Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Tips for Kid-Friendly Games

Our recent experiences at Historicon brought to light more tips for running games for kids. The more we game with kids – as parents, participants, even onlookers – the more we discover what works for engaging them in all kinds of adventure gaming: miniature wargames, board games, even roleplaying games. Noting what was and wasn’t done at some of our Historicon games offers some first-hand inspiration; we signed up for games based on my son, the Little Guy, and his preferences and ability levels. I’ve discussed some strategies for running kid-friendly games at conventions before. These brief tips add to those earlier observations to help stock the arsenal of ideas for those engaging kids in games. With some consideration for specific situations these tips can apply to games in the home and at public venues like library events and game conventions. They’re more for younger children sampling games than older tweens and teens who have a better sense of comprehension about more complex games; but don’t hesitate to adapt these for running games with adult newcomers to the hobby.

Some of these tips require planning beforehand; others one can implement at the gaming table. And while these emerged from my own personal experiences, they’ might not reflect your particular situations, so feel free to ignore or modify them to best suit your own games with kids:

Use Names: Calling out anyone’s name during a game is a great way to focus their attention and engage them directly. Using names sets a good example for others at the table – both kids and adults – to interact with each other at a personal level and get to know other players beyond their basic role in the game. In friendly game groups at home make sure to introduce the players for anyone new or unfamiliar with the groups. At conventions badges can help remind participants, though introductions at the start of games offers a nice, friendly way to break the ice and get the event moving. Roleplaying games sometimes use tent cards with player and character names (and even illustrations) to remind people of who’s playing which roles; they’re a good idea when using pre-generated characters (see below), but you can also create them on the spot if needed. Referees in all three of our Historicon games used player names directly to remind folks when their turn came around and make sure they’d made their moves.

Limit Player Numbers: The fewer players in a game the more attention each one gets...a key element in maintaining their engagement. At Historicon we had great games with six players and even one with 12, but the latter pushed the bounds for viable kid attention spans as each participant played through their turn. Fewer players also makes a referee’s job easier when explaining rules, following game developments, and moving things along. Our Historicon games varied in player numbers, with the more confusing 12-person game moving slowly and mostly keeping the Little Guy’s interest; the smaller games (with six and eight players each) allowed him to focus more and work more closely with teammates.

Quick Turn Sequences: Streamlined turn sequences help keep those with shorter attention spans involved. Seasoned gamers like having a full range of choices each turn, but younger players don’t always have the presence of mind to evaluate possible choices and decide on one in a timely manner. Find a game or modify one to keep turn actions as simple as possible for the intended age group. Most of our Historicon games moved pretty quickly for a young player, but the Little Guy held his own with some help.

Table Reach: Make sure everyone can reach game components across the table. Some convention games are so large even adult players have to maneuver around the table to move their units; this can seem daunting to little kids in a crowded gaming hall amid the chaos of a large game. While not essential, it helps to avoid game components like terrain that might easily topple or break if bumped by an inexperienced hand reaching across the table. Our 12-person game at Historicon made moving figures a bit challenging with both the huge table size and the proliferation of very vibrant yet sometime fiddly terrain.

Die-Rolling Tray: To avoid dice scattering across the table, crashing into other pieces, and skittering onto the floor, offer some die-rolling trays so kids can have fun rolling without all the collateral damage and distraction. (Some game box tops work nicely in this capacity.) Provide one for each participant or keep one large one for the table, passing it around to each player during their turn. Occasionally dice skittered off tables at Historicon, but in one game the flying saucer on the table saw its share of dice rolling underneath its large profile.

Player Elimination Contingency: Few things sting more than getting knocked out of a game early. It doesn’t leave a good impression with new or young players, who might still be learning to win and lose graciously. Have plans for players eliminated from the game at early stages. Give them command of reinforcements that show up part-way through the game. Offer them another character to play and a way to join the adventuring party (or let them play the monsters...). Invite them to serve as an assistant referee to help the game move more smoothly. Find something to keep them involved and engaged at the gaming table. Father and son both saw elimination before our first game ended (Star Trek: Attack Wing), but we stuck around to see how the overall battle ended (with a victory for our side, despite heavy losses). We overcame our frustrations and used it as a lesson in losing gracefully.

Keep Rules Simple: Sometimes we need to streamline existing rules to a level kids can understand. Explaining rules in a carefully considered, step-by-step process helps. Walking participants through each step in the first few turns – outlining their options, reminding them of turn sequences – can provide the foundation for further understanding and enjoyment of the game. If participants grasp core game mechanics, feel free to add extra layers of complexity to suit their ability. Only one of our Historicon games used streamlined rules (the game exclusively for kids) and it was perhaps the best-run game of our convention experience.

Provide Handouts: Giving players some very basic handouts can provide just enough information for in-game reference, like steps during the turn sequence and stats for their particular units. Don’t overwhelm new players with paperwork, but give them just enough tools to help them through the game. These handouts might also entice players considering games at an open event by giving them a basic idea of the game’s theme, mechanics, and difficulty level. Two of our convention games used handouts with rules for moving and fighting with our forces; they proved invaluable to our understanding of the game mechanics.

Table-Ready Forces/Characters: Use pre-determined forces for miniature wargames and pre-generated characters for roleplaying games (with essential handouts as noted above). Participants don’t have to learn the set-up rules about creating a character or assembling a wargaming force and can go straight to the mechanics of playing the game. This enables players to check out the available opportunities beforehand and learn something about the sides they’re playing. All our Historicon games had our forces set up so participants could see what was available, review their capabilities, and learn some special rules relevant to their forces.

Degrees of “Kid-Friendly” Games

Gamer parent taking kids to a convention face a number of challenges, not the least of which is figuring out which games are best for our children based on event descriptions. I’ve seen a host of different ways to categorize these at various conventions, to roleplaying game tracks that encouraged gamemasters to indicate whether their games included adult content to specific instructions for wargame events such as “kids 12 and up welcome with playing adult.” How does one sift through all this – especially in the pre-registration phase – to find suitable kid-friendly events?

I don’t have much experience doing this with roleplaying games (we’re going to start exploring those soon, though), but I’ve evaluated board game and miniature wargame events at conventions before. Sifting through a preliminary event listing (PEL) can prove difficult, but in PDF or web-page format one can use the “search” function to seek out specific titles or setting key words to find events. For instance, with Historicon this year I searched for the X-wing miniatures game, Star Trek: Attack Wing, and Doctor Who, settings I know would engage the Little Guy’s media interests. I look for games with interesting settings and then games I know play at his level of comprehension and attention. Personal familiarity with a game can help parents judge if they’d be appropriate for kids. If they can play it at home they can manage in a convention setting.

I’ll also run a general search for the term “kid” to see what parameters various games set for youthful participation. This can turn up games that don’t normally appear on our radar that might be worth trying. At Historicon, for example, this search turns up games good for kids and those specifically not for them: “Kids under 14 must be with an adult,” “Kid Friendly,” “Not recommended for kids,” “Kids welcome with an adult,” “Kids 14+ are welcome.” If I find an event specifically for kids I search for the referee name or game rules to find similarly suitable fare. All these remain subject to parental research and good judgment.

I have no idea how large game conventions like GenCon and Origins designate games suitable for kids. I think I’ve heard Origins has a kids room with appropriate game-oriented activities. I’d expect GenCon to have some kind of kids track of programming and games, though one might seek out games specifically designed with kids in mind (I’m thinking of No Thank You. Evil, but I’m sure others exist).

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