Creating Board Games With Your Kids

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Playing games is fun. The joy of spending time with your family is usually reward enough. Sometimes, however, you may have the urge to add even more fun to game time. You may want to change the rules of a game to make it more challenging; you may want to relax some rules for younger players; you may even want to add new elements to the game. When even these modifications are insufficient to inject more fun into game time, you may want to consider creating a new game!

Same old games?

Same old games?

Photo by KitAy

Creating your own game for your family’s enjoyment is a lot easier than trying to create a game to sell! For one thing, there are fewer people to please. In addition, you know everyone’s likes and dislikes, so you will probably have a good chance of developing a game the whole family can enjoy. We are going to focus on board games in this article. The ideas can be applied to card games and “party” games as well.

Getting Started

The best way to get started is to decide what kind of game you want to create. If this is your first board game, you’ll want to keep it simple. This prevents boredom from creeping in and ruining what should be a fun experience. As you create more games, you will become more elaborate – if that’s what everyone else wants, too!

Anyway, once you all agree on a game, you have to let everyone know the ground rules. You don’t want anything to detract from the experience and the first order of business is deciding how to handle differences of opinion. Here are some possible solutions:

  • Adopt all ideas – best solution for younger kids
  • Majority rules – this works with even-tempered participants
  • Debate the merits – best solution for older children, if they love to argue constructively

“First you have to reach the castle, then you have to fight the dragon. But first, you have to get the magic fairy to help, or you can’t find the castle.”

Adopting all ideas leads to chaotic games, but the point is to have fun, not necessarily have a logical, playable game. If your kids are still fans of bed-time stories where anything goes, you may as well join in the merriment of creating a fantastical game.

“That’s dumb! Why should I pay rent after going backward? I already passed him! That’s not fair!”

As children become older and more critical of the themes in games, they will assert themselves more forcefully during the creation of a game. Usually, you can get them to agree on different aspects of the game but, when there is a sticking point, it is important to put it to rest as quickly as possible. Get the kids to vote and you break any ties. Breaking ties doesn’t always mean choosing one of the options – it may be more diplomatic to say, “You know what? Why don’t we just leave that out of the game for now?”

“In my opinion, making people pay for the railroads just makes the game more complicated. Why not just have a government that ‘pays’ for all that stuff?”

Teen-aged kids will probably have quite a bit of experience with different types of games and they know what they like! As you create your game, nearly every element will be discussed, dissected and analyzed. This is a vital aspect of the development process and should be encouraged. If you need to arbitrate, you may want to suggest testing the game with and without the contested element.

A child created a game based on a book

A child created a game based on a book

Photo by normanack

Planning the Game

With the ground rules established, you can move on to outlining the major parts of the game. Having already decided what kind of game you’re going to create, you now want to answer these questions:

  • What is the object of the game?
  • What are some of the ways players can try to reach the objective?
  • How long should the game take to play?

By defining the goal of the game, you can always ask how an element helps or hinders progress toward that goal. Sometimes, an idea may seem to be a good one until you discover that it doesn’t really do anything important! For example, creating alternate ways for players to obtain money in a stock market game detracts from the goal of earning the most money from investing in stocks.

That said, you will want to create several paths for players to follow. Perhaps there is a secret path through the forest to reach the castle without facing the dragon. How about having stock options in addition to buying stock directly? What about forming alliances with other players to accomplish a difficult task?

Finally, depending on how much time you devote to playing games, you may prefer longer or shorter games. Age and attention span are also factors in determining how long a game should last.

Winner eats all?

Winner eats all?

Photo by oskay

Details of the Game

Somebody has to keep track of all the groovy ideas. You’re elected. Do what works best for you and the project at hand:

  • Index Cards
  • Legal Pad
  • Napkin (just kidding)

Scribbling everything down is fine – as long as you can read it later! The important thing is to keep the momentum of the ideas flowing. None of it has to be perfect, nor does it even have to make sense. Imagination is full of surprises and you never know when one person will blurt out something zany that leads to a clever idea from the group.
At some point, the flow will slow to a trickle. When this happens, you might say, “Okay, looks like we have enough ideas. Let’s figure out how they all come together!”

Depending on the complexity of your ideas, you may need to break the game into phases.

  • Set up
  • Early stages
  • Late stages
  • Victory stage

Setting up the game is not going to be too detailed right now. You’ll just want to know how much of everything each player gets at the beginning of the game. You may also want to establish the layout of the board. (“The castle goes in the center. Should the forest go all around it or just half-way?”) If there are going to be things on the board, such as a stack of cards, gold pieces or monsters, this is a good time to discuss where they go and how many there should be.

Early stages of the game will be the time during which the players are most evenly matched and have the fewest resources. What will they do to gain the advantages needed to progress toward the objective? What can other players do to stop them? Should they even be allowed to stop them, yet? What if they run into something on the board before they are prepared? What if the desired outcomes take too long to achieve?
This part of the creation process is the heart of the project. Everything else is an after-thought. Think about that for a second: what makes any game fun? Winning? Nah… Playing! The journey from start to finish is where the enjoyment lies for casual family gaming. Maybe that’s why, with great games, you always hear, “Let’s play that again!”

If you spend most of your energy on creating a fantastic voyage, the late stages and victory stage become secondary.
Have you ever conceded victory just so you could play again? We acknowledge that winning and losing isn’t important (regardless of the psychological arguments expounded in the so-called science of failing.) If you disagree, by all means, press on to victory and make sure that part of your board game is satisfying to everyone, as well.
We will not dwell on late stages and victory stages. Having played many games, you will recognize if and when these points should occur. Just watch out for the following traps:

  • One player consistently gains an unfair advantage – examine your challenges to make sure there is no first-player advantage
  • Everyone fails to get enough “stuff” to do anything – the challenges may be too hard
  • Everyone reaches the objective at once – this may or may not be desirable. Challenges are too even across the different paths.
No board? No problem! Use the sidewalk!

No board? No problem! Use the sidewalk!

Photo by Meanest Indian

Game Construction

If you’re not careful, you’ll start making the board long before you’ve worked out the game details. That’s because this is fun!
If you do happen to make the board too soon, you may have to come up with creative solutions for stuff you no longer want.
Alternatively, you can discard the board and start over. There is no right or wrong way: your experience with your kids will soon suggest the best course of action.

Re-use a game board or its layout

Re-use a game board or its layout

Photo by adactio

Here are some ideas for creating boards:

  • Re-use an existing board
  • Buy poster boards
  • Buy recycled paper and tape four of them together
  • Design a “boardless” board game, using the tabletop
  • Use or buy wooden blocks, circle, tiles or hexes to create modular boards
  • Cut up a cardboard box

Unless your game is free-form, you need to make spaces for the players to move on.
The hardest way to make squares on a game board is to try to measure with rulers or yardsticks. If you aren’t careful, your lines won’t be perfectly parallel. One thing you could do is center a smaller board over your poster board or paper and trace around it. You’ll still have to measure the squares, but at least they’ll be more or less uniform around the edges.
An easier way – if you buy graph paper or ruled poster board – is to trace around a predetermined size. Just make sure you divide each side as evenly as possible, leaving as little left over space as possible. If you are good with math, you can even center the board.
The easiest way is to take a small box lid and trace around it! It takes longer and you might have a bit of board left over, but you won’t have to worry about the left side having one space more than the right side. Plus, everyone can take turns. You can use other shapes, like the lid from a peanut butter jar or a hexagon from another game.

Once you’ve created a game that’s a “keeper”, you may want to build a more permanent and attractive board. Go for it!

Game pieces don’t have to be expensive. Visit a crafts store or a dollar store and explore the possibilities.

  • Beads = precious gems
  • Buttons = counters and placeholders
  • Felt = roads or (my favorite) a quiet surface for rolling dice!

Root through your junk drawer and your leftover hardware. Rubber washers, nuts, grommets, coins – use whatever is handy and safe!
One exception to inexpensive game pieces is miniatures. If they make the game more enjoyable, you may want to consider buying them and painting them. Don’t do this unless you are committed to creating games with them.

Play money is probably already in your possession. Old Monopoly® sets, that game of Life®, etc.
Printing your money is not as good an idea as you think. There is something about the paper used in the money in commercial games that makes them easier to handle. Laser printer paper tends to stick together, which is very annoying.
Cards, on the other hand, can be made easily with business card stock and a word processor.
If you ever ordered a bunch of business cards that you can no longer use, consider drawing or writing on the backs!

Structures, if used in your game, probably should be as simple as possible. Unless you and your kids enjoy creating miniature models, it’s best to re-use structures from other games. If you really need unique structures, consider buying some blocks from the dollar store. A bit of creative work with magic markers will turn dull beige blocks into banks, secret vaults and train stations!

Large Home-made Board

Large Home-made Board

Photo by trentsketch

Testing the Game

Well, you’ve made the board, gotten all the pieces, cards and money ready and hashed out the rules.
It’s finally time to play! You’re still in charge of keeping track of stuff, only now, you’ll be listing the problems that crop up.
Depending on your perseverance, you can either play through the game, warts and all or you can stop at each problem point and try to fix it up. This is the subjective portion of the creative process. Only you and your kids will know the best way to go about it.

Review the suggestions for ground rules in Getting Started. Don’t forget the major points as you refine your game:

  • What is the object of the game?
  • What are some of the ways players can try to reach the objective?
  • How long should the game take to play?

Congratulations! You Have a Game!

Eventually, you’ll decide that the game has been made to be as good as you all want it to be. This doesn’t have to be the end.
You can make a sequel.
You can add new rules.
You can invite more people to play it.
You can enhance the board, or get someone to help you make a beautiful rendition.
Or, you could put it away and start all over again!

Whatever you decide, I hope you have fun with your kids.

Oh, One More Thing …

If this all seems like too much work, you can download free printable games from the internet.
Here is one I did with my kids:

Racing Around The Office With The Uml Guy

View more documents from Mitchell Allen.

About The Author

You can find Mitchell Allen on the ‘Net here:

– http://www.morphoboard.com, showcasing his board game designer software
– http://www.morphodesigns.com, blogging about whatever pops into his head!
– http://twitter.com/Anklebuster, saying weird things, helpful things and mentioning Pop-Tarts®

Comments

Frank J says:

This is absolutely creative and I am sure twice as much fun. I can think of a few that would make for a good time.

Thanks, Frank. You must share your ideas with us 🙂

Cheers,

Mitch

Michelle says:

This site has given me ideas to use in my classroom! Thanks!

Hi Michelle!

I’m glad that this article has inspired you. What age group do you teach?

Cheers,

Mitch

Xuxa says:

it’s really alot of fun! fun! fun!

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