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Is there a standard formula or procedure for determining suggested (or minimum) age requirements for games? Or do a few game designers just sit around and discuss for a few minutes and then just come up with a best guess? What criteria are used, if any?

I ask because we (my Wife and I and son who just turned 7) can't make sense of the age recommendations for some games. The latest was Pandemic, which my son bought with his own money. Required age? 13+. Neither the rules nor the strategy are all that hard. I played a vastly more complicated game (both rules and strategy) as a teenager, Squad Leader, whose recommended age was about the same: 14+. Meanwhile, Rat-a-tat Cat has a suggested minimum age of 6+. Though the graphics of this last game are clearly aimed for kids, the strategy is sophisticated (think of it as a starter game for poker) and the rules have enough nuance that we kept finding new ways we hadn't got the rules right until the 4th read (though perhaps this could be attributed to poorly written rules).

I would especially love to see answers from professional game designers or people who have discussed this issue with game designers but if none are available I'm happy to hear from game enthusiasts who have thought about this.

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Regarding Pandemic, the rules and strategy may be simple enough, but those little cubes also look mighty easy to swallow. Do you know what'll happen if a 7-year old swallows one? I sure don't. –  goldPseudo Mar 24 '12 at 18:30
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up vote 8 down vote accepted

Fundamentally, there are three factors to consider:

  1. Reading level required to read the rules.
  2. Thematic & graphical content.
  3. Difficulty of play.

All three are highly subjective, and vary widely by nation, but the least so is reading level.

There are good algorithms for reading level calculation used in education; they generally hold up well. They include specific vocabulary lists, particular sentence structure hierarchies, and subject matter hierarchies. The average high school textbook, for example is usually written to a 6th or 7th grade reading level, as that makes it more inclusive. (It also renders it boring as hell to those with more advanced reading levels.) For American Standard English, MS Word has an evaluator.

Thematic content is much harder, but generally, the 12+ label is for games with no commonly objectionable material. 15+ is usually material that, if in films, might qualify for the PG13 or NC17 ratings now (the old R rating, back in the day). 18+ is used for anything explicitly sexual, and is the only "objective" requirement one - sexual images ("Pornography") are ages 18+ by law.

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Can you clarify whether this is personal reflection or whether this comes from being (or talking to) a game designer? Also - about reading: My 7 year old son just a few weeks ago started reading at a level where it would be useful in games. Yet for 2 years he has played games (and well) that require reading (i.e. Settlers of Catan: Development Cards). He memorizes the way written cards look. Perhaps a game recommendation of 12+ (which is Settlers) really means that at least one person playing must be 12 or over in order to be able to read, understand, and explain the rules? –  Joe Golton Mar 23 '12 at 19:06
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Details about Settlers of Catan: He started playing shortly after turning 5 but I said we couldn't do the full rules with development cards until he could read. He insisted on doing it anyway around the time he turned 6 and after 1-2 games memorized what all the development cards did, without ever reading them. He remembered which picture did what, and just needed to be explained the rules at most two times for each card. Granted not many kids are such enthusiastic gamers. But I use this to illustrate that reading is not that important for many games, so long as someone is willing to teach. –  Joe Golton Mar 23 '12 at 19:12
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I think the problem is that you are misinterpreting "suggested age" as "age requirement". The suggested age implies that anyone who has reached that age can handle it. Whether kids that haven't reached that age can play it or not is very dependent on the child. Its very typical for kids that do a lot of gaming to play games with a much higher suggested age. –  bwarner Mar 23 '12 at 21:30
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I would add that just because something isn't too complicated or objectionable for young children doesn't mean that they'll actually enjoy playing it (whereas older children or adults would enjoy it). Suggested age is as much about who the game is targetted toward as it is about whether or not it's "appropriate" or who can handle it. –  goldPseudo Mar 24 '12 at 0:30
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@joe being an educator working in elementary ed, player of many boardgames, and an amateur game designer. (My released boardgame designs are a campaign supplement to Slag!, and a Hanafuda retheme.) –  aramis Mar 24 '12 at 2:40
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According to this and this, the government has a role in labeling of products that can be used by children, and that 13 is the youngest recommended age you can put without doing additional testing (though sometimes even that is not sufficient). The lower the age, the more robust the testing required, particularly for things recommended under age 3. The rules were different when Squad Leader came out, which could be why it says 14+.

The general rule of thumb in the industry seems to be to put the highest age you can that you don't think will adversely impact your marketing. For Pandemic, this is pure speculation, but if it were me, I would assume that any parent who's OK buying a game for their family in which you can lose and the world's population will succumb to disease either knows their children well enough to know if they can handle it or doesn't really care about theme in games (either way, 13+ probably wouldn't scare them either). Gamewright's core demographic is parents of young children, and they're sold in more mainstream stores than Z-Man Games (generally speaking), so it would make sense that they'd want Rat-A-Tat-Cat to be listed as young as reasonably possible to actually play the game, even if they aren't getting the most out of it.

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Sorry, had to downvote due to the lack of sourcing, but I can easily switch that if this can be backed up. –  Pat Ludwig Mar 24 '12 at 4:23
    
@PatLudwig I can't find the article, and have no idea how to search for it; if you have query suggestions that won't return every product with a suggested age, I'll be happy to try it. Meanwhile, ASTM F963 has to be purchased, so I can't verify the contents of that, either. I guess the downvote will have to stand unless I can find that site again. I understand your position, though if I was more concerned about reputation than helping the OP, I wouldn't post things when I don't have the source handy, and I don't know that that's a helpful policy on a board game site (i.e., not a hard science). –  VolcanoLotus Mar 24 '12 at 16:01
    
@PatLudwig Sorry; thought of a query, found the site, fixed. I still think perhaps the attribution thing is worth discussing, but maybe not here; I'll open something on meta. –  VolcanoLotus Mar 24 '12 at 16:05
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The actual US legislation can be found at cpsc.gov/about/cpsia/legislation.html . In particular it mandates testing for choking hazards and toxicity and the like for "Children's Products" (i.e., products designed and marketed for children 12 years or younger). –  goldPseudo Mar 24 '12 at 18:35
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