BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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Work and Play: London Educational Games Meetup

Last week I went along to the London Educational Games Meetup, and the event proved engaging, enlightening and thoroughly worth the train fare, so thanks must first go to organiser Kirsten Campbell-Howes. Props are also due to the good people at My Note Games who sponsored the event, and oiled its proverbial wheels, by supplying wine and beer.

There were around 50 people at the get-together, primarily computer game makers and educationalists — although I am not sure that those terms really do justice to the breadth of skills and backgrounds in the room — and Kirsten had found some great speakers to entertain us.

First up was Phil Stuart from the game studio Preloaded, who gave a presentation based on his post on the studio’s blog: Games that are ‘about’ something. If you want a primer on the studio’s work, their approach to game creation and the meat of his talk, go check out the blog post! Phil spoke about some of the studio’s work in term of four game ‘shapes’ — abstraction, metaphor, simulation and narrative — and gave examples of each. He also introduced their latest game, a commission for Channel 4 called The End, which is a game aimed at 14–19-year-olds designed to engage with some of the moral and philosophical aspects of death and mortality. Quite a heady mixture, and hardly obvious territory for self-identified ‘casual’ game makers.

Preloaded: The End - Death Dial

Phil’s talk was excellent and debate-worthy and it was great to see examples of the studio’s work explained in terms of their pedagogical intent. Phil’s blog post begins by stating that Preloaded “make fun games, with a purpose” and in his talk Phil spoke about how getting the balance right between the two — between fun and purpose — is (not surprisingly) a tricky business. The studio begins by interrogating and understanding the education goals and content of each commission, and then works out from that point to create a learning experience that can be delivered in the form of a game.

The (open) question — and I sincerely hope that I am neither misrepresenting the tenet of Phil’s presentation nor the reaction of the audience — is how overt those educational goals can be before you start to lose the fun, and commensurately how effective they are if their purpose is too well hidden? When does play become work? When does a game become a test? 

I shall leave those questions as open as I found them for now, because next up was primary school teacher, mother, gamer, geek and all-round educational evangelist Dawn Hallybone, who spoke with enough enthusiasm to fill a very large assembly hall about her experience of using computer games in the classroom. What I thought was striking about Dawn’s presentation was her seemingly heretical (in the circumstances) rejection of so-called ‘educational games’, or at least her observation that her own students often rejected games that were too obvious or preachy about their educational content.

Dawn, in contrast, makes creative and inspiring use of computer games as diverse as Mario Cart and Myst as a launchpad for all sorts of curriculum-driven outcomes that her (very lucky) primary students clearly have a great time engaging with.

Computer Games: Mario Cart, Myst

To hear Phil and Dawn speak, one after the other, was fascinating. They stand at different points on exactly the same path. You might say that Phil (to borrow his own phrase) makes games with a purpose, and that Dawn (to paraphrase) uses games for a purpose. That shared purpose is indeed education, but I am left wondering whether the games in either case should really be called ‘educational games’ — and (importantly) I don’t think that either Phil or Dawn did so!

Are we not learning something every time we play? Are not all games inherently educational?

I’m not saying don’t make ‘educational’ games, nor that games can’t encapsulate and deliver deliberately ‘educational’ goals; I’m just wondering aloud whether labelling any such experience as as ‘educational game’ might be counter-productive. The language seems to carve off some games at the expense of others, instantly valuing (or devaluing) one apparent class of game against another.

Both Phil and Dawn spoke eloquently about the value of games within education — and more power to their collective elbows! But it seemed to me that there was a palpable tension between their approaches that the evening left unresolved. If all games teach, then how and why do some games designed to teach succeed and others fail, either as games or as educational tools? How similar or distinct are the essential natures of learning and play? And is an ‘educational game’ a tautology, or a contradiction in terms?

I don’t know. I’m still learning.

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Consider Her Ways: Evelyn Marjorie Adams, 92, Queen of TransAmerica!

Evelyn Marjorie Adams, Queen of TransAmerica

This post also appears on my BoardGameGeek blog.

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SPIEL 2011: In Pictures

SPIEL 2011

We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us: the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero path…

Joseph Campbell

This year was my first-ever Essen, and as a true SPIEL neophyte I was fortunate to have the guidance and wise counsel of John Yianni and Rob Harris. Without them I might still be lost in the abysmal depths of Hall 8 — which, I maintain, wasn’t even there for the first two days, since only that can truly explain its surprising discovery on day three! The SPIEL halls did seem to bend both space and time, and even after four days there was so much left unseen and undone. Here’s to SPIEL 2012!

SPIEL 2011: Heidelberger

Pile ’Em High: Rob introduced me to the wonders of the Heidelberger stand, and we gamely joined the procession of people circulating amongst the jumble of boxes, all looking for that elusive bargain. And we made sure to go back every day, just in case!

SPIEL 2011: 7 Wonders

7 Wonders: Something, surely, that the world needs more of — giant card games!

SPIEL 2011: Dominion

Dominion: Things seemed to be getting pretty tense down at (what appeared to be) the Dominion tournament. And it looked like these two brave ‘Dominioneers’ were the last men standing. Not that we waited to see the victor crowned; it would have been just too thrilling to witness!

SPIEL 2011: Sidibaba

The Unknown Labyrinth: After a whole day not actually playing any games, this was our first: Sidibaba. It felt like an old-school computer game realised in cardboard, and the combination of cooperative play, a ticking clock and the true sense of being lost in a maze meant we all really enjoyed it. This game also marked the beginning of John’s seemingly effortless winning streak, that continued for pretty much the whole fair.

SPIEL 2011: Sidibaba

The Labyrinth Revealed: In the cold light of day the geography looks rather less impossible than it felt from the inside. The tricky crossroads was a source of repeat confusion, as was the sneakily placed rockfall, which was only one of the weapons in the ‘dungeon masters’ arsenal. We did get out, just in time, but the Hurrican employee was being awfully nice to us!

SPIEL 2011: Dinner

“Brett”, “Britt”, “Brett”, “Britt”: We joined Alex and crew from Productief and their friends from The Game Master for dinner at a local hostelry. More drinks, please, barkeep!

SPIEL 2011: Panic Station

Don’t Panic!: Our first game of day two was Panic Station, which had been getting quite a lot of buzz (we had wanted to play Village, but that’s another story!). In the end we dispatched the enemy with relative ease, slowed only by some misplaced paranoia! I was pretty sure about the culprit from minute one; Rob thought it was me — the cheek!

SPIEL 2011: Lancaster

A Vote of No Confidence: Day two passed in a blur (and with little photographic evidence) but we did get in a game of Lancaster at the Queen Games booth towards the end of the day. I felt the game punished me (rightly) for a few poorly made decisions at the beginning, and I never did get the hang of the voting (which, by the end, I was actively beginning to hate), but the others all seemed to enjoy it, so don’t listen to me griping on about it.

SPIEL 2011: Gold!

A Little Nugget: Back at base camp, John, Rob and I tried a hand of Michael Schacht’s Gold! (a bargain at €4 from the good folks at Burley Games!). This is a twisty little card game for 2 or 3 players in which, interestingly, all cards in play at any time are face-up on the table. We all enjoyed it (did John win again?) and retired earlier than the night before, ready to face day three!

SPIEL 2011: Flash Point

Those Cats Won’t Save Themselves: We were through the doors earlier than the majority of the crowd, but still not early enough to catch a free table for Village. However, directly across from the Eggertspiele stand was Flash Point, another game getting good buzz, even though our expectations were middling. However, this turned out to be a great cooperative game with a really strong sense of actually doing what the game is about: rescuing hapless victims (including cowering cats!) from a burning building, all the while with the risk of the building collapsing and the team failing. We beat the game, but were only playing the ‘family’ version, so our victory was nothing to feel too triumphant about.

SPIEL 2011: Jurassik

Dig for Victory!: Rob and I tried out a quick round of Jurassik at the Ilopeli booth. Colourful and nicely produced, if feather-light, but I liked how the cards were progressively ‘dug up’ which added a little tactics.

SPIEL 2011: On The Cards

Bleasdale’s Better Half: Over at the bustling Surprised Stare Games booth both Tony Boydell’s Paperclip Railways and Sebastian Bleasdale’s On The Cards were attracting the right sort of interest. We sat down for a quick round of the latter, as ably and enthusiastically demoed by Caroline (immortalised in the excellent box illustration as Mrs Spade!).


Timing Is Everything: The good folks at DGT were showing off the intriguing Cube and Pyramid game timers. John stopped for a chat; I got a free Pyramid (for which I am very grateful).

SPIEL 2011: Fairplay

All’s Fair: By this point in the proceedings, the Fairplay rankings were beginning to settle down, although The City (of which, more later) was still inexplicably up there at No 9. Compared to the Geekbuzz list, these rankings seemed more stable and more meaningful, and both Tournay and Trajan had good word-of-mouth throughout the fair.

SPIEL 2011: Ravensburger

Standing Room Only: Saturday was the busiest day, which led to some tight squeezes at times, but Essen stalwarts suggested it was not quite as busy as previous years. There were certainly lots of families and children, but almost every demographic was well represented. Where in Britain would you see four teenage girls sitting on the floor to play Dominion?

SPIEL 2011: Spiele Offensive

Not Waving But Drowning?: The bargains on offer were, at times, spectacular, at least to my dark-adapted British gaze. It was a constant scrum at the Spiele-Offensive stand, and I had to repeatedly resist temptation, but the Essen-mania was beginning to take hold within me…

SPIEL 2011: Wiraqocha

It’s a Jungle: It was starting to become difficult to take in any more information, so although this chap on the Sit Down! stand tried very hard to explain Wiraqocha to us, I’m not sure now that I really understood a word of it. Lovely artwork though, and some nice dice play (I think).

SPIEL 2011: The City

A Nice Sit Down (But No Cup of Tea): At the large Amigo stand we found a table (huzzah!) and were keen to try out The City. The game takes one part of the successful Race for the Galaxy, and (apparently) tries to condense it for a family audience, but the distillation process has been so severe that there is hardly anything left. It felt completely ruled by the luck of the draw and had an obvious runaway leader problem. And yet there was all this tedious and repeated bookkeeping to do, no interaction, and no sense of building anything, let alone a city. Nil points.

SPIEL 2011: 23

A Reversal of Fortune: Luckily, the next Amigo game we tried was 23, which is reminiscent of the excellent No Thanks!, but does something interesting and new. Its workings were a little opaque at first, but I think there would be lots to enjoy with repeated plays. It’s not as elegant as No Thanks! — which really is a thing of beauty — but it was certainly a blessed relief from the formless morass of The City.

SPIEL 2011: King of Tokyo

RAWR!: John broke out his new copy of King of Tokyo in the evening and we all thoroughly enjoyed it. The game has great artwork and production values, a fun mix of dice play, power-ups and push your luck — and the phrase “slap the Meka Dragon” will live in infamy.

SPIEL 2011: Fortuna

All Roads: We elbowed our way into the halls as early as we could manage on day four, so that we could guarantee a free table to play Fortuna The core action-card-swapping mechanic was clever and interesting, and we enjoyed our game. However, a clear-headed rereading of the rules reveals we made several key errors (I benefited far too much from my early wedding, for example!) and even misread how the scoring worked (although I actually rather liked our misreading!).

SPIEL 2011: Sticky Stickz
SPIEL 2011: Sticky Stickz

Best Till Last?: Here’s what you need to know: Sticky Stickz, presented on the Korean stand by publisher Happy Baobab, is unalloyed joy, which had deservedly sold out by the time we discovered it on day four. It is an example of the grail of games: a great idea brilliantly executed. We laughed our heads off (and, I think, screamed a little too) while playing, and probably caused a bit of a ruckus, and what better endorsement for any game could there be?

SPIEL 2011: Rich Assets

Triangulation: Next up at the Korean stand was Rich Assets (sorry, no link), a (sort of) triangular take on the classic game Acquire. It looked more interesting than it turned out to be, but we were only playing the base game, which was tile-placement without the bells and whistles.

SPIEL 2011: Dormory

Dominos + Memory = Domory: Domory is the brainchild of Silke Kegeler (pictured), who was at Essen to show off her fascinating and colourful 3D game, although it seemed just as much a work of art or visual design, so perhaps the word ‘game’ doesn’t do it justice.

SPIEL 2011: Wakefield Carter

Rome Demands Coffee!: Over at the Cambridge Games Factory stand, Wakefield Carter was showing off samples of, amongst other things, the ‘black box’ edition of Glory to Rome.

SPIEL 2011: Vanuatu

No Man Is An Island: Another game that was getting a lot of buzz was Vanuatu, and we stopped by the stand to get an explanation, I believe from the designer himself (may be wrong on that). Now, I really was starting to lose a degree of intellectual grip, so the game made little sense to me (to be completely fair, I did wander off!), but reports are good.

SPIEL 2011: Cargo Noir

Of Smugglers and Coves: Our last game was a quickly snatched play of Cargo Noir on the Days of Wonder stand. For a big box game, the mechanics seem simple (too simple?) but DoW’s trademark excellence in terms of production values definitely lifts the game. And it’s nothing to be taken too seriously. Indeed, by the end we were on our feet (well, I was) cheering on our new German friends as they attempted (quite literally) to pull a win out of the bag. That a one-hour-plus game could all come down to a round of lucky dip may seem absurd (and you’d be right), but we did have a good time of it!

SPIEL 2011: Departure

And So It Comes To An End: In the gloaming of a German evening, we finally retreated, our four days of gaming adventures at an end. Inside the fair was immediately folding itself up into nearly nothing — while forklift trucks whizzed about amongst the stragglers; the Germans, clearly, have no truck with nanny-state health and safety nonsense! Farewell, Messe “Place of Events” (as the posters put it)! To the next time!

…Where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence, and where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the World.

Joseph Campbell

This post also appears on my BoardGameGeek blog.

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