Game Review: Ready, SET, go!

It’s a familiar story: you’ve got a board game that your younger child absolutely adores (and wants to play ALL the time), but your older child finds it too simple or too boring, and if you have to play it one more time you’re ready to scream. It can be really tough to find a game that can bridge across ages and cognitive abilities to provide challenge and entertainment for the whole family.

Enter SET. It’s a card game (bonus points for portability!) that has players racing against one another to find sets of visually-related cards. It doesn’t require that players read or have sophisticated mathematical skills (if you can count to three, you’re good), so younger kids aren’t at a disadvantage.  

How to Play 

The game’s manufacturer offers an excellent tutorial and online game here, so I won’t go into a lot of detail. The primary objective of the game is quite simple: find more sets (groups of three cards) than any other player.  Each card is defined by four features: color; number; symbol; shading. A set is a group of three cards in which each feature is either the same on all cards or different on all cards. [It sounds confusing, but it’s really not that hard once you get started.] When a player sees a set, he or she calls out “SET!” and picks up the cards comprising their set. Play ends when the whole deck has been played and no sets remain, and the player with the most sets wins.

Why Play?

Practice Expressive language.

Although SET doesn’t require much language at all (the only time a player really needs to speak is to announce a set when s/he sees one, and even that rule can be modified), any group game is a good chance to elicit speech. With clients on the autism spectrum, we often use games to model and practice friendly competitive banter, such as I won! Good game! Let’s go! At their most simplistic, SET cards allow for the practice of basic conceptual and linguistic terms such as color, number, and shape. Have children verbally label the cards as they pick up a setOne green squiggle. Two purple diamonds. Three red ovals. 


Metacognitive skills, the ability to think about and talk about one’s own thinking, usually begin to emerge in the early school-aged years (though, of course, when exactly this takes place is a topic of much debate among researchers and educators). Metacognition is a critical component of independent learning, since knowing about knowing is important for integrating new information with prior knowledge and for building good study habits.  Encourage metacognition while playing SET by asking the child to think aloud: have him or her walk you through the thought process they’re using as they perform a visual search of the cards to find a set.  

Work on pattern recognition.

The goal of the game is to find the most SETs, based on visual patterns among cards. Players are continuously executing a visual search across the array of cards, looking for items that conform to patterns along the dimensions of color, shape, shading and number. Sometimes, a SET will just pop out*, while other times a lengthier serial search is required. Over time, players can train themselves to become better at recognizing these visual patterns.

Enhance cognitive flexibility.

Players are simultaneously evaluating cards on multiple dimensions. Sometimes, you might determine a set based on every dimension being different across the cards. Other times, a SET might be comprised of three cards that are all the same on each dimension. More complicated still, on a given SET, you might have to assess each dimension independently; for some factors all cards might be the same and on other factors each card might be different. You have to accept that different rules apply throughout the game. Cognitive flexibility is a concept related to executive function, so this game can be a great way to help kids with difficulties in executive function.

You can play quickly between structured activities in a therapy session.

A single round of the game can take mere seconds. Lay out the array, find a set or two, then do a few more minutes of /r/ practice. Repeat.

It will entertain players from 5 to 105.

I began playing SET at the age of seven, and I still have fun with it every time we bring it out, mumblemumble years later. This game has traveled with my family to the beaches of Florida, the California mountains, New York’s Central Park, the Rocky Mountains, and on every single camping trip we’ve taken in the last several years. I guarantee it’ll be enjoyed by grandparents, parents, typically developing kids AND those with special needs. (I promise, I’m not a spokesperson for the manufacturer and am in no way compensated for this review. I just absolutely love SET and hope you’ll find ways to incorporate the game with your family or clients!)

And, of course, there’s an app for that.

~ Melanie

* an actual term in cognitive science


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