Cooperative board games have a lot in common with competitive board games. There’s a board; there are game pieces. Individual players take turns. But cooperative games differ in one key respect: Everyone is on the same team, working toward the same goal.
What’s the point of this? Isn’t competition a fact of life? Why should kids play cooperative games, when they could be learning to hone their skills as competitors? Perhaps the best answer is that cooperative board games are fun.
People play cooperative games because they feel intrigued, challenged, entertained. In fact, some kids — including young children — may actually prefer cooperative games to competitive ones.
When researchers have tested competitive and cooperative games head-to-head, they’ve found that preschoolers experienced more enjoyment and enthusiasm for cooperative games (Bay-Hinitz et al 1994; Erikkson et al 2021).
[FYI: Board games used in these studies included Max: A cooperative game of consultation, decision-making, and natural selection, and The Secret Door, both of which I review below.]
In an experimental study, researchers randomly assigned preschoolers to play different kinds of games, including a cooperative game and a competitive one. After a brief play session, the researchers tested the children’s generosity by giving them the opportunity to share a prize with young stranger. What happened? It depended on gaming experience. Kids who had played the cooperative game shared more (Toppe et al 2019).
Research also indicates that kids, like adults, adjust their willingness to cooperate based on the feedback they get from others (Blake et al 2015; Keil et al 2017). If there is a history of cooperation, they are more likely to cooperate in the future. It’s possible, then, that cooperative board games could help kids build friendly relationships. On the flip side, some studies report that children playing competitive games have responded to each other with more negativity or aggression (Bay-Hinitz et al 1994; Peppler et al 2013).
But that’s not all. There are compelling cognitive reasons to recommend cooperative board games.
No, I don’t mean that little kids are completely clueless. Young children may manage quite well as long as game is very simple, and requires no strategic thought. Suppose, for instance, that we ask kids to play a tower-building game. Players take turns rolling a die, and then selecting the corresponding number of blocks to stack atop their towers.
Roll a 6, take six blocks. The blocks come from a common pile. The first player whose tower reaches the specified height wins.
Experiments suggest that both 3-year-olds and 5-year-olds can learn the rules of such a game, and play competently. But players have no decisions to make. Their progress is determined by chance, and there are no competitive tactics involved.
This tweaked game isn’t terribly complicated. The best strategy is clear to you and me: At every opportunity, you should take blocks from your competitor. But when Marco Schmidt and his colleagues tested this game on children at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, they noticed that even the 5-year-olds failed to use the poaching tactic. Children did it sometimes, but no more frequently than you’d expect by chance (Shmidt et al 2016).
Other experiments (e.g., Priewasser et al 2013,) have reported similar findings. When a game depends on imposing penalties on competitors, young children often fail to do so.
Is it because children are shy, or trying to be kind? Those are certainly possibilities, but it seems telling that kids failed to impose penalties even after other players used this same tactic against them (Priewasser et al 2013).
Moreover, the use of competitive tactics has been linked with perspective-taking — in particular, a child’s ability to understand that different people can hold different beliefs. Kids who perform well on tests of perspective-taking will sometimes make deliberate use of competitive tactics. Kids who stuggle with perspective-taking tasks? They almost never engage in competitive tactics.
And in the tower-building experiments, Schmidt’s team also noticed a difference between 3-year-olds and 5-year-olds. The younger children had trouble focusing on more than one aspect of the game at a time, and they didn’t seem to notice when their opponent (a friendly puppet) cheated. By contrast, the five-year-olds were better at keeping track of all the elements — the rules of the game; their opponent’s apparent motivations; their own desire to win (Schmidt et al 2016).
Certainly not. But it suggests that competitive elements will tend to go over their heads. There’s just too much for them to juggle, possibly because they have more limited working memory capacities. And this is probably why the competitive game, Candy Land, is so popular with very young children: It’s the simplest possible competitive game — no decisions or competitive tactics involved.
So one solution to the problem is to provide young children with extremely simple competitive board games. Another is to offer them cooperative board games.
I prefer second option myself, because you can add more complexity to the game without making it impossible for young children to play. When it’s time to make a decision, preschoolers can participate in the discussion, and make the decision jointly. The resulting game experience is more interesting for older players. And — as we’ll see next — those team discussions may have special educational value as kids get older.
We sharpen our thinking when we explain our reasoning to others. Civilized debate helps us identify the strengths and weaknesses of our arguments. It allows participants to test each other’s ideas, and come to well-reasoned decisions. So when are children ready to learn these skills?
In one study, researchers found a telling difference between 3-year-olds and 5-year-olds (Köymen and Tomasello 2018). Only the 5-year-olds seemed willing to change their minds in response to a discussion about the evidence. Researchers also found that school-aged children (5-year-olds and 7-year-olds) were good at cooperative reasoning. When pairs of children were asked to evaluate competing claims, they were able to agree about which claims had better supporting evidence (Köymen and Tomasello 2018).
So kids as young as 5 can take a stance, listen, weigh arguments, and come to a joint decision. And there is reason to think that cooperative games encourage children to do this.
Back at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Andreas Domberg and his colleagues asked 5- and 7-year-old children to play two versions of a sorting game.
In both versions, kids had to match creatures with their appropriate habitats (e.g., a zebra with a grassy plain). Moreover, the players had to come to an agreement about it — convince each other with arguments.
But in the competitive version of the game, there was an added element: The habitats were divided between players, and each player was motivated to acquire the greatest number of animals. And this difference mattered.
In the cooperative version of the game, kids produced more arguments for their claims, and they were more likely to consider both sides of a question.
By contrast, kids playing the competitive version of the game didn’t just produce fewer arguments. Their arguments were also more one-sided (Domberg et al 2016).
Of course, this doesn’t mean that kids in the competitive condition were somehow less capable of thinking up arguments, or reasoning in a sophisticated way. But the competition seems to have discouraged kids from engaging in a more free, open debate — the kind of interaction that help people reach better, more rational conclusions.
If you’ve never seen a cooperative board game for young children, it might be hard to imagine what it’s like to play one. I’ve played several preschool cooperative board games myself. Here are my impressions of two classics. [Note: I include links to Amazon. Purchases made through these links will help support this site.]
Ages 3 to 7. Excellent entry-level game; no reading or advanced counting skills required. Game pieces made from thin card stock.
In Family Pastimes’ Max – A Co-operative Game, players work together against a common foe. The enemy is Max, a cat who longs to catch three creatures living in his backyard: A bird, a squirrel, and a chipmunk.
During the course of the game, all four characters move along the winding game board. If Max lands on the same space as one of the prey animals, that animal is removed from the game.
The object of the game is to get as many of the prey animals to safety as possible. Players take turns rolling the dice, which are especially designed for the game. There is only one dot—either black or green—on each side, so there are only three possible rolls:
Why I like this game
Players get to make meaningful decisions. With every turn, players discuss their preferences and decide together which prey animal(s) to move. In addition, players can choose to take shortcuts (which may backfire if Max follows). And players can invoke a special handicap–sending Max back to the beginning of the game–up to four times during play.
The game pieces are made of cardboard — some pieces rather flimsy cardboard. I wish they were printed on heavier stock and laminated.
Ages 3 to 8. A cooperative game that provokes conversation about memory strategies and simple deductions. No counting or reading required. All game pieces made from thin card stock.
Family Pastimes’ Secret Door – An Award Winning Co-operative Mystery Game combines elements of two other good games: Memory (in which players turn over cards one at a time and try to find pictures that match) and Clue (in which players ask questions and make deductions to determine the identity of several hidden cards).
The game includes a board (depicting the interior of a multi-roomed house) and a set of small cards (depicting various treasures). Each card has an exact match–another card with the same picture on it. The cards are distributed face down on the board, and players work as a team to find as many matches as possible.
But there’s a twist: Before the game begins, three cards are randomly selected and hidden behind the Secret Door. When time runs out, players must guess what those cards are.
Why I like this game
The game is cooperative, so younger kids don’t feel pressured. Team play also offers older players with the opportunity to share mnemonic strategies with younger kids. And, at the end of the game, everybody gets to discuss their guesses and explain why their guess is likely to be correct.
Once again, this game suffers because its pieces are made from thin card stock.
For more evidence-based information about the developmental benefit of games, see these pages.
Bay-Hinitz AK, Peterson RF, and Quilitch HR. 1994. Cooperative games: a way to modify aggressive and cooperative behaviors in young children. J Appl Behav Anal. 1994 Fall;27(3):435-46.
Blake PR, Rand DG, Tingley D, Warneken F. 2015. The shadow of the future promotes cooperation in a repeated prisoner’s dilemma for children. Sci Rep. 5:14559.
Domberg A, Köymen B, Tomasello M. 2017. Children’s reasoning with peers in cooperative and competitive contexts. Br J Dev Psychol. 36(1):64-77
Eriksson M, Kenward B, Poom L, Stenberg G. 2021. The behavioral effects of cooperative and competitive board games in preschoolers. Scand J Psychol. 62(3):355-364.
Ewoldsen DR, Eno CA, Okdie BM, Velez JA, Guadagno RE, and DeCoster J. 2012. Effect of playing violent video games cooperatively or competitively on subsequent cooperative behavior. Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 15(5):277-80.
Keil J, Michel A, Sticca F, Leipold K, Klein AM, Sierau S, von Klitzing K, White LO. 2017. The Pizzagame: A virtual public goods game to assess cooperative behavior in children and adolescents. Behav Res Methods. 49(4):1432-1443.
Köymen B and Tomasello M. 2018. Children’s meta-talk in their collaborative decision making with peers. J Exp Child Psychol. 166:549-566.
Peppler K, Danish J, and Phelps D. 2013. Collaborative Gaming. Simulation & Gaming, 44, 683–705.
Priewasser B, Roessler J, and Perner J. 2013. Competition as rational action: why young children cannot appreciate competitive games. J Exp Child Psychol. 116(2):545-59.
Schmidt MF, Hardecker S, Tomasello M. 2016. Preschoolers understand the normativity of cooperatively structured competition. J Exp Child Psychol. 143:34-47.
Toppe T, Hardecker S, Haun DBM. 2019. Playing a cooperative game promotes preschoolers’ sharing with third-parties, but not social inclusion. PLoS One. 14(8):e0221092.
Zan B. and Hildebrandt C. 2005. Cooperative and competitive games in constructivist classrooms. The Constructivist, 16(1):1-13.
Image credits for “Cooperative Board Games”:
Image of grandfather and kids cropped from larger image by Monkeybusinessimages
Content of “Cooperative board games for kids” last modified 2/2023.
Portions of the text derive from a previous version of this article, written by the same author.
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