Keys to a Good Family Board Game
originally published to hoopcatgames.blogspot.com
Our goal at HoopCAT Games is to create fun family games – games that parents and children can enjoy together. So we have had to give some thought to what characteristics are important to a good family game. There are lots of good games out there, yet only some of those good games work well with a family. So what qualifies a good game to also be a good family game? Here is our list: Length, Complexity, and Balance.
Length –Family games must consider how much time the average family with children (and school, youth soccer, baseball, and who knows what else) has in their schedule for a family game. Also, what is the attention span of that family’s children? There can be such a thing as too long. Children will most likely tire of a too-long game before the parents do. While our HoopCAT family (2 sons, ages 11 & 15) can stick with an engaging game for as long as 90-120 minutes, our family schedule often doesn’t permit more than 60 minutes for a game. When we design family games, we aim for 30-60 minutes to fit the busy family.
Complexity - As a teen, I loved Avalon Hill games, and would study the lengthy rule books even between games. While a hardcore gamer may enjoy repeated readings of a 10 or 20 page rulebook, it is a bad idea for a family game. For a family game, the rules must be easily grasped, even by a child. We believe that at least one player reading the rule book once before the first play should be mandatory for any new game. However, our rule of thumb for family games is that you should almost never need to refer back to the rule book after the 3rd play. If a family has to frequently keep going back to the rule book even after the first few plays, that game might not be a good family game.
The topic of math also needs mention under complexity. Light math has a place in family games. Games can be a great way for children to practice basic addition or even multiplication facts while having fun. However, we feel that calculator math has no place in a family game. I have played games where you had to add 32+40+12, divide the sum by 4, then four separate further calculations to divide that quotient by 7, 12, 6,and 8, dropping the remainder and rounding down. Some can keep that straight in their head, others cannot. And while hardcore gamers may enjoy that kind of math as part of their gaming experience, excessively complex math calculations are not a good fit for a fun family game.
Balance – For a family game, this can be one of the toughest design challenges. When designing adult games, a designer can make some presumption of equal ability. That same presumption does not hold when designing a game that an 8 year old will play with a 13 year old. A younger brother that has no hope of ever beating their older sister may quickly lose interest in that game. The most common solution to artificially balance the differences in player skill is to add some element of randomness (often through either dice or cards). This randomness will sometimes work to hinder a more-skilled player and help a less-skilled player. Yet, as designers, we still want the game to reward good player decisions and have consequences for bad player decisions. So the family game has to strike the right balance in how much the random effects the gameplay - too little, and lesser-skilled players will feel it is impossible for them to win, but too much, and skilled players will feel they have been cheated.
A game must have the right length, complexity level, and balance to qualify as a good family game.
There is one more important element–fun. But how to make a family game “fun” is a much harder and far less tangible topic.
The HoopCAT family loves family game time! We continue to enjoy our own family games after many plays (Fill The Barn, AtataT, and some new prototype ideas we play test as a family to find the winners). Other family games that we find ourselves often playing as of late include Apples to Apples, Forbidden Island, Qwirkle, and Ticket to Ride.
This blog was originally posted to www.hoopcatgames.blogspot.com
Last month, HoopCAT Games took the plunge with our first order to manufacture Fill the Barn, our very first family board game.
We had asked for quotes from different sources first, some American, some Asian. Not surprisingly, we learned that we could make Fill the Barn for a lower price if we chose a Chinese factory over an American factory.
Yet when we found a US company who could meet the price we needed to make our numbers work, we chose to go with Made in the USA.
Like so many others, we know friends and family members who have found themselves unemployed as downsizing and the shift to overseas production leaves fewer jobs in our country. It breaks our hearts to see people who want to work, and yet there are not enough jobs to go around. So in some ways, it was an easy decision to choose a US company who was in our price range even when it wasn’t the lowest offer.
But will it prove to be a sound business decision for a fledgling new company?
While “Made in USA” sounds nice, purchase decisions often come down to who has the lowest price. That is when we all decide with our pocketbooks and wallets. We could have offered Fill the Barn for a few dollars less if we had made our game in China. Will families in these tight economic times be willing to pay that few dollars more for Fill the Barn because we chose US production? In a few weeks we will start to find out.
This blog originally posted at www.hoopcatgames.blogspot.com
I’ve loved games all my life. As a child I started with classic board games, and even when I couldn’t find anybody to join me, I’d still pull a game out and play all sides. As a teen, I moved onto Avalon Hill strategy games, and would read the lengthy rulebooks over and over even after I had them memorized. As a young adult, I was thrilled by the advantages of computer strategy games – artificial intelligence opponents who were always available, no possibility of ever mistakenly misinterpreting a rule, and boards where the map or opponent’s pieces could truly remain hidden.
And then our two sons were born, and by a few years later, I found myself wondering what we used to do with all that time. Fortunately, both sons also love games, and needless to say, they have never had to twist Dad’s arm to join in a family game. Years later, I’ve returned to enjoying the same board games I fondly remember from my childhood. Every Christmas, every birthday, we’ve looked to build our family’s game library – yet after a few years found that while there are always hot new computer and console games lining the department store and toy store shelves, the board game shelves change little from year to year. (A very important disclaimer: There are fresh innovative family board games out there, and we’ve been very pleased with some new additions to our family’s game library - but you have to know where to go to find them).
So why did we start making family board games?
This past summer, our younger son (the “T” in HoopCAT) received a department store gift card for $25 from Grandma for his birthday. He marched to the game section, and after some looking, picked out a new game not already in the family collection. Looking over the box, it was not a game that Mom or I would have ever bought for him. We questioned the value for money of the purchase. But it was his $25 gift card, so in the end agreed to the purchase (figuring at worse it would make a good life lesson). We got home, he excitedly read the rules, put it together, and as father and son, we played the shiny new game he had proudly bought with his birthday gift card.
It was one of the worst games I ever played. Movement around the board was painfully slow, with little opportunity for anything to happen, and little to no opportunity for a player to affect the outcome. The game had a gimmick that wore off before we had finished it the first time. I kept my grown-up opinion to myself, thinking if my child likes it, that is all that matters. My son never asked to play it again, and two weeks later, he placed this new game on the pile of things to give to charity.
As a parent and consumer, I was mad. If my wife or I had been foolish enough to plunk down $25 for that game, I merely would have been annoyed. If my child had only spent $5-$10 of his money, I might not have been as steamed. But here was a game that never should have seen the shelf of a store priced at $25 and targeted to children. And in my indignation, I had that wild thought – “Even I could make a game better than that!”
It started as an idea of I’ll design and make two custom games (one for each son) as a memorable Christmas present. And then the game ideas kept coming, and the whole brainstorm continued to snowball. Before that summer had ended, my younger son and I sat down early one Saturday morning to play the very first game of Fill the Barn. His first feedback was the words any new game maker most wants to hear – can we play it again? My crude homemade prototype game with clip art on self-print business cards had just beat out the gift card game. Later that weekend, Mom and older son (the "A" inHoopCAT) joined us for the first-ever four-player game of Fill the Barn. Several days (and lots of prayers) later, my wife and I made the decision to form HoopCAT Games.
Will a new family board game company succeed in the era of electronic gaming? That’s for you to decide...