zwischenzug (ZVI-shen-tsoog) — noun

A chess tactic in which a player, instead of playing the expected move, first interpolates another move, changing the situation to the player's advantage (such as gaining material or avoiding what would otherwise be a strong continuation for the opponent).

Showing posts with label parenting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label parenting. Show all posts

Monday, December 3, 2012

Father Geek Article on Buying Chess Sets as Gifts

Last year I wrote this post about buying chess sets for the Holidays.  I covered the topic again over at  Father Geek.  If you read last year's post you won't find this one that different.  Whichever version you read, it makes sense to buy a child a good chess set that will last for years.

It's Your Move!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Gift Buying Guide 2012

Even though I haven't been writing this post for a while, many of you have still been reading.  I really wanted to give my perspective on gift buying before Black Friday.  This way, those family gifts and tough-to-buy-for situations have some good options.  The games on last year's guide are still available, so use that guide for additional ideas.

Just like last year, I am writing this with a focus for those who are casually interested in the boardgaming hobby.  These games will be available through local game stores or online, and man of them should also be available through some larger, mass-market outlet.  Target and Barnes and Nobles are now devoting more shelf space to the types of games that I have written about.

Links to my reviews of these games are embedded in the text.  Now back to the show!

Type 1: “I loved playing games as a kid!”
This person has fond memories of playing Risk and Monopoly as a kid, and probably played these games at least some as a teenager.  Last year, I recommended the revised version of Risk as a good game, and this is still a great choice.  This year I will recommend Risk Legacy.  This game has a truly revolutionary game concept in it.  As the game is played, there are actions that can be taken that permanently change the rules of the game or the game board.  Some of these changes remove cards from the game permanently.  By permanently, I mean tear the card in two and throw it in the trash.  In other words, each game will be played under slightly different conditions.  My first reaction to this was, "What!  Why would I deliberately damage my game?!"  I have come to think of this as an experiential thing, and I would love to play! Furthermore, playing through all of the actions will take 15 game sessions, so there is a lot of experience to be had along the way.   A copy of Risk Legacy will probably need to be purchased online or at a local game store.

Type 2: “We love/loved Scrabble.”
I am going to repeat my recommendations from last year.  Buy Qwirkle or Bananagrams.  These are two great games, and still some of the more economical choices, too.  If you bought someone on of these games last year, buy them the other this year.  All of the mass-market outlets will have Bananagrams, and many will have Qwirkle (Target has carried it for several years now).

Type 3: “My family plays/played cards when at family functions.”
I am going to go out on a limb here and say Bohnanza.  I haven't actually played this, and it probably will need a local Barnes and Nobles or a trip online.  However, it has a great reputation within the gaming community and with friends of ours.  As a bonus, it plays well with 3-7 players, so it works well for gatherings.  Don't let the age range on the box scare you at 13+, I know younger kids love "the bean game".  The game sounds silly, but that's part of the charm.

Type 4:  The family/casual boardgamer
This starts to get tricky, because there is the chance that you will give a gift they already have.  However, Deadwood is a pretty safe bet, since it was published just last year.  This is one of the less expensive choices on the list.  It's American West theme will appeal to many.  Deadwood is published by Fantasy Flight Games, who puts a lot of care into a games presentation.  Deadwood has recently become available at Target.

Type 5: The Dedicated Chess Player
Handkerchiefs.  See last year.

Type 6: The Geek
By far and away the best game to geek-out on this year is the Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game.  This is a dogfight game pitting X-wings and TIE fighters.  And Y-wings.  And Interceptors.   And the Millennium Falcon.  Not all of this comes in the box; some are coming out in expansions.  The box includes three fighters and everything else you need to play the game.  I have played the games predecessor, Wings of Glory, which is set in WWI.  As a geek, this game has me juiced, and my son is thinking he needs to own it.  Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game is available at Target.

Type 7: Kids
Sorting through the drivel is the biggest problem.  I will go with the LEGO Ninjago Board Game.  It may not be the very best game, but hey, it's LEGO.  How far wrong can you go?  LEGO Ninjago Board Game has become generally available in the mass-market stores.

Type 8:  Families with no gaming experience
Last year I had Qwirkle and Forbidden Island here on the list.  These are still great choices. This year I will add King of Tokyo.  In this game, you play Big Monsters (think Godzilla) attacking the city of Tokyo, and each other.  Games are short and can be filled with lots of campy humor, since the monsters have such silly names as Cyberbunny and MechaDragon.  Sound effects are part of the fun.  Kids can easily play this, though the energy level might ramp up as they get into the them!  King of Tokyo is definitely going to be the toughest game to find on this list.  It might be between print runs as the holidays arive.  However, since the two choices from last year are solid options, I don't feel too badly about this one.

Type 9:  Party Gamers 
The Spiel des Jahres winner for 2010 was Dixit.  Think Apples to Apples with pictures.  One player makes up a sentence which tells a very brief story from a picture, and everyone else picks a picture from their hand to match the story.  The storyteller chooses the best match, and points are scored.  Sound a little similar.  What makes this a great choice is not only the proven style of gameplay, but also the excellent artwork.  Dixit can be found at many mass market outlets. 

Type 10: Couples / Everybody Else
Many of the games here work well for two.  For this, I am going to go with my recommendation for last year:  HiveThis game is an abstract strategy game the is incredibly popular in our Scout troop, and it is easy to learn.  There is now a smaller edition called Pocket Hive.  So, you can even recycle this idea if it was a big hit last year.  I have found Hive at Barnes in Noble.

I hoped this helped!  If you would like more personal suggestions, email me at
I will be glad to answer any questions!

It’s Your Move!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Game Buying Guide 2011

We have hit that time of the year when everyone is wondering what to gift to give.  I thought I would give you my two cents on what game to give as holiday gifts.  I have done this in the past in spoken word, and have already helped a few people this year, but now that I am blogging I figured I would write it down – before you spend all your gift money on Black Friday. 

First, let’s talk about where these games can be purchased.  There are a lot of websites, blogs and podcasts that will give you game gift ideas.  My approach will be a bit unusual; I expect that you, the reader, are not a “gamer”.  I am writing this as I do the rest of the articles here, with a focus for those who are casually interested in the boardgaming hobby.  Therefore, while these games will be available through local game stores or online, they should also be available through some larger, mass-market outlet.  These games are not only easier to learn and play but also easier to find.  Hey, that’s why I’m here!

Links to my reviews of these games are embedded in the text.  Now back to the show!

Type 1: “I loved playing games as a kid!”
This person has fond memories of playing Risk and Monopoly as a kid, and probably played these games at least some as a teenager.  He or she might well play them now, if they could find the time and opponents who don’t mind a four hour game.  This gift recipient will love the revised edition of Risk (or the deluxe version, Risk: Onyx Edition).  The game plays in roughly 90 minutes according to the box, and experience shows that to be accurate.  This game has all of the familiar game play and fun of the original, with different end game conditions to close out the game earlier.  A copy of the revised version of Risk can be found at nearly any mass media outlet.

Type 2: “I loved playing Clue!”
It would be natural to assume that this would be a subcategory of those above, but it’s likely this person did not like Monopoly or Risk.  There are many people, like my sister, who do not like direct confrontation in a game, and prefer the skullduggery of Clue.  Honestly, one of the best games for this person is to get them a new copy of Clue.  Of all of the mass-market games of old, this is actually one of the decent ones in the mystery genre.  However, I would first look for a copy of Scotland Yard.  I have not played this game, but it was published in the early ‘80’s and is still in print.  Furthermore, it won the Spiel des Jahres in 1983.  I am completely comfortable recommending this game.  Scotland Yard is currently being sold at Barnes and Noble.

Type 3: “We love/loved Scrabble.”
Interestingly, this is one game adults continue to play, and Scrabble has never had the reputation as something “only kids play”.  This group is at once the easiest and the hardest to buy for, since they are open to playing games but laser focused on one.  A more focused approach is called for:
Subtype 1: Families with small children.  Buy Qwirkle.  Not only is this the latest Spiel des Jahres winner, but it has been around in the United States for several years.  Qwirkle can be found many places, including stores for educators.  Target has been carrying it almost since first publication.
Subtype 2: Families older children or no children.  Find a copy of Bananagrams.  This is definitely a game for wordies, but it plays in 20 minutes.  Furthermore, it plays five and could probably play as many as six if you wanted to push it (not that I am recommending it!).  I originally blew it off, but after playing it found that I really enjoy it.  This is one of the more economical choices, too.  Furthermore, it’s actually hard to find a store that doesn’t carry Bananagrams; it’s the easiest game to find.  All of the mass-market outlets will have Bananagrams.

Type 4: “My family plays/played cards when at family functions.”
This is another tough group.  There are some great card games out there, and I will recommend something that is going to make hardcore gamers roll their eyes: Mille Bornes.  This is not a highly regarded game in the boardgaming community, but my wife and I have had a lot of fun with it and have introduced it to friends successfully.  The only warning I have is that there is a lot of “take that” in the game, so with little ones it can result in wailing and gnashing of teeth.  This game comes in a deluxe edition that is reasonably priced, and the basic version is found everywhere in the card game section of the store.  The basic version is very inexpensive, so it works as a stocking stuffer or in a $10 gift exchange as well.

Type 5:  The family/casual boardgamer
This starts to get tricky, because there is the chance that you will give a gift they already have.  However, if they have a few hobby games that they play casually, there is a decent chance they don’t have Dominion.  I realize in writing this post that I have been remiss; I have not reviewed this game.  I will correct that very soon.  In the meantime, trust me here.  This is an excellent game.  It’s a small step up in complexity from Ticket to Ride or any of the other games mentioned here, but anyone with a little experience will be able to read the rules and play.  This game works pretty well for those who used to play Magic: The Gathering, Pokémon or other collectible card games.  Dominion has recently become available at Target and Barnes and Noble.

Type 6: The Dedicated Chess Player
Handkerchiefs.   Seriously, this person is not hard to buy a game for; they are impossible.  The dedicated chess player has already ruled out any other games from their life.  Furthermore, they probably play a particular opening, prefer certain styles of pieces, and even have a favorite chess author.  No kidding.  I don’t consider myself “dedicated”, yet I have all of those things.  You are more likely to buy them something they don’t want.  If you live in New York City, there are brick and mortar stores specializing in chess items, so you could get a gift certificate.  My guess would be that’s true in London and Moscow (I’m talking Europe here) also.  If you live anywhere else in the world, buy handkerchiefs.  If you are worried about that taking all of the challenge out of gift buying, get 100% cotton handkerchiefs.  At least where I live, they are nearly impossible to find.  And then buy yourself a game, since clearly gift buying is a game you play already!

Type 7: The Gamer
Here’s another tough one, since you are more likely to get it wrong than get it right.  You have a few other options, though, that makes this person easier to buy for than the Dedicated Chess Player.  If they are looking for a specific game, you can find a local store or order online.  If you don’t know of a particular game, get a gift certificate.  If you prefer to do business locally, and game stores aren’t convenient, buy a gift certificate to Barnes and Noble that can be redeemed online.  Both B&N and Amazon carry games now.

Type 8: Kids
This is actually tougher than one might think, since there is so much out there that is just garbage.  I will suggest Blokus, which is not specifically a children’s game, but is kid-friendly and is colorfully eye-catching.  This game should be easy to find.  It was bought from the original publisher by Hasbro a while back, and since then Blokus has become available in the mass-market stores.

Type 9:  Families with no gaming experience
Subtype 1: Competition encouraged.  For this group, either Blokus or Qwirkle is a good choice.  Qwirkle is a little more flexible when it comes to number of players (we’ve pushed it to six players and it worked), but Blokus is a little less expensive.  Your pick.
Subtype 2:  Cooperation encouraged.  I will go with the game I was widely recommendung last year: Forbidden Island.  All players work together trying to take treasures off a mysterious island.  In the meantime, the island is sinking, threatening to take the treasures and players down to the depths below.  This is a great game!   Since everyone is working together, little players can be freely helped, making this a fantastic family adventure.  This game is also a great value, yet comes with very nice components packaged in a tin.  Barnes and Noble has carried Forbidden Island ever since it came out last year.

Type 10: Couples / Everybody Else
Seriously, you can buy anything discussed in this post and it will be a great choice!  However, I will make one more suggestion, and that is HiveThis game is an abstract strategy game the is incredibly popular in our Scout troop, and it is easy to learn.  Furthermore, it comes with a travel bag, so it is easy to pack and nearly indestructible.  I recently found Hive at Barnes in Noble.
It’s worth noting that every one of these games is available at Barnes and Noble.  (Just to be clear, I have no affiliation with B&N.  It’s not even my favorite bookstore.)

I hoped this helped!  If you would like more personal suggestions, email me at
I will be glad to answer any questions!

It’s Your Move!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Down the Rabbit Hole

Magic: The Gathering started it all.
Ever heard of Magic: The GatheringPokémon?  These are “rabbit hole” games, otherwise known as collectable card games or CCGs.  These are the greatest cause of grocery store checkout disputes since the invention of bubble gum.  Many of you experienced parents have an idea of what these are.  Some younger parents will soon find out, if you didn’t already play them as a youngster.  Once you enter the rabbit hole, there is a lot of game space to be explored.  It comes at a price though.

What exactly are CCGs?  How do I avoid them?  Can I avoid them?  Do I want to avoid them?  I know we have had these questions as our boy has grown, and we seemed to hit on a solution that kept him happy an let us keep our house.  Let me clear things up a bit.

Magic: The Gathering is the first and most commercially successful of all of the CCGs.  It was first published in 1993 and quickly became a huge hit.  When first published, it was a completely new concept in game design.  Following right on the heels of the bad press surrounding Dungeons & Dragons, it rapidly came under scrutiny due to the title and theme.  Parents wondered exactly what arcane things were really going on during those late night sessions.  Little did they know that the game play isn’t the issue; the business model is the real danger.

Getting started in a CCG is easy.  Nearly all CCGs sell “starter decks” which contain enough cards to begin play.  The cards typically consist of characters, locations and powers or weapons which all work together towards combat prowess.  Typically two players face off with their decks of cards and play through various combinations in order to win the game by defeating the other player.  Starter decks are built equally, so getting started is easy.

The genius behind the business model lies in making the decks more powerful.  After their starter deck, players can buy booster packs of cards that can be exchanged with other cards in their deck.  Customizing  the deck this way makes it more powerful through the cards or through the interaction of the various combinations of cards.  To play competitively, players need to purchase better cards.  There are several levels of cards: common, uncommon, rare and “mythic rare” (number of levels and terms may vary: these are specifically Magic terms).  Cards get more powerful as their rarity increases.  The “gotcha” is that the booster packs are random assortments, so players may need to buy many packs to find specific cards.  Cards are always being retired from official play even while new cards enter stores, creating an endless cycle.  Now we are fully inside the rabbit hole!

Because it appeals to all ages, Magic maintains its success nearly 20 years later, largely through tournaments held from local to national levels.  These tournaments are key to the success of any CCG, since they drive the competitive spirit of the game.  Even in tournaments with prescribed decks provided by the tournament, players want to be aware of the combinations that might be possible. This leads them to buy their own cards.  Magic tournaments are common in any city, and there is even a professional circuit now.

Before you decide to just nix this whole idea for your child, I must say that there are some benefits.  Some of them are common to many games, but one benefit in particular is unique to this style of game.  Simply put, CCGs are an activity as well as a game.  I have seen children sitting and discussing the various merits of various cards (providing social interaction) and trading each other for needed cards (developing negotiation skills) while customizing their individual decks.  Furthermore, customizing and re-customizing decks can occupy a child for a fair amount of time, which is sometimes critical as a parent!

In that case, how does a parent handle this while keeping their child from spending too much?  I can give two approaches that have worked for us as well as others, and I am sure there are other approaches that will keep the expenses down.

Some games just never catch on
The key to both of these methods lies in this: without tournament play, CCGs are doomed to failure.  The gaming landscape is littered with failed CCGs, even those covering popular themes: Star Trek, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings to name a few.  (Note that there are several CCGs for every theme: it’s important to pay attention to the exact title.)  The first approach is therefore to allow your child to pick one CCG, and only support it on a schedule.  Our son picked Chaotic, since he loved the cartoon, and we had specifically ruled out Pokémon.  (None of the kids were playing Magic .)  Chaotic never caught on, and the danger was avoided for a couple years while it died out.  The one booster pack a month we promised to support, at a few dollars each, did not crippled us.  Soon, the cards were no longer available, though he kept looking.  If a child’s game does catch on, don’t let them enter any tournaments until they can support the habit; most tournaments have an age limit anyway. 

Another alternative, which works particularly well for Magic and Pokémon, is to buy outdated cards in large lots on eBay or in a local game store.  The tournament model also means that there are a lot of cards, particularly for Magic, that have either fallen out of favor or are specifically excluded from tournament play.  Failed games can also be found this way as well as at thrift stores.  I have two games found this way:  Star Wars CCG and Star Wars: The Trading Card Game.  (A trading card game is the same concept, but the term is often used to produce another game with the same theme.)  The former has a good reputation, but I have found that customizing decks is something I don’t have time to do, so neither game has ever been played.

Wings of War may do me in!
Of course, I have found my rabbit hole anyway.  (And I am not talking about the elephant-sized hole that is buying games in general!)  Another type of collectable game involves miniatures, and I am slowly starting to buy aircraft for Wings of War (aka Wings of Glory).  The good news is that there are fewer miniatures to collect due to the production costs.  The bad news is that they are more expensive.

Carrot, anyone?

It’s Your Move!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Chess is now a Boy Scout Merit Badge

This just has to be announced.  Boy Scouts of America has just approved a merit badge for chess.  I guess I will add "merit badge councilor" to my titles "school chess coach" and "troop leader"!

Friday, August 26, 2011

3 Reasons Why Your Child Should Play Chess

Last month I wrote about whether or not chess was good for schools.  If you read that post (and I will put a link at the bottom), you realize that I think chess definitely belongs in schools, but it needs to be carefully monitored.  There are ways it can go astray.  Regardless of whether or not your school has a chess club, parents should make sure their children are playing chess.  Homeschoolers should be teaching it, even if they have never played themselves – learn it together!  I will give three reasons why this is true: what it teaches, the wide open opportunities to play, and it’s lifelong nature.

First of all, chess teaches logic, which directly impacts a child’s performance in schools.  Studies repeatedly confirm this fact.  Kids who play chess get better grades; it’s that simple.  What’s not always mentioned is that chess is also teaching the ability to plan ahead, which is important in academics and in life in general.  Hand-in-hand with lessons on planning are lessons on consequences.  Often enough, right behind that comes lessons in digging yourself out of a hole.  (At least that’s true when I play!)  All of these things exist just as much in the classroom as they do in the game of chess.

Dayton's Chess club is a landmark downtown.

Secondly, chess is a game that can be played anywhere.  Opponents are easy to find if you want to find them.  An obvious possibility is the school.  It’s so obvious I’ll move on.  For those children who are homeschooled or do not otherwise have school opponents, there are local chess clubs.  Most small cities have a chess club; larger cities may have several.  They will be in the phone book if nowhere else.  Often a club will have a Kids’ Night, in which children are the focus of play.  They may even have some adult players providing some casual coaching.  Libraries are increasingly involved with gaming, which is particularly true for chess.  Our local library in Dayton has at least one chess night a month.

If the local chess club or library isn’t an option, chess is one game that can be played online very safely.  They should be monitored of course; I strongly believe in knowing where your kids are both in the real world and in cyberspace.  However, chess is often played with no conversation between online opponents.   There are sites exclusively provided for children like, which is run by the people at  This a very user friendly site that allows parental control.  I play at, and I find the entire experience to be easy and fun.  There isn’t any software or crazy connections, and games can be downloaded for study.

One of my boards is this old Tandy 1650, which is great!
Another way to play is against a computer opponent.  This can be a computer program either on an actual computer or on a gaming console.  Nearly all of the consoles have them for sale.  It could also be an electronic board, complete with pieces.  I have an old, small Tandy electronic board, and it is great.  I will say I rarely use it, though, since I play online and can use my phone.  I would recommend a program, since they generally have tutorials or some way to rate play, and are therefore better at helping a new player improve.  Don’t worry about buying the best software.  Anything sold these days is far better than most people will ever be.  Go with what fits  your budget.

The third reason to teach your child chess is that it is a lifelong activity.  Chess is a lifestyle game, which means that it can become a major hobby by itself, exclusive of other games.  Bridge and go are other lifestyle games.  Magic the Gathering and poker are too, but they can be much more expensive!  In any case, introducing your child to chess may give them something they enjoy for the rest of their life.

Don’t worry about equipment at first.  A simple dollar store chess set will do.  So will books out of the library, if you are on your own.  As your child shows interest, it’s easy to find more books at any reasonably sized book store.  Nicer chess sets can be found all over the internet, and tournament sets and boards are not expensive.  The important thing is to make sure your child is having fun.  The learning is in the play, not necessarily in the lecture.

It's Your Move!

Related Posts :

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Educational Games – An Incomplete Grade!

This past Sunday was the monthly meeting of our gaming group, 3rd Sunday Gamers.  Several of the members teach at my son’s school.  One of them brought a new game, Numero, and we played 10 Days in the USA.  I realized that I missed a few great games that really need to be mentioned when talking about educational games.

Photo by Tony Archer
Numero was very interesting and very good.  Essentially, players are attempting to lay down numbered cards into multiple piles from their hand to make matches.  Once a match is made, the matching player takes that pile and set it before them, sort of like taking a trick.  Rather than create a new pile, players can change the value of the pile by adding numbers to it.  There are also “wild” cards that allow you to perform other arithmetic operations to a pile.  In this way, the value of the pile can be matched and taken.  Not only were there the basic operations (adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing), but with percentages and a cube root thrown in, this game was a math refresher in a box, yet actually was a lot of fun.  It could be tuned to younger players by taking out some or all of the wild cards.  I had never seen it before, but it definitely bridges the “educational” vs. “fun” divide.

Photo by Nathan Morse
To start things off, though, we played 10 Days in the USA, which is part of a larger series of games that I should probably write about.  I actually gave this game to my wife for Christmas a few years ago because it reinforces United States geography, so I really had no excuse for missing it.  In this game, you are attempting to create a trip throughout the states by walking, driving or flying.  Walking and driving requires you to know which states touch or are close together.  A map board is provided.  This game not only bridges the gap, but builds a autobahn between “educational” and “fun”!

Photo by Z-Man Games

We closed the night with Pandemic, which thinking about it, also has a map board as part of play.  It shows the major cities around the world, and therefore would also be educational to some extent.  I miss that because this game is so much fun!!  Honestly, this is one of my favorite games.  It is also a big hit in our group, with roughly 20 plays in the group.  Beyond geography, it really teaches teamwork.  I won’t go into it more; I will put a link to my previous review.

We also played 7 Wonders.  While thematically based on history, game play really doesn’t teach history.  There might be some background on the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World somewhere in the box, but then I missed it.  It was a very good game; everyone liked it.  I had prepared much more than the last time I tried to teach it, which was a disaster due to lack of preparation.  We managed to get in two plays, a learning game and a real play.  I will review it in the future.

Playing four games, and one of them twice, made for a great day.  Any of these games would be great in a family or casual setting.  I’d love to be able to tell you who won what, but we really don’t care that much.  Hey, we have enough trouble keeping track of who’s turn it is!  But now,

It’s Your Move!

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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Educational Games

Image by Jesse Elliot
My wife hates it when I do this.  And she is right, I should not disparage games like Following Directions, or any number of games that just sound boring!  Following Directions might be an incredibly fun game, despite is rating of 2.0/10.0 on BoardGameGeek.  Who am I to judge?  The simple fact is that the title of the game was written to appeal to teachers and parents, and not to students.  That’s the problem I want to address as our thoughts turn to the upcoming school year (at least in my little piece of the cosmos).

 We have a tendency to divide the world of games into two camps: games that educate vs. games that entertain.  The first are almost universally seen as worthwhile (though I might be the lone exception to that rule), and the second are seen by many as an indulgence (particularly when played by adults).  Very few games, maybe just chess, are seen as both, though most people I know have only a passing knowledge of chess.   However, that division is a false one that is largely brought about by the laser focus our culture has on academics.  Not only do our kids have more homework at a young age, but heaven forbid they play a game that is just for entertainment!  We even turn sports into hard work!  How do we know that a game is educational?  One glance at Following Directions makes it pretty clear that it’s not fun, so it must be educational.

Unfortunately, the kids have exactly the same impression.  Whether or not Following Directions is fun (and I really have no idea), the simple fact is that it doesn’t pass the cover check, and that’s all the kids need.  Children tend to be incredibly influenced by cover art and other (missing) glimpses of the Awesomeness Factor, including the title.  What results is a game time that requires effort just to get the kids to play!   There are ways around this problem.

Promotional Image from Jolly Rogers Games
The first is to find games that have at least a fairly cool name and a nice look.  At the very least, it can’t be boring.  This is less important if the class is all involved in the same game and cannot really see artwork; my wife has had the after school program playing exciting games of 20 Questions for Kids and was asked to bring it back.  Bananagrams makes a great, short word game.  I would love to see a game of Founding Fathers used to teach about the writing of the United States Constitution.  Art Shark is a solid game that shows off classic works of art and their artists, reinforcing the history of art.

Another approach is to re-theme a game so that it has more relevance to the classroom.  Play Risk, but with a map of the United States, teaching geography.  Play memory, but make it so that you pick three cards, and must make a math sentence out of them.  (Hey! I just thought that one up!)  One of the easiest games to do this with is Trivial Pursuit, by making up your own set of cards.  Break the classroom into four or five teams and you are set!

Lastly, expand your idea of educational.  Personally, I think that most game teach some very important life lessons that are key to success.  Most games teach kids, “be patient, and wait your turn”.  (How many video games teach that?)  From games, kids learn that sometimes you have to make due.  My dad would say you must “play the hand your dealt”, and he wasn’t just talking about cards.   Games teach that sometimes you don’t get to “have it all”, you must make tough choices.

And if you must play Following Directions, for heaven’s sake please disguise it.  Lose the box and call it “Traffic”.  (“Oh no kids, the words ‘following directions’ on the backs of the cards is just what you do with the cards…”)  The game board actually is pretty well done.  And who knows, maybe with a teacher that shows a little enthusiasm, the game is actually fun!

It’s Your Move!

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Friday, July 15, 2011

The Gambit – Is Chess Good for Schools?

Okay, if you have been reading my blog, or even just read the title block, you know where I am going to come down on this.  I teach chess in my son’s grade school.  Nonetheless, there are issues with teaching chess in schools:  promoting an elitist attitude, scaring kids off, and finding adults to help!  At the same time, there are alternative games that encourage some of the same thought processes. 

First of all, chess can be elitist.  There will be kids who join to prove they are smarter than everyone else.  Worse, there are parents who push their children into chess to prove to the world that their kid (and by extension, the parent) is smarter than everyone else.  I have been to conferences for gifted children where chess clubs were promoted specifically for gifted children, and I have mixed emotions about it.  Chess is a great way to provide more challenge to gifted child.  It doesn’t focus too much on one academic area, and doesn’t feel like “school work”.  Lastly, because chess is “the game of kings”, there are behavioral expectations that go with the game, including playing quietly and with self-control and good sportsmanship.  I worry about gifted children growing up to be “egg-heads” and lacking the softer, interpersonal skills that are so necessary for success at work and in relationships.*  I don’t want to see chess become the exclusive territory of the gifted, however.  “Normal” kids need fun mental challenges that help nurture the thinking processes and teach personal skills too.

Yet, so often (and maybe because of those gifted programs) those “normal” kids are scared by chess, feeling if they are not “smart enough” to play the game.  I frequently hear adults say this very thing; we should expect their kids to feel the same way.  This just isn’t the case.  Anyone can learn the game.  The child, or adult for that matter, may never be the next Bobby Fischer or Judit Polgár, but can love the game and get something out of it nonetheless.  I am a great example of this; I love chess and yet, with a rating in the low 1400’s, I am only a class C player.  I read chess books when I have the time, but honestly I don’t expect to even break into the B class at 1600.  Having fun is far more important than winning or even being a great player.  (Otherwise I wouldn’t game at all!)

Lastly, finding the adults who want to participate is difficult.  In the public school system for Columbus, OH, there has been an employee specifically hired by the district to provide those schools with a chess program.  That is by far the exception to the rule, and that completely leaves out private schools and small districts.  It’s sometimes tough to find adults to teach the gifted kids.  Finding someone to deal with the rest of the school population can be nearly impossible.

Nine Men's Morris - Promo image at Amazon
If chess proves to be too much of a problem, what can be done?  Don’t give up; start a gaming club instead.  There are plenty of classic, quick and relatively inexpensive games that are suited to teaching problem solving skills and sportsmanship.  A short list of abstract games would include Reversi (Othello), Mancala, Backgammon and Nine Men’s Morris.  These games do not need a teacher/coach who is familiar with the game.  The rules are more simple and straightforward and the strategy not as deep as chess.  

There actually are some advantages over a chess club with this approach.  First of all, younger kids can be included with games like checkers.  There are a lot of games that are variants on checkers, both more and less difficult.  As the kids get older, they could be introduced to pool checkers, which someday I would like to learn.  Furthermore, the list isn’t limited to just abstracts.  My wife has had great success playing 20 Questions for Kids as a team game with the after school program.  There are teachers running gaming clubs at schools who are playing some of the other types of games I discuss in this blog.

Games are so important to intellectual and social development that I think all kids should learn to play them.  If your school doesn’t have a chess program, consider a gaming program.  If there isn’t someone to start it, why not you?  If none of that is available, at least play at home.  If you keep playing and reading, I promise to keep writing!

It’s Your Move!

Related Posts:

Related Links:
Othello – Board Game Geek entry
Mancala – Board Game Geek entry
Nine Men’s Morris – Board Game Geek entry
Backgammon – Board Game Geek entry
20 Questions for Kids – Board Game Geek entry
Judit Polgár – Wikipedia entry
Bobby Fischer – Wikipedia entry

* A few years ago, it was suggested to my wife and me that our son might be gifted.  I am not sure how that actually is measured, but I do know that he is a straight-A student.  Our concern isn’t that he is provided an advanced curriculum to further advance his intellect, though that would be nice.  Our main concern is that he learns empathy, compassion, teamwork and leadership, growing up to be a productive citizen and a faith-filled man.  That’s our job as a parent.  In my engineering career, I have met lots of incredibly smart people who couldn’t lead hungry Boy Scouts to lunch, and can never see when someone is hurting.  That’s not who we are raising Daniel to be.