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 because they feel intrigued, challenged, entertained. In fact, some kids -- including young children -- may actually prefer cooperative games to competitive ones.
When researchers tested competitive and cooperative games head-to-head, they found that preschoolers assigned to play competitive games showed less enthusiasm, and afterwards they tended to behave more negatively (Bay-Hinitz et al 1994).
By contrast, preschoolers assigned to play cooperative games showed more enthusiasm, and there were no post-game increases in bad behavior.
(FYI: One of the board games used in this study was Max: A cooperative game of consultation, decision-making, and natural selection, which I review below.)
Other research suggests that cooperative play encourages generosity.
In a recent 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).
And cooperative games may help build trust between players.
Studies suggest 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.
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 suggests 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.
What if we tweak the rules, and allow players the option of poaching blocks from a competitor's tower?
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 researchers 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. They did it sometimes, but no more frequently than you'd expect by chance (Shmidt et al 2016).
And 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 is linked with a child's performance on a perspective-taking task -- one that requires a child to understand that her beliefs differ from those of another person.
Kids who master the perspective-taking task sometimes make deliberate use of competitive tactics. Kids that struggle with the perspective-taking task almost never do.
And in the tower-building experiments, Marco Schmidt and his colleagues (2016) 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.
Does all this imply that children under the age of five can't enjoy a competitive game?
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 a reflection of their 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.
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.
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).
That might be useful preparation for a career in advertising or politics. But it doesn't teach kids critical thinking. By motivating children to consider both sides of a question, cooperative board games may help children think more clearly and rigorously.
For instance, Amy Strom and Scott Barolo have used the classic game Mastermind to teach college students about hypothesis testing and experimental design.
Ordinarily, this game is played by a lone "code breaker" who must discover a hidden sequence of colors.
But Strom and Barolo say the game works well as a team exercise, in which students collaborate to break the code. Players talk tactics, look for flaws in each other's arguments, and collaborate to find the most efficient path to a solution (Strom and Barolo 2011).
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.
This is the same game used by researchers in the preschool study mentioned at the beginning of this article (Bay-Hinitz et al 1994).
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.
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. 2017 Sep 21. doi: 10.1111/bjdp.12213. [Epub ahead of print]
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.
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 by Monkeybusinessimages
Image of child playing Candy Land by Quinn Dombrowski /flickr
Image of girls talking about board game with adult by US Dept Education / flickr
Image of child with plastic animal toys by daniel julià lundgren / flickr
Content of "Cooperative board games for kids" last modified 4/2020
Reviews in this article appeared in a previous Parenting Science page about cooperative board games for kids.