Should you let your kids win?

A recurring issue when playing games is a skill gap. This is most common when parents play a game with their kids, but also happens for example when people with different levels of gaming experience (in general) approach a game.

The consequence, as expected, is that certain players already know they’re going to lose (and hard) halfway through the game. That isn’t fun. They probably become frustrated or demotivated and stop really playing. If this repeats several times—the parent will always be older and more experienced than their kids!—they might stop even trying to play games altogether.

So how do we solve this? How do we make sure a skill gap does not ruin the ability to play or enjoy a game?

As you read this, always keep in mind the goal of any game: for all players to have the most fun. The actual winning or losing is just a framework in which the fun can take place. As such, when you read my thoughts, remember that we’re always working towards “how can people of wildly different skill have equal amounts of fun with any game?”

Bad Solution: Let them win

The answer is no. Don’t ever do it.

Kids will know exactly what you’re doing. They don’t feel “happy” winning if the other player wasn’t really playing. It becomes an exercise in futility: they’re not happy, you’re not happy, as you’re both not really playing the game.

A game is at its best when all players are fully invested and really trying their best to win. In a sense, games are just a simple framework to have a competition that generates fun.

“Letting” somebody win—by playing down to them, by doing dumb moves, by not really playing—will merely …

  • Prevent them from learning how to be a “good loser”
  • Prevent them from getting better at the game and actually feeling proud when they win
  • Prevent you from enjoying the game

If both parent and kid(s) are giving their all to play the game, they’ll get the most out of it. Any victory will feel earned, losses common enough to deal with them.

If even one player is not “really playing”, in my experience, the whole game falls apart and becomes void.

Bad Solution: Help them (in the wrong ways)

This is the second common approach that I don’t think is wise.

Parents will do things like …

  • Tell them all the options they have and which is the best one. (“Yes dear, it would be fun to attack Australia now, but by far your best move is to get Madagascar. So do that.”)
  • Look the other way when their kids cheat, or help them by inventing some random bonus they can have. (For example, you always pay 2 coins for an action, but let your kid pay only 1 coin.)
  • Let them take back their last turn, or even a whole sequence of turns that led to some bad consequence.

The first option doesn’t let your kid play the game. The other two create an unfair playing field that might destroy the game (unless you developed the game and know how to tweak it), or otherwise teaches your kids the wrong lessons.

At some point, they’ll play with others, or they’ll grow too old for such special treatment. What then? They’ll be accustomed to having an undo available at all times!

Notice, though, that the heading says “helping in the wrong ways”. It’s never bad to help people when they forget something, or to answer rules questions, or to give them ideas when they’re stuck. That’s just good manners to keep the game fun for everyone, and you should allow that no matter the group.

Besides that, I would always advise total freedom. In life, in general, and surely when it comes to gaming. Made-up restrictions or forcing kids in a certain direction will rarely, if ever, lead to a good outcome in the long run.

Each player should be completely free to make up their own mind. Bonuses should not be given to others—instead, if needed, handicaps should be self-imposed.

Okay Solution: Handicaps (preferably in the game rules)

Yes, there’s a difference between bonuses and handicaps. This is the first thing I will accept.

  • The better players choose a handicap for themselves that they feel will level the playing field.
  • The other player(s) simply play the actual game, as it is intended, no changes.

This helps the weaker players actually learn the game. They are doing the right thing from the start. There is no awkward moment in the future where they must “shift” to following the actual rules.

The more knowledgeable players will know how to handicap themselves to make it fair. Preferably, though, this should be a section in the rulebook. (Nobody can balance this better than the game developer!)

For example,

  • In a city building game, your kids play it the usual way. But you pay double the price for any building.
  • In an engine building game, your kids start with the usual starting deck and resources. But you randomly remove a few cards and resources at the start.
  • In a card game, your kids play with their hand a secret. But you must reveal half the cards in your hand at all times.

Admittedly, this is something I’ve overlooked. From now on, I’ll try to include a small list of possible handicaps in my rulebooks for bridging such skill gaps. I’ll advise other game developers to do the same. I have added “variants” to games for a while now which usually give a simple way to make the game harder or easier, but that applies to all players. So it’s not the same.

There are, however, some stronger solutions.

Good Solution: Pick cooperative games

Some people don’t even know these exist! But they’re a great option, at least to get into gaming.

A cooperative game means all players work together against the game.

This means …

  • There’s no competition between players, so skill gaps don’t matter.
  • These games are usually designed in levels or campaigns, so you keep losing until you finally beat a level. It gives both experience winning and losing gracefully.
  • Because you work together, weaker players can stand on the shoulders of better players to climb to higher levels. (Similar to how teachers want to combine students who are struggling with the best students in the class on a group project. In hopes that one raises the other’s skill—even though that’s more a hope than a fact.)
  • It sounds friendlier. It’s silly, I know, but I’ve known many people who will only try a game once I say “it’s cooperative, we’re all one team!” (Ironically, those people are usually the absolute worst at collaboration.)

Cooperative games are always a great option for a parent to play with their kids. It saddens me that there aren’t that many for really young players. (Something for me to change with future projects, I guess!)

Good Solution: Explaining yourself

This is a habit I naturally picked up after playing and teaching so many games (with so many different groups).

I started explaining what I was thinking or doing, and why.

  • “Okay, so I see that you’re expanding into that region. I don’t like that, because that’s where my money comes from. So I can choose to attack you or find a new money source.”
  • “Alright, I have only green cards, but I must play a red card. This means I can’t take my turn and skip it.”
  • “Yes, your offer is very generous. However, I’m not willing to trade right now, because the round will be over in 2 turns and I want to keep my money for the end-of-round bonuses, remember?”
  • “Don’t seek any deep strategy behind this move. I merely wanted to remind you that this is a third action you can take, and I wanted to see what happened if I did.”

You can do this very briefly and without divulging (many) secrets or strategy.

Once you’ve established this habit, others will ask for it. People who don’t know what to do feel comfortable enough to ask “can you explain why you didn’t do X but Y?”

In fact, my main gaming group consists of my friends from my university (I’m technically an Applied Mathematician), and this is almost the default. People are constantly explaining what they do, and why, or what they’re thinking (when they’re taking a while on their turn).

It helps keep the game flowing and keep everyone engaged. Most of all, it helps reiterate your options and restrictions in a particular game.

Good Solution: Pick / Design the right game

This is the strongest solution in my eyes. It applies to both gamers and game developers.

Some games are “resistant” to this skill gap issue. Others actually make it worse.

How can you tell if a game is resistant to wide skill gaps?

  • There’s a lot of hidden information. This uncertainty or secrecy makes it hard to fully calculate turns or look far ahead, and can give kids the edge purely through obscurity.
  • There’s a lot of randomness. Randomness allows players who are behind to catch up, just by being lucky (or by players in the lead being unlucky). I love completely deterministic games and have the feeling dice are always against me—yet I will always pick a game with some randomness over one without any, just because it bridges skill gaps better.
  • Feedback loops are short. You instantly see if your actions was good or bad. Decisions don’t wait until ten turns later to reveal their true self. This helps quickly learn the game and fix mistakes, but also ensures bad decisions from early on don’t mean certain defeat later on.
  • There is only indirect competition. Avoid cutthroat or highly interactive games. Anybody who has played more games—who can more aggressively play the game—will always win those by a mile.
    • For example, I’ve played so many games of Risk with players who didn’t realize the true strategy to victory is making alliances and then backstabbing at the right moment. They just didn’t realize and were truly hurt when I suddenly swept aside their armies from the back. While, to me, this is like Gaming 101.
    • Such games usually have a shared market place, or one or two elements with interaction, but for the most part players just “do their own thing”.
  • The game is short and variable. Losing a game that took 15 minutes is no big deal, compared to losing one that took an hour or more. In fact, you can now retry more often, learning faster and increasing the kid’s chance of winning one.
    • Similarly, players love to blame the game for losing. It feels better than blaming themselves, and makes it more likely they’re willing to give it another go. Because they weren’t at fault—no no, it was the game!
    • How do you achieve this? Using games with a variable setup. Maybe the map is completely randomized. Maybe players get random player powers at the start, or each player has a unique mission / winning condition. Because each game starts completely differently, it closes the skill gap and allows kids to blame their bad luck with the setup.
    • (This also has to do with customization, which people love. Games where kids can choose their own character, or city, or special power are a sure hit. They won’t care about losing—they just want to design and play with their favorite character every time.)

I presented these as pointers for a parent shopping for a new game. Which means they apply in the exact same way to developers why are developing that new game. Keep these in mind if you want a game that can be played by parents with their kids.

To me, this is the way to go. Because you should always pick the right game for your group, skill gap or not.

Some of the highest-rated best-selling games … simply don’t work with a certain set of players.

Some obscure niche game … might be a recurring favorite with your specific gaming group.

And if “picking the right game” is an essential step anyway, why not tack this extra requirement onto it? Why not use it to look for a game that’s (mostly) resistant to skill gap issues?


Kids are smarter than people think. More importantly, they’re people, not the property of parents or some toy that needs a careful manual. Restriction or special treatment, even well intentioned or under the umbrella of “parenting”, usually has terrible long-term consequences.

Let them be free. Let them lose games purely because they made tactical errors. Don’t dumb down yourself or the game. Don’t give them lots of bonuses that teach them the wrong ways to play games.

A game is at its best when played to its full potential. When all players are trying really, really hard to win this one. Fun comes from caring and telling a story together—the game is just the framework.

Fun also comes from growth and improvement. Fighting that battle, slowly getting better at a game and getting victories, is a huge part of what draws people to games.

So, in general,

  • Pick cooperative games
  • Pick games resistant to skill gaps
  • Narrate what you do and why, and give help when reasonable / requested
  • If really needed, give the better players handicaps, but let the weaker players play the actual game.
  • Let your kids learn how to lose and win, and gracefully in both cases. Let them fail, learn, improve, and finally get a victory all on their own.

This is not a guarantee. But in my experience—and I have a lot of that—this will usually do the trick. You can find a game for all and play it in such a way that everyone has the most fun.

If my steps don’t work? Then try something else, as long as you maximize the fun for all.

When I play a game, I usually experiment anyway. I test quirky strategies. I try an action other players are overlooking just to be different and to see what happens. I still try to win—really hard—but I do it in a way that makes the game most interesting and fun.

To me, that is how you should always play. It’s good to teach kids to play a game with the attitude of “trying to get the most fun out of it”, more so than any other attitude.

Whatever you do, don’t tell your kids that it’s “not about winning”. It’s flat out wrong and detrimental. Because once a player isn’t trying their best to win a game, as stated at the start, the whole game falls apart. (What would you rather watch: a sports match where both teams give it their all to win, or one where both are lazily going about and not caring what happens?)

As the saying goes (paraphrasing): “The goal of the game is to win. But it’s having the goal that’s important, not the winning.”

Keep playing,