My kid loves games. None too surprising, of course, and when I say that she loves games — she’s three — I really mean that she loves opening the boxes and hammering around with the stuff inside. Unfolding maps, stacking pieces, punching out chits, all the sorts of things that aren’t really playing the game that nonetheless involve or facilitate playing with the game.
Conceptually, Madeleine certainly understands a lot of things, even if they’re not exactly the rules of a given game. For instance, we recently played Ticket To Ride and she was upset that when my wife played the pieces to claim a route, the color of the trains on the route didn’t match the color of the route itself. Of course, she didn’t know the rules themselves, but she made her own associations among the game components in her mind.
Anyway, I had ordered the Pathfinder Beginner Box because I wanted to take a look at the boxed loot and see firsthand how successful it was as an introductory piece of material. When it arrived, Madeleine, being no stranger to the appearance of games and other boxed goodies, assumed that this was another something for her. She pushed her stepstool over to the kitchen island where I was unboxing the whole thing and jumped right into playing with the pieces. She put together some of the figures on the stands and was already familiar with dice. I don’t know how, exactly, we started actually playing, but when we did, she took right away to the interaction between the players, even though it was only the two of us.
In fact, she liked it so much, she talked about what she had done afterward, and even asked to play again when she woke today and wanted to play again after we got back from the zoo.
Of course, we weren’t playing Pathfinder as its rules define it, but I described a few situations, she told me she wanted to fight the whatevers, and then she rolled the dice. The cause-and-effect sequence took form. Over the course of our play, I observed the following things:
- I started with the standard exchange of RPG interactions, but then I modified the sequence to fit her interests and attention span. That is, we didn’t really both with AC or movement rates or missed attacks or even hit points, we just rolled dice and knocked over figures. It was the interaction with the pieces and me that held her interest.
- I varied my tone of voice and the pacing of my descriptions, to which she reacted as cues. She knew that she needed to “hurry up!” while she was fighting, because of the tension of the encounter with the monster. At various points, she jumped up and down, raised her hands in victory cheers, and even placed the new monsters from the observed flow of prior turns. Today, we added background music, but I don’t know if that had any effect on the experience for her.
- She picked up parlance very quickly, knowing that she was rolling for “damage” and identifying individual monsters. She liked fighting the dragon and the goblins; she didn’t like fighting the spider or the “goop” (ooze).
- She immediately mapped the relationships of the character types to the prompts for their actions. That is, she knew the fighter fought and the wizard cast spells. After a few turns, when I asked her, “What sort of spell do you want to cast?” I didn’t give her any list or context, and she replied, “Pink.” So I described the wizard’s spell in terms of a pink ray. The next time it came to the wizard’s turn, she replied, “Blue,” “red,” “green,” etc., and every spell effect became shaped like a “ball” that the wizard cast. The fighter always closed to a melee piece placement and the wizard always maintained distance.
- Importantly, the extrinsic motivator of treasure didn’t supersede the intrinsic motivator of playing the game itself, or at least manipulating the pieces. I placed glass beads at various points on the map and described them as giant diamonds. After she defeated the monster guardians, Madeleine would pick up the character token and the glass bead (as if the character were carrying the treasure) and move them over in front of her. Then she’d move to the next glass bead on the map. At the end of the game, I encouraged her to take the glass beads into her room and keep them as her treasure, where she can see them and count them.
The result was certainly more toy than game, but the interaction had the key elements of a true game. The only thing missing was meaningful choice, in that there were no real consequences to actions and that Madeleine’s choice for both of her characters was either fighting or casting a spell based on which character we were talking about. Still, she chose which treasure next to pursue and which square on the grid she wanted to occupy to fight the monster, so the rudiments of game play as opposed to toy play were there. Toy play is also consistent to the way her age group participates in expressive activity, so it was encouraging to see that expectation and her formative steps into development beyond those boundaries.
Next time, though, I’m not backing off the TPK.