August 30, 2011

Gaming with Kids: "Interaction"

"Why are you going after me?  She's the one in the lead"

"UGH!  Why do you keep playing the Witch?"

"Blocking me in, really?!  You know I was trying to link up with Chicago!"

Oh, the spite factor.  Direct confrontation.  To me, one of the most enjoyable mechanics in gaming.  But from the perspective of children?  Ummm, not so much.

To be fair, as you're probably thinking right now, that's not entirely true.  First off, different kids (just like adults) have varying degrees of working within the parameters of a game's mechanics.  On the one end, some simply accept that confrontation is part of the game and roll with it regardless of results.  Perhaps that's even what they enjoy about the game.  Those at the other extreme avoid these games like a hornet's nest because they can't stand opponents punching them in the kidney and then stomping on their puppy.

Then there are kids that fall in between on this spectrum depending upon which side of the confrontation they sit.  All seems right with the world while they're the shadowy Assassin sinking a dagger into the Merchant's belly in some dark, seedy, tavern's back-alley.  The perspective's a bit different if you're that plump Merchant gurgling your last breath as you lay in a fetid puddle on the cold cobblestone.  Plus you've just lost your stinking turn.  The reaction can often be ugly.  And while this is not unique to gaming with children, it is certainly more common and prominent with kids.  Some adults are still sore losers (personally I don't understand why).  Much of this may be chalked up to natural temperament.  However, generally with age and experience comes a maturity and perspective on life that allows adults to still enjoy games despite any confrontation because, after all, it's just a hobby; and, besides, it can be fun, too.

My kids fall in the middle part of that spectrum, but even with my bias, I'm proud to say more towards the "acceptance" end of it.  After all, we started with Pokemon, a game who's central goal is to "knock out" your opponent.  They do have their moments, though.

So what can you do to alleviate the tears?  Cooperative games are a nice alternative.  While we do not own any of this genre, I do have Forbidden Island on my wishlist.  From all accounts, it is an accessible, intuitive, and fun game, yet still manages to be tense and challenging.  You could also opt for games with little to no interaction.  Dominion offers much that is desirable in a game and you can customize the available kingdom cards to minimize conflict; or even eliminate it altogether in favor of something more or less solitary in game play.

However, I would suggest trying to "ease" children into games that do employ direct and even spiteful confrontation.  From my experience, there are three criteria I look for that are essential to this process.
  •  Brevity.  My kids are more apt to deal maturely with confrontation when the game is short.  Basically they realize that even if they get stomped, ganged up on, or eliminated entirely, the game will be over soon and they can try again.  For this, we enjoy Mag Blast.
  • Lightheartedness.  It's easier to accept back-stabbing and sneak attacks when the game involves humor to lighten the mood.  We enjoy a game that does not take itself too seriously.  One of our most-played games is the nasty, cutthroat gem Lifeboat.  Even in a game where you can actually knock some one out cold for their seat while everyone else steals their stuff as they lay helplessly in a coma, my kids can't wait to see who their secret loves and hates are every time.   Generally it's a giveaway when they love and hate themselves!
  • Restrictor Plate.  In other words, some built-in mechanic that limits the amount of confrontation allowed.  Or perhaps instead the game might give a charity bonus to the one lagging behind.  One of our favorite war games is Dust which utilizes one card every round to determine your turn order, how many times you may attack/move, how many units you may produce, and which special rule-breaking power you may employ.  You get to pick which card to play, and that will limit you to a certain number of attacks.  If you're allowed only 1 or 2 attacks, the card will balance that with a greater benefit in one of the other areas, and vice versa.
If all goes according to plan, you'll have them relishing the opportunity to lock horns in confrontational games without crying every time you wipe them clean out of Australia. Surely by their 18th birthday, right?


  1. Yes, we've had big issues in my household. Catan: my kids can't handle the robber. If two kids are playing, one steals from the other and then it's spite-time! Too often: game over. And Zooloretto: "I wanted the animals on that truck you took." Too often, game over.

    It's really frustrating because I just want to play, win or lose, but they are old enough now I'm NOT going to "let them win," like I did with Candyland.

  2. Yeah, sometimes "good sportsmanship" only comes with getting older. I constantly stress the fact "it's just a game" with my kids, but they still have their moments. Can't blame them, though...after all, they get it form me! :)