Like many euro gamers, I’m a bit of an elitist, maybe even a snob. I don’t shop at Wal*Mart. I do my best to avoid mass media. I’m proud to play games with print runs in the thousands while the rest of the world plays Monopoly, Cranium, and Trivial Pursuit. This elitist tendency has carried over into the toys and games I buy for my kids- I’d much rather shop at a small, independent toy store than Toys ‘R Us, and most of the kids games in our house have wooden pieces and multi-lingual rule sets. The blue Ravensburger triangle and yellow Haba boxes are familiar sights in our house.
Given this, I’m a bit surprised to find myself giving a big thumb’s up to a game from Mattel. A game that I bought at Target. A game that’s marketing strategy seems to be merchandising tie-ins. A game that is a dumbed down version of Uno! (Yes, that is possible.) Of all of the children’s games that we own, My First Uno tops the list of games that I’d recommend for three-year-olds!
Before I destroy my reputation as a euro-snob, let me explain myself. My First Uno isn’t a brilliant game. I would never, ever play it with adults and no kids. The mechanics are not innovative. The components are not beautiful to behold. It has very limited educational value. There is very little difference between this and Crazy 8’s. I’m not fooling myself about this one.
However, my three-year-old loves it. Although she likes some games that I think are stinkers, I think she generally has good taste in games. We let her play what she likes, and she’ll generally pick quality Junior Euros over junk like Candyland. But this is the biggest hit that we’ve had so far.
So, why does she like it and why do I think that it’s okay as well? Our version is the Sesame Street one, and the colorful characters on each card certainly help. Say what you will about merchandising tie-ins, but kids like ‘em. And, give kids their due- adults like theme, too, so why shouldn’t kids? In this game, the theme (if you want to call it that) is pasted on in a manner that would make Dr. Knizia proud- it serves no purpose for game play. I suppose that having Oscar the Grouch on the Draw Two card might tie to game play a bit, but otherwise it is totally extraneous. Which is why Mattel can market more versions of this than I can count- any cutesy characters are as good as the next.
Although my daughter certainly likes Sesame Street, she’s an astute enough gamer to see beyond theme. If the mechanics were totally unappealing to her, I doubt that we’d be playing this over and over. So, how does the game work?
The game consists of a deck of 36 cards. There are four colors, with eight cards in each color. The cards in each color are numbered one through seven, with the eighth card being a card that either makes one of your opponents draw two cards (two of these) or a card that makes the person to your left draw one card and miss their turn (two of these also). Four wild cards round out the deck.
To start the game, each player is dealt five cards. The remaining cards are put in a draw pile, with the top card turned over and becoming the starter. The first player must play a card that matches either the number or color of the starter card. After that, players must play a card that matches the last card played. Wild cards can be used instead of playing a colored card. When playing a Wild Card the player declares a new color and play proceeds. If a player cannot play a card on her turn, she has to draw the top card off of the draw pile. If she can play this, she does, if not play moves to the next player. The first player to play his last card wins.
As is fitting for the target audience, there’s not much strategy here, but there is a little bit. The decisions in this game don’t mean much, but they do mean something, as players do have to know when to use a wild card and what color to change things to when they play a wild. If they play the draw two card, knowing which opponent to target is also a minor decision. Really, though, the game is mostly luck.
I’m not a fan of all-luck, lighter-than-air games. If you look at my ratings, you’ll see things like 18xx, Antike, and Power Grid way up there. So, why do I think that this is so great for my three-year-old? Obviously I’m not going to play Power Grid with her, so my standards are a bit different for kids games. But this doesn’t mean that I give them a pass- lots of kids games bore my daughter, drive my wife and me crazy, or both. This game does neither- we all have fun playing, and it’s wonderful to see my daughter enjoy one as much as she enjoys this.
The mechanics are simple enough that my daughter can understand them, but they did introduce some key gaming concepts: Shuffling cards, cards with numbers and suits, wild cards, etc. She’s required to match either numbers or colors, and there are decisions (as light as they are). Games are generally short to very short, with little opportunity for it to drag or stall. Sometimes both players can wind up drawing card after card because they can’t match, but this usually resolves itself pretty quickly. In over 100 plays, I only remember having to reshuffle the discard stack once- all of the other games ended before the draw pile was exhausted. To me, the promise of a quick game alone makes a game for this age group well above average- nothing ruins the fun for little ones (and parents, too) more than a game that drags and drags. All of this puts the game in a league way above Candyland, Hi-Ho Cherri-o, and Snakes and Ladders.
Although I think that My First Uno is a fantastic game for three-year-olds, I don’t expect it to have much staying power. We might still be playing it in a year, and we’ll definitely play it when my younger daughter is old enough, but I’m expecting us to move on to the many, many good game options for ages four and up. We’ve already gotten our money’s worth- I paid less than five bucks for this one at Target and it’s seen more play than most of our Ravensburger and Haba games that cost 3-4 times that.
If you have a three-year-old, I highly recommend My First Uno- even if it doesn’t work for you, it’s not a costly investment.