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A favorite game at Play Play Learn, Max is a game with depth well beyond is humble exterior. Jim Deacove, a master of cooperative board games for young children, didn’t pull any punches in creating a game about the daily struggle of backyard animals being chased (and sometimes caught and killed) by cats. The circle of life in Max, presented in all of its stark, sudden-death, no second chances glory, brings a realness to this game for three year olds. This is play with emotional connections and real chances for failure…and that is a good thing. Many games for young children try to cushion failures. Get caught? Oh no, you have to go back to the beginning or lose a turn. Get caught in Max, and the animal is removed.

With real risk comes real opportunities for meaningful decisions. Max requires thought and risk assessment of very young players. Adult co-players can encourage players to pause and discuss the situation before taking their turn. Each turn, players roll two dice. The dice have even numbers of faces with green dots and black dots. Green dots let players move animals while black dots move Max the cat. With a roll showing two green dots, players can move a single animal two spaces, or two animals one space each; two black rolls and Max moves two spaces. This becomes quite important as their are shortcut paths through the yard; one for each animal that only that animal can take. Max can sniff out the paths and follow any of them, but only if he lands on the space. If he is moving forward from a two black dot roll, he will miss the scent. So players have to think about the chances of Max moving one or two spaces, hitting or missing a path, and catching an animal. It is too easy, for example, to move an animal down their path and then forget about them as they appear to be further ahead and out of risk. A couple of black dot rolls later and Max is pouncing on the animal while the other animals further back on the trail, but away from the secret path, are now caught behind Max.

Don’t despair, or at least not while there are still treats left on the porch to call Max back. With even numbers of green and black dots on the dice, Max moves quite quickly and the level of tension is maintained at a high level throughout the game. If Max gets too close, though, a player can give up their turn rolling the dice to call Max back to the porch with a treat. This action taken for the good of all is quite a difficult decision for some young children who are more focused on the personal pleasure of rolling the dice. A game that teaches altruism?

To truly demonstrate the power of this cooperative game and why we feel that it is the ultimate expression of the form, try playing this with adults as a competitive game. Let me stress, this is not suitable for children as it tends to bring out rather ugly, selfish, uncaring aspects in players. When the chipmunk player’s token is cowering before Max and they are left begging the mouse player to call Max back to save them from certain doom…in a competitive game, what incentive is there for the mouse player to help the chipmunk? Let the chipmunk die, everyone for themselves. Until Max finds a path and mouse is under threat. But then hard feelings take over and the chipmunk player laughs as the mouse is… As you can see, not child appropriate, but a powerful opportunity to see why cooperative games are so special in their design.