On the Developmental Impact of Board Games

In the world of board games, strategy and decision-making are often at the forefront. With titles like "Modern Art" and "No Thanks", players are not only entertained but also immersed in complex decision-making scenarios. These games, each with its unique gameplay mechanics, showcase the rich depth and educational potential board games can offer. Dive into an analysis of these games and unearth the life lessons they subtly teach.

Original appearance on mek.oszk.hu(p. 32-42.) - Authors: József Jesztl, Máté Lencse

Written by

Máté Lencse

Educator, game designer,

founder of PlayWise

Why listen to him?

Máté has been regularly playing modern board games and classic abstract board games since 2013. He plays because he loves to. He plays because as an educator, it is his most important motivational and developmental tool. He plays because as a father, it is one of the highest quality times spent with his daughter. He plays because it adds to his marriage. He plays to get to know games and as a game designer, to be able to create new ones. Thus, it's not surprising that he often plays through 15-20 games weekly. Learn more about him and his background on his author page or follow him on social media:

Here's a rather telling story: A young boy once refused to tackle a word-based math problem, claiming he "doesn't read". However, during a gaming scenario, he later proposed that in a complex board game, special attributes should also be taken into account. Intriguingly, these attributes in the game are noted on cards with text. So, what he was essentially seeking was an opportunity to read. This too is reading, just as a word-based math problem. The difference? Motivation.

Board game education operates in this unique manner. It camouflages the developmental elements, making learning more interactive and less intimidating.

Now, let’s delve deeper into the world of board games. No thanks by Thorsten Gimmler is a brilliant example. It’s based on an incredibly simple set of rules, yet it's rich in strategic depth. Perfect for those early engagements with kids, it’s easy and quick to learn, has a short gameplay, and the best part? It can even be crafted at home.

On the other hand, Modern Art by Reiner Knizia offers a contrast. A more complex game, it requires prior experience with several other games. With intricate calculations, diverse bidding strategies, and a playing field that can be a tad challenging to navigate, decision-making in this game is no walk in the park. 

These two games, despite their differences, make an excellent pair. They demonstrate the spectrum of board game complexity and showcase the journey a player can traverse. It's absolutely worth diving into this world and experiencing the joy and growth they bring.

No Thanks!

Thorsten Gimmler's 2004 game, No Thanks!, is recommended for players aged 8 and above and is designed for 3-7 players, with each round lasting about 20 minutes. It's worth noting that the age recommendations on board game boxes should be taken with a grain of salt. After all, we know our children best; we understand their capabilities and what they can or cannot handle. But to truly gauge this, one must be familiar with the game itself. No Thanks! is playable with anyone who can recognize numbers up to 35, so we've had positive experiences even with 6-year-olds.

The game's mechanics are straightforward: players try to avoid picking up cards as each card equates to negative points. Everyone starts with an equal resource of 11 tokens. Players must give 1 token each time they reject a card. When they decide (or are forced by the depletion of their tokens) to pick up the card in the center, they also collect all the tokens placed on it so far. A new card is then revealed, and the game continues. Tokens are positive, but cards result in corresponding negative points at the end of the game. The winner is the player with the most points, typically the one with the fewest negative points. An added twist: players can create sequences of consecutive numbers from the cards they collect, and in such cases, only the smallest number in the sequence counts negatively. To add complexity, nine cards are removed unseen at the beginning, making the game less predictable.

Considering the developmental opportunities related to the game, the most apparent area is mathematical competence. Starting from the basics like counting across tens, numbering, neighboring numbers, sequences, quantities, and negative numbers. As with most bidding games, there's continuous calculation and weighing. The relationship of tokens in the game and negative cards changes from player to player. Additionally, typical characteristics of card games (or generally games with incomplete information) are present: observe what cards have been played, calculate what might remain, and estimate probabilities. Even this thought suggests that we can't precisely calculate the perfect game. There might be times when we've made mathematically impeccable decisions, took an appropriate risk, but still, couldn't secure the card we needed for the optimal outcome. There could be two reasons for this: the desired card might not be in the game, or someone else could pick up the card either out of necessity or because it benefits them. Analyzing and evaluating these scenarios slips into social competence and communication domains. Observing opponents' strategies is crucial, and without such insights, success is hard to achieve.

From this brief description, it's evident that even a simple, quick game can offer profound depth, challenging the player with numerous decisions right from the start. Similar analysis can be conducted for any game - truly any, even the seemingly most frivolous party game can offer developmental opportunities. For anyone looking at board games from an educational perspective, it's essential to view games through this lens, always keeping in mind the fundamental principle that a game remains a game. Let's now delve into a more complex game in detail!

Modern Art

Reiner Knizia is the author of numerous auction board games (e.g. High Society, Medici). However, in Modern Art (1992), he incorporated several variations from this mechanism, which allows the pedagogical possibilities inherent in the structure to be particularly pronounced. The game can be played by 3-5 players, the playing time is 45-60 minutes, and the publisher recommends it for ages 10 and up.

In the game, we are owners of famous art galleries, trading with the paintings of emerging young artists: we put them up for auction, but we also buy. The goal of the game is to achieve the highest possible profit through various auctions; the winner is the one with the most money by the end of the game. A unique feature of the game is that, in contrast to the usual, one has to familiarize themselves not with one auction mechanism (e.g. Medici), not two (e.g. For Sale by Stefan Dorra), but five different auction mechanisms for success. It is evident that examining entrepreneurial competence is an obvious theme of the game, but we will primarily analyze the game from the perspective of its mechanism.

How much are the paintings worth? It is essential to start from here, as the players determine this. When we sit down to play, we have no idea how much each painting will be worth, and thus, what the right strategy will be. Once we receive our cards, a possible course of play emerges, but for now, we don't know which direction the others will take, and we alone won't be able to determine the outcome. But let's see how the game achieves this. In four rounds, we examine who the most popular artists are and whose paintings were the most sought after in a given round (season). Translated into the game's language: which cards we played in front of ourselves, and which we have the most of. Only the paintings of the three most popular artists will be worth money at the end of the season. In the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th seasons, it also matters how successful an artist was previously. For instance, if someone enters the top three in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th seasons, their paintings will pay not only for the performance achieved in the 4th season but also for the value achieved in the 2nd and 3rd seasons. Naturally, as we move forward, we will have more and more information since we see possible tactics, which artists' paintings might be truly valuable, what cards are still in play, etc. However, a unique feature of the game is that the beginning of each round is always uncertain, as we can't know how cards are distributed among fellow players. It's possible that an artist, previously considered worthless, becomes the most valuable, but this will only become apparent after a few rounds have passed: analyzing our cards and contemplating probabilities, risk-taking also plays a crucial role in our decisions, knowing that it is part of the strategy. A risky, perhaps not entirely logical move, can disrupt the gameplay of the opponents as well.

It's clear that the value of the paintings slowly emerges by the end of each round, which complicates the decision-making processes. In the following, we will examine the framework within which we have to make the aforementioned decisions. As this is an auction game, we constantly decide on how to use the money available to us. However, an interesting aspect is that if we buy from someone else, the money goes to them, which is another element we need to consider.

The form of the bid is always determined by the symbol in the corner of the played card, which further nuances the decision. We don't just look at which painting card we play, its impact on the season, who needs it, for how much, etc., but also which type of bidding it calls for. Let's look at the different bids!

The auction (Kreuz und quer) is a very simple, classic form, as everyone – including the announcer who plays the card – bids simultaneously. The one who says the highest amount wins the painting and pays the announcer. If the announcer wins, they pay the bank. Taking initiative is crucial, as is controlling the bid, quickly assessing the situation, and making swift decisions, since the price changes in a matter of moments. There's no time to think it through thoroughly, or to precisely calculate how far it's worth buying. Typically, stress management is also important in this situation, as there's significant pressure on us even if we decide in advance how far we're willing to go – and this is mainly the case when we start, as for others we don't know in advance what's coming next. The pre-decided maximum amount can easily change as in this format we continuously observe the reactions of our fellow players. From these reactions, we can form a picture of their strategy and get feedback on whether we have correctly assessed the value of the painting. Therefore, we need to process these pieces of information, which can influence our decision, but we must circle back to the fact that we don't have much time for this. A crucial tactical element in every bidding mechanism is driving up the price, meaning we bid even if we don't really need the given painting. In fact, we might even be willing to bid a higher amount than what it's worth to us if we see someone else might snatch it, but shouldn't do so cheaply. This is always risky, but in this case, decisions based on momentary observations and intuitions have to be made incredibly quickly. This format clearly reveals who can make appropriate decisions quickly under pressure. Additionally, it's thrilling, provides an excellent gaming experience, and thus motivates practicing this skill.

In the single-round bid (Einmalreihum), everyone has only one shot, and the bid ends with the announcer. Thus, they are in a privileged position – if they have enough money, they can surely buy the painting. The only question is whether it's worth the price. The announcer selects a painting and initiates the single-round bid – naturally, this is only possible if the appropriate icon is found on the card. Everyone is aware that they have just one opportunity, so they need to quote a price they are willing to pay and presumably others won't match, or one that could be outbid but minimizes the winner's profit. Contrary to the classic auction, here you can carefully weigh your decision, analyze the situation (who has which paintings, what might still be in play, roughly how much money they have, how much the given painting will be worth at the end of the round) – there's time for everything. Therefore, many more factors come into play, as there's time to think through one's own strategy, to plan, and to modify plans. As the announcer, in this format, it's the easiest to acquire a painting. That's why it's important for others to pay attention even if they're not directly involved, because with a painting acquired unreasonably cheaply, one can gain a huge advantage.

During the blind bid (In die Faust), everyone decides how much money to hold in their hand, then we reveal simultaneously, and the painting goes to the one who offered the most. At first glance, this doesn't seem complex, and on a mechanism level it's not, but it requires excellent judgment and a precise understanding of the situation and the fellow players. This is the format where the bid might leave a bitter taste, even if you win. It's easy to misjudge the situation and significantly outbid even the second-highest bidder. This is the most uncertain part of the entire game, where the least information is available, where decisions are truly made simultaneously, which are immediate and final. For initiatives, entrepreneurship – and of course, many other things – it's crucial to have a clear picture not only based on information but also about our partner through their assets (here: money, paintings), their previous bids, emerging strategies, and through their verbal and non-verbal communication. Without this, we're truly groping in the dark, but if we understand the others, we can be successful in this format as well. However, it's worth highlighting that it's precisely this uncertainty that can be exploited, for example, if we want to acquire money and offer desirable paintings to others. If we've correctly assessed the characteristics of the other players, we can trust that the painting will sell for an unrealistic sum, allowing us to make a larger profit than in other formats.

The fourth type among the bids is the set price (Preisansagen). Here, our only task is to set the value of the painting; that is, the amount for which any player in turn can buy it. However, if everyone passes, then we have to pay. In terms of thought process, this mechanism is most similar to the single-round bid, but here it's often the case that the bid doesn't even reach the auctioneer since someone snaps up the painting earlier. It seems like an easy way for the auctioneer to make money, but the situation can quickly spiral out of control, and then the other players might leave the painting to the auctioneer. This is a double failure, as we not only don't get any money, but we also lose a significant amount, and we might not even have wanted the painting. Therefore, it's worth taking risks, but only after accurate analysis to avoid tripping up. The entire game is built on initiative since, as the auctioneer, we decide what to bid on and in what form. But when we also set the price, we can say that we create the entire situation ourselves. We can't wait for others, can't rely on the decisions or reactions of others, and have to solve the task alone. Creating such situations is incredibly useful, and Modern Art presents them in a straightforward and entertaining format.

There's also a double auction (NocheineKarte). Some cards call for an additional card – the auctioneer places it, but if they don't make use of it, the next player does, and so on –, so the bid is for two cards, and the format is determined by the second card. The mechanism itself isn't new; it's one of the ones described above. However, the fact that one must decide about two paintings at once regarding their necessity and price greatly disrupts the usual schema.

With a somewhat detailed analysis of Modern Art, our goal was to demonstrate the depths that can appear in relation to a board game. For every developmental area, for every competency, one can find a game package through which positive changes can be achieved. This was a complex example. Of course, not every game contains so much content, but that's not always necessary. Think of beginner players; for them, Modern Art would likely be too overwhelming. However, with an experienced team, it's worth revisiting, especially if we feel that their initiative, entrepreneurial competency, and attitude towards risk-taking need improvement.

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Love our content? Show your support by sharing our page with your friends and help us inspire more families and educators with the joy of learning through play! Your shares truly make a difference. Thank you for being a wonderful part of our community!

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Love our content? Show your support by sharing our page with your friends and help us inspire more families and educators with the joy of learning through play! Your shares truly make a difference. Thank you for being a wonderful part of our community!

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