Last night, Collin, Dan, and I played our first game of Tapestry on Tabletopia. Before I say anything else, let me just say that I really enjoyed the game. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to learn and get into. At about the 1/3 mark, I was entertaining thoughts of purchasing it because I was having so much fun. We had a long chat afterward about some design decisions, but I think we’d all like to play the game again. After Dan logged off, Collin and I continued chatting for another hour.
A lot of my conversations with Collin tend to veer off into introspection. I think it has something to do with us always striving to be better people. This is one of those tangents.
In Tapestry, you grow your civilization, evolve over time, explore and conquer territory, develop technology, do science stuff, grow your military, and fight for points.
Sounds very serious, right? Yet it’s illustrated a bit cutesy and friendly. In any case, we all approached it with our usual rather intense focus, trying to learn which levers to pull to maximize momentum and points.
At one point, Dan rolled some dice and earned 7 victory points. Immediately after, Collin rolled the same dice and got 1 victory point, and a red flag flew up in all our brains that this game might be kind of swingy and has a strong element of luck. There’s no way to control how the dice roll, and 6 points might decide the winner (Oh no!). Initial reaction: it felt weird to me that there’s no control over that lever.
It’s also a card game, so you might draw better cards that give you more points. I drew map tiles that gave me zero resources, so I was poor the entire time.
Anyway, Dan was zooming ahead and we were sure he was going to run away with it. At the very end, Collin gained 75+ points and flew right past Dan.
Collin: “That must not have felt good for Dan to lose like that.”
Me: “No, but Dan’s always pleasant and easy-going and has a good head on his shoulders. I don’t think he’ll lose any sleep over it.”
Collin: “He didn’t expect me to come up with 70+ points in the last two rounds.”
Me: “I don’t think so. I didn’t either. Did you?“
Collin: “….. Nope.”
Things like that bug me and I became critical of the game.
My engine stalled just after the halfway point and I knew they were both going to fly past me, so I just focused on doing the best I could and tried to explore the game some more.
Is it me? It’s me, isn’t it? …I knew it.
I sat there trying to understand the conflict between my expectation or preferences in how a strategy game should be made and what this game was trying to be. It’s egotistical to think that the game is broken simply because it isn’t what I want it to be. Maybe it wasn’t trying to be what I want? That should be 100% okay.
Collin said he had been having talks with Mindy about gaming lately and his behavior at game nights. He says even with a game that’s purely about rolling dice and being lucky, if he rolls poorly, his brain reacts negatively and he suffers a hit to his ego and starts feeling like he’s intellectually inferior as a gamer than his opponent who is rolling well.
He admits 100% that it’s his problem and he was trying to dig into it to understand why. He thinks it’s because he gets so emotionally invested in the game. He did sports in high school and he was really good at it because he cared so much. So he brings a sports mindset to boardgames and is starting to realize there is a difference between sport and game (or maybe better to say sport and play).
His competitiveness is definitely something that has impacted the mindset in the group, but I don’t think I’m completely innocent here. I get so annoyed at seeing a die roll reward an amount of points because it tells me that no matter how hard I try or how good I get at pulling the right levers in the right order, I can’t control everything. I am not entirely the master of my own destiny. My desire to have stronger mind grapes than anyone else at the table isn’t without its social impact.
Competition vs. Play
I got to thinking about my feelings regarding playing games with my sons lately. I was so eager for them to get old enough to play games with me that I was buying games for them before they were even out of the crib, rushing to find just the right game to fit their eventual personalities, as if that were even possible. That excitement is mostly gone right now and I’ve been struggling to figure out why.
I think it has a lot to do with my mindset and approach to boardgames in general, and I think my expectations are unreasonable and unhealthy and are overdue for some realignment.
A game with luck allows a less-skilled player to pull off a surprise victory. Without that, the smartest and most experienced player will win every time. That’s not fun for family gaming. No one else gets to be in the spotlight. It stops feeling exciting. Random swings tell a story and allow players of disparate skill to have a chance, and I think that’s an important detail in family game designs.
Half of the problem is I’ve been picking serious games to play with them and the other half is that I’m not approaching play with my sons with a playful mind. I’m approaching it as if I’m a rules lawyer and boardgame museum caretaker. “Don’t touch anything! No talking! It’s your turn!” I’m exaggerating of course. I do an okay job of controlling my outward behavior, but I’d be lying if I said my internal monologue wasn’t closer to one long exasperated sigh when Bennett struggles to focus his attention.
Different strokes for different folks!
There are always going to be perfect information games where every action you take is by your own design, and the rewards you earn are due to your cleverness at pulling the levers. I think I’ve dug deeply enough into those types of games over the years.
What I’m realizing now is that I don’t want to play those games with my sons (for the most part, at least for right now). I don’t want to ask them to put so much effort into learning something so deep and complex only for an adult to show them they aren’t yet smart enough or skilled enough to win. I want them to have more chances to win. I want them to know what it feels like to win and lose in equal measure and to develop life skills around those emotions. Gulo Gulo really is the perfect kids game.
If Bennett has a short attention span at 6 years old, I shouldn’t push him to focus on a game for 60+ minutes or plan several turns ahead. I should find a game that works for him and meets him where he is. Family gaming should be a safe space where we can fudge the rules a little and that’s okay.
I feel ashamed that I got rid of Flick ’em Up. I was so focused on how the game was supposed to be played, and frustrated at how long it took to set up each scenario with 2 impatient children just wanting to move the bits and pieces around and play with them. 30 minutes of precise setup and rulebook reading every time I opened the box, and then a sluggish gameplay combined with the constant anxiety over losing pieces when they roll off the table…. I was a mess!, but they were loving it, and I completely missed the point.
If I just stopped thinking of it as a game and thought of it as another one of their toys, I could have just let them set up cool wild west towns and flick wooden bits at each other and pretend.
Hindsight and a better perspective
Boardgaming with our kids shouldn’t be a chore. It should be easy and exciting and surprising and comfortable. My goal is to make it something they want to do on their own, and something that they ask us to do with them regularly. Having the right mindset around why we’re playing together, wanting to play together, creates a healthy family environment where we can talk about things like good sportsmanship, taking turns, paying attention, cheering on the victor, winning and losing graciously, learning and practicing and improving… and most importantly just relaxing and having fun with the people you love.
Life is hard. I don’t need to make it harder by being too serious about playing boardgames.
Dan bought Wingspan and it feels a bit like a breath of fresh air. It’s so relaxing to play! It’s a card game and sometimes I draw the right cards and it feels good, but even when I’m kinda stuck, I still kinda just enjoy moving the pieces around and sitting together with my friends over a game. It leaves room for conversation while we play. It was a revelation for me. A game I had no interest in because it was too random and too light turns out to be exactly what I need to become a better ambassador to my kids for gaming in general. (Thanks, Dan).
I’m looking back on games we’ve tried before we had kids and reassessing why I rejected them and traded or sold them away. Now I’m trying to look at them with a different expectation and reason. Maybe they’re the perfect games for a 6 and 10 year old playing a light / quick / fun game that’s easy to understand.
It’s never too late to try again
After swimming in these thoughts for a whole day, I now have a renewed excitement to get something lighter on the table and to be the kind of dad my kids walk up to with a box and say “Will you play with me?” … you know… so I can practice optimizing my new relaxed and playful mindset. /eyeroll
Here are a few games I’m thinking of trying out:
- 2-5 players / setup in 1 minute / plays in 20 minutes
- simple card game about waking up and collection queens for points
- knight takes queens from other players
- dragon blocks knight
- potion puts queen back to sleep
- magic wand blocks potion
- some simple addition math for exchanging cards
- no reading, simple icons and numbers, cartoony art
- 2-4 players / setup in 3 minutes / plays in 45 minutes
- 3 game modes in 1 box
- move 1 worker as far to the right or down (fast), or move 2 workers 1 space each (slow)
- try to collect gold, swords, herbs, helpers
- fight monsters, occupy cities, earn points
- no reading, simple icons, simple addition
Best Treehouse Ever: Forest of Fun
- 1-4 players / setup in 5 minutes / plays in 20-30 minutes
- choose rooms to add to your cool treehouse
- earn points for same-color rooms near each other
- earn points for whatever the round scoring objective is
- some reading, planning, super cute art
Century: Golem Edition
- 2-5 players / setup in 3 minutes / plays in 30-45 minutes
- play a card to gain crystals of certain colors
- spend a mix of crystals to buy cards that upgrade your crystal colors
- working your way up to buying point cards
- no reading, simple icons and numbers, super cool art
- 2-4 players / setup in 20 seconds / plays in 30-45 minutes
- collect resources, build paths, huts, settle islands
- a bit more cerebral, but it doesn’t have to be. You can grow with it.
- no reading, fun looking tropical theme
- 2-6 players / setup in 2 minutes / plays in 30 minutes
- 12 different modes of play, simultaneous, shared, turn-based
- play a card, find that shape and color wooden block, build a tower with weirdly shaped blocks
- the round ends when a player has 3 fallen pieces (or something else)
- lots of variety, simple stacking game, easy to teach and play
- no reading, same quality as Flick ’em Up.
- 2-4 players / setup in 1 second / plays in 10 minutes
- interactive dexterity game, shuffleboard in the round
- gain skill over time, just have fun immediately