Long time

It has been an admittedly long time since I have updated.  Part of the reason was I am moving to a different school and grade level this Fall and with that move I will no longer be teaching a class on gaming – this kind of killed some of my drive to acquire data and contribute to the research in this area.  The other part of the reason was laziness combined with the insane amount of work the school year normally entails.  This is especially high if you have to prepare for a new position the following year.

All that being said, I hope to at least do some regular updates as I continue using games both in my classroom and in an after school club I hope to run at my new school as well.  My intention is to focus a bit on running a program teaching and playing Go.  If you are unsure about the game, look to the website KGS for a place to learn about the game and play it for free online.  I really do think this game in particular is something that should be brought into some school programs (I had great success with my LD and MMI students).

So either way, I am still here.  I will do my best to update with some modicum of regularity.  In particular I want to go back and discuss some of the game design projects I did with my class using Treehouse pieces from Looneyl Labs.


A couple times a year fans of Icehouse pieces have the opportunity to take part in the Icehouse Game Design Competition and the current competition provided the perfect opportunity for my students to experience the process of play testing and giving feedback. This actually ended up being a great opportunity for the kids because it allowed them to practice making helpful constructive comments with games they didn’t design and therefore have no worries about hurt feelings

This competition ended up with a total of 8 submitted games and over the course of the week all the kids had the opportunity to sit down with the directions to anywhere between two and six of the games and they had an absolute blast. The comments early in the week were more along the lines of “this game is fun” and “this game is boring” however with a little bit of instruction, giving of examples, and general imagining what kind of tips a designer would need to improve their game they did improve by the end of the week.

Next week we will be set to introduce some simple brainstorming sessions and begin working through a rough outline of the game design process. This will lay the groundwork for a second nine weeks unit where they will be designing, play testing, and creating coherent rules to their own game using Icehouse pieces.

Until then, take the time to get some Pyramids, and play Geomancy and Zamboni Wars. Both were winners with my class.

First Week down

The first week has finished and looking over my lesson plans and the responses they got it appears a few things are going correctly.

The week mostly consisted of discussing games and Bloom’s Taxonomy. We also played about 3 rounds of Are You a Werewolf over the course of a couple days with ample breaks to discuss strategy. After a wolf strikes in the night we would pause and have everyone mentally make a prediction as to who was eliminated. Then I would show who was eliminated and ask the students to hypothesize who might have chosen the people eliminated so far based upon many factors (eg. friends, not friends, proximity, is that kid annoying). Overall it really had the kids thinking a good deal more about their strategies.

The session reports they read about the games were, for the most part, great. Several were kind of weak and wouldn’t have scored highly based upon the rubric. However, a couple students volunteered to read theirs and they were both insightful and showed shrewd awareness of tactics. We may have some budding politicians on our hands!

We also introduced two Treehouse pieces games. We played Tic-Tac-Doh! and Drip. Both games were a hit and Drip especially got a good deal of laughter and excited playing out of all the kids. Drip was particularly good because it had a little strategy but a bit of luck as well. This allowed my lower functioning students to be competitive with my most gifted kids and win several of the games. The looks on their faces was priceless and made teaching the game worthwhile. Hopefully of the next few weeks we will explore the Icehousegames wiki a little more.

I am excited for the next two weeks. The third week of class we begin playing Go. I’m extremely excited to introduce the kids to this ancient game and look forward to seeing an entire classroom poring over the goban.

Session Reports

In the beginning the class will focus primarily on logistics. We will cover how the notebook will be organized (more on that in a future post), important vocabulary terms, thinking about and defining terms like “fun” and “game.” We will need this basis for when we start actually exploring and analyzing various board games. Assuming my pacing guide is realistic, we will be learning how to play several games the second week, and then beginning some “free play” the third week.

The objective of “free play” days will be to allow the students to choose among a group of select games and play the games with an eye to strategy and analysis. In the language of a college education course: Given a select number of board games the students will play a game of their choice and then create a written session report based upon a rubric. Personally, I like the less formal explanation.

Attached is my Session Report Template. It is saved as a .doc file but I will happily send it to anyone who wants it in a new format. I typed it at home on Open Office.org because it is pretty nice free software.

Session Report Template

As for the rubric, I create and save all my rubrics on the Rubistar website and have my Session Report rubric saved on there for anyone to access. You can find it here.

Companies: Looney Labs

Having run a game club for a year now and beginning this new class I have worked with several game companies and/or manufacturers to varying degrees of success. I have gotten some donations from some and the cold shoulder from others. Overall though many of the companies have been very open to offering donations, discounts, or just general support to any educator working with their products in the classroom.

For good reason as well. When I started my after school club I introduced a few games and then out of curiosity started checking the stock of those titles at a seasonal board game shop and I saw they were regularly selling out of the introduced titles. I was told by one of the managers that they had an unexpected run on a few titles. Many of the kids reported back to me that they asked for those games for Christmas or bought them with their own money so they could play them at home as well. This indicated to me that the kids were indeed interested in the activities and furthermore they enjoyed spending the social “face time” with friends and family playing something other than single player video games.

So I wanted to take some time on here to point out a few of the companies that I would heartily endorse and recommend educators interested in games check out. The first company is Looney Labs.

Looney Labs is probably most famous for the card game Fluxx (which is available in several languages – I have used and written lesson plans for Fluxx en español) as well as for their pyramids. The pyramids used to be packaged under the name Icehouse (so you will find things referencing Icehouse games) but are now available in the form of a game called Trehouse.

Purchasing a tube of Treehouse pyramids will net you 15 plastic pyramids in 5 different colors. There are three sizes of the pyramids and they nest into one another like Russian dolls. The tube of Treehouse pieces comes with a set of rules to play the game Treehouse which is a good game and I could imagine how someone could adapt it to some classroom use. To an educator, that isn’t where Treehouse shines.

The pyramids are unmarked in that there is nothing on them to restrict them to the game Treehouse. In fact they are designed with the idea of being an open system and there have been hundreds of games designed by many people that use varying numbers of the Treehouse tubes. For instance with three tubes of Treehouse and the rule book recently released called Threehouse two students could play a game called Black Ice which focuses on deductive reasoning skills (and shares similarities to the old board game Mastermind). With 5 Treehouse tubes, and a printout outlining the rules, several students could play one of my favorite of the Pyramid games: Zendo. Zendo is a remarkable game in that it doesn’t focus on deductive reasoning skills. It instead uses inductive reasoning to determine the pattern linking a series of examples.

The first time playing Zendo I really felt like I was getting a good mental workout in that I was thinking in manner I don’t often use. When I sat some kids down to the game for the first time it was wonderful to see the light go on when each individual slowly “got it.”

The true strength of the game system is that any task and meaning can be assigned to the pieces. I have used them to represent varying amounts of money (similar to poker chips) and had kids purchase things with them and make change in a mock store while practicing their Spanish. I have had them play a version of Tic-Tac-Toh that I found online and instead of just playing they were practicing their vocabulary. In that single simple game the kids practiced their words for: above, below, to the left of, to the right of, on top of, underneath, in front of, behind, pyramid, small, medium, large, as well as the 5 colors of the pyramids.

Having colorful manipulatives also really helped with the kinesthetic learners in the room by giving them something solid to hold in hand while practicing the concepts being taught. This was far superior to trying to link new vocabulary with abstract concepts or merely a picture in a textbook.

So give Looney Labs a shot. They offer a teacher discount that is very nice. They are however a very small company which means a smaller likelihood of donations to a program. The benefit of them being small is the owners are very accessible. They post on their listservs answering questions and talking about new products. They really are wonderfully nice people that I had the honor of meeting this Summer at Origins. Treehouse itself won an award at Origins and makes the 5th such award the designer Andy Looney has won for his games.

Rules Disagreement

Having run an after school board game club for a year now, rules disagreements invariably came up every so often during a game. Perhaps the kids were playing the game incorrectly or suddenly one of them has a flash of devious insight to twist a rule to make a particularly effective play.

In the past they would call me over, I would look through the rule books, and normally read them the rule to correct them. Unfortunately, many times one of the players had been using the old rule and the player who asked for a correction got to take advantage of a clarified rule which lead to an unbalanced match. This lead not only to some bitterness on the part of the players but also to a reliance on me as the mediator of the disagreements.

My goal is to teach them how to manage simple disagreements on their own. I want them to do the research as to whether their question has an official answer or come to a consensus ruling on their own. Begin the formation of house rules they created. A secondary goal was to get them to proceed fairly in the interim so their task (the game) can be completed and enjoyed. Many times kids in this age get hung up on one difficulty and tend to not finish the task as a whole due to this. The classic example of someone not understanding one match problem so they don’t do any of the entire assignment.

So what follows will be the text from my Rules Disagreement Process handout that I will just cut and paste into this entry.

Rules Disagreement Process

So a disagreement has come up during a game over a particular play or rule and now it needs to be resolved in a friendly fashion. Follow these steps and see if it solves the dilemma.

1. If the disagreement involves a play that has been made earlier in the game then continue playing as you have been until this particular game is over and then move on to step two. If this is the first time it has ever come up go on to step two immediately.
2. Pause playing the game and at least 2 players consult the rulebook. Read the rule aloud and see if everyone can come to an agreement.
3. If an agreement is not found within a reasonable time frame than the two disagreeing players should just play Rock Paper Scissors. The winner gets to use his rule for the remainder of that particular game.
4. Take notes on the exact rules question and ask if the teacher knows the correct answer. If the instructor is unsure of the answer than the players should check the either the manufacturer’s website or Boardgamegeek.com to see if there are any FAQs.


Trying to get a general handle on planning this class has been a bit of a challenge. I have copious notes with some great activities and general ideas but the structure and ordering of the activities wasn’t gelling for me. This is where a pacing guide came into play. I sat down and outlined generally what I will have them do for each week of the full school year.

Interestingly enough when working things out that way I saw numerous activities that didn’t fit into the pacing yet I was all out of time. This makes me feel a fair amount better in that most likely I won’t be running out of things to do and have tons of time left over.

For now though, let’s look at the first nine weeks.

1st Nine Weeks: vocab, mechanics, writing, indoor games, creative process, game theory
1. general rules, opening items, introduce notebook, etc.
2. teach a new game each day
3. Play the various games with session reports
4. Evaluate and present session reports, discuss house rules/variants/etc., begin working on some logic puzzles
5. Continue with vocabulary and logic puzzles – introduce Sudoku
6. This week should focus on Go
7. Go study, sudoku, journaling, and playing Go
8. review all vocabulary, evaluate notebooks, have some journals read aloud (volunteers)
9. Begin some simple game design exercises

As can be seen the first nine weeks will focus on gaining the vocabulary and the tools to embark upon the actual analysis of games. I’m intending to start with some more philosophical discussions on what is a game and what is “fun.” Using these conversations as leaping off points the class can spend some time playing some of the many, many games I have both at school and in my personal collection. Then they can immediately apply this vocabulary through session reports and conversations that would involve actual analysis of commercial games and a discussion of the mechanics and makeup of the game.

I’m also hoping to work up a unit on the creative design process. In their Language Arts classes they discuss essay writing tactics and the like and I know they use brainstorming in many classes. However, I’m not so sure they have really ever sat down and had discussions or practiced just using the creative process. I found that many kids knew what brainstorming was but they were unsure on how to really use the technique.

Either way, that is a sampling of my pacing guide. My next step is to break each week down (just for the first nine weeks) into the 5 days of the weeks and sketch out some rough plans and goals for each day. I’ll post again and share those ideas when it is done. Hopefully it will be soon with school starting in just 2 weeks.

As always, if you have any ideas, or comments on my proposals, let me know.