A month or so ago we took our kids to the local ice cream parlor. While we stood in line my older son (age 6) noticed that some of the tables had playing pieces and a chess board on them and asked if we could play chess. As the house board gamer I was surprised to hear this; I hadn’t yet introduced chess to my boys and wondered where he’d heard of it.
Ice creams in hand we sat down to play. The pieces were oriented on the board incorrectly, but I had a hunch it wouldn’t matter. And it didn’t. It turned out my son’s image of chess was “Wizard Chess” and as far as he was concerned the pieces could move wherever they wanted so long as they knocked an opponent’s piece over and killed it.
Knowing that there wasn’t any chance of teaching him (and my excited 4 year old) how to play chess over ice cream I just sat and played how he wanted. Any time spent with my kids over a board is a good time as far as I’m concerned. Both boys, however, were insistent that we get a chess set and I teach them chess at home.
How to Teach?
Chess is decidedly more abstract than any other game on my shelf. My kids love moving miniatures around, playing dexterity games, and can handle stuff like Ticket to Ride Junior. Chess is something different. Every piece has its own rules. Some rules feel like exceptions: why can’t pawns capture forwards? Why can only Knights move over other pieces?
It’s tricky enough to teach an adult the basics, it’s far harder to each small kids. I learned through rote repetition. My first chess set had pictograms printed on the pieces to remind you how they moved and I just played repeatedly against my dad until it stuck. I assumed that this was still the preferred way to teach a kid to play chess and hopped online to find a set. Instead I discovered Story Time Chess.
Released in 2021, Story Time Chess is far more than just a chess set. It’s more of an instructional system. Through narrative chapters and pieces designed to hold cardboard standees, each type of piece is given a colorful character and story to help explain why they move the way they do. It promises that it can teach kids as young as 3 to play so I figured I would give it a shot.
The team at Story Time Chess was kind enough to send me a copy to review, and so I sat down with the boys to teach them their first lesson: patience. It would take only 3 days to receive our copy but they pestered me every day.
The Tale of King Chomper and King Shaky
Story Time Chess begins with the introduction of the two Kings. King Chomper lives in one kingdom, happily eating anything and everything he can get his hands on. One day a gust of wind blows his pizza out onto his checkered lawn and he has to step outside to recover them. Because he is so large from eating so much food he can only move one space at a time (I do not love this). Your first chess mini-game is to surround King Chomper’s standee with pizza tokens and have your kid move 1 space at a time.
King Shaky’s story is similar; he lives in a padded castle and spills his jewels on the lawn. Because of his cushy lifestyle he is scared of the sharp blades of grass and moves slowly through the lawn. Both King’s have repetitive mini-games to drive home the movement and the last game involves two players moving their King’s in turn trying to collect their tokens the fastest.
The structure here works well. To an adult who knows how to play, it’s repetitive. Even to my 6 year old it quickly became repetitive. However, the fact that he got “bored” with the King pieces is also a very clear sign that it’s ready to turn to the chapter on pawns. Once it’s no longer novel, it’s clear the movement is well and truly understood.
Each piece gets a similar treatment. First you learn how the piece moves, with a cute story or rhyme included. Knights shout “Gallop, gallop, sideways!” and you’re encouraged to have your kid say this out loud. There are other small details woven throughout this instruction. From the beginning my kids were instructed to remove their hand from the piece to signal the end of a turn, which also reinforced the King’s 1-space movement. Move, hand off. Move, hand off.
Does it Stick?
Cute stories and cardboard standees are all well and good when you’re playing with your specialized pieces, but does Story Time Chess actually teach kids how to play the full version? Luckily I had a chance to test this out while on vacation. The place we were staying had a giant lawn chess set, an amenity both boys noticed immediately.
And just as immediately, I was able to play chess against my 6 year old. Strategy was limited—Story Time sells additional chapter books that start to teach things like openings, en passant type advanced rules, and more—but we were playing chess. He knew how his pieces moved and captured, and understood when his pieces were threatened. It was pretty exciting to see how quickly he had picked up the basics and I’m impressed with how intuitively Story Time managed to get him up to speed.
Notably, my 4 year old still has some learning to do however I think the main reason for this is that he’s 4 years old. His attention span is nowhere near as long as his older brother’s and his motivation is also weaker. The 6 year old knows that the end game is actual chess where as the little guy sees each minigame as its own game that’s fun in its own right. He’s definitely progressing, just at a different pace.
I do want to note at this point that it was my 4 year old who revealed my one big issue with Story Time Chess. While on vacation, standing on the public lawn, we began play with me asking if he remembers how each piece moves. Excitedly, he shouted “King Chomper! He only moves 1 because he’s fat!”. I mentioned I didn’t love Chomper’s story and this is exactly why. I hated hearing him shout that even though I was very careful to never use those words exactly, and we had to pause our game of chess to have a quick conversation. It was a learning opportunity for him but not one intended (I hope) by the designers. I wish strongly they had chosen a different reason for Chomper’s slow movement.
The good news is that, Chomper’s story aside, every other part of this package is great. The story keeps both boys engaged and the minigames work to drive home each piece’s movement. By slowly adding pieces 1 at a time the overall complexity is manageable and it’s possible to play the minigames as their own entertainment as your little ones fully absorb each piece’s function.
Chess is one of those universal games. Most people I’ve met over the course of my life know how to play chess, though few can remember how they were taught. Trying to sit down and teach a child to play left my head scratching and I think Story Time Chess is an overall fantastic product for budding gamers. I’m still waiting to hear “Checkmate, Daddy” but I have a feeling it isn’t too far off.