Ellie Dix on how to avoid strops, keep everyone interested and raise players for life
You love playing board games and you love your children. But you don’t always love playing board games with your children. Arguments can start before you even get to the table. Just selecting a game that keeps everyone happy can be a challenge. Simmering rivalries from previous plays may resurface and old arguments are seamlessly continued.
Then when you get to the table, the potential for discord increases. Many games hinge on conflict and competition, so the melting pot of emotions that playing evokes isn’t surprising. With siblings, the stakes often seem higher. Even co-operative games are ripe for arguments as emerging alpha players bark directions while willful siblings do the exact opposite... just to spite them.
But board games can bring such joy and delight to families: the hilarity of Telestrations, the tight teamwork in Captain Sonar and the thrill of winning a tricky month in Pandemic Legacy. These are moments that everyone remembers and talks about. Family lore in the making. When playing with family, the highs are higher and the lows are lower than in other gaming situations. Players are less reserved; they say exactly what they think. Board games bring families together, but sometimes feel like they are tearing them apart.
So how can we make sure that we have more of the highs and less of the lows?
Choose the right game
Play the wrong game with a group of adults and the mood may dip, but you’re unlikely to provoke a tirade of tears, screaming fits and threats of disownment. Family, on the other hand, doesn’t hold back. Consider the mood in the house. When the atmosphere has been particularly stormy, games that rely on take-that mechanics might be best avoided. Reduced player interaction and individual player boards would be a wiser pick. When someone is tired, leave the super thinky games on the shelf and opt for a lighter option. When the constant bickering in the house makes your head bleed, avoid team-play and co-ops.
Learn before you teach
Most children have patience in short supply. Watching you read a rulebook will stretch their tolerance to the limit and leave them with little to spare for the actual game. If the family wants to be involved in unboxing, that’s brilliant. But make it clear that they won’t play straight away. Take time to get to grips with the concepts and components and prepare yourself to get through at least a few rounds without needing to consult the rules. When you give a concise, planned explanation, a new game will get swiftly underway.
"Be cheerful in defeat
and humble in victory."
Don’t force participation
There may be a game you want to play, one you’re really excited about, but the family doesn’t fancy it – not today. Swallow your disappointment and move on. If one child wants to play, but not another, it’s no big deal. Play with people who want to play… always. It’s so tempting to try to force games upon the family and we all do it; “Right you’ve been on the PS4 for way too long… EVERYONE is going to play a board game.” We mean well, but forcing participation causes problems. Asserting parental will can cause rifts. It’s not the same as eating vegetables or doing homework – board games are supposed to be fun. Instead, when you lure your children to the table with irresistible table-stunners and let the shrieks of glee draw your surly teen out of her room, they’re much more likely to keep coming back for more.
Start with a rules reminder
After setup, but before the first dice roll, it’s useful to briefly remind everyone of the key game rules and your ground rules. If the game contains a confusing mechanism or multiple game end conditions, make sure everyone remembers the important points. Whizz through some common mistakes to give all players the best chance of success. Your ground rules set your expectations of good game-playing behaviour. They provide an anchor to draw players back to, if needed, later in the game.
Use house rules
I know this is controversial, but particularly when playing with younger children some games need house rules. Longer games that require prolonged concentration can be shortened by changing game end conditions. In deduction games, younger players can be given more information at the start, or special power to ask extra questions may be bestowed upon them. Try differentiating victory conditions by letting younger players achieve a win with fewer points. You can adjust advantages as children become more experienced. Fair is not always equal.
'Don't force participation [...] it’s not the same as eating vegetables or doing homework – board games are supposed to be fun.' (Image: Valentin Gorbunov)
Model the behaviour you want to see
When others perform smooth combos or brilliant tactical moves, make sure you give them your genuine praise and delight. This encourages group celebration of other people’s successes and demonstrates the behaviour that you want to see from your children. Try not to wallow if things don’t go your way, or trumpet your genius if you’re winning. Be cheerful in defeat and humble in victory. Teach your family that they should play to win but not need to win.
Deal with inappropriate behaviour calmly and consistently
Don’t let one person’s poor choices affect the whole game. However carefully you plan, tensions will sometimes run high. How you choose to deal with emotional explosions will either diffuse the situation or throw fuel on the fire. Even in the face of extreme provocation, it’s important to be as consistent as you can. Where possible, remove the child from the table and have a quick chat outside the room. Clearly state the behaviour that is inappropriate and let them know what you want them to do. Crucially, when back at the game, look for opportunities to notice and reinforce their good choices. They’re just learning how to manage difficult situations and you’re the teacher.
Positive family board game experiences lead to more positive family board game experiences. Repeated upbeat game nights cement and reaffirm the opinion that playing board games is a fun and enjoyable pursuit. After all, we are raising the next generation of board gamers. We’ve got to make sure that we have people to play with in our old age.
Ellie Dix is director of family gaming resource The Dark Imp and author of The Board Game Family: Reclaim Your Children from the Screen, out now.
How to give your kids gaming advice
It is a common lament from parents that their kids just won’t accept their efforts to teach them. Curiously, this is often because our children really want to impress us and they don’t want to show weakness or a lack of understanding. So, what should we do when our children struggle with a board game? It may be clear to us that they need help or advice, or even just a reminder of the rules, but how can we intervene while keeping them comfortable and feeling in control?
- Don’t give advice or help until you are asked. Offer help if you wish, but don’t insist on giving it if your offer is rejected.
- Avoid deconstructing players’ decisions after the fact. Informing your children about what they could have done during the game and why that would have worked better is not helpful.
- Allow your children to make their own decisions. Even if they’ve asked for advice, don’t insist that they follow it.
- Give your advice lightly. Emphasise that your opinion is just one opinion.
- Make it clear that the decision is not an easy one and that there are lots of possible options that may lead to equally good outcomes.
- Play down your expertise. Assure your child that you possess no special skills that will make your thinking any more worthy than their own.
- Boost your child’s belief in their own ability. Remind them of times in previous games when they’ve made great decisions or triumphed in difficult circumstances.
- Give opportunities for children to save face. Preface sentences with, ‘I’m sure you’ve worked this out already …’ or ‘Well, you will already know this but …’
- Reinforce the equal nature of your positions. Demonstrate your own status as a learner of the game, ask your children for help with your own game play and take their advice, whether you need it or not.
- Whatever decision is ultimately taken, be clear that you support and understand that decision and that you think they are making a decent choice.