September 19, 2011

Gaming with Kids: The Train Set Syndrome

I'll be honest.  Nostalgia was definitely the catalyst in introducing my kids to hobby gaming.  Hence the reason we began with Axis & Allies, probably a bit too soon for my boys' age.  In junior high and high school I spent an inordinate number of late nights board gaming with friends.  As this was before the influx of German hobby games to the United States, we played war games.  Mostly it was Risk and the Gamemasters Games (A&A, Shogun, Conquest of the Empire, and Fortress America).  We also enjoyed some select titles of the old Avalon Hill style, hex and counter, strategy simulations.  We even dabbled in painted miniatures war gaming.  Oh, how the plastic and cardboard and tempers would fly!

After a much greater deal of success in switching to Risk with my boys, I decided to hop on the Internet (also not around back in the day) to see if there happened to be anything new in strategy gaming in the last 18 years. Oh, boy!  Suffice it to say, I now have a wishlist five Excel pages long and unhealthy dreams of great shelving and a fatter wallet.

Which brings me around to thoughts of the stereotypical train set.  (Any other kid's gift may fit here, like, oh, I don't know...board games?)  You know what I mean, right?  Dad buys son a train set for Christmas.  Dad builds train set.  Dad plays with train set.  Dad buys more track, cars, and scenery to expand train set.  Dad spends small fortune to build replica of the Shenandoah Valley that takes up most of the basement.  Dad now has new hobby subscribing to train set magazines and going to train set conventions.  Mom decides on future Christmas presents for son.

So again, being honest, there is no doubt I really enjoy "buying games for my kids" simply because I enjoy the hobby.  However, I want to be careful not to go overboard.  And that's hard to do when reading about cool games and conventions.  Practically speaking, I am not able to go too terribly overboard.  I have a budget that restricts my purchasing power and a wife that would axe half of a 100 game collection for want of storage space.

But at the same time, it's about more than just those tangible excesses.  I don't want to overload my kids with board gaming at the expense of alienating or frustrating them.  I don't want to turn it into something for them that it's not - which right now is simply a way to spend fun, quality time with dad.  In essence, this really all boils down to an analysis on why I play board games with my kids.  That is a similar question for any hobby gamer:  why exactly are you a gamer?  I've already established the fact I enjoy board gaming as a hobby, in and of itself.  I also enjoy quality time with my kids.  They always enjoyed board games like Clue, Sorry, and Life.  So the jump to hobby gaming seemed a perfectly reasonable and natural fit.  But there are many other hobbies and past-times I could have chosen to engage in with them.  So why gaming?

Economic Value.  Okay, so any enthusiast can drain his bank account in this hobby, as in any other, so this is always relative.  Moderation is still the key here.  But generally speaking, board gaming is a good investment.  If you take care of the game, it will provide you with innumerable enjoyment over the years without requiring any maintenance, making the plays-per-cost ratio very reasonable as compared with many other hobbies or leisure time entertainment.  Even if you add an expansion or two to a favorite title, that economic value is still very good.  If your collection grows like a hungry gremlin, well then that factor becomes problematic as you don't have time to play all those games.  But in our experience, gaming beats a night out at the movies (which gives you one bang for your buck) or model rockets (constantly buying new engines, wadding, etc.).  For a family budget, this is one of the more significant attractions to gaming.

Accessibility.  I like to get the kids out of the house.  I'm of the old school thinking that the outdoors won't kill them.  So we ride bikes, play sports, and jump on the trampoline (did you know that if your timing is just right jumping at the same time, you can really launch your kid into the air?!).  And we kick them out to play with the neighborhood kids.  That said, conditions aren't always optimal to be outside, in which case board gaming is a very appealing option.  It usually requires little preparation time and is easy to put away.  You can squeeze a play in between other daily commitments since many games only need an hour or two.  A game's space requirement can be an issue, but usually you can carve out the room at home.  And while certainly not the case with every game, there are still many that are easy to transport on vacations, trips to the grandparents', or other outings.  The trampoline is still a bit difficult to get in even our 12-passenger van.

Mental Exercise.  Even with heavily random, luck-based titles, hobby gaming gives the brain a work-out.  While not solving advanced algebraic equations or debating physics with Stephen Hawking, you are still working the old gray matter.  Board gaming forces you to think critically, plan ahead, and adjust to changing situations.  I appreciate that this will not guarantee my kids a scholarship to Harvard or Yale, but it is certainly better than video games of the first-person action genre that is so popular today.  And while lengthy strategy games can offer some of the same benefits, advances in computer technology will not make board games obsolete!

To be sure there other reasons I choose board gaming for quality time, many of which are for things I am not.  I am not musically talented.  I am not artistically inclined.  I am not socially connected.  You get the idea.  But I am conscience of the need to keep this hobby realistic with my kids.  I want it to be "theirs" as much as it is "mine."  Otherwise, it's not really quality time.  Besides that, it makes it easier to convince my wife that the kids need another Boards & Bits gift certificate for Christmas!

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