Thursday, January 5, 2012

Board games with young kids

I was discussing board games for kids with a colleague yesterday, and I sent her a list of recommendations. It struck me that this may be useful to others as well, so I've decided to provide the list here, with some extra details.

To give some context, these are played with my wife and nearly-five-year-old son, Alex. We have been playing some of these games since Christmas 2011, when he was in his late 3's. I have provided links to Board Game Geek, where you can find good summaries, discussions, reviews, and images of the games. Rather than repeat that information here, I've provided some tips on how we have modified the game to make it more fun for our family.

This is a kid-friendly version of Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot. It comes with two decks, blue being the basic one and yellow adding a bit more complexity. This helped scaffold my son's learning, as he was able to get comfortable with the blue before getting into the yellow. He does not really read them; he knows the cards by their pictures.
We did make one significant change to the rules. The game contains Safety Hazard cards, analogous to weapons in Killer Bunnies. Each has a numeric value, ranging from 1 to 10, and the severity of the hazard clearly scales with this number. The rulebook recommends that to overcome a Safety Hazard, one should roll the five 10-sided dice and try to match the number. This means that all the Safety Hazards are mechanically equivalent, which is rather dull. We imported the mechanics from Killer Bunnies instead, rolling a 12-sided die and considering the hazard overcome if the roll exceeds the hazard's value. This is much more fun, though you will have to supply your own 12-sided die.

This is a great game all around, and I was a little surprised at how well and quickly Alex learned the rules. His strategies are rather simple, and he frequently makes moves just to entertain himself rather than for points—but the point is to have fun, so it's no big deal. We also have the Princess and Dragon expansion, which he tends to like to use because it has an awesome red wooden dragon. However, we have noticed that with these added bits, he has a harder time focusing on the rules: I think it's more complexity than he has patience for. Still, he does love to eat meeples with that dragon, and can you blame him?

We have fun with this one, although my son sometimes has trouble picking out moves. There is still a good balance, however, as we let him use the "kids" rule (all six treasure cards face-up) while my wife and I use the "adult" rule (only one treasure face-up at a time).

We've been able to enjoy this game for some time, but I feel like more recently the strategies have become more apparent to Alex. As I wrote before, we put it away for a few months, but now he has no trouble counting the dogs as two points and the cats as one. Perhaps most importantly, you can use a plastic dog from this game when you play Betrayal at House on the Hill, and the cats too if it's the right haunt.

This is a game from my wife's youth, and we have the 1982 printing. I have not played the 2011 re-release, but looking over the pics on Board Game Geek, it looks like the same game. When we play with Alex, we ignore the point values on the bottom of the guys and focus on getting them off the island. That is, we treat each person as one point. We have never actually tried to play the "full" game with him, but I suspect this would be frustrating.

Settlers of Catan
This one is the most recently added, a bit of a risk as we were looking through the cabinet for something Alex might enjoy. He requires a bit of coaching on effective road placement and initial settlement placement, but he really enjoys it, especially building new things. Since he is not a strong reader, we also have to help with development cards. We orient all of the number discs to face him, and this provides good practice at number recognition; he's known his numbers for some time but still gets confused between '6' and '9', as well as '11' and '12'. When Alex rolls the dice, he has to count all the pips to find the total, and I'm hoping that with repeated play he will start to see the patterns more easily. Despite the extra effort it takes us to help him play, we all tend to enjoy it.

Happy gaming!

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