“Codex Conquest” teaches Western Book History as a Board Game
- by Susan Halas
Students at the University of Iowa play test "Codex Conquest" during a 2016 class. It teaches the basics of Western book history from the 15th through 19th century as a multi-player game.
Codex Conquest is a board game using cards designed to teach European book history to audiences ranging from high school to graduate level players. It is being developed by Amy Chen, 32, special collections instruction librarian at the University of Iowa Libraries. “There's always a need for educational games because gaming helps students learn,” Chen said. “Games are just structured forms of play. You learn best when you're having fun.”
Her goal is “to bring special collections topics to wider audiences through Open Educational Resource (OER) card games.” OERs, she explained, “are free resources that can be used and revised by anybody. “
Codex Conquest can be played by audiences that would not be able to acquire the funds to pay for a game, are not close enough to a repository to come see rare materials, or need a less-intimidating introduction to key topics (“Although ideally,” she said, “it would be combined with a visit to see original items”).
Players assume the roles of important European countries: Spain, France, England, Italy and Germany. The object of the game is to acquire the best collections in books from the 15th through 19th centuries. The winner is the player who has created the collection with the highest point value through purchase, auction, trade and chance. In the process the players are exposed to some of the great books and events in the history of those countries.
“Codex Conquest teaches students to recognize the canon of Western literature: its historical arc, what titles are most important, which genres were the most popular and at what times, and even how cultural and financial value are intertwined but not necessarily the same,” Chen said.
“I really want students to learn that books and history are not independent subjects, she stressed. “Historical events don't just get summarized in books. Books contributed to how history happened. At the same time, the way history is documented in books shapes what we can remember.”
Chen began work on the project after a conversation with her supervisor, Greg Prickman, who told her he always wanted to develop a game about how books are made. “I loved the idea and started thinking up how to do it over the vacation. Only because my background is more in print culture than book production, I decided to focus Codex Conquest on the history of books.
Among the many steps in evolution of the game was “play testing,” in the form of a class she taught in 2016 for first-year honors undergraduates at Iowa (not future librarians). “In a sense, I had it easy," she said, "my students had not learned book history before, this was their first time in special collections, and most were non-humanities majors who would not be likely to find themselves in many English or History courses in the future. What I had to say to them was pretty new.
“I did bring out original materials for students to see and browse.” she added. "We split the class in half, one half dedicated to the game and one half dedicated to the rare books. Sometimes what I brought out matched the books in the game, sometimes they were facsimiles. Occasionally I pointed to digital editions. Together, the range of materials helped us discuss what these items look like and the variety of ways we can engage with them. Personally, I think working with rare materials is important. I’m a scholar too, and you can’t have responsible scholarship without recourse to the original.
“However, I keep in mind what a privilege it is to see rare books and manuscripts. Many classes come to Iowa from other institutions that don’t have the level of holdings that we do. I know that there are more classes that can’t make the drive. So while I honor the physical object, and at no point do I think my game replaces working with rare and unique materials, we have to recognize it isn’t always possible to provide a hands-on experience.”
Chen said that what her students liked about the experience “was the opportunity to tell me everything they didn’t like! I pitched my class to them as a game development course. I’d teach them book history, and they’d teach me how I needed to improve Codex Conquest to achieve that objective.”
The thirteen members of her class wrote weekly blog posts where they critiqued all aspects of the game “….. from which countries I included to how well I balanced the credits.” To read the student and instructors blogs with individual feedback see the index from the course website: codexconquest2016fall.wordpress.com/.
Other "play testing" came from Stephen Jacobs, a professor at Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of Interactive Games and Media, who conducted an evaluation in September 2016. His comments can also be found on the blog site. She also credited Serin Sulentic, an art instructor at IU and her students with the physical design of the game.
In April 2017 Chen traveled to New York to host game sessions at Columbia University and see Codex Conquest’s first adaptation, Codex Conquest: Jewish History, created by Michelle Chesner, the Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies.
“Michelle and I drew a wide range of participants from across New York City and the surrounding areas. Those attending came from Columbia, Barnard College, New York University, Yeshiva University, Smith College, and the University of Pennsylvania. The feedback was positive—people were excited to think about how games can depict book history. Of course, everyone had lots of suggestions for improvements and expansion packs!”
Chen said that Chesner “transformed the game by changing out the history and book cards and adding a few additional chance cards to reflect Judaism’s print culture. I learned so much from her when I saw the game in action. She was teaching me as we played! I’m amazed by how in just a few months, she was not only able to revise the game entirely, but also begin reaching out to her community to think about how to use it in K-12 schools.”
“As a librarian, I find it essential that we think flexibly about how to generate more affordable access to education, whether that means free textbooks or crowd-sourced curricula. I did not develop this game as a commodity that can be bought in a store because that would limit who could use it. By putting it on the web for free, I hope more students can benefit from my work. Plus, when others modify my game, they can expand its content in ways beyond what I am capable of, which I find rewarding to watch.
“The best way to learn how to play is in person. I can explain the game in about five minutes and I’ve found people catch on quickly. All the play tests I ran helped me to figure out the best way to communicate the game’s structure and objectives, but I only really nailed how to do this easily in the past month when I took the game to Kyle Triplett’s class at Pratt and to Adam Hooks’ class at Iowa.
“However, I revised the rules many times to make them as simple as possible. In fact, I took out many facets of the game that increased its complexity to achieve this objective.
“Right now, I’m not set up to provide copies of the game for payment as it is meant to be a free open educational resource. I do have copies circulating, however, and if you contact me I can get a printed copy mailed to you after it has been played at another institution.”
100 Main Library
125 West Washington Street
Iowa City, Iowa 52242-1420
Telephone (310) 335-5870
Useful links for Codex Conquest
Codex Conquest the Game of book history : codexconquest.lib.uiowa.edu/ ·
Class: codexconquest2016fall.wordpress.com/ ·
Original Game Hashtag: #codexconquest ·
Jewish History Game Hashtag: #codexconquestJE
Open Educational Resources Wiki:
Play Codex Conquest at RBMS Meeting June 20 at University of Iowa
June 20-23, 2017 Rare Books and Manuscript Section(RBMS) of the ALA meets this year at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. ( conference.rbms.info/2017/ ) Those attending can play Codex Conquest on Tues., June 20th, 6:00 pm-8:00 pm in the UI Library Special Collections Classroom. conference.rbms.info/2017/program/