Games for adults that kids can play

Earlier in the week I mentioned that there are things that look like games, which tend to be for kids, that aren’t fun, even for kids, and especially not so for adults. Most parents buy these because they know that in theory boardgames are good for a child’s mind. They think “My child will develop important reasoning, math, risk assessment skills while having fun.” They’re right. If they have their kids play the right games.

One thing I learned a long time ago, having a million nieces, and nephews, is that people forget what it was like being a kid. As a result we sometimes forget to properly engage children. I know for myself if something was labeled as “for kids”, or even had the faintest hint of being intended for children I was not interested. (Excluding toys that featured cool robots. Even I couldn’t resist those.) I know not every child is the same as I was, but in general most kids jump at the chance to do what the adults are doing, and that can be frustrating at a game table. It’s great that they want to play Le Havre, but it’s not great trying to explain to them why they can’t.

I’ve got the solution for both sides of this. Games that will live up to the expectation of developing their reasoning, math, risk assessment, and not bore the pants off of the adults. Also, the young gamers will feel included, and have fun as they get ready to learn to play Power Grid. Some of you probably know these, but the hope is to add that extra hashtag in your mind #kidfriendy:

10. – Ican Gold

Ican Gold

I mention this first because if you stop reading now at least you are aware of this option. Ican Gold is a great little push your luck game that you can teach a 4 year old. That said, it’s fun. I mean for a game you can play with any kid at any age you as an adult will enjoy the game yourself. I’d say the only downside on this one is as an adult you’ll play it once, feel that it is good enough for the evening, and a child may want to play it more before moving on. Honestly, that’s a good problem to have.
Reasoning: 2/5
Math: 3/5
Risk Assessment: 5/5
Fun: 4/5

09. – Dice Town

Dice Town

Dice Town is an even better game for adults, which means that you have to raise the age level a bit. I’ve played the game with a 5 year old, so I know it can be done, but I suspect the first time she played it took a bit longer. This is a good one to coach your child with a bit before you play it with friends. The best part is the game has a fun theme that kids can get behind, and adults won’t mind.
Reasoning: 3/5
Math: 3/5
Risk Assessment: 4/5
Fun: 4/5

08. – Tsuro

Tsuro

Tsuro is a great game if you have a lot of kids playing. It’s fast, friendly aggressive, and doesn’t last too long. You can play this with really young kids as well. It’s not as engaging for adults, but it’s way better than the games I mentioned in the previous article. Also the game is quite beautiful. There is a new version of the game, with similar core rules, and that is more interesting for adults, and is likely still very kid friendly.
Reasoning: 2/5
Math: 1/5
Risk Assessment: 3/5
Fun: 3/5

07 – The aMAZEing Labyrinth

The aMAZEing Labyrinth

Confession. A 4 year old beat me in this game. Yeah, it was pretty bad. In my defense she had played it a lot, and it was my first game. Also, I underestimated a 4 year old. I mean come on, they are tiny! Anyway, I think that confession is enough to have any right minded parent interested in getting this game.
Reasoning: 3/5
Math: 1/5
Risk Assessment: 4/5
Fun: 3/5

06 – Can’t Stop

Can't Stop

This is a great game. It’s everything I shouldn’t like in a game. It’s the opposite of everything I like in games. However, Can’t Stop is a great game. By looking at it you assume Ameritrash. By looking at it you assume no story or cool theme. By looking at it you assume same play every time. And you know what! You’re right, you’re obviously right. I made that setup way too obvious, sorry. Anyway, this game is a great math/risk management game that is super super simple to learn. It doesn’t have the appeal of a game with lasers, and robots, but it’s fun enough you won’t care.
Reasoning: 3/5
Math: 3/5
Risk Assessment: 5/5
Fun: 4/5

05 – Dungeon Roll

Dungeon Roll

As far as themes go this game is one of the best on the list. I probably wouldn’t play it with anyone under 5 though. Again this game is great for adults, and cool enough for teens. It only plays up to 4, but it’s not super long, and has some reply because you can play a different character each time.
Reasoning: 3/5
Math: 2/5
Risk Assessment: 5/5
Fun: 5/5

04 – Escape: The Curse of the Temple

Escape: The Curse of the Temple

WARNING: You do not want to play this with a bunch of younger kids. It’s not that they can’t handle it, but they WILL get loud. You may want to teach them, and then stand back 5 feet. The great thing about this game is it’s super fun for everyone. The challenging part is it’s tricky to teach anyone. The reason is it’s a game that doesn’t have turns. Everyone is going at once, as fast as they can, and they are working together for a common goal. It’s great for teamwork, and good old fashioned chaotic fun. However, personalities do come out while playing this game, so keep an eye on them. My advice for playing escape is to play a super short introduction game, I do this with adults as well, where each person goes one turn at a time, till everyone has seen the core mechanics at least once. After that you can turn on the timer, and play for real.
Reasoning: 3/5
Math: 3/5
Risk Assessment: 4/5
Fun: 5/5

03 – For Sale

For Sale

This is a great little auction game that has two halves of play. The first half impacts the second half, and you never know who is winning till the end. It’s super easy to teach, incredible for early math skills, and a lot of simple fun. When I play it with kids I always have them try to find the animals on the cards. The simplicity may make you nervous that adults won’t enjoy it, but that just isn’t the case. It’s a great little game.
Reasoning: 4/5
Math: 5/5
Risk Assessment: 3/5
Fun: 4/5

02 – Get Bit!

Two words for you. Shark that eats swimming robots. OK, not two words at all, but still very cool. That’s the game. It looks like a kids game, but the young ones may beat the adults more than you’d expect. Super easy to learn, and no lack of fun for anyone.
Reasoning: 2/5
Math: 1/5
Risk Assessment: 3/5
Fun: 4/5

01 – Flash Point: Fire Rescue

Flash Point: Fire Rescue

Another great game where everyone plays on the same team. Flash Point is designed with families in mind. It has “family rules”, so young kids can play, and “advanced rules”, so adults can enjoy a challenge. I have played the advanced rules with a 4 year old, and she needed coaching, but that’s OK because the game does a great job showing you the action. She knew she wanted to put out fires, and she would point on the board and say “I want to put that one out.” and I would walk her through it. That was the advanced rules mind you. Of all of the games on this list I can’t recommend this one enough.
Reasoning: 5/5
Math: 1/5
Risk Assessment: 5/5
Fun: 5/5

I’ve counted down from 10, and I’ve found that there are so many more games I could have put on this list. For example, my own Monsters Made to Order plays great with children ages 12 and up. There just isn’t a shortage of great games adults and children can play together without having to buy the “classics” that sits on most department store shelves.

If you think of a good game to add to this list please let me know in the comments below.

Is it a game?

That’s a pretty straightforward question. Is it a game? I mean if it’s in a box, and talks about numbers of players, and all of that it’s a game. If it’s in the game isle, listed on boardgamegeek.com, it has to be a game. Right? The truth is, as you can tell by my obvious setup, that’s not always the case. I’m finding more and more that the more time I spend thinking about game mechanics, design, and “what is fun” that I can’t help but label things, that at first glance, look like games, but aren’t.

I honestly hadn’t considered talking about the topic, but instead planned to fume about it it to myself until the end of time, until recently, while visiting my family, my younger brother asked me “Is Candy Land a game?” He was referencing a tweet by lead Magic designer Mark Rosewater where Rosewater asked the same question to his followers. I laughed when I was asked this question because that was my go to example of something that is clearly not a game, but gets packaged as one. I said “No.”, and he asked why, my answer was simple “You never make a single choice in the entire time.” He was pleased because my answer matched Rosewater’s. I was pleased because I realized this was something that people needed to be aware of.

No, I’m not talking about creating awareness of the flaws in kid’s toy. There isn’t much value in that. However, there are quite a few examples of products like Candy Land, that are sold as games, but really aren’t. They are the classic examples of “Ameritrash” games, and include “classics” like Life, Monopoly, Mousetrap, Chutes and ladders. Yeah, these are, for the most part, kids games, and you can’t expect kids to play Le Havre, but calling these products games is a disservice to the hobby. It tells kids “boardgames are boring.” It tells adults “boardgames are boring.” I mean we’ve unfortunately, put the homophone board/bored in the general title for them. We need to be more careful here.

My point here isn’t to focus on younger gamers. I think it’s important to step aside for a second and point out that there are some great games for younger players that can be fun for adults as well. Later in the week I’ll post a list of those games, and why they work for both adults, and younger players, and how they should replace the “games” above.

What I’m really getting at now is that Candy Land, and “games” like it shouldn’t be called games. There are different words that more accurately describe them. For example, I tend to describe Candy Land as a really long way to flip a coin. I don’t think anyone would call a coin flip a game. At best, it’s a bet, or a start player mechanic.

What about the “games” that have a few minor, but usually meaningless choices, like Life, Battleship, Sorry, etc? What would you call those? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments to be honest. I would compare them to crafting activities, except there is no artistic value in them, and they don’t produce anything in the end like a craft. At best they are like building a sand castle. You spend time doing them, but they leave no lasting impression.

There is a last set of “games”, that I don’t actually engage in, but are probably on a higher order than the previously listed ones. These are what I call activities. A great example of an activity that is passed along as a game is Jenga. People participate in it, and choices are made that have meaning, but it’s not really game either. Twister, and I suppose most dexterity based “games” are other examples of an activities. They are a lot like games, sort of the neanderthal to the homo sapiens of the board game world, but they just don’t quite live up to their cousins.

Honestly, I haven’t bothered to create my own vocabulary for “games” that don’t really reach the level of being a game, but I believe it’s something that the hobby needs. We need to separate what we do, and enjoy, from those things if we want to continue to grow the hobby, and help bring in new gamers.

Understand the designer. Understand the game.

A popular misconception I’ve seen among players is the idea that some people are better at understanding the rules for games after only reading them. That is to say I’ve talked to gamers who read the rules, play the game, and then comment on how the game played nothing like they expected. As a result that surprise makes it trickier for them to win the first, or more, times that they play. I’m sure we’ve all either seen this happen, or have had it happen ourselves. This is what leads some people to feel that some are better at understanding rules than others. Honestly, that just isn’t the case. More accurately some people understand the mind of the designer better than others. This understanding leads them to read the rules in a way that allows them to play the game for the first time as if they had played it before.

Over a decade ago when I first read the rules for games I found that I would also sometimes be surprised by how they played. However, over the years as I played with designs, and asked myself questions about my own games’ design this happened less and less. It makes sense if you think about it. When most people first design a game they have a good idea, maybe a great idea, but since it’s their first game they don’t have the experience to make the game fully live up to its potential. That isn’t to say they won’t eventually, with revisions, and trial and error, get their game to that point, but there is a surprising amount of thought, and attention to detail, that goes into a good design. Very few people are naturally able to get it all right the first time, and even if they do they likely fully don’t realize how it all happened. I’m being honest here, it’s incredibly important to be humble as a game designer. If you’re not your product will suffer. That means everything I described above comes from personal experience as well as observation from other designers.

What this all means is that when you have a game or two that you’ve designed under your belt you’ve experienced the world of gaming from behind the curtain. You know the questions that are asked during a design, and the things to watch for that could impact the gaming experience in a positive or negative way. Once you’ve hit that point you will read the rules to a game in a different way. You’ll see the thought process that went into each choice. You’ll stop asking “why did they?” and you will start to say “I see what will happen.” You won’t always agree with the design choices. Heck, let’s be honest, most of the time you’ll disagree. Humble or not every designer has a different design style, and that’s a good thing. (Also, a different topic for another time.)

This is a great advantage for designers at the table. If everyone at the table plays a game for the first time the designers tend to win that first play. However, it takes more than knowing this for non-designers to overcome that advantage. Don’t worry there is good news. You don’t have to design a game to get this advantage. Yeah, it’s a side effect of designing games, but there are other ways to gain this information. All you need to do is understand the mind of a designer, ask the same questions they do, and you will have the same edge.

That’s easier said than done right? No actually, it’s pretty easy. Just talk to designers about their games. Ask them why they made the choices they made. Read blogs, articles, and other resources by designers. We tend to like to talk about our projects, and through that you will understand the designer, and in doing so understand how to beat him at his own game.

Ryuutama – Japan’s take on tabletop RPGs

Here’s a quick quiz for you? What reached its Kickstarter goal in roughly 3 hours, and in the few days more than quadrupled said goal? The correct answer comes in essay form, but I’ll leave that essay to the experts. Instead, I’ll give the short answer. It’s Ryuutama (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/diamondsutra/ryuutama-natural-fantasy-role-playing-game) a recently translated Japanese tabletop RPG (JRPG) that’s probably unlike any RPG you’ve ever played, or possibly heard of.

So what is it about Ryuutama that has Kickstarter all-a-flutter? Again, essay answer (see below), but the short is answer Kotodama Heavy Industries, the translation team behind the English release, has already shown they do incredible work with their previously successful project Tenra Bansho Zero.

So that essay I promised you? Well recently I was fortunate enough to have a chance to talk with the team behind Ryuutama–Matt Sanchez and Andy Kitkowski–so it comes in the form of an interview:

David: Matt, Andy thanks for taking the time to talk with me.

Matt: It’s always a pleasure to chat with you, Dave!

David: Just recently, you’ve both started a new Kickstarter for a Japanese pen and paper RPG called Ryuutama. I’m going to assume everyone reading this knows what a pen and paper RPG is, but I’m guessing most people aren’t familiar with Japanese RPGs (JRPG) and how they might be different from American classics like D&D. Can you describe what an American player who hasn’t seen a JRPG might notice when he first sits down to play one?

Matt: Well, other than the obvious difference in language, I think the first thing that one might notice is probably the art. Just as western RPG books are filled with “realistically” styled art, most JRPGs are filled with the manga inspired art you might expect. Lots of JRPG books have slip covers over the cover, too, with a character sheet on the inside for easy copying. Depending on the publisher, a large portion of the book might be a replay, too. (Editor’s note: A replay is a script of an actual game session to give the players a sense of how the game is played.)

Andy: As Matt says, the art is probably the first giveaway. But the other common thing, especially with recent publications, is the size: Many recent book offerings are in “bunko” size format, which is the size of traditional Japanese novels. They are about one thumb-width thick, printed on fine, soft paper, and are about the size of your hand. Much smaller than normal paperback novels in the US. Many are not the “8.5×11” or “A4-Sized” full-color huge books we come to expect in the US.

David: Speaking of differences, the actual JRPG rules are known to have a few differences as well. What sort of things would an American gamer find for the first time in a JRPG manual?

Matt: While it’s not a good idea to generalize, you could say that old school charts show up in a lot of games. There are often very explicit rules for scenario creation and enforcing a three act structure. Most of these games are meant to be played either as a one shot or a series of one shots in a 4-6 hour slot.

Andy: The charts that Matt alludes to are there, and they’re usually there not for determining the impact of bullets or the bounce of grenades, but to randomize your character’s potential backgrounds, connections, feelings towards major NPCs, or backstory elements. They are often on a “Roll or Choose” system, which means you roll on a chart for inspiration: If it sticks, you have a cool new story element for your character. But if it’s totally alien for your character’s concept, you simply pick another. Seems weak since you’re not forced to pick the result, but in practice this system works extremely well.

Beyond that, it’s hard to generalize, as Matt said. One thing they all have in common is that, while they might have conceptually unique settings or rules, they very much stick to a traditional “there is always a GM” playstyle. There aren’t that many experiments with GM-less or distributed authority. Instead, true to Japanese innovation, they stay “thinking inside the box”, but completely change all the concepts within that box: Improving, streamlining, innovating.

David: Now that we have a sense of what a JRPG is lets talk about Ryuutama. I think the first, and most obvious question is, what the crisp does Ryuutama mean?

Matt: It translates to “Dragon Egg”, but it doesn’t quite slip off the tongue as well.

Andy: Indeed. Ryuutama just flows so much better than “Dragon’s Egg”. Even the French edition kept the “Ryuutama” name!

Dave: I see what you’re saying, and I’d say it’s a good sign that it’s getting multiple international releases. Still, with a name like that I am guessing this will have more than a few things in common with D&D?

Matt: Well, in that it is medieval fantasy, of a sort, I suppose. But the focus is on the natural world, on exploration, and on normal townspeople, not murderous bands of ruffians. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There are dragons, but they’re not really there to fight anyone.

Andy: Yeah, it’s interesting: While there is combat, and things like “total party kills” can happen (and in my case, where I played with the author, we had five 1st level heroes that were almost all killed by two 4th level Giant Bees!), the focus is clearly on travel and meeting people. You get about 1/10th the experience for defeating powerful enemies as you do for overcoming challenging terrains and weather conditions.

David: What kind of gamer would enjoy Ryuutama? And what about the game may appeal to them?

Matt: I think this game would appeal to those who are interested in RPGs but are not drawn to the violent aspect of them. It’s a gateway game for those who are normally sort of leery, too, I think. My wife, for example, has no interest in playing D&D but she played Ryuutama and would like to play again. It has that “feel good/honobono” aspect to it that the Studio Ghibli films do.

Andy: If you want to play a game about helping people with people-problems, and keep a bit of wonder in your heart, and can deal with things in your fantasy world like “Cat-Goblins with Teacups on their Heads” and spells like “Summon a Cubic Meter of Dried Leaves”, then you are the audience for this game.

I mean, it’s essentially a game about all those NPCs you normally come across in a village when you play the Hero of some Japanese console game: The baker, the minstrel, the healer who heals your party, some farmer wandering in a circle, the guy who sells you swords and armor; those are the characters you choose from. You aren’t the heroes and demon-slayers, instead you’re basically Normal Everyday Fantasy People just trying to stay alive on this journey.

David: Cat-Goblins! Incredible. Alright, so someone asked me just yesterday if it was meant to be a solo campaign kind of game? I get the impression it would play very well with just a GM and a single player. Is that correct? What’s the recommended number of players?

Matt: It’s certainly possible, and I think that could be an interesting campaign that could go a lot of ways. But it could get rough. The more people you have in your party, the easier the survival aspects of the game are going to be.

Andy: Yeah, I’ve played it a lot, and indeed the sweet spot is one GM and 3-5 players. More than 6 is likely too much. Games with 1-2 players are absolutely possible, but they will be more intimate, and the GM will have to plan encounters with utmost care: One traveling Magic-Using Healer is not going to be able to face the same challenges (in travel or combat) as a group with Technical and Attack type characters.

David: Rumor has it (at this point confirmed in the Kickstarter description) that it’s not unlike Oregon Trail. Will players suddenly die of terrible diseases? In what ways is it like Oregon Trail? I can imagine these similarities will only help the fan base for the game to grow?

Matt: There are no terrible diseases unless the black Ryuujin unleashes one… (hey that sounds like a good scenario!) but it is just as easy to die from passing over rough terrain as it is in combat. If you are not prepared, you will get lost and you will starve or fall to the elements. Luckily getting prepared is fun and there are some options as to how you can go about shopping. For people who would rather just jump into the traveling aspect, there are “picnic rules,” where the players each receive a predetermined set of items.

David: I like the idea of role playing shopping, but I can see how it might not work for everyone. Still, what I’m hearing does make me think of Oregon Trail.

Andy: Actually, Yes! I actually made up that comparison a while back, calling it “Hayao Miyazaki’s Oregon Trail” (ala the Oregon Trail video game; in fact, I’m making sure to add a Grandfather Clock to the starting equipment list in the English Version as a shout-out!). To which people immediately ask, “Can you die of dysentery?”

The answer to that is, “Yep!” You could fail/fumble in a travel roll which reduces your hit points down to 25% of their total. What does that mean? Did you twist your ankle? Did you get heatstroke? Did you drink some bad water? If you think the latter is appropriate, the GM might say, “Okay, you are now infected with a level 6 Sickness”, which makes you weaker at everything, and vulnerable to other damage. You have to rest/heal and maybe the next day you’ll get over that sickness. But yeah, in a way you can “Die of Dysentery” (or at least be critically weakened by it).

Though the actual physical effects of Dysentery, like Giardia or parasite infections, aren’t really “honobono” when you go into their gruesome “bowel-oriented” details, so I’d just leave it at “your stomach hurts”.

David: That’s great, all of the pieces are in play to make it as much like Oregon Trail as you like. Now I have to say there are a lot of JRPGs you could have translated. Why did you choose Ryuutama? (Also why not Shinobigami? Seriously. Like it’s the best game ever.)

Matt: Andy and I were talking about a game we could do while working on Shinobigami (which is our next project) and this game really stuck out to me.

Andy: There was a certain order to things. First Maid, to understand how the translation and publishing process works. I learned a lot from that. Then Tenra Bansho Zero, my dream project of some seven years. Then Ryuutama, and Shinobigami. We basically worked on them in the order in which we approached those companies. Each game, we get a little better at doing this, make better connections, and get closer to the wonderful artists responsible for these works.

I too can’t wait to bring Shinobigami to a wider audience. That will happen once we have Ryuutama to their backers!

David: Ryuutama has a unique mechanic involving a dragon person. Is this sort of thing common in a JRPG? Or is it pretty unique to Ryuutama? Can you describe what a player might expect from the dragon person, and the role he/she plays in the game?

Matt: I haven’t seen any other game, western or Japanese, that has a GM character like the Ryuujin. (Editor’s note: Ryuu = dragon, jin = person) They have their own character sheet and stats, but the stats are different than the PCs. Their abilities are used to affect the story, not perform actions. The Ryuujin is allowed to journey and interact with the party but cannot take center stage like GMPCs (Editor’s note: Game Master Player Characters are fully functioning PCs, often used to fill roles, and have the full agency of a normal PC.) in other games might.

Andy: Also, to add to Matt, it’s brilliant that the GM character also gets XP, but in a totally different way from the characters: They gain XP solely by the GM running sessions/scenarios for players. One scenario is One XP, and most level gains only require 1-3 or so XP.

The more levels the Ryuujin gains, the more effects they can do to help the party members: As a GM, they provide adversity for the party, but as the secretive Ryuujin, always off screen, they are there to help the party succeed with abilities like “turn a PC’s failed roll into a success”. They can only do these abilities a very few times a session though, they can’t pull them out of every jam.

David: Kind of reminds me of the old D&D cartoon with the dungeon master character except a lot cooler. By now it’s safe to say combat is not a huge focus in the game. However, I imagine it will still come up. What will combat look like in a Ryuutama game?

Matt: Combat is simplified and abstracted. There are 4 areas: enemy and friendly sides and within those are front and back areas. Players roll initiative using their stats, and that becomes their defense value as well. One of the cool things about combat is that before it begins, everyone comes up with 5 objects in and around the combat area in the fiction, and they can interact with those objects for bonuses.

Andy: Yeah, when you see the grid, it looks like an old console RPG, clearly inspired by Dragon Quest or the like: Simple, straightforward, and fun. But very much driven by the die rolls: If you get cold dice and no one in your party rolls well at all, it can be a very one-sided fight!

David: Still, it sounds incredible! I’ve played my fair share of maps and minis RPGs, and there is nothing wrong with it, but this sounds like a breath of fresh air to say the least.

Matt: That could be because you always lose at maps and minis games.

David: My reputation precedes me. OK, I got three questions I always ask every time I look at a new RPG. What’s the setting? What does the character sheet look like? What are the core mechanics, and how are they unique from what I’ve seen in the past? This always brings me to my forth question, what dice are used? (Author’s note: More recently I’ve started to ask what are the randomizing elements?)

Matt: The book has rules for coming up with the entire world together as a group. If that isn’t to your taste, the GM can handle it all themselves. But it is assumed that the world is a low magic medieval fantasy.

We have sample character sheets for both PCs and Ryuujin on our site that you can check out.

And to answer your third and fourth questions, stats are not numbers, but dice sizes, similar to Savage Worlds. So, for example, a character might have d8 strength and d4 dexterity. Skill checks are performed by rolling two stats at once, with a fumble occurring at double 1s and a critical occurring if both dice rolled their maximum value or if both dice rolled a 6. Rolling a fumble nets you a Fumble Point, which can be traded in later for a bonus to a roll!

David: This game seems full of inventive, and unique mechanics. That combined with an interesting take on the fantasy world. It hits both of my weak spots. You can definitely be assured I’ll be backing this Kickstarter.