Saturday, March 04, 2006

Watching the development of Strategy and Tactics

Sorry to disappoint the Grognards amongst you, but this is a piece about the development of Strategy and Tactics in a gamer child, not an SPI retrospective.

Daughter the Elder is currently seven and half which means that we have been playing games with her for around five years. Of course the first couple of years most of - who am I kidding all of - the games we played involved a strategic aim no more complicated than "I want to win" and the tactics were no deeper than having your turn.

Games that young children will like are ones where they can compete on an even footing with adults and as such are heavily or entirely luck based. Hopefully they can be entertaining and educational too.

Being entirely luck based does not necessarily rule out tactical thinking however. Snakes & Ladders was one of the first games where Daughter the Elder displayed tactical thinking. She would look at the board and say "I need a five" (to land on a ladder) or "I hope I don't get a three" (to avoid a snake). To me it was evidence that she was looking at her position in the game and analysing her options. Admittedly unless she could guarantee the outcome of her die roll she had no concrete choice about these options. The important thing is that she had recognised the different outcomes that were possible on her turn and could distinguish between the good, the bad and the indifferent ones which is quite a step up from just rolling the die, moving the counter and exclaiming "Yay I landed on a ladder!". This tactical thinking also required her to use her mathematical skills in working out what was a good or bad number to roll, which is an added educational benefit.

The progression in Junior Labyrinth has been interesting to observe. In the early games her moves were very direct, her ghost usually only moved a short distance to or towards the objective. In later games her moves were much more considered her ghost would often end up travelling a much more convoluted path to the objective but would almost always reach it.

In other games that came later the strategic, long term, thinking came more into play. It is no longer really enough just to want to win, you have to consider how you are going to win. In Settlers of Catan Daughter the Elder devised a strategy that favours ports and development cards and she much plays it most of the time. My critical review would be that there are times or situations that this strategy is not necessarily the best one and possibly a different approach should be tried. That said, she has certainly had her fair shares of wins employing this strategy - which could say a lot about my critical reviews of strategic thinking!

Interestingly enough the game that really brought home to me the growth in Daughter the Elder's strategic thinking was Connect 4. I knew she had been playing it at school last year but over the recent (Southern hemisphere) summer holidays I realised that she must have been playing it a lot. We chalked up over a hundred games and it was pretty much dead on 50-50 win ratio.

As I played game after game with her I realised she quite obviously had a number of different strategies or set plays depending on what her opponent did. She also would often be planning two different connect fours at once, prepared to sacrifice one to me whilst snatching victory with the other.

I would not have been at all surprised to hear her say "Ah so you are using the Nabovski opening, I shall stop that with the Yanescu method" or "You think you can trick me with the Arbuckle gambit? Everyone knows that that is easily countered by employing the Du Bois defence".

Now she didn't actually say these things, but based on her attitude and results I am pretty sure she was thinking them!

I am also seeing emerging thinking in the way she plays games like Pick Picknic and Frank's Zoo.

I am looking forward to many, many, more years gaming with her and also going through the same developmental period with Daughter the Younger over the next few years.

Mmm, meeples taste like...


gamesgrandpa said...

Great post, Fraser!

It is indeed very rewarding to watch young ones study a game, understand it, and begin trying tactics and strategies. I hope Biggie continues to love playing games and does so for the rest of her life. You may also enjoy watching grandchildren go through the same development, someday. That is even more fun, believe it or not!

Friendless said...

I played Spy Alley with my 5yo nephew yesterday. As it's a secret identity game, and he can't read, we had to explain how to match his identity to the embassies using the pictures. The Free Gift cards are publis so we could read those for him. The Move cards we could read for him, though I wasn't sure whether he could read numerals or not. Anyway, quite surprisingly, he started using the move cards to get free stuff, which surprised me. And then in the end he had a free guess at my identity, which was wrong because I was bluffing, but his wrong guess was enough information for my 9yo to eliminate me on the next turn :-(. Next time we'll play E&T, see how they cope with that!