A Google search for board games and literacy inevitably turns up information about overtly educational board games, specifically designed to teach reading skills to kids. I find this trend interesting, because my students never really like games when they are designed to be more educational than fun. Review games in class usually meet with a lukewarm reception, almost as if the material I'm trying to teach automatically taints the games with boringness. They are like little kids who know that mom is sneaking them extra veggies on pizza night.
That said, I can teach my students a lot—and learn quite a bit about them—by playing games. Students who are reluctant to read will try much harder when deciphering in-game text than they would on a standardized test. When we are playing games, students will ask more questions and take more risks. To them, there is no pressure because it's "just a game."
One of my favorite games to play with students when I want them to read is Sentinels of the Multiverse. The comic book theme attracts a lot of teenagers, plus the fact that it's a co-op game encourages good behavior. But in order to succeed, players must be able to read the text on a card, connect it with other cards in their deck or in the game at large, and find a way to effectively do battle against a common enemy. (Plus, if they like the game, I can direct them to the comics.) Other card games like Magic: The Gathering and even Dominion are interesting to play with students because their interpretations of card text tell you so much about what information they process and how they process it.
Although I haven't played old school RPGs or visual novels with my students, and will probably never have the time to, I suspect that these games naturally promote literacy because they are compelling. Several of my early vocabulary words were picked up from video games, and I can't be the only one. I believe that games, both analog and digital, have a lot of potential as tools for literacy... as long as that is not overtly what they are about.
This makes me wonder. I am a public high school teacher, and my lesson planning focuses on concrete objectives that my principal can immediately understand if he comes by for a walkthrough. I also teach at a Title 1, where there is extra pressure for teachers and students to "work bell-to-bell." But students only want to play games when they genuinely feel that they are getting to play, no strings attached. I'm still looking for that happy medium with games based on class material, where it truly feels like we are having fun.
I wanted to try a 10x10 in 2017 because I thought it would help me get to know some of my games more deeply and ultimately get more enjoyment out of them. We're now a month and a half into 2017, and I haven't made much progress.
Here is the original list of games I wanted to play this year (and I still want to!):
Runebound (3rd ed.)
Castles of Burgundy Card Game
Legendary: Alien Encounters
Race for the Galaxy
Valley of the Kings
Sentinels of the Multiverse
Terraforming Mars (still waiting on copies of that one to be available again)
Unfortunately, I've only managed about six plays of Castles of Burgundy, one of Sentinels, one of Valley of the Kings... and that's it. Because my students love it, I've probably played Splendor about eight times so far this year—more than any of the games I set aside because I wanted to play them for myself.
In all honesty, I haven't been playing as many games as I want to play at all recently—no board games, no video games. I'll have the occasional exuberant burst of playtime, then go weeks without playing much at all.
What concerns me most about this is that game time is me-time: When I'm not playing games a couple of times per week, that is a sure indicator that I'm not taking enough time out of my day for myself. I'm a teacher, so it's no great surprise that I'm slammed now that we have started a new semester with new classes. And my busy life extends beyond my school day. Still, how is it that I get home every night and it's all I can do to throw some dinner together and read in bed for maybe 30 min. before I crash?
I know I am not the only gamer who has this problem—it's probably more common than not. But it makes me sad. I need to figure out a way to step back a bit, rest up, and make time for fun again.
I've mentioned before that Star Realms is one of my favorite games to play with my boyfriend. I also very much enjoy its solo scenarios. The game packs a lot of deckbuilding fun into a small box, and it is my go-to coffee shop entertainment.
Enter Hero Realms: A game that is essentially a reskin of Star Realms with a fantasy theme. The fantasy world recreated by the game is indeed generic, down to some slightly derivative card art. If you already know how to play Star Realms, then Hero Realms will come pretty naturally to you: There are color-based factions that have powers that work well together, you get champions instead of bases, and you get bonuses for playing multiple cards from the same faction on your turn.
So, is Hero Realms worth it? I'm going to say yes. Definitely.
First of all, for me, a generic fantasy theme is preferable to a generic sci-fi theme. The only thing I don't love about Star Realms is that I typically don't love sci-fi/space. (Have you seen Gravity? I went without knowing what it was, and that movie stressed me out so bad that I refuse to ever watch it again.) This does not prevent me from loving Alien Encounters or lusting after one of those soon-to-arrive new copies of Terraforming Mars, but if I get my choice, I'd rather be incinerated by a dragon than slowly suffocated in my space suit after I run out of oxygen.
Second, Hero Realms has some very interesting expansions, with more on the way. I love that while the game is playable right out of the box, there are separate character starting decks that enable you to begin the game as a thief, warrior, ranger, wizard, or cleric. You get different starting cards from your opponent's, with some interesting special abilities and even your own unique life total. I love this tweak to the deckbuilding genre. Additionally, there are some RPG-like elements coming our way, including the ability to play campaign style. I also can't wait to get my hands on a boss deck so I can play this game solo.
Star Realms is a great game that I will still play a lot, especially because it is my boyfriend's favorite. But I'd say that Hero Realms is an improvement because I prefer the theme and because Hero Realms is going to surpass its predecessor in terms of interesting new expansions and modes to play in.