Theory: Rules for a Toddler-Proof Game

Identifying an issue–creating a board game that works even when a toddler messes with the pieces–is just the first step. The next and more difficult phase is finding rules that will guide the work.

Since most board games don’t (and, to be fair, were never meant to) account for the possibility of a two-year-old moving things around, I haven’t come up with many helpful examples to learn from. As a result, this will be a largely theoretical exercise. I’m interested to hear your views on what I’ve come up with, what should be included here that I missed, and on games that I should be thinking about.

Without further ado:

The game must be safe: this is perhaps obvious, but obvious things can be overlooked when they’re not made an explicit part of the process. Any game that’s meant to be resilient when kids interact with it also has to be safe for the kids. “This game is proof against children–because it’s MADE OF LAVA!!!!!” is not OK.

Damage should be irrelevant to the design: very small children play rough; it’s inevitable when they’re still learning fine motor control. Any game designed with the expectation that toddlers will interact with it needs to be able to handle having its components knocked around. This might be accomplished through making the components sturdy enough not to be damaged, or it might involve designing the game to take battered components into account.

Position cannot be required to remain constant: many if not most turn-based games assume that pieces will remain in place from round to round. (How many rulebooks specifically say “don’t pick up your pieces?”) That assumption doesn’t hold when there’s a toddler present. For a game to work while within arm’s reach of a small child, it has to be able to continue after the pieces are jostled.

Every piece is optional: kids are natural collectors; toddlers will gather whatever pieces the adults are playing a board game with so that they can play, too. Since they aren’t actually playing the game (or at least, are playing a different game–“gather these interesting things”), this tends to lead to an ever-growing number of pieces being taken out of circulation. Our hypothetical game therefore can’t rely on its components being available. The rules have to allow the players to keep going with an unpredictable set of the game’s pieces missing.

These rules present some really fascinating challenges. What kind of board game doesn’t need its components? What should the pieces be made of? I won’t be stopping development of Over the Next Dune or Lines of Questioning to work on this, but I’ll be coming back to it from time to time. Problems this interesting shouldn’t be left by the wayside!

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