Jess: This week, I sit down with Robert (Bob) Hewitt, creator of The Brooklyn Game Lab (BGL). Bob runs an after school program for kids that is both education and fun. Using board game design as a medium, BGL teaches children ingenuity, design, public speaking, team building, and a variety of other life skills.
And it’s super, super cool.
When a friend of mine at work mentioned that his kid was attending a cool board game program in Brooklyn, I just had to check it out! I contacted the creator of the program Bob Hewitt and he was kind enough to meet me at the Lab and show me around.
The Brooklyn Game Lab was started just about a year ago in 2014 and is a fun, creative, and educational place for kids, ages 7-13, to explore playing and creating board games. But the BGL doesn’t use ‘educational games’ to teach kids; rather, it uses board games and game design concepts to provide intuitive, engaging, sneakily educational experiences.
The BGL is a short stroll from the G or F train, across the street from a bubble tea shop (which makes its location perfect, in my book). The interior, like so many NYC buildings, is small, but there definitely is enough room to lay out several board games at a time. When you first walk in the feeling you get is not of a playground with scattered toys, but of an orderly workspace where serious gaming can happen.
Somehow, instead of indulging in the immediate desire to break into the games, I managed to take the time to ask Bob some questions about his fantastic program.
Bob: Originally before this I was doing app design. We had a company we made a bunch of games. Some of which, there are remnants still floating around of those, but part of it became very “Candy Crush”. I took a big step back and kinda thought, ‘What did I want to do?’ What actually would be a way in which I wanted to be involved in gaming?”
What we do here is an after school program and a summer camp for kids. The original vision was a lot of game play with a little bit of discussion and game design. What’s really happened is its become 40% to 50% game play and all the rest is game design. It’s evolved since the day we opened the doors.
Bob: What basically happens is the kids coming in and they play a game. They all play the same game. Then they fill out one of the lab findings. It could be something like a winning tactic or a losing lesson. A lot of it is from the creative side such as expansion ideas; adding bridges, or a rule change in regards to weapons, or how to fix the faerie queen in 8 minute empire.
There’s also stuff like looking at explosive combos, like if you buy this mutation and that mutation, it’s totally OP. It gets them thinking about the tactics. For me this is one of my favorite parts, because these are the kids that are really doing really high level thinking. They’re standing back, they laying out every King of Tokyo mutation out on the table, looking at them, and moving them around. They’re really planning at that kind of level.
You put your idea up, you explain it, and then every kid in lab gets 2 thumbs up stickers. they come over and they put them on the idea in that class that they thought was compelling or cool. If you get 4 stickers you idea gets certified.
The kids have their own folder where they’re tracking what level they’re on, what they’ve earned, and games they’ve created. Whatever they’re working on is in their portfolio. There are the 96 merits they can currently earn. Some are for straight up victory, some are for original game design, some are behavioral, and some are tactical. We’ll give them a goal within a game that are very very difficult to do. The other ones are for getting any idea on this board 4 votes. That’s it. The goal with all of this is to keep it hyper educational but also super fun.
We have chess mods. This is one of the things I’m most proud of out of everything that we do. We allow our kids to make new chess pieces. Once they have an idea, they have to formalize it and they have to find kids to play test it. Once the other kids have play tested it, they have to give the written feedback. There’s a whole process to decide if it is a feasible piece. Essentially we have a set of now of 40 pieces that have been through probably 10,000 hours of play testing each. They’re all substitute pieces for normal chess pieces. So to give you an idea, Wolfman is probably the most simplest – you replace one of your knights and it just can’t be captured on a black square. Super simple. Then you get into the complicated stuff. The troll is kidnapping pieces off the board, the elf has a bow for a long ranged attack, the Phoenix can burn to ash and respawn, and the Wizard teleports. This is the end result of about 2,000 ideas from kids.
Bob: The first is time. Not having enough time to play is a deal breaker for many games. Sometimes we can strip a game down or do something where you’re not playing to the end, like if you’re playing small world to 7 instead of 10.
Group size is one. Four is about perfect. With groups that are too big it becomes cumbersome.
As far as the actual game is concerned, we’re looking for stuff that requires kids to be social; to do haggling, bargaining, secret roles, temporary alliances, conversation stuff. I personally don’t have any issue with 7 Wonders, but to me it feels like several people playing solitaire. So we try to avoid that. It should be more Settlers of Catan, because the goal for us is not just to just get kids doing all the critical thinking stuff, but to get them to the point where we’re checking the creative box and the social box as well. Also, obviously, its gotta be fun.
Bob: My favorite part about working with the kids is, I think for a lot of these kids when they come here they don’t necessarily know what their “thing” is. So they were like pretty good in school, they all play soccer, and they don’t know if they are going to join the high school band yet. I had a kid, and it was his first day. He came in, had a pretty good test lab, went out got in the car drove away with his mom. Six months later, he’s a lifer. He’s been here every day since and his mom told me “You know, its so funny. I knew this was going to work from day one. When I picked him up that first day he came out and I said how was it? and he said ‘Mom I found my people.’” We have a thing here that feels like a locker room or a community vibe.
Bob also showed us a cool mega game that the superstar kids get invited to play called Immortal Wars. He showed me a huge map that he had created and a set of coins that were minted just for the game.
So all the kids come in as mortals when they start game lab. Its a six week program but after like 2 weeks they’ve completed their folder. At that point we call them immortals and they are inducted into one of the houses. Just like in Harry Potter, there are different houses. We have 5 set up like old D&D character alignments. There’s good, evil, chaotic, lawful, and neutral. The 5 houses vie for control of territory. They’re playing essentially a huge mega-game. Its an area control game like 8-Minute Empire.
We wanted something that was like Smallworld, but we didn’t want a ton of nuance. A simple model, span troop, move troop, kill troop. So the kids, when they walk in, are earning cash just for showing up to lab. If you’re a Red Moon kid you get Red Moon coins. Then they can spend those coins to make movements. There’s no central leadership.
So those are probably the two things I’m most proud of. One is kids finding a place that feels like home and the other is giving them something that is way bigger than they’ve had access to before.
Bob: There’s definitely an opportunity to franchise and pop up in Manhattan. This is still our first year. When we started this program we had 10 merits and we had 3 cards; did you win, did you lose, do you want to change it? We had no clans, and we had no chess program, and we weren’t even modding games really as deeply. So this is evolving at a crazy pace for us. We don’t know where its going and that’s great.
It was a real pleasure to get to meet with Bob and see how the Brooklyn Game Lab works. The program looks like it is growing in popularity daily and I am super stoked to see where it goes. This program could fuel a whole new generation of board game designers with exciting new ideas to shake up the industry.
If you are interested in the Brooklyn Game Lab for your kids, you can check out their website and if you are too old to attend the camp you can still play during their adult night: every Tuesday at 7pm they open their doors for board gamers of all ages. You can find the BGL in Park Slope at 353 7th Avenue.