Why Games? Why Not?

chess-775346_960_720When I consult with parents about our Aspiring Youth groups, they often ask me why I use so many board and card games. Most Aspiring Youth participants are dealing with challenges from social anxiety or something called executive functioning (more below) – or a bit of both.

With a little thoughtfulness, games help our students work on both. Given it’s the holidays, here are some suggestions for games to enjoy – just in case you want to try them at home!

Think of executive functioning as the manager of our brain that makes decisions. This helps us understand others’ emotions, resist impulses, control emotions, manage mental data, plan tasks, solve problems, and flexibly deal with change. Many diagnoses such as ADHD, autism spectrum disorders and even anxiety and depression can interfere with executive functioning. There’s also evidence that more than two hours a day of recreational screen time is linked to problems in executive functioning. This includes all screens (phones, computers, TV, tablets, etc.).   

How do games help in these areas?

Board and card games bring people face to face to read social cues in a way that electronics do not provide. To be successful, they to take turns and resist impatient impulses like talking over others. They have to remember rules. They have to make plans, and often have to flexibly change plans. They have to control frustration when they lose and not be obnoxious when they win. Board and card games also reduce screen time. What’s more, because our students are invested in the games, they offer a lot of teaching moments that lectures and other activities don’t.

Let’s look at a few of the games we use.

Most of these games are available from Seattle-area retailers like Meeples Games, Mox Boarding House, Games and Gizmos, Card Kingdom, Heroic Knight Games and Uncle’s Games, as well as online retailers like Amazon.

We Didn’t Playtest This At All – (2 to 15 players) – This was, by far, the most popular game in my Wednesday Kirkland group last year. It’s a fast-paced, chaotic, and silly card game that can be played in as little as 30 seconds. It helps our students practice reading skills, mental flexibility, impulse control, and frustration tolerance. The rules are (theoretically) pretty simple: you draw a card, and you play a card, following the instructions on the card you play. This may be something like, “Anyone who uses the words ‘I’, ‘me’, or ‘mine’ loses, starting now,” or, “You Win!… if you are the shortest person in the game.” We often played ten or more hilarious boss monsterrounds.  Fluxx is another, similar game, but with less chaos and more strategy.

Boss Monster – (2 to 4 players) – A very stylistic, competitive game modelled after retro, 8-bit video games, especially the Nintendo Entertainment System. Players must think about strategy and sequencing as they take on the role of a video game boss to build a dungeon designed to lure and defeat heroes from town. This is a very popular game with smaller groups and with my individual coaching clients. Students love the video game theme.

Superfight – (3 or more players) – This hilarious game is all about flexibility of thinking, frustration tolerance, listening skills, and loving to argue. Two people each have a few cards, some with characters, and some with abilities. Each player has to play one character card and one ability card, and they then add a random ability card. For example, it might be Obama, riding a battle tiger, and who violently sneezes versus Justin Bieber, who has an axe, and who lays golden eggs.  The players take turns arguing why their character with those abilities would win in a fight. All other players have to be good listeners and eventually vote on the character they think would win. The winner stays, and new player steps up.

munchkinMunchkin – (3 or more players) – This game involves strategy, math, negotiation, and bluffing. This is the current favorite of the Wednesday Kirkland teen group. It is a parody of other fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons with a strong love of puns. Players take turns raiding a dungeon, fighting monsters or curses, and getting treasure to help them (such as the Potion of General Studliness). If they can’t beat a monster, they can negotiate with other players for help, trading cards, treasure, or even favors. Alliances shift quickly, as players must stop those about to win.

The Resistance – (5 to 10 players) – This is a game all about deduction, bluffing, and reading non-verbal cues. Each player is randomly assigned a role either as a resistance member or a spy trying to break the resistance. The resistance members do not know who the spies are. Teams are created to go on missions, and it’s the spies’ job to sabotage them without being detected. Accusations fly like crazy as people try to figure out who they can trust and who is a spy. Even if a spy is caught, a clever spy can make misleading accusations to keep other spies safe.

sentinelsSentinels of the Multiverse – (2 to 5 players) – This one is about strategy, planning, and cooperation. Each player is a superhero with a specialty such as speed, armor, martial arts, mystical energy, and so on. They must strategize and coordinate in order to collectively defeat a villain and survive a hazardous environment. A current favorite of mine.

Snake Oil – (3 to 10 players) – Empathy and flexibility are the name of the game here. This game is well-suited for some of my younger clients and is similar to Apples to Apples (another great game), but with a twist. Each round, a player acts as a “customer” of some type, such as a prom queen, gangster, plumber, caveman, etc. Each other player has to think about what that type of customer needs and play two cards from their hand that combine to create a new item. This might be “beard comb”, “pipe rope”, “war ring”, or anything the players can imagine. The “customer” then judges which item they most would want, and that chosen player wins the round.

Forbidden Island – (2 to 4 players) – More cooperation, planning, flexibility, and strategy are needed in this randomized board game. All the players are trying to collect the treasures and get off the island before it sinks. Each player has a different special ability such as scuba diving, navigation, and engineering, among others, which they use to aid the whole party.


R BoccamazzoR. Boccamazzo, PsyD, LMHCA

Dr. Boccamazzo is a doctor of clinical psychology and social skills coach with Aspiring Youth. Additionally, he has a private psychology practice in Bellevue offering individual therapy and psychological assessment to adolescents and adults, as well as parent and clinician trainings on technology in psychology. Much of his work focuses on high functioning autism, problematic technology usage, social anxiety, trauma, and schizophrenia. In his spare time, he enjoys acting, board games, video games, and weight lifting.