Around the Classroom in 80 Games: Beowulf, The Legend

Over the course of the last twenty years or so, a handful of German game designers have stormed the world of board gaming offering a host of interesting, fun and fiendish mechanics that were hitherto essentially unknown to North Americans. One of these mechanics, is the “auction” mechanic, in which players much bid something (currency, power, knowledge) to take actions. While not a classic example of this mechanic, “Beowulf: The Legend,” designed by Reiner Knizia and published in 2005, is a good example of the auction-based game mechanic (which I think is one of the most enjoyable of all German/Euro designs). Moreover, “Beowulf: The Legend” is a great game that you might use in your classroom out of the box to help your students understand the development of narrative excitement through a structure based on choices.

I heard an interview with Russell Banks recently in which he discussed the writing of short stories. He described the process for him as, essentially, a series of choices that restrict the narrative step-by-step until you’ve only got one choice remaining. In gameplay, “Beowulf: The Legend” works much the same way. Your journey through the game and through the story of Beowulf is based entirely on the choices you make, the risks you take and avoid and the way you interact with the environment of Anglo-Saxon England. A criticism of Reiner Knizia games is that they are little more than abstract game engines onto which have been slapped themes. This is less fair for this particular game, but it is not entirely wrong. The fact that it isn’t entirely wrong works to the advantage of the teacher who wants to integrate a game into the teaching of narrative, narrative structure, the building of a story arc and the hero’s journey.

Simply stated, while the theme of “Beowulf: The Legend” is Beowulf’s many adventures in Anglo-Saxon England, it would be simple as can be to reskin the theme to the American South, the Canadian frontier, Victorian England or whatever you like. Characters are always making choices, confronting challenges, grappling with complex relationships and growing or choosing not to grow.

This game would work especially well for high school students but would also work for strong middle school students.