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HOW BOARD GAMES SHARPEN OUR FORESIGHT SKILLS

By Sylvia Gallusser



A study conducted by psychologists at the University of Edinburgh found that individuals who regularly played non-digital games scored better on memory and thinking tests in their 70s. Engaging in card games and board games helps maintain mental sharpness in later life! 


It’s not surprising that games have been around since the first civilizations to emerge on Earth. They played an active role in our socialization, cognitive development, and memory enhancement. 


One of the earliest recorded board games is Senet. It dates back to around 3000 BCE in Egypt. Curious to understand the first game dynamics of humanity, I purchased a board. We play it at home once in a while. Not only is the game pleasurable (and somewhat discouraging when you are forced to start over from the beginning of the board!), but it provokes existential feelings — similar to traveling 5,000 years back to Ancient Egypt and imagining the conditions in which Senet was played by then.


USING ANTICIPATORY GAMES IN FORESIGHT

Games have been used in the foresight field in a variety of ways, from collaborative, table-top exercises and scenario-inducing card games to serious gaming in the form of wargames, red-teaming, video games, real-time simulations, and immersive scenarios. 


When well-designed, games can serve as exceptional tools, along with other techniques, within the futurist’s toolbox, which also may include futures wheels, futures envisioning meditation, speculative fiction, or artifacts from the future. 


They are particularly exciting to workshop around as their benefits overlap largely with the skills used in foresight:


  • They teach how to navigate uncertainty and get out of our comfort zone. 


  • They engage our very own agency as we can ponder the direct and indirect consequences of our behavior in a safe environment. 


  • We can plan ahead and strategize, in response to scenarios, events, resources scarcity, other players’ actions. 


  • Games naturally contribute to generating empathy as we take on different perspectives and personas. 


  • Games’ art, design, and worldbuilding capabilities stimulate our different senses and futures envisioning


  • Games rely on multidisciplinary thinking (digesting information, computing, negotiating, collaborating) with a choice of themes that we are not necessarily familiar with, but that we can explore safely - be a spy, a pilot, a real estate mogul, a sushi chef, or a hunter-gatherer…


  • Last but not least, the joy of playing and socializing correlates with positive thinking and hope, a value at the heart of futures thinking and futures building!


MANY COMMERCIAL GAMES ALSO PROMOTE A FUTURIST MINDSET

However, not only have specific board games been developed for the sake of foresight practices and include futures thinking properties by design, but many commercial board games also activate cognitive abilities that are core in futures thinking. 


Popular culture has always been a unique lens into the future. Similarly to science-fiction novels, movies, and TV series, commercial board games offer world building, futures envisioning, and a range of perspectives enabling anyone to consider a situation from different angles. In addition to fiction, board games offer the opportunity to give players an active role.


Since Senet, the range of available board games has been largely multiplied, from classical millenary board games (Chess, Go, Backgammon, Checkers, Mancala), to the first branded ones in the 1950s (Monopoly, Risk, Clue, Game of Life) to the thousands of board games today! The website BoardGameGeek boasts an impressive collection of over 140,000 board games. 


The game Settlers of Catan released in 1995 opened up another era for board games. The game places players on a remote island where they competitively collect resources, build roads, and expand settlements. Catan won the Spiel des Jahres, one of board gaming’s most prestigious awards. It now counts over 40 million copies sold and has been translated into more than 40 languages. Catan fundamentally changed the landscape of board gaming, with a democratized enjoyment of board games, and a market valued at $12 billion in 2023. 


Today’s gamers have changed, with 28% households owning between 26 and 100 games, and 11% own more than 100! I have to admit, my household belongs to these 11% game lovers. And the pandemic helped with board games’ popularity: Deutsche Welle reported that the global board games market grew by 20% in 2020.


On top of gaining in popularity, board games have gained in diversification. Board game dynamics mirror, formalize, and gamify the diversity of human behaviors and interactions, with a range of new game dynamics: 


  • Resource management as in Catan, Power Grid, Torres, or Terraforming Mars; 

  • Empire building as in Civilization or 7 Wonders;

  • Tile laying and meeple placement as in Carcassonne, Trias, Cascadia, or Takenoko; 

  • Negotiation as in Bohnanza; 

  • Polyomino tile placing as in Blokus, Patchwork, Arraial, Isle of Cats, Calico, Factory Fun, or My City;

  • Route building such as Ticket to Ride or Thurn und Taxis;

  • Tableau building as in Splendor, Race for the Galaxy, Point Salad, or Point City; 

  • City building as in Happy City, Machi Koro, Little Town, or Between Two Cities; 

  • Engine-building as in Wingspan;

  • Deck building as in Dominion; 

  • Social guessing as in Codenames and Dixit; 

  • Betting as in Camel Up; 

  • Bluffing as in Sheriff of Nottingham; 

  • Role selection and hidden identities as in Citadels, Love Letters, Spyfall, Colt Express, Spy Alley, The Resistance, or Saboteur; 

  • Cooperation as in Pandemic, Forbidden Island, Burgle bros, or Magic Maze;

  • Drafting as in Sushi Go, Draftosaurus, Sagrada, or Azul; 

  • Strategic card deck as in Exploding Kitten, Tacos vs. Burrito, Tempura, Mamma Mia; 

  • Flip and Write, as in Silver and Gold, Welcome to, Hadrian’s wall, or Cartographers;

  • Roll-and-write, as in Railroad Ink, Dinosaur Island: Rawr 'n Write, or Super-Skill Pinball;

  • Legacy, evolving gameplay, and narrative, as in Pandemic Legacy, My City, or Sleeping Gods.


I am not ashamed to say that I am very familiar with all those games – definitely ask me for recommendations! The Spiel des Jahres award is another great indicator. 


On top of gameplays, board games’ artwork and design are key to their success – and have a sizable impact on their pricing, with games reaching $200 vs. a maximum of $50 twenty years ago.


SELECTING BOARD GAMES TO BOOST YOUR FORESIGHT PRACTICE

Commercial board games are natural candidates for futures thinking tools and playing them can reinforce personal and collective foresight skills. However, let’s not be fooled by futuristic sugar-coating (design, branding, advertising). A good indicator could be whether professional futurists have been involved in the creation process, although it remains difficult to evaluate.


To distinguish signals from the noise, we identified three main criteria to select board games that are particularly appealing to introduce to your own foresight practice.


Futures Theme: While many games are branded futuristic as they take place in a future scenario (on another planet, after a global catastrophe, under resource scarcity, etc.), this dimension measures how credible the futuristic setting is. How realistic is the collapse scenario that sets the decor for the game? Is the future a key component, or is it just a tacky theme that was added last minute? Is the game leaning on the fantasy side (supernatural power, fantasy characters, rules that defy physics, etc.) or closer to possible future scenarios? We also evaluate how main trends identified in futures studies (sustainability, public health crisis, unemployment, mental health, aging demographics, international tensions, future of work, responsible innovation, gender diversity, etc.) translate in the game design — and we aim to scan the full STEEPLE environment (social, technological, economic, environmental, political, legal, ethical), not just technology, space conquest, and robots! 


Futures-Thinking Gameplay: We assess the gameplay and player dynamics according to their innovation. Have we ever seen such gameplay before? In addition, we consider how the gameplay engages skills that we favor in foresight and futures thinking such as mental stretching, scenario building, long-term thinking, navigating uncertainty, resource planning, problem-solving, lateral thinking, creativity, cooperation, education, empathy, ethics, multidisciplinarity, and hope-in-future outcomes. 


Adoptability: This criteria measures how easy it is to jump into the game and start getting a taste of the future? Too often, games with a futuristic setting tend to have a deterrent and unnecessary complexity, whereas a foresight approach favors democratization, meaning accessibility, agency, and empowerment towards future scenarios.


We recently published a list of 10 board games that score high on those dimensions. We invite you to consult the list and experiment with those games.


Within this list, I would like to highlight one board game in particular that I think many professional futurists will find of interest, and which, scores high on the criteria that I outlined.


The Search for Planet X (2020) is a game for 1–4 players (13+ years and up) and takes about 60–75 minutes. It has a 2.40 complexity; 8.0 on Boardgamegeek.com

In terms of a foresight criteria, this game scores:


Futures Theme: 4/5

Futures-Thinking Gameplay: 4/5 

Adoptability: 3/5


The pitch is that a large distant planet could explain the weird orbits of dwarf planets, comets, asteroids, and gas clouds. Players step into the shoes of astronomers to scan the sky, conduct research, and unravel this mysterious Planet X. They are invited to use observations and logical deductions to search for this hypothetical planet. 


To pursue their quest, players have three tools at their disposal: 


  • Targeting a specific area of the sky in search for different types of celestial bodies;

  • Surveying a wedge of the sky to find a particular type of cosmic objects; 

  • Conducting research to discover new rules that guide the behavior of these objects. 


Each action consumes time, emphasizing efficiency and urgency. 


A smart component of the board game that serves reusability, is that for each game, a smartphone application randomly selects an arrangement of celestial bodies and a location for Planet X. When players think they have got the position for Planet X right, they can double-check it directly in the companion app.


The captivating deduction aspect of the game nicely intertwines with the very elements of conducting research and eagerly pursuing the tracks of an elusive planet. To add in realism and mirror the competition inherent in the scientific process, players can attend conferences, gather new evidence, and rush to be the first to publish theories in scientific publications.


While deduction games often rely on rigid solutions, Planet X introduces uncertainty. Success in the game relies on asking relevant questions, by formulating precise queries at the right time, and managing emergent complexity. The struggle to navigate uncertainty keeps players engaged, making the game intellectually stimulating. 

In Uncertainty in Games, Greg Costikyan highlights how “Games require uncertainty to hold our interest, and… the struggle to master uncertainty is central to the appeal of games.” What a better way to describe the mission of foresight practitioners and our continuous quest for mastering uncertainty. The strategic nexus between board games and foresight is marvelously illustrated in The Search for Planet X.


REFERENCES:


 

Sylvia Gallusser is a Global Futurist based in Silicon Valley. She is the Founder & CEO of Silicon Humanism and the host of our “Ethics of Futures” think tank within the Association

of Professional Futurists (APF). Sylvia conducts foresight projects on the future of health, well-aging, and social interaction, the future of work and life-long learning, as well as transformations in mobility and retail. She is involved in the future of our oceans as a mentor at SOA (Sustainable Ocean Alliance). She closely monitors the future of the mind and transhumanism, and investigates AGI (Artificial General Intelligence), Generative AI, and AI ethics. Sylvia joined Accenture in 2022 as a technology strategist and futurist, leading strategy advisory on Generative AI, Metaverse, and responsible innovation. Sylvia is a published author of Speculative Fiction with Fast Future Publishing. She regularly gives keynotes and interviews as a distinguished female futurist (keynote speaker of the latest Microsoft Elevating You conference), and teaches in MBAs, Master in Entrepreneurship (HEC Paris), and Executive programs (UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism).


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