Why I make boardgames with my daughter

We drew this with sharpie then added watercolors.
Writing the gameplay sequence down on a mat makes it way easier to learn.
My daughter wanted the first part of the board to be “like a maze.”
Our heroine, parachuting to an archipelago from a downed aircraft.
The game screen.

Making games with kids is amazing

Doing this is great fun, and gives you a chance to build something together and then teach others. But beyond the obvious enjoyment of creating as a team, there are a ton of reasons to do this that I wish we’d see more of in school curricula.

It has creativity

Making boardgames is a lot of art. In some cases you’re also illustrating cards. (That’s fun, but it can get complicated quickly, as you’ll see below.) We often make gamepieces out of Sculpy/Fimo, which is perfect for prototyping.

This was made with Sculpey and baked for a while.
The Crayola air-dry clay works well for prototypes too.
Tokens for the Potion Race: A snail (slows you down); a brain (feeds zombies); a flashlight; a grimoire (better potion success); a hat (keeps you warm against frost giants); a staff; a broom; an invisibility cloak.

It forces questions of balance and fairness

When you’re playing a game, it’s immediately apparent if it’s unfair. If someone always wins, or some rule means things go on interminably, you’ll notice. Rather than fixing it yourself, you can ask, “how would you fix that?” Often, the suggestion for correcting an imbalance is to introduce another band-aid imbalance — and things quickly get too complicated. Then you can return to the underlying system and try to make it fair on a fundamental level.

It teaches theory of mind

When you’re designing a game, you have to think about how others will behave. This is a great way for children to develop a theory of mind—and then try it out. Often, kids assume that everyone will do things the way they do. They believe that if they understand something, it will be obvious to others. (I think that) the sooner they realize this is not the case, the more clearly they’ll communicate and the more readily they’ll develop empathy.

It’s iterative

The first few rounds of play won’t work. That’s OK—talk about why they didn’t. This is a great way to convey ideas like the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) or iteration and improvement.

An hour into their second game.

Some tips to get started

If you’re up for making a game with your kids, here’s what I learned.

Get materials ready

Plenty of materials you can write on or use for mechanics is a great way to start. I’ve used:

  • Popsicle sticks (as tokens, inventory, or a way to randomly choose something by drawing one stick from a bundle.)
  • Poker chips, either as currency or tokens.
  • Post-it notes. Great for making corrections on the board.
  • Colored paper to use for playing cards (index cards work well too.)
  • Markers, ideally fresh sharpies; plus watercolor paints for the board.
  • Sculpey or Fimo modeling clay, plus acrylic paints, for game pieces.
  • Sheets of paper taped together, a big roll of paper, or foamcore you can draw on for the board.
  • Ziplock bags to put it all in.

Copy unabashedly

For your first game, use something familiar (like Snakes and Ladders) and just play with the naming and characters. Then add one idea (for example, certain squares make you draw a card that forces you to do something silly, or trade places with another player.) Don’t try to make an entirely new game the first time—the customization will be enough.

Play early, play often

As soon as you can, play a round of the game. Talk about what worked and what didn’t. See which part of the creation your child likes, and double down on that. Rope in others to play and see where they get stuck or what they don’t understand—and have your child try to explain it to them. They’ll quickly realize that being an expert is hard!

Mix game mechanics for randomness and strategy

Most of our games have one simple way to win (“get five or more cards,” or “be the first to get to the middle of the board,” for example.) But we usually have multiple ways to do that:

  • Dice for movement around a board.
  • Events when you land on a space, such as fighting a monster or gaining an inventory item.
  • Some form of battle between players (this can be fun stuff like thumb-wrestling, or game-related like rolling dice for combat.)
  • Some form of cooperation/sharing (a trading phase, or a way to gift something to another player.
  • Set-building from cards (getting five of a kind wins; getting the whole armour set gives extra benefits.)
  • Inventory (cards or items you hold that change gameplay.)
  • Story cards or dice where players have to tell a story and earn the approval of other players somehow.
  • Secret tunnels or shortcuts. Everyone likes an advantage.
  • Have a counter for health, or some other progress-meter element. You can do this on a small card or area on the board where players move tokens up and down as they progress, like a health bar in a video game.
  • Ways to send the leader back to the start. If you can introduce an element that lets laggards catch up, this is a great way to help less experienced players win.
These are the cards for the Diamond Quest game.
Things get complicated quickly when you try to improve them.
This turned out surprisingly fun. I need to put the cards into something printable and make more decks.

Make it silly

The games all have some random silliness in them. For example, in the Shark area of the Diamond Quest game, you can draw cards that make you do daft things:

  • Chased by a jellyfish: Swim around the table screaming
  • Water, water everywhere: Drink a glass of water
  • Sea shanty: Make up a 30 second song about something in the game and sing it.
  • Binoculars: Until someone gets a diamond, you must look through your hands as if they were binoculars.
  • Sloth: Until someone gets a diamond, you can’t use your thumbs. You may want to tape them to your hands.
  • Bitten by a zombie: For the next minute, all you can say is “brains.”
  • Mummy’s curse: Wrap head in toilet paper until next turn

Enjoy the backstory

If you’re just working out game mechanics, a popsicle stick with writing on it or a token works best.But it’s hard to fall in love with a popsicle stick. Making pieces with a character and a backstory is critical for getting kids interested in this. At XOXOfest this year, I saw a game made by a designer and daughter team, so of course I bought a copy for us to play:

So many moving parts. Fun, tho.

Scribble rules as you design the game

We write the rules in pencil on each gameboard, which means we can adjust and adapt them as we go.

Let it go

The odds are good that you won’t finish the game perfectly. You may want to start on an entirely new one; your kid may lose interest. You have to be okay with that. I’m a bit of a perfectionist around stuff like game mechanics; I have to keep reminding myself that the goal is to have fun and learn, not to produce a polished game you can retail on Kickstarter.

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Alistair Croll

Alistair Croll

Writer, speaker, accelerant. Intersection of tech & society. Strata, Startupfest, Bitnorth, FWD50. Lean Analytics, Tilt the Windmill, HBS, Just Evil Enough.