So Frankly...

So Frankly...

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Teaching Chess to Kids – One Rule to Wring them All!

Most people think chess is a hard game to learn.  It’s not.  Once someone learns how to move the pieces they can play.  Sure, there are a few slightly complicated moves like castling or en passant, but generally speaking moves aren’t an issue.  Learning how to move pieces in combination, that is where the game gets involved.  It’s not the rules; it’s all of the strategy and tactics that make the game complex.

Except with kids.  Now we are into a whole different area.  First of all, kids want to know all of the odd-ball rules, not only castling and en passant but also the three-position and 50-move rules.  Normally, I try to just move past these topics, but generally someone has heard of them and I eventually end up explaining these rules.  They will try to invoke them, and be completely wrong; this is particularly true of the three-position rule.* However, we get past them and put them away.

So what is the concept that wrings all the certainty out of their heads, leaving the idea that chess is hard?  What is the hardest thing for children to learn (that actually does show up in their games): the knight’s move? No, they need some help with that, but it comes pretty quickly.  The key to that is not only the shape of the move, but the fact that the knight changes the color of the square he stands on with every move.  If the knight is on a dark square now, it will finish on a light square.  What about the pawn?  The fact that the pawn moves differently when it attacks causes a little confusion, but that’s cleared up quickly. 

The toughest part of chess to teach is check (and by extension checkmate!)  Then how do they end the game?  They end the wrong way, at least in the beginning.  Here are the most common misconceptions:

  • “If I threaten the king on this turn, and don’t call check, I can capture it next turn!”  Of course, the king is never actually captured in chess.  When the king is threatened, it’s in check, and must get out of check.  If the king can’t get out of check, then it is checkmate and the game is over.
  • “But you didn’t call check!”  Check is check, called or not.  Often it doesn’t need to be said, because it’s that obvious.  This is a common source of disagreements, because this statement will probably follow the previous thought!
  • "I’ll move my king next to theirs and put my enemy in check!”  The problem with this is that two kings next to each other are both in check!  Since a king cannot move into check, it’s an illegal move.  Last night I actually had an 8th grader, who has been playing for a year, suggest that doing this would allow a player to win with just a bishop and a king – wrong!

How does this get solved?  In the immediate game, I try to back the players up to the last legal move, and then continue the game.  Otherwise, I call it a draw.

Speaking of draws, stalemate is also a problem concept, but not as hard to overcome.  It is truly amazing how often stalemates occur at this level.  Last year our youngest member played his first ten games without a loss – 3 wins and 7 stalemates! 

As frustrating as it can be, teaching chess has its own rewards.  It is wonderful to see their enthusiasm, and fun to watch their faces as the “light comes on”.  Even though my son graduates from the school this year, I can’t imagine giving this up.

It’s Your Move!

* The three position rule says that an exact board position occurring three times is a draw.  For this to happen, every piece and pawn must be in the same position all three times with the same moves available.  As a result, a piece captured or a pawn moved means none of the prior positions can be repeated, since those pieces can never go back to where they were.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Tasteless Fun: Dominion -- Great Game, Little Flavor

I have to confess that Dominion is completely out of style with the games I normally like.  In fact, I probably would never have played it except for my brother's family.  The year it was published it was quite the rage.  Yet its reputation as a themeless game put me off.  So did the constant card shuffling I heard about.  Then why, in the end, did I end up giving it a rating of 9 out of 10?  After all, I like games that drip with theme, telling a story as they are played.  I was just as surprised as you.

Incredible fun in 30 minutes!
That year, when my brother and his wife came back from visiting one of their kids, they raved about Dominion.  For my brother to do this, it must be a huge success as a family game.  His motto is, “If it starts to feel like work, I’d rather work.”  This game he was anxious play with us.  For Christmas they gave my son a copy.  I still wasn’t convinced.  Not until we sat down to play it a few months later was I completely won over.  We got home late the night of our first play, but still took the time to break the seal on my son’s copy and get it ready to play.  A few days later I bought a copy of Dominion: Intrigue, which is the first expansion, but is also playable as a standalone version.  This way, when Big D (he has grown taller than me since I started this blog!) goes off to college, I am sure to have a copy.

Dominion is a card game which is supposedly building up a kingdom, a dominion, by adding various places, people and features to it as the game goes on.  However, the game doesn’t really feel like you are doing any of that.  Typically, this is where I take a pass.   The game play in Dominion is so good, however, that it makes up for any lack of flavor. 

Players have a deck of cards that sits at their left hand, and are holding five cards.  At your right hand is your personal discard pile.  More cards of various types are on the table for purchase, including cards which represent money and cards that are victory points.  On your turn, you can play one card from your hand for an actionand/or buy a card from the table, and then you “clean up” by discarding everything you bought, played and your hand.  Five cards are drawn from your deck for the next turn.  An action allows you to draw more cards, make more than one purchase, play more actions, attack or defend or some combination thereof.  When your deck runs out, you shuffle the discard pile and make it the deck and keep going.  When the game ends, the person who has the most victory points wins.

Some of the cards from Dominion (Image by Gary James)
That’s not a thorough description without going into the cards, but it does go about that fast: 30 minutes for a complete game.   It’s not terribly complicated.  (Little ones will have trouble with shuffling and reading text on the cards though.)  Your deck grows as you buy cards and they eventually cycle around.  The fun is in the interaction of the cards.  I love trying to buy cards that will work in combination to allow multiple actions or buys, or more valuable buys.

The game components consist exclusively of the cards and the rules.  While available at Target and Barnes & Noble, don’t look for it on the same rack as Rook, or Monopoly Deal.  This game comes in a full size box.  That’s because it doesn’t have the usual 50 – 100 cards; there are 500 cards in the box!  The artwork is adequate, though not awe inspiring.  As I said, the excellence of this game is in the game play.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, consider that Dominion was the 2009 Spiel des Jahres winner.  Since its publication, the game mechanism of buying the cards you will play with later in the game has appeared in a lot of games.  I haven’t played any of them, since I love this game so much.  It’s hard for me to justify another game that largely plays the same way.

I gave this game a 9 / 10.  That's pretty high praise from me; it's a rating for games I don't imagine giving up. 

It's Your Move!

 Dominion: ages 8 and up, 30 minutes, 2-4 players.
Good Casual Gaming! Kid Friendly!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Happy New Year!

Image by Chris Norwood
Well, the disappointment of Christmas gaming gave way to starting the New Year right.  I played exactly ONE game in December prior to December 31st, but a good friend of ours came over for New Year's Eve and we broke out Pandemic and it's expansion, Pandemic: On the Brink.  This expansion is really several expansions in one, so I will need to play all of the different variants before I review it.  We were able to play standard Pandemic with new roles, and got in one game with the Bio-terrorist role, played against the other players by my son. He won, but in a sense the good guys have to beat two opponents, the Bio-terrorist and,  as usual, the game.  We were beaten more by the game than by the bad guy.  In the end, we won one game out of four, which isn't bad for us.  That makes a total of 42 games of Pandemic for me; this is just one of my favorite games.

And the new petri dishes are awesome!

Happy New Year!