What I learned playing board games with my kid

I am a GAMER!

I have a daughter who is now six and a half years old. She started gaming early (I mean really, what do you expect?) and in the last few months, I can see that she is maturing into a gamer. She is competitive in many games and can independently make decisions, and regularly rejects our suggestions, but her competitiveness is still not quite there. While she wants to win, her critical thinking skills hasn’t reached the point where she make aggressive plays to counter our moves. It’s a joy to see her progress and I can’t wait till she joins our table for a regular game night. All this growing up has made me reflect a little more on seeing her develop as a gamer.

I wanted to pen down some thoughts about her evolution as a gamer and the way we approached playing games with her. Time is flowing by so quickly that this is just one way for me to remember all the fun games we played together, and if others find it useful, great.

First, I wanted from the get go to find games that parents and kids could all enjoy. I think there is no point in sitting around a table if only one person is enjoying the process. Kids can sense when parents get impatient or not having fun and I have seen frustrated parents not wanting to play with kids because it is “boring”. That really defeats the purpose of the entire exercise. Obviously, it is much harder for parents to enjoy beginner level games, but I believe it is absolutely doable with the right games and right mindset. You just need to choose a game and go with it. One alternative is to play co-op or pseudo co-op games and there are plenty of those around. Even for kids at 3-5, there are options on the table.

Second, I wanted to make sure that she learns to lose gracefully. It is ok to play hard and lose and to try and best each other in the game. She is allowed to feel disappointed, maybe even slightly angry, but no tantrums are allowed when the game is over. This also means that you are expected to try your best and be “mean” when necessary. From a parents’ perspective, I still play to win and do not let her off the hook. I rarely “let her win”, but will play with handicaps even though that handicap is a self-imposed, mental construction. For example: Carcassonne can be a VERY mean game. If played correctly, players will disrupt each others tile placement by making it hard to complete structures. On the flip side, the game is also about cooperation. Working together to build a city. I have decided as a handicap, that I will not play defensively. Any tile I choose to place has to help improve construction, regardless if it is shared or my own. I really don’t like playing Carcassonne aggressively anyways. Even with a toned down game play, Carcassonne is still very challenging and competitive. But by playing it this way, it allows my daughter to see the possibilities of the game without having to feel frustrated. In time, I will slowly show her how to play more aggressively, but for now, the game is enjoyable as it is. While she still occasionally sulks after a game, it never last for long and she is now graceful in victory or defeat though she still wants to win. Always. It just doesn’t consume her anymore when someone else wins. The trick for us early on is to remind her during the game that “win or lose, it’s ok” We can try again next time.” In the early days, if we prompt her mid-game, that usually helps calm her down. I think the reminder allows her to keep things in perspective. It works for us and it may work for your child as well.

Third, it’s ok to modify rules. I do it all the time. Discard and use only what you want or simplify adult games. Coming back to Carcassonne, we don’t play with farmers or pigs (traders and builders expansion) and the game still works decently well. Some rules just don’t work for us at this stage, like the timer in Ubongo or the out of turn card play in Zeus on the Loose. So, be bold and simplify the rules and then reintroduce them when they reach the appropriate level of maturity. This also means that more adult games can be made kid-friendly and you can pull down other games on your shelves. Also one reason why I choose not to buy kid-versions of adult games. For one thing, kids age out of these games quickly and the game can become obsolete. Much easier to modifying games in your existing collection.

Fourth, I try to let her have ownership of her game collection. Sure, she doesn’t know which games to buy but I generally tell her about upcoming purchases and see if she is receptive. I generally scour the secondary market to get good games for kids as it is not always clear if she will like them. This was true when she was 3-5 years old and this is subsided somewhat as start pulling games from my own shelves. Letting her have her own say as to which games to sell or keep can be empowering. I regularly ask her which games can be culled from her cabinet as we rotate games around. Her gaming closet now has quite a number of games from my own collection.

Fifth, games are toys and it’s ok to play with it. This may not be for everyone, especially collectors. From the start, even before she started walking, I wanted to expose her to gaming bits. One thing to do is to just grab a bunch of games of the shelves and watch her play with pieces. Of course, the wooden blocks and pieces have to be pretty big and weren’t choking hazards. I was never very careful with my games and didn’t particularly cared if some of the pieces were less than perfect. Heck, I am sure some pieces have drool all over. Even though I enjoyed “collecting” and playing, I think games are meant to be played. This is another reason why I always removed the shrink as soon as I get a game. I want to punch out the pieces, read the rules, play with the cards…etc. The earliest memory I have is pulling down Ubongo 3D from the shelves and playing with the chunky blocks. I also remember grabbing Botswana and letting her fool around with the plastic animals; Villa Paletti has a bunch of large blocks for them to stack; Colt Express has that beautiful 3D steam train; Zooloretto has all the animal tiles and enclosures….etc. The list is endless. Right now, I would frequently pull down meeples from different games for her to supplement her Lego mini figures. I think if you can stomach the possibility of accidental damage, pull out these pieces from their boxes and let play as toys. The more they are used to seeing the pieces, the more curious they get about board games.

Sixth, not all games need to be educational. Fun is enough. It’s also ok that they aren’t great in some genres. For my daughter, dexterity games and pattern recognition are not her strong suits. I think for many kids, the hand-eye dexterity part may be challenging. If they don’t enjoy it, then find something else. For example, Beep! Beep! or Chomp, Strong Stuff aren’t her favorites. Even Animal upon Animal isn’t regularly coming out from her cabinet (gasp!). Co-op dexterity games such as Menara are a bit easier to stomach. Find stuff that the kid likes and get those games instead. You will find them beaming with pride if they beat you regularly in a game they excel in. For my daughter, she is a wiz in memory type games (Memoaaar) or kids games like Gulo Gulo. We try not to be a game snob. Even classic games like Uno or the very old games like Snap!, Old Maid or Donkey has its place especially before bedtime. Believe me, a game of Ticket to Ride before bedtime is draining for all of us.

I’m sure like many other parents who play games, we see all the wonderful things that games bring to the table. Most important of which is spending quality time in each other’s company and one that doesn’t involve screen time. I think part of the delight of seeing her grow with board games is because both of us are avid gamers and I think the anticipation of having a three player family game night is something I can’t wait to see happen!


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