Hi folks. John here. Care to join me for a quick history lesson?
Way back in 1908, psychologist Edmund Burke Huey published a landmark volume which he (not-so creatively) titled The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading. The gist of his argument? Great readers get great at reading by reading all sorts of great writing. And by reading great writing, these readers develop an innate feel for how to string all sorts of words together in ways to maximize their emotional impact and rhetorical effect. Short words. Long words. Exotic words. Repeated words. Experimental words. Words, words, words. And the more they read, the better they write as a result.
Flash forward a century or so later, and perhaps it is no wonder why world-renowned literacy expert, author, and motivational speaker (and founder of LitWorld) Pam Allyn so famously quipped that “reading is breathing in. Writing is breathing out.”
Put another way: “you are what you eat.”
So why all of this talk about reading, you ask?
Here at EMC² Learning, we are passionate about playful learning. It turns out that there’s actually quite a bit of serious science that goes into great game design. To date, we’ve created more than 500 different resources (and counting!) to help teachers bring this same spirit of playful pedagogy into their classrooms. We do so by studying the heck out of what makes a great game and then reverse engineering many of those same design elements into instructional resources that can be easily adapted for any course or content area.
The moral of the story: the more games we play, the more we learn about what makes a great game. And the more game-inspired resources we are able to add to the EMC2Learning library for teachers and students to enjoy in schools all around the world. After all: consuming is breathing in. Creating is breathing out.
With all that said – the holidays are the perfect time to give and receive all kinds of gifts. So whether you’re looking for a sneak peek at what sorts of game-inspired resources EMC² Learning might have in store for the months ahead or simply on the lookout for a killer lineup of off-the-shelf suggestions to add to your personal collection, here’s a closer look at what was under my tree this year. And after each entry, we’ve included a short reflection prompt rollover box inspired by the spotlighted game to help get your creative teacher juices flowing for some lesson planning ideas of your own.
Disclaimer #1: I’m a Sucker for Theme
As a general rule, in the age-old debate of whether it is mechanics or a great theme that makes for the best gaming experiences of all time, I fall squarely on the side of an immersive theme any day.
Betrayal at House on the Hill? Heck yes. Fireball Island? Count me in. Jaws? Let’s goooooo! Ever since I was a kid, I absolutely loved the ability that games had to capture my imagination and transport me to a world far away from the everyday. Frankly, I think our classrooms need more of that. And that’s probably why I’m such a big fan of the Disney Theme Parks (more on that later). But yes. For my money? A great theme = instant buy in.
Bonus points if the game features clever miniatures or interactive elements like a molded board or a push-the-button-and-OMG-something-happens kinda’ gimmick to really ramp up the fun factor. Staples of my childhood included…
Tornado Rex – where you compete as mountain climbers scaling the summit of a treacherous peak that’s terrorized by a spinning Tasmanian Devil-type monster.
Forbidden Bridge – where brave explorers must trek back and forth across a shaky rope suspension bridge on a quest to retrieve a lost treasure.
1313 Dead End Drive – picture Clue on steroids, where party guests take turns offing one another using elaborate traps scattered about a spooky mansion.
Disclaimer #2: Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
Over the past year, I’ve been doing a ton of research on what was called the “New Games” movement that became incredibly popular in the 1970s. Their ethos is perhaps best summed up by their motto of “Play Hard. Play Fair. Nobody Hurt” – which sought to replace the cutthroat sports of the past with a friendlier, more cooperative approach to team-based gaming. Remember back in gym class when the entire class got to play with a giant parachute? Yup. That’s a classic example of the New Games movement
So in this year’s holiday haul, perhaps it’s not surprising that more than a few cooperative games have made the list. If you’ve ever had the chance to play popular favorites like Pandemic, The Mind, or 5 Minute Dungeon – these are the sorts of “everybody wins together or we all lose as a team” type experiences that I absolutely love.
Disclaimer #3: Michael Has Got Me Beat in the Game Department, Hands Down
When it comes to tabletop gaming, I’d like to think that I’ve got a pretty respectable little collection to my name. In fact, I have an entire walk-in closet in my home office dedicated entirely to board games – well over a hundred or more in all, and a handful of which I haven’t even yet had the chance to take out of the packaging!
But in case I ever think that I’m even remotely close to calling myself the resident expert in all things gaming, rest assured that I’ve still got a long, long way to go before I am even in the same ball park as my dear friend and business partner. As you can see from the photo above, Michael is the clear winner between us in the “Godfather of Gaming” department – and it isn’t even close.
John's 16 New Games for 2023 (In No Particular Order)
Ok, ok… one final disclaimer.
The games featured below are listed in no particular order and have been included here solely because they are new additions to my personal game library during this holiday season. Though I’m confident that each of these titles will be a whole lot of fun for personal enjoyment with friends and family members, I can’t quite come right out and say that each of them are 100% recommended for gamers of all ages or for use in your individual classrooms (for reasons I’ll get into individually below). As always, use your best teacher judgment when making these sorts of decisions. And while we haven’t received any compensation from any of the board game manufacturers (hey, a guy can dream, right?) — we have included relevant and non-sponsored affiliate links where appropriate throughout this post to help you dig a little deeper into each title if you feel so inclined.
(FWIW: Amazon is particularly awful for mom and pop game shops. But it can be helpful when doing a preliminary bit of background research on pretty much any item you can think of. So feel free to give a click to any of the titles below to learn a bit more about each game. And if you see one you like, consider stopping by your friendly neighborhood game store to support local businesses and gaming communities in your area!)
I am woefully late to the game in adding this one to my personal collection, but I feel like Tiny Towns can best be described as something like the love child of Tetris and old school Dots and Boxes. In Tiny Towns, each player is given a super small grid (fittingly, to represent each of their “Tiny Towns”) and presented with the opportunity to place and discover a special collection of resources that will help it grow into the thriving-est community possible. The unique appeal of this game lies in its relative scarcity, and since each player is forced to work within such a limited scope for development, you quickly come to realize that there’s a whole lot more strategy than luck involved after your first few rounds of play.
Have you ever played the card game “BS” where you quietly try to get rid of your entire hand and pass it off like you’re putting down something like “three sevens” without getting called on your shenanigans by the other players? Now imagine that same principle with a Robin Hood theme in which players act as merchants trying to sneak illegal goods past the strict (but super shady) inventory inspector. Players must bluff, bribe, and make deals with each other in order to get their goods through the gates, but if they get caught, they face steep fines and penalties. Players likewise take turns in each round so that every person has the chance to play the Sheriff of Nottingham along the way. And of course, the player with the most wealth at the end of the game is declared the winner. Now in its second printing, Sheriff of Nottingham 2nd Edition is a re-issue of a 2014 board game that was originally released by a company called Arcane Wonders. And for my money, this is a game where a simple premise (“bluff and bribe”) is made infinitely more engaging thanks to just the right theme to really elevate the entire experience to the next level.
Michael hailed My City as one of the finalists for his list of Best Games of 2022, and given the sheer number of games that the guy plays each year – I knew that must mean it was something special. On its face, the premise of this family friendly world building game is super simple: 2-4 players build and customize their own city, using various tiles to create different buildings and features. The games are quick, lasting no more than 15-20 minutes per round. And as expected, players collect resources, complete challenges, and work to earn points as they strive to become the most successful city in the game. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Well here’s where it gets interesting: because the game offers a variety of ways to play, including solo and multiplayer options, and the chance to build a single episodic game into a legacy strategy and decision-making challenge – so each subsequent round of play actually works like the next installment of an episodic series, where decisions made in round 1 radically change the gameplay of round 2 (and so on, and so on). The lightning fast learning curve alone had me hooked. But for sheer customization and iterative play potential, this feels like a game that I absolutely need to take for a deeper dive.
Splendor has been on my list of “games to play” for quite some time. But I’ll admit – I was scared. In Splendor, 2-4 players take on the roles of medieval merchants and compete to collect and trade gemstones in order to gain prestige and become the most successful gem-seller in all the land. Players can use their gemstones to purchase cards that represent various types of goods, such as gold, silver, and diamonds, as well as to purchase development cards which provide special abilities and bonuses. The player who reaches a predetermined number of prestige points first wins the game.
So why the hesitation? The theme is intriguing, but calculating the odds and doing XYZ in the right order did feel a little “mathy” for me (sorry folks, but engine-building games where you have to think a whole bunch of moves ahead can be a real slog for my A.D.D. brain, especially when coupled with my dyslexia). But a big part of teaching is asking our students to step outside of their comfort zones. And if I’m going to ask teachers and young people to take a risk in the classroom, I think it’s only fair that I stepped up to the plate and put my gemstones where my mouth is. So I am excited to see where this long unexplored path might lead me
In 2019, I was blown away by the cooperative fun and strategy offered by the board game Horrified, which challenged players to overcome the “Universal Monsters” from classic films like Dracula, The Invisible Man, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. And when my friends inevitably got tired of hearing the word “Pandemic” somewhere around 2020 (even though that game remains among my all-time favorites), I soon found myself on the hunt for another cooperative game with high replay value and a really great theme. Enter Horrified: American Monsters, a co-operative game for up to 5 players (or six or more, if you’re cool playing as teams or with one player simply serving as the de-facto “Dungeon Master” of sorts) in which you face off against an all new slate of classic American nightmarish beasts like Bigfoot, Mothman, and the Jersey Devil. For a kid with a wild imagination who was born and raised in The Garden State – this game was a must-have.
The Mole bills itself as “A Party Game for Shady People.” And while I’m sure there are more than a few folks out there who would (rightly) point out that a company that specializes in designing instructional resources for K-12 classrooms probably doesn’t have too much to learn from playing in these seedier regions of the gaming world, I am a firm believer that inspiration truly can come from anywhere as long as you know how to look for it. After all, games like Cards Against Humanity are really no more than Apples to Apples with a whole bunch of inappropriate jokes thrown in for shock value, right? And once you start to see the world through the eyes of a game designer, you develop a keen sense for trends and mechanics that exist between games and start to appreciate the underlying engines that really make just about every game run. While The Mole in its off-the-shelf-and-out-of-the-box form may or may not be appropriate for classroom use (spoiler: it’s not), the process of stripping the gameplay down to its guts to figure out how we can adapt its most engaging elements without the nonsense in order to reverse engineer equally exciting activities for our students is a total game changer.
In Fully Engaged, Michael and I wrote at length about a curious little phenomenon known as the Holonomic Brain Theory. For the sake of brevity in what is already shaping up to be a 3,500 word blog post – the theory basically says that our brains work like a giant hologram, and so whenever we hear even the faintest suggestion of an evocative theme (like “Hidden Temple”) the pleasure centers in our brains immediately flood with the positive endorphins that come from all sorts of memories we’ve stored up that are related to this same topic (El Dorado, Jumanji or Indiana Jones, anyone?). That’s pretty much the entire premise of The Lost Expedition, which is a slim but ridiculously challenging game that employs a collection of standard “explorer story” tropes to force players to work together (or against one another) to make it out of an epic trek alive. Lions and Tigers and Quicksand… oh my!
Codenames is an outstanding “big kid” upgrade to those old-school deduction games like Guess Who? Perhaps unsurprisingly, my first exposure to this game was actually by way of one of its many themed variants a few years back (turns out Disney Codenames is a pretty easy way to widen the tent to new players of all ages. Clever, clever). And during the height of the Pandemic, I had the chance to play a knockoff variant of the original game online thanks to one of those many virtual hubs that popped up to help folks stay connected to one another during those many months of social distancing and state-ordered lockdowns. But now that it seems that the worst of COVID-19 is safely in our rearview, a good number of those “free to play” virtual hangouts seem to just as quickly have disappeared – and so it felt like high time that I added both the original version of this classic game (for up to 8 players) and it’s highly touted 2-player variant to my physical library.
Talk about the perfect storm! Cooperation + immersive theming = automatic must-buy. Given my look-for qualities in a tabletop board game, it’s easy to see why Mysterium was at the absolute top of my holiday wishlist this year. Mysterium is a cooperative board game for 2-7 players in which one player takes on the role of a ghost who is trying to communicate with the other players, who are mediums attempting to solve a murder. The ghost communicates with the mediums through the use of vision cards, which depict abstract and surreal imagery. The game combines elements of deduction and intuition as the mediums must interpret these visions and use them to deduce the identity of the murderer, the location of the murder, and the murder weapon. And since the entire experience is intended to be a cooperative one, there’s a real feeling of shared satisfaction when everyone cracks the mystery as a team – just like making your way out of an escape room.
Tapple recently picked up a good bit of buzz thanks to a bunch of pretty hilarious videos that went viral on Tiktok. (God bless shortened attention spans, right?) The game is built for anywhere from 2-10 players, and features a 10-second countdown timer positioned at the dead-center of a giant steering wheel-like contraption surrounded by a bunch of tappable tabs around the outside that correspond to different letters of the alphabet. The gameplay couldn’t be simpler, and can best be described as a cross between Hot Potato and Scattergories. Pick a category and smack the countdown timer. And in the next ten seconds, a player must give a single word answer that fits within the topic by pressing down the letter key that corresponds to the first letter of that word (Example: if the category was “Vegetables,” you could smack the letter “C” down and say the word “Carrot.”). Smack the electronic timer to restart the countdown, and play continues until a player is stumped. As someone who plays a ton of party-style games while on vacation down the shore with aunts, uncles, siblings, and cousins – Tapple feels like the perfect lightweight balance of chaos and cooperation that will make this game a real hit with my family.
Fun fact about having A.D.D. and an unhealthy obsession with adapting games and game-like experiences for classroom use: if you ever stranded me in a place that sells toys and games, I will happily get lost for hours… even though I typically end up walking out empty handed. Michael often jokes that I’m like Teacher Tofu, soaking up all of the great flavors of the things that I surround myself with in any new environment. But I am a firm believer that inspiration truly can come from anywhere! And so even when the bar is admittedly low for the sorts of entertainment experiences that one might expect to find in what passes for a “toy store” (full disclosure: I found Side Links collecting dust on a bargain shelf in one of those seasonal mall stores that sells calendars and games for exactly one six weeks each year), sometimes the price point is simply too low to pass up – and such was the case with Side Links, which can best be described as a card matching game that ends up looking something like Scrabble-meets-dominoes. Haven’t played it or done any further fact-finding since picking it up, but I am delighted by the possibility to see what sorts of classroom resources it might inspire.
As a die-hard fan of Walt Disney World, I am a sucker for just about any toy, movie, or game that borrows against the Mouse House’s famed franchises to allow players the chance to take a bit of that theme park magic back to our homes. Sadly for grown-up superfans like me, the overwhelming majority of Disney-themed games are typically intended for much younger audiences… and so getting my Disney fix from themed board games has typically been more miss than hit. Thankfully, the good people at Disney realized that there are more than a few “bad apples” out there who don’t mind playing pretend even well beyond their early childhood years — and Disney’s Villainous quickly went on to claim The Toy Association’s Toy of the Year award for 2019. In this epic contest of sinister power, 2-6 players take on the role of playing a different Disney Villain, each with their very own deck of cards and a unique goal of achieving their own devious objective. For fans like me who’ve been dying to relive the excitement of their childhoods with a bit of a grown-up twist, games like Villainous are an outstanding example of how a smart blend of the right game mechanics and a killer theme turns what otherwise could have been a forgettable affair into a grown-up showdown for the ages.
Some days, the weather gets nasty and Mother Nature makes it clear that the only games we’ll be playing will be those that reside firmly inside the confines of our own homes. But what is a gamer to do on those days when we’re locked in the house but the folks who are nearest and dearest to us simply aren’t in the mood for playing a game? In cases like these, solo play games are a fantastic alternative to endless hours of screen time spent blasting away at brightly colored video game sprites or binge watching countless hours of our favorite television programs. And games like Color Cube Sudoku turn what otherwise might have been a single-solve-it-and-forget-it puzzle like the Rubix cube into a colorful invitation to spend hours solving a 3D riddle with a ton of replay value. One puzzle, half a million solutions!
If you’re seeking a friend for the end of the world, this might just be the perfect party game for you. We’re Doomed is a fast-paced game of collaboration and deception where you and your friends must work together to build a rocket and blast your way into the safety of outer space before the world ends. No pressure, right? The beauty of this game is that each round of play is crazy short — we’re talking exactly 15 minutes on the nose — but the “countdown to extinction” style gameplay is super quick to learn and even faster to play for a second time, which means that the same group of friends is almost guaranteed to play it two or three times in rapid succession. And since the tension mounts as only the most influential players make it onto the escape rocket in each round, you can bet that there will be a ton of backbiting, sabotage, and infighting waiting for you in each new round of play. After all, wasn’t it the Klingons who taught us that revenge is a dish best served cold?
WWE Legends Royal Rumble Card Game (Ravensburger 2020)
My brother Jeremy knows me all too well. And since my inexplicable lifelong love of professional wrestling is pretty well documented, I’m sure that adding this retro grappling-themed title to my library of holiday stocking stuffers was a total no-brainer. While I completely understand the critics and naysayers and will be the first to admit that “sports entertainment” is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, I think there are really few walks of life better suited as shining examples for the gaming community. After all – pro wrestling isn’t a legitimate competition. Instead, it’s a collaborative effort wrapped in an elaborate theme where each of the performers is in on the joke as if to say “this is all just a part of the show, folks, and none of us are here to hurt one another. So let’s have some fun.”
Now that’s my kind of game.
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