November 01, 2011
Gaming with Kids: (Un)Attractive Themes
Ever look back on something you did in life and wonder what the heck you were thinking? I only have to blast to the past a couple years ago when Facebook was just morphing into the all-consuming, Big Brother social network mainstay that dominates so much of culture today. And FarmVille. Many people I knew on Facebook got hooked on this life-draining, social game to one degree or worse. If you were impenetrable to its soul-sucking powers than you're a better man - or woman - than me. My addiction lasted maybe half a year. Oddly enough whenever I mention those days, not fondly, with a former "neighbor," neither of us can remember exactly why we felt the urge to stay on-line until 2:00 in the morning picking virtual asparagus. Nor why we needed carnival tents, Roman villas, every conceivable seasonal decoration, and 500 animals and trees that took an hour to individually "click-and-harvest" every stinking one. Nor what led us to bug our friends non-stop to just hurry up and start a farm and be our neighbor, already! Sure they were smart enough to ignore our thousand pleas, but just register! I don't care if you play with your farm - just sign up as my neighbor so I can expand mine!
I'm very much a theme guy in gaming. Which is the major reason I wonder about my former FarmVille addiction. I find farming probably the least attractive theme in all of hobby gaming. Beyond the fact it is not a pull factor for me, it actually serves as a push factor. For example, I have no desire to play, or certainly to buy, one of the most popular and highly-rated board games on the market: Agricola. I should clarify here that this does not necessarily equate to the discussion regarding pasted-on themes. While I prefer games in which the theme intricately interweaves within mechanics and rules, I'm also fine with titles that emphasize strong mechancis and game play which would work effectively independent of a number of themes. However, whether it is heavily integrated or added on as an afterthought, I want the theme to be an interesting one - which of course is subjective. Some major and recurring game themes that do little for me include trading, the stock market, and trains. Ironically, all of those generally involve a degree of building and development, which I do like. It's just I'd rather be building and devloping elsewhere. Some very popular, and I'm sure well-crafted games, that seem bland to me are Hansa Teutonica, Acquire, Power Grid, and any of the 18xx genre. And while I applaud unique themes and am very happy to come across them, some just sound bizarely boring like the new fashion show Pret-a-Porter.
Where do my kids enter this discussion? Well, so far they seem to fall within the same gaming interests as myself. Now, one could argue that is no surprise because they're my kids and I'm subconsciously influencing them merely by my game purchases. That very well might be the case. It might also be a result of the video games they play and are used to, the majority of which are quite forgettably action oriented. Then again, it may simply be a fact that they're a bit young still to be engaged by economic themes involving more than an average amount of math.
To examine this a bit further, I first consider the point that they can only play the games I buy. This is definitely true, but I do let them pick games; and they have their own working wish lists based upon my own. In the interest of variety, this "master list" includes a number of titles with themes I find less interesting, but which I've added because they seem like nice family games that would suit kids and introduce them to a sampling of the hobby's many mechanics and genres. To name but a few examples, this includes lighter Euros such as Silk Road and China, plus card games like Bohnanza and Sobek. Yet still, after seeing the videos and pictures on the Geek, they want the space, pirate, western and medieval games that promise adventure and/or conquest. Even if it isn't critical to the game's mechanics, the theme still draws them. And that rarely has anything to do with economics - unless it is more abstracted and folded into building an empire.
Knowing that I can't buy scores of games to test which themes most appeal to my kids, I turned to another medium they are already familiar with: the computer. There are a modest number of hobby games made available online either through membership sites, or via free download in Java, Flash, or some comparable format. Two mechanic-driven games I have had difficulty getting them to test drive are Yspahan and the iconic Settlers of Catan. Yspahan, available for free in a Windows version and for online play at Yucata online, pits you as an Arab trader against 2-3 other merchants vying to control shops, gold, camels, and caravans in the 16th century. It includes a smattering of area control (or maybe more set collecting), resource management, building, and a sometimes annoying "take that" mechanic. However, the fresh twist (for its time) is that 9-12 dice will determine how much of which resources are available every turn. I downloaded the game hoping that the dice mechanic would appeal to my kids. Even though the theme is not that interesting, it is exactly because of those dice that I enjoy the game as a unique diversion from time to time. My kids aren't as interested, though. After showing and teaching them the game, two have played it to lukewarm response and the other two have yet to try it because it doesn't look fun.
We've had a similar experience with Settlers of Catan. I downloaded a free (and cheap and ugly) Java knock-off, plus you can enjoy limited play for free at Catan.com. After teaching them the basics, they all gave it at least a partial go. Again, I assumed that the use of dice and the Robber, ported as a computer game, would connect with my kids. But it didn't click. They didn't enjoy the repetition with little major development (not their exact words, but...). Now that can certainly be chalked up to their inability to grasp the larger strategies. But without a strong theme to engage them, they're not likely to stick with it long enough to explore all the game has to offer. For example, they enjoy the repetition of Kingsburg, yet that title has a more enhanced theme and even a battle at the end of each year - even though ironically both are still abstracted. Still, it's enough to keep them hooked in order to stay with the game long-term.
One title's online version that they do enjoy is Battle Cry via the member site GameTableOnline. I have yet to purchase this 2-player only game because my preference is for titles that accommodate at least 5 players. It has proven a success, especially with the boys. Combining a board game theme they enjoy with the computer is a win-win as far as they're concerned.
Yes, this is all anecdotal evidence that theme is important for a game's reception among kids. It won't hold true 100% of the time. For example, my son is oddly fascinated with Carcassonne. While I'm sure a fine game with some strategic nuance, it still seems like another exercise in simple repetition with a thin theme, hardly anything like he currently requests. Then again, FarmVille is very much not like any other computer game I'd load up and plow through. Therefore mechanics, game play, or maybe originality can sometimes trump theme for me and my kids. However, for the most part, kids will lean toward adventure and conquest in serious hobby games over ones that focus on economics and bookkeeping.