Play is free, is in fact freedom. — Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens
Board games are a wonderful source of exercise for the human brain. This is one of the reasons I love playing them—they require critical thinking and problem-solving skills. As a father of three, however, the times I get to play games that require much critical thinking are few and far between. This isn’t because I don’t play games with my kids. I play a lot of games with them. The drought owes much to how many kid’s games are designed to be light and accessible. As a result, many children’s games don’t require much from me or my kids. This isn’t necessarily a slight—any time my kids and I can sit around the table and give each other our undivided attention by playing most any board game is a huge win.
I understand why most kid’s games are light on strategy—accessibility is crucial to their success. But sometimes I can’t help but think we are often selling our kids short. Thankfully this is changing as there has recently been something of a renaissance in children’s board games. One of the best examples of this new breed of children’s games is My Little Scythe, designed by Hoby and Vienna Chou and published by Stonemaier Games.… it’s that feeling of freedom the games pulls off that makes it the best kids game I’ve played in some time.
Hoby and his daughter Vienna loved to play Scythe together, which is a pretty dense strategy game combining resource management, expansion, area control, and engine building mechanics. Understandably, despite Vienna’s ability to play Scythe well, Hoby realized the game was too complex for most kids her age. So the two decided to try their hand at making a game that would distill what they loved most about Scythe into a more approachable package. I had the privilege of chatting with Hoby about how the game came to be and what he hopes players will get out of it this last August at Gen Con (to hear the full, uncut interview with Hoby Chou, check out Episode 116 of Humans of Gaming).
My Little Scythe puts players in control of a faction of creatures from the animal kingdom competing in the harvest tournament to determine who will become new rulers of the kingdom of Pomme, the crown jewel of the animal kingdom. On their turn, players will do one of three things: “Move,” “Seek,” or “Make” which essentially refer to moving around the board, placing resources on the map, and converting resources for your own betterment. Since there are lots of great videos on how to play, I won’t belabor the rules here (see Rodney Smith’s Watch It Played video on the game below for a helpful walkthrough). Like Scythe, the game ends when someone places their last trophy (stars in Scythe). The game presents players with eight different achievements that, if completed, will earn them a trophy. Players, however, only have to place four stars to trigger the end of the game. In other words, each turn is relatively simple but there are many paths to victory. And because resources are generated and placed around the map by other players, success in MLS requires adjusting to what unfolds around you.
My favorite aspect of Scythe is how unstructured it feels. Once you have the game’s basic actions down, you are more or less free to approach the map who you see fit. It’s the closest thing to an “open world” board game I have personally played. My Little Scythe‘s greatest success is in distilling that same feeling down into a much shorter, much more easily digestible experience. It is one of the first games I’ve played with my daughter where I’ve witnessed her adjust her strategy on fly. I never go easy on her when we play and yet she has defeated me many times, each victory thanks to a different strategy than the time before.
I am a big fan of unstructured play, I love how it encourages us to think on the fly and use our imaginations. I understand that clear structure is essential to board game design, especially for kids, but I can’t help but feel that too few kid’s board games provide children with more than one or two paths. I realize that MLS isn’t nearly as open and unstructured as it feels, but nonetheless it’s that feeling of freedom the game provides that makes it the best family game I’ve played in some time.
My Little Scythe plays 1–6 players, can be played in 45–60 minutes (a 2-player game can be played in under 30), and is recommended for people 8 years old and up (my 7 year old was able to learn and enjoy the game pretty quickly). The game is fun for adults and does manage to introduce players to some of the core mechanisms of Scythe in case they want to use MLS as a gateway to more robust games. I would say, however, that playing with adults is not the best use of the game. By playing the game with your kids, nieces, nephews or your neighbors and their kids, you’ll be exposed to the most rewarding aspect of the game—seeing its intended audience learn and grow.
The trouble with over-structuring is that it discourages exploration. — Jay Giedd, neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego.