What is a “homework” game and why does it matter?
“Homework Games” are games every game designer should study in order to become more knowledgeable and well-rounded, from the ancient classics to the latest modern hotness.
None of us have existed for the whole of human history. That means that none of us has the full record of human achievement already learnt in our brains – but in every field, we have the benefit of other people’s work, and the advantage of being able to build upon it.
So as game designers, why should we play “homework” games, and what are they?
In my opinion, a homework game is a game that I play less for the enjoyment of it, and more for personal development.
My personal definition:
I consider a game to be a “homework” game if:
1) I wouldn’t normally play it, because of the mechanics and/or theme
2) it’s a classic and everyone refers to it, like chess, Monopoly, Catan – even if we also think we have “moved past it”
3) It is a game that has caused harm, and by studying it, I can learn how not to cause harm myself (but I don’t buy this category)
4) a game from a part of society that I don’t see enough, or voices that don’t get heard enough
In other words, games that teach me mechanically, historically, thematically, and culturally important things I should know in order to be a better designer and make better games.
For example, I would never choose to play a wargame, or a TTRPG, given the choice between that and a game that appeals to me more. But as a designer, I am missing out on all the things I can learn from those types of games.
In the same way, if I skip all the games that have come before, I am doing myself a disservice, even if I think I know all there is to know about roll-and-move mechanics.
Homework vs. research
When I asked this question in several game design groups, I got some interesting replies – including push-back about there being a difference between a “homework” game and a “research” game. Of course, both are a form of homework, but in this case, I think it’s important to differentiate between them.
Maybe one way to see it is as “generalist” vs “specialist” learning.
If you are designing a game with a very specific mechanism, it makes sense to look at other games with similar mechanisms – I call that “research” – directed learning with a specific outcome in mind, and usually, you would play games you like and want to emulate.
If you are just looking to improve as a designer in general, that’s when these “homework” games come into play. I consider them general development games, and they aren’t games you play for fun so much as for a greater understanding of the context in which you are designing any game today.
For me, there are several categories of game that I think are really important games to have played for the sake of your own development, even if you don’t necessarily like that kind of game.
So, in my opinion, a well-rounded designer should have at least some familiarity with chess, checkers, Go, backgammon, Mah Jong, and other classics; they should at least have played a few of the original trick-taking games like Hearts or Spades, and other card games, from Snap to Bridge, plus their cover versions, like Uno and Phase10 (based on Last Card and Gin Rummy-style games); and as a designer of modern games, it makes sense to have played the evergreen mass market games like Monopoly, Scrabble, Pictionary, Cluedo, etc, and the modern classics like Catan, Ticket to Ride, Dominion, and so forth, so that you can understand the context of games in general.
Firstly, understanding history is important, so playing as many old and even ancient games as possible is really valuable. Why do people still play chess, backgammon, checkers, Go…? What can we learn from that?
You can approach playing games in the same way as books: you might read the “classics” to understand literature as a whole, but read books that are too new, niche, or otherwise ineligible to be classics in order to research things specific to your interest or topic. The ones I mean are the ones any designer should aim to have played a few times, for their own development.
So for cards, I would consider Hearts, Spades, Gin Rummy or similar, and Last Card to be good ones to understand well. Last Card is the core of Uno, and Gin Rummy and other variants are the roots of Phase10, both of which are massive evergreen mass market hits.
It kind of feels like talking to people who don’t know that a current music hit is a cover, though, when you talk about card games to people who don’t know the history behind them, and that’s the kind of thing I try to point out if I can, because I know there are so many “covers” that I don’t have the knowledge to recognise, and wish I did; I know it blew my 15yo mind when I found out one of my favourite Dinosaur JR tracks was actually a Bowie cover, for example.
More recent games like Monopoly, Scrabble, Pictionary, Cluedo, Ludo, and Snakes and Ladders all have roots in much older forms of entertainment, as well as having fascinating histories in their own right.
Monopoly, for example, was initially designed by American anti-monopolist Lizzie Magie in 1903 as an educational tool to illustrate the negative aspects of concentrating land-in private monopolies and explain the single-tax theory of Henry George. A man called Charles Darrow decided to focus only on the competitive version of the rules and, after marketing it himself as Monopoly, he eventually sold it to The Parker Brothers (even though it wasn’t his design at all!). You can read the whole sordid story on Wikipedia, here.
Unsurprisingly, Scrabble was inspired by crosswords; Pictionary, a drawing variant on the parlour game Charades, was inspired mechanically by Trivial Pursuit, both being the kinds of games that people can play at the player count or in groups to represent each player, allowing the concept of the “party” game to take root.
Cluedo was another board game inspired by parlour games, and the name is a play on another classic game, Ludo (“I play” in Latin), which, like other cross and circle games, is derived from the Indian game Pachisi. The reason the name for Cluedo is “Clue” in the USA is that Ludo was unknown there – although similar games Sorry! and Parcheesi are familiar to a lot of Americans – so the pun wasn’t successful. Snakes and Ladders, called “chutes and ladders” for some reason once it was brought to the USA, is also based on an Indian game, Moksha Patam.
Games like these are part of our global heritage, so playing them is part of finding out who we are and how we fit into the overall development of games throughout history. These games have lasted this long for a reason, and there’s always something new to learn from something old.
It’s very helpful to have a shared lexicon – when everyone knows what you mean by “how a knight moves in chess”, for example. This carries through to “modern” hobby board games.
Growing up in Europe, where board games are considered a normal adult occupation, it surprised me to find that Americans in particular only recently realised that board games were not just for children. A lot of that happened in the ’90s and ’00s, when games like (Settlers of) Catan, Carcassonne, and Ticket To Ride reached audiences all over the world.
It’s important to remember that a lot of what some might consider dated and boring was once the cutting edge of entertainment – and there’s still something to be learnt from these games, not least whatever it is that keeps them selling decades after the hobby audience moved on. Incidentally, it was during a game of Carcassonne that the term “meeple” was coined (by Alison Hansel).
As a designer, it makes sense that you should try to investigate any game that crosses from the hobby scene to mass market, like Catan, Azul, Sagrada, Patchwork, Calico, Everdell, and Wingspan – even if you don’t aim to make something that will appeal to mass market gamers. Understanding the appeal of these games is an important part of understanding game design – and you can learn a lot from the errors that previous designers have made, too.
The final category of games that I think are important, from a homework perspective, are those considered to be the epitome of their genre and weight, or games often referred to when discussing that type of game, whether good or bad. I call these “exemplars“. All of the ancient games fit into this category, so I am going to focus mainly on modern games in this section.
Castles of Burgundy is a classic Euro game where the gameplay outshines the presentation – a game that would not sell well at all on modern game store shelves – but because of its value as a game, it continues to be popular more than a decade after its release, to the point where it is being re-released in a special edition by Awaken Realms. So it would be a great example of the Euro game focus on gameplay over polish or “prettiness”, something usually associated with American or “Ameritrash” games, that more recent Euro games have started taking into account.
When talking about different cooperative games, people might tell you that something is closer to Pandemic than Spirit Island – which is only useful if you are familiar with both games. Game designers often use a well-known game as a shorthand, whether they are talking about the feeling, the overall gameplay, the theme, or a very specific mechanical element, or “game mechanic“.
An example of a popular mechanic is deck-building. It’s generally accepted that Dominion was the first “real” deck-builder, but games like Clank!, Dune: Imperium, and Aeon’s End come up often in comparisons. So Dominion is a great example of a homework game, and if you were wanting to learn about deck-builders, it would be a great idea to work through the games that catch your fancy in the BGG list.
So… where to start?
The nature of homework games is that it’s impossible to play them all, but as a designer, I think it’s important to play outside your comfort zone for the sake of learning new (or old!) things, as well as playing for entertainment or to inform a specific design.
While every game I play goes into my memory banks and helps build my knowledge of design, I don’t have infinite time and energy to learn and play games, so while I definitely want to play for fun, I make sure to include some games that are all about my own development. As you may know, we have a massive backlog of unplayed games on our shelf of opportunity – but only a few of them count as actual “homework games”, so… I guess I get to keep shopping, haha.
Black History Month
As I mentioned, there’s a cultural element to my definition of Homework Games – games from parts of society that I don’t see represented enough in the Tabletop world. It’s Black History month here in the USA, so I have been asking around for recommendations of Black creators to include in my list of games to play.
Of course, Eric Lang comes to mind immediately. I have followed his social media for some time, but haven’t played any of his games. I was surprised when I actually looked at Blood Rage (instead of ignoring it because the title suggests a game I don’t want to play), and found that it was actually probably a game I might enjoy, but I think Ankh will probably be my first title by this designer, because both the theme and the concept behind the game play really appeal to me, after watching this video:
Some other designers that I have been told to check out are:
Eric Slauson, designer of MonsDRAWsity, amongst others – I haven’t belonged to a group that could play this kind of party game for a while, and I miss them. This sounds a lot like a parlour-style game we used to play where you had to work in pairs to draw portraits of people you couldn’t see, described only by your partner. The most recognisable portrait wins. There was another variant that was giving directions on a map without using the actual directions left, right, up, down, straight ahead, or street names – you had to use other details and landmarks on the map to find your way. I love these kinds of communication with imperfect information games, so this is definitely something I want to play!
As well as several other games, Omari Akil designed Rap Godz, which appeals to me after watching several documentaries about the history and cultural significance of rap – I never used to like or understand it, but I think now I might really enjoy playing a game about it. So that’s on my list!
Fertessa Allyse, of my co-panellists on the monthly Meeple Syrup panels, is responsible for several games in her own right, as well as working on many other projects for Funko. I think the game of hers that I most want to play is Wicked and Wise, especially with that beautiful art by Beth Sobel, one of my favourite game artists.
I just received my Kickstarter copy of One and Done by Kimelia Weathers Smith, so that’s already in line for playing – when we next have a big enough group, I have a lot of party games I want to try out!
Jay Bell is another of my co-panellists at Meeple Syrup, and as well as his own design, Spotlight, he has been part of the creative team for a lot of other games, including Wicked and Wise, which is another vote for that game!
We’re going to cover this topic in this week’s Meeple Syrup Show – come and follow along and let us know what you think, and what homework games you think are important! This is the Facebook event link, or you can check it out on YouTube live.
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