Kids and Board Games

“Kids and board games” isn’t a focus of mine, but I can say a few things based on my own parenting experience, on seeing friends’ kids, and on my knowledge about games and how humans interact with them. (Combined with a dash of knowledge from a relative who works in early childhood education.) 

The one constant

Children vary.

“Nothing will teach you more about your first kid than having a second one” is advice I got that proved incredibly true. Many things about our first child that I might have assumed were just how kids worked, or a function of our parenting / home environment, were, in fact, flukes of who that one child happened to be.

So: some kids will take to boardgames in a hot second, while others will be completely disinterested – or interested but not have the focus – or interested but mostly because their older sibling is – or be more interested in hurling the pieces as hard against the window as they can. And then in a year or two, it might all be different. 

Making up games

While any given kid may or may not take to board games, virtually all children play games of some sort – it’s one of the ways humans are wired to learn. Play-pretend, “how far can you jump?”, The Floor Is Lava, and a lot more.

Kids are game designers. They’ll make up games on the spot – “see if you can do this thing!” – or, in the middle of a game, will change the rules without a second’s hesitation to make it more fun. (Usually for themselves – it’s developmentally normal for young kids to be centered on their own desires and experiences.)

Their designs may or may not result in games that are fun for others, or which are replayable in other circumstances, but we don’t measure kids who are learning to walk by the yardstick of adult athletes; we shouldn’t judge kids making games as if they were adult game designers. They’re not doing it for the same purposes, and trying something a bunch and seeing what works & what doesn’t is how you eventually get good at something.

Following the Rules

Kids – particularly younger ones – are apt to partly or completely ignore the rules of the game you’re trying to teach them.

I’ve seen parents take a variety of approaches to this. Here’s the one which worked for me and my kids (YMMV!):

  • I always made a clear distinction between “we’re playing this game!” and “we’re playing with the pieces of this game!”
  • Neither was intrinsically better, we could (and did) happily do either together.
  • But they were different activities, and if we wanted to shift from one to the other, everyone involved needed to be okay with the change.

So when the inevitable “I’m going to start taking pieces from your board!” (or the like) began, I’d call out that that was a change, and (weighing both my own mood and my kid’s resilience at the time) decide whether I was okay with the shift, or if that change would mean I was done playing – not in a punishing way, just an “I don’t especially want to do this” way. If the latter, I’d explain this, and ask if we could keep the game on-track (and maybe play with the pieces after we were done?)

Sometimes this worked wonderfully, sometimes there were meltdowns; but over time the basic presumption of “you need to check with people before changing the game on them” sunk in (which was also useful once we got to the concept of house rules). It undoubtedly helped that my kids were both strongly motivated to want to play games by seeing them played as a common household activity, so “Daddy doesn’t want to play if I behave this way” was a consequence they cared about.

Winning

I sometimes hear folks say that they never take it easy on kids when playing, or how they’ll never let their (future) kids win. That approach might work OK for some kids, but taken as a general rule it’s a pathological mistake, bad for both kids and the hobby. Kids vary widely in temperament, and while some will derive tremendous motivation from being beaten over and over again, others will derive equally tremendous demotivation from it, or conclude that they just don’t like board games. “That’s what my parents did, and it worked for me!” is evidence of nothing other than selection bias – it worked for you. Children vary.

To put it another way: when I was a yellow belt in karate and I sparred against a black belt, I didn’t want the black belt to bring their A-game. It wouldn’t have taught me anything, and wouldn’t have been any fun. The best folks to spar with were either those at a roughly similar skill level, or people who were better than me… but good at scaling down that skill to create a match that was interesting for both of us and instructive for me.

Dialing down your game when playing with kids doesn’t rob kids of “genuine victory”, because you don’t have to lie about how hard you’re playing. Once they’re past early toddlerhood, you can even ask them how hard they want you to play – they might want a challenge one day, and an easy fun time another.

I’ve known folks who can’t enjoy board games because not-winning is so unpleasant, so I tried raising my kids to not invest too much desire into victory. At first, it worked great – my older child and I celebrated anyone winning the game, and having had a good time. But around age 4-5, they began to care really deeply about winning – I still don’t know why – and it’s been a slow road back to “try to win, but enjoy the game even if you don’t win”. For a while, they would only acquiesce to playing games if there was no winner: we would still try to score/do as well as possible, and we could even total points at the end and see who would have won, so long as no victor was formally declared.

Frustrating Classics

A variety of classic mass-market games are published for children during which you make basically no decisions. Some also last for an arbitrarily long time. For adults who like thinky games, these can be frustrating to play, but it’s worth remembering that they do have some merits:

  1. “Let’s see what happens!” is a totally valid source of pleasure. There can be joy in watching a pachinko ball, or a sports game, or reading a book with a compelling plot just to find out how it goes. Kids haven’t played Tic-Tac-Toe / Candyland / Chutes and Ladders enough for the experience to be burdened with a wearying over-familiarity.
  2. Games like this can still help teach basic skills like “how to wait for your turn” or “how to draw a card/roll a die then follow the instructions”

The good news is that there are newer games which satisfy both of these things. Some still offer minimal to no decisions (eg: My First Orchard), but are at least novel for the first play or two. And others (eg: many games by Peaceable Kingdom or Haba) do involve at least a little bit of thought – and can get a kid used to making decisions on their turn, however minor, which I suspect makes transitioning to other games a lot easier.

“Age Appropriate” on the box

So, you know how most board games have “For ages N and up” on the side of the box?

For most (not all) hobby games, that number N has little to do with the complexity of the game.

If a product is intended for kids, it falls under certain regulations designed to make sure that it’s safe. This means product testing, and product testing costs money. What “safe” means varies by age – the younger an age you want to say the game is okay for, the more rigorous testing it requires, and the more up-front money the publisher needs to spend on testing.

For mass-market games that sell zillions of copies, this isn’t a huge deal: the one-time expense gets spread out over a very large number of copies. Eg, if product testing costs $20,000 (a completely made-up cost), and 400,000 copies of the game are printed, that’s only $0.05 per game, which isn’t going to significantly boost the sales price or change the financial scope of the project. But the vast majority of hobby games have print-runs on the order of 2,000 to 10,000 copies. For 5,000 copies – a fairly standard print-run – that’d be $4 per game manufactured, which due to how pricing and distribution work will make the MSRP about $20 higher for the publisher just to break even – assuming they sell every single copy, and the higher price will make doing that more difficult! Unless a publisher is decently confident that the lower age on the box will prompt more sales than will be lost by the higher price – and has the liquidity to do the testing up-front – they’re pretty likely to just list it as “ages 13/14 and up”.

There are exceptions, of course: the larger the print-run, the more financially feasible product testing becomes. Games which are hits (or the company has good reason to believe will sell well) can support testing better, as can companies with good financial reserves / stability. Testing for age 10+ isn’t nearly as rigorous / expensive as testing for 3+, so you’ll see it more often. Etc.

“Age Appropriate” for the kid

 As any parent knows, every child is non-average in some ways – it’s strikingly unlikely that any specific kid falls precisely on the 50th percentile of every single measure of social, physical, and mental development.

Also, playing board games is aided by a wide variety of skills1 (including many which do not magically appear with age but require experience and practice to develop) as well as exposure to many different board games, so the brain can shorthand “oh, this game/mechanic works just like that other game/mechanic” (maybe “…with thus-and-such a difference”).

And, most importantly: kids vary. 

Given all this, age recommendations can’t really be anything other than a very, very rough approximation.

Recs

There are a bazillion good kids’ games out there, and I haven’t even heard of most of them, but here are some my kids have enjoyed, in the rough order in which they encountered them (and didn’t bounce off). At the time of writing, my younger has just recently turned 6; I’m not including games that only my older has played.

  • First Orchard – pretty much a “see what happens” game, but is designed for 2-year-olds and has these great chunky wooden fruits that are fun to play with completely apart from the game.
  • Snug as a Bug in a Rug – turn-based cooperative color/shape/number-matching game where you get to hide round flat bug pieces under the “rug” (board). Guaranteed to terminate in 24-27 turns or so. Decisions actually matter!
  • Blink – quick (real-time) card game of matching color/number/shapes. Once a kid’s old enough to be playing at some sort of speed, it’s easy to handicap by giving unequal deck sizes.
  • Blokus – adult game that works well for kids. Bright, colorful pieces, and only has 3 rules. Not good for toddlers (the pieces are a choking hazard, and the physical manipulation can be tricky), but fun once a kid’s past putting everything in their mouth.
  • Robot Turtles – an adult-and-child kinda-game-kinda-activity that helps teach spatial / logical thought and action programming. I’m not sure we played this as an actual game more than a handful of times, but the kids had a lot of fun with it on their own as well.
  • Hoot Owl Hoot – cooperative “get the owls back to their nest before daybreak” game. Decisions matter.
  • Hey, That’s My Fish! – penguins! A very clever abstract positional underneath a fun/wacky theme.
  • Monster Factory – while the scoring rules are a touch complex for young kids, the gameplay itself is gloriously straightforward, and you get to make awesome-looking monsters!
  • Chiyawa – a roll-and-move my kids took to. Once pieces enter the board, they’re moving in 2 dimensions, so there’s some thought and positioning, though it’s still pretty light.
  • Kingdomino – building a kingdom out of terrain-based domino tiles. Incredibly versatile in types of players it can please; I’ve enjoyed it with a 3-year-old and with boardgaming veterans. (Younger kids will definitely need help with scoring, though.)
  • The Magic Labyrinth – a memory game where you’re traversing an invisible maze, and have to recall where the walls are. Very clever; uses magnets and a maze beneath the board.
  • Santorini – very simple game, very deep gameplay, and looks great on the table. Great introduction to variable player powers, the base game without them works fine, but the powers really spice things up.
  • Ingenious – laying out colors into a common board, trying to make straight lines of color. Requires either good counting ability or an adult to score plays. Also sadly easy to jostle-scatter.
  • Tsuro – very pretty, very quick (5-10 minute) game that, while it does have a bit of strategy/tactics, is more about enjoying the journey and seeing where you end up.
  • Echidna Shuffle – echidnas picking up and delivering insects. Any player can move any echidna, so there’s the potential for players to throw problems at each other, but it’s always “delay”, not “destroy”.
  • Flowerfall – dropping cards on a table from shoulder-height to try and score flowers. Built-in handicapping mechanism based on height!
  • Calico – a pattern-making game about cats and quilts. The actual rules-other-than-scoring are incredibly simple, but it’s a very nice puzzley game for adults – you’re trying to satisfy three different desires (color, pattern, bonus tiles) with every placement. Rulebook has a family variant which omits the bonus tiles.
  • Abandon All Artichokes – an Ascension-phenotype deck-wrecking game; your deck starts with 10 artichokes and you win when you draw a new hand with no artichokes in it.

Footnotes

1 From the basics of “taking turns” and “holding a hand of cards without destroying them” up through all manner of other skills infrequently called out but nonetheless highly relevant: parsing information presented on cards, looking-ahead to imagine future board states or the consequences of actions, remembering the names of components, recognizing common patterns like “infrastructure vs. victory”, weighing tradeoffs with imperfect understanding, learning rules from a teacher, learning rules from a rulebook, keeping “how do I/we win?” in the back of the head, and many more.