Monday, December 12, 2011

Birthday Games

December birthdays are often not celebrated as intensely as those that occur in the less eventful months between holidays.  My birthday was last week, and once again, I did not have the energy to throw a big party for myself and my friends, as there is a constant stream of them from November to January.  As Americans living in Berlin, we celebrate our own traditions and adopt many of the German ones.  This means that we invite our friends over for a Thanksgiving feast in November, then celebrate Advent in the traditional German manner with cookies and hot beverages.  We have also adopted the German tradition of Nikolaustag on December 6, when children place their shoes outside their door and Saint Nikolas places small gifts and chocolate in them while they sleep.  We eat a traditional Bratwurst and Sauerkraut dinner on Christmas Eve as our Berlin friends do, but we open our presents on Christmas Day, as is the tradition Stateside.

In any case, there is so much to do, and we already have so many guests for the other events, that I rarely have enough energy to plan yet another party for myself.  Instead, I usually opt for a quiet evening celebration with my wife and children.  Since my twin sons are now 5 years old and enjoy playing games, I decided to take the family to the Spielwiese gaming café this year for my birthday.

The café is always a great place to meet with other gamers and designers, whether playing new releases or testing prototypes, but it also has a very family-friendly atmosphere, where my sons can enjoy a hot cocoa and choose from a wide array of children's games.

Of course, the boys were immediately drawn to some of the large boxes displaying fantasy art, as they are currently drawn to anything involving knights and dragons.  But after I directed them to the children’s shelves, they also found plenty of options that were appropriate for their age.

We started with Da ist der Wurm drinn (There's the Wurm!), something I also wanted to play, as it was the newest Kinderspiel des Jahres winner.  The game has the usual nice Zoch production values, and is a race game in the same vein as Tempo, Kleine Schnecke.  In other words, it depends entirely on the roll of the dice, and the starting player has an advantage.  The element that makes the game different is that the worms are pushed through “underground tunnels” sandwiched between two game boards, and there are two places where their progress can be viewed through holes in the board.  There are worm sections of different lengths in different colors (each section 1 cm longer than the last, which gives the game an educational selling point).  On a turn,  you roll the 6-colored die, take the matching worm section and push it into your worms hole, which pushes your worm’s starting “head” tile closer to the finish. The only way to catch up to someone  who rolls well (or is the starting player) is to bet on which worm will first reach each of the two holes in the ground.  A correct bet awards the player with a bonus piece to add to his or her worm.  That’s all there really is to it, and although the boys had fun seeing their worms appear in the holes, it wasn’t all that interesting for the parents.  I had expected more from “game of the year.”  The experience of playing the game with my family was fun, but I will not be buying this to put under our Tannenbaum this year.

Next, one of my sons spotted Loupin’ Louie, a game we have played many times at home, and we couldn’t resist a round in the café.  The game is great, silly fun, especially for the son who would like to be a pilot someday.  One problem I have with the game, however, is that one can easily cheat by simply holding the lever down, which is enough to keep the plane from striking any of the chicken chips.  The boys also like to hit their levers too hard, although it usually has the result of knocking their own chips out, so that problem usually solves itself.   The game is still widely available in most large departments stores in Berlin for 15 Euro.

We ended the evening with a game of Lotti Karrotti (Funny Bunny), another large, plastic game from Ravensburger.  Michael from the Spielwiese told me that it was the “German Candyland,” in that it was the children’s game that every family in Germany has owned for generations.  I was pleased to find out that the rules are, however, quite unlike Candyland:  players actually get to make choices in this game!  The “board” consists of a big, green plastic hill with a giant carrot in the middle and a path of spaces leading from the outside inward.  Each player has 6 bunnies in one color, and the goal is to be the first player to reach the carrot with one of his or her bunnies. There is a deck of movement cards with 1-3 spaces on them.  Each turn, a player draws a card and moves one of his bunnies that number of spaces on the path.  Occupied spaces are skipped.  The catch is that there is a hole showing in one of these spaces.  There are also “Carrot Cards” mixed in the deck, and when one of these is drawn, that player turns the carrot and the hole changes to a different location.  If there is a bunny there, then the bunny drops into the hill and is never seen again until the end of the game!  There are safe spaces, and there are spaces where the hole can show up, which gives the children (and adults) an opportunity to decide when to take risks.  Having 6 bunnies (at least, before they start dropping down holes) also gives the players plenty of decisions for each simple movement card drawn.  Do I move my lead bunny ahead to a risky position where it could drop through a hole, or do I move a bunny that is farther back onto a “safe” space?  Also, since occupied spaces are skipped over, there is a temptation to use a chain of bunnies to move one of yours from the back to the front of the pack quickly, even if it lands on a high-risk space.  It’s a great children’s game, filled with interesting decisions and risk-management, and the “toy factor” of turning the carrot and watching daddy’s bunny fall through the hole is fun for the kids.

I’ve often said that children’s games are harder to design than complex adult strategy games, and my birthday gaming confirmed that.  It is very difficult to design a game that keeps a child’s interest and is equally exciting for the parents.  It is even harder to design something original in this category, as there has been so much done before.  Most children’s games are slight variations on games that have been done before—at least half of them, for example, are variations of Memory.   That’s why I would rank Heinz Meister as one of the greatest game designers currently working in the industry.  Many gamers may not recognize the name,  but over the years he has quietly built a huge catalogue of children’s games that are original, interesting mechanically and fun to play for young and old.  

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