My friends Ed and Mel gave me The Last Night on Earth when I was at PAX. I had to ship home everything I got there (only two boxes, because I was restrained this year) and it arrived yesterday.
Nolan and I played it after dinner last night, and we both enjoyed it a lot. I think he'd have had more fun if he hadn't been plagued by disastrous rolls (a statistically improbable run of 1s and 2s) but we both liked it enough to play it again tonight.
However, there were several times during the game that I could feel his frustration so much, it threatened to make the game not fun for both of us. I helped him get through it with an appropriate balance of humor and empathy, but if he'd been just a few years younger, it would have been a disaster for us both and he'd never want to play it again.
So this morning, I thought of a way to help GeekDads and GeekMoms who encounter this with their own kids. It's a variation on something my friends and I call Rule 17a.
Rule 17a is a house rule we invoke when we're learning a new game. It basically states that, at any time, a player can say, "You know, I just realized that I did this stupid thing that I wouldn't have done if I had a little more experience in the game. I'd like a do-over." If the majority of the players agree (and we always do) then we just back up a little bit, and play on. It reduces the risk of doing something bone-headed that you can't ever recover from, and it keeps the game fun.
As a parent, particularly when my kids were small, I was always looking for teachable moments, where I could take an experience they'd just had and use it to apply some kind of life lesson about basic values, like being honest or kind, doing the right thing when it wasn't the easy thing, and being a good sport. Gaming presents tons of opportunities for parents to teach their kids about all of these things, as well some other important values: life isn't fair, and when things don't go the way you want them to, it's not the end of the world. Never sacrifice the journey for the destination. Always do your best. It's just a game.
But when your child has just rolled his third or fourth critical failure, and is wondering why he's even playing the game instead of . . . well, instead of doing anything else, all that goes out the window. We want our kids to have fun when they play games, after all, and we all know that nothing ruins a game experience faster than totally horrible dice rolls, especially for kids.
Enter Rule 17b:
Depending on your kid, the game, and some X factor that I leave to you as a parent, you could give your child up to three "roll again" markers, like poker chips or glass beads or whatever, that she can use at any time to re-roll a particularly bad dice roll. They can use it whenever they want to, but once the marker it used, it's gone for the rest of the game, so your child will have to choose very carefully about when she's going to use it. This would be especially great with a couple of smaller kids, because the parent isn't put in the position of awarding do overs and giving the appearance of favoritism (raise your hand if you've ever had to untangle that Gordian Knot.)
I wouldn't suggest this with more traditional board games of the Monopoly variety, but I think it would work well in games like Settlers of Catan, Descent, or Talisman. It gives children a little bit more control than they'd otherwise have, so they're not at the mercy of the dice as much as they would be without it. They have a little bit of a safety net, even when they get unlucky.
You'd still get those teachable moments about enjoying the journey and being a good sport, and when the markers run out, they'll still see that life isn't always fair, but by invoking Rule 17b, your child's (and your) gaming experience is less susceptible to the fickle whims of chance. Your son or daughter is empowered at a time when they'd feel helpless and frustrated. Everyone has more fun, which is the whole point of gaming in the first place, and you may just add a gamer to the world.
Purists will say that this unbalances games. I'm not entirely sure I agree with that, because if you're playing with small kids the older kids and adults have inherently unbalanced the game (unless they take it easy on the kids, which I never do, because once the figure out that you're doing that, it's a huge insult to them. Kids want to win, but they want to win on their own, especially when they're playing with a parent.)
I want to hear from my fellow Geek and Gamer parents: what do you think of this idea?
Updated to add: Several people have suggested that all the players, including parents, get Mulligan Markers (or whatever you want to call them) so that everyone is on equal footing. Parents, of course, don't have to use them, but at least they're there. I think this is a super idea, and I wish I'd thought of it.