Maintaining a balance between work, recreational activities, intellectual pursuits, and home life can be a challenge for any family. However, being a dedicated geek, gamer, and/or game designer doesn’t have to mean you must live in a van down by the river. We don’t want our favorite hobby turning people into gamer widows and gamer widowers.

In this open-ended series, I’ll discuss issues related to balancing family life and gaming, with a special emphasis on the challenges of being a game maker. Game makers face unique challenges as spouses and parents, but we also have fantastic opportunities to have bonding experiences with our families while enjoying our love of games.

Family, for me, is my wife and two kids, and I write from that perspective, but I hope that you can find value in these pieces regardless of how you define your family. I use the term spouse in this piece in a generic gender-neutral sense, feel free to substitute partner, significant other, or any other term that is appropriate to your life.

In this installment, I’ll focus on the following topics:

  • Family Comes First
  • Take Care of Yourself
  • Play Games with Your Family

Family Comes First

Spend time with your kids, go on dates with your spouse, take care of all that mundane stuff to keep the wheels turning in your household. Turn household chores into collective activities that the kids are a part of. Cleaning the kitchen, doing the yard work, and folding the laundry can all be “Gamified” by keeping track of points, paying allowance, using timers to track speed. Teach your kids skills and responsibility, make your home-making machine more efficient, take the burden off of the adults, and practice working together. Everyone in the household benefits from fulfilling obligations, so each person should contribute to fulfilling those obligations.

LaurieFamily

A family that works together has more time to play together.

If all of your gaming and game design takes you away from your family, you likely have an unsustainable pattern, that could cause deep rifts between you and your kids and/or spouse. Be conscious of the kinds of games you play and the types of projects you embark upon. Your choices of games, projects, and travel may be opportunities for fun and connection with your family. If you have to push your family away to make gaming happen, the costs may outweigh the benefits.

Find ways to schedule gaming events so that they don’t interfere with prime family time. If you can, bring your family with you and encourage their participation in gaming events. Make gaming events family events. If you know other families that game, get the families together so that kids can be free to play games or do other activities, and everyone can have an enjoyable time together. If you’re working on game design, see if you can do that while your spouse is doing their own work and pursuing their own creative endeavors, so that you’re not sacrificing time for you to be close.

A Cautionary Tale

I used to play a lot of Dungeons and Dragons. Every week, I would have a bunch of friends over, take over the dining room and adjacent living room, and demand a minimum of distractions to have a smooth running and immersive campaign. My son was a part of some of those adventures, but my wife and my daughter were not. Essentially, at least half of my family would be left out of this weekly activity, and the presence of DnD in our house on a Sunday afternoon limited in what activities my family could do together. In addition, because I was the dungeon master, I would spend countless hours writing custom adventures, building models, painting miniatures, and so on, to breathe as much life into my adventures as I could. DnD was the equivalent of an unpaid part-time job. All of this was rewarding and fun, but a source of resentment and division for my family.

dragons

Over time, I moved my gaming interests into games that I could share with my family more easily. Now, we’re definitely a gaming family, and we often play games that are easy for everyone to play.

Take Care of Yourself

If you destroy yourself while chasing your dreams to win the Spiel des Jahres, you’ll be no good to yourself or your family. We all know the legends of various tortured geniuses who created great works of art, science, and literature. We idolize historical figures who had “greatness,” but were essentially unhappy jerks who created misery for everyone around them. Don’t be that kind of tortured genius. You’re no good to your family if you’re not eating right, exercising, and getting plenty of sleep; or worse still, you drop dead from a life of hard gaming.

Here’s a chart of how great creative minds supposedly spent their time from Podio. If you hunt closely, you might find family time in there, but only for a few geniuses under “food and Leisure” or maybe “other.”

You can come up with great ideas for your games while on a treadmill, riding a bike, or cooking a nutritious meal. Staring at your computer screen and refreshing your Facebook and Kickstarter pages over and over while pondering game design can create a vicious cycle of illusory productivity. You’re doing stuff, but it isn’t necessarily what you set out to do. Hours go by, and your games are no further along, you pissed off half of the Boardgamegeek community, and you just backed three Kickstarter projects that you’ll have to explain, and you forgot why you sat down at the computer in the first place.

Get up, get some UV’s, make some vitamin D, churn some seratonin and endorphins, and then crank out your masterpiece game design in short order.

Play Games with your Family

Many families want to play together, but struggle to make it happen. The key is to play games that everyone enjoys and is able to participate in on some level. In addition, you need to take special care to make gaming a comfortable, voluntary event, not something your family does out of obligation. So don’t force the issue. Jane McGonigal discussed in her book “Reality is Broken” that games need to be voluntary activities. A player needs to be free to say no to playing a game, but also free to leave a game at any time.

Here are a few principles to consider regarding playing games with your family:

  • Say “Yes” to the Games Your Kids Want to Play
  • Find games that have Crossover Appeal
  • Gamify Your Gaming
  • Find a special game for you and your spouse

Say “Yes” to the Games Your Kids Want to Play

If you hope to share your love of games with your children, you’ll need to play the games they want to play, especially when they’re very young. Try not to criticize or belittle the gameplay of their favorite games. They may feel strongly attached to the experience of Candy Land, while you may see it as a futile exercise in randomness. By saying yes to your kids’ requests for play, you’re getting to share a game experience with your children, and you’re also modeling the act of saying YES. When you propose another game to your children, they will be more likely to answer the same way.

It’s more important that you’re playing games with your kids than playing the games you want to play.

With my son, we played Yu-Gi-Oh, Magic, and several computer games together since he was very young. Now he’s 13 and a tournament-winning Dominion and Catan player, who has no problem sitting down and mastering a complex Euro game. With my daughter, she really likes the party games, but she’ll play Catan, Stone Age or something along those lines from time to time too, and she’s only 9. If she wants to play Scribblish or the Monster High game, I say yes.

Find Games that Have Crossover Appeal

Depicted below are some of the games that my family has found that we all enjoy playing together from time to time. A few of them are two player games that have universal appeal, and the rest are games that we all play together. Each family is different of course.

I started a Geeklist on Boardgamegeek for games that are good for the whole family. Feel free to check it out and add your own favorite family games.

Gamify Your Gaming

An interesting twist we’ve added to our family gaming lately is keeping a running tally of our victories over a period of time, a concept we learned from another family that we game with often. We used to have a medal that we would award to the winner of each family game, but now our method is slightly more elaborate, and makes a larger meta-game out of our collective gaming experience. The name of this tournament changes frequently, and that’s part of the fun. The current title for Summer is:

“The Summertime Gaming Extravaganza Eleganza Linguisa Fantastica.”

Here’s how it works:
We play games. If a member of the family wins a game that at least one other family member is a part of, they get a point. These games can be tabletop games, but can also be outdoor activities like Frisbee golf, horseshoes, or whatever. We display the results prominently on our whiteboard for all to see. It’s pretty fun and motivates us to play more together.

Deciding What to Play Fairly
Another “gamification” we use is a game I came up with for deciding what game we’ll play. I suppose this game could be used for helping a family decide on any activity. Each member of the family gets 4 six-sided dice of one color. We each have our own unique color. We each nominate a tabletop game and place it on our dining room table, with a plastic cup on top it, placed upside down. We take our dice and assign values to each of the games, sliding our die under the cup to cast hidden votes. Each die we place has to have a different value. After everyone has put one die under each cup, we lift them up one by one and see how many points each game received. Then we play the game that earned the most points. If there is a tie, we remove some games and vote again.

What Game Would You Pick?

Find a special game for you and your spouse

My wife and I enjoy games, but I’m clearly more of the “gamer” in our house. Because I spend my time learning and exploring all manner of games, I often come to the table with an edge of experience and familiarity. My wife is an excellent player, but it takes her some time to get used to the mechanics and strategies of a given game. If every time she plays she’s having to learn a new game, gaming is far more taxing and stressful. So recently, we came up with a plan to game together in a way that would make the experience better for the two of us.

We picked out a game with a reputation for being good for couples: Castles of Burgundy. It’s a medium-heavy Euro with limited direct player interaction, which is nice for a couple to play without fighting one another. Another couple we know uses Race for the Galaxy as their go-to game. It’s nice to have a game with deep enough strategy to keep the minds engaged, but without the kinds of frustration and resentment that can arise from direct conflict.

burgundy

We committed to playing Castles of Burgundy once a week. We were able to explore the nuances of the game together, and enjoy playing and strategizing, without having to adjust to a brand new game each time. We got used to the symbols and mechanics, and could just play. And, most importantly, my wife kicked my ass repeatedly.

Do you have a couple’s game that works for you? What special games really bring your family together? What strategies do you have for balancing your family life and gaming?

Luke Laurie

Game Designer at Luke Laurie Games

Designer of Stones of Fate and The Manhattan Project: Energy Empire
Game designer by night, and middle school science and pre-engineering teacher by day. He lives in Santa Maria California with his amazing wife and two unrealistically well-behaved children.

17 Readers Commented

Join discussion
  1. Christina Major on July 11, 2014

    Really really digging this piece. While I’ve often enjoyed games, I definitely started more like your wife, including having trouble adjusting to strategies and getting REALLY angry when Mark picked them up better than I did. Boggle nights could get really brutal, and our abstract strategy attempts (Chess/Go)… well, we won’t talk about those. When we started finding better themed games where we could talk about what was going on or just find more humor in the narrative/theme, the world of gaming really opened up to me. And I got the practice I needed to not let my competitive nature cloud out my absorption and appreciation of larger strategies.

    Also, I really want to try that dice voting system. I bet you could adapt that to a roommate situation, too!

  2. Luke Laurie on July 11, 2014

    The dice voting system could work in any gathering. It’s kind of interesting how it erases the feeling of playing something you didn’t pick. Because you got a vote – you did pick it! My daughter, especially, has much more buy in to the game when we vote first.

  3. Luke Laurie on July 11, 2014

    Thank you Christina!

  4. Kelsey Domeny on July 11, 2014

    Love this post. I really like the chart of how famous artists spend their time! Strauss and I have very similar schedules. I will have to remember the dice vote when our daughter is older. Right now, when the toddler says legos – we play legos.

    Thanks, Luke, for writing- I look forward to parts 2 and 3!

  5. Luke Laurie on July 11, 2014

    By the way, don’t forget to enter the League of Gamemakers summertime raffle!!!
    http://www.leagueofgamemakers.com/raffle.html

  6. Luke Laurie on July 12, 2014

    Thank you Kelsey! My daughter has expressed interest in writing a piece…

  7. Norv Brooks on July 12, 2014

    Good article, Luke! I think it hits everyone at one point or another. On the point where you spoke of saying Yes to the games your children want to play, I also thought that if your children feel like they want to design a game be careful not to pick it apart even if it breaks all the gaming rules you know.

  8. Angela on July 14, 2014

    Interesting. I have noted that if there is any real competition in a game, my husband and I end up fighting afterwards because even if I’m not trying to win, it usually happens. I like your family selection system. One issue we have is that my youngest at 8 gets super frustrated when people inform him that he’s breaking the rules of a game he might not quite understand yet and then his goal in life becomes to lose. That’s heartbreaking for me because I can see it in my 26-years-ago self too. This is a great post and one that I’ll definitely be sharing.

  9. Z on July 14, 2014

    The ex and I have different gaming styles. She’s very focused on the social interaction part and I’m more like a 5-year-old, I just want to have fun! Which is why our best times are when I have the 5-year-old to play games with and she gets to go and socialize! I’m not all that worried if games don’t get finished or the rules fall apart, as long as we’re having FUN!

  10. Kevin S. T. on July 18, 2014

    Neat post.

  11. John on July 20, 2014

    My kids are small, so we find we can play kiddie games. But rarely seem to have the time/energy to get something meatier to the table after the kids are in bed.

  12. mike mullins on July 20, 2014

    As the “gamer” in the relationship, I love the idea of a game designated as “your game” for you and your partner. For my wife and me, its Opus Dei, a game like Guillotine that focuses on gathering scientists and philosophers rather than beheading royals. Both the game and the establishment of a special game come highly recommended.

    • Luke Laurie Author on July 21, 2014

      Thanks Mike – I’ll check out Opus Dei! Atheist themed game? Interesting.

  13. Tomer Gurantz on December 18, 2015

    Definitely into this style. Our daughter started when she was 2.5, and Sequence for Kids was a big winner back then. Since then we moved on to Rat-A-Tat-Cat, Love Letter, Splendor, Wiz War, and dozens of others, and now she plays Settlers of Catan with us at 6 (no, not the kid one, that was last year).

    For couple games, we’ve found lots of good 2 player games: Lost Cities, Splendor, Battleline, Rivals for Catan, and recently started with Agricola: All Animals Big and Small. Sometimes we take a few weeks break, but we always come back to it.

  14. Mike Pellecchia on February 2, 2016

    Great article. Really struck a chord with me as a designer and first time dad of a 5 month old.

  15. Pingback: Web Wise Words – The Advantages Of Playing Games Online 15 Feb, 2017

    […] the off chance that you don’t generally have individuals around the house intrigued by gaming with you, the Internet might be an extraordinary asset to swing to. There are constantly other individuals […]

  16. Russel Fleming on July 7, 2017

    Enjoyed the article. I am just getting into board game design and reading everything I can. I would like a weekly game with my wife but I keep wanting to get a game she loves instead of sticking with what she likes. That being said she is loving the Unlock games that we also play with our son.

Have something to say?