When you are part of enough board game communities, you start hearing some of the same questions over and over again. One of the most frequent questions I hear is: What’s a good game to play with my young child? At its core this questions is a desire to spend more time with a loved one as well as to foster similar and shared interests. These two desires go hand and hand and usually help strengthen relationships.
As a parent of a young child, I’ve found the answer quite simple: any board or card game that your child wants to play is the right one. This can be simplified versions of board games you already enjoy or mass market (or specialty) games designed specifically for young children. At my house, we do a bit of both. Because I am a hobbyist board gamer, I initially turned up my nose at the classic mass market games. The thought of being reduced to playing a game like Chutes and Ladders, especially when I knew of so many other “real” games, was appalling.
However, when my kid received Chutes and Ladders as a birthday gift, I couldn’t very well say “No.” It didn’t hurt that I’m a huge Marvel fan boy and we received the Super Hero Squad Edition. The first day we got the game we played three times back to back so I knew it was going to be a hit.
One of the cool things about the Super Hero Squad Edition of Chutes and Ladders is that it comes with four clear, two-piece, plastic stands and eight different characters. This means, immediately out of the box, there are more heroes available than can be used during one game. This presents a great way to teach children that different pawns/characters all do the same thing; it doesn’t matter which hero is chosen, in terms of the game, they act the same.
The plastic character stands are made for swapping the different heroes in and out. And while there are eight different heroes in the box, enough to satisfy most, it doesn’t take much effort to start adding your own heroes. You can print anything found online, cut it out, and presto, you have new characters to play with. For example, I printed out about a dozen more Marvel Super Hero Squad characters. It was a little surprising how much more I enjoyed playing the game when I could be my favorite Marvel characters.
The thing we have to remember as parents is that when we play games with our children, we’re supposed to be doing it for them and not for our own enjoyment. This often means playing less complex games and/or games that have little to no strategy. In the case of Chutes and Ladders Super Hero Squad Edition, a game that is entirely based on luck, sitting through four games in a row can be taxing. But, it is also rewarding. If your child enjoys a game enough to want to play it multiple times per day, even a game that isn’t enjoyable by most adults, consider it a win. They enjoy playing a board game. This is huge so don’t discount it.
I think one of the main areas to focus on, even with simple games, is to enforce playing the game correctly. Don’t let your child cheat, even if they begin to cry about losing or not being able to go up the big ladder. It is important, early on, to insist on playing by the rules. This is an important lesson that will be carried throughout life, and will help with all other games they play. After the rules are understood and your child accepts that losing is sometimes a part of playing games, you can move on to house ruling simple kid games in order to foster more involved decision making.
The first way I used Chutes and Ladders to introduce an advanced concept to my child was to make the 1 on the spinner equal 4. Now, my kid had to remember that 1 = 4. I could have said 1 = any other number, but I initially went with 4. For me, the game was immediately more enjoyable since spinning a 1 stinks. Of course, this did mean that when a 1 was desirable it was forfeit. But, the goal was to teach that X could equal Y and that plan worked very well.
After a short time, the 1 = 4 rule was set in stone in my child’s mind. They were even able to teach the rule to other children. Next, I said that 1 was Wild and could equal any number between 1 and 6. This might not seem like a big deal, but something being Wild is a huge concept. Now, for the first time in Chutes and Ladders, strategy was introduced. Initially, my child always wanted 1 to equal 6. After all, 6 is the largest number allowed so that is the obvious choice, right? In my child’s mind, more was always better. But, if a ladder is less than 6 spaces away, it might be very advantageous to go fewer spaces. At first, this was difficult for my child to process, but eventually they were able to always look for the most beneficial space. Major achievement unlocked!
These are just a few of the ways you can turn a very simple game into one that teaches more complex strategy and reasoning. As a parent, don’t be afraid to make up your own rules for games. As long as the rules are established and everyone follows them, the concepts that you introduce are virtually unlimited. And, they stick with the child, being carried over to different games. Instead of just bearing through the non-games that qualify as children’s games, augment them slightly and turn them into stepping stones, bridging the gap to better and higher quality games. Remember, everything builds on the foundation you provide. Before you know it your child will be ready to play Viticulture, The Castles of Burgundy, or any of your favorite games.