How to Play with Kids

How to Play with Kids

How to Play With Kids

Designer Diary by Sandy Petersen

By Sandy Petersen

I’m Sandy Petersen, and I’ve been creating games since 1980. Since 2015 I’ve been publishing board and roleplaying games under the Petersen Games imprimatur. My reputation is of course in games and horror. I’m not famously known as a doting grandfather, but nonetheless I am one. In fact, I have 15 grandkids as of this video, so the family has prospered. Naturally the little ones want to like the same things that Grandpa does, but this poses a challenge.

Most of my games are, frankly, not designed for pre-teens. While I love creatures such as the Magdalene we created for Planet Apocalypse – I don’t want to scare the grandkids with this kind of image!

In addition, most of my games are complex enough that the grandkids can’t fully enjoy them till they are older. Here is an image of my recent Terror Paths game of mine and you can see that it’s quite complex.
With a game such as this, you basically need to explain to an 8-year-old what they can do on their turn, every single turn. This isn’t fun for you, and it’s not fun for the 8-year-old. There’s a reason that kid’s games and kid’s movies exist – because they’re better-suited for a child’s mental and emotional level.

But this puts me in a predicament. My grandkids want to spend time doing what Grandpa does. This means they want to play games. How do I do this with them? You may not be a grandpa, but you may well be a mom or dad or an uncle or an aunt, so you are faced with this same challenge if you want to share your hobbies with children. No, I can’t play Planet Apocalypse or Cthulhu Wars with the little ones, but there are other games.

Part of the problem is that many games normally played by kids are stultifyingly dull for adults. Monopoly, snakes & ladders, Candyland – these are objectively terrible games. For a game fan, it is a tedious chore to break one of these out. Nowadays, we have many games which are both faster to play than the “old standbys” as well as far more fun. So, part of the process is getting games that both you and the children will enjoy.

Fortunately, even if the children want to play one of my own company’s games, I have several which they can handle, particularly with me to guide them. My company produces Marry the Monster, Potions & Profits, 2-minute Dino Deal, Quivit, and Tooth Fairy which can all be played by pre-teens.

Also, since my grandchildren are so keen on games, they can handle games that are a little more complex than the age rating on games might indicate.

For instance, the game 8-Bit Attack is officially for ages 10+, but a few months ago, my 8-year-old grandson asked to play it with me and we did just fine. I even tried to cheat in his favor, so he’d win, but he caught me “making a mistake” and had me correct it.

Yes, I totally fudge results when playing with the kids so they can win more often, at least when they are young. As they get older, I do this less and less, not only because they are likelier to catch me, but also because they are improving. And of course, knowing they beat grandpa, the game expert, is empowering for a tween.

If you’re looking for other games to play with the smaller kids, I suggest some of these. Most are not by Petersen Games. Here’s a few not by my own company which they might enjoy.


  • Monster factory
  • King of Tokyo
  • Rattlebones
  • Zooloretto
  • Pit
  • Bohnanza
  • Clue
  • Hanabi
  • Checkers
There are twelve to start you off. Of course, there are many more – sheriff of Nottingham, Mille Borne, Dragonstones, etc. By the time the kids in question are teenagers, you can pretty much play any game with them assuming they still want to. Here I have an advantage as a grandparent. It’s not always fun to spend an evening with your parents, but it’s always cool to hang out with Grandpa & grandma. Of course, they’re not little clones of you – they’ll have their own likes and dislikes. But you know best how to handle your relatives.

What to Avoid

Even more important than what the kids might like is what to avoid, and here are the general rules

Tedious Games

Kids have shorter attention spans, and games which drone on endlessly are uninteresting. Sadly, some of the so-called classics of gaming fit into this category. Risk and Monopoly, for instance, have no actual end point which of course means they often last past the time when the kids are interested. Also, since the kids are probably not as good at strategizing, they are less able to close the deal and beat you. Which means they generally lose or don’t stand a chance which isn’t as fun.

Early Errors

Some games let you make an early decision that can cripple you for the whole rest of the game.

I love Terra Mystica, but if you place your initial camps poorly as the game starts, it can be hard to catch up. It’s possible to lose Marvel Champions in the very first turn. If you have a game which is sensitive to such an error, it might poison the kids against games. They won’t know what to do in the early game and they may not have the patience or learning capacity to figure it out for the second game. So, choose games which are forgiving.

Complex Iconography

Some games use icons extensively. Examples of such games are Seven Wonders and Terraforming Mars. While these games are also fun, it’s possible that the icons will confuse and bewilder the children or force them to constantly ask you what something means and how to handle it. Again, this is best avoided until the children have a little more games under their belt.

But if you choose games that avoid these problems, and seem like they’d be fun, you can get your kids to think you’re cool way longer than you have any right!

About Sandy Petersen

Sandy got his start in the game industry at Chaosium in 1980, working on tabletop roleplaying games. His best-known work from that time is the cult game Call of Cthulhu, which has been translated into many languages and is still played worldwide.

He also worked on many other published projects, such as Runequest, Stormbringer, Elfquest and even the Ghostbusters RPG, and was instrumental in the creation of dozens of scenario packs and expansions. He also acted as developer on the original Arkham Horror board game. In 2013 he founded Petersen Games which has released a series of highly successful boardgame projects, including The Gods War, Evil High Priest, and the much-admired Cthulhu Wars. His games have sold tens of millions of copies worldwide, and he has received dozens of awards from the game industry.

How to be a Game Designer

How to be a Game Designer

How to be a Game Designer

Designer Diary by Sandy Petersen

By Sandy Petersen

I am a professional game designer. “Professional” in the sense that this is my primary source of income.

Game design is not a fundamental skill of humans. Some of us are better at drawing pictures than others. Some are better at throwing things, or speaking, or math, or communicating with children. Of course, you can get better at any of these tasks with experience and training, but this doesn’t remove the fact that some of us are simply more talented to begin with.

But game design is not just a single talent – it consists of a whole raft of different abilities which must be combined to produce something which is complex – a game. I’ve been told that I’m a pretty good designer. Certainly, I’ve won awards. But the fact is that game design has been my primary job since 1981 – that’s 41 years. This gives me an edge on newer designers. They might be smarter or more talented or more artistic, but at least I have experience on my side.
To succeed at being a game designer you need more than brains. In this article, I single out three personality traits features which I think are useful for a game designer. If you lack one or more of these traits, I’m not saying your design would fail – but you’ll have to work harder in other areas to make a success.

Trait One: Obsession

To design games, you must really, really like games. I design games all day long. Yet my favorite relaxation activity on weekends is (you guessed it) playing games. At family reunions, Uncle Sandy pulls out games or invents games for the extended family to play. When I engage in light conversation with another couple at a restaurant, I talk about games. When I watch a movie, I ponder how some effect or plot point could be modeled in a game. My mind is steeped in games. You might not be as obsessed as me, nor should you be, but to be a designer you do need to love games so much that you frequently deprive yourself of other pleasures to focus on games.

Trait Two: Creativity

I am sure you are thinking “duh”, but there’s more to it. You see, there are lots of ways to be creative. Let me give you an example. I used to work with Greg Stafford, another famous designer sadly now passed away. We were both creative, but in highly different ways. Greg’s creativity stemmed from the root of his subconscious. He could invent things out of whole cloth – this included the entire fantasy universe of Glorantha.

Greg originally invented Glorantha to write fantasy books about, but instead this universe was used for games, comic books, art, etc. Greg was a virtual fount of creation., spewing out interesting concepts almost every day.

I worked closely with Greg, but I am not his kind of creative. Instead, I am a syncretive designer. I pick and take ideas from others, matching these together to make a coherent new whole. In our collaboration, first Greg would come up with some crazy idea. Then I would listen to him, remember some idea he had a year ago on a related topic, and figure out how these both worked together. I also carried things to a logical conclusion, which he often hadn’t considered

As an example, Greg said the Red Moon in Glorantha has phases, just like earth’s moon. But the Red Moon doesn’t move – it always sits in the same place overhead. So, I pondered, “Why would this moon have phases?” In Glorantha, the sun orbits the world in Ptolemaic fashion. There is no outside cosmos. So, what makes the Red Moon change appearance? I conjectured, “perhaps the moon is dying and being reborn. That’s what causes the phases.” Later, I suggested, “perhaps an unknown dark object orbits the moon, casting a shadow on it”. Well, Greg used both those ideas at different times, apparently forgetting which he liked better. Perhaps that ideas could be combined? I wondered – maybe an unknown dark object orbits the moon whose shadow kills the moon as it passes over it, only to revive when it passes.

Greg invented wacky cults and religions all the time. Then I had to transform them into something playable for a game. I was always focused on what is FUN for players. Greg just liked creating new material – in his mind, simply knowing about his world’s depth and features was enjoyable all on its own, and I’m not saying he was wrong. In the end, the combining of his fount of energy and my focus on playability led to some terrific game ideas.

This shows that two extremely different designers could be creative in different ways, and yet forge a coherent and great game universe which lives on. Similarly, you can be creative in more than one way.

Trait Three: Deliver!

Video game players are often stereotyped as bums who can’t move out of mom’s basement, get a date, or get a job. Well of course these people exist. But they’re not designers. Designers are self-starters. You must aggressively pursue your design, or it will never reach fruition. You need confidence in your project. This doesn’t mean you aren’t willing to take feedback.

My career in design was launched with the game Call of Cthulhu. I had done a few small things for Chaosium, but Greg Stafford dropped the entire huge game of Call of Cthulhu in my lap to do all by myself.

Why did Greg do this? At the time I had no idea. Later he told me that it was for three things.

First, I was a huge fan of Lovecraft. I was Obsessed. He didn’t care about Lovecraft himself, but he knew he needed a Lovecraft fan to write the game.

Second, he knew I was creative and could write since I’d already done work that he liked.

But third and most important, I had never missed a deadline. Ever. This meant Greg trusted me. Of these three traits, the most critical was Greg valued the fact that he knew I’d deliver. And this makes sense. Because it doesn’t matter how obsessed or creative you are if your game is never completed, or only completed in a slipshod manner. The world is full of creative, intelligent people with dead-end jobs and no visible future, because they have never learned how to capture their imagination and apply that creativity to a project.

If you have these three traits, you will find it far easier to create a design. You can probably do it if you lack one or more traits, but all the most successful designers I know have these traits.

About Sandy Petersen

Sandy got his start in the game industry at Chaosium in 1980, working on tabletop roleplaying games. His best-known work from that time is the cult game Call of Cthulhu, which has been translated into many languages and is still played worldwide.

He also worked on many other published projects, such as Runequest, Stormbringer, Elfquest and even the Ghostbusters RPG, and was instrumental in the creation of dozens of scenario packs and expansions. He also acted as developer on the original Arkham Horror board game. In 2013 he founded Petersen Games which has released a series of highly successful boardgame projects, including The Gods War, Evil High Priest, and the much-admired Cthulhu Wars. His games have sold tens of millions of copies worldwide, and he has received dozens of awards from the game industry.

Designing my Dream

Designing my Dream

Designing My Dream

Designer Diary by Sandy Petersen: Terror Paths & Invasion of the Brood

By Sandy Petersen

I have a lot of nightmares. This is no doubt at least in part because I watch a lot of horror movies, and read H. P. Lovecraft. Makes sense, no?

Now, when I’m actually experiencing a nightmare, it’s not fun. But when I wake up the next morning – or sometimes in the middle of the night because it was too scary. Or because my wife shook me awake because I was crying out. Well anyway, when I wake up the next morning, I frequently remember the nightmares. And sometimes they are useful to me. Many of the levels I created for Doom and Quake were inspired by an event in a nightmare.

But on rare occasions, an entire creation is based on one of my dreams of nightmares. Let me give you two examples of this.

I have been working on the game Call of Cthulhu: Terror Paths for the last two years. One of the maps in that game is of the Starry Wisdom Chapel, and I’d created three adventures taking place there. I felt I was done with the Chapel for the moment.

But then, a few nights ago, I had a dream in which I and my wife were visiting an old church, and she was kidnapped. In the dream, I had to search the church to find her, and over the course of the dream it morphed from an ordinary nightmare into an overlap with my ongoing work on Terror Paths scenarios. So in the dream, I was not only seeking my wife, but I was also designing the scenario, even remodeling the church to make the search more interesting as a game. For those who are worried, I did eventually find and rescue her in the dream. She was tied up in a secret compartment in the basement.

But when I woke up, I realized that my dream self had created a solitaire adventure for Terror Paths. So that day I started implementing an adventure in which a lone hero seeks a kidnapped wife in the Starry Wisdom chapel. The adventure is not identical to the dream. For one thing, my map of the Starry Wisdom church doesn’t have a basement for her to be imprisoned inside – the map emphasizes the church spire. The dream is a launching point, not a blueprint. When I get stuck I do review the dream to see if there is something else to draw from to stimulate my decision.
But there you have it. I have a whole Terror Paths scenario, and lo and behold it came from a dream.

In the spring of 2019, I had a dream in which I was designing a two player game about an alien invasion of Earth. This was not like any other game I’d designed. In the dream, the alien was one of my oldest creations – the Broodmaster – an alien I invented when I was only 13 years old. In this game,
the Broodmaster life-cycle is represented, as well as
diplomacy between human nations,
various human military units
and of course a map of earth.
All of these features were in the final game, and they all came from my dream. Obviously, lots of small bits of the game were skipped over in the dream, and I had to create these in my waking hours. Plus playtest the game, write a rulebook, and so forth. But still, this was an almost unique experience for me. I have no idea how such a complete game outline came to me over the course of a single dream, which probably only lasted 30-40 minutes tops. When I’m trying to figure out a new game the normal way it takes days or weeks or even months to get it worked out in anywhere near this kind of detail. I guess I’m way smarter when I’m asleep.
So … I guess I’ll go take a nap now.
Meet the Investigator: Julia Carter

Meet the Investigator: Julia Carter

Dear Stout Investigators,

I have another sneak peek into Terror Paths, my upcoming cooperative Call of Cthulhu board game. Meet Investigator Julia Carter, who is one tough cookie!


Meet the Investigator: Julia Carter

Julia is smart, self-confident, and strong-willed. The latter has especially proved handy with the threats she faces.

Though she did not choose the path of the Lovecraftian Investigator, she is dedicated body and soul to it now, regardless of the consequences.

Sand Dwellers – My Least Favorite Monster

Sand Dwellers – My Least Favorite Monster

Sand Dwellers – My Least Favorite Monster

Designer Diary by Sandy Petersen: Skin Deep

By Sandy Petersen

A question I get a lot in interviews is “Which Lovecraft monster is your favorite?” but something I am never asked is “Which monster is your least favorite?” If I was asked this, I would unhesitating have answered “Sand Dwellers” at least, until last year, when I designed the new Cthulhu Mythos Saga Skin Deep which features them. But why do this? Let’s examine.

Now very little is known about these obscure creatures. They first showed up in “The Gable Window” by August Derleth. So Derleth gets 100% of the credit … and the blame … for the Sand Dwellers. They’re not even the story’s main threat. Instead, the hero has a magic window. In one scene, he sees the American Southwest. Some creatures, identified as Sand Dwellers, emerge from a cave. These are emaciated humanoids, with gritty, sand-like skin, huge claws, and koala-like heads. I have to say that the koala bear head was a sticking point for me. While I don’t think koalas are super cutesie they are certainly not frightening. This is a good example of why August Derleth is weaker in horror than Lovecraft. When Lovecraft invents something, it’s terrifying in concept. When Derleth invents something, it is lacking. Anyway, as the Sand Dwellers scuttle forward, tentacles start to emerge from the cave, and then the hero gets scared and shuts off the gable window, which works like a TV set.

What do we get from this?

The Sand Dwellers live in the American Southwest.

The Sand Dwellers seem to be nocturnal and subterranean — they are seen exiting a cave at dusk.

The Sand Dwellers seem willing to work with other beings as witness the unseen tentacled critter.

Really my problem with Sand Dwellers is that they seemed really boring — just skinny little servant critters from the desert. Maybe Derleth thought that the ocean had Deep Ones, the arctic had Wendigoes, and outer space had Byakhees, so he needed a desert monster for completeness. But he didn’t add anything interesting about them.

In 1998, Adam Niswander wrote a horror novel titled “The Sand Dwellers”. It is mostly psychological horror, and the actual Sand Dwellers don’t make much of an appearance, though perhaps their psychic energy is being applied. Mr. Niswander doesn’t use much of Derleth’s version — probably because Derleth didn’t give him much.
My opinion of Sand Dwellers was so low that one year, when we ran out of candy o Halloween, I gave trick-or-treaters vintage Grenadier models of Sand Dwellers. So there you are. I had such little regard for these creatures that I gave them away to children I didn’t even know.

Move ahead to current times. I am proud of the fact that I have now produced miniatures of practically every Lovecraft monster. I have minis for the King in Yellow, Gnoph-Kehs, Serpent-Men, Azathoth, Dholes, Bholes, and Rhan-Tegoth. I have some really obscure ones such as the sorcerers of Yaddith and Robert Bloch’s Dark Demon form of Nyarlathotep. I also have many of Ramsey Campbell’s inventions such as Daoloth, Eihort, and the insects from Shaggai. The most important missing creatures are Brian Lumley’s creations. Mr. Lumley declined to sell us the rights, and I respect his decision. I suspect he bears some ill-will from the 1980s when Chaosium ignorantly published his creatures without permission, and who can blame him?

But one figure I have not produced are the Sand Dwellers. They’re not in my Petersen’s Field Guide (1987). They’re not in the huge panoply of Cthulhu Wars. And they’re not in Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos for 5e Fantasy.

Last year I started brooding on this. Not because I felt I owed anything to the Sand Dwellers, but it seemed an interesting intellectual exercise to make Sand Dwellers scary. I dedicated myself for a few weeks to concentrate on Sand Dwellers, and the purpose of this Designer Diary is to discuss the choices I made to accomplish this task. Basically I had to create a biology and culture for these beings, plus fit the limited background we do have. I feel I succeeded. They match everything already known about them, but are now far more interesting as a monster.

Sandy Tries to Make Sand Dwellers Scary

My ultimate goal was to incorporate Sand Dwellers into one of my Cthulhu Mythos Sagas for 5e. So I considered first, the fact that they appear in the American Southwest, which is an extremely well-traversed area. You’d think someone would have encountered them. Deep Ones live under the sea. Gnoph-kehs on the Greenland ice. But I’ve driven through the Sonoran desert scores of times. Why don’t I see Sand Dwellers? (Besides the fact they don’t exist.)

My first decision was “What if Sand Dwellers don’t live in the Southwest?” What if instead, they live on another plane of existence, but can sometimes travel to ours. I don’t want to make them just another dimensional wanderer so I posit that this is done with difficulty. In this interpretation the “Gable Window” hero sees them coming out of a cave because that’s where there was a portal. Perhaps the tentacle monster following them helped create the portal. I gave their plane of origin a name — the Violet Dimension.
To give them goals and challenges, I decreed that Sand Dwellers can return to the Violet Dimension at any time, perhaps automatically when they die, thus leaving no trace behind. But they can’t leave the Violet Dimension except via a magic means. This explains why the creatures are rarely seen. And why when they commit an outrage, they can escape, leaving no trace.

Now Niswander’s novel indicates that the Sand Dwellers can affect human minds. I like this because of course it is scary. But I want them to do it with a purpose. As I pondered this I also thought about their described body-form — extremely thin, weird crusty skin, and odd heads. They are surprisingly humanoid for a Lovecraftian monster, most of which are based on invertebrates or even plants. When a monster resembles people in Lovecraft, it’s for a reason. Deep Ones resemble humans so they can mate with us. Ghouls resemble us because they are derived from us. So the Sand Dwellers must also have a connection. Then it came to me.

What if the sand dwellers literally emerge from us? In other words, the Sand Dweller gestate inside a human host, using the host’s body as a sort of cocoon. The Sand Dweller flesh grows around our bones. When they are “ripe”, they emerge. Thus, they are emaciated-looking — they must be narrower than a human to use us to pupate.

How does a Sand Dweller get into a human? It’s simple — psychic invasion, The Sand Dweller send its mind from the Violet Dimension to begin a takeover. The mixture of Sand Dweller and human mind makes the human seemingly insane. My theory is that the human seems normal externally, but inside, the monster’s blood lust basically turns the human into a serial killer. Or perhaps Sand Dwellers target serial killers. Anyway, my Cthulhu Mythos Saga, named Skin Deep, starts out about a serial killer.

As the human host commits more murders, the Sand Dweller grows stronger. Eventually it seizes full control, and only uses the human as a shell. But that human flesh must soon die and begin to rot; when the Sand Dweller has to cut its way out.

So now we have creatures that slowly turn humans into maniacs, but eventually emerge into our world. What else? Remember the big tentacle monster from “The Gable Window”? This creature didn’t necessarily seem like a Great Old One, but it was certainly a formidable entity. I think the logical answer is that the Sand Dwellers adopt powerful creatures as protectors. I’d guess dangerous, but second-tier beings such as Bokrug, Byatis, a Ratbatspider, or a really big Shoggoth. A being weak enough to appreciate the patronage, yet an effective defender.

So there we have the Sand Dwellers as I see them. They seep into you from Outside and replace you with horror beyond imagination. Once enough have arrived, they bring in even more fearsome beings to accompany them. Our only hope is that, eventually, they will leave without a trace.