Games With Kids

My latest poker strategy article, Games With Kids, is now appearing in 2+2 Magazine. It’s on a subject I’ve discussed before on the podcast, playing games with my cousin’s three young sons. This article recounts a few specific stories and reflects on some of the things I’ve learned from playing with them:

Perhaps the biggest thing I’ve learned from them is that their reasons for playing games are quite different from my own. Because I enjoy strategic thinking and find game theory interesting, my favorite games (like poker) involve lots of nuance and meaningful decisions with uncertain outcomes.

Of course, for young children in particular, this kind of thinking is not on their radar at all. Consequently, I’ve suffered through my share of War, Candyland, and other games that involve no meaningful decisions whatsoever (assuming one isn’t trying to take advantage of inevitably marked cards).

Why do children enjoy these games? I believe it is for reasons that they share with many recreational poker players: they enjoy manipulating aesthetically pleasing game pieces (it’s no coincidence that casino chips are brightly colored and have a pleasing size and weight), reveling in the ups and downs that follow from the turn of a card (gambling, essentially, even if there’s nothing of value on the line), and engaging with other people in a friendly and/or competitive pursuit.


1 thought on “Games With Kids

  1. For a game for mixed skill levels and kids I recommend the game that in the UK we call “dominoes”. I know you have dominoes in the US too – but like the word “cards” it refers to playing implements rather than specific rules. The draw game we play with dominoes in the UK so frequently that its just called “dominoes” works like this:

    Mix dominoes face down

    Each player takes 7 dominoes (or if there are 4 players each take six, if 5 then each take 5 – so that there is always a “stock” of dominoes to draw from).

    Player with double 6 starts by playing it (if no one has double six then ask for double 5, double 4 etc.)

    Each subsequent player must either add a domino from their hand to the “snake” of dominoes forming on the board, or if they can’t they must draw one from the stock.

    Play continues until either someone has played all the dominoes in their hand or there are no more dominoes in the stock and the board is locked up (i.e. all 7 dominoes of a particular number have been played and that number is showing at both ends of the snake) – some people play the rule that the round ends immediately when the board is locked up and people don’t have to draw, but I don’t recommend it as it requires a person playing to recognise that has happened.

    Scoring for the round: Count the pips on the dominoes in each persons hand – that is the score for that player for the round (like golf, lowest score is best – some people play that all the pips are added and are the winners score, but this version is possibly less interesting)

    Next round – as above, but if the first domino played last time was e.g. double 4, then the next starting domino is double 3 (when you get down to double zero you go back to double six. It can occasionally happen heads up that no player is dealt a double in their hand in which case 6-5 starts, or 6-4 etc)

    We usually play that players are eliminated when they reach 101 points but this may be quite long for younger kids. You can also do 51 or just a fixed number of rounds then you don’t have teary eliminations.

    Finally it’s not really a game rule but it’s considered more elegant to play the doubles perpendicular to the snake – however the snake still always has only has two ends .

    Anyway like poker the game has the beauty that it’s simultaneously true that it’s possible to play and win with very little skill – the three year old can just match dominoes and with luck be able to play them all off without picking up, also enjoy determining which way the snake goes next – but also true that there is an open ended amount of strategic thought possible in the game. Kids tend to go through stages of strategy (playing doubles where possible as there are fewer opportunities to play them, preferentially playing higher numbers as they are worth more points if left, playing dominoes that duplicate other number in the hand rather than ones with unique numbers to keep the range of playable numbers high, recognising that one has a monopoly in a number and locking one or both sides of the board to force others to draw, inferring what numbers the other players have or don’t have from previous drawing, leveling relating to the foregoing, balancing the competing priorities etc.).

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