Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Gateway Games for Kids: GUBS

How do you transition a kid from the simple (but unchallenging) children's games like Candyland to something a little more substantial that the whole family can enjoy? I think I stumbled on to a great gateway game, completely by chance.

My son just turned five, and because we play a lot of games in our house he's acquired a decent collection of children's games. Candyland was great when he was two to teach him the concept of a game, and while he was thrilled with Chicken Cha Cha Cha and Curious George Hide and Seek Zoo , they didn't quite have the tactical complexity I look for in a game.

During our recent pack and move we unearthed a mint copy of Gubs, a game I had picked up from Barnes and Noble the previous Christmas for about 10 bucks and kept on hand as a back-up present in case we needed to fill out a visitor's stocking or provide an impromptu gift. With most of his toys and games packed up, we decided to give Gubs a try, hoping to eek out even 30 minutes of entertainment from it. I was surprised to find that it turned out to be a great little game and taught some important concepts I know we'll be able to build on in the future. A complete review of this little gem after the jump.

I won't go through a complete run down of the rules (they are available online), but in short, each player receives a hand and draws from a common deck of cards. On their turn they may play one or more Gub creatures from their hand or play cards that protect, steal, kill or otherwise alter the Gubs currently in play. There are three letter cards ("G", "U", and "B") in the deck that are played immediately when drawn. Once all three letters are out of the deck the game is over and players score one point for each Gub they currently control. This doesn't sound too revolutionary, so why was I so taken with it?
  • Theme: The Gubs are tiny creatures that ride toads and take shelter under toadstools. The whimsical illustrations, silly card names, and diminutive characters were all accessible for the kids and adults. A game with identical mechanics but featuring German Pak40s and Sherman M4s just wouldn't have engaged everyone playing. The cute characters also indicated that this wasn't a game to take seriously, short circuiting some of the poor sportsmanship I expected from a competitive game.
  • Tactical Choice: You need to play Gubs on to the table so that once the game ends you can score points, but playing Gubs leave them vulnerable to being stolen or removed from play by the other players. In many children's games I find that the game almost plays itself. The child spins a spinner or rolls a die and carries out the action. If there is a choice it's typically confined to the child's turn. In Gubs, you can plan several rounds in advance, holding your creatures back until you have the cards to protect them, or planning an ambush where you destroy your opponents defensive cards and sweep all of his Gubs with a lure. Did you read that? This is a game you can play with a five year old and you can teach them to set up ambushes. Ambushes!
  • Reaction: There are a number of cards that allow you to cancel a card just drawn from the deck or played by an opponent. I recognized the same mechanic used in the now venerable Magic: The Gathering, but it also ties into the same types of decisions made when conducting opportunity fire in a wargame, or leaving some of your forces in reserve to react to an opponent's thrust.
Now don't get me wrong, Gubs is not a deep, strategic knife fight in card form. It's a light game, a bit of fun to pass the time while dinner is cooking, but I think it sets up a number of important concepts for kids, and it's fun to boot. I know my son loves playing, and has continued to ask to play regularly since we first tried the game a month ago. My wife took it to school to give her high school students something to do on the last few days before summer vacation and they enjoyed it so much they asked to borrow it to take to their classes and lunch throughout the day. I've found Gubs has proven to be a fun little game new or non-gamers enjoy.

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