Among the loot that Santa Claus brought my son- who just turned three- were of course, a couple of tabletop games. Don’t be silly, I didn’t get my kid Advanced Squad Leader Junior and I didn’t give him the Mage Knight expansion as a stealth own-gift. I got him proper preschooler games. Well, at least partially. No Hi-Ho Cherry-O, no Candy Land, no Snakes/Chutes and Ladders. Not even Cootie. It was the first time I’ve ever bought games for a child, which is an entirely different process altogether. And since I missed a lot of “normal” kid games when I was little because I was already into the hobby stuff at an early age, it was actually kind of odd.
But I went through typical motions. I looked online at reviews and rolled my eyes at these adult, middle-aged men scoffing at preschool-aged games because they “lacked meaningful decisions” or because they didn’t hold an adult’s interest for longer than 15 minutes. Come the hell on. Do we really need these kinds of comments for games designed for three and four year olds? I was pretty disappointed by a lot of what I read in comments and forum posts- too many board game geeks trying to apply board game geek standards to games for kids that can’t even read yet, let alone worry about how much luck is in a game of Candy Land or if there’s some fucking variant to make it more strategic.
I went with a couple of Haba games- they’re a German company that makes some pretty neat kid’s stuff- and a couple of games that I bought straight off the shelf at Target because I thought the subject matter and art would appeal to River. I could not possibly have given less of a toss about “meaningful decisions” or whether the game prepares him to play Le Havre later in life or whatever. I wanted fun, appealing activities to do with him. I’m not trying to raise a gamer. Good Crom, no.
The Haba games were Tier auf Tier, one about stacking wooden animals on each other with a single placement rule determined by a die roll and Knuckling Knights. That one has a cardboard castle tower that you dump knight pawns into and watch them roll into dropout holes, sort of a peewee Wallenstein. River loves knights. The more mainstream games were the Sneaky Snacky Squirrel, which is absolutely adorable in a tree-shaped box and a big plastic squirrel nut-grabber, and a balancing game called Don’t Rock the Boat. That one has pirates, penguins, and a big plastic ship. River digs all three. The rules there are: 1) place a penguin on the boat 2) repeat 3) If you’re the chump that tips the boat, you lose.
The first one he went for was the knight game, and I have to admit that it was pretty awesome showing my boy how to roll a die for the first time and look at the results. He didn’t quite have the hang of taking turns just yet and he didn’t quite get that the die roll showed how many knights he got to throw in, but we had fun just piling in the knights and pulling the trapdoor that dumps them out. After about 15 minutes, I think he got it. I’d roll the die, show him the pips and get him to count out his guys. Then he started saying “and it’s my turn” after I’d go.
The squirrel game was a hit too. You spin a spinner (one of the most criminally underused mechanics in modern gaming) and take whatever color acorn is shown using the big plastic squirrel-shaped nut-grabber. There’s also a robber squirrel on the spinner (shades of Settlers?) and a wind that blows all of your acorn away. It was funny to watch a kind of narrative unfold. “Oh now, they blew away!” “I’m going to take the blue one!” There isn’t a lick of strategy beyond taking a nut of a color you don’t already have. I don’t care, River had fun, and now wants to play it all the time. We even got my 15-month old daughter “kind of” playing it.
Tier auf Tier, oddly, was a miss. It’s apparently a very popular preschool game in Europe, and I thought it looked pretty fun. You roll a die and place a number of wooden animals in any orientation on this crocodile. It’s a balance and dexterity thing, with the drama of total collapse if someone bungles their turn. River messed with the animals for a few minutes but didn’t seem to get into the gameplay at all. Maybe later, but the animals are being played with by both kids so it’s not a total loss.
Don’t Rock the Boat has a similar toy factor with the big pirate ship and penguins. It’s really dumb. But hey, River laughs and says “what’s gonna happen!” every time he puts a pirate on the ship. He’s sort of figured out what areas of the ship are more likely to tip the boat, so he’ll put penguins in the crow’s nest or close to the masts instead of way out at the edge. I find these damn penguins everywhere, and it’s sort of baffling as to why he’s played with that crappy ship more than the $50 Peter Pan pirate ship his grandparents gave him.
So the lessons learned about buying and playing games with River are that I really don’t care at all what the game is, as long as he’s having fun and we’re interacting. I’ve had more fun playing games with River and seeing how he talks about them, plays with them, and learns about them than I have with pretty much any other “adult” game I’ve played in a long time. When you play a game with a three year old, all of the usual hufflepuff, all of the critical chin-scratching, all of the what games should or should not be guff fades away and it becomes just about having fun with a loose structure to hold it altogether. The funny thing is that it’s really not all that much different than what I want from playing “dad’s” games.