September 07, 2011

Gaming with Kids: Strategy

I'm pretty sure all hobby gamers have a little bit of Napoleon in them - and not as in a 'Napoleon Complex' (though that could explain many an attraction to board gaming!).  No, rather there is something about studying a board, examining options, formulating a course of action, and then executing it just as planned - while ruthlessly devouring your enemy - that is oddly satisfying.  In fact, from the gaming forums, blogs, and review sites that I follow, many gamers so love this aspect of gaming that they truly disdain any mechanic that employs even the rudiments of luck that could sabotage their best laid plans!  That’s another topic to examine later.

Of all hobby gaming's characteristics I've found this one the most problematic in gaming with my own kids.  First off, to be clear, my kids really dig strategy.  In the more complex games, they will noticeably (and agonizingly) take longer turns in order to process all the options.  When we have to stop and leave a game set-up until returning the next day, I will invariably find them sitting at the table later by themselves studying the situation.  And quite possibly their favorite thing in all of gaming is engineering the most efficient means of ganging up on their old man - the sneaky little twerps!  In this regard, I would argue that children can be different than the non-gaming crowd.  If introducing a Euro game to non-gamers in my extended family, I would pick the simplest and most straight-forward game in terms of rules, mechanics, and strategy.  With my kids, I'm not as concerned with being quite so discerning, even busting out the war games.

I say problematic because, although they enjoy strategy, they often fail to look ahead enough turns in order to completely analyze all choices.  This also may be natural for adults (specifically non-gamers), but it’s not necessarily as simple as that with kids.  Children are good at examining the avenues before them, choosing one based on the situation at hand, and then properly planning what needs implemented to accomplish that one goal.  That's the basis of strategy.  However, sometimes they will choose one path out of many options under the assumption that it will operate within a vacuum, rather than understanding entirely how their decision impacts the cause and effect relationship among all of the paths together.  They fail to see the forest because of their tree.

In our first plays of Dominion, for example, they realized early on that concentrating on Estate cards too soon would mean clogged and worthless hands.  Good thinking!  Knowing that they had to string card combos together, they would concentrate on going after the +card(s) and +action(s).  That’s on the right track!  But of course after drawing a good amount of Treasure cards with their +card/+action combos, they would have no +buys with which to take advantage of the extra money in hand.  Or on another front, perhaps the attack cards were so attractive they'd get an imbalance of Moats with which to improve the odds of protecting themselves against the attacks of others.  With my kids, it is less about formulating a good plan and more about the need to understand how other nuances affect their strategic choices.

My kids love war games.  They delight in pushing little plastic cannon fodder around ancient maps and chucking truck loads of dice.  Sound effects are mandatory.  And war games are rich in strategy.  It is not uncommon for them to fully explore one strategic option while neglecting another.  It can be as straight-forward as building up to attack in one area while ignoring defense in another.  Or maybe more involved like failing to see the nuances of how other avenues can aid their offensive plans - the use of combined arms over masses of cheap infantry; shoring up a front with temporary diplomacy; attacking an area that better utilizes interior lines; or the use of small-scale economic warfare to erode their opponent's ability to fight.  While they certainly realize some of this, I think they often operate under a "one thing at a time" mentality without realizing that all of the nuances work together simultaneously - especially the long-term effects.

So should you play deeper strategy games with your children?  By all means, yes!  Just keep in mind you'll need to teach them as you play - and plan accordingly.  As you realize what strategy they've adopted, look ahead for them and point out possible consequences.  Even hint at what you'll be doing so that they can learn to anticipate their opponents.  One of the fun things about gaming with my kids is that I'm not worried about winning, but simply engaging with them while they develop skills in logic, critical reasoning, and deduction.  On the other hand, don't play the game for them and give them every move.  That essentially leaves you playing against yourself which is not only sad, but renders moot any strategic planning in the fist place.  It also does very little, if anything, in allowing your kids to think for themselves.  They will even come to resent playing you if you don't give them a good dose of independence.  ‘Trial and error’ is just as good a teacher as your own experience - maybe better!

Also, ease them into the heavier strategy games.  In that regard, the situation would be comparable to non-gamers, although many non-gamers would prefer not to move beyond even those introductory strategy games!  Just don't do what I did and start off with Axis & Allies!  The usual suspects of "gateway games" apply here.  One overlooked option that has done well in our house is Kingsburg.  This dice-based, worker placement/resource management game really requires a balance in developing your realm versus ensuring that you have enough soldiers to protect what you've built at the end of each year.  However, there are different ways to use your dice to achieve that balance as well as different game components you can use to manipulate those dice further.  The rules and mechanics are simple while still providing enough variety of strategic options without overwhelming you.

With gradual experience and instruction, children can develop into keen strategists more so than the average adult non-gamer only interested in gaming for the social aspect, not the mental.  In no time at all, your child will be sweeping through your lands and smashing your little plastic bits to smithereens like the cunning, little Napoleon she is...

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