Problem Solving Games…Just in Time for the the Holiday Gift Giving Season

For 21 years, Academy MetroWest has run therapeutic groups for children and adolescents that center on the use of cooperative, collaborative physical activity. Aside from the therapeutic benefits obtained through working this way, it’s an enjoyable way to structure physical activities for kids. Over the last few years, I’ve been happy to find more and more video games and board games using similar principles of cooperative play.

Recently, I’ve tried my hand at two cooperative board games and I’ve enjoyed them both. The first was Forbidden Desert, a popular game in which the players are cast into a vast desert, searching for a legendary flying machine buried in the ruins of an old city. I confess that I’ve only played it once. However, I did enjoy it and I found that there was a solid cooperative dynamic involved in the game. I’m sure I will play it again.

I have a stronger personal connection to the other cooperative board game I’ve been playing,  Space Cadets – Away Missions. This game was designed by two friends of mine, Al Rose and Dan Raspler. While both of these gentlemen are fine, upstanding human beings, Al is one of my closest friends.

Before I describe the game, I need to go on the record to say that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a board game geek. Until recently, my board game experience centered on the old standards. I come from a long line word nerd so I play a lot of Scrabble. Besides that, I never got too far beyond Monopoly. Al and his wife Shelley, on the other hand, are avid gamers. I play in a band with Al and we usually get together once a week to play music. Most nights, we stop around 10:30 so his neighbors don’t start egging his house. Then we shift our attention to gaming. Shelley is actively involved in the board gaming web site Fortress: Ameritrash, so she and Al always seem to be up to speed on every new game out there. Yes, Al is getting nerdier by the day. No doubt about it.


After contributing to the Space Cadets: Away Missions Kickstarter, I received my copy in the mail a few months ago. When I opened the package, I noticed a couple of things right away. For one, the art work is gorgeous. It’s based on 1950’s era science fiction and the drawings, figurines, and text all reflect that period very well. The other thing I noticed quickly is that it’s pretty complicated. Al tells me that gamers have told him that it’s not complicated enough but I reacted very differently. He walked me and a friend through the game and that was very helpful. Since then, I’ve played it with my daughter a few times and we’re both really getting the hang of it. The game traces a story arc comprised of a number of different scenarios. In each scenario, the players (Rocketeers) have to accomplish a task against an array of hideous aliens bent on enslaving or destroying them. Each human player gets a turn and then the aliens get their turn, following prescribed actions collectively known as alien AI. If the Rocketeers don’t work together, the aliens kick their butts. Sometimes, even when the Rocketeers do work together, the aliens kick their butts anyway. But if you don’t work together, you don’t have a prayer.

What I really like about Space Cadets: Away Missions is the dynamic that unfolds as you play. When you play it, you go through the same process that kids go through when they play some of the problem solving games we do here at Academy MetroWest. It not only allows players to collaborate, it requires it.

Among the many activities we do here at Academy MetroWest there are a handful that we conceive as being problem-solving games. These games present open-ended challenges that require kids to use a number of different skills that may not be in their everyday wheel house. First off, they need to see the big picture. They have to recognize that they’ve been presented with a problem that can be solved a million different ways, and  that 5 other kids are working with them. They need to see that the most efficient way of solving the problem is to have all group members collaborate somehow. They also need to be able to communicate effectively. For kids who come across as shy or tentative, that may mean speaking up in a more forceful way than usual in order to express ideas or to ask for help. For kids on the opposite end of this range, there’s also a need to listen to others’ ideas and respond to them with respect, receptiveness, and flexibility.

I created a new problem solving game a few years ago that some of my groups have really enjoyed. It’s called The Wacky Races. Kids are placed in teams of 3. In a large room, we scatter a lot of small, plastic cones. Each team gets their own “car,” made out of a folding mat laying on top of some cardboard cylinders.


Two versions of The Wacky Races – On the left is Hanna-Barbera’s conceptualization and on the right is ours.

One team member becomes the rider. That person is responsible for grabbing as many cones as possible but, in doing so, must remain on his or her car. Another group member is the pusher who, as the name implies, pushes the car forward, backward, or sideways. The other teammate is the mover, who has to keep moving the cylinders around in a way that enables the car to keep moving. The game lasts until all the cones are collected. Each team has to work together to figure out where the car should move, how it should move, who is going to take each role, and then they need to enact that plan as efficiently as possible.

The good news about The Wacky Races and all problem solving games, for that matter, is exactly the same as the bad news. That is, for the kids who play them, every single issue they have around socialization gets exposed. While this affords our counselors the opportunity to address these issues, it can be challenging to get the games to run smoothly. Because the games are open-ended, each child’s contribution will necessarily be a reflection of their own social style. As important as it is for kids to learn to negotiate and compromise with each other, for some kids, the skills required in order to do so – impulse control, emotional regulation, organization, central coherence, and perspective taking, for example – are just not there. In many cases, adaptations can be made to help accommodate kids like this but in others, it’s a steep climb regardless of how many tweaks we add.

Despite those obstacles, for kids who can manage them, the potential benefits derived from problem solving games are significant. A former colleague of mine was running a problem solving game with a group some years ago when he found that most group members were getting angry at one boy who was trying to dominate the game. When the counselor spoke to him, the boy said that his own ideas were clearly the best so the other group members just needed to get on board with him. My colleague told the boy that even if he felt that his ideas were the best, when you ignore other peoples’ ideas, you convey the message to them that their ideas aren’t worth listening to. He explained that friends don’t expect to be treated that way  and, even if the other kids’ ideas didn’t meet this boy’s standards, it was probably in his interest to be a little more receptive to them anyway.

For most families, setting up physical problem solving games like those we play here at Academy MetroWest at their home is, at best, impractical. Fortunately, playing Space Cadets: Away Missions is a much more accessible option for many families. Like gym-based problem solving games, it’s not for everyone. But, if you’re looking for a game that takes thought, collaboration, and creativity, it’s a whole lot of fun.


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