Kids, Play, Rules, and Fun

Over the last couple months, I’ve had the opportunity to share Far Away with a younger audience. The King County Library System hosts board gaming meetups featuring local designers and local youths. It’s always so fascinating to watch kids play a game. It’s so natural to them. These particular Far Away sessions were interesting enough that I wanted to meditate (blog) about some age-related thoughts.

Full disclosure, I don’t have kids (and according to my Bumble profile, I’m obnoxiously ambiguous on this topic). This certainly skews my perceptions of what can be done at what age. Conspire taught me storytelling is something for all ages (more on that in a bit), but I’m constantly unsure how Far Away’s core mechanics will be received. The youngest players I’ve had are 5 and 7 (in separate games). The 5-year old crushed it. She was a little shy, but came up with good strategies and did enough planning to complete the tutorial. The 7-year old was helped more by his dad and wasn’t too into it. I’ve decided to not take it personally. Everyone 10 and up has, so far, understood the mechanics and more-or-less survived the tutorial.

This level of cognitive challenge bodes well for our ultimate demographic goal. We want the gameplay to be easy to understand. The challenge has to come from ever-compounding problems and puzzling your way around those problems with a limited set of moves. Younger players may get into difficult situations, but they accept how they got there. Similarly, the couple playing Far Away over a bottle of wine may get massacred by carnivores, but it probably won’t be because they forgot some rules.

Far Away’s challenge is, to an extent, self-imposed. Much like a dungeon crawler, you’re controlling the creatures and seeding your own downfall. Conversely, every player has the option to ignore what a creature “should” do according to its attributes and move it harmlessly. While we’re working on discouraging this behavior, early testing showed about half of the testers favored self-preservation over storytelling. For kids, they have so far completely favored honesty in alien behavior.

This was somewhat surprising to me. I figured (based on my zero experience) that kids would be inclined to fudge the rules to win. In the handful of games I’ve played with an under 15-year old audience, it has been the exact opposite. They’ve imposed tougher challenges on themselves than I would have. Their interpretations give the creatures more presence, instilling a fear in the players that tells an electrifying story. It’s hard not to get invested in the otherwise mundane actions of these beasts. The kids (and me) had a ton of fun acting out wildlife scenes far away from the explorer tokens. Their devotion to a portraying living world paid off.

One of the best games was a pair of (probably?) middle schoolers playing a full mission. They had finished the tutorial and snow-pocalypse left my table empty. They were incredibly eager to launch into a full hour or more of Far Away. They had their triumphs and struggles; the full gamut of emotions on display before finally blasting back into space. Before the end, every creature had a nickname and every event had a bardic backstory. It was the best.

All this makes me think back to my childhood. My friends and I developed so many games within existing activities. We always added win conditions to Lego battles or point systems to paper airplane throwing. That acceptance of structure as a vehicle for fun, that feeling of effortless play, is something so elusive as an adult. It’s hard enough to get people to play a game, let alone attack one with complete abandon. You lose yourself in the world; the rules becoming the framework for your new reality. Whenever that happens, it’s amazing. Hopefully that couple with their wine, unpressured by society, will do this in Far Away. They’ll name every creature and make little monster noises when the pieces move. If kids can have that kind of fun, maybe we can too.