Favorite Fridays: Clue

Here are three of the roles that define me. A former doctoral student in communication and cognition at UCSD. An avid fan of board games. And a parent of a curious six-year-old. When I combine these, I often find myself seeing when and where board games will fit into our time together. 

I'm also a big brother, and when my seven-years-younger sister was barely four, I would try to get her to play Payday and Risk and, heavens help us both, Dungeons & Dragons. I have a lot to say about those experiences too, but today, I'd like to talk about a more October-relevant board game: Clue.

Nearly everyone has played the great and terrible game of Monopoly. In fact, Monopoly is probably one of the most complex and arcane board game in the list of Twenty Most Famous Board Games that is kept somewhere in Valhalla or boardgamegeek.com. But it's a shame, since it's not a very good intro to well-designed, easy-to-grasp rules that also reward long-term play.

And perhaps neither is Clue, when it comes to long-term play. But it certainly has a much cleaner core concept, and it's one that a first grader can start to tangle with in a fun way. 

Of course, this is a post leading up to Halloween, and we can't ignore that Clue starts with a murder. (Many games are critically rated on their ability to combine rules with theme in an organic whole, and Clue is probably one of the best; the content and the game play are inextricably linked and may bring up some strange conversations.) In my household, Shakespeare, Tolkien, and Star Wars also got us talking about death, when I was my daughter's age, and again now. But if this is a topic you don't want to discuss yet, or involve in your family entertainment, I certainly understand, and in the coming weeks I'll talk about many games that are murder-free. There's probably also a kids' version of Clue where you solve, say, a burglary, but I'm too much of a diehard classic Clue fan to know if that's true.

But bear with me a moment longer. Not only does Clue have a huge amount of visual reasoning, in navigating the board in the fewest steps, but logical problem solving is core. Piaget might say that a six-year-old is not yet at the stage where this is possible (I haven't brushed up on my Piaget since I left grad school in the 90s), but the structural representations of logic and its vocabulary are essential for the mastery of reason. This is a fun, spooky way to start.

If you do play with a child (or a noob friend), play a couple rounds "open," or even a whole game. In other words, talk through how the clues that are found should be recorded on the clue sheet, and make a plan together for how to eliminate the most remaining clues with the following move(s). It can be a lot of fun to play games like this collaboratively with a young person.

Let me rephrase that. It's more fun than just dominating a beginner to, instead, work with them to find the victory. It may not be as fun as playing against at your own skill level, but it's more fun than re-reading Seuss or re-watching Wild Kratts (both excellent in their own ways, but sometimes, enough is enough!). And some young children, my daughter included, don't like keeping score or establishing a winner. Solving the crime together, as two allied investigators, can be really fun. You could even purposefully remove the cards that represent your two characters before you play, so you can remain "the good guys."

Finally, I'll repeat something I tell any parents who try out our apps: They work best when they are integrated into other parts of life. Try out the concept of logical elimination in other parts of conversation. Use it as a way to guess—or plan—dinner. Find moments where people in your family are using logical reasoning in the simplest ways and point it out. You could even make a chores list that worked like the clue sheet in the game, and gradually eliminate chores as they're completed: the "answer" is the chores that your child likes to do the least, and that's another interesting problem to discuss and solve.

My one annoyance with Clue is that same I have with Monopoly. Movement is randomly fast or slow. The best planners in both games are left at the mercy of the dice. (And just like the game publishers, Dice Hate Me.) But I console myself by saying, it's a simplistic way to represent the many hidden variables in trying to dominate the real estate market, or to solve a mystery in your own mansion. And kids don't seem to mind at all!