September 13, 2011

Gaming with Kids: Luck

Baby needs a new pair of shoes!  Now as it happens in a house with seven kids, that statement is often true at any given moment.  Okay, so we don't gamble for the funds to purchase said footwear.  But I've never minded a bit of gambling in board games.  Luck is a fascinating gaming characteristic that I never tire of reading about on forums, blogs, and other venues.  To many hardcore gamers, it is a 4-letter word to be avoided like a 24-hour TVLand Brady Bunch marathon.  Of course, there are many people who like the Brady Bunch (*raises hand*), and so to other gamers, luck is not only accepted as a natural element to games of all kind, but indeed preferred over those all-information-available think-fests.

Many others have covered this topic in a far more thoughtful manner than I could.  I'll give just a couple thoughts on the overall concept of randomness.  Otherwise, I'll just opine on this characteristic in how it relates to playing games with kids.  To cut to the chase, randomness in some form is an extremely beneficial mechanic in playing hobby games with your kids.  To what degree may be a matter of opinion and situation.  It depends first on the child's age and then also on his/her experience with board gaming.  Beyond that, it depends on your child's natural ability to grasp this particular hobby.  Realistically, people of all ages have various inclinations to hobbies, sports, activities, likes, etc.  We're all wired differently.  You know your own kid better than anyone.

However, even if you have a board gaming prodigy on your hands, it's extremely difficult to trump experience and mental maturity.  And so in that sense, without being patronizing or condescending, luck becomes an essential equalizer.  Especially if you're of the philosophy that taking it easy on your children in gaming does more harm than good, you will want high elements of luck in the games you play to give your kids more of a chance.  Even if you play fast and loose with game rules and mechanics, it is still helpful to have a measure of random elements.  Yes, kids can learn a lot in defeat, as we all do, but being on the receiving end of beatdowns time and time again will seriously erode their future interest in this hobby.  And that is counter-productive to the whole point of getting them involved early on in their lives.

Many gamers bemoan luck because it will mess up their best laid plans.  It can be frustrating to formulate a good strategy and build towards implementing it only to be thwarted because you can't draw the right card or roll the right number.  Then on the other end of the spectrum, a good number of gamers mock the randomness factor because players can stumble into a win, including themselves.  If on the losing end, this can be a point of resentment forever souring a view of the game.  But even if the lucky one, gamers can feel cheated by the "cheap" victory.  Either way, it is viewed as unearned, tainted, or likened to the asterisk that needs placed by some baseball records in the wake of steroid usage.

Most kids do not generally think in the same terms.  A win is a win and, to them, they will have earned it to some degree.  This is because the vast majority of hobby games are not entirely luck-driven, like say Candyland or Sorry.  They are still exerting some control over the game.  Sure, my kids recognize when "bad luck" strikes.  But they would never know that "dice hate me," except that I've yelled it numerous times!  They realize that randomness serves as a leveling device.  Especially in the absence of a game where they can gang up on me, they appreciate the fact that the unknown keeps them in the mix.  I also appreciate that as it allows me a balanced opportunity of teaching strategy while not completely easing up on them, yet still keeping them competitive.

We have some enjoyable games all along the randomness spectrum that have worked well for us.  Mag Blast is probably the most chaotic luckfest we own, but still fun.  Area control war games like Axis & Allies provide a strong emphasis on strategy which is heavily influenced by the die rolls.  Then we have games like Small World on the other end which are much more strategic in mechanics, but with some minor doses of randomness to keep you on your toes.
In the end, I would contend that random elements are essential to kids learning strategy games.  It keeps them competitive while they develop their critical thinking skills and hone their analytical abilities.  Plus, it teaches them to adapt to changing game situations - a useful lesson.  After all, life is what happens around us when we're making other plans, right?  The next surprise is always just around the corner.  Plans rarely go...well, as planned.  Some of the greatest battles in history turned on pure, unadulterated, blind (or rotten) luck.  Mega pop stars are accidentally discovered.  Major sporting events are won by freak ball bounces.  Lives are changed by natural disasters, world economies, the lottery, and other things we have no control over.

I argue that a game that does not include random elements is unrealistic.  Pure strategy games may be good learning tools.  Analyzing puzzle games where all information is accessible strengthens the gray matter.  But games that teach you how to manage chaos, adapt to change, confront the unknown, and deal with the monkey wrenches thrown into the machinery teach kids more practical things - because that's life.  Preparing for that randomness then becomes a strategy in and of itself.  Because its not really about gambling for baby's new pair of shoes; but instead preparing for when the need comes up...whenever that might be.

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