Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Things a Parent Thinks About Games #1

A couple of years ago, with Jeff Tidball's blessing, I wrote a few responses to his and Will Hindmarch's excellent book Things We Think About Games. More than responses, these were posts that reacted to statements in the book using a Tidball/Hindmarch aphorism as the starting point for discussion. Amateur blogging being what it is, these posts tapered off and I never continued the series. It's always kind of bothered me as the book itself is fantastic and because I keep picking it up to read as a catalyst for discussion with my friends or even to examine my own thoughts on games and game play. Since I rebranded this site "Advanced Dungeons and Parenting" a while back, I've seen an uptick in readership...even when there is a gap between posts due to graduate school. The posts that tend to do best are those about Savage Worlds and those about gaming generally, as opposed to those posts that are more of the "hey have you seen this new game" variety. Looking at the data, and combining it with my desire to write more about the Tidball/Hindmarch book, I've decided to add a semi-regular series of posts discussing Things from a parent's perspective. These will be reactions to the book as it applies to playing games with kids, in particular my own 6 year old twin daughters.

The player of any game has, at most, two hands.

Things begins with a very simple statement about a utilitarian design consideration, "are the components of your game conducive to actual play?" It's a vital question, especially when it comes to gaming with children. There has been a trend in Role Playing Games lately to design games that can be played with children. There are some very good games on the market Hero Kids, Little Wizards, and RpgKids to name but a few, but I keep thinking that they all have somehow missed out on the design lessons of existing children's' games and from the design lesson of Stan!'s Pokemon Jr. role playing game. Think about children's games for a second. 

What are the first two games that come to mind?

For me they are Candy Land (the link is to the Princess Version I might just order the twins for Christmas) and Hungry Hungry Hippos.

Image from Collider.com
What do all of these games - and Pokemon Jr. - have in common?

Toy factor and/or simplicity. You don't need to read rules to understand the intricacies of HHH or Candy Land. The game pretty much teaches you how to play. As a story telling game, Pokemon Jr. has the parents take the role of storyteller who prompts children into action. Little Wizards - and excellent game - does the same, but Pokemon has these really cool looking Poke-cards (Got 'em All) and the rules are only a couple of pages. Most of Stan!'s design in Jr. is the scripting of adventures to play with the kids. Candy Land uses colors and color matching as its signifier of movement. These games are easy to pick up and play and have "toy factor."

Our games need to do this as well. RpgKids has some pretty cool Crayon maps that add a nice Print-and-Play toy factor to the game, but the rule book has an odd cover. The drawings also eventually lose their appeal when compared to something like the Print-and-Use figures for Order of the Stick.

This or Pikachu?
Hero Kids has a more cartoony feel - and good graphic design with some "toy factor" - but its resolution mechanic is similar to that of Risk and the rule book is longer than that of Heroquest. In fact, in some ways the game is as complex as Heroquest...though Heroquest's dice are more intuitive when giving results. I think my twins might prefer to see swords and shields over seeing who has the highest number. They can calculate the highest number - and tell it to me in Japanese - but does it have the "toy factor" needed to keep play "playful?" I think it does to a certain degree, but I also think it would need more toy factor in a published product. It also needs more character types - though it has some good ones - and the standees need to be in color. They need to be in COLOR!

When designing RPGs for children, we need to think less about "how can we get them interested in playing rpgs when they are older?" and more about "what will they think is fun now?" We need RPGs that tell the same kinds of stories we are showing our children. Can I play "Avatar" type games? With Hero Kids yes, with the others?... Can I play Tinkerbell-esque adventures? Pokemon based? My Little Ponybased? And don't get me going on the Pathfinder Pony game. If you think I am introducing Pathfinder to 6 year olds, you are crazy.

The fact that I ranted a bit on making sure that the design is such that it appeals to kids and has graphic fun factor and toy factor may seem like I am criticizing the games I listed above. I am not. They are all good games and I am grateful to their designers. I am just saying they are the equivalent of Avalon Hill's Afrika Korps or Gettysburg. They are early designs in what I hope will become a growing genre.

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