Game Terakoya: Examining “Railways of the World’s” Rules and Attendant Discourse some more, Summer “Homework” (8/5)

Our last session of the semester.

We talked about another aspect that was missing from the game: environmental impact. Players are laying track through mountains and forest and locomotives are spewing smoke, but this is not modeled in the game. If we wanted to include this in a train game, M suggested having players take an action to cut down forest / destroy some aspect of nature and then build track. This explicit action might make players think more about the effect their money-making actions took on the game world. I mentioned the history of Chinese workers in the North American railroad creation, suggesting that game rules could be written to focus on tragedies related to this work.

(image from wikipedia: creative commons license)

We then looked at the notes I had given them the week before on my examinations of the game rules and some attendant discourse around the game (a youtuber’s teaching and actual play of the game).

They were able to look at my notes and find additional language that they hadn’t noticed before.

They noticed various unknown academic and specialist (off-list) vocabulary which I used an English online dictionary and examples from the game to help them understand. Examples: flat broke, money pie, restrict, caveat, thematic, rename, tangent, signify, declare, dead broke, debt, beneficial, financial empire, cut throat, hammer, conservative, stagnation, jerk (there was a lot of crossover in their lists of unknown words).

N and M both noticed patterns.

  • N said that the youtuber “said they for every players… I sometimes get confused” “maybe it doesn’t matter he or she” and we discussed the recent change to “they usage” in American English:
  • N also noticed the usage of “Remember to…” meaning “it is important to.”
  • M noticed that “the speaker often uses the comparative” to “give advice to be a better player.”
  • M noticed the youtuber said “You can never deliver” (he doesn’t say: “you cannot deliver”) “to stress the rule”
  • M noticed that “some words are capitalized. In the case of Japanese, you can’t” and we discussed textual tools for emphasizing language (capitals, bold, exclamation marks) and how these can also be read as “yelling” in English depending on the context.

M and N discussed the purposes of the rulebook and the youtube instructional and actual play videos: to teach and also to help players check if their playing is correct or not. N said that the “The video is easier to understand than the rulebook. You can look the rules” and that it would be “difficult” (and costly) to put so many images in a rulebook.

About the video, M said that “combining with vocal and actual play this is more easier for me to understand. When I first read the rulebook it was difficult to imagine the actual play, so I think the video is better.” She reported liking to listen to English rather than reading English. Both of them read the rulebook for more than 45 minutes (the length of the videos) in order to check the vocabulary.

M said “Only rulebook or only video doesn’t work well. The combination is important” and N said “to know the rules well, it is good to use the rulebook. To make imagination, it is better to watch video. How to move the pieces, how to exchange money.”

This has important implications for using board games in language classrooms. Rulebooks can help the students notice new vocabulary in context, and they can be an excellent reference for particular rules and how to play the game correctly, but it they take time to read and students do not always understand how to play based on lengthy rulebooks. “Learn to play” and “actual play” videos can show students how to actually make moves in the game and have the language from the rulebook put into use.

This may lead to yet another reworking of the teaching framework, as James is also doing with his Kotoba Rollers Framework, in order to keep knowledge of the game improving in step with developing language to be implemented in the students’ play:

Students could:

  1. Read the rulebook and watch some videos
  2. Brainstorm some language for play (recognizing that they may not have a complete understanding of the game and language to be used)
  3. Attempt the game
  4. Re-read the rulebook and re-watch some videos (re-examining the language with the guidance of the teacher)
  5. Re-brainstorm and hypothesize about language to use.
  6. Re-attempt the game
  7. Repeat until the game and language use are at a satisfactory level for both students and teacher.

I am sure James can say more about this cycle as it seems it is related to task-based language teaching.

As an incredible side note, both M and N had a mandatory TOEIC test a few days before our meeting. M said “At the TOEIC test there was a word ‘locomotive’ in it. I thought everyone doesn’t this word. I know it! (she said in a singsong tone of voice). It appeared in an advertisement.”

She hadn’t known the word before playing the game but learned and was able to find success using it in a testing context!

(image from wikipedia: creative commons license)

Both students offered their personal reaction to the language. N said “It was really easy to understand the rules from the video. The rulebook is a little difficult to read for me because there are many new vocabularies. But it is detailed very much.”

M mentioned that she couldn’t catch some language in one of the youtube videos because it was too fast; it was “like another language.” She had written down the timestamp, so we all listened and I transcribed it for them and discussed the vocabulary, pronunciation/intonation and contextual knowledge that was giving her trouble:

“Now once you’ve got all these cities seeded with the kinds of goods that they are going to be producing, now the rules do tell you that you are supposed to remove some cities from all the cities based on the number of players. Well, that’s actually wrong because that rulebook is an offshoot from the original Railroad Tycoon game, and this actually is the original Railroad Tycoon game just renamed after Eagle Games lost the rights to use the name from Microsoft.”


I then brought their attention to things related to language in my notes that they hadn’t mentioned:

  • The speaker’s manner of stressing rules: “If you happen to,” “every single turn,” “you can never,” “extra special bonus”
  • Him saying “thanks for watching” at the end of his videos and the personal connection youtubers seem to have with their audience (unlike TV and movies)
  • Go ahead and VERB:” I had asked this in the brainstorming session because the youtube speaker used it. N hadn’t noticed it during the video, even though she knew the form
  • Expandable” game (written on the cover of the box and rulebook). M thought it referred to expanding territory, not game expansions, so I showed them some board game expansions (e.g., Sid Meier’s Civilization) and expansions being additional nations or maps that companies can sell.
  • the introductory passage in the rules and its “! marks,” story, personal, exciting, active verbs
  • The frequent usage of “him” in the core rules and some instances of “she” in the USA rulebook. M said that is is “not so big a problem. I don’t care. But, when the rule is written in Japanese, and I read “kare” I feel strange. Perhaps this is some difference between perception of gender markers in the native and second language? N said “I think it’s ok if I can understand which player is “he” (Bill, Mark in rules). If there is too many he, I don’t know if he is first player or second player” and that she would prefer Player 1, Player 2….
  • They didn’t read the information about trains in the rulebook. M said “she didn’t have enough time” and N “thought it was not necessary.” I mentioned that we make a game about Shizuoka and include some information in the rules, people might not read that information.

I then gave them some “homework” for the summer related to the research project and to the further analysis and participation:

  • a questionnaire about their experiences in the project so far
  • gameplay transcription (which I would correct)
  • gameplay analysis related to the descriptive/announcing language that they used (having them tally and give rationales for common forms)
  • reading and analyzing 2 forum posts on boardgamegeek
  • writing a short essay about a concept that we encountered this semester
  • brainstorming additional discussion or roleplay topics to reuse/apply the language we learned in the game
  • reading some media education questions and picking some to explore in the fall
  • drafting some questions to ask to boardgamegeek Railways of the World players
  • making notes and sketches for ideas for a Japan and Shizuoka game map/rulebook

I offered to do these assignments with them over the summer, if they liked.

I collected all their materials to scan and then analyze for the paper and thanked them for their great work this semester. It has been an incredibly meaningful project for me!

We ended by playing 2 quick games of Hey That’s My Fish (a cutthroat abstract strategy game).


M took a cute photo of her “team” and their stack of fish


and I showed them a “big game” version of the game that my students created 2 years ago for a game charity event (as an additional example of a remixing / participation activity around games).

I’m looking forward to continuing the Game Terakoya in the fall semester!

Game Terakoya: Extending New Game Experiences, Names and Concepts, Discussing the Game (7/29)

Before starting the game, we quickly re-examined the various English structures for describing or announcing actions in a board game. I presented them with the list of structures we had brainstormed and asked them which they had heard, which were appropriate, and which ones they thought they would use in the game. They disagreed on the appropriateness of “I am going to VERB” and neither of them had heard “I am going to go ahead and VERB” (though N had heard it used with “You are going to go ahead and VERB”).

I asked them to think about which one(s) to use when they announced their actions in the game that day.

We continued the Eastern United States game (it took about 50 more minutes to finish, so about 2.5 hours in total).

N won the game!

We learned that N had lived in 2 cities shown on the map (Mobile and New Jersey).

After the game, we reviewed the forms and their usage of them. M thought that she used “I take” or ” I want to take instead of “I am going to take” because that form is “long” and she wanted to “play quickly.” N, however, said that she thought that she used “I am going to take” because it was “familiar” to her.

I told them that I will ask them to transcribe the game and tally how many times they used each form, and the reason for each (to Examine and Conceptualize the language in the game).

After the game, we moved into a discussion about the game. Both thought that the game was “fun.” M commented that she had “to think about many things at the same time. It is difficult but it is also fun.” N said that the map was “more complicated than the Mexico version. I was just thinking to build a long track. (Because of her her Baron card). I have to think about a lot of other things.”

M: I was thinking to build the Western Link, but I gave it the idea.
J: Gave up the idea?
M : Yeah

It seemed hard for them to jump into just chatting about the game, so I asked them to think and write down 2 or 3 questions to talk about the game and also to practice their English. “What do you want to talk about?”

Having them take the time to write questions and then to ask them in turns worked really well. It led to discussions of opinions and strategies, and covered topics such as:

  • The feel of the USA game compared to Mexico
  • The cost of building in the mountains
  • The puzzle of correct track placement
  • The benefits of going first each round, and the benefits of waiting and seeing what other players do first
  • Strategies for getting money and getting points (this led to me sharing a common design element in some board games (Railways, but also Dominion and Splendor) of working for money at the beginning of the game, but then “flipping” ones strategy to focusing on points about halfway through the game. The fun is optimizing when to make the change.)
  • Balancing territory expansion and making money/points
  • Which map we liked better (which led to discussions of location familiarity, personal experience in the USA and also imagining taking a trip in the USA)
  • Things that they didn’t like about the game system (they wanted more track patterns, perhaps at more cost to build)

Asking them to write their questions at the beginning of the discussion seemed to lead to

  • them saying more – using longer sentences, taking more turns, and speaking more quickly
  • them recycling language from the rules and gameplay in the discussions (vocabulary like urbanize and upgrade)
  • a smoother, more student-centered discussion space (rather than me just asking all the questions)
  • them bringing up issues that I had also wanted to bring up (regarding strategies and opinions)
  • them creating opportunities to discuss concepts like multitasking and prioritizing

I plan on using this format of discussions in the Game Terakoya and classes going forward, rather than just springing a chat on them. (However, with more talkative students, the planning stage might not be as necessary or useful).

We also discussed the game’s “usefulness” for studying English.

N actually did not look up a word on her role card (“consecutive”) because she did not want to give away her secret goal. She said that she could somewhat understand the meaning of this new word from context.

M said that “honestly, maybe I didn’t speak so much English during the play, but, before the starting the game I had to read tough rule books and during the play I also have to think about what this [language on the cards] means, so, overall I think that this is very good for studying English.”

They said they had studied the grammatical forms for announcing actions in junior high school.

N reported learning many words like consecutive and urbanize.

In this discussion, I was able to raise some issues that were more challenging for them. For example, I showed them how the game was primarily an economic game (spending money to build tracks and trains to deliver goods to make money, and on and on; it is a game about consuming goods). I asked them if some other aspects of human culture, other than consuming, were missing from the game (from Buckingham’s Media Education questions). This was very hard for them to answer (M: “that is a hard question. I don’t know how to answer.”). I tried to re-center the discussion by asking them about their own lives: “what do you do other than consume?” but they still had a hard time answering. I linked back to our discussions of social impact games that focus on health, happiness, or social messages, and I also showed them how travelers in the board game Tokaido can relax in a hot spring or take in a nice view to earn points. I didn’t want to push the topic too much, but I did want to draw their attention to this subject. We talked about how games can represent reality, and if they make a game about Japan, what is included in the game and what is left out can communicate about what Japan is. I was a little surprised how difficult is question was for them, but, that means that there is a need or opportunity to do more critical and sociocultural thinking around games with them.

Our discussion lasted for almost 60 minutes. We discussed 12 main questions.

At the end of this longer session, I gave them my notes from the youtube videos and rulebooks and asked them to note interesting words, common patterns, and their personal impression of the texts for homework.

I also asked them which boardgamegeek articles they would like to read to learn more about English around this game. I presented them with a list and description of more than 10 articles and they chose these two:

Someone who played with their child, doesn’t like the game. A bit of a forum “fight” making fun of the author:

A very popular overview with photos, with comments from author and other fans:

At the end of the session, I found out that some of M’s friends are interested in the Game Terakoya project, so of course I told her and also N to invite anyone to play some games this summer or anytime.

Game Terakoya: Extending New Game Experiences, Names and Concepts (Railways of the World)

We have moved on to the “Eastern United States” map for Railways of the World.

A shot of the game in progress. So enjoyable to look at while playing. We couldn’t finish the game in one 90 minute period.

M and N read the expansion’s rules for homework and took some time to look at the map, but paused for quite some time when asked to make comparisons between the two games. After waiting, I asked leading questions about the differences between the games, specifically about the “Western Link” action that makes goods delivered from the West to Chicago produce 2 new goods cubes in Chicago (an interesting historical feature/inclusion). Some recasting was done with M about the cost of creating the link:


We noticed that each of the cities has a small illustration of a city hall, church, factory or other image in the middle of the hex.

Both M and N commented how big the map was.

Drawing on James’ Kotoba Rollers framework steps, we took some time to brainstorm language that would be useful in this game. “What language do you think you are going to use in this game?”

N offered vocabulary. “Bond.”

M said “I take the bond.” This lead me to ask about which grammatical structure would be correct to use when describing (announcing) the action a player takes in a board game. We offered and suggested various forms:

    I take the bond.

    I will take the bond.

    I want to take the bond.

    I am taking the bond.

    I need the bond.

    I am going to take the bond.

    I am going to go ahead and take the bond. (this was used in the youtube videos they watched)

But didn’t get into deciding which and why was right. I wanted to take more time on this.

Brainstorming the language to be used in the game seems to connect nicely with the multiliteracies step of “conceptualization” and the Sykes and Reinhardt EEE model step of “examine.” Both of these frameworks want students to collect and notice language and make and test hypotheses about how language and other systems function in a media. One next step for us could be to try (“play around with”) different grammatical forms while playing the game. Another might be for students to transcribe their utterances (I video record our games) and tabulate and compare and contrast what they used in the game, and when and why.

The grammar that we spent some time on is not particularly “advanced” (they probably learned most of these forms in junior high school). However, since there is variation and they volunteered this language to begin with, I think it’s worth looking into the method of student-driven analysis.

One little learning cycle with games and language I am going to need to think more about is something that might look like:

→ predict language use

   → play the game and use language as naturally as possible

       → transcribe language use

           → tabulate language use

               → analyze/compare/contrast language use

                   → discuss (draw conclusions)

                       → play again and use the language (according to                                      analyses)

                           → use the language outside of the game context (a discussion or roleplay)

Another aspect of language that I asked them about was “talking about the game” (for example: “That was a nice move” or “It looks like N is in the lead!”) not just “announcing actions during the game” (for example: “I move this cube to this city.”). I make the comparison to sports commentary.

Both M and N said that they preferred to be quiet while playing. They said that they preferred to play quietly to focus on their own game, to play secretly and not to give away their knowledge of other players’ strategies. They said that “tabletalk” or “metagame discussions” (my terms here, not theirs) might come as they play more and become more familiar and gain expertise with the game (I referred them to their earlier discussion of UNO being a great game to play to just hang out; they could chat while playing the game because it’s not very hard), but they also said that Railways of the World will be setup differently each time (randomness in games…), so they still might not speak that much.

Scott Nicholson’s book “Everyone Plays At The Library” has a wonderful diagram of the “board game experience” showing interactions in the game state and game world (the level M and N seem comfortable using language at right now) and interactions around external knowledge (perhaps my and M and N’s discussions about history and geography and trains) but M and N (and many students, in my experience) might not be very proficient at (or perhaps even interested in) using their second language in the social interactions around games.

It’s definitely something for me to think about more. I’m playing Diplomacy (where the game really is using language well outside/about the game state) with some very high level students in 2 weeks and the game state / game world / social interaction language is so tightly interrelated. I’ll think about this more after that game.

I wondered to M and N how other players play Railways of the World. We might put a poll up on boardgamegeek to ask this and other questions about the game.

We are going to “pause” for the summer break in 2 weeks. I’m going to give M and N a little homework (e.g., transcribing their utterances in the videos, brainstorming some game design elements, reading some reviews).

Time to start writing this project up for a paper!