I’m an avid gamer. So, with my own children, I launched a concerted and sustained effort to impart my love of board and card games. I wanted to make them into good gamers. That effort has yielded spectacular results. Here is my proven system for getting the most out of playing games with children.
You can start very early. As soon as my kids could speak we were playing games. At age 2 we got plastic holders that little hands could use to hold a hand of cards. We played many games of Loot and other simple games.
Early on, you’re really just introducing the concepts. Wait for your turn. Take your turn. Participate in a structured activity. Understanding the concepts of rules and restrictions. You don’t need to worry about strategy or who’s winning. That’ll come soon enough. Start by getting them used to playing games, participating, and having fun.
Don’t Emphasize Winning and Losing
Playing games means winning games and losing games. Playing lots of games means winning a lot and losing a lot. These things should be treated as inevitable parts of playing games for everyone. The important thing is not the winning or the losing but that you have fun playing. Like so many things, you’re better off modeling this truth than explaining it.
Have fun playing. Get in character. Provide color commentary. Praise the clever play. Recognize when you’ve been outmaneuvered. Engage in some good-spirited gloating when they’ve fallen into your trap. Cherish the tension of the tight game when the outcome hangs in the balance.
When it’s over, you can acknowledge who won and who lost. But it should almost be an afterthought. The play's the thing.
Games should be fun. Part of making a game fun is being gracious in victory or defeat. For children who have trouble with either, make it clear that good sportsmanship is a requirement. If they want to play games with you, they need to do their part to make the game fun for everyone during and after the game.
Play to Win. But Level the Field.
When I taught my kids to play chess I started by taking away my own rooks and my queen. Then I played to win. Early on, I taught them useful lessons about protecting your pieces and the power of a promoted pawn. It wasn't long before I really needed to be in top form or a blundered move would cost me the game. Soon after that I was reintroducing my pieces to avoid certain defeat. When my son reached kindergarten he became a competitive member of the 5th grade chess club.
Kids should earn their victories. But playing games where they are at a huge disadvantage isn't fun for anyone. Start by choosing games that involve a lot of luck, or that rely on skills like pattern recognition, or memory - where adults don’t have a clear advantage. When you go for the strategy game, stack the odds in their favor to make sure your victories are well-earned as well.
Don’t Explain the Rules
With most adults it’s considered unfair to start a new game until everyone is familiar with all aspects of the rules. Often this will lead to lots of context-free explanation of arcane and unfamiliar systems. This often concludes with an agreement to “just start playing and figure it out as we go”.
With kids your best bet is to skip to the just-start-playing part. Give an overview of the point and very basics of the game. Then deal out the cards. Go first. Play with an open hand. Explain what you’re doing, and why, as you do it. When it’s the next player’s turn, explain their options. But let them make their own choices. Until everyone gets the hang of it, don’t worry about optimal plays and good strategy. Make a “bad” play if it helps introduce a new rule. Your focus is on getting players to understand the game. Dive in, and have fun. Cutthroat can come later.
If you’ll be introducing a new game, make sure you come to the table prepared. Read the rules. Make sure you understand them. Think about how you’ll be teaching the players to play.
If a question comes up during the game, you can spend a few seconds looking it up in the rules. But if you don’t find it quickly, make a ruling. You can come up with your ruling by consensus, by your best guess off the designer’s intention, or by giving the younger player the benefit of the doubt. But make a decision. After the game you can look up the real rule (returning to the rulebook or looking it up online). Make sure to explain if you ruled incorrectly and how you’ll handle it next time.
If you’re less comfortable with your own game-design skills then stick with the rulebook. But experienced gamers can consider modifying games for younger players. Many games can streamlined, simplified, or rebalanced to make it a better game to play with little kids. If you’re going to do that, make your modifications beforehand, and explain any changes to players before you begin.
Choose New Games
Monopoly is not a good game. Chutes and Ladders is not good. Battleship is OK. Clue has some really clever bits and some pointless, tedious bits. Stratego is still great.
Over the last 15 years or so there has been a renaissance in board and card game design. There are now ridiculous numbers of games you can choose from. There are game appropriate for every taste and age group. Game designers have learned a lot of lessons about the different means and mechanics to create a fun experience. There are more games available today. There are better games available today.
Check with your friendly local game store for suggestions. Here are a few of mine:
Loot by Gamewright. - Loot is my-all-time favorite game to introduce to little kids. It’s got simple rules, fun artwork, a jolly pirate theme, supports most any number of players, and has enough depth to make it fun for all ages. The publisher GameWright is also my favorite publisher of games for kids and their catalog is good pace to look if you’re looking for a new game.
Survive: Escape from Atlantis! by Stronghold Games : The object of Survive is have member your little tribe escape on the last boats from an ever-shrinking island. You want strand your opponents in the hopes that the ground will disappear beneath their feet and you can send sharks to devour their little people. Good family fun for all ages.
Forbidden Island - Gamewright again! Another game about about escaping from a sinking island. Unlike the cutthroat Survive, Forbidden Island is a cooperative game. Everyone is working together to escape with the loot and their lives. Co-op games can also be a great way to play games with kids. The trick is to work together while still letting younger players makes their own choices rather than playing the game for them.
Villains and Vigilantes Card Game - Superhuman Games - Ok. Villains and Vigilantes isn’t really designed for young children. It was designed by me. My kids were the lead playtesters and really enjoy it. But it is a “gamer’s game”. When you’re ready for some superheroic action, with a little complexity, check it out.
Be Careful What You Wish For
These days it seems like every room in our house is overrun with gaming paraphernalia. Dinner-time conversation inevitably revolves around the merits of some obscure card. Our Sunday afternoons are spent at Magic: the Gathering tournaments. “Dad. Do you want to play a game of something?” is a constant refrain. I don’t get together with my friends as much since I get more than enough gaming at home.
Once the seed is planted it may grow beyond your control. Enjoy.