The first time I hung out and played a card game with my friend Kate’s family, I was shocked and enthralled. She and her brothers punched each other in the arms, her dad tried to wrestle people when he lost and her mom cheated blatantly. Everyone laughed constantly and talked smack at full volume. I’d never seen familial behavior like this before, but it turns out that a lot of families I now know are extremely competitive at games. Whether your clan is made of vicious players and sore losers, or the friendly, spending-quality-time-together type, you can try making your own game to while away an afternoon.
For your first go-round, keep it simple. Think less Settlers of Catan and more Sorry!
It’s worth noting that some of the games that have the simplest rules have been around the longest and engender complex strategies. So get a big piece of poster board or cardboard, grab your kids and start brainstorming.
An easy format is a pathway comprised of squares that leads to the finish. Players take turns rolling a die. The number rolled is how many squares a player advances. Some squares should be blank and some should feature instructions. For really young kids, make a short pathway. Even 15 or 20 squares can suffice. Older players can make 40 or more squares. The longer the path, the longer the game will take.
After you draw the initial board, decide on your story and characters. You can base your game on a book your kids like, a time period they’re drawn to (or that you want them to learn about,) or anything they are interested in. A game about imaginary creatures they make up, or your own family members will work too. Depending on what world and story you choose, the finish can be a prize, a place, or a person: get the magic seeds, find the castle, or rescue your best friend. Player pieces can be anything, from specially chosen buttons to modeled clay figures.
Then you and your kids can invent the traps and pitfalls of the game. If the characters are zombies trying to get out of the graveyard, you could use, “A gravestone falls on you—skip a turn.” If the game features talking animals trying to get to the jungle, “A volcano erupts in your path—go back two squares.” Create some advancement directives as well, that can send a player forward extra squares, or give an extra turn. Pepper the directives randomly on the pathway. A good game allows for reversals, so make sure there are negative directives toward the end of your path.
You can add ways for players to interfere with each other too, like “Pick one character and send him or her back two squares.” This may create and destroy alliances, which creates more competitive fun.
For a slightly more complex game, you can create cards. Some of your squares will then read, “Draw a card.” Cards can direct a player to do anything you and your kids dream, such as switch places with another character, do a push-up, or sing a song instead of having a turn. Or the cards could just direct them how many squares to move forward or backward.
When you finish sketching in your path, all the rules, and the goal, then let your little Charles Darrows* draw and color illustrations to cover the board. You might want to refine or replace your rules as time goes on, but to discover that all you have to do is play!
*Charles Darrow invented the game Monopoly