Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Holiday Gaming with the Kids

As we rapidly descend into the Vortex of Chaos caused by the American holidays (typically including Thanksgiving, Hanukkah/Christmas/Kwanza, and New Year’s), thoughts turn to gatherings with family and friends…and games. I’ve reminisced about games at the holidays before: the sense of fantasy inherent in the season, the gaming-related gifts, the time to play around with one’s hobby, new toys, and friends. As my son nears the four year-old point and the coming holiday season, I started thinking about gaming with kids. HistSWGame

By “kids,” I mean preschoolers in the three- to four-year-old range, possibly as old as five or six. Some of these insights might help parents introduce older “kids” to the adventure gaming hobby, but by those ages they’re reasonably bright enough to know what engages them and thus dive into anything (like gaming) with the possibility of challenging fun (and opportunities to best their parents). I’m limiting my own discussion to board games, since, at this young age, the only roleplaying activities I expect them to show any interest for remain creative play options with toys, even if those toys are PlaySkool Star Wars figures, Disney’s Cars toys, and other normal-play fare.

Gaming with kids presents a wonderful opportunity for family time together, not simply sitting around basking in the feel-good glow of the holidays, but interacting in positive ways that can have lasting effects on behavior. We’ve established a weekly “family game night” with our Little Guy, trying some of the fare listed below; he looks forward to it every week and seems open to trying new, appropriate games. Whether he’s really understanding the games at this age, we’re still making important gains:

* We’re spending family time together without the constant distraction of electronic devices.

* He’s reinforcing lessons from preschool: following instructions, identifying numbers, letters, and abstract gaming symbols (okay, he’s not learning that last one at preschool…), realizing his actions have results and influence other people’s actions.

* He’s learning some basic gamer etiquette, such as being careful with food or drink around games, following game instructions, taking turns, re-rolling dice that tumble off the table, respecting game components, and generally learning to take advances and setbacks, victories and defeats in stride (or at least without tantrums).

My general tips for gaming with youngsters usually fall back on gentle, encouraging parenting. Some games require simplification of rules. Some require an adult to offer a good deal of assistance simply to get through a turn, though our experience has shown kids quickly learn for themselves and eventually refuse offers of help. Use games as “teaching moments” to learn numbers and letters, right and left, turn-taking, and good behavior. As adults we join games as regular players; while we sometimes give the Little Guy an advantage (playing the Millennium Falcon in the X-Wing Miniatures Game, for instance), we don’t usually hold back during games to let him win outright…he has to work for it.

Games We’ve Tried

While I have visions of my son several years from now sitting down to face his father over such games as Memoir ’44, Ticket to Ride, Smallworld, Sirocco, Axis & Allies, Carcassonne, and Ra -- not to mention the possibilities roleplaying games offer -- I realize he’s capable of only limited game challenges right now, as are most kids in the three and four year-old ranges. We’ve tried a number of games with the Little One over the course of many family game nights and a few games on weekends or with friends…and most have proved successful:

Dino Hunt Dice: This affordable, fun little game from Steve Jackson Games lets kids enjoy rolling dice and then identifying the three kinds of dinosaurs, the leaf result (dinos hiding), and the stomp result (dino hunters stomped!). Kids love dinosaurs and the game theme of hunting them tricks them into learning to identify the symbols, count their captures or stomps, and decide whether to continue and press their luck. It’s a much more thematically acceptable alternative to the game’s cousin, Zombie Dice (I’ve discussed our experience with Dino Hunt Dice in greater depth before).

Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game: After seeing it played at a convention, the Little Guy wanted to play it himself. He’s seen enough Star Wars toys around the house -- and finally saw Episode IV A New Hope (it’s just good parenting) -- so he knows most of the major characters, locations, and plot points. We bought the starter set and a few (okay, more than a few) extra ships, including the Millennium Falcon, which is “his” (it also helps that it has a 360-degree field of fire, unlike other fighters that have to maneuver to line up shots). The extremely basic quick-start rules included in the game provide a practical set of rules he can follow while still keeping the adults interested. We’re hoping we’ll eventually graduate to the regular rules to enjoy more of the game’s complexities, but we occasionally work in some advanced rules, particularly those related to asteroids (though we’ve played with a basic, programmed Imperial shuttle intercept scenario, too).

King of Tokyo: The Little Guy inherited his mother’s love of kaiju movies, so this game -- with its push-your-luck dice mechanic, monster stand-ups, and power cards -- seemed a good one to test the bounds. Initially he needed some guidance in determining what he wanted to do with his dice and getting through the turn sequence, but he quickly caught on and rejected all assistance. Heck, he won the first two games we ever played! Although it’s not always apparent he’s actually using a strategy, he enjoys rolling gobs of oversized dice and collecting enough energy cubes to buy monster power cards with cool illustrations (again, without really exhibiting any strategy beyond the exciting appearance of the pictures). His favorite monster? Cyber Bunny.

Pizza Party: I found this in a local teacher store and thought the Little Guy might find it interesting, especially considering I make homemade pizza once a week, a ritual with which he often helps. It’s less a game and more an exercise in matching dice-rolled toppings to pizza cards; but it still keeps the Little Guy engaged and hones his skills at matching symbols (and rolling dice). I’ve modified it to focus solely on him rolling dice, identifying the symbols, and matching them to slices. I have some doubts about the game -- shrimp and sardines figure prominently as toppings, while olives and onions were not included -- but, using a similar competitive mechanic as Roll for It (see below), it might have more promise.

Star Wars: Escape from Death Star: The Little Guy saw Kenner’s classic board game high on a shelf in my office -- a relic of my earliest days of board gaming and sci-fi fandom -- and insisted we try it. The cardboard stand-up pieces have seen better days, the spinner often landed on a line between numbers, and the cards seemed quite arbitrary, but we all had fun bumbling around the Death Star trying to get the plans and shut off the tractor beam before escaping to the Rebel Base. I recall frequently playing it with family and friends in my youth, the first manifestation of my love for Star Wars. The Little Guy took to it easily, though he had some trouble navigating the board.

Games I’d Like To Try

Several games wait in the wings to try with the Little Guy. Some we’re just waiting for an opportunity to introduce, others we hope can push his bounds a bit further when he’s ready:

Wings of Glory: The forerunner of the Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game engages my interest in World War I and II and has miniatures that capture the Little Guy’s eye. The one item he insisted I buy for him at a convention was a “cow bomber,” the Heinkel 111 plane for Wings of Glory WWII in arctic camouflage, white with dark green blotches, looking somewhat like a holstein cow’s coloration. The game’s use of cards for movement and maneuvers seems more intuitive and less complex than the full X-Wing Miniatures Game. Should we try this I’ll streamline the rules and simply have each participant reveal a maneuver card simultaneously (using only the slow maneuvers in the WWII version) before resolving shots and damage instead of plotting out two or three cards at a time. The Little Guy has requested we play “Daddy’s airplane game” sometime, so this remains high on our list.

Dungeon!: Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro re-released this classic fantasy board game with new artwork and components, and my parents -- who’ve nurtured my interest in sci-fi/fantasy and adventure gaming from the start -- got it for my birthday. It seems fairly straightforward as heroes explore the dungeon, defeat monsters, and take their treasure. The rules offer a very basic gameplay, though I’d expect adults might have to guide youngsters through the more involved procedures like traps and spells. While the board artwork seems impressive, I’m not sure it clearly indicates corridors and spaces well enough for a three year-old to navigate during gameplay. Many of the numerous components are quite small, including the illustrations, which normally remain key in captivating a kid’s interest. We’ll see if the box, board, and card artwork tempt him enough to at least start a game.

Roll for It: A copy of this recently arrived in the post as a backer reward from the game’s Kickstarter campaign. Players roll dice and match them to cards showing different combinations of results. Match all the die faces and take the card to score. The basic gameplay allows multiple players -- each with six dice of the same color -- and offers a nice balance of random die results, resource management, and press-your-luck. The Little Guy likes his dice and makes a great show of rolling them, so this one’s high on my list of new games to try.

Whatever the age of your kids, we encourage you to shut off the television, turn off the tablets and phones, and sit around the table this holiday season to enjoy some face-to-face gaming and make some fond family memories.

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