Theory: Games for Parents . . . and Their Toddler

I’m accustomed to thinking about game design projects in terms of goals I set for myself: I want to make a game that’s about this, or works like that. As an attorney, though, my “projects”–cases–were driven by the client’s needs rather than what I was interested in. This past weekend I was reminded that that’s a valid approach to game design as well, and I saw some clients that I really want to help out. I want to build a game that works for people with toddlers.

Here are the facts of the case. I visited some friends of many years. They’re board gamers–the engineer and one of the law students from this story, as it happens. In addition, they have a two-year-old.

(Parents who are reading this already see the problem.)

It turns out that playing board games while taking care of a toddler is a challenge. Now, their child is very well-behaved. Two-year-olds, though, can’t resist colorful game pieces–and my friends’ daughter is no exception. They tend to pile up around her as she collects people’s cards and meeples.

This is just about the cutest thing in the world, but it makes playing Galaxy Trucker, or even a party game like Apples to Apples, tricky. Secret information gets revealed and pieces get moved when a toddler is around. The game state is constantly subject to change.

Watching my friends balance letting their child participate against keeping the game going made me realize how badly we need board games that work with new parents rather than against them. The vast majority of board games only function if small children are kept at a distance. That’s fine so far as it goes, but it means that most games can’t reach the table when there’s a toddler in the house. It would be great if we could design more board games that are suitable for play in the presence of small children; games that are interesting for the adults at the table, but that are resilient and can handle the child taking an interest in them.

My first thought, inspired by the cheerful destruction at the table, was a game about cleaning up after a natural disaster, with the child taking the role of the disaster. One of my friends suggested a game centered around a mobile that the child could spin and play with. I still like both of those ideas, but I feel like there’s so much more that could be done here. Kids don’t just whack game pieces; they move them, gather them, and even walk away from the table to play games of their own devising with them. It would be amazing if a game could take advantage of that creativity.

I haven’t had the chance to think too much about this over the week to date, but I think it’s a fascinating topic and I aim to explore it further. You have, as part of your game, a completely unpredictable player who is not subject to any rules. How does that game work?

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