Design Challenge #3: Evaluate the Modified Game

For my game, I originally modified Apples to Apples to work with animals and their behaviors and habitats. The very first play test of this occurred in class, with four of my classmates playing. As much fun as the original game was, though, play was slow and the learning features were a little clunky--recording the animals and their traits clogged up the game play.

The game I came up with after that, based on suggestions from that class, was more like dominoes, specifically the "Mexican Train" variation. The twist I put on it was faithful to my original educational goal of teaching kids about the lives and homes of animals. Each domino had a name and picture of an animal, and a set of four icons that depicted that animal's identity. The icons represented:

  • Cold or Warm Climate
  • Meat or Plant Eating
  • Diurnal or Nocturnal
  • Land or Water

The Animal DominoesThe Animal Dominoes

Players were asked to match three of the four traits on tiles on the table to a tile in their hands.

The next play test of the game happened in class with Becky, Laura, Albert, and I playing. I held the lead for a brief period, but Becky won in the end. There was a good consensus that the game was fun and playable--despite several players never having played any version of dominoes before, the rules were easy to explain and everyone picked it up very quickly.

I asked the following questions:

  1. Name some herbivores that are active during the day.
  2. Name animals active at night that live on land.
  3. Name cold weather animals that live in the water.

I did get a couple of correct responses from the group of players, but not everyone answered correctly or at all. This exposed one flaw in the game play--the animal identification can be missed if not emphasized properly in the play.

The next test I ran at home with just my wife, Kelcey, and me. I was interested in seeing if the game was still playable with only two people, which turned out to be just fine. I also emphasized, before play, that she should pay attention to the animals on the cards, and I made a point of mentioning the animals as I played.

In the end, Kelcey got two of the three questions after a little prompting, but there did still seem to be a weakness in that area. Some of the suggestions that came out of that play test were:

  • Place the animal pictures in the center of the dominoes, with the icons on both ends. This will feel more like the original game and speed the uptake.
  • Find a new rule that emphasizes the animal on each card. For example, require players to make a noise like the animal, make a face like that animal, otherwise imitate the animals, give the animal a name like "Paul the Polar Bear"

Kelcey Playing Animal DominoesKelcey Playing Animal Dominoes

On the positive side, the game got raves for working with categorization tasks and simple playability. Such are the benefits of living with an educational psychologist.

When considering the game as it stands now, the following principles of James Gee come to mind:

Players are creating the category challenges for themselves and other players, and subtly grouping their hands into real-world animal categories as part of the strategy
Well-Ordered Problem
One of the nice parts of the play in dominoes is that early rounds are very easy to get playing, and the challenges increase as players start holding fewer and fewer dominoes. In this game, that means play happens very quickly up front, but requires closer thought about which animals are more like the played animals as the game reaches its climax.
Pleasantly Frustrating
This is another feature inherent in dominoes that aids the new game. Players frequently experience reversals of fortune as different plays are made. This leads them to have to constantly re-examine their existing animals and those relationships, while keeping the game fresh and interesting.
Information "On-Demand" or "Just In Time"
The domino game piece have everything that a player needs to make the next play right on them. The game in play also has the benefit of making relationships between animals readily apparent by looking at the board. On a number of occasions, I found the play I needed by looking at past plays on the table.
Skills as Strategies
The skill taught by this game is categorizing animals. Using these categories is crucial for winning the game. Finding the cold-weather meat-eating daytime land animal and matching it with the warm-weather meat-eating daytime land animal is both the skill taught and the mechanism behind the game itself.
System Thinking
While the game does not even nearly approach the complexities of our taxonomic system of animal classification, it does require the player to see the board, as a whole, and few it as a series of connections and divergences between like and unalike animals. Within the narrow confines of the game is a system for dividing the natural world, a system that can easily be assessed, during play, by looking at the table and the dominoes in hand.

I would argue that the Well-Ordered Play and Pleasantly Frustrating qualities are at the fore, mostly because of the greatness of the original game. Next, On-Demand Information is at work here rather nicely, with the dominoes holding compact and easily-readable data for players to use. This quality in turn benefits the Skills as Strategies characteristic by enabling players to easily convert their data into action. Finally come Co-Design and System Thinking, which work in tandem as players experiment with different pairings and branchings during the course of the game.

I think this game has a good amount of potential for playful learning. It may take a few rounds to pick up the lessons, and more could be done to clarify the game pieces and emphasize the animals. On the whole, though, it's a fun variation of a successful game.

Copyright Mike Edwards 2006-2009. All content available under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license, unless otherwise noted.