If you were here yesterday, then quirckly do the following – run to your craft draw, get yourself a gold star, plant it firmly on your chest and wear it proudly until your next clothes change. If you weren’t here, then either go and read it, or alternatively go to your craft draw, make yourself a dunce hat and put it on for as long as you feel is appropriate.
For the dunces among you, the story so far is that I have a nearly-three-year-old son who has recently declared to me his ability to take turns. And that’s basically all yesterday’s blog entry really said if we’re brutally honest…
Well, today we start out on our noble mission of finding the best board games around for toddlers and young children and it’s fair to say I am unreasonably excited.
I think, though, before we steam in for the first mouthful of the ample bolognese that is Animal Upon Animal, it’s worth taking a few moments to summon the chef and remind ourselves of which ingredients go towards a cracking spag bol.
As far as my browless, astigmatic eyes can see, there are 4 things you’d want in the perfect parent & toddler game:
1) The child has a glorious time full of laughter
2) The parent has the time of their life
3) It teaches the child all of the overarching principles of board gaming of which they are capable (taking turns, different actions etc)
4) Faultless other stuff (cheap to buy, great art/design, consistent theme, stylish rulebook and beautiful parts).
We’ll be giving each game a score out of 25 in each of these four areas, giving a total score out of 100 for every game we play. Though, remember, this only applies to children around age 3-4 and a low score doesn’t mean we don’t think it’s a good game but just not for a child of that age.
So, as we politely dismiss the chef back to the kitchen, let’s twizzle our forks and liberally scatter the parmesan as we prepare to digest our own weight in classic dexterity-gaming cuisine…
What is Animal Upon Animal?
AuA (I pronounce it like ‘hour’ but with a German accent…) is a dexterity game for 2-4 players, published by German beast HABA. Released in 2005, you’ll still find it on any respectable “best-games-for-toddlers” forum thread and it’s sitting pretty in 8th place on Boardgamegeek’s rankings for all children’s games, which are based on site users’ ratings. Pretty impressive for a game which purportedly goes down to age 4.
As a noteworthy aside, almost all games will have a symbol or text somewhere on the box saying “not suitable for children under 3”. This is a legal requirement for games with small parts but I take it with several pinches of salt, considering myself capable of working out for myself what’s safe and not safe for my offspring…
Setup in AuA is rapid, with each player taking seven animals, one of each type – this menagerie is bizarrely entitled your “provision” – and the crocodile is then placed in the middle of the table.
Play proceeds clockwise, with each player rolling the die and carrying out the action shown. There are 5 possible actions:
1 dot – add one animal to the “pyramid” (this is on 2 sides)
2 dots – add 2 animals
Crocodile – add an animal to the base (touching a current part of the base)
Hand – hand one of your pieces to someone else to place
Question mark – the other players choose an animal for you to place
If any animals fall off on your turn, you take up to 2 and put the rest back in the box. If they fall off on nobody’s turn, they all go back in the box.
The first player to get rid of all their animals wins.
And that’s it. Takes about 10-15 minutes depending how rubbish you are.
How did Ezra find it?
So, this was his first exposure to a die and he was reasonably content rolling it again and again, trying to roll a 2. But after a while, he noticed the crocodile and took the challenge head on.
His face during the game was one I’d seen before – like when he’s conquering a tough puzzle or when he perfectly executes a comically timed fart – a look of focus and subsequent satisfaction.
“You had me going for a while there, generic puzzle, but now I have defeated you. Go back to your shelf and revel in your shame.”
Now, AuA is at its core a 3-dimensional puzzle. Well, actually it’s a 2-dimensional puzzle, with the ‘z’ axis compassionately restored to the industry after its long and ignominious exile.
Ezra enjoyed it in the same way he enjoys a puzzle. He was focussed. Not laughing, smiling or showing any objective evidence of enjoyment, but truly scratching that “I-must-beat-this-thing” itch that we all carry in our subconscious.
The problem with AuA is that its functional climax is actually a moment of failure – the collapse of the tower. It’s too tricky for a toddler to ever “complete” (ie do a tower including all the animals) and so that final satisfaction of finishing the puzzle never comes. The game just ends at what must feel like an arbitrary time point. It seemed like doing a puzzle missing multiple pieces.
Having said that, he has asked to play it again several times since the first play so he must have enjoyed it to an extent.
Ezra’s score – 13/25
As a parent, you spend the majority of your time trying to stack your animals in a way that makes things easier for your resident heir/heiress and so at this age this really becomes a co-op game. It quickly becomes very difficult, though, unless you get lucky with a few crocodiles to extend the base – it is especially tricky when your son won’t accept any die roll except ‘2’ on his turn.
It did prove a significant challenge to stack all the animals for the top photo and probably took me ten minutes to do when I sat down on my own including 2 or 3 tower collapses. It is by no means a trivial game, which is great news for grown-ups. And adding a careless toddler to the team obviously heightens the challenge
Whilst it was challenging, it wasn’t greatly enjoyable to sit and watch Ezra consistently ‘fail’ by knocking the tower over. Challenging, but not particularly fun – like trying to do a zip up with one hand.
Daddy’s score – 9/25
Overarching principles of gaming (OPG)?
A very basic skill and yet one that needs reinforcement at this age. Having a die to roll helped to denote whose turn it was and I think the game successfully exposed Ezra to how turns can work in gaming.
Different actions on your turn:
Again, this is basic, but basic is what we need for Ezra. The idea that there are different things that could happen on your turn (and that some of them may involve you or other players making a choice) is usefully employed in this game and I think Ezra started to grasp that whilst we were playing.
Whilst the above 2 skills are very much present and honed by each game played, they are not exactly ‘rock and roll’ and I can’t see any other skills being developed after he’s mastered these more basic ideas. So older children probably won’t learn much about OGPs by playing.
OGP – 8/25
The other bits and bobs
Cost – 3/5
It will set you back £14.50 + delivery on amazon.co.uk, or $23 in the US, which is reasonable but not particularly cheap.
Art/design – 2/5
The box art appears a little dated and bland in my opinion but it gets across the idea of animal stacking and carries some suggestion of fun.
Theme – 1/5
It’s never explained why the animals are so keen on stacking. I imagine that escape from your terrifyingly-efficient “provision” would be the most powerful motive but we are left to speculate.
Rulebook – 2/5
The rules are simple, although they appear to have been translated by a German school pupil studying for his English GCSE (that’s a 16-year-old for you non-Brits) who has just typed everything in to Google translate. The box proclaims “Easily to understand game instructions” as if that makes sense and the rules then go on to speak of the “serpent in your provision” and other slightly bizarre expressions. All a little bit weird. To be fair, the rules are supplied in 5 languages, but the rulebook (and the box) didn’t need to be quite so big and could have been a bit more colourful and engaging.
Parts – 4/5
The pieces are satisfyingly-sized and well-designed to allow a degree of variation when stacking. There’s a snake, a monkey, a penguin, a hedgehog, a toucan, a sheep and what I can only assume is a kangaroos lion hybrid:
In spite of the dubious ethics of their hybiridisation programme, the pieces themselves are well made and each presents a different challenge for stacking.
Total score – 42/100
I guess this is a game which masquerades as a new and interesting puzzle for young children, but never quite gets those puzzle-endorphins firing as well as, say, a puzzle.
Time will tell if 42 is a good score – I have literally no idea.
Please post your thoughts in the comments section below – any idea what that green thing is…?
Next week – First Orchard