Rise of the Ancients

Over the last two decades a relatively new sort of board gaming has emerged which you might not have heard about. ‘Hobby’ or ‘modern’ board gaming is sweeping across the world.

In 1995 The Settlers of Catan by Klaus Teuber changed everything. This is the game that made many Americans realise that there is more to board games than Cluedo and Scrabble. It was family friendly, easy to get into, had a lovely trading mechanic and modular board which changed every time you played it. 

Isn’t 1995 late? The ‘Spiel des Jahres’ award (basically the Oscars of Board Games) was founded in 1978. In Germany this genre of board games had been popular long before Settlers of Catan broke the monopoly of Monopoly in the US. Board games go back much further. In 2200 bc, in China, Go had already been invented.

German-style games, or eurogames, are generally regarded as one half of the two over-arching mega-genres in modern board gaming. These sort of games generally feature less luck, a more direct strategy, and less direct player interaction. Winning conditions involve collecting victory points and the design favours symbols over text.

The other half is the American-style, sometimes referred to as ‘Ameritrash’. These are generally the opposite style. War, fighting, killing, rolling piles and piles of dice (therefore luck), and player elimination.

Common themes and styles in American-style games include dungeon crawling (Descent, Claustrophobia), the American Civil War (Battle Cry), and World War II (Memoir 44).

German-style games, on the other hand, tend to have more ‘European’ cultural influences. For example, colonisation of the Americas or medieval farming are common themes (Archipelago, Puerto Rico), as are diplomacy and intrigue at the time of the Inquisition or gaining the King’s favour (Il Vecchio, Caylus).

American-style games sound similar to miniature wargaming and tabletop role-playing games (RPGs), and are definitely inspired by these earlier games. However, board games are different. A board game generally comes in a box which contains everything you need to play with a number of players and most of the time is meant to be played in one sitting. RPGs and wargaming do not follow these rules.

Interestingly, American and German-style games developed in more or less the same period of time in two completely different cultures. This is comparable to the development of the Japanese RPG and the Western RPG in video games.

And today? 

Board games are experiencing a golden age. If you had come into the hobby a mere five years ago, the picture was simple. But the worldwide Indie revolution and crowd-funding has also hit board games.

Until a few years ago a few recognisable, high profile game publishers dominated the market. Euro and American style games were easily separated. Now, board games are becoming less and less of a niche hobby. New designers are creating games that combine many different influences from past games. The lines are being blurred. More experimental games and publishers are starting to pop up thanks to crowd-funding, and virtually anyone can publish a game. 

In Malta, one of the first locally developed modern boardgames will be published internationally next year watch this magazineand others are in development. Exciting times.

David Chircop (and Yannick Massa) topped the Board Game Geek Hotness List for a week and won Best Board Game award at Malta’s first Global Game Jam held on January 24–26, 2014 at the Institute of Digital Games, UoM. See http://maltagamejam.com for next year’s Game Jam or take a course at the Institute http://game.edu.mt to learn how to make your own game. This article forms part of The Gaming Issue.

Village board game (German-style)
Village board game (German-style)


Game Review_Costantino

TxKTxK marks the return of seminal designer Jeff Minter whose career spans over 30 years. The recurring themes in Minter’s works are frenetic action and psychedelic experiences. All these abound in TxKa new arcade shooter for PS Vita.

The game starts off with the player in a wireframe setting being attacked by what looks like an army of angry ribbons. Soon you will discover that you are actually an oddly shaped spider(ish) creature that is crawling at extremely high velocity. Once your attacking abilities have been mastered, the environment will constantly reshape around you. Before you know it, you will find yourself up-side down fighting enemies from every direction. 

It is an exercise in minimalism; so much is achieved with few details. It is up to the player to make sense of the bizarre juxtapositions of graphics and sounds. Thanks to its unique style, TxK shines.

This article forms part of The Gaming Issue

The School of Games


In ancient times games played an integral role in society. Whilst in today’s hyperlinked world, games have evolved into complex, sophisticated mechanisms that enthral millions. Now, however, games are dismissed as trivial, and of no real value. But is this really the case? Cassi Camilleri meets the research team gamED from the University of Malta to find out.

Continue reading


Prof. Gordon Calleja

Picture a Maltese crowdfunding website dedicated specifically to locally based creatives. It would be supported and promoted by government entities to the Maltese public, based locally and abroad. For this to work the public sector plays a crucial role in promoting the site and educating the public on how crowdfunding works. 

The site creates a platform for followers of local creatives to contribute towards performances and products made by artists they love. Unlike sites like Kickstarter, products that can be digitally distributed or ordered will remain on the site doubling as a digital distribution platform for locally made works. 

This article forms part of The Gaming Issue.



Solo board games are a funny business. First of all, nobody can catch you cheating. The temptation of closing an eye to a few little mistakes or ‘forgetting’ a rule are alluring. Second, you have nobody to rub the wrong way when you make a good move. Third, there’s nobody to beat. Board games initially strike us as a multi-player group affair, but solo games do exist. We have all played solitaire.

Onirim is a one-player card game. Although two people can play co-operatively I like it best solo. In Onirim you play as a ‘Dreamwalker’: a person stuck in a dream trying to find his way out before he is consumed by his own nightmares. To escape you must assemble a total of eight doors before the deck runs out. If it does you’re in trouble and stuck forever (till the next game).

By playing cards you move from room to room inside a labyrinth. When you manage to play three rooms of the same colour consecutively, a door of that colour ‘appears’, as in, you search for one inside the deck.

‘Hah, sounds easy!’ you might say. ‘Hah, you’re wrong’. There are nightmare cards, and nightmare cards are… horrible. You can only play one card per turn, and you might have a cunning plan set up cheerfully in your hand, but then a ‘nightmare’ happens, and you need to discard all your cards, and start over. Thankfully, the ‘nightmares’ can be dodged. Prophecies allow you to see the future, while keys negate a ‘nightmare’s’ effects.

I like Onirim. It is different, has gorgeous art, and is wonderfully balanced. The only downside is that it is out of print. But worry not, Dreamwalker! Onirim will be reprinted this year and you can get your dreamy paws on it… soon enough.

This article forms part of The Gaming Issue

Why so Serious?

How do you help school children handle fights, bullying, and other conflict properly? You build a game, of course, and you let children take on different roles in a village. But how does that lead to resolving conflicts? Ashley Davis met researchers Prof. Rilla Khaled and Prof. Georgios N. Yannakakis to find out more


Do you chuckle at the thought of a serious game? The phrase is an oxymoron. How can a game be serious? Games are meant to be fun, frivolous, a way to pass the time. Or else you sometimes hear that games are anything but frivolous. That video game violence in particular is a threat to social order. The idea that games can be used to advance human understanding about the world, and that they can help us to teach, train, or motivate people in some way, is something that still needs to enter our mentality.

Designing games to explore research questions and to solve real world problems is actually a very important aspect of games research, an area of applied research that now has a strong presence at the University of Malta with the establishment of the Institute of Digital Games. Researchers from the Institute work on European-funded projects to create games that tackle serious problems affecting children and adults alike.

Village Voices has been voted the best learning game in Europe at the 2013 Serious Game Awards

Prof. Rilla Khaled and Prof. Georgios N. Yannakakis are two researchers now based at the Institute of Digital Games who work on serious game projects. Khaled’s work focuses on serious game design, while Yannakakis is a specialist in artificial intelligence and computational creativity. Computational creativity tries to build upon the latest technological innovations in human–computer interaction that enable computers to act intelligently to some aspects of human beings. These two areas, game design and game technology, represent a large part of the teaching and research strengths of the Institute.

One game that Khaled and Yannakakis recently helped develop is Village Voices which has been voted the best learning game in Europe at the 2013 Serious Game Awards. It was developed as part of the SIREN project, an FP7-funded interdisciplinary consortium made up of researchers from Malta, Greece, Denmark, Portugal, the UK and the US, along with Serious Games Interactive, a Danish Games Studio.

Let’s take a look at what makes a serious game and think about what made the project a success and what didn’t work so well.

The serious side of Village Voices aims to help school children learn conflict resolution skills. Players take on the role of one of four interdependent villages that are situated in a farm setting and given various quests to complete. Sitting side-by-side at separate computers, they may collaborate, share resources and help each other, or they may spread rumours and steal from each other. Much like any playground setting, children can play nicely, or they can be bullies.

The purpose of the SIREN project was to apply the latest advancements in game technology to the creation of serious games. The brief focused on innovations in procedural content generation, an area of artificial intelligence that automatically builds game elements like game levels or quest structures that would otherwise need to be designed manually. Another part of this innovative technology is detecting the emotions of players. Physiological responses can be measure through various tech like Electroencephalographic (EEG) sensors that can be used to detect a person’s emotional state directly by reading their brain’s electrical signals. Virtual agents were another technology that interested the research team. These agents are believable non-player characters that interact with the player with perceived intelligence.

The idea was to then create a game that would adapt to player behaviour, using emotion recognition tools to create an individual experience for each player. The decision to focus the game on teaching children about conflict resolution came later. Rather than to create a game about bullying behaviour, which is what a lot of people think of when they picture conflict between children, the research team wanted to explore the kinds of everyday conflicts that take place in school-yards. Friendship disputes, differences in opinion, and arguments over the possession of classroom items might seem trivial to adults, but they are important problems for children for whom school is their entire world. The SIREN consortium envisioned a game where players could experience and resolve conflicts in a dynamic setting. 

Some people who make serious games say that the serious application of the game should take precedence over fun. They say that serious games should offer players a safe environment to try out new behaviours. Khaled disagreed with this approach to game design. ‘Serious game experiences need to feel real and not trivial. Otherwise why would we then use them to raise a mirror to reality?’

Village Voices allows actions that teachers might find surprising. Players can be destructive in that world. They can steal from each other. The game gives aggressive players a noose with which to hang themselves. Knowing that the person whose labours you just destroyed, or who stole the items you were collecting, is sitting right there next to you intensifies the game’s emotional experience. Exchanges can become heated between players. It is these kinds of heated exchanges that often makes games fun.

Some of the characters children can play in Village Voices
Some of the characters children can play in Village Voices

Games are usually poor at provoking emotional responses. Village Voices does exactly that. Khaled told me about one session in a British classroom (the game was tested across Europe). A female student had such an upsetting experience that she cried. After reflecting on the incident with her teacher, the researcher, and the other players, the girl later returned to play again. Khaled thought this was a breakthrough learning moment for the student.

So Village Voices is a good learning tool, and it is also fun to play. But how successful was the team in applying game technologies like procedural content generation and emotion detection to its design? Khaled said that the experience of designing a game primarily for the purpose of testing technological innovations was the hardest part of the project. You might think that the role of a game designer is to work out the best solution to a problem given the technologies at hand. However, when the application of technology is the problem, the relationship between design and technology is more complex. Khaled said that the need to include particular game technologies in the design of Village Voices created a situation much like a rock band that needs to accommodate a peripheral member, such as a violin player. ‘While the violin player is not core to the project, the whole project needs to be compromised in some way in order to show off the violin player’s skills. It is not clear that the violinist is going to help the band make a new hit song, but it is clear he has to be there. So the band tries to find the violin player’s most positive qualities because he has got to be there.’

In Village Voices, the violin player’s best qualities are adaptive technologies that make the player experience more personalised. Because support for emotion detection plug-ins was never actually included in the final prototype, the game instead asks players directly how they feel about events in the game and introduces variations to the player experience according to their responses.

So far we have seen that Village Voices was successful according to the popular opinion of game-design peers at the European Serious Games — it won an award. We have also seen anecdotally that it is a provocative, if not fun game, based on the British student’s emotional response. But what does the SIREN team think about the game?

You cannot sit a child down in front of a computer and hope that they will magically learn something

According to Khaled, it can be difficult to implement learning games in classroom settings, and even more difficult to properly evaluate them. Project funding usually runs dry after around three years, and games take most of that time to develop. Gaining access to schools is also difficult. The game is a good fit for classes like social studies that are often held only once or twice a week. Together with the problem of semester breaks and short evaluation periods, as well as the tendency for teachers to have access to only a few computers often equipped with obsolete hardware, researchers would rarely see students engage with Village Voices over a long period of time. All these things place limitations on the design, testing, and evaluation of games for research purposes.

Rigorous evaluation is important as, ultimately, learning games are not black box tools. You cannot sit a child down in front of a computer and hope that they will magically learn something. That vital learning moment comes when players discuss their in-game experiences. As Khaled explained, ‘Playing the game is just half the experience. The other half is the subsequent discussion of the game experience.’

Given that discussion is so essential to the evaluation process, and that it is so difficult to get a sample of those discussions in a research setting, I asked Khaled if it was possible to turn the discussion into a game as well, to include it as part of the package. Khaled mentioned the meta-game, the part of the game where a player is both playing and watching themselves play the game. It is in the meta-game that players achieve the highest level of reflection. It works well as a kind of after-game discussion, a debriefing for players as they leave behind the conflicts of the game world and return to the everyday life of the school-yard; but Khaled added that of course it could be turned into a game. Achieving this level of reflection in the game package itself is just another challenge for the designers of serious games. 

The Institute of Digital Games at the University of Malta offers word-class postgraduate education and research in game studies, design, and technology. The inter-disciplinary team includes researchers from literature and media studies, design, computer science and human-computer interaction. Visit game.edu.mt or contact Ashley Davis (ashley.davis@um.edu.mt) for information about the Institute’s Master of Science (taught or by research) and Ph.D. programmesThis article forms part of The Gaming Issue.

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Some SIREN Gameplay Shots