Space Challenge

Making a board game in San Juan de Oriente, Nicaragua

Outside of our home there was always a stickball game in action. The homemade ball was often lost, hit high over one of the neighbors corrugated tin roofs.


And then the game would pause as little Paulo disappeared into the house to gather materials. Usually they balled up newspaper and wrapped it heavily in electrical tape, though the kids preferred to create the ball with a bunched up sock in its core – a fact kept secret from their mothers. A new ball would appear, and the game would begin anew, arguments and victory chants alternating on the cobblestone streets.

It was great.

There was always such a game underway when we strolled back to our house after having taught our evening class to the parents of these avid stickball players. The parents’ class was made up of ceramic artisans who owned tiny shops around San Juan de Oriente, an area known for keeping its long ceramic traditions alive, pulling from their Mayan roots. The curriculum was mainly sale’s english, but ventured a little into basic book keeping, email usage, and basic internet research skills. If you’re curious about their work you can check out the site we built for them.

But we had to craft a different kind of class for the kids, who needed to be enticed into ending their futbol or stickball games. So we played games of our own that intertwined english vocab, and started giving out points for some future, and nebulous prize whenever questions were answered correctly. It kept them excited for a month. And then it started to crumble. It was time for something else.

One day Katrina and I decided to pull it all together. We had a few hours before class started and began running around looking for supplies: a slightly damp piece of cardboard that Alfredo used for mixing paints, sheets of paper in varied pastel colors, a paint brush from the grandmother who ran the small storefront on our corner, my undoubtedly bootleg “Windsor” acrylics that had been in my bag since Hanoi, Vietnam, and my exacto knife from Bangkok.

And thus we began making the board game that would reinvigorate our class.

The full board game

The concept was pretty good.

As the players moved around the board, they were presented at each turn with questions – How old are you?, basic vocab – Que es campana en ingles?, or challenges – Write 5 english words on the board while holding your breath“. Answer correctly and they could advance – incorrectly and they stayed put. A game lasted a few classes, but the genius was that the game could be replayed and replayed with only the addition of some new cards – just a little paper. The cards and their various challenges were Katrina’s department. As the piles of cards grew, the game board evolved as well as I added obstacles, rewards, and purely aesthetic details. Each day as they piled in, they investigated the board for changes. The game didn’t even have a name until the final few days. Space Challenge.

Well, they were totally entranced, and their same arguments and victory chants continued as we played. The matches were tight, and sometimes we’d have to enforce breaks as tempers flared – especially on rainy days. But they made their way through space, averting monsters and garnering points, and just as we were wrapping up the classes, we made sure all the students had enough points to win the grand prize. We created 15 hand drawn Internet gift cards that awarded each child 4 free hours at the local internet cafe. We had made a deal with the guy who ran the shop, and he signed each card and promised to honor them once we had left.

There were a few moments when we considered the possibility of marketing such a game for learning english from any language, and I guess the potential is there. But really it was wonderful simply to make something for these kids that they really honored and treasured.

Though I wouldn’t doubt that the board is in pieces by now after some mid-space skirmishes, balled up and wrapped in electrical tape, flying around the streets of San Juan de Oriente.

At least it will save Paulo some socks.

me know
what you think
just remember i have feelings too