Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Running Kid-Friendly Con Games

I’m a huge advocate for introducing newcomers to various aspects of the adventure gaming hobby. Most of us engaging in this crusade focus our efforts on fellow adults, but some face the added challenge of drawing in younger players without the wealth of knowledge, experience, and patience more mature players possess. Conventions serve as natural venues to attract and teach new players; as gamers mature and have families, the hobby more often sees younger kids at conventions...and they want to play their parents’ games!

Tempted by cool Martian game....
But crafting a successful convention game with kids in mind takes some time and planning to accommodate their youthful whims and engage them enough to create a positive play experience. Too often kids (and even some adults like myself) become overwhelmed with the complexities of established rules, tire of turns that seemingly take forever, and become bored or frustrated...none of which contribute to an encouraging game session.

In this missive I’m glossing over board and card games; aside from the suggested age range, these tend to have obvious traits making them appropriate or unacceptable for kids. Nobody’s going to try to teach a seven year-old how to play Diplomacy or Axis & Allies – aside from the complexities, they’re not going to sit still for half a day to play – but such fare as Roll for It, Dino Hunt Dice, Robot Turtles, Otters, Godzilla Stomp, even King of Tokyo, as well as most Gamewright titles remain both interesting and playable in their basic form. Most of my discussion below remains applicable to roleplaying games and miniature wargames, frequent offerings at the small, regional conventions I frequent.

I don’t always run convention games for kids – they’re a formidable challenge – but I have enough experience teaching games to adults and playing games with children to offer a few constructive strategies when preparing a convention game one might label “kid friendly.” I’m drawing primarily on two personal experiences: my work on the introductory children’s tank miniatures game Panzer Kids (including playtesting and convention games with the target audience); and my endeavors introducing my preschooler, the infamous Little Guy, to various aspects of gaming.

Subject Matter

Subject matter plays a greater role in drawing kids than game systems, though the latter can seriously cripple a play experience regardless of one’s enthusiasm for the genre. Offering a game with a theme that excites young players not only draws them to the table but keeps them engaged. This sometimes results in a disparity between what a gamemaster wants to run and what children want to play; it requires a willful choice to run a game geared toward general convention attendees or one specifically tailored for kids.

At a regional wargaming convention I recently attended I noticed a host of young players gravitate toward a colorful Gnome Wars game and a skirmish game with what looked like pirate ships...all despite more historical offerings of “kid friendly” games at those times. The issue also pertains to gaming with kids at home. The Little Guy wanted to try Daddy’s airplane game (the World War I flavor of Wings of Glory), and I stripped it down for him, but after one game he wanted to go back to playing the X-wing miniatures game with the quick-start rules because, you know, Star Wars.

To illustrate the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve seen excellent demos and full games of both the X-wing and Star Trek miniatures games where the gamemaster deploys ships on the starfield playing surface, with the corresponding ship and upgrade cards (with appropriate counters) arranged along each side for potential players to read. Just the simple visual appeal of the ships on the starfield helps draw players familiar with those franchises regardless of age. When I run Panzer Kids demos at conventions I make the battlefield as visually appealing as possible, with tanks in their starting positions, mountains, oases, and minefields on the board, and signage with rules summaries and tank stats around the table edge so prospective players can take a closer look if they like. Popular kids games at wargaming conventions often incorporate fantastic elements like jungle temples, floating islands, or Martian tripods.

I’m not saying every convention game for kids should have a blatantly silly or child-like theme; but the presentation (both in the event description and at the table itself) should attract children and make clear the game’s appropriate for and interesting to them.

Strip Down Rules

I’ve discussed cutting down rules to their bare essentials for kid-friendly play before. I dislike few things in life more than catering to the lowest common denominator, but I make an exception when it comes to teaching kids games. Gamemasters can address this challenge by approaching the game as a completely new player. What are the absolutely most basic rules essential for a meaningful and positive play experience? This strategy runs the danger of simplifying rules to an existing game so much that it becomes a different game altogether, without the possibility for players to move on to the full rules later. As long as the stripped down rules contain the base elements for the complete game, participants can take the first step on their journey to understanding the complete rules, assuming they sustain any interest; but to throw all or most of the rules at a complete newcomer – child or otherwise – risks overwhelming and confusing them beyond their willingness to learn.

The X-wing Miniatures Game offers a fine example of this technique. The quick-start version of the game focuses on the movement and combat phases, setting aside for the moment the complexities of actions (taken after movement), upgrades, and special pilot abilities, all of which contribute to the diverse gameplay of the full version. It’s not always possible to distill core rules down to something kids can easily learn and play, especially if you’re working in the realm of roleplaying games and wargames which, by their nature, have a great degree of depth. Gamemasters should choose between running a game in its intended form or running something suitable for kids; finding a workable middle road is rarely easy or successful.


Gameplay-aid handouts serve several purposes in kid-friendly games. Set out on the table beforehand they can function as a tempting sample of what players can expect (much like the X-wing and Star Trek miniatures game card set-up I mentioned in “Subject Matter” above). Handouts can quickly summarize key rules for quick reference during play. Print out enough and kids can take home a fun souvenir of their experience; a website address can help them find more information about the game if they choose to pursue it on their own.

Roleplaying game handouts generally consist of some kind of character sheet, though I’ve offered brief summaries of how core rules operate or overviews of the setting. Player maps always help, too. For wargames brief summaries of the turn sequence along with movement and combat rules for individual units provide ready reference at the table.

When running Panzer Kids games I have two flyers prominently displayed at the table, even before the game begins: a rundown of the turn sequence with summaries of the movement and combat rules, and a diagram showing what different numbers on the tank stat cards mean. Each tank deployed on the battlefield gets its own stat card players keep afterward...each with a promotional blurb and website address for the game on the other side.

I’m slowly preparing to run a few skirmishes for All Quiet on the Martian Front with my wife and the Little Guy, both of whom love the concept of early 20th century forces battling Martian tripods but don’t really get into the complexities of miniature wargames. Aside from learning the rules and assembling and painting all the units, I also plan on creating a card for each unit detailing its game stats and summarizing special ability rules for easy reference at the game table. This might serve me well if I ever decide to run kid-friendly games at conventions.

Keep It Short

Distracted by PRETZEL!
Kids (and some adults) have limited attention spans, especially at conventions with various dealers, games, and other activities to tempt them. Plan events for short periods and allow for players to come and go. Quick demo games give newcomers the freedom to try the rules quickly, then move on to something else or continue playing. Longer games might run a maximum of two hours, but don’t be surprised if some younger players wander off or get bored once they realize what kind of game commitment they’ve made. In a way running a convention game takes on aspects of a public performance, including the ego of the principle actor. Don’t get discouraged or distracted by kids who don’t maintain interest or wander off to try something else.

When we have a family game night with the Little Guy we keep things short. Rarely do we run past an hour of gameplay, though depending on the game we might get in a few sessions. Having a game day with adult guests inevitably means the Little Guy comes and goes; he plays in some games, then wanders off to his toys during others (though he often watches and wants to play in the more advanced game fare we offer).

Bear in mind that not all kids of a certain age are ready for a particular game. Everyone, even adults, have different attention, comprehension, and adaptability levels that makes them more inclined toward certain games and less inclined toward others. Generally, though, kids from 5-11 years old might play with the active participation of an adult, with those 12 years and older able to play well-planned, kid-friendly games on their own (all depending on their maturity level).

Looking back over past Hobby Games Recce missives I realize I’ve talked a great deal about gaming with kids; these might offer additional ideas for introducing gaming to children at home and at conventions: “Children’s Programming at Conventions” discusses kids at cons in a general sense, with a short bit on gaming; “Teach Your Kids to Game Week” briefly covers a few strategies for introducing games to children (some expanded upon in the bulk of the current article); “Roleplaying Games for Kids” and “Crafting A Roleplaying Experience for Kids” offer specific suggestions for this particular field of the adventure gaming hobby.


Have any additional tips, techniques, or experiences in preparing and running convention games for kids? Want to offer feedback? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.