It’s about making the best world that you can, together
Last week I had the immense pleasure of playing Fabulous Beasts with Charlie and Mira. These two were Young Coaches on Play Sandbox, a programme that supported the R&D of new prototype products for children. The Young Coaches, aged between 7 and 12, joined our team at Watershed to be part of the commissioning, shaping and testing stages of development and so have been part of the Fabulous Beasts story since it was a glint in Alex Fleetwood’s eye. So, as the project finally goes public with its launch on Kickstarter we thought that it would be nice to get together again for a game.
As playmates they are pretty different to each other. Mira, 9, is a big fan of Minecraft and animals and aims to run a veterinary hospital when she is older. She has an endearing tendency to ‘meow’ at tricky moments and was renowned as a Young Coach for her brilliant ability to challenge the design assumptions of our teams (when asked to bring along her favourite possession to a workshop, she arrived with a large log known thereafter as the ‘beaver stick’). Charlie, 12, loves playing FIFA on his PlayStation and is a budding actor. He is critically engaged with the world and I genuinely have a quote from him framed above my fireplace (‘it’s a great idea and everything but how would it actually work?”).
Playing Fabulous Beasts involves taking turns to select a piece and place it into a growing tower on a central platform, this has the effect of altering the world that you are jointly creating – either by introducing a new species, adapting those that already exist or unleashing miracles on the whole ecosystem – which you see come to life in glorious colour on the screen.
Fabulous Beasts is collaborative in every sense of the word, you play as a team, and having played an early, more competitive version of the game we were initially sceptical (I had a score to settle). We were quickly converted to this new dynamic however and that sense of figuring things out together, children and adults, felt like really precious time. The jeopardy remains in the wobbling tower, and in some of the pieces if you want it – Charlie did and was keen to play the ‘haste’ miracle but Mira persuaded him out of it as she found it too pressured. Almost every turn prompted this kind of discussion, with at least two of us out of our seats at any moment and each developing our own style of play. Mostly we stuck to wanting to better our last score and every time the Beasts toppled we immediately started again.
The gameplay is pretty intuitive and Charlie and Mira had started before I even brought the crisps over, they both agreed that it was ‘simple but really fun’. This allowed a sense of exploration as both wanted to test the boundaries of the game; stacking Sharks and Warthogs in ridiculous ways, pushing down on the platform and cross-breeding animals into extinction. Cross-breeding was a bit of a thing in fact, definitely our favourite move, and we had to learn to ration it to make our world more sustainable. It also gave our neighbours a break from Mira’s cries of ‘OH MY GOD that is the most adorable thing I have ever seen!’.
Fabulous Beasts is described as a physical/digital game, a concept that we learnt during Play Sandbox is both meaningless and obvious to children – to them it is all one big play world. Although you do need a tablet to set up the game, you do not need to be familiar with technology to join in. Charlie would most like to play next with his Dad (who doesn’t join in with FIFA as they don’t have enough controllers) and thought his grandparents might give it a go whereas Mira was sure that her much older brother would love it. I am definitely looking forward to playing it with my parents and my son. We agreed that for us, in the on going negotiation about technology that pervades our family lives, playing Fabulous Beasts would not count in our screen time allowance. Bonus points all around.
The game uses the affordances of its elements brilliantly so you might on occasion tap the screen (if you play the ‘distraction’ miracle) but mostly it shows you a beautiful complex world and visibly scores your moves while the tactile pieces tempt you to experiment with balance and form. It isn’t heavy with message or morality but both children were both sad when beasts went extinct and learnt to cooperate to avoid that outcome. As Charlie described it to an inquisitive onlooker ‘It’s about making the best world that you can, together’.
Mira, Charlie and I all feel a particular attachment to Fabulous Beasts from having seen it evolve over the last 18 months. Bringing children into a rapid R&D process is challenging, both logistically and intellectually but I think it makes for better products. For the children themselves the experience seems to have had an impact on their sense of agency. It has been a fascinating insight for them to watch ideas develop and, more importantly, to contribute to them as valuable (and valued) participants. As one Young Coach reported to our research team ‘I think I got out of it the sense that if you put your mind to something you can accomplish anything.’
Fabulous Beasts is brought to you by a team of game designers, artists and engineers who originally gave birth to the game right here at Watershed with funding from REACT. Armed with the latest in hardware prototyping technology they are pioneering a new style of play that connects the best of tabletop and digital games.
Watershed have of course ordered our own copy of the game already – and are delighted we have a fully working prototype here in the building – which we would love you to come and play – the REACT and Sensible Object teams will be in the bar at the following times for anyone who fancies trying it out:
29 January 10-6pm
5 Feb 10-6pm
12 Feb 5 - 6pm
(Photo credit: Elizabeth Mizon)