In my geeky neck of the woods, Halo Megablocs are a bit of a curse.
Oh, they are lovely toys! The mini-action figures are robust, the equipment and vehicles lovingly follows the original designs. (The company is also really good about sending out replacement parts, by the way.) Armed with a couple of boxes of the stuff, kids — mostly boys, in my experience, but your mileage may vary — can capture the atmosphere of the original video game series.
And there-in lies the problem.
Halo video games normally rate around 16+ for violence. However, the shear fact of the existence of a Lego-like tie-in range is a dead giveaway that they’re played by much younger kids. My son ‘Kurtzhau’ has been playing it since he was 8 — we had some great father-son split screen sessions, hunting aliens together, but my original intent was just to expand his MilSF slot to include more than just Clone Wars.
Now he’s 12, it’s lovely watching him teach his 8-year-old little sister ‘Morgenstern’ how to play. And most of her male classmates who have an Xbox have the game, so this lets her play with the boys —
— and why not? Halo has a wonderful imaginative genuine SF setting, fantastic music, immersive artwork, and though there’s violence, it’s not particularly graphic and has unpleasant consequences. In the single player missions, there’s even sophisticated tragedy of war and dodgy politics threads. In the arena modes, you get a chance to use teamwork to beat the opposition.
The snag is that the grit and grim of the franchise is attractive because it feels adult, which means the kids quickly grow out of the Mega Bloks toys…
What happens is that Halo really takes over around about that age where children are starting to focus on growing up, and phasing out imaginative play with toys. It also arrives around about the time that they are hard to buy for but benefit from bigger budgets, and when relatives are squeamish about forking out for 16+ video games!
The end result is they get metric tonnes of Halo Megablocs for Christmas and birthdays.
So from 8-9 they get some happy hours of make believe with the sets. From 9-10 they enjoy building the awesome vehicles from the series… but increasingly the end results just kind of sit there gathering dust.
By the time they’re 11, Game Over!
Now what do they do with all those 100s of dollars/pounds worth of jumbled up plastic?
Sure they can hand it on or eBay it, but it feels like a bit of a waste, and — actually — I think it’s a lost opportunity.
The solution is to introduce them to something else to bridge the gap between childhood and teenage, perhaps even something that will have greater longevity even that that.
Just what to introduce?
That depends on the child, and how much time you personally have to invest. However, whatever it is, you need to try it out on them about now to avoid taking an expensive risk at Christmas, potentially made memorable by “Mom/Dad/Uncle/Aunty/Gran/Gramps buying stupid nerd stuff.”
Here are some things that worked for us, or which I wish we’d thought of…
I’ve already talked about this on Black Gate.
If you have a local gaming shop, or know older players, now is the time to introduce your child. I know 8-year-old kids who love spending hours just building and painting the figures. They don’t game yet, really, but when they do that effort and money will have set them up to join in with a vengeance.
My son pretty much organises weekend gaming conventions in his bedroom.
If the figures and books seem expensive, compare to the price of console games and ask yourself whether you’d prefer your kid to spend weekends sitting infront of a screen or standing round a table with friends…
X-Wing tabletop game
Yes, I know, wrong franchise!
However, this is the gritty military corner of the Star Wars universe, and scratches a lot of the same itches that Halo does.
The miniatures are beautiful and worth collecting in their own right.
The rules are elegant and easy to master, combining something like trading cards with pre-cut templates, and generate crazy dogfights that have the frenetic feel of the movies. There’s already an adult tournament scene for this game — this isn’t just for kids! — however, a couple of 9-year-olds can manage to play on their own without adult intervention.
We’ve all had great fun with this game.
Even the starter sets provide hours of play — so it won’t cost much to test the waters. There’s always room for more craft and more cards. That means that if your kid gets hooked, they will be very easy to buy for.
Spartan’s Halo Fleet Battles/Halo Ground Command
This is the right franchise, but I listed it third because these are both more grown-up games requiring a bit of adult help to get started, and substantial adult input to the building and painting of the figures.
However, the real bonus is that you can integrate it with the forthcoming Halo Ground Command game, which promises to be as easy-to-play as Spartan’s non-franchise SF ground combat offering, Planetfall. This will provide an excuse to collect and paint all the familiar combatants and, rather than ending up with some toys they grew out of, your kid will be building up armies they can use through teenage and into adulthood.
15mm Science Fiction Miniatures (and Gaming)
Now we’re into much cheaper and more “indy” territory.
Rummage through the Internet and you’ll find several manufacturers of 15mm SF miniatures — the one we use is 15mm.co.uk. This kind of figure is generally “not recommended for children under 14”. However, this is usually because the figures are metal and require some preparation, rather than because of toxic materials (though please check for yourself). And that means parental involvement!
There are major advantages with this kind of figure.
For a start, the scale is pretty easy to paint — base on a coin, undercoat, details, wash, dry brush, varnish; the instructions are all over the Internet. You can spend a rainy afternoon bonding with your child and end up with dozens of painted figures.
They are also cheap — costing around 50p each — and don’t take up much space, meaning you can set up impressive battles on something as small as a coffee table.
Finally, because they are not tied to a franchise, there is no limit to the creativity of the makers. (If you look around, you’ll also find ranges of figures strangely reminiscent of well know TV shows…)
Of course, the real advantage of these figures over Mega Bloks is that you can game with them. You can buy the classic tabletop rule sets such as Laserburn, or go for the simple but effective free FUBAR SciFi rules… actually, these last should be a good place to start for just trying out the concept. You can even use Mega Bloks figures…
Science Fiction Roleplaying
I’ve saved this one for last because of all the options, it requires the most routine parental involvement… essentially you need to GM and you need to do it fairly regularly or else risk your child and their friends from dis-investing in the hobby.
It is, in fact, pretty easy to get kids of 8+ to roleplay. TV shows like Adventure Time and Clone Wars have already primed them for the kind of genre caper that this kind of gaming best supports. (There are challenges specific to gaming with kids, but deserves a different blog entry.)
Games I know work with kids include FATE Diaspora (We’ve had hours of fun just designing planets, and we used to use little Lego spaceships for the space combat system), OneDice Universal (a game so simple that my daughter plans to GM it) , and I Love the Corps (forthcoming but promising, Kurtzhau and I both played it at a con and were impressed).
They are all an excuse to collect and paint miniatures — you can usually use the 15mm ones I was just talking about — and acquire rule-books, so provide a few present options with more longevity than plastic toys.
* * *
Of course, it’s not either/or. A 10 year old child’s bedroom often looks as if it’s being shared by an 8 year old and a 15-year old.
Kids run child and teen in parallel for years, so you end up supporting both.
However, if you starting buying for the future teen now, you can have a lot of geeky fun together right away, and equip your child to enter the wider — OK, geeky — adult world as they grow up.
M Harold Page is the Scottish author of works such as Swords vs Tanks (Charles Stross: “Holy ****!”). For his take on writing, read Storyteller Tools: Outline from vision to finished novel without losing the magic. (Ken MacLeod: “…very useful in getting from ideas etc to plot and story.” Hannu Rajaniemi: “…find myself to coming back to [this] book in the early stages.”)