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Abstract Games and Theme-Based Board Games for Learning feat. Brian MacDonald – 110

Episode Overview

  • Episode Topics
    • Abstract versus Theme-Based Board Games for Learning – 0:21
    • Sponsor: The World Game – 1:42
    • Who is Brian MacDonald? – 2:23
    • Defining Game-Based Learning, Abstract Games, and Theme-Based Games – 8:11
    • Creativity in Theme-Based Games – 18:27
    • Abstract Games, Growth Mindset, and Fluid Reasoning – 20:12
    • Theme-Based Games and History Games – 35:44
    • Dave Rejoins the Conversation – 37:06
    • Dustin, Dave, and Brian Play Wavelength! – 45:06

On this week’s episode of Board Gaming with Education Dustin introduces a new episode format. The show takes a more topical approach with each episode released on Mondays. Dustin is joined by co-host Dave Eng and guest Brian MacDonald to talk about abstract games versus theme-based board games for learning. Brian MacDonald is a psychologist who has supported children with learning difficulties for twenty years, in schools, treatment centers, and private practice. Recognizing the importance of play in learning and development, he recently started Brains On Games, a YouTube channel that provides overviews and previews of board games, emphasizing the learning skills that they practice. With his expertise Dustin, Dave, and Brian drill down into the topic of game-based learning through the lens of abstract and theme-based board games.

Games from this Episode [Links include games in our Board Gaming with Education Store or Amazon affiliate links]:

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/c/brainsongames

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/brainsongames

Twitter and Instagram: @BrainsOnGames

Thank you to Purple Planet Music for the wonderful contribution of their songs “Soul Train” and “Retro Gamer” for our Sponsorship and Interview Segments. These songs can be found in full on this music archive. Also, thank you to Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) for his creative commons 4.0 contribution of “Getting it Done” for our Game Segment.

Our Facebook Group for Educators: Games-based Learning, Gamification, and Games in Education

You can listen to us on Apple Podcasts (or any other platform you get your podcasts):



Abstract versus Theme-Based Board Games for Learning – 0:21

Dustin and Dave Eng introduce the topic for today’s episode. Dustin and Brain dive deep into the topic of game-based learning and the differences between abstract games and theme-based games. Dave also shares a bit about his experience with University XP.

Dave Eng is an intellectual and creative educator, designer, and researcher who combines games, theory, and technology.  Dave has played games for most of his life. As a result he studies game design and teaches others how to use games for education and learning.  Dave hosts the podcast Experience Points and consults at University XP on games-based learning. Find him online at www.universityxp.com or contact him directly at dave@universityxp.com

Sponsor: The World Game – 1:42

The World Game is a very interactive Geography game for 2 to 5 players that’s easy to learn. A fast playing adventure full of excitement. Leave home to embark on a race around the world. Pass famous landmarks on your way and win by having a stronger country fact.

Challenge others with world flags knowledge and by finding locations on the map. Pick up your action cards on the way to get ahead of or slow down other travelers. It is super engaging for kids and adults alike.

The game’s objective is to be the first player to finish the race around the world and cross the finish line. You move forward by winning with strong country facts or by answering geography challenges correctly.

Who is Brian MacDonald? – 2:23

Dustin introduces his guest Brian MacDonld. They also chat a bit about serving different student populations and making learning as accessible as possible.

Dr. Brian is a psychologist who has supported children with learning difficulties for twenty years, in schools, treatment centers, and private practice. Recognizing the importance of play in learning and development, he recently started Brains On Games, a YouTube channel that provides overviews and previews of board games, emphasizing the learning skills that they practice. 

Defining Game-Based Learning, Abstract Games, and Theme-Based Games – 8:11

Dustin and Brian define the key terms of this episode like game-based learning, abstract games, and theme-based games. Brian also gives some examples of some abstract and theme-based board games.

Game-based learning: “Game-based learning is where a player or learner is learning through play through the inherent process of playing the game.”

Abstract games: “I mean, the key with an abstract game is that the theme of the game isn’t important, maybe it’s non-existent. You might just be looking at stones on a board, like a game of Go. A game of chess is also considered to be an abstract game, because even though there’s sort of a military medieval kind of war theme, but that theme isn’t important…when you’re talking about an abstract game is that, you know, luck, the element of chance is minimized as much as possible. Abstract games, by definition, don’t use dice or cards, where things might be random.”

Theme-based games: “Well, theme-based games have more of a story to them, right? Or some you know, the artwork has something important to do with the game and the mechanics of the game, hopefully, I mean, in the best theme-based games, the mechanics make sense, based on the theme that you’re following.”

Check out three games from our store based on today’s topic, dimension an abstract game, and Cytosis and Altiplano two theme-based games.

Creativity in Theme-Based Games – 18:27

Brian and Dustin chat about theme-based games and their ability to help students and players lean into their creative side. Theme-based games are great at telling stories and tap into creative learning.

Abstract Games, Growth Mindset, and Fluid Reasoning – 20:12

Brian talks about the skills that abstract games develop like a growth mindset because players are fully responsible for the outcomes of the game because of the lack of randomness in a game. Brian and Dustin also dive deep into the idea of fluid reasoning and problem-solving in abstract games. Abstract games tend to be a puzzle that needs to be solved based on incomplete information.

Abstract Games with Targeted Content-Based Learning Outcomes – 24:40

Dustin challenges Brian on the idea of using abstract games to target learning outcomes. Brian comes up with some great examples of using abstract games for math-based content. And be sure to listen in later in the episode when Dustin and Dave come back to this idea of abstract games with targeted content-based learning outcomes.

Theme-Based Games and History Games – 35:44

Brian chats a bit about how theme-based games are great at targeting history learning outcomes.

Dave Rejoins the Conversation – 37:06

Dave rejoins the conversation with Dustin and they chat about some key points Brian made in the episode. They revisit the idea of using abstract games for targeted content learning outcomes. They also look back at the idea of an abstract spectrum of games, and how all games fall on this spectrum of purely abstract to theme-based.

Dustin, Dave, and Brian Play Wavelength! – 45:06

Dustin, Dave, and Brian play the game Wavelength [Amazon affiliate link].

Transcript of “Season 10 Preview with Rodger Moore – 108”

Transcript automated and provided by otter.ai. [Using this link helps us continue to use this transcription service for future episodes.] Disclaimer: This is an automated transcript and may have errors in grammar, wording, and/or word choice.

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</div>Board Gaming with Education 0:03
Board Gaming with Education, a podcast for anyone curious about how games and education mix, we explore various topics like game based learning gamification, and board games and the impacts they have on learning. here’s your host, Dustin Staats.

Dustin Staats 0:21
All right, so I am joined today with Dave Eng from university XP. And we’re going to talk about well actually, we’re going to listen to a conversation I had with Brian McDonald from brains on games, about being base games versus abstract games for learning. Dave, would you mind introducing yourself a little bit before I share more about the topic and our guests, Brian?

Dave Eng 0:42
Sure. Thanks for having me on. Dustin. Again, my name is Dave bang from university XP, I write about games, gamification, and game space learning. Awesome. And I’m excited to have you back. I think this is maybe your fourth visit to the podcast and a couple more. We’re talking about theme based games versus abstract games for learning. And I talk with Brian McDonald, who is the, I guess, host of brains on games as a YouTube channel. And he’s also a psychologist who loves board games. He practiced his practice focuses on supporting students with learning problems. And he talks about how games can help develop certain skills for students. Um, he has a lot of experience in education as a psychologist, so I’m super excited to chat with him about this topic. So in the episode, Brian does talk about some games that he uses, and we explore some ideas of abstract games for learning and theme based games for learning. Before we get into today’s conversation, let’s hear from our sponsor.

Dustin Staats 1:42
T his episode of Board Gaming with Education is sponsored by the world game of fun and educational geography board game, exciting and fast playing game for everyone. It is on Kickstarter, right now. I highly recommend checking it out. I know, I will be backing it because it makes for a great, fun educational game that everyone can play, as well as an amazing classroom resource. As you explore the different cities, countries flags, you’re doing it on this really cool colorful board that comes with the entire world map. Again, it’s on Kickstarter. So you’re gonna have to go onto Kickstarter, check it out for yourself, the link will be in the show notes. And again, that’s the world game on Kickstarter.

All right. And so today I am with Dr. Brian McDonald from brains on games. He is a psychologist and we are talking about abstract games versus theme based games for learning. So we’re gonna get into what that means and define those terms in just a minute. But Brian, would you mind introducing yourself?

Brian MacDonald 2:52
Sure. Well, like you said, I’m Brian McDonald. I’m a Canadian psychologist. And my work focuses primarily on supporting kids with learning difficulties at school. So way back in the day, I was a professor who was teaching PhD candidates how to do psycho educational assessments, they’re called, and then I’ve worked in Well, I worked in a school board for 15 years doing testing and therapy. And now I am in private practice, and brains on game started when the, the pandemic forced me to close everything down. So I was sort of sitting at home, you know, hanging out with family and stuff, but, but feeling like, Oh, I should be working, I should be working. But I couldn’t work, there was nothing I could do. So I’d sort of had this idea in the back of my mind for a long time. Because I’ve recommended games to parents, forever and ever and ever, to help their kids practice the skills that might be lacking, or that might be obstacles for them in the classroom.

You know, I prefer games over drills. And it’s nice when parents and kids can do something together. And so it had the idea had sort of been percolating in my mind for a while. And then once I suddenly had a whole lot of time on my hands, I started brains on games. So now it’s a YouTube channel and a Facebook page and are sort of all over the place.

Dustin Staats 4:18
Right? Yeah. And I love the channel. And I love I love the focus, too. I think that is definitely a student population that needs more people serving that population.

Brian MacDonald 4:29
Oh, thanks so much. Like, you know, there’s so many people who talk about board games on the internet, right? And so I thought, well, what can I offer that that other people maybe wouldn’t be able to? What what’s a unique thing that I could do? And because I’ve been school psychologist, I guess for years and years, this was my niche.

Dustin Staats 4:50
Right. And I think it’s super important to make learning as accessible as possible to right and i think games games can do that for some students.

Brian MacDonald 5:00
Definitely, you know, one of the things I think about, well look, the relationships are one of the most important things and, and finding ways for parents or for teachers to to play with the kids in their class or to play with their kids at home. That where you don’t have to invent it, you don’t have to be too creative about it, there’s not you know, watching a video about the rules or reading a rulebook is sort of the the buy in that you need the whatever time it takes to set up a game, if they’ve got a bunch of things like that on the shelf, that certainly makes life easier. And board games are so social. And that’s something I think that’s, that’s important for, for kids too, you know, learning about turn taking and learning about one of the biggest things about games, I think, and this was true of my kids early on, you know, young kids are so all or nothing, they have big feelings about things. And it’s hard for them to cope with things like losing a game or not being the best or not being in first place. So it’s it’s nice when they’re with the supportive grownup, who can kind of help them work through that stuff. So as a therapist, I’m sort of on the emotional side of the games, as well as practicing those different abilities that the kids might be lacking. And honestly, I mean, if you’re playing instead of doing drills, there’s so much less, less stressful. There’s, there’s, there’s no consequences. There’s an opportunity for growth there that I don’t think you have from doing worksheets, necessarily.

Dustin Staats 6:29
Right. And I mean, that’s something we’ll talk about more to is for language learning. And this doesn’t just apply to language learning, it applies to different content areas, but games allow language learners that safe environment to make mistakes, and not feel that pressure of being maybe embarrassed, especially where, or I taught in Asia, that was a very big thing is like to get in front of your class and, you know, speak and you’re worried about making mistakes and having a game you kind of have that, at less risk involved to do it.

Brian MacDonald 7:05
Totally. And I mean, the research now is showing the play is huge for development of all kinds of not just skills, but just your own maturity and resilience. And, you know, being able to play games like this, and and it’s such a renaissance of board games, I mean, the shelf behind me is filled with 100 games of anything you can imagine you can play a game, about any mechanic you can think of you can play a game about it. So it’s perfect timing. We live in a golden age when it comes to board games, I think.

Dustin Staats 7:38
Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s true. You can really play a board game about anything, too. So yeah, I’m just thinking of one that I’ve been playing as food chain magnate. I don’t know if you played that. But, uh, you’re you’re running a restaurant. I mean, that’s something pretty bland, but the game is pretty fun, because it’s very strategic.

Brian MacDonald 7:56
Sure. And I mean, you’ve got something like patchwork where you’re making up, you know, you can think of a game about just just about anything. It’s not all, you know, spaceships or, or, or war, you know, wargames.

Dustin Staats 8:11
Right, right. Alright, so let’s get into the topic is, we’re looking at the difference between abstract games for learning and theme based games for learning. And let’s first define so anyone that’s maybe just tuning in, or is not familiar with games for learning, game based learning. Let’s define that. So game based learning is where a player or learner is learning through play through the inherent process of playing the game. So it’s not something that I talk about a lot is gamification versus game based learning gamification is maybe earning points for doing something, that’s you’re not really learning through what you’re doing. The points are added on. So we’re gonna look at abstract games and theme based games, for learning. So learning through the process of playing an abstract game, or learning through the process of playing a theme based game. I’m gonna go to you for maybe your definition of each of those. What is an abstract game? How do we define that?

Brian MacDonald 9:18
Boy, you’ve probably find in the comments that people are going to disagree, because I don’t think there’s a firm firm definition and, and one person will say, this is an abstract game, and another would say, well, maybe it’s not so much. I mean, that the key with an abstract game is that the theme of the game isn’t important. Maybe it’s non existent. You might just be looking at stones on a board, like a game of Go. A game of chess is also considered to be an abstract game, because even though there’s sort of a military medieval kind of war theme, but that theme isn’t important. You’re just moving pieces around on a board, I think a really important part and this is where they’re might be some debate, when you’re talking about an abstract game is that, you know, luck, the element of chance is minimized as much as possible abstract games, by definition, don’t use dice or cards, where things might be random. There’s nothing really that’s hidden in a pure abstract game. So everyone has all of the same information, everything’s visible, and, and it doesn’t leave anything to chance. And so what happens with those pure kinds of abstract games, is that every turn, you know, you’re moving a piece on the board, but you’re creating a puzzle for the other player to solve. And that’s what I think is, I love these kinds of games, honestly. And, and my son is really good at them. And I would say, but, you know, I went to university for a lot of years, but I was focused on verbal skills, not these kind of ABS abstract moving stones on a board, and he thinks multiple moves ahead. And that’s just the way his brain works. And I just think it’s perfect. I love playing with them. I love when he beats me, because he’s so good. So I like the key is that there’s everyone has all of the information. There’s nothing that’s random, and it’s just a game that’s based purely on each player skill.

Dustin Staats 11:14
I think that’s a really good definition. And I learned a couple things. Because abstract games. I, I my definition in my head was just something that didn’t really have a theme to it. And it was strategic. I didn’t realize that it was purely just purely strategic, which is something I just learned. And that’s really

Brian MacDonald 11:34
Yeah. Well, and I mean, I think that’s where some people might vary, right? Because I, personally, I think of games like,well, a game that I talked about recently on brains on games was project L, which is a game that you’re just putting little chips into a puzzle, and you’re building puzzles. However, that wouldn’t be considered a pure abstract game, because there’s like a marketplace. And the puzzles come up randomly. And you’d never know what you’re going to get. It’s abstract, but maybe not purely abstract. The Duke is another good example. I don’t know if you’ve ever played the Duke.

Dustin Staats 12:09
I don’t think so. No.

Brian MacDonald 12:11
Okay. So the Duke is a game where it’s a lot like chess, it’s a two player game, you’ve got a grid, and there’s pieces that you’re you’re moving around their little wooden squares, the pieces have different movements that they can do, what I like about the Duke compared to chess, is that the movements are printed on the tiles themselves. So you don’t have to have memorize that a knight moves this way or that way. But what’s tricky about it is that when you move one of those tiles, it flips over, and it moves in a different way. Oh, wow. So so every second turn, your piece has a different power, but it wouldn’t be considered a purely abstract game, because you have a choice of either moving one of your pieces on the board, or recruiting a piece. And the way that you recruit is to draw a tile from a bag. And that’s where the randomness comes in. So you don’t even know what you’re going to get. I like that, because it kind of eliminates the memorization part of those opening moves. Like in chess, you might have a preferred opening strategy that you’re going to do every time. But with the Duke, it’s harder to do that, because you don’t know what piece you’re going to recruit. So that’s one that to me, would be an abstract game, but it’s not purely abstract, because you have the randomness of reaching into a bag and recruiting a tile.

Dustin Staats 13:26
Right. Right. That’s Yeah, I think that’s important to kind of look at those two, I guess that distinction, and that some games can be almost purely abstract, but still maybe fall into that category of abstract games, about theme based games.

Brian MacDonald 13:45
Well, theme based games have more of a story to them, right? Or some you know, the artwork has something important to do with the game and the mechanics of the game, hopefully, I mean, in the best theme based games, the mechanics make sense, based on the theme that you’re following. You know, one of my favorite, I think theme based games would be a game like dinosaur island where it’s you’re sort of building a Jurassic Park, and it’s a worker placement and engine building kind of a game. But some of the things that you’re doing is you’re you’re researching, you’re trying to gather DNA to create these recipes to put dinosaurs into your park and the way that you do that is you roll these dice now it’s perfectly themed the dice are they look like Amber, they’re like translucent, yellow dice. And I tell everyone I play with I back dinosaur island on Kickstarter. I was like one of the first people I saw this Jurassic Park style game and and they were looking for suggestions. And I said those d&d DNA should be an amber there needs to be an amber thing thing here somewhere. So I always take credit myself, coming up with the idea of creating those DNA dice but everything is married to that theme, you’ve got little dinosaur meeples that you’re putting into your park. And then guests come to visit and you’re placing them around. But if your security rating isn’t high enough, a dinosaur is going to escape And eat, eat some of your guests. So it’s it’s really everything is tied together around that theme of DNA and dinosaurs very much like a Jurassic Park, kind of a game. so different from chess, right? Where there’s not really a story that you’re telling, right. But with dinosaur Island, you definitely have that.

Dustin Staats 15:32
Right. And I think it’s important to kind of think about too, and we’ll probably talk about this in the discussion is how theme games can really tie those mechanics into the theme. Like you had mentioned, the security, having actual thing you need to do in the game that effects the story or the narrative of the game, too.

Brian MacDonald 15:54
Yeah, there’s so there’s often lots of things to balance in those games with the theme. Whereas in, in, in the more abstract games, you’re, you’re just looking at the layout of pieces on a board, and you’re solving that puzzle. Whereas if you’re playing a game, like coin bread, for example, you’re recruiting dice, there’s four different things for different kinds of dice that you have to choose from the number on the die determines how much you’re going to pay for the thing that you want to do. The color of the die determines which track you’re going to move along in terms of your influence in the city. There’s a lot of things to juggle and the theme base games, I would say usually are heavier on the working memory side, that whiteboard in your mind where you have to keep information so that you can juggle things around. There’s there tends to be, I think, anyway, more multitasking in a game that has that has a theme like that. Often there are lots of things going on. I mean, even in prime Klein, which is a math game, and it looks sort of abstract, but definitely it’s that the theme is math and you’re rolling dice, and you’re doing these different calculations. You’re moving two pawns around a spiral, but then you have to decide based on the numbers you roll, are you going to add, subtract or multiply or divide to move those ponds around? And are you are you more focused on moving forward or knocking other players pieces back?

Dustin Staats 17:18
That’s, that’s interesting. I kind of want to come back to that, because I wouldn’t think of a math game as a as a theme base game, which is I mean, it is right at the theme is math.

Brian MacDonald 17:30
Well, yeah, it’s it’s all about calculations for that Prime climb. And it looks abstract on the board. However, I mean, you have that randomness to write of right ice.

Dustin Staats 17:41
Cool. One thing you did say to that, which is I think important is about tying those mechanics in to the theme is, there’s more buying from the players too, which is important for games for learning, especially because if you have that buy in, you have their attention, if you have their attention, you have the ability to give them knowledge to help them learn.

Brian MacDonald 18:07
The abstract games tend tend not to be in the cool area of the board game store, they’re often sort of relegated to the back somewhere, you have to search them out sometimes because they’re not as cool as the other ones are exciting in terms of their theme. You know, you’re not racing cars around like formula D are flying spaceships like tiny epic galaxies.

Dustin Staats 18:27
Right, right. And I have another thing you said about this was early on, we were talking about just games in general and how games help creativity. And I think with theme based games, you kind of have that base layer of the narration. And then, as a player, you can kind of add your own element of creativity into the game. I don’t know if I mean, you probably play games with people in their, you know, imitating the characters in the game in a voice, right? They’re creating extra stories based around the game. So I think that that theme really helps develop creativity and players that are playing to

Brian MacDonald 19:10
Oh, I love it when you can tell a story about about a game that you played, right? Where you’re, I mean, when I was in high school, you know, I cut my teeth on those role playing games. I played all of those things dungeons and dragons and, and paranoia. And I mean, you name it if there was a role playing game, I played it. And that’s all about storytelling. Somebody said to me a long time ago that you know, games like that role playing game storytelling games are, you know, a haven for frustrated writers and actors. Because that’s what you’re doing. You’re you’re writing it, you’re creating a story as you go and you’re, you’re acting out as your character. And that is, I mean, it’s fun, but definitely you’re exercising that creative muscle.

Dustin Staats 19:57
Right? Right. So those I think those are a couple things that theme based games can do that maybe abstract games cannot do. Are there any things that abstract games are good for that a theme based game is maybe not able to do you think?

Brian MacDonald 20:12
GWell, when you look at those the pure abstract games, when we’re talking about no luck being involved, I mean, they do tend to be more more visual than verbal, I would say, because usually the verbal games, they might be abstract, but they often have some sort of a theme that’s, that’s linking them together. And there are, you know, there’s hidden things in those verbal games. Usually, you’re trying to guess a word or, or, you know, there’s randomness in choosing a letter for, for a game like Scrabble, but with the purely abstract games, a because there’s no chance, I think that sort of promotes that growth mindset, because you’re the only one who’s responsible for the outcome of the game, those two players are going to determine what happens is purely based on your ability. So that kind of promotes that idea of, well, I’m responsible for what happens in this game, you can’t blame anyone else. It’s not the dice. I mean, dice hate me. If there was if I had a T shirt that said, dice hate me, but you know, my kids would nod and say, yeah, that is absolutely true. You’re not good at dice games, dad. So you get that, you know, that’s that sense of personal responsibility. But also, because there’s no theme to kind of distract you from the puzzle. Those games tend to be really good exercises in fluid reasoning, or flexible problem solving. And if you talk to folks who design IQ tests, and who do learning assessments, one of the most important skills that kids can have, that they can develop the most important score on the IQ test is the measure of fluid reasoning, because that’s all about when you’re faced with a new kind of problem, and you don’t have all of the necessary information to solve it. How do you tackle that? Can you generate a solution based on incomplete information or based on, you know, something new that you’ve never seen before? What a great skill to be able to develop, you know, and without all the extra trappings of a theme, you’re, you’re just purely exercising that ability. Now, it could be a different skill, like I mean, Jenga, I would say, is an abstract game. You know, there’s no deep strategy. There’s no deep strategy, but you’re just building this tower, and you’re trying not to knock it over. But that’s a, that’s a purely visual motor game, where you’re just sort of being very careful. And you need to have a steady hand, in order to make sure that you don’t knock everything down. So I think it kind of takes away all of the distractions, and you’re working that particular skill. Often the abstract games are good exercises for kids who are working on math or science problems, right? Because those are the ones where fluid reasoning is absolutely essential.

Dustin Staats 23:03
Maybe, could you let me give an example of when someone might use fluid reasoning for I don’t know, just like a day to day thing, either as an adult or as a student?

Brian MacDonald 23:13
Well, you know, when you think about students who are even solving word problems in math, you’ve got the reading part, of course, but you don’t have all the information. And usually the problems are presented in a slightly different way each time. So you’re, you’re using your verbal reasoning skills, of course, if it’s a word problem, but then you have to figure out how to generate a solution for that. One of the things that we do to measure fluid reasoning is we we have shapes that are arranged in a certain way. And from that, that organization of shapes, you have to figure out the rule that will allow you to choose the right answer for each of these multiple choice questions. So it could be you know, if you’re telling a kid who hasn’t memorized the strategy for how to do it, okay, well, what’s the best deal on you know, printer ink at the at the office supply store? How are they going to figure that out? You know, any of those exercises where they’re, they’re working with incomplete information, and they don’t have a set step by step strategy. That’s going to involve some some of those flexible problem solving or fluid reasoning skills. When you when you’re following a step by step process and you run into an obstacle. You know, what happens if, if something doesn’t go the way that you expect it to? You know, you’re building something, even an art class, you’re building something in our class and it’s not hanging together? Well, then what do you do? Right? That becomes a fluid reasoning activity at that point.

Dustin Staats 24:40
Yeah, those are really good examples. And then as far as I guess, I’m trying to think because, for me, the games I have used and again, probably mainly because my background is in English language, have been theme based games. I don’t think an abstract game would be conducive to language learning, like playing chess, you know, maybe if you like have to, say a sentence every time you make a move, but then that turns into more of a gamification thing than a game based learning thing. Do you have any examples of like, whether it’s content specific or the learning outcomes are tied to abstract games?

Brian MacDonald 25:22
Wow, you know, I’ve I tried to think of abstract games that, you know, purely abstract games that are more that are more verbal. And it was a, it was a tough challenge. Right, right. Like I think about maybe the closest thing might be something like that old game diplomacy. Where Yeah, I mean, there’s a theme, and it’s tied to the theme. But there’s no chance involved. Every but the only thing that’s secret from everyone else are your negotiations. Right. So there’s a lot of social I don’t know if you’ve ever played diplomacy before. But there’s a lot of social interactions, because there’s no chance you have to make deals with other players in order for anything to happen. So, so there is some hidden stuff, but there’s no luck involved. And it’s a lot of back and forth verbally. So that sort of came into my mind as being an example. But there’s so much chance in those games, like one that I’m really excited to try. It hasn’t arrived yet, but I’ve got it on order is a game called letter tycoon, which involves a few different things. It’s a little bit like bananagrams, for Scrabble, where your spelling words, but you can get a patent on a letter so that you earn points when other people use the letters that you have a patent on. So it adds, you know, some there’s some math and planning and strategy involved. As opposed to just having a great vocabulary. And being a great speller, it just adds some extra wrinkles. But it’s still not a purely abstract games. So I’m really at a loss. And maybe that’s partly because I play so many games that are more visual than verbal. You know, I’ve got trapped words on the shelf. And I’ve got codenames shelf, but but I don’t play a lot of those, those more verbal, interactive, other than the storytelling games.

Dustin Staats 27:14
Right. Yeah, I’m trying to think I’m probably fall into the same category as you is where I would probably choose a theme based game over an abstract game, do like some abstract games. But again, I’m thinking of one and it’s from a Taiwanese publisher called solo Wien. And it’s about like, it’s very kind of light hearted, but the theme is harvest seen souls, but like the arts very, like cute art. So it’s, it sounds like intense, but it’s very much like a combination of Tic Tac to tic tac toe, chess and checkers, I would say, where you choose a player and that player has specific ability, and then the other person has a different player with different specific building, you’re playing on a like a three by three grid. But, again, I don’t, I would fall into any learning outcomes. Yeah, I don’t know. And I’m struggling also to think of an abstract game. I mean, you could go to those soft skills, right? Maybe like you had mentioned, the fluid reasoning could be what you’re trying to develop the skill you’re trying to develop through abstract games. But that’s a little bit harder thing to measure. Right?

Brian MacDonald 28:27
Yeah. Things like turn taking, I guess the social dynamics of game playing. are, you know, those pop up during those abstract games, but I do. I mean, I love those games, I do have an awful lot of theme games. And those tend to be the ones where there’s lots of drama involved where you do have a story to tell at the end. You know, a good example. There’s, there’s this k two game behind me is a mountain climbing theme game that’s about hand management and resource management. And the same thing happens to me, every time I play that game, I take wild chances towards the end. And always something crazy happens and all my mountain years die. But that’s always the story that we tell afterwards. Like I was being really careful. And I had my tent built over here and and then dad came racing by and his mountaineers get caught in a storm. And that’s how I won the game. So there’s, they’ll always go up and tell their mom about, you know, this is what happened. Same thing with formula D. I don’t know if you’ve ever played that one. Formula D is a racing car game. It’s very thematic, you choose dice that have different numbers on them that will allow you to go further or roll lower numbers because you need to go slowly through turns on the track and formula D. And the way you choose your diet, your dice is using a little gearshift that you have in front of you. So you move the gear and that’s how you choose the larger dice. If you’re in a higher gear, you’re going to go further on I always you know, I’m trying to catch up to the careful all at the beginning. Then it’s like, all in I’m gonna roll the highest dice and I need this exact number Also, I’m going to lose the game. So, you know, nine times out of 10, my car explodes or my mountain nears all die, but that one time.

Dustin Staats 30:12
Right, right. It’s worth it.

Brian MacDonald 30:14
There’s some dramatic thing that and I’m playing with my kids. So it’s you know, they have a funny story to tell about how their dad screwed everything up. But yeah, I mean, those, those are more, you know, I played those games for fun. But when you think about a game, like, formula D is a good one. Because probability, you know, you’re looking at dice that have different numbers, you’re thinking about, okay, well, what what do I need to roll, you’re constantly counting and calculating how many times you need to slow down around those turns? And whether you have enough resources to, you know, are my tires gonna blow up? If I do this? Will I lose my last point on my brakes if I do this? So there’s some resource management and lots of probability, and just numeracy skills in terms of magnitude. And it’s racing cars, you know, right. Yeah. That thing kids like race lovers. Yeah.

Dustin Staats 31:02
One, one thing that kind of popped into my mind, as far as targeting learning outcomes for with abstract games would be game development, right? I mean, that’s very specific to what we’re talking about. But you could look at game states within abstract games and help students learn what I don’t know how things within a game affect the game state, based on small additions to the rules. I’m not a game design teacher. So it’s hard for me to kind of really think about some of the learning outcomes there. But I would imagine that could be something that you could target with abstract games.

Brian MacDonald 31:42
Well, and with the abstract games, they’re right there pared down. So you’re not as worried about the art, you’re not as worried about all the different resources and pieces that you might that you might have. So I would, I would think those would be the kind of games that you target, at least at the beginning of a game development course. Right? Yeah. You might look at probability you might look at sort of planning ahead, if if planning is something that matters, right? Like I said, My son will think three or four or five moves ahead. And he traps me in those games. You know, I always tell him, I went to grade 23. And how are you? How are you able to defeat us games, we had a great experience with go now go is, is as abstract as you could possibly get. You’re just laying stones on a grid, and you’re trying to surround the other players pieces. And when I was in high school, I was interested in that game. And I learned how to play from a book but nobody else in the small town where I was from New about go. So I never really was able to get into it. I couldn’t really explain it to someone else and show them how to play because I wasn’t a skilled player. I went with my son to a board game cafe when those first started to open up, there’s a little board game cafe and we went in. And there was a gentleman there, who was one of those internationally ranked players of gold they were he was playing a game of Go with the with the waiter in the in the restaurant, and he saw my son Riley come in. I mean, Riley might have been seven or eight years old at the time. And and he said, Come on over, I’ll teach you how to play this game. That gentleman travels around high schools and intermediate schools in the area and teaches math in math classes teaches kids how to play go. Okay. Right, as a as a, again, is that purely abstract fluid reasoning? problem solving, spatial management? Kind of a game? Yeah, geometry is an area where I think right, you’re working with those shapes. And like a game like project L is purely visual analysis and geometry you’re working with those? Are they call them poly dominoes, those little tile pieces that look like Tetris pieces? Maybe that’s an area where right you’re doing some rotation or a game like, control Have you tried, have you played control yet? From I Pandasuarus?

Dustin Staats 34:01
I haven’t, No.

Brian MacDonald 34:02
So control is a game, where you start just with this black cube, and you’re adding these these little bricks to them, they sort of look like those 10s and ones blocks that you use as manipulatives in math class, see, you’re adding three of these pieces at a time. And you can, you can cover up your opponent’s pieces with yours. And the object of the game is to have the most pieces visible at the end on each side. So you’re counting up how many of each color you can see on not on the bottom, but on the five other sides of this cube. So I mean, here you’re thinking about, you know, 3d visualization and and really, really is such a three dimensional problem solving kind of a game again, that would be more of a geometry, I would think a geometry objective than anything,

Dustin Staats 34:53
right. Yeah, I mean, now that we’ve been talking about it more, this might be a good approach for a few things. your topic is I’m sure there’s loads of math, learning outcomes from abstract games like graphing, maybe graphing different points in the game. Again mentioned go I’m sure I’ve again, math is like, way over here. I love like numbers. But anything that is more abstract like algebra, or math orlooking at formulas, that’s tough for me. Yeah, I’m sure there are some there are some learning outcomes with abstract games from that, too.

Brian MacDonald 35:31
Yeah. I mean, I think math or maybe even science would be the two areas where he would he would find it the most. I mean, it’s logic, right? So you’d be looking at a lot of logical kind of problem solving and puzzle solving.

Dustin Staats 35:44
Right, right. Awesome. So before we head into, we’re going to finish this conversation with a game and I told you, we’re going to play one game, we’re actually going to try something different. I had thought about that I played before, and I think it might be fun to do. But do you have anything else maybe to add? Before we go into that?

Board Gaming with Education 36:05
Well, only, maybe only to say that with those theme base games, because we’ve talked a lot about the abstract ones. But with those theme based games, yeah, there are lots of specific kinds of objectives that that you can pull from those history is a great one. You think about brass, Birmingham, brass, the latest one that I’m trying to learn how to play. And it’s all about the industrial revolution in England, and but the manual itself has biographies of these industrialists from that time period, and little historical facts about the reason why the mechanics work that way, the manual has been sitting on my table forever. I’ve read it. But trying to get the kids to sit down for a couple of hours to play a really deep game. Yeah, it is challenging. It is a heavier game. I liked it. I didn’t like it as much as others did. But I think it was it was good. And I’m gonna ask Brian to stick around because we’re gonna play a game at the end of this episode with Brian and Dave. But let’s bring Dave back on.

Dustin Staats 37:06
Alright, so we’re back. We’re gonna talk about what Brian and I talked about. Dave, what are some of the main things that you took away or some ideas that you were really excited about that you heard? Brian share?

Dave Eng 37:18
So one of the things Dustin was Brian was talking about abstract games. And I think when we address what we’re talking about abstract games is games where there is no theme, or the theme is not that important to gameplay. So some of the big classics out there are like chess checkers go, where there are merely like components to the game where you’re playing. But there’s no real evident theme in there. But there are some modern applications of abstract games as well. And one of them being something like Jenga, because Brian talked about motor visual skills with some of the students that he works with. And Django is one of those games, there’s no real theme to think of, but Jenga does require some, you know, a bit of flexibility and dexterity as well. So abstraction and games, I think, was one of the biggest themes you guys talked about.

Dustin Staats 38:03
Right? Right. And I know one thing that Brian and I discussed and I had kind of prepped you for to see if you can think of anything and I’m curious to anyone listening, if they have ideas for this as well, is looking at an abstract game. And tying it to learning outcomes for content. I don’t know if there’s a bridge, you could cross to do that. Or if it’s possible, I imagine it is possible. But for me with my background in English language teaching, a lot of my game based learning in class was very tied to language learning outcomes. So most of the time, they were theme based games. So I wonder if you have any ideas. And if you’re listening, feel free to reach out to us and let us know too.

Dave Eng 38:45
So there’s, there’s one game Dustin that I think we’re both familiar with, because we went to go see their publisher booth back at PAX unplugged last year, which is evolution by Northstar games. And for those of you who haven’t played evolution before, it’s very much a game about creating different species of animals that will then survive and thrive in this natural environment. And what the game does really well in my opinion, is that it abstracts some of the concepts of the survival of the fittest mode in that some animals are carnivores, in which case they need to eat other animals and some animals are herbivores, in which case they need to eat plants that are available in the game. But it’s a game that is constantly built on adapting our animals to survive the environment. And if they don’t, if they don’t get enough food, then those animals perish, they expire. So I think when we look at concepts, biological concepts like evolution, a game like evolution does, that applies like concept really well and that framework?

Right, and you had talked about something before we hit record here and we’re kind of chatting about the conversation is the spectrum of games falling on an average abstract spectrum I guess, can you share a little bit more of what you were talking about there?

So when you were having a conversation with Brian, I was talking about a spectrum of games where there’s complete abstraction on one side, and then there is highly thematic on the other side when I talk about highly thematic games, knowing about games that are very much based on the theme, the narrative, the story, in which the structure for that game is created. So let’s say on one and on the extreme end of the spectrum for abstraction, we’ll take a game like tic tac toe and tic tac toe, we are both players. And we are represented by two symbols, X’s and O’s. And the object of the game is to get three in a row of your symbol. That’s it, no story, no theme, no other overarching narrative for who we are. On the other end of the spectrum, I would say for highly thematic games are games like Battlestar Galactica, the board game. For those listeners that have never seen the show or have heard about the game before. It’s a game that it’s about backstabbing and intrigue and like backdoor deals. And this game, while it’s a cooperative game, represents that show really well. And while you could make a game that has a lot of those, like backstabbing negotiation elements, when this game was designed and created, it was very much based on the theme, the narrative and the overall lore of Battlestar Galactica. That’s what I would consider a highly thematic game on that end of the spectrum.

Dustin Staats 41:27
Awesome. And you have just recently I went to watch your webinar about a week ago, and you talk about some games. Do any of these games that you chatted about? Or any games that you’ve used in the past? Are they abstract games or more theme based games? What do you tend to lean towards?

Dave Eng 41:43
So during that last webinar, I covered four games that I would consider on the spectrum to be close to the abstract. So those four games were just one hanabi, code names and also wavelength. And I say that they tend to skew more towards the abstract version, because there’s no real clear roles for a lot of those games, I would say other than hanabi. And code names, specifically, because in hanabi, and code names, if you’ve never played it before, hanabi are playing a fireworks manufacturer who needs to cooperate with your other fireworks manufacturers to play these cards in color and number ascending order, but you cannot see your cards. So there’s a little bit of theme there. In code names, you’re playing a spymaster, who’s trying to get your teammates to guess specific words on a board based on the code words that are presented there. So in that case, you have a little bit of a role there. But when it comes to games, like like wavelength, or just one, there’s really no specific player role or theme in that game, I would say that they’re pretty light. They’re fun. They’re like party games, I put them on the spectrum up there with like, with Pictionary or TELUS trations, in terms of just prioritizing the player experience, and depending less on the specific theme of the game overall.

Dustin Staats 43:02
Right. And I know one thing, kind of going back to what Brian had chatted about is he talks about looking at some abstract games for math. And one thing he looks at is the game called Project L, which I’m not familiar with the game, but he chats about it. And you can tie in, I guess, visual analysis and geometry into an abstract game. So looking at maybe even chess, I guess you could look at probability. I don’t know, it’s hard for me, it’s hard for me to think through that framework, because my background is not in math. But thinking about those ways that we can tie in abstract games, to learning outcomes. Maybe math is kind of the one area where it would work. I don’t know.

Dave Eng 43:48
Yeah. I think so. So I own project Ella was one of the backers for it from their first Kickstarter campaign. And I can tell you that it’s one of probably the most satisfying and colorful and really just beautiful games I played recently. And in Broderick del, like we talked about before Dustin, it’s highly abstract, there’s no specific role for you or the rest of your players, they just try to get these like basically Tetris pieces, to fit into different puzzles so that you can earn more pieces so that you can do more puzzles even faster later on. I think what’s really great about that game is that it prioritizes spatial reasoning. So if you are in a position where you need to fill up certain puzzle pieces on your board, you know, like, well, you need, like a really long blue piece or an L shaped piece or a square or like a tee. You know, like think about those different pieces you would normally see in Tetris. So it really challenges individual players to think differently about how specific forms are created out of different, smaller or larger shapes. So I don’t know how that completely relates to something like geometry. I mean, there are there are shapes in the game, but I could see someone prioritizing the use of that game overall for I would say like visual or spatial reasoning,

Dustin Staats 45:06
Right, I think that’s 100%. Right. And moving into now our game, I want to talk about what you think wavelength, where does that fall on the spectrum? So we’re gonna listen to the rules of the game with Brian. And then when we come back, I want you to kind of share with us what you think wavelength falls on to the spectrum.

Let’s move into the game. And I don’t know if you’re familiar with this game. It’s called wavelength.

Brian MacDonald 45:43
No, I don’t know that one.

Dustin Staats 45:44
Okay, so it’s, it’s Oh, man. I can think of the designer Alex Hague, I think his name is I can’t remember the publisher though. But it’s a party game that you can play with, you can really play it with, I don’t know, 100 people. But really, it’s, it’s probably best, maybe eight or so. But you can play it as small as with two people. So we’re going to try this out. We’ve played it once before. And I’m going to give you a like a range. So arranged might be hot to cold. And it’s going to be zero is hot. 100 is cold soup backwards, zero is cold. 100 is hot. And I’m going to think of a word. And I have a number. So I’m gonna write down the number. And the number might be let’s say, it’s 80. So I want you to guess the number 80. And I’m gonna give you a clue between that range again, cold zero, hot 100. And I might say, I don’t know,a beach on a summer day. Okay, so you would give me a number where that falls in the range zero or 100? And hopefully, you would guess 80.

Brian MacDonald 46:54
So a Canadian playing with an American we have different scales. Because we had Canada,in Canada, whoa, okay. 30.

Dustin Staats 47:05
Right. I was gonna say a beach in Florida, but I don’t know how familiar you are with beaches in the US good Florida beaches, or at least the waters warmer in Florida because of the goal. But yeah, I tried to try to be more general with that clue.

And Dave, before we hear the guesses from both you and Brian, with our game of wavelength, where on the spectrum, would you consider wavelength to fall?

Dave Eng 47:38
I would say that wavelength on the spectrum is much closer to the abstract and the abstract and because wavelength you don’t choose to play a specific characters, no overarching story or anything else. Like I said before, I think that wavelength and just won are closer to consider party games in which the really curating and supporting the player experience and making sure that it’s fun and engaging is really the most important and less so than an overall theme or narrative. But I think that what Brian had to share here about wavelength and the game you’re gonna play is the most interesting part.

Dustin Staats 48:14
Alright, let’s listen into the range that I give Brian and then you’ll have an opportunity to guess a number and see who was closer. So let’s listen.

So it’s going to be the range is zero is superhero. 100 is super villain.

Brian MacDonald 48:32
Oh. Okay.

Dustin Staats 48:33
And I’m gonna just think of a number. I’m gonna write that down. Okay, so I want you to guess this number. Again, the range zero superhero. 100 super villain. And I’m gonna give you Magneto.

Brian MacDonald 48:48
Magneto 0 superhero? 100 super villain. Okay, Magneto, huh?

Dustin Staats 49:05

Dave Eng 49:08
Okay, so based on what I know about the x men, I would say Magneto is on the inside to give him a number between zero to 100 and zero being superhero and 100 being super villain. Because Magneto in the x men lore is a villain. However, I think like a lot of really great written written villains. You can empathize with his position, so I put him at 60 on the spectrum there.

Dustin Staats 49:34
Alright, let’s listen to Brian dancer.

Brian MacDonald 49:37
I’m gonna say 60 Whoo.

Dustin Staats 49:40
That was close. And I’m gonna 73 was my number. Oh. So it sounds like you guys tied there. So let’s talk.

Before we wrap it up here. I want to thank our guests one last time. Thank you again, Brian for coming on and chatting with me about abstract games and theme based games.games for learning. If anyone wanted to reach out to you, where might they find you?

Brian MacDonald 50:04
Well, you can find me Well, my channels on YouTube brains on games, brains on games is the face book page. And it’s the Instagram handle. And the Twitter feed is brains on games brains on games.ca is the website. So it’s a.ca website because I’m in Canada. And if anyone ever wanted to send me an email, my address is Brian at brains on games.ca.

Dustin Staats 50:29
Awesome, don’t mix up the “i” and “a” with those two. I always have to double check, but now it fills it in for Gmail for me. So I’ll leave it in the show notes. So any they can just copy and paste it. Again. Thank you for coming on the show.

Brian MacDonald 50:44
Thanks for having me.

David, thank you so much for coming on and chatting a little, a little bit about our conversation with Brian if anybody wanted to reach out to you where might they find you?

Dave Eng 50:52
Sure. Thanks for having me. Dustin. So the best place to find me is on the website. University XP calm University XP is also on Twitter at university underscore XP and on Facebook as University XP.

Dustin Staats 51:04
Awesome. Thank you so much. Thank you, Dustin.

Thank you for listening to another episode of Board Gaming with Education. That was our first new formatted episode. I’m really excited to hear what you think I want to know if this works well. If not, let us know if you do like it. Let us know too because it really helps us consider things as we move forward with the show and what’s working and what’s not. And if you do enjoy the show, please consider leaving a review that really helps others find the show. You can leave a review on iTunes or any other podcasting platform that you listen to the show on. As always teach better learn more and play some more games. I just learned how to play Japuir which is a really cool I think only two player game. But it’s a older modern board game really fun set collection trading type of game. Check it out. It’s on board game arena.com.

Again, this episode of Board Gaming with Education is sponsored by the world game of fun educational geography board game. It’s a super exciting and fast playing game for everyone. I highly recommend checking out this game on Kickstarter. Now. It comes with this really cool world map that includes different cards for each country with a flag and a bunch of facts. Really awesome educational resource, something I highly recommend adding to your classroom collection or a great game to play at home. And again, that’s the world game on Kickstarter.

Board Gaming with Education 52:37
Thank you for listening in this week. If you like what you heard, be sure to let us know you can find us on social media as Board Gaming with Education or big games or email us at podcast at Board Gaming with education.com. If you want to support our podcast Be sure to check out our support page on our website. As always teach better learn more and most importantly, play more. Thank you for listening and until next time

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