It’s been a while since I wrote about buying and playing a new board game with my (now) five year-old son; we’ve been playing a lot of Rhino Hero Super Battle and getting into scavenger hunts – but that’s a future article. He’s learning to read at the moment, and that opens up all kinds of new avenues for fun gaming, but right now we’re still mostly at sounds and simple, common words. That leaves us in a weird sort of limbo where we’re trying to find games that still don’t really require reading but also are fun and engaging enough to play that he won’t get bored with them too quickly.
And on top of that, we have to manage a new challenge: My son does not care for losing. [Ed: A surprisingly high number of adult gamers feel similarly] Or any struggle, really – he’ll tend to get bored and want to stop playing when the going gets tough and he thinks he’s losing. Which, extremely same, but also means that we need to find games that aren’t quite so adversarial while we slowly help him work through the experience of finding out that losing sucks but you have to keep playing until the game is over.
On our most recent trip to the local game store, my son picked HABA’s Snail Sprint! for us to pick up and play. He doesn’t have a particular affinity for snails but I think he was attracted to the game’s metal tin container. In Snail Sprint!, players race snails in a semi-collaborative, semi-competitive way. At the start of the game, each player receives a card with three colored snails on it, corresponding to three of the six colored snail pieces that come in the box. As a player, your job is to get those three snails across the finish line and onto the podium, in any order. You score 3 points if your card has a snail that finishes in first place, 2 if you have a second-place snail, and 1 if you have a third-place snail. You score 0 for a snail that doesn’t make the podium and so ties are possible.
Players move snails around the table by rolling a pair of dice that have faces corresponding to each of the six snail colors. Each time they roll, the player picks one of the two colors they rolled, take the snail corresponding to that color, and move them to the next space on the track matching the other color rolled (a track space may have multiple colors). This is really the only point in the game where decisions are made – players must work to advance their snails (and only their snails), while ideally not giving up which snails are on their ticket. It’s basically like betting on horses, only with snails and you can control the snail horses.
The metal box for the game was something I initially felt was A Bit Much but actually turned out to be relevant to the game itself. One of the more clever conceits visually is that the game’s board wraps around the sides of the box – which you can rotate to mix up the game’s board. As play progresses, the snails – which have magnets embedded in them – travel along the outside of the box as well. The whole thing is pretty fun but will likely mean your kid standing on a chair to reach those spots if you’re playing on a kitchen table so just be ready for that.
Conceptually, the game can be a bit difficult for a four year-old to understand in its base state. You *could* simplify it to just rolling to get through the track first if you needed a version of this game that’s super-simple – pushing a snail to whatever the next color space you roll on a single die will certainly work as a way to do a quick, boring game with no decisions. Beyond that, the tough part is getting the kid to understand that they need to push the three snails on their card, and do so regularly. There’s a little bit of strategy involved in that you can “trap” a snail in place by moving onto them; a snail can’t move if it has another snail on top of it and snails can pile up high. But the core learning opportunity here is largely helping them understand the central mechanic of pushing their three snails toward the finish line and how to connect the dots of “roll a purple and an orange, figure out which of those you have and move them to the next spot of the other color.”
Snail Sprint! is an interesting game with some cool visual aspects but my son wasn’t terribly interested in playing it more than once or twice. There are other games we’ve played that he wants to come back to more often and we may look at revisiting Snail Sprint! in a future when he’s a bit more able to grasp the game’s core concept. It’s fun enough but tactically simple and so the replayability on it seems a bit lower than some of the other games I’ve covered. Still, our initial plays were fun and he’s bound to tire of Rhino Hero Super Battle at some point and I anticipate our return will go well.
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