Adam Saltsman is an indie game developer currently working on the turn-based survival game Overland. He and his wife Rebekah also run Finji, the indie game label behind Night In The Woods and other projects. As if that wasn’t hard enough, they are the proud parents of several children. To stay sane, his family has been playing an awful lot of board games. This story is a adapted from a post at his blog, where he wrote about some of their favorites.
I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while now but I don’t know. The collapse of our democratic republic, shipping Night in the Woods and some other things happened. But it’s okay, and here we are!
First, some context.
My kids are turning four and six in February, and we’ve been playing a whole heck of a lot of Chutes & Ladders and Candyland. Those games suck. That’s not even a controversial opinion to hold really. The most fun we ever got out of Chutes & Ladders was to draw our own 4-foot-by-4-foot board on a big piece of packing paper, so we could have toy animals stomping around the spots. And, yeah. Okay. That was pretty fun.
The other “games” we’ve been able to play are a bit better, but still fundamentally random activities that don’t have a lot of … stakes or interest for adult players. Hisss and Snail’s Pace Race are both games that I can easily recommend for players four and younger. But, they’re random activities, really, not games. That being said, there are worse ways to spend time with your kids. Both of our children have been enjoying Katamino quite a bit as well.
But the thing is, they’re getting older finally and we’ve begun dipping our toes into more complex games for a few reasons. One, it’s just fun to see what they make of these games. Two, they seem to sense that these are somehow “better” games and they are really beginning to enjoy them. Rebekah and I enjoy them much, much more ourselves because we’re able to really play and be engaged.
It’s the same way that co-watching was such a huge part of Sesame Street. I think that co-playing is a really wonderful thing. And, like Sesame Street, co-play is a lot more enjoyable when there’s something there for the grownups too. So I wanted to just talk a little bit about some of the games that we’ve been co-playing, and talk about how the kids are interacting with them. This isn’t so much a shopping guide as a playing guide, and hopefully you’ll be able to get a sense of what sort of play activities your kids might find in these.
Suspend is sort of like reverse Jenga. Players start with a pile of dangly sort of coat hanger things, and then take turns hanging them off of a little hook. If you knock pieces off, they go into your pile. First one out of pieces wins.
Within a few games, players as young as three and as old as 63 were playing on about the same level.
There’s not a lot of long-term strategy in Suspend, which helps a lot actually. You’ll find that’s a running theme in this list. The three and four year-old players, in our experience, can play tactically but cannot play strategically. What I mean by this is, there is a difference between taking your turn correctly and planning out a series of turns to accomplish a goal. We’re finding our four year-old can engage in a surprisingly complex single turn, but just doesn’t plan over multiple turns. Which is totally fine! But it means that games where opportunistic local play can keep up with long-term strategic play have a broader age range where we can all really play together.
It’s a very physical game, and it involves imagination and motor skills. There’s a great sense of anticipation on each turn. Good plays are easy to appreciate, and catastrophes are enjoyable for everyone. Overall, it’s a fantastic game. The kids can even play one-on-one without our assistance, which is great sometimes!
Maybe I should have put Jenga first.
It’s got a lot in common with Suspend, as it’s low strategy, high tactics. It has a great sense of anticipation. Our youngest is able to play competitively with us and with his grandparents. With genuine co-play, and a surprisingly even playing field, Jenga is a classic for a reason.
Maybe the only downside to is it’s kind of a hassle to set up the tower in the first place, which is one reason I prefer Suspend slightly more.
Blokus is a little bit like Tetris meets Go, only much simpler.
Players take turn placing tetromino-like pieces onto the game board. The only rule is that each player’s piece must be diagonally adjacent, but not ordinally adjacent, to one of their other pieces. A player’s colored territory grows out across the board a little like Conways’s Game of Life or a slime mold or something. The turn rules are so simple that even our youngest can play his pieces correctly without help. However, because turn-by-turn strategy does matter some, he always gets last place.
He doesn’t seem to mind, though, because he’s still actually playing the game.
There’s a lot here to keep adults interested as well, since the simple game rules produce some nice strategic texture over repeat plays. Our six year-old is able to engage in some turn-by-turn strategy as well. This is another game that the kids can play one-on-one against each other by taking two colors each, which they do often. It’s easily their favorite game for the last month, getting a dozen plays or more.
Brent Vincent’s Latice is a bit like Marsha Falco’s brilliant SET crossed with perennial favorite Scrabble. It actually reminds me a lot of an old Super Famicom puzzle game called Keeper, but since I’m the only person on Earth that remembers that game it’s probably not as useful of a comparison. It shares some DNA with the popular Qwirkle as well.
Anyways, in Latice, players take turns placing tiles on the board. Tiles have to be placed adjacent to an existing tile, and must match every adjacent neighbor by color and/or shape. This little wrinkle provides a lot of opportunities for surprising and pleasantly unexpected matches. The real strategy though emerges from two other mechanics. Sunstones, which players earn with especially clever placements, let you spend an extra tile on the same turn. Wind tiles let you scoot existing plays to create big matches that might not emerge organically. First player to use up all their tiles wins.
With four players, the games go extremely fast (players only have about four racks of tiles each), and there’s a really nice amount of depth for grownup players if you’re trying to min-max your sunstones and come out on top. However, like Blokus, the basic rules of the turn are simple enough that our six year-old can play with us so long as we give them an extra hint here or there, while the four year-old can place most of his own tiles as well.
It’s not quite as simple as Blokus but, like that game, it has easy rules for playing with two or three players, is comprehensible even for young players and is nice to look at and touch. It feels like it might be a few more months until the six year-old can play without hints, and it could be as much as a year for the younger player to really get up to speed. They still enjoy it very much as an activity though, and ask to play often.
Unfortunately, the added complexity means it’s not super appropriate for them to play one-on-one, although one-on-one with a parent works great.
River Dragons is probably clustered under the umbrella of “well-intentioned STEM edu-games,” but two key things set it apart. First, it is absolutely gorgeous to look at. Second, the basic theme and activity are completely enjoyable even if you don’t know the rules.
This is huge for kids this age.
Our oldest spent a lot of his preschool time making little wooden bridges over creeks, so a board game where that’s the central activity is automatically appealing to him. Bridge building is a super common activity in most Reggio Emilia preschools and kindergartens.
Anyways, the play in River Dragons is more complex than Latice, but the strong, more concrete theme makes it easier to remember. Players each have a deck of 13 action cards, from which they select five to play each turn. Actions might include placing stones, placing planks, moving, or other plays. The goal is to place several stones and planks and move your meeple across the river. It’s pretty loose, very tactile and a joy to manipulate on the table.
The trick is that everyone plays each of their five cards at the same time, and then the cards are scored in clockwise order. This helps break up the large course of the game into digestible chunks, and it helps break up the strategy into manageable decisions that are closer to tactics. The six year-old quite quickly started deliberately selecting his five cards to try to increase his chances of building a good bridge. The four year-old has absolutely no idea what he’s doing, but loves it regardless.
As an adult, there’s an extra layer of guessing game and bluffing involved. You’re constantly trying to guess what your opponent might be doing, and in what order, based on the context of the board. In this way, it’s a bit like Clairvoyance or some older games by Richard Garfield.
This is probably the kids’ favorite game next to Blokus, but they can’t really play it one-on-one in a way that makes sense as a game. It helps to have an adult directing the process. They can still use the planks and stones to make bridges for fun though, which is cool. River Dragons is smart, appealing, easy to set up, and a great little fantasy.
Masao Suganuma’s Machi Koro is a lightweight and very fun investment game consisting of only two dice, a deck of cards and some coin tokens. That makes it extremely portable.
The real-world theme helps to make it very easy to understand, while the fantasy of city building is appealing as well.
We’ve already played a few rounds of the vanilla game (there are several expansions), and the kids still get a huge kick out of it. There’s a lot of parent-directing involved, since each turn is two phases, and the kids sometimes get coin costs and activation costs confused. But they love seeing their cities build out, and the anticipation of the dice roll to see if anything activates is very fun.
While the complexity is a bit of a negative when it comes to the kids being able to play out their own turns, Machi Koro’s basic design is such that if you play it in the most direct, fun way (buy something basically every turn), you’ll produce a pretty strategically viable city quite quickly. That means playing this strategically blind but tactically fun approach will put the player in pretty good shape and keep things exciting for adult players trying to min-max.
That was unexpected and quite cool.
King of Tokyo has some of the same tendencies, and I think it’s a really marvelous quality in a co-play game. When the less-strategic players are still really engaged, and putting pressure on the more strategic players, that’s always a good sign.
As a game designer, Machi Koro is just extremely pleasant. It has absolutely the minimum number of moving parts to create a really funny, complex economy. I strongly recommend it, but with the caveat that an adult will need to monitor and direct for the duration. That’s mainly due to the fact that play times can approach a full hour. But the kids are asking to play most nights now!
Tokaido might be the prettiest board game of all time. Playing with kids is quite similar to Machi Koro. Expect a lot of parent-directing due to turn complexity, and slightly longer play times. The activities and fantasies within the game delighted both of our kids though, and again they enjoyed seeing their collections grow while moving down the path.
As an adult, there’s a bunch of interesting systems in play, little gambles and guesses and things. So far, we’ve been playing without the special character abilities, just to keep the possibility space a little more manageable. It hasn’t really detracted from the experience yet. It helps that it’s probably the most visually attractive board game I’ve ever seen. It’s a complete delight.
One word of caution. In the very first playthrough, your rule-reading is non-trivial. Maybe try it out with adults first before breaking it out with the kiddos. While Tokaido is surprisingly, pleasantly simple to play once you know what you’re doing, some of the core mechanics are a little counter-intuitive at first. Your first session with kids will be smoother if you’re more familiar with the game.
That’s it, so far. I hope this was enjoyable or helpful somehow. These games have brought us a lot of joy in some uncertain times these last few months. Best of luck on your own family gaming adventures!
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