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.