The Mercantilism Game - All About the Bullions (Part 3)
Shake it off.
Lots of successful people have high praise for how helpful failure is—just search for quotes about failure and you’ll see. I don’t disagree with those quotes. I know how important failure is in the learning process. I’m in favor of taking risks. I accept that those risks can lead to failure.
But it still stings.
Back in Part 1, I explained why I wanted to make my own Mercantilism game. I really wanted to add an element of tension between colonies and their mother countries, and I couldn’t find any existing games that do that. Getting a better understanding of the occasionally hostile dynamic between colony and mother country was also a major learning objective I set for my students. I spent weeks designing the game and testing it to make sure to impress this idea onto my students.
Imagine my agony when students came away from the game with the opposite impression.
The colonists concluded that cooperation between a colony and its mother country was essential, when they were supposed to feel exploited and bitter at the unfairness of it all.
This failure is kind of a big deal, no?
In the grand scheme of things, it’s not the end of the world. My students definitely had fun playing the game, so they were eager to help troubleshoot it. The key in these situations is to be open and honest about what you wanted the game to do and discuss together where that went wrong. Deconstructing the failure to convey this fundamental component was a meaningful learning exercise—one that I hope stuck with them more than the wrong experience in the game.
Our class-wide playtest also revealed other things for me to change. The game ends with an opportunity for war, which they liked but I found anticlimactic. I will beef up that part before I run it again. I made a very complex spreadsheet to run calculations, but it needs some changes. I consider those things minor changes.
The biggest structural change that excites me is how the game gets rolled out, and it comes from the two friends I mentioned in Part 2: Clarify and Simplify.
Most video games start with simplified gameplay to teach you how to play as you go, but there’s a style known as “incremental games” that I discovered when I found a game called Universal Paperclips. It starts with only three buttons to click. Simple experimentation reveals what you can do, and when you do them enough times something new appears. As more new things appear, they pique your curiosity and keep you invested. This pattern continues until the game becomes very involved. (WARNING: Do not spend a couple of minutes on that game unless you’re prepared to spend hours in front of your screen! It’s addicting!)
My students were definitely enjoying All About the Bullions, but they were noticeably unsure what to do in the beginning. I decided to trim down their options at the beginning to have the game teach them how to play. Like in Universal Paperclips, as they become familiar with the game’s dynamics, their options grow.
In the first round of my updated version, they’ll have only 1 thing they can do: trade within the empire. They’ll have to devote all of their available resources to trading with each other. Unfortunately, this will result in both of them having a surplus, and they will be penalized. It may feel unfair to them, but it will reinforce their need to seek alternative ways to utilize their materials. In Round 2, an option will open up for them to illegally trade with another empire, thus giving them means to offload some of their surplus.
In this way, the game introduces a negative consequence right before showing a way to avoid those consequences, teaching them how to play it as they go.
And now I’m at the most frustrating part of designing games to teach with: I can’t really playtest this one with students again until next year when I teach this chapter. I can keep making new iterations to it, but without real-world playtests to remind me to CLARIFY AND SIMPLIFY I’m sure I’ll be making a lot of unknown stumbles.
I’ll update this series when I develop a major revision to the game. In the meantime, it’s not quite ready for playtesting yet. When it is, you’ll be able to click here and fill out the request form. I will get a copy of the game materials to you as soon as possible! Please only agree to playtest if you are adventurous enough to play an unpolished game and are ready to give me constructive criticism.