Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Young Gamer’s Growth

As my wife and I start preparing ourselves and our now five year-old son for public school kindergarten – including the nonsensical administrative rules and illogical bureaucracy we’re already encountering – I’m questioning whether I’ve adequately prepared the Little Guy for the rigors of the education system. Sure, he can’t read yet or do math, but he knows his letters and numbers, has fairly good manners with others, and possesses an inquisitive mind. Much of this comes from two geeky, college-educated parents and two years at part-time preschool run by students as at a local high school early childhood education curriculum. We’ve already challenged him in our own way, helping him to spell words and add small sums, often done in the course of playing games. Given that we live on the medieval frontier of northern Virginia (the medieval side) I fully expect to take an active role augmenting the education he gets in public school.

The Little Guy, wearing his Han Solo
vest, contemplates his next maneuver.
Parents often look back on their children’s milestones: their first steps, words, friendships, library story time, trips to local museums, visit to a zoo, and other achievements of early growth we as parents have long forgotten ourselves but gladly relive through our children. As a geeky family we also have our own milestones: first comic book convention, Godzilla movie, games played, seeing a film in a real theater, first time attending Historicon. As a gamer parent having interests across the adventure gaming hobby – boardgames, wargames, roleplaying games, and even miniature wargames – I like to reflect on the progression of games we’ve played together, how he’s evolved from those experiences, and what lessons we’ve learned to apply to the future. (Frequent Hobby Games Recce readers know I discuss my game experiences with the Little Guy often, so I beg their forgiveness for troubling them with any retreads of past missives.)

We started introducing games to the Little Guy when he was about three and a half years old. We tested the waters with the most basic of games, focusing more on theme and not worrying too much about gameplay. I began with Steve Jackson Games’ Dino Hunt Dice after diverting the Little Guy from the Zombie Dice game (as discussed in “How Dino Hunt Dice Saved Me from Zombies”). He got the hang of that and gained a taste for Daddy’s kind of games. We tried a few more pedestrian games along the way, but he soon dove into the Star Wars franchise and hence the X-wing Miniatures Game, which I was dabbling with at the time. The X-wing quick-start rules provided a wonderfully basic game for him. We made things really easy by letting him pilot the Millennium Falcon; with its 360-degree fire arc he didn’t have to worry much about maneuvering to line up attacks (its high hull and shield values helped him survive, too). He’s since moved on to fly other ships with more limited forward fire arcs and lower hull/shield values. This also led to a brief foray into Wings of War/Glory flying a World War I British observer plane with a decent fire arc on the rear machine gun. In both games he quickly grasped the concepts and ramifications of maneuvering, shooting, and taking damage...and learned that sometimes running away is better than facing a stiff fight. After a few months’ hiatus playing other games, he’s recently asked to play both miniatures games again.

About the same time we immersed ourselves in the X-wing Miniatures Game we also bought a copy of King of Tokyo; this capitalized on my wife’s interest in Godzilla and the Little Guy’s discovery of her kaiju DVDs. The game incorporates a number of kid-friendly elements. He likes choosing different monsters. He loves rolling dice, though he’s still learning how to keep them on the table and out of other game components. He doesn’t always use his rolls to his most logical advantage and buys monster powers based on what he feels are the coolest illustrations, but that still doesn’t prevent him from having a good chance at winning. The gameplay keeps him engaged and remains fun for adults, too.

Once we found several games that held his interest and provided some engaging gameplay we instituted a “family game night” every Thursday night. This sets aside some dedicated gaming time each week and gives the Little Guy something to look forward to. Since setting up the games requires some preparation and time (both in set-up and clearing off the dining room table) it also helps to have a set weekly night for this, instead of playing such games whenever he wants according to his mercurial whims. Occasionally the family game night has proved a useful incentive to leverage positive behavior, such as picking up his toys from the living room before we game.

I’ve occasionally turned to games for sheer educational value. I’ve used Bananagrams for letter identification and to demonstrate how people construct simple words from individual letters; these activities remain more exercises than games, though I like demonstrating to him that game components (and ultimately games themselves) can serve to teach useful concepts. I’ve recently tried introducing him to more traditional games such as checkers and tic-tac-toe – even Gobblet, a nice tic-tac-toe variant with far more strategy – but those abstract games don’t really grab his attention like more modern, attractively themed titles. Those attempts, however, show me how his development’s proceeding. The elements of strategy behind those games remain challenging; he’s still focused on moving his own pieces to achieve the goal instead of also considering how to block his opponent’s choices to prevent him from winning. I’m looking forward to watching his strategic development in the coming year.

During the past year we’ve introduced some new games into our repertoire. One of the first of the new batch we tried was Castle Panic, which proved a fun, cooperative experience where everyone’s hand of cards remained visible so we could coach each other on how best to use our resources. At first the Little Guy was afraid of the game’s core concept – directly facing advancing monsters who could overrun your forces – but he slowly came around to this and enjoyed the resource allocation aspect of it (and setting up the towers and walls). We’d played Pirateer a lot with his cousins, but this year was his first trying it himself. Although he wasn’t always sure how to move his ship pieces in straight lines the entire length of the die value, he did relish the concepts of both capturing the treasure and sinking his parents’ pirate ships. We gave a few Kickstarter games a try, Otters and Yardmaster Express, ones that I’d hoped would help him hone his number recognition and some basic arithmetic; alas, they didn’t quite catch on with the kind of engaging themes and gameplay he liked. Most recently we tried Hey! That’s My Fish and Bullfrogs, which require a bit more inter-player strategy; these we tried first with Dad, then asked Mom to join in later (for more interesting player dynamics). He’s slowly getting the area control concept behind “the penguin game” but, like his father, is still testing the strategies in Bullfrogs.

Someone's excited to playtest Daddy's
latest game.
One of our peripheral gaming activities even led to a cooperative game-design venture crafting a game specifically for the Little Guy. As I’ve previously described, we saw an interesting game during our father-son day together at Historicon 2014: Kim Allman’s fantastic “Jungle Gods” set-up complete with savage beasts, ruins, explorers, and lots of jungle foliage. My experience seeking a similar yet more kid-friendly game led to developing Valley of the Ape. The Little Guy helped me playtest it before bringing it to a convention to try out with its target audience (and their dads). The process gave the Little Guy a sense of what went into creating a game and how playtesting changed some elements to fine-tune the game experience. Of course, it also led to his own creative play with his toy soldiers, kaiju figures, and plastic knights taking over the cardboard “monster island” I made for him a year or two ago, all with talk about game objectives and movement rules.

Gaming Advice

My “Holiday Gaming with the Kids” missive from 2013 mentions a host of benefits from gaming with your children: time spent together as a family, learning and reinforcing basic skills (letter and number recognition, following instructions), game table etiquette, and how to gracefully win and lose. That blog entry also includes a brief paragraph about strategies for gaming with kids, most of which simply rely on encouraging parenting. Here are a few more specific tips to help overcome particular game challenges and foster an enjoyment of and interest in games:

Play Cards with “Open” Hands: Most games where players keep hands of cards concealed from others we play with them “open,” with everyone’s cards spread out before them. This allows us to help him play the game even though he can’t read the card text yet (though he eventually learns based on the illustrations). We used this technique with Otters and Yardmaster Express (and it’s encouraged in many cooperative games like Castle Panic). This remains a great way to teach games with usually concealed hands to newcomers of any age.

Distill the Rules to Essentials: As I’ve discussed before, I’m a huge fan of streamline and simplify rules to a level kids can understand. It doesn’t matter whether you’re playing the “real” game as long as you’re still playing some form of a game with the components. Our experiences with the X-wing game and Wings of War/Glory demonstrated this; sure, the games come with all kinds of extra rules and components, but to play with a youngster we stripped these down to the essentials. In the case of X-wing the quick-start rules seemed basic enough; for Wings of War/Glory we used an “open” hand system for the cards and simply chose one maneuver at a time. Eventually kids master these basic concepts you can then modify more toward the full rules.

Balance Familiarity with Novelty: Once the Little Guy comprehends a game whose theme and gameplay he really enjoys, he want to play it all the time. It’s good to indulge kids in activities you want to encourage, but this can become excessive and commonplace for the kids and tedious for the parents. Balance the focus on one game with the challenge of trying a new one. For instance, we generally let the Little Guy pick our game night fare, but when he slips into a rut (which we indulge for a while) we suggest a new or different title; for new games I sometimes sit down with him during the day when he’s bored and walk him through a new game (which inevitably he wants to play with everyone on game night).

Child’s Choice: We find giving the Little Guy some say in what we play helps encourage his interest in games and lets him feel like part of the out-of-game activities. He often wanders into my office ostensibly to give me a hug and say “I love you, Daddy,” all while checking out the games...followed by the inevitable questions about the goodies he spots: when can we play that train game (Ticket to Ride), can we try this game with the flag on it (Spearpoint 1943’s map expansion), can we play Bullfrogs? We give him some freedom at the occasional conventions we attend to scout out and choose some souvenirs, game-related or otherwise; he’s walked off with a host of toys but also some figures to paint after trying the “paint-and-take” event at Historicon’s Hobby U. These choices help him feel empowered in the game experience and give him a sense of belonging as a gamer.

On the Horizon

A number of games top my list of those I’d like to try with the family, though most are on my wish list for purchases and the few I own are waiting for the right moment and level of interest on the Little Guy’s part.

Eggs and Empires and Stratego Battle Cards are my top two to introduce. The Little Guy’s already seen them in my office and asked about them. They both rely on being able to identify and compare numbers, a step that enables him to play games without having to read text. For that reason these might work without using the “open” hand strategy mentioned above and help him develop more confidence in his gameplay choices. Both themes seem to have grabbed his attention.

I’ve not yet gotten copies of Castellan or Gravwell primarily because they have a relatively high price point for my game budget. From what I’ve seen of both (and I played Gravwell at last year’s International Tabletop Day at the now-closed FLGS) they seem to rely on skills the Little Guy already has or is currently developing: shape recognition, placement strategy, area control, letter and number recognition. I’m leaning more toward Gravwell since I’ve played it before and can accommodate more than two players. Both games remain on my gaming wishlist.

Qwirkle’s also on that wishlist as a game we could all enjoy, though I’m not sure it would grab the Little Guy’s interest as an un-themed, abstract game.

When I first heard about Munchkin Treasure Hunt I was excited. The game seemed to combine aspects of Munchkin and Dungeon! with the kind of slay-and-loot theme of many basic fantasy roleplaying games. But it also comes in just above my acceptable price point for a casual game like this and requires reading skills the Little Guy just doesn’t have yet. Still, it remains on my list; if Dungeon! didn’t rely on reading cards, discerning clear rooms, corridors, and doors on the map-board, and handling fiddly mechanics for secret doors and traps I’d pull out my copy and play that instead, but Munchkin Treasure Hunt seems to have a more clear presentation, basic gameplay, and humorous cards.

Forbidden Island has been lurking on my shelf for a while, waiting for us to introduce cooperative gameplay to the Little Guy. He could probably navigate the game and learn the strategies with coaching from his parents. The graphic presentation and theme would certainly work for him, so it’s a likely candidate for the game table soon.

After much consideration I think Hero Kids might serve as his first introduction to roleplaying game concepts. (Doug Anderson’s Dungeonteller Fantasy RPG system is a close second in consideration.) I need to print out and review the materials, but I fear this kind of immersive experience might prove a bit much for his already hyperactive imagination. He’s not always clear on the boundaries a game’s rule set – he wanted to introduce Godzilla into Valley of the Ape – and the freeform nature of a roleplaying game might seem a bit too much freedom to offer. We’ll see.

The Little Guy admires Martian tripods at Historicon 2014.
Of course I’ll keep my eye open for games at Historicon geared toward a younger audience, though I think even at five years old the Little Guy’s still a bit young for participating in such convention games without adult supervision. We’re also considering bringing him to a winter convention next year with a strong emphasis on games. I’m always on the lookout for new games that speak to his abilities and interests; I’m looking forward to finding them.

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