Some games for kids, September 2016.

by waxbanks

Pokémon Trading Card Game

Much simpler than Magic, but for players who aren’t already TCG/LCG experts — especially kids — there’s enough tactical business to make for a satisfying experience. The biggest flaw in the game might be its presentation: the prebuilt ‘theme decks’ are essentially useless. I’m offended, frankly, by the difference between casual ‘just got a theme deck for my birthday, let’s see what this game is’ play and actual Pokémon-as-she-is-spoke. Decks are divided into Pokémon (cute monsters that attack and take damage), Supporters (which modify attacks, allow extra card draws and actions, etc.), and energy (which you attach to Pokémon in order to attack); the theme decks include tons of Pokémon because that’s what little kids like, and very few functional but uninspiring Supporter cards. As a result, beginners end up sitting there waiting for the right cards to pop up in the deck. Meanwhile, advanced players will have loaded their decks with draw/shuffle cards to ‘accelerate’ play, without which strategy isn’t actually possible.

Even my son, at five years old, picked up on the overimportance of luck in theme-deck-only play — but once I bought a few hundred random cards online, including lots of Supporter cards, we felt like we were playing a proper game, and both strategic (deckbuilding) and tactical choices began to matter.

If your five- or six-year-old reads well (lots of technical jargon on the cards) and likes the silly characters, this is a perfect starter card game; if nothing else, it’s fun to collect the stupid little Pokémon themselves, as the popularity of the Pokémon Go ‘game’ demonstrates. Be prepared to do some shuffling for your kid, and consider spending $4 on some sleeves to extend the life of the cards. Unlike Magic, you won’t still play this one in ten years, though plenty of kids certainly will.

Catan Junior

Exactly what it says on the tin: a subtly re-themed version of Settlers with essentially no strategic choices.

  • no variable probability for the hexes (only one die is rolled)
  • no random hex placement
  • no strategic pregame settlement/road placement (starting locations are fixed)
  • no stealing with the Pirate/Thief
  • much looser constraints on building (Lairs/Settlements can share a hex side)
  • no long roads
  • no Cities, just Lairs/Settlements
  • …and in the basic rules, no p2p trading — there’s a clever market/stockpile trading setup to replicate the use of ports in Settlers

So what’s left? A couple of paths to victory pretty dependent on luck, lots of social interaction during play, and that ol’ familiar feeling of mounting excitement as your settlements generate wealth. Oh, and no reading! Not a factor for my son but kids who aren’t yet comfortable reading will appreciate the design.

Is it a good game for kids? Well, look again at the changes Teuber made to his basic design: changes to setup mean you can’t essentially lose before the dice start rolling as you might in Settlers; no stealing and close-together Lairs means fewer hard feelings, and the clever ports-only trading setup smooths out the social dynamics at the table. Luck plays a big part as in the original game, but the Junior rules mitigate its most frustrating effects. It’s a thoughtful and intentional kids’ design.

If you love Settlers, you’ll get a kick out of this miniature variant edition. Our son (age six) enjoyed our initial play. This is a lightweight German game aimed at kids, much less demanding than Settlers and nowhere near as satisfying, but it does what it sets out to do — and it really does seem to be a perfect introduction to Teuber’s canonical original game. In fact, it made me want to play Settlers right away.

Carcassonne (plus expansions)

Honestly, I recommend Carcassonne over Catan Junior for kids who’ve played a couple of games beyond Candyland (which, for all its miserable determinism, is still a superb teaching tool). No reading in this classic game either. And best of all, the only subtle strategic decision — whether and when to join the ‘farmstakes’ — can simply be taken out in favour of a dead simple introductory game that more heavily weights randomness: just do cities, roads, and cloisters, and don’t bother with farms. Easy sneezy. The only remaining planning elements, then, are:

  • how many meeples to keep in hand
  • how many construction projects to focus on at a time
  • how far in advance to start the endgame, where you’ll deliberately leave projects unfinished

Attention spans matter, of course; my son can’t be bothered to attend to the difference between finished and unfinished cities in terms of endgame scoring, and plays tactically rather than strategically (we use the full rules). But tile and meeple placement are addictive and easy to understand, so you can play Carcassonne as a super-casual kids’ game with almost no strategic decision-making if you like.

The expansions are not equally fun. I’ve only played two with my son:

Inns & Cathedrals is to the original as Dominion: Intrigue is to Dominion: a subtler, more powerful version of the base game. An essential expansion, though the big meeples will take a little explaining. The Princess & the Dragon, on the other hand, is more like the Possession card in Dominion: Alchemy, adding a strategy-wrecking element (the dragon, which eats meeples) and making the game more cutthroat. My son loves it, but it makes the game…nuttier, and if the dragon ends up eating the wrong meeple, you risk tears. The River isn’t terribly exciting (we haven’t bothered with it) but it takes nothing away and essentially divides the ‘farm stakes’ into — pardon the metaphor — wholly separate Westeros and Essos games.

I used to like Carcassonne a lot — it’s a fun, relatively light game suitable for non-gamers — but with my son joining in, I’ve come to love it. We’ve got a couple more expansions (The Count, The Tower) that I look forward to revisiting. My son doesn’t yet grasp the various strategic angles, but that’s mostly a matter of him sitting still and paying attention — in terms of cognitive load, the full Carcassonne experience seems readily available to a bright six-year-old.

Recap

At this point, my son has played the following tabletop games (in addition to Candyland-style trivial games and some young kids’ games I can’t remember the names of):

  • King of Tokyo (heavy reading, simple math)
  • King of New York (heavy reading, slightly less simple math)
  • Carcassonne (no reading, little to no math)
  • Catan Junior (no reading, no math)
  • Munchkin Treasure Hunt (no reading, simple math)
  • Pokémon TCG (heavy reading, some math)
  • X-Wing Miniatures Game (heavy reading, complex dynamics, math)

We’ve played King of NYC, Munchkin Treasure Hunt, and X-Wing most, and unsurprisingly he’s best at those. MTH has no real strategy to it — it’s meant as a gateway to the not-terribly-deep Munchkin card game — and while it’s a good deal more involved than Candyland (which isn’t a game, strictly speaking), its only real demand on kids is basic arithmetic. An easy recommendation for step two in board-game education. King of NYC is a more involved game that my son seems to have a firm grasp on; he doesn’t play optimally, but his main failing at King is his stubborn refusal to leave Manhattan, which I totally understand. Anyhow, I assume most young kids will wanna be boss monster too…

(King of Tokyo is a simpler game even better suited to kids’ play — indeed I recommend it for families looking to move on to lightweight German-style games — but my wife, son, and I all enjoy NYC more.)

X-Wing is a really great minis combat game, but too complex in its complete form (i.e. including ships and cards beyond the Core Set) for five-year-olds. My son and I have been playing it for months, but I have to help him manage his upgrade cards and special abilities, which are the heart of the expanded game. That said, my son can now plan his moves a turn ahead, which is thrilling to see — I’m proud that he regularly beats me, and no I don’t always give him a squad-points handicap either. This fits well with my first impression of the game: flying awesome spaceships is X-Wing‘s immediate attraction, and the easiest part for little kids to grasp.

Anyhow, the upshot here is that parents looking for interesting games to play with their kids have a wealth of good options today, and I’m really enjoying raising my son to be not only an adventurer, artist, writer, athlete, sage, badass, scientist, engineer, pirate, destroyer of worlds, trustworthy friend, cool easygoing brilliant robot-making dweeb…but also a proper gamer.

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