The very concept of the kindergarten was born in Germany, and with it the idea that young children can learn a lot through play. It’s no wonder then that some of the world’s best educational children’s games are made there as well. But how do you go about designing games for five-year-olds? HABA, the German toymaker with bestselling board games like First Orchard and Dragon’s Breath, may have the answer.
Parents and educators will likely recognize HABA’s games for their bright yellow boxes all over store shelves. According to game designer Markus Singer, everything begins with a prototype — usually something handmade. His team receives some 1,500 prototypes each year, but only 600 of those actually make it to the testing stage. Even fewer get put in front of their target audience: young children.
“We have two kindergartens right here at our department,” Singer said in an interview with Polygon. “We take the games and play them with the children in kindergarten. That’s a big part of testing these pre-selected games, because sometimes we think, ‘Well, they could be good for kids.’”
But, as with most things, kids have a knack for poking holes in a game’s design. Take, for example, the soon to be released game called Hammer Time, which comes to stores in the United States this fall.
When the prototype, created by Shaun Graham and Scott Huntington, showed up it was a game about a broken-down old truck. Players needed to hit the truck with a hammer to knock a few screws loose. The number of screws that fell off determined how far a player pawn moved around a separate track. Its novelty (What kid doesn’t want to whack stuff with a hammer?) made it a hit, but the theme and the mechanics of the game itself needed more work. That’s when Dr. Jan-David Freund helped to pluck it off the table and refine it.
Freund is a specialist in early childhood education and psychology. His job is to evaluate HABA’s entire catalog of roughly 300 games, and then align those games to learning goals it’s trying to support. In game design terms, he’s also there to simply lay out what children are capable of doing at what age, effectively helping tailor a game to meet a very specific audience of players — and the parents and educators that serve them.
“This is really the point where I start negotiating [with] product management,” Freund said. “They have to focus on the numbers: what sells well, and what age groups we have, [and] where do we lack a game of this or that size. There might not be games [in a certain category at all].”
Theming for those games is also important, both to match the age range and also the desirability for certain populations. For example, the busted old pickup of Hammer Time’s prototype became a mine filled with gems during the design phase. Players changed roles too, from truck drivers to small colorful dwarves. But it’s the mechanics of these family-style games where the rubber really meets the road.
Freund says that lots of attention was initially given to the hammer itself. “What is the design for the hammer? Is the hammer fine for the age range that we’re aiming at? Is this a task that children can do? We made it [so that] the children would not have to punch too hard, so the gems would fly all over the place. Are they able to make fine hammering movements, or so on. So these were questions that I was asked to answer.”
But the PhD’s input didn’t stop there. The newly themed game required players to knock a certain number of gems out of the mine. But, there were different consequences depending on if an odd or even number of gems fell out. How do you teach the concept of odd and even to a five-year-old who can barely count? The answer came in charming little drawings of two dwarves trying to share their stash of gems equally. One card shows two full bags and two happy dwarves, while another shows two unhappy dwarves, two bags, and a lone remaining gem between them. The pictures clearly illustrate the concept, and parents and educators can be on hand to reinforce it.
“This is called the concept of scaffolding,” Freund said. “[A child] might not be able to do it now, but if someone helps them to make the first steps, we can get them into this. The thing about scaffolding is if you bring children to that point, it really fosters them the best. If you make them [do something] that, at the beginning, they could not do, only with help, and they start doing it on their own, this is really the booster for their development. So we try to find the right sweet spot between what they already can do, what they’re interested in, and what helps them the most to get to the next level.”
Together, Freund and Singer went even further by suggesting additional tasks that would help extend the replayability of the game — and further reinforce learning goals appropriate for five-year-olds.
Bundled with Hammer Time is a simple wooden die with a bright color on each face. Roll the die each round and, on a roll of purple, kids will have to hit the box with their hand instead of the hammer; on a red they’ll need to lie down with their head on the table, as if they were sleeping; on a blue they’ll need to hammer with their off hand. All of these modes help to build a child’s manual dexterity.
With those additions and changes in place, it was then up to Singer and his team to bring the game to market. The separate, stand-alone truck became the bottom of the box itself. Once removed from the lid, all you have to do is place a special adhesive pad on the bottom of the box to make the game much quieter. Then dwarves were illustrated along the sides of the box, with a set of gems pictured there to help younger children count, comparing their collection of gems against the goal.
In the end, of course, it’s the gameplay itself where the magic really happens.
“There’s this last aspect,” Dr. Freund said, “of the daring and of taking risks. So the children, really, if they are too cautious they will lose the game. But you have to take some risk. You have to evaluate the situation on the table, ‘Oh, he’s got only one card left! I have to make a push!’ And so of course, this can be a bad decision. But that’s how risks work, and the children have to dare something — but in a controlled situation. And daring and going outside of yourself is something that children need some support to do.”
Hammer Time was previewed with a retail copy provided by HABA. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.