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Gaming with Kids #2: The Game That Makes Me Cry

Patrick Cox
United States
South Saint Paul
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I’ve posted about The Game that Made My Son Cry. Now it’s my turn.

Just to get it out of the way up front, the game that makes me cry is I’m sure many people’s biggest tearjerker, that emotional roller coaster, the sentimental journey, the crawler for criers: Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion I know. Pass the kleenix.

Playing games with my kids is tough. Their ages are wide apart: 13 and 7. When they were both younger, it was easier, but ever since one of them turned teenager on me it’s been tougher. And everything around them tells them they are different. Thier COVID-induced distance learning is a full day of online classes and homework for the seventh grader but just a couple short online meetings and small assignments for the second grader. The thirteen year old plays videogames like Fortnite and Apex online with friends, while the seven year old becomes a gamer taking after his brother but doesn’t have many friends into videogames—a little Minecraft now and then (is relished by the wisest men) but that’s about it. These and other differences seem to tell them both they should also have different games to play. Whether their differences are socially constructed or biological (both, duh) it gets harder and harder to find games they both enjoy, while our old favorites (Castle Panic, Flash Point: Fire Rescue, Dragonwood, forbidden every thing) drop off the radar.

In March I went on spree of “small games.” Small solo games were fun for me, but I also thought the kids would appreciate them. Generally, the bigger the game, the more strategic and that gave the older brother an advantage the seven year old kind of resented. He wanted to play with his older brother less and less because of it. And I figured after a six hour day of school, the older brother would appreciate something small and short. We had some hits and misses. Trying to sync the three of us up mentally in The Mind was not a good idea. But all three of us have had fun together playing Silver & Gold. Love Letter and Illusion were hits. Hanabi and 10 Minute Heist: The Wizard's Tower drove them crazy. And The Fox in the Forest was very successful…for two players at a time.

The last small game I tried with my thirteen year old was Welcome to the Dungeon. I had high hopes, which he gently dashed. He thought the game was OK but then told me he didn’t like all these small games! He said he couldn’t get into them and preferred bigger games that he could sink his teeth into! So I said, “Great! Let’s pay The Quacks of Quedlinburg!” He said, “Not that one. I never really liked it.” He had seemed so happy playing it! Kids are tough, man.

So I gave it some thought. Previously he had told me Photosynthesis was “not my favorite” so I had asked him what his favorite game would look like. We talked about themes, mechanics, settings, and he was quick to say “Time travel!” So I’d been eyeballing T.I.M.E Stories and eventually bought Anachrony. But this time when we talked he said he liked all the monsters and swords and wizardy of Welcome to the Dungeon, he just wanted it to be bigger. He already plays Dungeons & Dragons with his friends so I didn’t want to nudge in on that.

I posted about this in the current Kids on Board geeklist and a fellow father suggested Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion, a game I had previously solo’d and loved. I admit my first thought was, “Are you crazy? That game is way too big, way too complicated, and just way too grown up!” All of which was me being a classic parent and not listening to my six-foot-one-inch tall thirteen-year old who had just told me he wanted something bigger, deeper, and perhaps not quite so aligned with his seven year old brother. I should have known better.

So at the start of his Spring Break, I showed him the box and told him about the game. I could see him trying to contain a smile the whole time, and when I asked if he thought he might like to try it, he was emphatically excited. Spring Break was perfect because the game can take a lot of hours but I wanted us to get through the five scenarios in the “Learn to Play” book without a lot of time off in between. That way, he’d know all he needs to know about how to play. Plus my hope was that would get him enough of the narrative and the characters for him to be hooked.

It worked. About two months later and our campaign is still going. We play pretty much every weekend. (We’ve agreed a session—which can run two hours—is a bit much after a day of computer school, so we still get some smaller ones in on weekdays). He's absolutely hooked and was so excited to learn I backed Frosthaven on KS (and we’re both very happy about Isaac Childres's update #80: My hope is it arrives on time to go under the Christmas tree. And that smile he had been holding back? He told me later he had taken the game off the shelf earlier on his own, had admired the artwork, and was very curious about it!

He has chosen to play as the Demolitionist, because he likes blowing things up. He's really into levelling up and getting and learning new skills, and is super psyched to track down those jet boots. I solo’d the game with Red Guard and Hatchet so I’ve been playing this time with Voidwarden (who is way underrated—she’s got some powerful skills!). Recently during one of our sessions, his friends were texting him asking him to get on the Xbox to play Fortnite with them. He replied with this picture.
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Which he captioned “I’m busy battling a blood monster!" Look at that little guy taking on the huge beast!

And then he sent this one
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Which he captioned, “My dad looks like an angry librarian.” So yeah.

But listen, I’ll take “angry librarian.” Right now, I have a teenage son who wants to play a board game with his Dad. He actually asks if we’ll be able to play each weekend. I’ve been looking forward to COVID ending and playing more multi-player, but it’s pretty amazing to first share what has been one of my most exciting and engrossing solo gaming experiences with my son, and to find that he feels the same way about it! I get a chunk of quality time with him in a shared experience, and I get to see him anew. We're playing a game I thought was “too much” for him, but we’re playing it side-by-side as equals and it’s clearly not over his head at all, and he it loves as much as I do. And it opens new gaming doors for us, too, and those are doors to future shared experiences. Remember I said I bought Anachrony because he loves time travel? I never introduced him to it because I thought it would be too complicated. Guess what game he and I will be playing next?

My son and I have not had a difficult relationship at all, but what teenagers do is grow up and grow apart and explore ways to separate and figure out who they are. And that's all healthy and I wouldn't change it, or him, for the world. But this game has given us a whole new way to be together, and it's a way that is part of his new growing up identity. I get to be there with him. And so yeah, Gloomhave: Jaws of the Lion makes me cry whenever I think about it.
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