10 Tips for Teaching Younger Gamers More Complex Games

My article spread

Yesterday, Jonathan offered up 10 reasons to play board games with your kids… and today I’d like to offer up 10 tips for teaching your young children to play more complex  board games. These tips are reprinted (with permission) from an article I wrote for the Winter 2014 issue of Casual Game Insider, a magazine dedicated to casual board gaming.

I only recently discovered Casual Game Insider after a successful Kickstarter campaign that provided funding for another year of quarterly issues. Not only did I back the project for the second year of PDF issues, but I paid a little extra for PDF copies of the first four issues. (I keep all the issues in Dropbox and available for reading anytime on my iPad.)

Current Issue

If you’re not familiar with the magazine, point your web browser over to the latest issue (#6) launch page. You can subscribe to a print version, a PDF version or both. The content is always in full-color and the quality of the photography is top-notch. Besides some great articles, you’ll also find dozens of advertisers who are helping to support the magazine — there are both existing games and hints of games to come scattered amongst the pages.

I was very impressed with the first four issues and the quality of the writing and the game reviews, and was pleased to see that the magazine is open to article proposals. Below you’ll find my complete article from the current issue #6 titled Age Recommendations Are Just Age Recommendations: 10 Tips for Teaching Younger Gamers More Complex Games.

Back Issues

I’d like to thank Chris James, Director of Casual Game Revolution, for allowing this article to be reprinted in its entirety (but I’ve added the artwork for the various games mentioned). A 1-year (four issue) PDF subscription is only $14.99 and the 1-year (four issue) print subscription is $24.99. Not every back issue is available in print, but all back issues are available as PDF files.

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Age Recommendations…are Just Recommendations:
10 Tips for Teaching Younger Gamers More Complex Games

by James Floyd Kelly

Are you a board game fan with one or more kids? Do you find your child frequently eyeballing all those wonderful boxes on the shelves? Have you ever caught your child opening up a board game and pretending to play? Do you wish you had a nickel for every time you’ve heard “I wanna play this one?”  Kids love to play games — this isn’t any big surprise. It’s still our job as parents to help filter what games are suitable for our kids based on their age, maturity, and reading abilities, but if you’re looking for some suggestions for introducing board games that have passed your test to a younger audience, here are ten for your consideration:

#1 Play Through the Rulebook

Rulebooks can often be intimidating, so put yourself in the shoes of a younger player as you examine the rules. One great way to introduce a new game is to turn the rulebook into a game itself. Start out by mixing all the components (if possible) and let the young player separate out the parts; this is a great way for a young player to become familiar with the types of cards and tokens and how players can be distinguished from one another.

Next, move on to the layout of the game board and/or component locations and let the young player set up the game. If you find samples of gameplay in the instructions, set those up and play them out — reading the rules is one thing, but actually playing the sample scenarios has an increased chance of sticking in long-term memory.

#2 Break Things Up Into Mini-Games

Most kids are going to love any chance to play a more advanced game, so give it to them! If you’re introducing a new game, it’s best to go slow — and one of the best ways to do this is to break up a larger, more complex game into smaller mini-games.

Mini-games will often require a bit more planning on your part, as you’ll want to bypass the initial setup of the game and instead create a scenario that attempts to teach a few of the rules in one sitting. Look at a game and try to determine what parts of the gameplay fall into the early to middle portion of the game where players are collecting resources or trying to gain control of key positions. Your mini-game here may consist of pushing for young players to reach objective goals such as a certain number of cards or pieces on the board. Likewise, you could jump to the end game and set up a conclusion scenario based on a previous game you have played; this will, of course, require that you document each player’s inventory and position in the game so you can replicate it easily.

#3 Don’t Forget the Do-Overs

Do-Overs are probably a universal constant when it comes to kids and games. Let’s face it: young players are often overwhelmed the first time they play a new game, and they miss things. The key here isn’t to dwell on the missed opportunities, but instead turn them into a learning opportunity. Roll back the clock, so to speak, and let young players replay a particular portion of a game so they’ll better understand a mistake or missed opportunity and how it affects the remainder of the game.

One way to keep from taking one step forward followed by two steps back is to limit the number of Do-Overs. I give my son three tokens when he’s learning a new game and allow him to cash one in when he wishes to try a different strategy, play a different card, or even roll the dice again. If you’re going to allow Do-Overs in your game, come up with a solution that won’t add too much time to the overall length of the game but will offer up chances to learn from a mistake.

#4 Stack the Deck

This can be a bit difficult with complex games, but for card games one of the best ways to help young players get a grasp of the game mechanics is to let them choose their deck versus a random distribution. You can even go one step further and help them pick out the right mix of cards that will give them a good game experience.

Castle Panic

For board games that rely on property collecting, there’s nothing wrong with providing young players with a leg up by giving them an initial batch of game pieces, money, or cards before the game starts. Also, consider breaking limits if you find they might be frustrating to a young player. For instance, for the first few games of Castle Panic, I allowed my son to have a maximum of eight cards (versus six). It disrupted the complexity of our first few games, but it allowed him to get the hang of mentally stepping through the upcoming turns to see what cards might be useful to trade to other players.

#5 Beat the Game Together

Today’s cooperative games are immensely popular, especially with young gamers. The “We All Win or We All Lose” format of games like Forbidden Island is easier to accept for younger kids who might not have the maturity to handle a loss. But not all games are cooperative. If you’ve got a young gamer who is dead set on playing a more advanced game where there can be only one winner, playing by the basic rules is likely to end with a young gamer viewing a great game as a real stinker and never wanting to play it again.

Forbidden Island

One of the best ways to handle a complex “one winner” game is to turn it into a cooperative game. For a victory condition game, allow the young player to combine forces with another player to reach that condition. Create “resurrection” rules that allow a player to bring back an eliminated player to the game. My son is also allowed to use his Do-Over tokens to ask for advice, so he’ll frequently use them to get a look at my cards and his and get my best suggestion for how to beat me!

#6 Skip the Timer

I like games that have built-in deadlines, be it Elder Sign or Dungeon Roll. But my son absolutely hates them. HATES them. In my experience, I find that younger game players are often overwhelmed at certain points in a game where multiple decisions must be made. Add a countdown timer to the mix that they need to pay attention to, and you may wind up with young players who just freeze up and can’t make a decision (or decisions) when they are most critical to surviving or winning a game.

Escape

Take one of our favorite games to play together: Escape! The Curse of the Temple. This game can use a sand timer, but we use an MP3 audio file I play from my phone. At various points in the game, the drums beat faster and a gong is heard, meaning the players are supposed to race back to the starting point for safety. My son simply wants to grab all the gems and get out of the temple without the pressure of a time limit. For the first five or six games, that’s exactly how we played, too. After he had a solid grasp of the dice mechanics for the game and didn’t have to focus solely on his rolls, he began to see that the game was a bit more fun with the time limit tossed in and the occasional rescue of Dad who had lost all his dice to bad rolls.

#7 Switch Sides for the Win

I absolutely hate this one, but my son sure does love it. If he hasn’t used any of his three Do-Over tokens, I will allow him to cash them all in and trade positions with me. By offering him this opportunity, I’ve observed that not only does he focus on his own hand or position in a game but he’s also doing the math on my position and trying to figure out if it’s worth saving his tokens instead of asking for a Do-Over.

The ability to change sides can be frustrating to you (or another experienced player) when you’ve carefully navigated a game to put yourself into a winning position only to have it yanked away. Again, I come back to the goal of this article and that is to help your young gamer acclimate to a new game and to become a better gamer. Switching sides allows the young gamer a short-term victory, but the long-term effect is a young player gaining a more solid understanding of victory conditions or the value of certain cards, properties, or other key game factors.

#8 Toss Complex Rules or Cards

This one’s a no-brainer to most parents — if a child isn’t ready for the big-boy rules, you play the game any way you can to maximize fun, including and up to making up new rules and tossing out the entire rulebook, if necessary. You must be careful to explain to young gamers that the rules change as they get older, or else you face the unpleasant job of having to try and change a rule that’s been cemented by too many years and too many wins.

Dungeon Roll

In games like Fluxx, I’ve gone so far as to remove the “bad” cards (called Creepers) completely. And in games like Dungeon Roll, I know which Hero cards maximize XP at the end of the game and I let my son pick from those. (Well, I did…I don’t let him do this anymore as he’s become quite the expert player at Dungeon Roll and beats me quite often with no rule modifications.)

#9 Change the Win Conditions

Changing victory conditions can be done before the game starts (just make certain all players know about the rules change) or on the fly. If you find a game is getting a bit long, there’s nothing wrong with coming up with an impromptu victory condition towards which to race. (It’s up to you to decide whether to lean the victory condition closer to the young gamer’s current position.) Likewise, creating a simple elimination condition can help wrap up a game quickly.

For very young players, you’re going to find that most of them simply do not have the patience for a game that lasts an hour or more. It’s best to prepare early for an “out” to the game. And don’t forget: for kids, a tie is better than a loss. There’s nothing wrong with changing a win condition to be mutually beneficial to all players. I’m continually surprised at how bad my son feels when he wins and I lose — kids want everyone to win!

#10 Don’t Forget the Post-Game Discussion

When my son finishes a game, he tends to want to run off to his next activity, and I’m often fine with that. But when I’m teaching him a new game, I try to hold his attention a bit longer by asking him some questions about the game he just played. What was your favorite part of the game? What didn’t you like? What did you find confusing?

While it’s great to focus on the fun parts of the game, don’t ignore the bumps in the road. If your young player encountered difficulties, this is a great time to try and identify those areas of confusion or frustration (or both) so you can better help him or her the next time you play. Even better, you can try to identify similar games that might provide your young player with more practice or at least reduce the risk of them disliking a game that you are playing too often.

About James Floyd Kelly

James Floyd Kelly is a writer from Atlanta, GA. His latest two books are "Arduino Adventures: Escape from Gemini Station" and "Kodu for Kids." He and his wife have two young boys who are into everything, literally and figuratively.

About James Floyd Kelly

James Floyd Kelly is a writer from Atlanta, GA. His latest two books are "Arduino Adventures: Escape from Gemini Station" and "Kodu for Kids." He and his wife have two young boys who are into everything, literally and figuratively.

6 thoughts on “10 Tips for Teaching Younger Gamers More Complex Games

  1. All great tips. We’ve taught our now 7yo daughter to play many games meant for older kids or adults. We started when she was 4 and able to sit still and pay attention as we explained.

    Our method is to firstly make sure the adults know what they are doing so they can explain any questions. If not we read through the instructions together. Then we play “open hand” with all card/pieces/whatever exposed so everyone can see what everyone else has. Then we do the cooperative thing, I guess, helping each other with each turn until we get what we are supposed to do.

    A lot of time the adults/older kids go back to playing like normal but the younger one plays open handed so everyone can help. The 7yo plays lots of games meant for 12/13+ with no issues now.

    And then there’s always the kids making up their own rules because they forget or the original rules are too complicated (like they did with Smallworld).

  2. The previous issue of Casual Game Insider had another article about game age recommendations, which explained that a lot of the age ratings have to do with materials and safety testing, and nothing at all to do with game complexity Or, it may be because of thematic content rather than difficulty. At the same time, there are some kids who can handle more complex games than some adults, simply because of having more experience with these types of games. You really do need to take more of an individualized approach, like what Jim suggests here, because you know your kids (and your adult friends) and you’re the best judge of what they can and can’t handle, as long as you have information about how the game works.

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