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Altogether Now: Pieces of Eight

Sometimes I get asked about how to create co-operative games. In the past I found it much more challenging than designing competitive ones. And sometimes I still do. Anyway, I thought in this column I would examine the process I use to make a game co-operative using a real live example.

Recently I was asked if I could make the Pirate Game from page 12 of David Paul's Songs and Games for Children co-operative. The original game was played in pairs. Each player writes ten words on a four by four grid. The object is to find the other player's words before they find yours. The reason I was asked to change the game was the 'we give up' element contained in it. The players are looking for words and have an equal chance. But it's possible to be unlucky. One player can miss a few words and then have little or no chance to catch up. When this happens and one player gets too far behind they give up. The fun of playing the game has gone and the lesson atmosphere is often soured.

One immediate try is to introduce more chance into the game. In the original game blank spaces have no value and that value is equal. By giving each player a couple of sharks to occupy 2 of the six blank spaces the value of these spaces becomes unequal. A player hitting a shark misses a turn giving the other player a chance to catch up, or unfortunately, get further in front. It would be possible to say that sharks only penalise the player in front but that feels illogical and unfair. This is an important point.

When designing a game or 'fixing' an existing one have a feel for the 'story' in the game. Look at the game through the eyes of the children playing it. For example, I play various tag games with young children but when I do and I'm the 'monster' I always move slowly. Just pause for a moment and imagine playing a game of tag with someone with the relative strength of a gorilla. Then imagine that someone is 3-4 metres tall....

Sharks don't play favourites. But the hazard doesn't need to be sharks. It could be lack of fuel. The player in front has been going faster and using up more fuel. But pirate ships don't use fuel. Well, modern day ones do but that doesn't fit the image we have of a pirate game.

Of course it can be a good idea to challenge preconceived ideas and images. In fact helping people to expand and enrich their own internal models is what I think teaching is about. But then the presentation of the game should reflect that. There should always be a balance between the game theme, the mechanics and the purpose (from the educator's point of view). All should be integrated.

So by this definition I find the original relationship between the game theme and the game task unsatisfactory. In my mind the word pirates conjures up images of buried treasure, shark infested seas, land a-hoy and parrots sitting on the shoulders of one legged men squawking 'pieces of eight, pieces of eight'. Buried treasure is hard to find so the sounds (words) in the game should represent something different. In my mind I saw the sounds as the names of Islands. Players sail from island to island looking for buried treasure. With this is image in mind I thought of game rules to help express this image. As I did so the game transmuted. I added some extra elements. I'll present the game and then discuss the elements.

The Pirate Game

  1. Play in teams or pairs. In this description I'll stick with the word teams.
  2. Each team needs a copy of the grids. You'll need one game board, and one pirate mover per game. You'll also need at least one six sided dice.
  3. Preparation: Place the pirate mover on the plank at the ship end. Each team secretly writes 10 words on a four by four grid. The words could be dictated by the teacher or the children could dictate words to each other. Then the 6 blank spaces are filled. One team adds two sharks, one dolphin, two spyglasses and a map. The other team adds two sharks, one dolphin, two spyglasses and a treasure chest. All 16 spaces are now filled.
  4. One team starts by calling out a number from 1-16. Put the ship marker on that space on the board. As the teams sail around the board move the ship marker so they can keep track of where they are. The second team responds by calling out what is in that space:
    1. If it is a word, the team writes it down.
    2. If it is a shark, roll the dice the pirate walks the plank the number of spaces rolled.
    3. If it is a dolphin roll the dice and move the pirate back up the plank towards the ship.
    4. If it is a spyglass that team my 'look' at any one space by calling out its' number. This is looking only, no other action is taken.
  5. Move the pirate one space up the plank. The turn is over.
  6. The second team now has their turn. They may pick any space next to the one chosen by the first team. Diagonal moves are allowed.
  7. The game is won when a link between the pirate map of one team and the treasure chest of the other team is made. I.e. both have been found. The game is lost if the pirate is forced to jump off the plank.

Note: one team may spy the map or the treasure chest, but they must still sail to it, i.e. actually visit that space before it counts.

Teams may backtrack and visit a space a second time, but the effects of the spyglass, dolphin and shark are only applied once.


This game is more complex than the original. It contains some strategy in that one team can try and 'steer' another team towards their target. There is also more chance in it. The pirate on the plank creates tension by introducing a time limit.

Game difficulty can be changed by varying the number of sharks, dolphins and spyglasses, so it is more flexible.

It's possible to increase the number of teams. Each team should have one unique item. Here are some ideas: pirate map, treasure chest, key, spade (to dig the treasure chest up), code book (to decipher the pirate map).

As long as the children know how to ask how something is spelled, it's not necessary that the teams have the same words or sounds. Different word lists can be used for different children.

Pre-prepared grids can be used if the teacher wants to focus on reading or wishes to save time. Remember that reading and writing are separate activities.

Note: This article was written some time in the year 2000 for Teachers Learning With Children the newsletter of the Teaching Children Special Interest Group. I'm not sure which issue it appeared in nor even whether the text above was the final version.

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