The Joys of Youth (Part 1)

Post by: Grant Rodiek

One of my favorite things about board games is their tactile qualities and toy like nature. The joy of holding cards, throwing dice, and moving little figures around the play space. It’s fun to touch and hold the pieces and imagine a greater world before you (as opposed to having a video game dictate things to you).

I had a great childhood and I loved games and toys. Still do! Because of this, and the fact that every year I draw closer to having my own children, I’m really interested in designing games for children. There’s something really compelling about crafting an experience for a father to enjoy with his little girl, instead of putting an iPad in front of her and watching TV.

But. Designing games for young children is difficult. Really difficult. It’s less that you need to design a game full of subtle strategies and multiple paths to victory and much more that you need to design something that appeals to a 4 year old who may not be able to count, read, make complex choices, or even handle losing!

In this post I’m going to share the data from a small survey I conducted with parents who game with their children. In a follow-up post I’m going to share a design I’ve written as well as the early feedback I’ve gathered from parents.

Many months ago I asked the parental nerds who follow me on Twitter about the games they play with their children. Eight parents with a total of 16 kids with an average age of 6.0625 years old rose to the challenge! Here are the questions I asked:

  1. What are the ages of your children?
  2. What are the genders of your children?
  3. What are your children’s favorite games?
  4. What are YOUR favorite games to play with your children?
  5. What are the most important factors for YOU when you purchase a game for your children?
  6. What is the important factor for your children when buying a game?
  7. Do your children enjoy a particular mechanic more than others?
  8. What themes excite your children the most?
  9. Do you want your children to learn something when playing a game? Do you prefer a game to be overtly educational, or is it okay for it to be more subtle?
  10. How often do you buy games for your children?
  11. How often do you play games with your children?
  12. What do you think is the right length for a children’s game?

If you’re interested in a spreadsheet with a distilled take on all the data, click here. However, here are some of my high level takeaways from the data:

  • The three most important factors in your design will be simplicity (easy to teach), short play time (10-20 minutes), and an exciting theme.
  • Avoid blatantly educational design decisions! Most children can smell a rat — they’ll be disinterested in playing homework and parents agree. Try to weave things like decision making skills, basic math skills, pattern recognition, risk taking, social skills, and learning to win and lose gracefully into your design.
  • Find a way to incorporate decision making into your game, no matter how simple it is. One example I was given is to draw 2 cards in Candyland, then let the child decide which one to play.
  • Parents are only purchasing games 3-4 times a year! Here’s where it gets even harder — you’re competing with smiling Disney and Nickelodeon characters on box covers for these rare purchases.
  • The interests and capabilities of young children grow and change almost as quickly as they do! Knowing how rarely parents may make purchases AND how children will be learning new skills in school as they age, future proof your game and add value by incorporating layers into your design. Said more succinctly, if possible, design your game so that it can appeal to a child from the ages of 4-6.

A few parents noted that playing cooperatively against the game just wasn’t very compelling for their children. However, one had this to say:

“[My child] loves games like Pitch Car and Jungle Speed, but even the light competitive factor can bring out an ugly side with young players. Survive is fun for him until you start eating his guys. We try to focus on “there’s always another game to play” and “at least you got to play a game”, but it doesn’t always work. So solo and co-op games tend to make more sense.”

Here’s one response I found very interesting: “There’s a fair number of TV programs that are able to attract both adults and children (Spongebob comes to mind).  Games seem to do a poor job of it.  For me, playing games with my daughter is a bit of a chore.  I do it for her, not because I think it’s fun.  Maybe it’s an impossible nut to crack, but I wish someone would figure it out.”

Finally, as I’m not (yet) a parent, I forgot that a significant aspect of raising a child is not just teaching them to read and count, but also to be a successful human in society. This response really resonated with me when I asked about games with educational value:

“Honestly, I am more interested in teaching them to follow directions at this point, i.e. play by the rules. Sometimes Shoots and Ladders turns into just moving any which way or “No I don’t want to go down the slide”. Also, that it is ok to lose. You don’t have to win EVERY time.”

I look forward to the discussion this generates! Please share your thoughts in the comments below. Check back later this week for my children’s game design and an early analysis of it.

I’d like to thank the following nerds who took time out of their busy schedule to help make this post possible: Cyrus Kirby, Jonathan Liu, AJ Porifiro, Corey Young, Kevin Hogan, Tom Krohne, Justin, Michael Harrison, Nolan Lichti, Chris Uriko, Kevin O’Gorman, and more!