Master Plan - May 2006
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Creating a Children's Game (Part 1)

I have quite a love for board games and have been spending a lot of time lately playing and demoing all sorts of different ones. So, this month, I'm going to switch gears and talking about creating one. Hopefully those of you who are more RPG-minded will still find something of interest here, and rest assured that I will talk about RPGs again in future columns.

Recently, I entertained for a couple friends and their two children, one three years old and one six. The parents remarked about one of my gaming shelves filled with various board games and the like. My girlfriend suggested we play Apples to Apples with the kids, as the six-year-old was a strong reader and could sound out words well. His father helped him out, and I had the younger brother by my side making all of my decisions (which was the source of one rather cute bit where I asked him to tell him which of my cards was "corrupt," and he pointed to the "White House" one).

The six-year-old won that game and later a game of Othello against me, and then his parents and I talked about games for children. Knowing me to be an amateur game designer, they suggested that I make a children's game for them -- to quote the mother, "There's only so much Candyland that I can take." Now, I know there are companies out there that make good family games -- SimplyFun comes to mind -- but since they suggested I design a game, I thought it would make for a good column.

As an aside: if you have any family game suggestions that I could pass along to parents, I would love to hear them. I also heard that there is a take like Apples to Apples, but geared for children. Unfortunately, no one knew the name of the game or who the publisher was, but if this sounds familiar to you, I would greatly appreciate it if you could drop me a line at let me know. In either case, please email me at MasterPlan@hmfy.com.

Project Title: Create a Children's Game
Part: One -- Sketching the Idea.
Goal: Create a basic game suitable for young children. As I'm not a parent, "young children" is currently a vague concept to me -- I will likely become more familiar with what sort of age range I'm aiming towards as I playtest the game.

A secondary goal would be to fit such a game within my "ruleset ideal," which can be boiled down to "simple ruleset, interesting play." Ticket to Ride is, for me, an iconic example of this ideal. The rulebook is only four 8.5" x 11" pages long, and the first page is purely a cover -- primarily art and flavor text -- so the rules only take up three pages. These aren't three pages of cramped text, but well laid-out directions, including full color diagrams, making it pleasant to read compared to make other games out there. Furthermore, and in this day and age very profound, there's no need for an FAQ or errata document to make up for the brevity -- the game stands alone with its four-page rulebook, and presents a wealth of interesting play. Everyone I introduce the game to, from the casual player to the hardcore gamer, wants to play it again and again. To its designer, Alan R. Moon: I tip my hat to you. Bravo.

Naturally, a simple ruleset is not only important to a good children's game, but necessary.

A tertiary goal would be to make a game that parents might enjoy as well -- it does no good to pass on a love of games with a game you loathe to play.

My first thoughts were centered on the games I had just played with children: Apples to Apples and Othello. Letting this vague idea percolate in my mind for a few hours, an idea struck: make a strategy-type board game (influenced by watching the boy play Othello and seeing him start to get confidence in his own decisions), but limit the choices in order to not overwhelm (because I saw times where he was paralyzed by many, many choices, and asked his mom for help) without completely relying on randomness (since that makes for a poor strategy game).

Some other games came to mind as I formed this idea: thinking about childhood games, Tic-Tac-Toe and Memory; thinking about games I recently demoed, Memoir '44. From all these ideas flying around in my head, I started to piece together a framework:

  • The main game mechanic involves matching cards (or tiles or something) in one's hand with the same shape & color combination on a board.
  • The board consists of 16 square tiles, each having a different shape-color combination. They will be laid out randomly in a 4 x 4 configuration. This can be achieved with four shapes and four colors.
  • The deck of cards (or bag of tiles or something) consists of 3 or 4 cards for each tile's shape-color combination. This makes for 48 or 64 cards in our deck.
  • A turn consists of placing a matching a card in one's hand to one on the board. Some sort of counter is placed on that tile. If there's already a counter on that tile, that card match can't be played.
  • The object of the game is to score the most points, which is achieved by making rows of three or more (horizontally and vertically, maybe also diagonally). When doing so, all those counters are removed from those tiles and the number of counters removed is added to that player's score.

At this point, I begin to have concerns about this design:

  • This doesn't seem to scale well for more players. I suspect it is best suited for two players, passable with three, pushing the limits with four, and completely no good with more. Considering the number of family games that max out at six to eight players, this game idea may have less appeal.
  • I think the length of the game may be too short. That's not a major problem, as I it can be adjusted by having different score goals for shorter and longer games, or by playing to a number of won games. The game-play itself may be too quick, though.
  • I'm unsure of this game's age target, which comes with unfamiliarity with the "market" that is children.

These are just some initial assessments I'll keep in mind while playtesting it, and I'm sure others will crop up as testing goes on.

I have a basic idea now, but it needs a theme. One of the shapes I had in mind was a simple, five-point star. Going from that, I thought of an astronomy theme: the players take on roles of astronomers discovering new things in the sky. This gives me other ideas for shapes: crescent moons, planets with rings and comets. I also get a working title: Stargazers.

As for colors, the four classics come to mind: red, blue, green and yellow. This is where I move from jotting down notes to looking at what supplies I have. A few months ago, I took a trip to a nearby art supply store and bought quite a lot of little supplies for making board games. Taking a look in my supply box, I have:

  • 16 1.5" lightly-shaded wooden squares -- perfect for the board tiles
  • Lots of glass beads -- good enough for counters right now, but I suspect for any production I would want to go with larger, harder-to-swallow round discs. Even if the game goes beyond the "putting random items in mouths" stage of childhood (which, at 27, I apparently haven't fully outgrown yet), it's still younger-sibling-friendly.
  • Many Sharpie markers of various colors, mostly ultra-fine but a handful of fine point ones. I'll want to stick with the fine point ones for just filling in shapes with colors, since I want to save my ultra-fine ones for finer detailing. Since I'm using light-color tiles and white cardstock, I'll toss out yellow as a potential color for this playtest set and use orange instead.
  • I also have cardstock, a printer, and many card sleeves with colored backing -- all which allow me to make cards without worrying about the ink bleeding through. The printer will allow me to make the shapes look the same, rather than freehand draw each shape for 48 or 64 cards. With a simple shape outline, I can just color in the shapes with Sharpies.

That's where I'm going to leave you, my dear readers, off for this month. I'll finish up with part two next month, where I talk about playtesting this game with kids and their parents. If it works out, I'll also include everything needed (at least, electronically-speaking) to make and play the game at home.

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