September 29, 2011
Gaming with Kids: Replayability
Have you ever played "Horsey" with a toddler? You know, where you put the kid on your knees and the baby horse goes nimble-nimble, the mommy horse goes trot-trot, and the daddy horse goes gallopy-gallopy? Oddly enough, it's a lot of fun! I guess because we adults find joy and take pride in the ability to make a little kid smile, giggle, and out-right belly laugh. We can momentarily forget the responsibilities of grown-up life in the warmth of an innocent child. Of course the kid likes it, too. So she says, "Again, again!" We comply. Laughs ensue. She beams, "Again, again!" Another nimble, trot, gallop. Whee! Then she giddily pleas, "Again, again!" And so on it goes. Until after about a dozen rides around the track, you're ready to be taken out to pasture and shot for glue.
Suffice it to say, kids like continuity. Which is the antithesis to a major consideration in game design: replayability. Yes, it is not even a real word. But it is a central concept that influences designers in their board game creations, as well as consumers in their board game purchases. For hobby gamers, replayability is the idea that a game offers something new and fresh in each play. It possesses some mechanic or component that changes things up, even if only slightly, each session. Games may achieve this in a few ways. It could have a modular board like Settlers of Catan where the set-up is different each time. It could provide the infamous "multiple paths to victory" like Caylus where you can explore different strategies to win. It might include asymmetry based on varying powers like Cosmic Encounter where each race has different abilities or bonuses. On top of any of those, it can even come out with an expansion that adds new elements, components, rules, and/or scenarios such as Kingsburg: To Forge a Realm (some titles get a little excessive in this department).
For hobby gamers who spend good money on their games, it is not unreasonable that they expect to be able to get many plays from that purchase. A game that only offers one set of choices, or one path to victory, or limits your options in other ways can quickly grow stale and will have limited appeal. That can be compounded by the game's length. Shorter board games and many card games may often overcome the stigma of limited breadth because of their brevity. However, most serious strategy gamers are looking for replayability. Generally speaking, we like options, change, and to try new things. We don't like the game playing us.
This is just the reverse in gaming with kids. Certainly as they grow older and delve more into the hobby, that can, and often does, change. But for a good deal of a child's gaming life, they'll feel more comfortable with the familiar. They learn by repetition and prosper in continuity. The more options you throw at them, the more insecure they'll feel in the confusion. As I mentioned in my blog entry on kids and strategy, children will generally operate under a "one thing at a time" mentality, becoming frustrated when the unforeseen spoils their plans. Now this is not to claim you will cause irreparable emotional damage by thrusting certain titles in front of their faces. But again, the point here is to acclimate kids to the hobby - and games with repetition can serve an important role in that process.
One question my wife and I are constantly asked is how we manage to care for up to eight kids at a time and see so many come in and out of the house. Well, first, by the sheer grace of God! And then, while not claiming it is easy or stress-free, we manage with a routine. This is even exponentially more important with foster children who invariably have never had anything remotely close to routine in their lives. Schedules, structure, and rules that apply to everyone maintain a little order...at least in managing the chaos. This concept influences our gaming, too. We have a set order in selecting games - each child gets his/her turn. We have a routine for determining who goes first (when the game does not specify). A routine for picking colors/sides. The kids even like to sit in the same order around the floor or table. And we usually have set times in which to play games, determined by - you guessed it - our schedule!
Likewise, my kids generally approach gaming from the opposite spectrum of replayability. This isn't to say they'll never try new things, but overall they stick with what they know. Even in games that offer variability, they'll continue to play certain ways. They like to pick the same action cards in Dominion even though there are two dozen to choose from. Many times they'll select the same character in Citadels over and over whether it benefits them in a particular round or not. They often employ the same strategies in a war game because, well, I'm not sure why sometimes! And in any case, whenever possible, there is always continuity in that they like to gang up on dad!
So keep that in mind when sharing the joys of hobby gaming with your kids. Take it in stride and humor them. You may be in for some repetition, but there's usually a reason they're sticking with what they know. And as they present themselves, find opportunities to suggest new things or propose other options on old favorites. In the end, it'll be worth all the nimbling, trotting, and galloping.