You don't have to compete to have fun

Everyone wins when playing a cooperative board game

It is cold outside and all the newly acquired gadgets and gizmos from the holidays are working overtime in quiet corners of your house.

We have at least one more month of winter and the kids are waiting it out while they listen to the latest Lady Gaga tune, try to best their high score or chat with friends online.

This month, try bringing the family together around the dining room table and playing an old-fashioned board game. No flashing lights. No buttons. And to make things even more interesting, try playing a game where there is no winner!


It’s a simple concept, but also a huge mental hurdle for most of us who were raised on conventional board games. How can it even be a game if there isn’t a winner? And will it be any fun?

Jim Deacove, founder of Family Pastimes, says it is actually even more fun when you don’t have to worry about losing. His company, based in Perth has been making cooperative board games for 30 years, ever since he discovered there wasn’t any such thing on the market.

“What bothered me about the games we had for our two girls was that they always put them in conflict with each other,” Deacove says. “The point was to beat one another, and because the older one had the advantage of experience and co-ordination, she usually won. The younger one either had to be coaxed to go on playing, or worse, she would cheat in order to even up the odds.”

Sound familiar? Some of us may even let our kids win so they get a taste of success. This, says Deacove, flies in the face of the lessons we teach our children the rest of the day: To be honest, to share and to help one another.

With Family Pastimes’ Princess game, for ages 4-7, the family works together to rescue the princess from the tower before night falls. Using a board, cards, movers and die, children must use their creativity and imagination and work as a team to overcome the obstacles. Unlike Princess, many games undermine the reason the family has decided to play in the first place.

“The initial impulse to play a game is social,” Deacove says. “We bring out a game because we want to do something together, then we spend all our efforts trying to bankrupt someone, destroy their armies or get rid of one another! We soon learn how to pick on the other person’s weaknesses in order to win.”

To illustrate to this point, Deacove once asked a group of all ages to play a game of the ever-popular Musical Chairs.

“One little boy was very eager. When the music stopped, people pushed and took places, then looked around to see who the first casualty was. Some adults audibly moaned to see that the little boy was out. He was crushed and fled to his mom’s arms.”

For the second game, the goal was to make sure everyone had a place to sit as chairs were removed.

“It was up to the imagination of the group to figure out how to make a place for everyone. I can still vividly see the laughter as people hugged each other, sat on each other’s laps and succeeded in getting on one chair at the end,” Deacove says.

The little boy was on the shoulders of an adult having a fine time.”

If you are not in the market for a new game, take one you already have and make the goal cooperative.

Deacove’s family still plays Scrabble, but they keep a family score instead of individual ones and they try to best their previous results. That simple rule change made them want to help one another spell words, share, use a dictionary or even trade letter tiles.

A word of warning: your older children — or even your spouse — may initially be put off by the idea of not having a winner. Our culture is highly competitive, and at every turn children see the benefits of being the best.

The key is to remind them there is still a challenge in the game that requires them to be clever or strategic.

“It is entirely possible to fail in a cooperative game,” says Deacove. “I don’t protect children from not making it to the summit of the mountain or completing the space voyage. Our games are designed to offer realistic challenges.”

Cooperative board game suggestions

Harvest Time by Family Pastimes is a beginner game for 3-7 year-olds that the Wakefield household enjoys very much. Here’s how you play:

We must work together to harvest the vegetables we planted at the outset, before winter sets in. A coloured die determines which vegetable to pull: red for tomatoes, orange for carrots, green for peas… If Dad rolls an orange and all of his carrots are already picked, he can help daughter, Sarah, by pulling one of hers. By the second game, little brother Ben is pulling up Sarah’s tomatoes even though he still had some in his own garden. This is a refreshing change from the usual bickering between them. Sometimes the family harvests everything before winter and we celebrate our success. Other times we don’t get it all pulled before winter, which leads to other great discussions. Best of all, no one walks away from our family time feeling like a loser.

SOS: Ages 10 to Adult, 2 to 8 players

A cruise ship is sinking fast. Your family must form a rescue team to save as many survivors as possible.

Challenges include dwindling food and fuel, roaming sharks fatal rock formations and survivors drifting further away.

This real-life disaster scenario is exciting for kids to play their way through and can end in many different ways.

About this article:

By: Sue Wakefield
Posted: Jan 28 2011 4:30 pm
Filed in: NEWS
Edition: Toronto