My wife thinks I’m nuts. Or as she likes to say, Flip-City-Scooby-Doo.

She probably has good reason. My wall of games that I have purchased but haven’t played now exceeds those that have been battle tested.

But…I prefer to say I’m well-adjusted from a dysfunctional  gaming childhood.

Imagine growing up in a village where the only thing to eat was school cafeteria fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy.  That’s my childhood – the school fried chicken of Monopoly combined with the lumpy mashed potatoes of Risk.  Occasionally, the aid organizations would bring us a healthy dose of D&D or some war game, but no one else in the village liked that stuff.  Monopoly was good enough for them.

I have kids now, so shall I feed them greasy fried chicken of gaming?

NO, I WILL NOT!

If I’m honest, I’m actually pretty bad at teaching games to adults.  But I’ve learned a few things by teaching kids.  As an adjunct to normal reviews, I plan to write about variants of games to make them more friendly for the younger set.  By younger set, I mean a 7 year old. Someone on the cusp of being able to truly game. Before I get to that, I want to drop a few of the rules I’ve picked up by truly messing up my two older children.

Rule #1: Embrace the Suck

I hate the game of Life.  It is truly, truly a despicable carton of misery in a box disguised as a plaything.  It combines everything that makes the games of my childhood bad – roll and move, runaway leaders, no real player interaction, and more – into one big hot steaming pile that is potentially worse than Candyland and Chutes & Ladders combined. And don’t get me started on the thematic elements of what the &^#& are we trying to teach our kids with the game of Life and Monopoly?  But what do you do when your sweet, innocent 5 year old likes the game of Life?

You suck it up and play, that’s what you do.  I struggled and still struggle with this.  To me, it is the moral equivalent of giving English Lit students Tom Clancy 1novels instead of Shakespeare, Hemingway, or Bronte. But what if they won’t get to the classics without starting with the pulp fiction?  Is playing a bad game a good route to good gaming?  How many times do you have to read Good Night Moon before you get to something interesting?  I don’t know the answer, and I wish it were no more but it’s not for me.

But using those games to teach the common characteristics like “Yes, there are rules, “We take turns,” and “It’s okay to lose” do make having fun with better games easier.

Rule #2: Let Toys Be Toys

I fondly remember taking over my dad’s HO gauge rail track with my army guys.

The tanks and soldiers in Memoir ’44 are as good as the action figures (not dolls) that I grew up with.  I was resistant to my kids playing with my toys, feeling a little like Will Ferrell and the cragle in the Lego Movie – so worried that the kids would lose the parts.

Jensen, get over yourself.  It’s a toy.

Games are supposed to be fun and here I was, telling them to not lose any pieces and be super careful.  The reality is it would suck if they lost the pieces but it would suck more if they viewed games as something holy and not to be approached.  The last decade has been a renaissance for great tactile games.  Let me name just a few.  Rampage/Terror in Meeple City, Ice Cool, Fastrack, Get Bit,Quarriors, Pitch Car, Rhino Hero. Castellan.2

I believe most people learn better with tactile input. If they like playing with those “toys” or those dice, the teaching of the game will go so much easier and my kids learn it so much better and quicker.

Rule #3: Don’t Worry About Dumbing Down

This has two implications.  First, don’t be afraid of variants.  Boardgamegeek.com is your friend if the designer hasn’t given some easy, accessible variants for kids.  Let me recommend Downforce by Restoration Games as one who did provide variants.

Second, game publishers have in the last few years discovered this market.  We have My First Stone Age (great) and Catan Jr (good).  As Target and Barnes & Noble try to vie for your dollars, you’ll see this more.  I just recently say Sonar in Target – the simplified version of one of the hardest games to teach (8 different people playing different roles on a submarine).  These are good games with good design.  There are some notable exceptions (My First Carcassonne – I’m looking at you) but these are great games.

Rule #4: Let the Wookie Win

Have you ever seen a six year old lose?  It’s not pretty.

This is not about fairness.  Everyone knows that you can stomp a 6 year old into the ground playing Labyrinth.  It’s about growing gamers.  I suck at this.  I always want to teach them the cold hard truth.  That’s why I have a wife.  To keep me from being a complete derriere. From what she has told me, it is a good psychological tool to let the child either win or come close to winning (my compromise) to avoid discouragement and abandonment of the hobby.  The jury is still out on this one (I like winning) but it seem she may be on to something.