Our oldest daughter is 5 and love playing games. Now that we are starting to introduce our 2 year old to games, it seems like a good time to document some of the kid games we've been playing over the last few years. It'll be interesting to see how this list evolves as they get older.
Below we list just some of the games that have been useful in introducing different concepts and game mechanics. The ages are just estimates of when our daughter was able to take her turn independently and have an enjoyable experience with each game, not necessarily when she was proficient or "good" at it.
2 - 2.5 years old
Our main purpose at this age was to teach them how to take turns, follow game rules and be OK with losing. Most of these games will involve little or no player decisions and often rely on identifying colors.
3 years old
Once able to count more accurately and start recognizing numbers, you can introduce games that require counting spaces. We also started playing some matching games around this time.
4 years old
Around this time we started playing games that allow the players to make at least some decisions and allow for a simple strategy. Identifying patterns and sets of similar objects also comes into play in many of these games.
5 years old
No matter how much you enjoy spending time with your kids, most of the games mentioned above can be very boring for adults. Recently, we've started introducing some of the games that we enjoy. Games that involve moving pawns around and have only a few possible actions to take each turn seem to work especially well. This allows the kids to take their turn independently and make their own decisions. In this way they can take ownership of the experience and enjoy it even if they are unlikely to win.
What are your favorite games to play with young kids?
We’re huge fans of cooperative strategy games. A well-designed co-op game can keep all the players engaged throughout the game (even when it is not their turn) and is enjoyable regardless of the outcome. These types of games can be susceptible to the bad apple problem, where a bossy or unengaged player can lessen the experience, but we think the risk of that is far outweighed by the rewarding experience of playing with a good group.
We like to classify co-op strategy games based on how the game can end:
While designing Countervirus over the past year, we spent a lot of time thinking about binary outcome co-op games and tried to abstract away all the details to figure out which features are necessary to produce an experience we enjoyed. This is the first of a series of posts summarizing our thoughts on the components of a binary outcome co-op strategy game, which we break out into:
The game end timer
The need for a timer
In one form or another, there is a timer that ends the game in every co-op game we’ve played. In binary outcome games this usually means you lose, but in games with continuous outcomes this is usually when you get your final score. By forcing an upper bound on game length, the game builds up a sense of urgency as it progresses and the players become more aware of the game’s impending end. Not only does that urgency create excitement and encourage the risky behaviors that can improve the gaming experience, it also gives the game the advantage in the long run and wards off trivially optimal ‘slow and steady’ strategies that make the game boring.
Some timer types
The advance of time is an irreversible process, so the timer can be generally thought of as any monotonically increasing (non-decreasing) function of time, turn or some other game mechanic that causes the game to end when it crosses a threshold. For instance, the real timer in Break the Safe, a kid friendly co-op game guaranteeing a 30 minute or less play time, has the most predictable and least controllable timer possible: a clock that sounds an alarm after a half hour of play. Cycle timers, on the other hand, end the game after a fixed number of turns or rounds. They are more forgiving of slower paced players and enable more strategic decision-making while still invoking a sense of urgency. Both of these types of timers are relatively easy to control by the designer because they only have one parameter to tune: how long do you want the game to last?
Probabilistic timers, which are driven to cross the threshold by random events, are an interesting class of timer because they add suspense and surprise to the urgency inherent in the timer. The random events are determined by a game mechanic with known frequency but random outcomes (e.g. rolling dice or drawing cards after each turn as in Pandemic or Countervirus). The event outcomes occur with known probabilities determined by the designer, which means the timer will go off in a range of times according to tunable distribution.
Tuning probabilistic timers
Independent and identically distributed (IID) events, such as rolling dice or drawing cards from an infinite deck (good luck with the manufacturing of that one) are the simplest to tune, but perhaps offer the least control. The lower bound on those timers going off is determined by the frequency of events. If you roll one die every turn and the timer goes off after five 1s have been rolled during the course of the game, then the soonest it can go off is five turns. There technically is no strict upper bound you can set on an IID-based timer since the probability of hitting the threshold never equals 1 no matter how many turns you play (see Figure 1). However, it practically reaches one pretty quickly and the 99th percentile can be tuned to avoid outlier games that drag on.
Decks of cards are finite sized, so they’re not really IID events. If there are Ninc cards in the deck that increment the counter and it takes you M turns to get through the deck, then you know with probability equal to 1 that after M turns, the counter will have increased by Ninc. On the other hand, once Ninc increment cards are drawn, you know with probability equal to 1 that you will not draw any more until M turns have passed. This property changes the lower bound calculation depending on the details of the rules for drawing event cards.
A simple example is a deck of Ndeck cards, where f cards are drawn per turn and a timer that can increment T times before it goes off. After k cycles through the deck there will have been kNinc increments to the timer. The timer will therefore go off during the Kth cycle through the deck, where K = ceiling(T/Ninc) and ceiling rounds a number to the next largest integer. For example, it will be the 2nd time through the deck when a timer with T = 4 and Ninc = 3 goes off. So after K-1 cycles, there will have been (K-1)Ninc increments, leaving only T - (K-1)Ninc left to go when the Kth cycle starts. Then the minimum number of cards that can be drawn in the Kth cycle to hit T is just T - (K-1)Ninc. Therefore the minimum total number of cards that can set off the timer is Ndeck(K-1) + T - (K-1)Ninc. So, bringing it back to turn count, the earliest the game could end due to the timer is ceiling((Ndeck(K-1) + T - (K-1)Ninc ) / f). An example timer, deck and event rate are shown in Figure 2, which results in a lower bound of 22 turns and an average game length of 30.5 turns. I’ll spare you the upper bound calculation, but the finite size of the deck makes it possible for the designer to control the maximum possible turn limit before the timer goes off, too.
Narrowing the range
In the above example, the timer can go off in a range of 22 to 39 turns, which is a very large window and is perhaps too unpredictable to be enjoyable. One way to narrow the window is to replace the constant number of cards drawn per turn, f, with a time-varying function f(t), where t is the current state of the timer. One of the simplest forms of f(t) is a step function, which has f(t) = f1 when t < T1 and f(t) = f2 when t ≥ T2, with f1 < f2. Of course, you could add as many steps as there are increments possible, but 1 or 2 (as we chose to do in Countervirus) has a big impact on the game length range, as you can see in Figure 3. These steps also complicate the calculation of the bounds, but are worthwhile to consider, especially when you take into account the impact of intensifying the event rate on the other aspects of the game.
Figure 3. Game length distributions for 4 different types of event rules, decks and thresholds. They all have similar means, but have very different experiences. The constant draw rate games are much more likely to be very long or very short compared to those with step increases. The 2-step event rate function with increment cards spaced uniformly throughout the deck gives the narrowest range and most controlled experience while still being probabilistic.
Another way to tightly control the timer with a deck is to (roughly) evenly space the increment cards in the deck with each shuffle, similar to the initial setup of Pandemic (also shown in Figure 3). This would be a cumbersome from a gameplay perspective, but it ensures a repeatable process of ending the game in a very narrow range of turns. For Countervirus, the additional complexity of spacing the increment cards was not worth the gain in control, but for other games it may add value and be worthwhile.
What has been your experience with timer mechanics in co-op games? Did we miss any? Can you think of any innovative alternatives to achieve the same purpose?
Now that we have set the stage for this suspenseful scenario with an imminent end, our next post will analyze the path to victory.
Last weekend we were at the Evergreen Tabletop Expo, where our game Countervirus was a semifinalist for the LUCI award. Since this was our first convention ever, we didn't really know what to expect going in. We found out about the contest only 3 days before the submission deadline and decided to give it a try, figuring at the very least it would motivate us to get around to writing the rulebook and think about how to pitch our game to complete strangers. After a mad scramble to produce the submission materials, we were selected as semifinalists (much to our surprise), and had about 2 weeks to get Countervirus ready for judges and others to play at ETX.
Putting our game out there was scary but totally worth it. Not only was it a valuable learning experience for us but we also had a great time talking to the other contestants and playing new games. A special shout out to the winner Jeff Beck and the people's choice award recipient Badger (who by the way just launched an amazingly successful Kickstarter, check it out!)
Getting feedback from playtesters, interacting with the community, and seeing all the enthusiasm that exists for indie games has motivated us to keep going and work on new game ideas. Looking ahead to future events, and for anyone out there preparing for their first convention, these are the key takeaways from our experience:
What was your first convention experience like? What advice would you give to someone attending for the first time? Any other ideas to help demo more complex games effectively?