollary to this rule…

Do make them try every game at least once

This is an old truism for many things associated with raising children, probably heard mostly applied in eating. They’ll never know what they like if they don’t try it. Again, let’s be practical, this doesn’t mean you need to seek out every game in the Top 100 to drag beneath their noses. But if the opportunity arises to play an unfamiliar title, coax them any which way you can. It won’t hurt them. Now, after that experience, there’s a corollary to the corollary…

Don’t make them play games you know they don’t like

If they’ve honestly tried a game and don’t like it, then obviously don’t force them again. One of my boys is a meticulous Machiavellian – a budding Euro gamer who prefers calculated planning, genteel orderliness, and minimal luck. The other one, however, is a pedal-to-the-metal reincarnation of General Custer who would rather charge into splashy theme, epic conquest, and masses of dice. Now they’ll venture into each others’ genres from time to time; and they both enjoy lighter, family-oriented games, as well. But if one’s not in the mood to join in a game  that his brother picked? Well, that’s okay.

Do give them some purchasing power

Let your kids help decide which games you buy. I’ve discovered this is even a better method than giving them a game as a present for their birthday or Christmas, although we do that, as well. But whenever I spend my own birthday money or on some other occasion, I happily let them contribute in deciding which games to get. Now, that doesn’t mean I just turn them loose in the FLGS or have them skim the BGG database. I will have already narrowed down a number of options based on a variety of criteria. It’s still a list of a couple dozen titles. That way it’s not so huge that it overwhelms them, yet it’s large enough to give them serious choices. They really don’t grasp the real reason behind such a pre-selection. But in being part of the process, they feel a sense of ownership, which translates into greater enthusiasm for your collection, in particular, and the hobby, in general.

Do ham up your gaming sessions

Have fun! Don’t stress over strategy. Laugh when the dice, cards, or chips ruin your every plan. Offer advice and tips, but try not to govern their moves and don’t be overly critical of rookie mistakes – even if, and especially when, they insist on making them when you’ve suggested a better action. Get into the theme as much as possible. Remember – focus and patience are much shorter with kids than most adults. Therefore, the onus is on you, as the parent, to keep the experience rewarding and enjoyable if you want them coming back for more!

Do participate in other hobbies and activities with them

Gaming’s not the only hobby, of course. Get out with your kids and bond in all kinds of other activities. Special, stand-alone days at the zoo, park, museum, etc. are all fine. But also get involved with your children’s other interests. Whether it’s sports, video games, music, academics, or a stamp collection – foster and encourage diversity. It will make them a more well-rounded person. And more importantly, they won’t get burned out on gaming!

To be clear, there are many reasons that I got my kids into board gaming as one means to spend quality time. It wasn’t just my own interests or for nostalgia’s sake. Gaming actually brings friends and family together face-to-face, not facebook-to-facebook; it enhances critical thinking skills; and it’s great for developing creative imaginations. But you knew all that. In the end, I am conscience of the need to keep this hobby realistic with my kids. I want it to be “theirs” as much as it is “mine.” Otherwise, it’s not really quality time. Plus then it’s a lot harder to convince my wife that a CoolStuffInc gift certificate would make a great Christmas present!

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity...relatively speaking.

Discussion1 Comment

  1. This is a great article! Thanks for writing it – there are certainly some good reminders there! This is the first time I have stumbled onto your site, but I think I will stick around for a while! Thanks for taking the time and sharing!

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