Thursday, February 16, 2012

Children vs. Designer Games

I've seen blog articles from time to time from moms who tried introducing their young kids to designer games like The Settlers of Catan, only to have the experience end badly when one child or another throws a fit related to losing the game. These entries are borderline accusative in tone: "You all led me to believe that board gaming would be a rewarding experience for my child, but it was horrible!" They conclude that gaming is a bad option, that their child is just too young (which maybe true in some cases) and that the wisest course of action is to retreat to the tv room.

I want to share my own experience, because I almost fell into the same trap, despite everything I know about the virtues of designer gaming as a teaching tool.

We have a 4 year-old boy and a 6 year-old girl, and we've been teaching them to play designer board games. A few weekends ago, we broke out Incan Gold. This is a press-your-luck style game where you venture into a temple, Indiana Jones-style, and try to collect as many gems as you can while getting out before the expedition's untimely end at the hands of snakes, rockslides, spiders, and so forth.

So my 4 year old son is the last one in the temple, and he just keeps pressing his luck for the sheer joy of revealing the next card and amassing more riches. We keep warning him that he better get out soon, but he didn't comprehend the reasoning of why. So when the spiders got him, and we broke the news that he would keep none of the treasures in front of him, it happened. He burst into tears, and ran off to hide behind the couch and cry. I tried to bring him around, but it just wasn't happening, so the game pretty much ended there.

It was not a good experience, not for anyone involved.

The following weekend, we announce we are going to play a board game again. His first request? "Incan Gold, Mommy, can we play Incan Gold?" Now I was a little surprised at this, and we'd had a secret conversation a few minutes before where we'd decided we would play Ave Caesar instead since Incan Gold had been a bust last time. I didn't expect he'd want a rematch. But of course I was happy to encourage it, thinking to myself that this time I would be more explicit about the risks involved, so at least he understood his choices more clearly.

So we played again, and on the first round, his big sister was the last one in the temple, and got buried under a rockslide. She'd observed the whole affair last time, and to my delight, she took it in good spirit, flipping her stuffed puppy upside down and declaring, "Butterscotch got buried!"

Colin also met some bad ends during the course of the game, but he too took it well, and at the end of the game, who was the fair and square winner? COLIN. You should have seen his face.

I can't even count the ways this was a good learning experience for both of them. And it was a learning experience for me too. Look what I would have denied them had I quit at the first sign of adversity, just thrown up my hands and said, "Oh, that was just no fun, we can try it again in a few years when they're older." and left him with just that initial experience, the feeling of not only having lost, but of having ended the game for everyone else? What kind of long-term memory of gaming would THAT have been?

Compare that to the triumph of the second session, even if he hadn't won it, and it's just night and day. One thing we do not want to teach our kids is that when the going gets tough, it's time to walk away. Now granted, for some kids, they ARE too young, but it reminded me not to give up after one initial bad experience, because a golden growth moment could be just around the corner.


  1. When playing with younger kids, I think sometimes handicapping can really help. It depends on the game of course (We never use a handicap when playing Incan Gold), but sometimes giving a younger player some kind of an advantage really makes the difference. For example, I introduced Thunderstone to my (then) 6 year old. I taught him the game and then told him that he didn't have to worry about light penalties when he went to the dungeon. That one handicap was enough to keep it fun for him without being overwhelming as well as challenging for me. After playing with no light penalties twice, he then asked to play with light penalties! Sometimes just giving a child a handicap helps to ease them into the game and then when they're feeling up to the challenge, they'll request playing the game as designed.

  2. Excellent post!!! Really needed in today's gaming world.

    Virtual games for kids

  3. Dave,

    Ooooh, I hadn't even considered trying Thunderstone with ours (and I love that game). That's really encouraging to hear that a 6 year old could get the hang of it. Great technique for how you approached it, too. I find myself constantly repeating, "Never underestimate kids..." :)

    1. Lorien, definitely give Thuderstone a try. I tried Dominion and Thunderstone with my son and Thunderstone was the clear winner. He likes Dominion, but it must be sets with attack cards (especially Witch and other cards that give curses) otherwise the game falls flat for him. I think the theme in Thunderstone really pulls him in. That said, we didn't use the randomizer cards. I would pick sets that I thought he would enjoy and that wouldn't be too difficult or frustrating for him. Also, some of the monster cards have some scary looking characters on them, so I'd be mindful of which sets you pick for the dungeon if you're kids are sensitive to that kind of thing. I know my kid is. We always removed the Mummy hazard from Incan Gold when playing with my son until recently (he'll be 8 in April). That card freaked him out for a bit there.