Adaptive Kids: Strategy vs Luck

This is part of a new column/series called Adaptive Kids. How can parents, coaches, school teachers, and other mentors help small children grow their own inner adaptability? 


Can boardgames and card games be used to teach or develop adaptability? 

First off, I want to specifically separate games that are based entirely on chance or luck from those requiring judgement, discretion, and strategy. Take a look at these games:
As the wikipedia page for Candyland reads:
Due to the design of the game, there is no strategy involved: players are never required to make choices, just follow directions.
What a perfectly-worded description for these sorts of games. There are no choices; only a slavish obedience to the roll of the dice, the draw of the cards, or the spin of the needle. 

These are perfect entry games for small children. They learn process, rules, boundaries, and...how to accept defeat at the hands of Lady Luck. They are, however, terrible at developing any sort of sense-making or decision-making.

Take my next grouping of games:
We now begin to see games that require choices. The types of decisions and overall number of options are rather limited. These games, by their design, still include a rather heavy dose of dumb chance. But superior planning or strategy may tilt the odds one (1) way or another. (HINT: In Battleship, don't put your ships on the edges or in clusters.)

We also begin to collect types of games where adults have to decide whether to allow kids to win or not. Adults are no longer restricted to luck alone...and can make decisions that improve their chances of losing. Don't get me wrong: Low-experience kids can still beat even the toughest of adult competitors if luck falls in the right places.

In summary, good decision-making in these above games is based on calculating probabilities, hedging losses, maximizing opportunity, and other styles of forecasting the luck of the draw, roll, or spin.

Take an additional tier:
And then...
The available options for decision-making continues to go up. And while not technically correct, it's safe to assume infinitely so.

These games also trend in another way: They become less about relying on chance in simultaneous races to a "finish line" and more about adversarial plotting of annihilation. (Candyland is a race to the end. Uno is a race to zero (0) cards in hand. It's as if competitors are both playing against the rules as opposed to playing against each other.)

Players make decisions that not only tip the remaining blind luck in their favor...but also make decisions in anticipation for the moves that their competitors are likely to or may possibly make.

These more advanced games seem to become more....personal!

But not only personal in the way that "I want to beat you!" But also that decisions are made in concert  with a human adversary - predicting, tricking, strategizing, interplaying. The "anthro" aspect of anthro-complexity becomes a growing factor, just as luck becomes a decreasing factor.

With this emergence of human factors, we begin to turn closed-loop games into more open-loop ones. You're playing less against the game...and more against your competitor.

Most boardgames and card games can reasonably be considered "closed-loop" endeavors. The pieces, cards, boundaries, movements, options, and outcomes are all limited or restricted by the structure, rules, and design of the game. However, the human judgement element gives these games a more permeable structure - where rockstar judgement or piss-poor decisions greatly influence the outcomes. This holds true especially when the players' experience or intelligence are asymmetrical. 

I'm not particularly interested in arguments about whether Chess is more of a thinker's game than Statego. Or whether Monopoly relies less on luck than Risk. My intention is not to rank these on a spectrum from luck-based to judgement-based. It's also not to rank them from most tightly-closed-loop to most open-loop. I'm skeptical of the value of that conversation. (Who am I kidding? I'll argue about this all day long! haha)

Where I really want to explore is the nature of luck versus decision-making. And how we can use these sorts of games to exploit opportunities to teach perpetual or cyclical strategizing, planning, and forecasting to our children. Also how to play defensively versus offensively. Also how to set ourselves up for the greatest chance of success in the face of uncertainly...or as I call it: Stacking the Deck

As soon as judgement enters the game, we need to figure out how to talk about strategy, planning, and forecasting to young minds. With luck, based on prediction. With adversarial decisions, based on anticipation. 

I have a lot more to say about this, but I'll reserve those thoughts for another post.

Until then: Do you let your kids win at these more advanced games? 


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Lou Hayes, Jr. is a criminal investigations & intelligence unit supervisor in a suburban Chicago police department. With a passion for training, he studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model

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