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Friday, August 31, 2007


Thoughts on gaming with children in an after-school setting

This does not concern playing in your home with your children's friends, nor with your kids and your gamer buddy's kids who have watched you play games every weekend since they were born. The dynamics in a volunteer setting are completely different and different games are appropriate for that situation.

I have volunteered to play games with kids for the last 3 years at the local Boys and Girls Club and at my kids' school. This topic comes up semi-frequently on the boardgame forums so I thought I would post my advice here for anyone who is interested.

I will add to this as new ideas occur to me.

Rules #1-3 are the only rules, everything else is merely advice:

Rule #1 and it is not randomly #1. This is the most important rule.

You can't compete with a TV.

I am sure you are a witty, likable, engaging person who likes kids and a person whom kids like. Even so you need to play games in a room with no television. TV is just too big a distraction for children.

If the television is on you will likely want it to remain on, just in another room. This will make sense after reading #4.

Rule #2. You are volunteering to play games with children.

People do not understand that there are thousands of games that aren't available at WalMart which are much more fun than WalMart games, and that you want to share your hobby..... and you are probably a man.

People do understand child predators. Their first thought will be, "An adult playing games with children? Hmmmm. What are his ulterior motives?"

Keep all doors open. Nuisance kids may drift in and out of the game room. The kids playing games may shut and lock the door to keep the nuisance kids away. Pay attention to this and make sure the door stays open.

Rule #3. Do not hesitate to correct bad behavior. Your stick is the fact that you are volunteering your time and games. That and peer pressure.

If the kids won't behave inform them that there are other groups of kids with whom you can volunteer your time. The kids who like to game will give the ill behaved kids what for.

A lingering look at a kid or group of kids with a raised eyebrow will often be enough to regain control of the situation. Make sure the kids help to clean up and put the game away. This will reinforce the notion that good behavior is expected.

#4. The first part of #4 is obvious, the second part is much less so.

Optimally you want to play in an environment with kids who want to play games as opposed to an environment with kids who want to play games because there is nothing better to do.

For example:

If you arrive and there are lots of activities occurring you will end up playing games with kids who are motivated to play games. The kids who want to do homework will do homework. The kids who want to run around screaming like banshees will continue to do so.

If you arrive and there are a bunch of bored kids doing homework, you whip out a cool looking game and all the kids will want to play. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but a) you may have too many kids to manage, and b) the kids who are only playing because there is nothing better to do will soon lose interest, start horse playing and be a distraction to the entire group.

#5 Don't stress.

Kids are much, much more forgiving of mistakes on your part than are adults. If you screw up a major rule kids are much less likely to throw their hands up in disgust and say, "Well that changes everything." Kids will likely take note of the corrected rule and continue with the game as if nothing happened.

#6 Related to the last rule. Don't overwhelm kids with rules.

It's better to get the game started and explain as you go. Kids do well, and don't mind, if you add rules as the game progresses.

For example: You are teaching Settlers of Catan. After you have played a few rounds and the kids are getting the hang of it you tell them that cities earn two resources instead of one. Many adults would get pissy and snotty that you waited to tell them this bit of information. When given this information several rounds into the game a child's eyes will light up and they get the ohhhhhhh-gotta-get-me-some-of-those looks on their faces. They don't tend to feel they've been screwed because you didn't fully explain every detail of the game before the first settlement was placed.

#7. If a game doesn't work even though you passionately believe kids should love it - leave it at home. Don't keep trying to re-introduce the game to the group. Works with adults sometimes, just turns kids off. (Just turns adults off too, if the truth were spoken.)

#8. If you expect children who start the game won't be able to finish, you should sit out and be the replacement.

#9. Don't dismiss a game out of hand because you don't like it. I hate Pirate's Cove and LotR. I do enjoy playing these two games with kids. Their enthusiasm can be infectious.

Games I have found to be the best bets (and otherwise):

HeroScape- Get a couple expansions and a very large group can play. Kids love it. Even though it is available at WalMart and some of the kids will undoubtedly own it, odds are they just use the figures as toys and don't know how to play. After they play they are usually surprised to learn that they like the game. My #1 pick for both boys and girls, ages 7-17.

Pirate's Cove- Always goes over well. Limited to 5 players, though. Again, works well for both boys and girls 7-17.

Star Wars Epic Duels- Always goes over well. Often too well. This game also accommodates large groups. Kids have to be able to read and understand the text on the cards. Some 8-9 year-olds can read the cards, some 12-13 year-olds struggle. Also, some younger kids who can read the text just can't understand the difference between attack value and defense value.

Knizia's Lord of the Rings- Works very well with the right group - which almost always consists of boys only.

PitchCar- This game works well to distract the kids who want to play boardgames because they are bored. Set up PitchCar to distract the marginal kids so you can play a serious game with the boardgame kids.

Surprise! No one showed up today! It's just you and one other kid. Always bring YINSH, and LotR: Confrontation just in case.

Apples to Apples- Their PE teacher (or some touchy-feely teacher trying to teach children about group interaction) thought she stumbled upon a great game for children. She had them play this game one time. They hated it then, they hate it now.

Settlers of Catan- Younger kids may be able to play with adults, but a group comprised entirely of children younger than 8th grade will break down into a popularity contest despite your best efforts.

Carcassonne- Don't use farmers.

Bohnanza- Older kids only. But always a flop in my experience.

Gulo Gulo- Good for younger children and non-boardgame-enthusiast older children, saaaaaay up to 12. Good game to set up for the littler kids. They can play with very little supervision while you play a good game with the older kids.

Bamboleo- I have found this to be very good with very large groups of kids of all ages. Line the kids up, have them take turns taking off a piece, then go to the end of the line. If the game collapses they are out. Game progresses until there is a winner. I realize this is not how the game is supposed to be played, but it works very well. By the time the game is over the kids who are only playing because there is nothing better to do will be filtered out and you should have a more manageable group, although it is possible that they had so much fun they all want to play again. The game doesn't seem to go over well with a small group playing by the rules.

Villa Paletti- Good, but only good for four.

Ticket to Ride- US version works best in the US. Older kids will play one time. It doesn't excite them.

Suggestions welcome.

Do not argue with me that Bohnanza is a wonderful game for children. It probably is in your home. It just doesn't work with a random group of kids who aren't familiar with good games. If you feel compelled to disagree with me I will probably ignore any other statement you may make. People have tried to persuade me otherwise for years and I am quite tired of it. The discussion on this topic always seems to devolve into whether Bohnanza is a good game for kids. I agree, it is. It just isn't a good game in the setting to which I am referring.


Just had someone recommend your post - I was wanting to start a similar group at our elementary school here.

Have to claim complete ignorance as far as HeroScape goes, but from the cursory glance I gave it, I'd assume that BattleLore could possibly work just as well, what do you think?

(My ulterior motives for starting this group was ACTUALLY so I could find someone to play BattleLore with, but for good measure was going to start in with something else, like e.g. Pirate's Cove)
As I understant BattleLore is good for no more than 2 players, and no good for no less than 2 players.

That could be a problem.

Get a HeroScape master set from WalMart for what? $30. You will get more mileage out of that $30 than anything produced by General Motors.
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