When the Name of the Game Is a Children’s Book

Yes, it’s the digital age; but enhancing the experience of reading a children’s book doesn’t have to happen only on a screen. A board game based on a children’s book is an alternative, low-tech option that allows players to experience the world of a book in a new form.

In children’s book–based board games, players often get to stand in for characters from the story—a feature that has the potential to deepen a child’s appreciation for a book and extend their connection to the original story. Imagine yourself, for instance, as Max from Where the Wild Things Are, sailing off to the forest, finding the Wild Things, becoming a Wild Thing, and then racing to be the first one to return safely home and win the game. The pretend play of board games allows children to interact with a book in a three-dimensional, active way.

Board games based on children’s books are nothing new. When my sister and I were growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, we’d fight over who got to be Elizabeth or Jessica when we’d play our Sweet Valley High game; we longed to own The Baby-Sitters Club game that our friends had; and we’d often play our aunt’s Uncle Wiggily and Nancy Drew Mystery games. What has changed since then is the sheer proliferation of such board games. Walk into any Target, Toys “R” Us, or specialty toy shop, and you’ll see children’s book characters everywhere on game shelves.

Generally, children’s books aren’t turned into board games unless they’re in popular series (Harry Potter, The 39 Clues, Twilight, The Hunger Games, Eileen Christelow’s Five Little Monkeys, Richard Scarry’s Busytown, or Walter Wick’s I Spy books) or contain iconic characters (Curious George, Madeline, Mo Willems’s Pigeon, or Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat). Picture books tend to be a great resource for board games, probably due to the recognizable images in the illustrations, which make it easier to create the board game. Series still rule, however: it’s hard to find a board game version of a stand-alone picture book unless it’s a classic (such as Goodnight Moon) or a concept book (such as The Scrambled States of America) or has a unique twist (such as Jumanji, which was a book about a board game that was later made into a movie that then spawned a movie board game…).

If kids have read the book, a game can enhance the prior reading experience; if they haven’t, the game may encourage them to do so. But unfamiliarity with the book isn’t apt to hinder their enjoyment, because just like digital adaptations of children’s books, board games are a supplementary product. At best, they aren’t designed to replace the traditional reading experience but to serve as an opportunity for an extended interaction with the book’s characters and concepts.

Some board games attempt to retell the story through the game, while others focus on a single character or plot element. But buyer beware: some merely employ the books and characters as a marketing gimmick to sell a new version of a memory game or number-learning game. Taking the time to look at how you play a game before buying it can tell you a lot about how well it connects to the original story.

But you won’t really know how successful a game adaptation is until you play it. Which is why The Horn Book invited staff members’ children into the office for an afternoon to play some of the latest children’s literature–based board games. We wanted to see how successful these games are on their own and as adaptations and/or extensions of the books they’re based on, and see what, if any, prior connections to the original books are necessary to appreciate and play them. We tried to pick games over a broad age-range and various kinds of games that might interest the children in different ways.

The Pigeon Wants a Match (University Games) and the Maisy game (Briarpatch) are both matching games designed for ages three and up that contain images from their respective books. Because the Maisy books focus less on plot and more on introducing new words to young children through visual accompaniment, they make an ideal choice for a matching game, and indeed the Maisy game offered recognizable and easily distinguishable cardboard pieces for children to match up in a kind of bingo game they could play a variety of ways. On the other hand, the narrative of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, which is largely what makes the book so entertaining, is lost in a simple matching game.

For the same age group, The Very Hungry Caterpillar game, “A Game of Counting, Colors and Contrasts” (University Games), focuses on developing skills but also replicates the original story as players feed their caterpillar game pieces different food tokens until the caterpillar turns into a butterfly. This was a popular choice among our youngest game testers, who seemed to enjoy this game more than Maisy or Pigeon Wants a Match because it successfully incorporates Carle’s theme into the story line.

The Where the Wild Things Are game (Patch Products) was the closest adaptation of the book it is based on. Part of a series called Tales to Play (“Love the Book…Live the Game”) and designed for players aged six and up, the game includes three-dimensional game pieces of Max and the Wild Things, allowing players to pretend they’re characters from the book as they travel over the board. The Wild Rumpus cards that partly control how you move say things like “Max and the Wild Things start a wild rumpus. Go back or move ahead to [the] Where the Wild Things Are [square].” Players must earn a scepter that makes them king of the Wild Things in order to return home to Max’s bedroom to win the game. Sticking closely to the main plot points of Sendak’s story, this was a big hit with the kids because it really did feel like they got to actively participate in telling the story by playing the whole game. Plus, the competition is pretty ruthless, starting with the fact that every player rolls at once and only the one with the highest roll gets to move. Max would approve.

The last two games we tested are designed for players aged eight and up. The Diary of a Wimpy Kid Cheese Touch board game (Pressman) incorporates illustrations from the book on categorized question cards “designed to help you discover what you do—and don’t—have in common with your fellow players.” The purpose of the game is to avoid the Cheese Touch (a type of cooties that makes you an outcast after touching a moldy slice of cheese), a plot element in the first book in the series. This game was overly complex, and its connection with the books was tenuous (aside from the Cheese Touch, it was limited to the game pieces and card illustrations being characters from the books), but cards with questions such as “Have you ever worn the same pair of underwear for more than two days in a row?” and “Which player would be most likely to blame a fart on someone else?” kept the game entertaining (even for players who had never read the books) and likely to appeal to fans of the series’ humor.

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Kids in the Horn Book office assembling the Lego Harry Potter Hogwarts game

The Harry Potter Hogwarts game (Lego) was unusual in that players must first build the game board. Only then do they begin their quest: players have to navigate the magical castle collecting their homework by moving around on Hogwarts’s shifting staircases and secret passages before returning to their respective common rooms. While the directions were difficult, building the (handsome) castle was a lot of fun, and as the game progressed, players started to understand it more and more, leading to a competitive but convivial experience. It also wasn’t necessary for players to be overly familiar with Rowling’s novels to stay entertained.

Playing these games with the children only reinforced my belief that it’s not necessary for a child to have read the book or be familiar with its characters to enjoy playing a well-designed game, but it definitely enhances the experience, as kids are then even more invested in the game and the book. As I watched staff and children participate in our game day, it was clear that playing games based on books is a refreshingly old-school but relevant mainstay to get kids excited about reading amidst the onslaught of new media options. So bring on more board game versions of children’s books. They’re still scoring points for providing good old-fashioned family fun for players of all ages.

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Cynthia K. Ritter About Cynthia K. Ritter

Cynthia K. Ritter is assistant editor of The Horn Book Magazine. She earned a master's degree in children's literature from Simmons College.

Comments

  1. Bethann says:

    Great article. Lots of fond memories of playing Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High, and other games with you!!

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