Well the Museum of Childhood is pretty darn awesome. Their current exhibition, "Game Plan: Board Games Rediscovered", is a fantastic example of how board games are growing in the mainstream, and as it comes to a close the Museum hosted a study day with some of the biggest names in board game research and design.
First up was a titan of the games industry, Mr Ian Livingstone. This dude pretty much got me into reading with his (and Steve Jackson's) fighting fantasy books and I know I'm not alone in this. Those books are so damn good, 'Warlock of Firetop Mountain' should be a penguin classic by now. He also helped to create Games Workshop and make Dungeons & Dragons a success, which is a pretty impressive legacy and has had a real impact on a lot of geek lives. During his time on stage he told the crowd about his new projects including a new comic book, a new fighting fantasy book and most exciting of all, he is opening two free schools in London with a curriculum centred around games and play! I'd really like to teach at one of these schools, they sound incredible. Imagine playing 'City of Zombies' in your maths class, 'Paperback' in English lit and 'Fresco' for that afternoon art class. That's a curriculum I could get into. It was a really fascinating start to the day.
Next up was Qunitin Smith from a little board game review site called 'Shut Up & Sit Down'... Maybe you've heard of them? He had what I can only describe as a speed lecture, having only fifteen minutes to get through what is usually a forty five minute talk. He spoke about the rise in games since the late 90's up to today and why we are seeing this rise. He discussed how design has moved on a loooooong way from traditional games to contemporary games and how this is just the beginning of the imaginative new way that board games have been changing, and that it's an exciting time to be a gamer. He injected the usual comedy that has made 'Shut Up and Sit Down' so popular. Quintin also made another appearance a little later to talk about how friends make our gaming experience so great. When previously asked why board games are so interesting by the BBC, Quintin had replied “Because people are interesting.” and this talk followed on from that idea. A highlight being how much you can learn about your Mum from playing a game of Resistance with her and the family.
Nia Wearn, Senior Lecturer at Staffordshire University, then stepped up to tell us about the Board Game Design module taught as part of their Computer Games Design course. That's right, you can now learn about board games at Uni. She explained some of the games the students had come up with and how learning about board game mechanics can really help with computer game design. With the rise in board game apps becoming available there is an obvious link to be made there. Strangely though, most of the board games the students had come up with sounded pretty terrible, but their theme for making the games had been 'the mundane'. Maybe not the best leaping off point to make an enjoyable board game in my humble opinion. If I wanted a mundane game, I'd dust off a copy of 'Snakes and Ladders' from the attic, thank you very much. Still, the fact that board games are being seen as another medium worthy of study is great to see.
Esther MacCallum-Stewart, Associate Professor in Games Studies at Staffordshire University, probably had the most interesting points to make during the day. She emphasised the importance of diversity and inclusion in board games, holding up Pandemic as a great example of a game that really thinks about the way its characters are presented. For every game like this though, there are several others that stick to the obvious tropes of burly men as fighters and barbarians and females pigeonholed as healers. It's great to see that this is finally starting to change though, and in particular there has been a lot of praise for the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons (5th edition) for its consideration toward its audience. To illustrate this point, I was very pleased to see a black female fighter as the example of a human character. Hopefully other games learn from these examples and we see a much broader representation in our board games. Esther also talked about accessibilty in board games, using 'Tiny Epic Kingdoms' as an example of bad design with its components being too small and fiddly to be used by those who find it difficult to see or grip. Esther felt that games that are not inclusive of the audience show bad design.
Finally, Holly Nielsen, Journalist and board games expert, ended the day with a talk about the moral and educational board games in the very early days of game design. It was brilliant to see how board games give an interesting perspective of the time they were designed. The games Holly discussed were from the late 1800's to the early 1900's and showed a very passive way of playing games. These games were meant to teach children moral codes or about being British. There was a lot of comedy to be had from these games which obviously feel extremely dated compared to the games we have on offer today.
James Wallis, game designer and the Director of Spaaace Games, hosted for the day and was brilliant at linking the talks together and leading the Q&A panel about the future of board games. It was a brilliant morning of talks and after a delicious lunch in the museum café, the attendees dived into a board game jam led by Rob Harris, who not only runs Playtest UK and works as a games developer at Modiphius, but is one of the nicest chaps in the board game industry in my opinion. Attendees got into teams and had two hours to design a board game inspired by the Museum of Childhood. No easy task, but after a gruelling 120 minutes, 'The Adults' were judged to be the winning team and were showered with prizes, the most impressive being that their game will be made into a real bone-a-fide copy to be added to the museum's collection! A pretty awesome prize, I'm sure you'll agree.
It was an incredible day. If you haven't been to see 'Game Plan: Board Games Rediscovered', the exhibition is still on until April 23rd, so hurry down to Bethnal Green to have a look round. It's free! A huge thank you to the Museum of Childhood for hosting such a fantastic event. I was left enthused while also proud to be a board gamer and it was really great to see that board games are getting the attention they deserve as they continue to grow in popularity.
For the TL;DR crowd, here is a brief recap including some of the interesting points from the day's events:
- Board Game design is continuing to improve. We've come a long way since the game of Goose!
- Games have a duty to promote diversity and inclusion. Well done Ticket to Ride and Pandemic for leading the way.
- Ian Livingstone is opening two schools with games focussed learning! I will be applying.
- Board Game Design is being taught at University. Board games are beginning to be respected in a similar way to books and films.
- Designing board games is super fun. There was such a buzz in the room as nearly 100 people all worked on designing their own games.
- If you haven't done so already, get down to the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green to see the Game Plan: Board Games Rediscovered exhibition before April 23rd. This exhibition will also be touring soon. Hoorah!
Written by Dave Murcutt