Tabletop Learning

Victoria's Board Game Revival

and the Power of Play

Mockup of an open magazine showing the "Tabletop Learning" article, which has a large image of a child playing a board game

Feature article written for the Tabletop magazine prototype project. An investigative and narrative piece aimed at families with children. Explores the rising board game scene in Victoria, BC, and how board gaming can benefit families and young learners. Contains material from interviews conducted with Dr. David Leach, Chair of the University of Victoria's Department of Writing; Natasha Guerra, manager at Interactivity Board Game Café in Victoria, BC; and Dr. Jentery Sayers, Assistant Professor of English at UVic. See below to read the article in full.

We’re living in the board game renaissance here in Victoria. Perhaps you’ve noticed, walking through Bolen Books’s game section last holiday season and seeing the rows of practically empty tables, picked over by eager shoppers for the most wished-for games. Or maybe you’re part of the local scene, a regular at Interactivity Board Game Cafe where you and your friends sip milkshakes and try out the hottest new games. With game shops galore, it’s clear that the city’s been hit by the global board game revival, but what does this mean for Victoria’s kids?

“You often give up games when you become an adult ... but I think it is a really great way to stay connected to your kids,” says David Leach, chair of the Department of Writing at the University of Victoria and an expert in gaming. “With all of the worries ... around screen time, [board games are] a completely tactical and social experience,” he says, emphasizing the high quality of so many modern games in their design and gameplay compared to classics like Monopoly. And there is no shortage of these newer, better games being published globally thanks to crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter. According to gaming website Polygon, while the number of successful video game Kickstarters has sharply declined in recent years, tabletop game projects are not only steadily increasing but are also dominating the games category. In 2018, only $15.8 million USD was pledged to successful video game Kickstarters compared to the $165 million USD pledged to tabletop game ones—which itself was an almost 20% increase for the tabletop category compared to its earnings in 2017. And this tabletop phenomenon has reached the top charts of the site as well, with the number one highest-funded game on Kickstarter—the co-operative horror board game Kingdom Death: Monster 1.5—also being the fourth highest-funded project of all time with $12,393,139 USD in earnings.


And the local proof of this tabletop gaming explosion is evident at Interactivity Board Game Café, which boasts the largest selection of games on the Island: over 800. Natasha Guerra, a shift manager at the café, says that she sees the board game resurgence all over Victoria in “all sorts of new games and people demo-ing and beta-ing their new ideas.” The spiritual successor to Pinder’s previous Interactivity Games and Stuff store on Fort Street, Interactivity Board Game Café opened in late 2013—revealing that the board game revival in the city isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. But as Leach explains, the café “has made a real difference in that sense of being able to try out this huge renaissance of different games in a great environment” while not having to invest in “a game that you don’t know whether you’ll play more than once.”

And certainly, with such a huge game selection, there’s a lot of exploratory fun to be at the café. But the benefits for kids in playing board games actually extend far beyond just being a family-friendly activity. As Guerra says, gaming “exercise[s] the parts of our brain that are for planning and playing,” leading to fun learning opportunities for families to introduce things like “problem solving, strategy, sportsmanship, and economics” while also teaching “little learners to lose.” Guerra stresses that the aspect of losing in games helps to teach kids a valuable life lesson: “Learning to fail even after the best laid plans are made is part of life, and board games let you do that in a safe space for fun.” Leach makes a similar point, arguing that “the really powerful thing about a good game is you get this immediate feedback if you do something wrong. You die or you lose points ... and you figure out how to do it better.”

Yet, as Leach explains, much of children’s education doesn’t have this element of immediate feedback for learning. With their innate sense of play, children thrive with learning experiences built around the idea of fun; however, according to the “Why Games Matter” chapter in the book Libraries Got Game: Aligned Learning Through Modern Board Games, there persists a clear divide “between instruction and recreation” in education—with games being a reward for completing work and “never part of the actual work.” Leach argues that there is a “real discomfort or skepticism in the adult world around play or games” and the phrase “play-based learning,” with games being seen as not being serious enough. But as Leach describes, “if you watch somebody play a game, they’re super serious about it ... [and] super invested with it, so there’s nothing superficial about the experience.” And he says it’s the same with play, as “play is just a form of experimentation and it’s how every mammal, and probably a lot of other animals, learns.”

Nevertheless, Leach warns about using games in education as a kind of “chocolate-covered broccoli,” in that children can see right through such attempts to make learning fun by trying to turn it into a game. Such attempts usually result in a disconnection between “the play, the game, and the content,” as if “the interactivity is false.” Instead, he stresses that much deeper learning can be facilitated by teaching kids game design. Leach, who became obsessed with game design during his childhood, gives an example of a student trying to make a game about recycling, saying that the student would need to think on what they understand about recycling or the environment in order to start asking the ques- tions of “what are the kind of rules at play, what is the system, [and] how do I turn that into gameplay.” This, Leach says, is design thinking, which he believes to be an extremely effective learning tool since kids are not only learning about the content but also about the kinds of systems involved. Then, as he explains it, the student is “actually creating something that gives them joy”—a game which they have to playtest again and again and have others interact with it and themselves. Dr. Jentery Sayers, an associate professor of English at UVic who recently taught a graduate-level English course on tabletop games as “paper computers,” says that in prototyping a game, “you become acutely aware of the labour and choices involved.” He further explains that “prototyping prompts students
to attend to how this becomes that, instead of reducing primary sources ... to objects that are consumed, received, and examined from a distance.”

So what are some ways you can introduce design thinking to the kids in your life? Well, according to Dominick Manusos, Joe Busby, and Aaron Clark in their article “Authentic Design in Gaming: Changing the Rules of Play,” think of such design activities as “scaffolding, starting with the most basic and building to the more complex.” An example they give is having students pick out a board game they already enjoy playing and starting with minor game modifications like changing some of the rules, working up towards them making greater modifications like creating custom content for the game.

And related is a few pieces of advice from Dr. Sayers for teachers thinking of incorporating games into their teaching: “Encourage students to start with what they know and care about” and “integrate play and play testing into the classroom,” but don’t “assume games and game design are always ‘fun.’” But as Manusos, Busby, and Clark say, with game design “the possibilities are endless, and the games students create will be timeless,” bringing with them a “sense of accomplishment” in creating something handmade “that can be played by and shared with others.”

Overall, whether you want to try introducing game design to your children or you just want to have some family fun together, the best way to learn about games is to play them, says to Dr. Sayers, who suggests visiting a game café or starting a shared game library with family and friends. But with the ever-increasing number of games available, how do you choose what to play? Guerra says that “depending on the age of the children and the gaming experience of the parents, different games work better or worse.” So don’t let a lacklustre response from your kids stop you from exploring new board games, especially those of the more modern era. As Guerra explains, a lot of families default to playing games they already know, partly because of the barrier of instructions or because of the parents’ nostalgia for the games of their childhoods. But places like Interactivity allow for curiosity and exploration in game choices, with Guerra saying that “many of the people who do end up playing the newer games are taught by our staff which is part of what I value about my job at [the café].”

But whether you choose to play at the café or not, there are so many opportunities to involve your kids in tabletop gaming in the city thanks to its many dedicated game shops and tabletop enthusiasts. And while the board game revival has certainly provided invaluable opportunities for play-based learning for the young, the benefits of this phenomenon extend to those of all ages. As Natasha says, “I really like seeing younger more experienced gamers teach their older relatives games and pick up the games we teach them. I saw a young woman teach her grandmother Forbidden Desert [a co-operative escape game] a few months ago, and they both cheered when they won the game. I live for moments like that.”

Photo of shelves packed full with board games
Photo of a board game being played by people mostly off screen