Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Sweet Spot

As a parent of young children, it is often tough to find time to game. Or energy. Gone are the carefree days of playing game after game after game. There's always something coming up... late bedtimes, going to the store for medicine, washing diapers (for cloth-diapering hippies like us!), cooking, cleaning random messes the kids leave... yeah, free time is at a premium. Every minute counts. So I have to shoot for getting the most out of my time when gaming. So what does that mean? How do I get the most out of my time gaming? Honestly, I'm still working it out. I have 5 years of practice, though, and I'll share what I've figured out. Here are some guidelines I use for finding the "sweet spot" in gaming.

1. Avoid games with complex or fiddly rules.

Some games are just elegant. Play progresses in an orderly fashion, there's an FAQ in the rulebook covering anything you need, and people just "get it" after a quick explanation. Play these games. And avoid games (especially teaching games!) that require a trip to to arbitrate a rules question, use arcane iconography or just make things complex. A game that I really like that fits into this category is Race for the Galaxy. I love the game. I really do. The iconography makes it hard to teach, though, so it's not going to hit the table when new players are around. Especially with expansions. Complexity doesn't need to be there for depth, necessarily. So when a game delivers a comparable experience without the fiddliness, go for that one.

2. If the kids are around, figure in additional time... or get a babysitter.

I don't know how many games I've lost due to having to parent. In the scheme of things, it doesn't really matter. A game is a game. But gaming is a hobby, and meant to be relaxing. Socializing. Interacting with friends, or maybe just unwinding with the wife. And it really gets frustrating when I feel that I can't remember what I'm doing from one minute to the next due to constant interruptions. I'm not the best multitasker (just ask my wife!), and the kids usually get the priority in any situation where they're involved. A good thing to do is to make sure you "load 'em up" with attention beforehand. If they're going to be supervised less during play, set their expectations and try to meet all their needs (immediate and anticipated) before you sit down. Gaming with other parents helps. Often, kids will play together. Another option is a babysitter. Even having a babysitter over at the same time is a great thing, and well worth the investment.

3. Maximize the "Fun vs. Time Spent" ratio.

Some games are just long. I'm not adverse to playing a long game; I enjoy the opportunity every now and then. But some games... are just long. As an example, I don't really feel that I get more out of Axis & Allies than I do out of Memoir '44. I'll definitely be playing it for five more hours, but I don't necessarily think that Axis is going to deliver six times the fun just because it takes six times the time to play. That means that it has a poor fun:time spent ratio. Look for games that deliver the essential experience. Some games are going to tale longer to do that, so make sure that when you're selecting a game to pull off the shelf, that there isn't a game that delivers the same experience in a shorter time.

4. Read reviews of games before you get them.

This has become so important for my wife and me when buying games. In the past, we would drop loads and loads of money on games we had never heard of. Sometimes this would have positive results. For instance, we purchased Attika after a recommendation from a game store employee at Rainy Day Games. Hadn't heard of it, or looked it up. Just bought it. And loved it. But sometimes... you end up with a game that doesn't fit your style, isn't what you expected or is just plain bad. I'm not going to point fingers at any games in particular, primarily because I try to stay positive. But there are definitely games out there with few redeeming qualities. Which is why game reviews are so important.Just as the reviews themselves are important, so are the reviewers. It's easy to look at a review uncritically and walk away thinking of the reviewer's opinion as the final word. My advice is to find a couple reviewers' blogs or podcasts and get familiar. My wife, for example, loves The Dice Tower. She doesn't necessarily agree with all of Tom Vasel's opinions on games, but she knows where she stands in relation to him on things and can use that as a yardstick and gauge whether or not she thinks she might like something based on that. We've made some very informed decisions on games based on his reviews, and on the reviews of others. FYI, I know a blog that reviews games (hint, hint!)... ;)

So what is "the sweet spot"? The sweet spot is primarily about being cognizant of factors like time and parenting when purchasing games, choosing which games to play and playing games. How this is defined for each individual is definitely going to vary. Just think of this as a game itself! It's a very complex resource management game, and the resources are time, money and attention. Stay aware of this, and you'll find your sweet spot!


  1. Good points, Randy. We finally bought our own copy of Dominion recently, and when it arrived I took my first free moment to open it up and get everything ready to play once the kids were in bed. I was sorting the cards out when Theo realized what I was doing and got interested. I offered to let him help, but his idea of sorting was very different than mine! In the end I boxed it up and moved on to a more kid-friendly game and came back later once he was in bed.

    Now that we've got the setup sorted and we know the rules, Dominion is actually feeling like the sweet spot for us. The third time we played it only took a couple of minutes to set up, and I think we might soon be able to actually play 3-player in that fabled "30 Minute" time printed on the side of the box! It feels good to be able to sit down and play a game and have some conversation in the time that we have been using to watch a TV show at night.

  2. These are great tips for getting the most out of your game time. And we can attest to the fact that the time slips away even more as they kids grow. Ours now range from 15 down to 7 and getting game time with teenagers and all their activities takes a lot of work. The biggest thing we find is that we have to let them choose the game. Because if it doesn't interest them, then there won't be any game time.

  3. @JT: Yes, we love Dominion. It is a great experience for the time invested. What I like is that it scratches that strategy game itch for me, and rarely goes over 30-40 minutes once you're familiar with it. Great hoice!

    @Trent: Yup, our kids are little now. I certainly can see our willful children dictating what hits the table when they're playing with us soon enough! Jack, at 2, is already demanding Froggy Boogie and Boggle JR a lot (he doesn't so much play them as play with them). Our daughter Katie is also very opinionated and will likely soon be calling the shots on what games we play. :)

  4. 3 and 4 resonate the most with me. Time and money are both relevant factors when it comes to any endeavor and games are no different. I also agree with your wife about The Dice Tower. Good article. Thanks.

  5. Thanks for stopping by! I'm glad you found something you agreed with!