Why Kids Should Design Board Games


For a moment, I thought I had made a horrible mistake. Ms. Ashley had told me signups had been good for the “Awesome Games” design workshop at the San Marcos Public Library, but I figured that meant eight or ten kids would show up. Now I was looking at twenty kids AND their parents.

Two fears competed for the top of my brain: did I have enough dice? And did I have any idea what I was doing?

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

The idea started innocently enough. I run a board game group that sometimes meets at the local library, and the librarians are always looking for interesting programming for their Summer Reading Program. Asking a local game designer to help kids make games seemed easy and fun to all concerned.

When I sat down to plan the event, though, I wasn’t so sure about the “easy” part. I’ve given lectures on good design before, but this was a younger audience in the middle of summer. I needed fun and hands-on, not me running my mouth.

Fortunately, I know what I need to make a game. It’s not much — an idea, cardstock, markers, some dice and stones and buttons for pieces. The library already had a lot of these as art supplies; a quick trip to the craft store took care of most of the rest. I was especially happy to run into a “dice bonanza” tube at Target that had color dice and poker dice along with the more usual gamer polyhedrals.

I wanted the kids to bring their own ideas, but I made up a list of questions and suggestions to get them started. I took the material that I might have lectured on — types of games, different mechanics, ways to use components — and put it on a slideshow loop that I projected in the background.

Then I walked into the room and hoped for the best.

The Kids Start Jamming

There was a little bit of shock in the room when I explained the plan. No lecture? No set project? Just… make what you want?

A couple of kids grabbed paper and pencils and started sketching. After what seemed like an eternity (but was probably about 30 seconds), more and more followed suit.  A couple of tables instantly teamed up and began planning out a game together. Several kids looked at the suggestions, but more of them knew exactly what they wanted already.

It turns out that if you ask kids to make any game they want to make, they know what they want. It’s like they’re experts. It’s like they’ve been playing games all their lives.

A few kids had trouble, and asked for advice as I checked in from table to table. But it was usually with deciding between two ideas more than not having any. More often than not, they rolled with both.

One kid had a lot of trouble. One moment he was starting into space, and then there were tears running down to idea. When I checked in with him, he said, “I usually have ideas, but now I don’t have any.”

Fighting down my own rising panic — crying kid, red alert danger will robinson! — I thought and said, “Well, I get stumped too. Sometimes I just fiddle with pieces until I get an idea.”

I took him over to the table where we had the baskets of dice and buttons and stones. He began picking things up, putting them down. He picked up a white stone, held it for a bit. Then he began digging through the basket for more.

I moved on. He didn’t need help any more. He had his idea.

What We Take With Us

The hour passed quickly. The kids transferred their sketches to cardboard, built prototypes, tested them on each other. They went home with their games in their arms. Simple games, nothing that would burn up the charts at the Spiel de Jahres, but their own games.

What blew me away was their persistence and determination to solve problems. There was the girl who painstakingly devised her own spinner out of cardboard and paperclips. There were the kids who used dice not to randomize but as the islands in their blue construction paper seascape board. There was the wildly creative fighting game where the fighters charged up their moves on a roll-and-move track, and the straight-up chess game with carefully selected button pieces.

This problem-solving, this creativity, this use of imagination and household items is why kids should be designing games.

In the end, I didn’t do all that much. Rounded up some materials. Asked a few questions. Listened to a lot of enthusiastic descriptions. Provided an hour to focus on nothing but creation.

In the end, that’s all kids need to make Awesome Games.

Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2016 The Roaming Designer