Way back in July, when this whole thing was just getting off the ground, we answered a question about what are the best cooperative kids board games.
Duran Barnett asks,
“What about doing an episode on introducing kids to gaming? Or maybe a direct sequel tackling non-co-op games for kids?”
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For some more thoughts on this topic check out Child’s Play Part 2 – Ep 20 of The Tabletop Bellhop Live Podcast.
The Short Answer:
The best piece of advice I have for introducing kids to gaming is BE PATIENT.
This applies both to actually get kids to try out gaming and to actually sitting at the table and playing a game with them.
I’ve seen and heard far too many horror stories where parents try too hard to get their kids to game and basically force them to sit down at the table. This often results in the children actually growing to resent game night. It becomes a chore, something they have to do vs. something they want to do.
As for game suggestions, for now I’m just going to recommend one: Magic Labyrinth. You are going to have to read to the end to get the rest of my game suggestions.
The Long Answer:
I’m no child psychologist or expert on getting kids to game. That said, I am a parent and, so far, both my girls (currently ages 8 and 11) are in love with tabletop games of all types. They play card games, dice games, both cooperative and competative games, and have also dipped their toes into RPGs. I figure I must be doing something right.
The one thing I didn’t want to do is scare my kids off of gaming. Gaming is my primary hobby, it’s what I love to do the most. It’s how I like to interact socially and it’s something that it’s important to me that I can do it with my family.
The main things I did, that seemed to work was never to force games onto my kids and to make sure that I introduced them to decent games.
Getting the kids interested in gaming:
Pretty much all of the games my kids have gotten over the years have been gifts. We’ve been buying games for our girls since they were babies and continue to buy them games now. I mainly did this in hopes that this would get the kids excited about games right from the start. A new game wasn’t something that happened often. It was something that was saved for special occasions.
I also never planned or ran a family game night. I didn’t want playing games to be an obligation. I want gaming to be something fun to do right alongside playing 2DS, programing Dash and Dot and yes, even watching TV. Gaming to me is one of many options for my girls during playtime.
Now, I present gaming as an option to the kids regularly enough. More when they were younger. If I was free and I heard one of the kids say “I’m bored,” I would jump in with: “Hey why don’t we play a game?”, same deal with “I don’t know what to do” and “What do you think we should do tomorrow.” Every now and then I would try to plan ahead, and do something like suggesting that the next Sunday be a “No Screentime Sunday” and note that we could play some games. This has had mixed results.
Now that my girls are getting older they will often initiate a game session themselves. I will come into the front room and find them sitting on the floor playing something together. That always brings a smile to my face. Sometimes I will even ask to join in, though often if they look like they are having fun I just leave them to it.
The thing is, in general, I let them initiate. I never push them to play. I offer it up as a suggestion when they are looking for something to do. I think the most important thing is to not force them to play.
You want games and not activities:
I think the next most important thing, after not forcing your kids to take part in your hobby, is making sure you introduce them to good games when they do take part.
There are a lot of kids games out there and I would claim that many of them are not very good games. Yes, there is a place for them. Yes, they teach basic skills like counting, memory, being a good sport, and taking turns. This is a proven fact. The thing is that most of those mass market games aren’t really games at all. If the outcome is pre-determined or the decisions the child makes during the game don’t matter (or the game doesn’t actually have any decisions at all), they aren’t games. They are activities. Potentially good, educational, activities, but not games. I personally don’t see why you can’t have the best of both worlds. An educational experience that teaches all of these things but is also an actual game.
One of the reasons I think parents should seek out actual games, good games is that they are more fun for adults. Now I don’t mean this selfishly. Like if it’s not fun for you, you shouldn’t play with your kids. What I’m saying is that a game should be engaging and should be fun for everyone playing. If the adult is having fun the kids are going to feed off of that. They are going to learn from your play. They are going to watch what you are doing. If you are engaged they are going to be more engaged themselves. I think this is key to passing on the joy of our wonderful hobby. How can you expect kids to enjoy gaming if it’s not fun for everyone playing?
One of the great things about the fact that there are so many different tabletop games out there is that they cater to a wide audience. You aren’t stuck with the same five mass market games everyone played growing up. There are games for pre-schoolers, games for toddlers, games for kids, etc. No matter what age range your child is or what skills they have developed you should be able to find a game that is right for your little one.
Game suggestions, introduction:
Below you are going to find a list of game recommendations. These are games that we’ve owned and the kids have greatly enjoyed as they have grown up. I’m going to group these by rough age bracket, as I think that makes the most sense.
Please realize that not every kid is the same. Something that is extremely obvious in the differences between my two girls. It could be that your child has been playing Power Grid since age 8 or just as likely your 8-year-old still has a hard time with reading and needs to stick to language-independent games.
I think between my experiences with both my girls that these suggestions should be about right for the average kid.
Games for Toddlers
Some of the first games my girls got were from the wooden box Junior Series from Blue Orange Games. These games included Bendomino Junior, a very simple domino based game that taught colours, matching, and simple words. Gobblet Junior, which is a huge improvement on Tic-Tac- Toe and teaches spatial recognition and memory. Bingory, which was basically memory but each player has their own player board and is only tring to find their pieces. All of these games were excellent and we played them with our girls before they could even speak fully.
The other company we fell in love with was Haba. Big G’s favourite game from them was Monza. This is a roll and move race game with a twist. Each of the dice instead of having numbers has six colours on it. The board is an oval race track with spots made up of these colours. To move your car you have to ‘spend’ dice of the appropriate colour. This means counting, colour recognition, pattern recognition, planning ahead, and even some basic statistics and probabilities. Hearing your kid say things like: “I could move here, but I think instead I will move there because there’s a better chance I will roll Red or White than just Yellow” is a special moment you won’t get from Candyland.
Another Haba game that my kids loved back then is Animal Upon Animal. Actually, they still dig this game and so do I. This is a very simple dexterity game that is just as fun for kids as it is for adults. This is a game I expect my kids to keep their entire lives and probably teach their kids someday. It’s something I recommend everyone own, even if you don’t have kids.
I have no clue who made it but the last game my kids couldn’t get enough of was Flower Garden. This game has some of the best components I’ve ever seen. Pretty much everything was wood and most of those wooden pieces were magnetic. Players would roll a die and slowly build flowers, but if they rolled the wrong number they had to add a bit onto the caterpillar. The caterpillars were basically made of large wooden beads you would string onto a green shoestring. While simple there were some decisions to be made on what flower piece to add and which flower to add it to. The best part of this game though is that it was basically a high-end flower and caterpillar building playset. While my girls did dig the game they had even more fun just playing with the bits.
Games for Pre-schoolers
As my kids got older the games got a bit more complicated, and often way more fun for us to play with them.
Haba became even more popular. We had to start playing Rhino Hero, a fantastic card based dexterity game, on the floor because the girls were getting so good at it that it didn’t work on the table anymore. Their towers would get too tall. The girls still own and play Gary Gouda a fantastic cat and mouse game with a very well done push your luck element (if you feed the mouse too much cheese he won’t fit through all of the mouse holes on the board.
Speaking of cat and mouse games, another game I just saw the girls playing two days ago (on their own) is Viva Topo. This one was by Rio Grande (now Pegasus Spiele). It takes the movement system of Trouble or Sorry, where you have multiple pieces you have to move and each turn must pick which ones go, and improves on both games by eliminating the player vs player backstabbing elements.
Also from Rio Grande, I introduced my girls to My First Carcassonne. This is a very simple version of Carcassonne that only involves roads. When you finish a road you get to put your meeple on it. The first player to play all of their meeple wins. I was actually surprised how well both girls took to this game and it’s another one they still play.
I do have one mass-market game that I actually recommend and that’s the silly dexterity game Looping Louie. I admit I bought this one for selfish reasons as I had heard that it was just as much fun for little kids as it was for adults partaking in adult beverages. It’s hard to explain just how much fun this silly game is, both for kids and adults (even without the beverages).
My last suggestion before the kids head off to school is the amazingly cute Maskenball der Kafter or The Ladybugs’ Costume Party. This game involves trying to pair up sets of Ladybugs by swapping up their spots. It uses magnets and when two Ladybugs belong together they “kiss”. The kids got a huge kick out of this and spent as much time playing with the magnetic bugs as they have played the game. I do have to admit that this is one the kids did grow sick of as they got older.
Early Grade School (pre-reading)
Now things are getting interesting. Most if not all of these games are games the kids still play and many are games that mom and dad will happily play with or without the kids.
This is when we picked up Catan Junior, which is a fantastic simplified, pirate-themed version of Catan. My wife started playing the abstract strategy game Ingenious with Big G regularly. We also tried out Qwirkle which the kids liked through they never did quite grasp scoring.
Both kids love Hey, That’s My Fish! A game that came from my collection, and that I bought before I even knew I was going to have kids (actually same thing with Ingenious and Qwirkle). This is also when I first taught the girls Blokus which I wrote about a couple weeks back. I do remember that Little G had a bit of a hard time with it but loved playing with the pieces.
Another game that would have been great at this time is Monster Factory. Now we didn’t pick this great monster based tile laying game until Origins 2015, but I think the kids would have liked it just as much when they were younger.
One of the best games we found around this time was Kinderspiel Winner: The Magic Labyrinth. In it players race around a maze trying to get spell components. The first one to get a full set of components wins, the thing is you can’t see the walls of the maze. Magic Labyrinth is brilliantly crafted using magnets to pull off this illusion and it works so well.
This led us to other games from Playroom Entertainment all of which have fantastic components and tend to do interesting things with magnets. Two highlights are Magician’s Kitchen and Vampires of the Night.
It’s also here that we discovered the Iello Tales and Games series. The best of the bunch, for our family, has been The Hare & The Tortoise a hidden role based race game that my kids love.
Mid Grade School (starting to read or reading)
Little G’s favourite game is King of Tokyo. I honestly think that having the kids try to read the upgrade cards in this Yahtzee based king of the hill game helped both of them with their developing reading skills. The girls love playing this one with my wife and I and both kids take far too much pleasure in beating up mom and dad before turning on each other.
I have to recommend Robot Turtles. While it’s not the best game, it does teach basic programming skills, which is cool. The big thing though is the way my two girls play with this game. They each take turns creating scenarios or missions for the other one to try to get through. The one sets up the board and creates special rules and the other kid has to program their turtle to get through it. I fully admit that after getting the game and reading the rules I was disappointed but what my girls have created has caused the game to transcend its rulebook.
Doodle Quest has us back to Blue Orange Games. This is a very unique drawing game that has nothing to do with how well you can actually draw. A random board is placed in the center of the table and each player takes an acetone sheet. Players then have to draw something based on what they see on the main board. So they may have to circle all the fish. After drawing players place their sheet over the board to see how they have done. It’s very unique and a lot of fun.
My wife is a big fan of word games, which is good because Big G is obsessed with them. The two of them play Boggle often enough that I’m pretty sure Big G would beat me were I to join in.
This was also the time when I introduced the kids to Roleplaying Games. I started off with the fantastic Mermaid Adventures by Eloy Lasanta and then later bought Big G the books for Tales of Equestria the My Little Pony RPG.
At this point Mermaid Adventures is perfect for Little G and Big G is learning how to be a GM with Tales of Equestria. So far both kids are loving it but we are just starting our RPG journey.
At this point, I have to hang up my hat. I can’t really give you any more recommendations because my kids haven’t reached the next step quite yet. I guess that would be late grade school or maybe early high school. What I can tell you are the games I plan on introducing my girls to next.
I plan on introducing Big G to Deck Building with Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle. This is a cooperative game, so I’m cheating a bit here, as this question was about competitive games but I think it gives a good example of where I’m thinking of heading mechanics wise.
Now I don’t think Little G is quite ready for having a full hand of cards to read and pick from, but I do think it’s time we invite the kids to play Ticket To Ride with us. TTR is the game we play when visiting my mother in law and we usually distract the kids with colouring books or Netflix. I think it’s time that we instead invite them to the table.
Actually, at this point, I don’t think I will be buying very many kids games. We’ve basically gotten to that point where it’s just games that will be of interest to my kids. Sure I’ll be sticking to the lighter end of the weight scale, but I think it’s going to be awesome to share some of my favourite games with my girls.
So there you have it. Some of the best competitive games I’ve found for introducing my kids to this wonderful hobby of ours. Besides having the right game be sure to introduce gaming to your kids slowly and on their own terms and remember that it’s supposed to be fun for everyone at the table.
Now, I do still think that some of the best kids games overall are cooperative ones, with Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters being at the top of that list. If you are looking for co-op kids game suggestions remember to check out this older blog post where I covered that topic.