Game Theory: Playtime with a 3-year-old

It’s not whether you win or lose. It’s how you play versus a 3-year-old.

Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

My kids are growing up, which in most ways is so great. They’re putting on their own shoes. They’re about two-thirds of the way toilet-trained. They’re expressing likes and, more than that, dislikes. They’re expressing more nuanced emotions. Glee is a thing they express. Frustration is another. Thoughtfulness, compassion, jealousy. Boredom.

Ohhh, how the 3-year-old’s bored.

This is our fault, of course. We don’t provide enough flashing lights or perform circus tricks of a quality reserved for Cirque du Soleil. In fact, we’re not even close to circus-trick caliber because our kids aren’t allowed TVs or phones and or any video games, and if that makes me sound like a braggart, please know that I’ve suffered for this. I have paid.

But we’ve had to produce something because we’re not cruel and he is bored. Enter the Cupboard of Board Games. It’s taller than I am and chock-full, and I must confess to you here: I’ve grown exceptionally skilled at the game Candy Land. The trick is that you pick yellow because yellow is lucky, but only in Candy Land; in Snail’s Pace Race, you must always select orange.

Most of the games we’ve bought for them are games I played as a kid. This is partly because I am old-school: About 10 years ago, it was cute to wear ’90s fashion to parties, and I was supremely prepared for that. In any case, revisiting the games has proved interesting. A lot of things have changed in the past 25 years. Go Fish is not among them.

In our house, there are a few game rules, so to speak. The really important one is that there’s no letting anyone win. Not the 3-year-old, not the 1-year-old. Not the orange snail. My grandmother played a sly and masterful game of gin rummy, and she didn’t let me win once. For years I suffered defeat at her hand, and as far as I can remember we played it every time we saw each other. I lost a lot of gin rummy. But I never stopped wanting to play. And to give you an idea of how great it was the first time I won: It happened more than 20 years ago, and I still have the scorecard.

My husband has asked me to consider exceptions. He wants to introduce our son to chess but fears clobbering him for the next nine years in the same game might diminish his enthusiasm. I tell him to take it up with my dear Oma in the afterlife. Until then, the two of us are holding our ground.

So chess is on the back burner, though we’re not wanting. In the spirit of a little friendly competition, I’ve taken stock of our games, selected the ones I like best and compiled double reviews on each. The first reviews are all mine, present-day—but colored, as they all necessarily must be, with nostalgia. The other reviews are those of my 3-year-old.

Candy Land
Susan: This game is exactly as I remember it, and that’s because I bought the vintage version they rereleased for time-stuck ’80s babies like me. I love this game. I love when my son picks it to play. The pedestals keep breaking off the little players, and the kids repeatedly freak out over it, but it’s not something a little Krazy Glue peeling the skin from my raw fingers can’t fix. It thrills me to pull the ice-cream card.
Susan’s 3-year-old, Ozzy: I collect all the food cards and eat them! Nom nom nom nom nom.

Chutes and Ladders
Susan: Ups and downs. This game’s full of them. I do mind the moral lessons attached to each chute and each ladder. Who are you, Hasbro Inc., to tell me to sweep the floor should I have any hope of attending the movies? To not eat the whole box of chocolates lest they give me a tummy ache? Ironically, this is the game where I cheat most.
Susan’s 3-year-old, Ozzy: I like the slides best. Whee!

Snail’s Pace Race
Susan: Well thought out, in theory. It’s designed as a first board game, to teach the kids basics about rolling dice and moving players. In this case, that’s the snails. You have six snails, and every human player picks one to win and one to lose. That way, the emphasis is on the snails’ performance and not the child’s. Once you get past how achingly dull and linear the rest of your night’s doomed to be, not so bad! Kids love this game.
Susan’s 3-year-old, Ozzy: I love this game!

Connect Four
Susan: I did like this game. I do like this game. I just can’t figure out of a way of teaching a 3-year-old how to play without letting him win, which has repeatedly broken our principal game rule. Still, I want him to have this. Has anyone had luck with a variation here? My Twitter handle’s below.
Susan’s 3-year-old, Ozzy:  Do you mean Connect One? I win every time.

Old Maid
Susan: Look, I’m a big-time feminist. And my equal-rights Spidey sense starts to tingle when I’m playing this and stop to consider the name, the premise and the various visual depictions of said old maid. But it’s a classic! But you could make the case that book censorship is classic. But it’s harmless! But a lot of people would argue Sean Spicer and Kim Kardashian are harmless. I go around in circles on this one and eventually land on it costing $6 and my being able to bring it on airplanes.
Susan’s 3-year-old, Ozzy: I love airplanes!

Pick Up Fish with Magnets
Susan:  That’s not the name of this game, but we lost the box and you know what I’m talking about. I loved this game as a kid, and upsettingly, it has not withstood the test of time. If you have mastery of your thumbs and fine motor skills, this game’s dull as rocks.
Susan’s 3-year-old, Ozzy:  This game’s fun as rocks!

What Time Is It, Mr. Fox?
Susan:  What Time Is It, Mr. Fox? does not dwell in our cupboard. It’s a game my son brought home with him from preschool. I only vaguely recall it from my own childhood, so I don’t know the real rules to this game—only what my son has told me they are. Here’s how we play: One person—the fox—stands at the top of the hill in our yard. Other players stand at the hill’s bottom and scream out the obvious question at the top of our lungs. That part’s important and has been impressed upon me. Then my son calls out an hour of day, and we all take the same number of steps forward—only if it’s past 2 o’clock, we try to make the steps very small because the 1-year-old can only count to 2. When you at last reach the fox, this is cause for much joy. Jump around, should you be so moved. Fling yourself at the legs of the fox. Thus is played the game of the fox.
Susan’s 3-year-old, Ozzy: WHAT TIME IS IT, MR. FOX?

(June 2017)