Master Plan - July 2006
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Creating a Children's Game (Part 2)

This month, we return to the topic of Creating a Children's Game. I haven't been able to schedule the additional playtest sessions I wanted, though the game is currently out on loan to a friend who is going to try it with his son. Nevertheless, I have enough information with which to write a column.

Project Title: Create a Children's Game
Part: Two -- Rules and Playtest Data
Goal: Create a basic game suitable for young children, and have it fit in the "ruleset ideal" I previously discussed.

First, I'll start with the rules I created, based on my notes in Part One...


Stargazers

Ages: 5 to 8
Players: 2 to 4
Time: 10 to 20 minutes

Components

  • 16 Board Tiles -- red, orange, blue & green colored shapes of crescent moons, ring planets, stars & comets.
  • 48 Cards -- 3 of each color/shape combination
  • 30 Glass Beads

Setup

Shuffle the tiles, face-down, on the table. Arrange them in a 4x4 grid, then flip them over. You'll have a board that looks similar to this:

Example Board

Put the beads near the board, where everyone can reach them.

Shuffle the deck and deal three cards to each player, face down. Then place the deck near the board, leaving room for a discard pile.

The youngest player goes first with gameplay proceeding clockwise.

Rules

During your turn, you play a card from your hand and then draw a new card.

Playing a Card

When you play a card, lay it in the discard pile then find the tile on the board with the matching shape and color. If there is not a bead on that tile, place one there. Otherwise, skip to Drawing a Card.

Placing a Bead

Take a bead from the pile and put it on the empty tile that matches your card. If that bead makes three or more in a row on the board, you get to score! You may claim any row horizontally, vertically or diagonally. If you are able to make more than one row with the same tile, you score for all the rows!

When you make a row, take all the beads off of those tiles and keep them near you. Your score is kept by the number of beads you capture. Note: it doesn't matter who places the beads on the other tiles you claim. All that matters is what you are able to claim when you play.

Examples:

Example Board There is a bead on the Orange Planet and Green Comet. If you play a Green Moon card, you'll be able to place a bead on that tile and capture all three beads!

Example Board There are three places where a player can score here! If you place a bead on the Red Star tile, you'll capture that bead as well as the beads on the Red Comet and Blue Moon. Placing a bead on the Orange Moon means you'll get to capture the beads on the Blue Moon and Orange Planet. Finally, placing a bead on the Blue Planet tile means you collect that whole diagonal!

Example Board Placing a bead on the Green Moon makes two rows! You get to collect all the beads from the Red Star, Orange Star, Orange Planet, Green Moon, Green Star, and Blue Planet -- for a total of six beads! Note that even though the Green Moon counted for two rows, you still only get one bead for that tile.

Drawing a Card

At the end of your turn, draw a card. If you run out of cards, reshuffle the deck.

If you scored during this turn, you get to take another turn! Otherwise, pass the play to the left.

Winning

The first player to capture ten beads wins!

Variations

  • If adults are playing as well, try letting the children have one more card in their hand than the adults.
  • Stargazers is a game that plays quickly. Consider playing to a number of won games, or change the number of beads needed to win.
  • Very young child version: Instead of having a hand, just flip the top card of the deck over and play that. Redraw if there is already a bead on that tile. Otherwise, the play continues normally.

(You can download these rules and components by themselves. See "More Information," below.)

(You can download these rules and components by themselves from the website.)

Comments on the Ruleset

Onto how I came up with this particular ruleset. I had the core idea in mind as I wrote up the first part of this project a couple months ago. I created the pieces for it, wrote the rules in my head and tried the game by myself a few times, tweaking ideas here and there. Here are some of the rationales behind various rules:

Pattern Matching

This is the core idea, doing color & shape matching. That, along with counting the beads, is the learning portion of the game, in my uneducated (in the world of children's games) opinion. The colors themselves may need work, given the various color-blindness disabilities some people have, but they served well for the purposes of testing the game and for what my inkjet printer could produce.

Four-by-four board

Sixteen tiles seemed ideal -- enough to keep the game more interesting than of Tic-Tac-Toe, but not so many that the game presents an overwhelming number of options or requires too many pieces. During play, we also found it was small enough to play on a cluttered coffee table, and when the tiles were moved around on accident, putting sixteen tiles back together was not much of a pain.

Taking another turn after scoring

One of the situations I saw while playing this against myself was that after scoring, the board was fairly empty again. This is a disadvantage to the next player, who already has to deal with the player before having scored when he potentially could have.

It's unlikely (though possible) to score multiple times in a row, so this rule mainly exists to repopulate the board for the next player. In playing this game with one child, he was able to score twice in a row, and was very proud and happy afterwards -- I consider that a feature, not a bug.

Playing a card for a tile that already has a bead on it

There were a couple times that the cards in my hand were all for tiles that already had beads on them. I tried out a couple solutions for that situation. First, I thought about discarding and redrawing your hand. I couldn't decide whether or not to allow the player to play a card afterwards or if that was the end of their turn. I tried both ways, and wasn't impressed by either.

I then toyed with just passing, being unable to do anything if you couldn't play a card with an empty tile, but that seems like it would make the game less enjoyable. I don't recall actually trying it -- possibly because it also occurred how easily it would allow cheating.

When writing up the rules, the idea of allowing a player to play a card for a tile with a bead on it came to mind as a potentially strategic option for clever players. Since this is a game intended to promote learning, I liked that enough to include that in the current ruleset. I haven't had any reports back on this change yet, though.

The Very Young Player variant

I was playing with a six-year old and some other adults, for the most part. The child's three-year-old brother wanted to join in on the fun, so I revised the game to be at more of his skill level. The six-year-old remarked that the game wasn't as fun for him now, but still liked playing it, and the three-year-old had a blast.

I suspect I could also create variants that provide more strategic options for older players. This is a simple enough ruleset and design to expand upon without ruining the core feel. For those who have heard or read my "Ticket to Ride is one of the best-designed board games ever" rant, I submit the various Ticket to Ride variants to show how well a simple game can be successfully expanded upon.

Responses During Playtesting

I played several rounds one evening with two children (a six-year-old and a three-year-old) and two adults (one a parent, the other a friend). They all enjoyed the game, and the adults thought the game was a success.

The three-year-old (male)

He was attracted by all the colors and his older brother having fun. When he joined in, he was smiling and having a good time.

The six-year-old (male)

His response could be summed up with the following: the next time I came over, he ran up to me and asked if I had brought Stargazers. When I told him I hadn't, he was disappointed. (I was running late to my own party, so I didn't grab any games.) He had a great time playing the game previously, and his eyes lit up when I said I might give him a free copy if I actually made the game.

The parent (male)

Point of note: he isn't the parent of either of the two children, but has children of his own. He enjoyed playing the game, though naturally it was a different enjoyment than the children had. Like myself, he's as amateur game designer, so I was eager to hear his comments.

He remarked that he thought the simplicity level was appropriate, and that he liked how he wasn't about to accidentally out-think the children. In too many children's games you either have no control whatsoever (the Candyland effect), or you're too easily able to out-think the child. Having a restricted number of choices was helpful in creating a good experience for him and for the kids. He noted various points, and we discussed the rules a bit -- particularly the problem of having all your cards be unplayable, as I wasn't satisfied with any solutions yet.

The friend (female)

She was on-board the moment I said it was astronomy-themed, as she enjoys the subject. She also enjoyed playing the game with the children, and remarked that she would like to play it again. She didn't give me quite the critique that the parent did, but she thought it would make a great game for other children as well.

The mother of the two kids

She told me that the six-year-old kept talking about the game the day after we played it with him, and that from what she saw and heard (as she was too busy to play given she was hosting a party), it was a success. I suspect at least part of that is the fact that I was able to occupy the kids for awhile, leaving her to do what she needed without interruption -- but then, isn't that part of what such games are for?

Future Development

Better art

This should go without saying, but I don't want to assume too much. Good art on the cards, the tiles, and the rules would serve the game better. Naturally, this was just a prototype.

Flavor text

A paragraph at the top of the rules to give the game some "in-character" context would be nice. Again, I'll refer you to the first page of the Ticket to Ride instruction booklet.

In addition, having some text on the cards that provides fun facts about astronomy to children -- naturally in age-appropriate language, maybe a bit on the challenging end to promote learning -- would be a great added bonus to such a game.

More stable board

Having a frame to put the board on would help keep the board from slipping around, like many of us experience with other create-the-board games like Settlers of Catan.

Wrap-Up

All in all, I consider this project a success. If any of you try it, I would love to read about your experiences. Feel free to email me at MasterPlan@hmfy.com. I look forward to it.

Now I'm off to prep for GenCon. I'll just be a floating attendee this year, touring my first GenCon Indy rather than working it. Even so, I hope to see some of you people there.

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