It's usually not much fun when two people of unequal ability play a skill game--a parent and child, children of different ages or two adults with different levels of experience. This is especially true for the player who is on the short end.
Participants of unequal capability can put zest into a game by creatively altering its rules. Flexibility is the key: Anything goes, as long as both players agree.
By following the suggestions below, parents who play games with their children can avoid intentionally making "mistakes"--a ploy that youngsters usually see through.
For a discussion of the philosophy behind satisfying game-playing, see Bernard De Koven's "The Well-Played Game" (Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1978).
Checkers and Chess
--First, play a test game. The winner counts how many of his or her pieces are left on the board, then starts the second game with that many fewer pieces. (If, in checkers, the winner ends up with five pieces on the board, next time he starts with only seven instead of the regular 12). Repeat the procedure in subsequent games, making adjustments on the basis of the previous game.
--At the start of the game, give the weaker player several free moves. In checkers, give him more kings to begin with; or agree that if he gets a certain number of kings, he wins.
--If a child knows strategy, try this: If he or she can tell the adult a good move to make, the adult is not allowed to make that move.
--Eliminate the competition altogether. Talk over each move, seeking the best ones.
Other Board Games
--In board games like Sorry!, send the less-adept player's piece back only 10 spaces instead of all the way home. Or how about switching sides halfway through?
--When playing Monopoly, the weaker player can receive $400 instead of $200 when landing on Go. If one player goes bankrupt, continue to play anyway, perhaps for a predetermined time.
--In racing board games like Candyland, set a timer for five minutes. Take turns drawing cards, and either player can take the move depending on who it helps the most (or hurts the least). The game is "won" if both players cross the finish line before the timer goes off.
--When playing Scrabble or similar word games, look up words before placing them on the board. This also emphasizes learning.
--Two people bowl each frame together and share the score. The weaker player rolls the first ball, and the better bowler tries to clean up.
--In a modification of a commonly used system of handicapping in bowling, each player subtracts his score in a test game from 200. He then takes 80% of that figure and adds it to his score in the next game. The less-abled player will start with more free points than his opponent.
--Each bowler can compete against himself, with the winner being the player who improves his or her score the most from one game to the next.
--Play a game of solitaire together, alternating turns playing the cards. If the game "comes out," you're both winners.
--When an adult and child play poker, the younger player is permitted to exchange either four or all five cards, while the adult must exchange no more than one or two cards. You might allow the child several opportunities to exchange cards, until he or she is satisfied with the hand.
Ping-Pong and Tennis
--In Ping-Pong, require the better player to accumulate more points in order to win. For example, the less experienced player need make only 14 points to win, while the other player has to reach the standard 21. Or the better player plays with the "wrong" hand (the left hand for a right-hander) for the number of points by which he or she won a test game. Or draw a box on the floor with chalk and confine the better player to it.
--In tennis, require the
stronger player to hit all balls into the white-outlined box used for serving. Or make it a rule that the better player has to let the ball bounce on his or her side before returning it--that is, no running to the net. Or don't keep score and try to volley as long as possible; for more challenge, keep count or use a stopwatch, and try to beat your record of the previous game.
--Relax rigid rules and let anyone participate. Substitution is allowed at any time. Consider dispensing with scoring altogether. When playing volleyball, for example, the teams play for an agreed-upon time. Try unlimited hits on each side.
--When playing basketball with teams composed of players of unequal abilities, try using rules that don't allow adults or experienced players to handle the basketball in either key (the marked area beneath and in front of the net). The stronger players get two points for a basket, while the younger or weaker players get four points for a basket, three points for a miss that hits the rim and two points for a miss that hits the backboard.
--Always allow a child to choose the category, whether he is guessing or acting out a charade. Also, adults might limit themselves to references that have taken place within the child's lifetime.