Earlier this month at Dust or Magic AppCamp, we spent part of an afternoon with a panel of kid gamers, aged 4 to 13. They passed the mic around, and were asked to say what their favorite game was. The 4 year old said "Ladybug," and we adults in the audience pressed her for more information about it, because no one had heard of it. She said it was a board game. Everyone laughed. Poor kid.
We Americans don't take board games very seriously. Video games are at the forefront of consumers’ minds these days. A recent article in Wired magazine suggested board games lack popularity in the US because most American board games don't ask players to strategize very much, and the winner is generally determined early on in the game. That leaves the other players to painfully and politely play along until the game is complete, which in the case of Monopoly, could take hours. But not all board games are this boring.
As a game designer, I feel playing board games gives me an edge, because board game mechanics are more obvious than those in video games. For example, if a game is 4 rounds of 3 turns for each player, you can think about why the designer made it that way, why he chose all of the elements the game includes, and how the game would be different if you changed any one of those things. You can see all the parts of the game right in front of you at once. In fact, many video game designers build paper prototypes of their games and playtest them with friends before they begin investing time developing a computer version.
Here are some kid-friendly board games I think any children's game designer would find interesting:
Aquarius: Ages 5+ This game operates much like dominoes. Cards have colorful illustrations of air, earth, fire, water, and ether on them. On your turn, you lay one card down on the table, the next player must attach a card that connects to one of the elements already in play. The goal is to connect seven cards of your goal element together. I confess that part of the appeal of this game for me is that the rules state the player with the longest hair goes first, and with waist-length hair, that is usually me. There isn’t much strategy in this one, other than trying to fool your fellow players into thinking your goal element is something other than what it is. If you're too obvious with your moves, your friends may try to block you.
Fluxx: Ages 8+ This card game is very simple. Each player starts with 3 cards and on your turn, you draw one card from the deck, and play one card from your hand. Pretty soon, it becomes more complicated because cards in the deck allow you to modify the rules. Certain cards allow you to set a goal for the game that determines how to win. But of course that can change too, if you play a card with a different goal. It’s very silly, and it appeals to kids because who hasn't wanted to change the rules now and then? It's also a good exercise in reading directions and following them, which is something kids we all have trouble with sometimes.
Guillotine: Ages 8+ Another card game. This one's a bit morbid, but in a comic way. In Guillotine, you play an executioner, and your goal is to kill only the people the public despise in order to get the highest score. One set of cards forms a line to the cardboard stand-up guillotine, and on your turn, you collect the person at the front of the line. Action cards in your hand allow you to strategically change the order of the line. Not super educational, but you do have to strategize when the right time is to play each action card in your hand, and the French Revolution theme may expose a child to people he didn't know about before, like Robespierre, and Marie Antoinette.
Blokus: Ages 8+ A visual strategy game where each player has an identical set of polyomino pieces, which is just a fancy word that says all the pieces are made out of different arrangements of squares, like Tetris pieces. Unlike Tetris though, the pieces are made out of different numbers of squares. Your goal is to use as many of your pieces as you can, and the winner is the player who finishes with the least number of pieces left over. A great visual math game. The manufacturer says this game is for ages 5 and up, and while young kids may be able to play, you need a level of sophistication in thinking to really plan a strategy. Without that ability, young children may get bored.
Chrononauts: Ages 12+ In Chrononauts, you play a secret agent with a mission that you must travel back in time to achieve. It’s another card game, but in this one you create a sort of board by laying out many of the cards in a timeline that goes back to the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865, and has a card for many significant events through 1999, the year the game was published. If playing this with children, I highly recommend also purchasing the recently published "Gore Years" expansion so you’ll be playing with recent history she’ll be able to remember. This expansion continues the timeline through the election of President Obama in 2008. The game is very interesting, because actions players take reverse events in history, which cause 'ripple' effects that alter other historical events. A great game to play with kids studying history.
Settlers of Catan: Ages 12+ A classic that is recently gaining fame in the United States. It's a good strategy game to start with because it appeals to a lot of people. It's a crowd-pleaser. The game features a board of hexagonal tiles that you layout, and can thus alter in subsequent games. Each player settles cities on different areas of the board, and you win by building roads and increasing the size and number of your cities (not unlike trading up from houses to hotels in Monopoly). Settling in different locations gives you different resources. Forests mean you'll have wood, meadows mean you can raise sheep, fields mean you'll have wheat and so on. It's difficult to get all the resources you'll need on your own, and so you'll have to negotiate with other players to get the resources you'll need. The game is so popular that it's been released in video game form on XBox Live, and iPhone. It'll be released in mid-June on the PS3.