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The London Educational Games Meetup Group (#LEGup) Message Board › April's #LEGup roundup

April's #LEGup roundup

Kirsten C.
London, GB
Hello All

Our Board Games Special proved to be a popular and inspiring event. As a primarily digital games maker, I found the focus on board and card games very interesting, and the discussions around how they do and don't differ quite useful.

Our first speaker was James Wallis (@jameswallis), who comes from spaaace. He talked about Once Upon a Time, a card-based storytelling game which has been around since 1992. In the late nineties it began being picked up and written about by the education community, who were using it in classrooms to develop literacy, grammar and storytelling abilities.

Based on western fairytale archetypes, Once Upon a Time is dealt like a regular card game. Players receive a hand of cards, including storytelling cards in five different groups and an ending card. Players use the cards in their hand to tell a story. If they mention something from another player's suite of cards, that player can interrupt by slapping the relevant card on the table and taking over the story. Thus, OUaT is a game of interruptions, and the skill is in anticipating and using the interruptions to your advantage to use up your cards.

James talked us through some of the problems they encountered: Dreams and prophecy cards didn't work well as they made stories too vague and open-ended, for example. The graphic design of the cards also made it difficult to fan them.

OuAT is published by Atlas Games, which seems to have been a happy relationship for James. It was interesting to contrast this route with the self-publishing route many other board and card game makers have taken. Key for James is that Atlas has stayed small, and so OuAT has remained one of its key offerings, rather than disappearing off its radar. He thinks this wouldn't have happened if he'd gone with a larger publisher.
We were all sad when James had to dash off early. If you liked his talk, make sure you follow @gamecamp on Twitter and grab your tickets for the next event early. This is the best games unconference I've been to, and James is one of the organisers.

Our second presenter was Brett J Gilbert (@55cards). His thought-provoking talk was entitled 'Making games: 10 easy pieces' and walked us through ten pieces of games design wisdom. Brett is good at choosing provocative statements and then musing on them. Some of my favourites were: 'the game is not the rules', 'points do not equal purpose' and 'storytelling is making sense of the world'.

Brett introduced the non-hardcore board gamers among us to the current blockbusters: Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan, with an interesting side discussion on how well these board games translate to digital versions. In Brett's opinion, playing against an AI leads to a very different experience, as does an online multiplayer game compared with sitting around a table with other players. One of the conclusions of the evening seemed to be that if you are translating a board game into a digital game, simply 'putting the game online' won't work. Instead you have to try to translate the essence of the game into a new framework.

Brett's most contentious idea was that 'no one ever plays a videogame by house rules'. Lots of videogamers in the audience disagreed with this, but I think there was general agreement that board games allowed for more freedom of interpretation than videogames (something we put heavily to test during the next session).

If you liked Brett's talk, check out his blog BrettSpiel game design blog. Hopefully he'll also put his slides up on slideshare for us. Brett epically failed to mention any of the games he has actually made, so to rectify this: his first published game is 'Divinare', to be published internationally by the French games company Asmodee at the end of this month.

Our final presenter for the evening was #LEGup regular Andrew Sage (@SymboticaAndrew) who very kindly made the long journey from Aberdeen to be with us.

Andrew told us the story of Symbotica, his puzzle card game. It began as a simple idea, which he had made up into test versions that he would play at craft and toy fairs. He looked into selling the game to a publisher, but found the process tortuous (rather like the book trade, you need an agent before you can get to a publisher). Instead he invested £5,000 of his own money having copies of the game printed in China. The printers made a mess of the first version, and it was only by kicking up a fuss that he managed to get reprints in time for the game's launch.

Symbotica, like Once Upon a Time, wasn't intended as an educational game, but as a fun puzzle game. However, as we found out, you need to be pretty sharp at mental arithmetic to do it, and so Andrew is looking into marketing it to teachers and students.

We divided up into three groups and began to play the game. Although Andrew had told us how to play the game, we all ended up making our own rules, and having a damn good time in the process (I can say, that of all the #LEGups we've had, I've never heard seen so much fun and laughter in the room). Another theme of the evening was how players often take board and card games and completely reinvent them. Andrew says he rarely sees people playing Symbotica in the way he originally intended – which I think has to be a strength of the game.

Another benefit to Symbotica which Andrew hadn't predicted, was its potential uses for teaching children with special educational needs. He very movingly told us about how an autistic child spoke for the first time while playing Symbotica. As he says 'if I never make a penny from the game, it will still have been worth it'.

He has learned some useful lessons – He says he'll never manufacture in China again and will have the game made in the UK instead. He's also considering setting up a community forum to support teachers who use the game and adapt it for different teaching situations.

Phew, that's the longest round up I've written for a while. Just time to mention two other meetup groups you might be interested in. Playtest Games, run by #LEGup member Rob Harris, is a regular meetup where you can playtest your board or card game ideas for free. And if you want to try out some of the board games mentioned at this #LEGup, plus tonnes of others, try the thrice-weekly (yes, that's right – thrice weekly!) London on Board.

The next #LEGup will be a panel discussion on Gamification in education, held as part of Digital Shoreditch on May 31st. Come along and have your say on this, the most contentious of GBL topics (muahahahaha!).

I'm also putting together a 'Show and Tell' #LEGup for late spring, and I'm looking for 6-8 members to do a 5-minute presentation on their idea, app or game. It'll be very low-pressure, and you can present your work whatever stage (or state) it's in and ask for audience feedback. If you'd like to take part, please let me know.

Happy games making!

Kirsten x
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