Sunday, March 9, 2014

Breeding a Love of Board Games

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.

Start Early

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.

Come Prepared

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.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Obamacare Before and After

For a long time we didn't get health insurance from our jobs. I purchased health insurance for my family on the individual market. Last spring, I switch to a new employer that does provide health insurance. If we hadn't switched, I expect we would have been one of those families being told that because of Obamacare, we would be losing our health insurance plan. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that our previous insurer is no longer selling individual insurance in New Hampshire.

But that's OK. We didn't like our plan. We didn't care if we could keep it.

I didn't like the sign up process. The price quoted to me online was totally misleading. I couldn't sign up on online at all. I had to contact an independent broker to actually navigate the process. The actual price was much higher than the one quoted on the website.

I didn't like the fact that they wouldn't insure my entire family. They would insure some of us, but they would not sell a policy to cover my son - who is a generally healthy, normal kid. He was born prematurely with a low birth-weight. Preexisting condition. For him we had to buy a separate, more expensive plan. From a different insurer.

They wouldn't cover maternity. That would be too risky given our history. We aren't planning to have more kids. But I didn't like the idea of a for-profit health insurance company making that decision for us. Whether or not to have children is the kind of decision we should be able to make for ourselves.

We didn't really like having a $5,000 per-person deductible. The insurance didn't end up covering much of anything. If we had more than one incident in a year we could be out $10,000+ in addition to the money we were paying in premiums. That didn't happen every year. But it did happen.

We contacted the insurance company when the law changed and they could no longer reject children due to preexisting conditions. They waffled, delayed, and refused to quote us a new price for a policy that covered our entire family. When they finally relented, they jacked up the price so much that we were better off sticking with the separate plans. I didn't like that.

One time my wife had knee surgery at our local hospital. We were informed that the hospital was in-network. But the anesthesiologist in the hospital was not in the network. So, we were supposed to pay for that. We appealed that decision and won. But the insurance took the novel approach of simply never, ever paying the money they agreed to pay. I didn't like being told a dozen times, over many phone conversations, over several years that this would be taken care of. I didn't like collection agents calling us to demand the money that the insurance company had promised, but never paid.

We did not like our insurance plan. But we kept it. We renewed that plan year after year, ever as they kept jacking up the premiums. We kept our plan because there is no way we would take the risk of going without health insurance. We kept our plan because the alternatives were worse. Other options had ever more strict underwriting requirements and wouldn't sell  us policies at all. Or they were ever more expensive. Or provided even worse coverage.

I supported the ACA and was very much looking forward to being able to purchase insurance on the health care exchange. We started getting insurance through my new job before the exchanges were launched. But it's instructive to compare what's available now compared to what we were going through.

The insurance exchange in New Hampshire is far from ideal. We're part of the federal exchange and have had to deal with the complications that came with that. What's worse is that there is no competition, and not much to choose from within our exchange. Currently, there is exactly one insurance company that offers policies through our state exchange.

The good news that the sole insurer is the biggest, most reputable insurer in the state. They can no longer pick and choose among members of our family. They don't get to decide if we're allowed to have more children. And getting an accurate quote from the web site was quick and easy

Under our old plans, we were paying a total of $832 per month for multiple plans, each with a $5,000 per person deductible. On the exchange today, a comparable plan would cost us $730 a month. Even without subsides, we could save over $1,200 a year. Or we could pay what we're paying now for superior coverage, fewer hassles, and a more reputable insurer.

I've been a supporter of health care reform. I didn't support that effort because I wanted everything to stay the same. I recognized that system was terrible. The whole point of the reforms was to change it.

That's not a promise that was broken. It's a promise that was kept.