This is a great look at how games and play experiences fit within the educational space from Knewton.


I had the good fortune to attend an invitational event where I played many of the new games released at Essen this year. If you are not familiar, Essen is the annual gaming convention in which all of the board game publishers release their new games. Families come and make their game purchases for the year and it is a very exciting time to see what is new and upcoming. I had a chance to play a few of the new releases as well as some other games and I wanted to touch on some of the highlights.

London is the newest release from Martin Wallace that falls into the cooperetative genre. Players are working to rebuild the city of London after the great fire of 1666. Like many of Wallaces game, it rewards taking calculated risks to gain returns and growth. Each player is building up part of the city and employing the citizens of London by playing cards to their building display that represent business and landmarks. Throughoutthe game, the players will “run” their part of the city, gaining income, victory points and hopefully lessing some of the city’s poverty. It is poverty that is working against players in the game. Each time players run their city, they generate poverty which needs to be offset by the cards in their building display. London is Wallace’s best work to date. He has refined many of his trademark elements into an accessible game.

Though not available yet, it will be coming soon from Mayfair Games, it will be a great for High School business and economic students. Another great game of note by Wallace is Automobile in which players are competing in the US auto industry in the early 20th century.

Grand Cru is another game of economics and agriculture in which players are purchasing and growing various grape plants which they harvest and age into wine. Players start the game taking out loans to get their business started and the game ends when the first person is able to pay off all of their loans. Each turn, any grapes that have been harvested age one step further and players need to keep a sharp eye on getting those vintages to market before they go bad. Players can also manipulate the market so they sell their wines at a better price, increasing their income and ability to work towards operating in the black. This had a nice feel to it and, if you can get past the fact that wine is being produced, introduces some nice agricultural elements to an economic playground.


Freeze is a fun exercise in improvisational acting that has a strong foundation in ELA concepts such as character development and importance as well as setting. Players alternate between being “on stage” or watching. Those characters “on stage” are secretly given a number between 1 and 4 that will determine the strength of their character in the scene. None of the actors know what number the others have and their are duplicates of each number, so you could have two people trying to play the dominant 1 in scene (this is very fun to see). After the actors have seen their numbers, they are given a setting (i.e. a green house or the attic) and the timer is turned…. ACTION! The actors “on stage” have to jump into the location and start establishing their place in the scene, playing off of each other. The rest of the players are watching the events unfold and trying to figure out where they are and what everyone’s place is in the scene. After time is up, the player in last place guesses the location (a nice catchup mechanic) and then a die is rolled and everyone guesses who they think were playing at the particular character strength that comes up on the die. This is an incredibly fun ELA exercise that will work for upper elementary all the way up to high school. I certainly hope this picks up wide distribution so that it can make its way into schools and libraries across the country.

More to come soon…

Collection development was one of my favorite parts when I was in the school and public libraries. It meant I got to buy stuff, though not just any stuff….. I had to know my stuff first. In addition, I had to make sure that the stuff I  wanted to buy met my selection criteria, my libraries guidelines for buying stuff.

I have already shared my selection criteria for modern board games earlier but to recap:

  1. Find good games!
  2. Find ways in which they support the curriculum
  3. Look at how they fit into the timeframe of your school or gaming program
  4. Determine their “Return on Investment” based on the sum of 1-3

One of the toughest parts of building a game collection is finding good games. In libraries, when purchasing materials we have review journals to help. Even beyond that

to our own personal lives, we look to the advice and experience of others to help guide us in our purchasing decisions. From Amazon to your Aunt Agnes, feedback from experts and your peers is invaluable especially when you are unsure or unfamiliar with what you are looking to acquire.

I have already mentioned one source of information on modern board games in previous posts, Board Game Geek. A user-driven database of every board game know to man,

the Geek has: reviews, rules, variants and images to help you become familiar with and decide if a game is right for you. That being said, there is a “New Kid on the Block”, Spielbox. Actually, Spielbox is celebrating its 30th year in publication so it’s not that new. Originally a German publication released in Europe and only available as an import. This year they have begun publishing their magazine in English and it is a welcome addition to the other review magazine that we have available for library resources.

The magazine comes out seven times a year, a week or so after the German version is published and is a faithful rendition of the original. Full color, glossy pages highlight the beauty and splendor of the games within. Each magazine contains articles relating to the board game hobby, discussing upcoming releases, publishers, conventions, designers and more. They also often contain unique expansions for popular games as well as games designed specifically for the magazine. Most importantly though, they contain reviews. They have several writers, each adding to the reviews, highlighting if and why they differ if their opinion of a particular game. The reviews themselves are thoughtful and well written, examining multiple aspects of the game including: mechanics, theme and the overall game experience.

Similar to the trend of technology trickling down to us from the Asian market, a number of the games discussed in the magazine will not have been released in the US market yet. They are an insight into the hot and upcoming games that may be picked up and released by US publishers such as Rio Grande Games and Z-Man Games. One thing to note, part of what makes a gaming program successful is the experience we are able to provide with the program. Having the newest games, not available in the US can be a big bump on the “cool” factor. Because a large majority of these games are language independent, the import version can be picked up and played without much problem, I recommend with their 14 Euro flat rate shipping. Being a European release, they will often have multiple languages in their rules set or the rules are often posted on the game’s entry on Board Game Geek.

The magazine is available here at an annual subscription rate of 56 Euros for 7 issues. While this comes to a little over $10 an issue, it is a good invest in a unique resource that provides insight into the world of modern board games.

I love the new focus in education on the skills and dispositions needed for our students to succeed in the years to come. It feels like a return to many of the fundamentals that have been passed over since the inception of NCLB which spawned a concentrated refocusing on test scores. While teachers do need to be accountable, it is not simply for student achievement on test scores but for how well the students are prepared to take on the challenges that the world presents.

The question then follows, how do we teach many of these skills? How does one teach a student to think critically or be empathetic? Looking at empathy, the most valuable way I have seen comes from experiences; from the participation in and exploration of the student’s own ideas and feelings in the context of real and meaningful experiences. While literature and media may provide opportunities for examining motives and emotions, these are one-way interchanges with fictional characters. We need to also focus on building the ability for students to relate to and understand their peers.

Group work can provide opportunities, but can often be contrived experiences that lack any genuine connections. Writing exercises can be powerful but lack a face-to-face quality that lessens the social literacy growth of students. Games can provide a good blend of authentic prompts and social lubrication which help students connect with and understand their peers on a more personal level. This is not a novel idea, school psychologists and social workers have been using games for years.

So let’s talk games! The first thing I would like to talk about is not a game but a genre of games that has become increasingly more popular, cooperative games. In these games, students are not competing against each other to win, but are instead working together to defeat the challenges of the game. These games often require a good deal of communication and trust on the part of the players. They help students understand not only the strengths and weaknesses of themselves but those of their peers as well. Leadership skills are developed and team synergy is refined as the students play to succeed.

At a younger level there are a great number of games that begin to familiarize students with these concepts. Family Pastime’s Max is a game where students are working together to move a group of neighborhood wild animals home to their tree before Max the cat catches them and makes them dinner. Here, students can’t play as anyone particular animal or Max is sure to catch up with them all. Conversations and strategies begin to emerge as students discuss which animals would be best to move each turn or if a turn should be given up to call Max back to the porch with a treat.

Herkules Ameise is a HABA game in which the players are working together to extend a trail of ants to find sticks to help them construct their anthill before the anteater arrives. Full of fantastic bits in typical HABA style, the kids actually construct an anthill up off the board, this game isn’t just gloss but fosters teamwork and tough decisions. Each turn, students roll the die and can either place/move ants at the end of the trail or flip an un-investigated tile in search of more resources. Again students are having to work collectively; discussing & sharing ideas and opinions on what is the best move each turn. These communication skills are fundamental for building towards empathy as understanding comes through listening to and respecting the ideas of others.

There are a host of other fantastic cooperative games that span the ages. Shadows Over Camelot has proven itself time and again to work well in middle school, getting students to interact and work together despite any clique barriers that may normally keep them apart. A more intense experience is available with Battlestar Galactica for the high school crowd. These games are good at helping build teamwork and getting kids to listen to and respect the opinions of their peers, but I want to focus on building and developing empathy in middle and high school students. Games provide the opportunity to create meaningful experiences that prompt reflection and consideration of the views and vantage points of their peers.

The first game that really works well at doing this is Say Anything by Northstar Games. Here, students take turns asking an opinionated question to the rest of the players (i.e. Who would you love to have dinner with?”). The other players answer with what they think is a good answer, writing it down on a dry erase board and placing it out for everyone to see. The student who asked the question then secretly selects which answer they like best. When they have selected, all of the other players place the two tokens they have on the answer they think was chosen. They can put both tokens on one answer hoping to score two points or split them between two answers if they are not as sure. The heart of the game lies in looking at the answers on the table and trying to work out which answer the student selected based on what the rest of the players know of the student. They have to put themselves in the student’s perspective, think about who they are and apply that to the choices on the table. While the questions are light and full of opportunities for fun, the potential for understanding and growth are strong.

The last game I want to talk about is Dixit, a visually stunning game that rewards creativity, imagination and empathy. In Dixit, each player has a hand of beautifully illustrated cards that are evocative of fairy tales, surrealistic painting and dream imagery. Players take turns selecting a card from their hand and creating a “little story” that describes it fairly well. Each other player then selects a card from their hand that best matches what was said and slides it face down to the storyteller. All the cards are mixed up and then laid out face up for everyone to see. The rest of the players, besides the story teller, pick one of the cards which they think was the one played by the storyteller, but because each of the other players put down cards that they thought captured the same sentiment, it is not that easy nor does the storyteller want it to be. The storyteller scores points if some of the other players guess his card, not all nor none but just some. The players score by correctly guessing the storyteller’s card as well as bonus points if other players picked their card instead of the storyteller’s. So players have to reflect on the people they are playing with and select ideas, experiences and knowledge to tell their “little stories” that is shared by some of the players. On the other side, the other players have two opportunities for empathetic interchanges. The first is by choosing a card that they think with lure others into selecting it and the second is by trying to take into consideration what they know of the storyteller to find their card from the ones displayed on the table.

While there are many more games that feed interpersonal reflection and growth, these two are by far the standouts from my experience. They provide ample opportunity for students to better understand and appreciate their peers, a skill that is becoming increasingly endangered in this digital age.

Who hasn’t dreamed of harnessing the power of the mind for good or evil. Well now you can practice for the future! Mattel is releasing a game that is akin to something out of science fiction. Mindflex is a an obstacle/dexterity game in which you move a ball through a series of obstacles…. WITH YOUR MIND!

Using technology similar to that of an EEG, the game uses sensors that you wear on a headband and connect to your ears which register changes in your brain’s activity when you concentrate and relax your thoughts. These changes control a fan that adjusts the height of a ball. The harder you concentrate, the higher the ball floats and as you relax your thoughts it descends. The goal of the game is to guide the ball through different obstacles set up around a ring. Using your mind to control the height of the ball and your hand to control the ball’s movement around the ring, you need to coordinate the two activities to successfully navigate a particular course.

While this carries a higher price tag than most games (approx. $80) it seems to offer some fantastic potential for applications within the school. Science classes studying human physiology can harness and experiment with the electrochemical aspect of the brain. Physics classes have a new tool that is assured to keep students’ attention and what a toy for technology. Mindflex has the making for a successful marriage of curriculum and play, allowing students to develop understanding and mastery of content and skills through use and interaction as opposed to passive reception and memorization.

I hope to acquire a review copy to bring in to schools so that I can get feedback from students and educators and provide a more detailed recommendation for when this becomes available. If not, I will be sure to pick a copy of this up. Either way, it seems that Mattel has a winner with Mindflex.

Number of Players: 2 (easily playable in teams)

Grade Levels: Middle School and Up

Length: 20 to 30 Minutes

Investment: Low
Return: High

NYS Standards:

ELA Standards:
Standard 1: Students will read, write, listen and speak for information and understanding.

AASL Standards:
1.1.2: Use prior/background knowledge as context for new learning
1.2.5 Demonstrate adaptability by changing inquiry focus… or strategies when necessary to achieve success
4.1.5 Connect ideas to own interests and previous knowledge and experience

I love to play with words. I enjoy doing crossword puzzles, but not the word search, and ever since I got my iPod Touch, I have played through a slew of word games. Word Warp has stood the test of time above all others I have tried. Looking to the table, I haven’t been overwhelmed with what I have found in the modern board game market. There are some great word games that are very enjoyable, but they don’t scratch that same itch. That all changed as I sat down and had a chance to try LetterFlip from Out of the Box Publishing. (more…)

This is the first of two parts, connecting the new AASL’s Standards for the 21st Century Learner to board games. Infomancy’s Christopher Harris, myself and a number of librarians spent a morning putting together a document showing how the new standards relate to gaming.

I wanted to take a few minutes to show that gaming also strongly corresponds to the many of the Common Beliefs laid out by the AASL.

Inquiry provides a framework for learning.
Games not only introduce basic skills which are applicable away from the table, they also provide the motivation to explore and refine those skills.

Ethical Behavior in the use of information must be taught.
Through positive experiences in gaming, students come to appreciate the validity of varying approaches to problems and the importance of ethical choices.

Individuals need to acquire the thinking skills that will enable them to learn on their own.
Games often make use of similar skill sets but vary the interface and mechanics through which they are employed allowing players to selectively apply and reinforce prior knowledge.

Learning has a social context.
Games provide opportunities for individuals to develop and practice the skills necessary to successfully share and learn with others.