An Interview – Nigel Scarfe of Imagination Gaming

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imagination[1]By Mark Rivera from Boardgames in Blighty

Does the future of Board Games rests with families – An Interview – Nigel Scarfe of Imagination Gaming

I’ve known about Imagination Gaming for a while now as one of my gaming buddies works with them. I also have seen the impressive beehive of activity in the Children’s Zone at UK Expo that is run by the very committed team led by Nigel Scarfe. All indications and comments that I have come across indicate that Nigel and his team are absolutely convinced that families are key to the future of our board gaming hobby.

Imagination Gaming specializes in using modern board and card games to engage and educate both children and adults in a fun and entertaining environment. From one off events to continuing projects, they have an extensive portfolio of education and community based organisations that they have worked with.

In a nutshell they work to stimulate and motivate both individuals and communities, of all ages and abilities, to experience the social and educational benefits of traditional style gaming. Working with schools and other organisations they create a willingness to learn matched with an eagerness to engage and show how everyone has something to offer.

I really like what these guys are doing and I thought that it would be great to find out more about what they have to offer.

Hi Nigel,

Tell us the story of Imagination Gaming. How long have you been established? Who are the principals and what are their backgrounds? What sets you apart as a unique service? How is your service beneficial to our hobby?

Where did Imagination Gaming begin? I guess you would have to go back to when I was at High school. I didn’t have a great time whilst there and struggled in many of the lessons. During my early years in High School I was introduced to the Dungeons & Dragons game by my cousin along with a WW2 war game. It blew me away. I had suddenly discovered the pastime that was to dominate most of my spare time for many years to come. It not only excited me but, due to the number of books I started reading on the game, the characters I created etc, I suddenly found myself improving in both my maths and English.

ig1[2]I left education after a year at sixth form and spent the next decade in retail, working my way up in various management roles. I then spent a few years working at a company that worked in schools producing and installing playground equipment. This got me thinking about the feasibility of bringing games directly into schools. We piloted a scheme whilst there and it proved to be relatively successful, although the company at that time had other priorities and it never amounted to anything. I left them shortly after and spent a couple of months working out what I wanted to do next and it was at that time that I decided to give the idea a go.

I spent the next twelve months earning absolutely nothing and giving demonstrations and networking myself into a position where I could seriously launch the ideas into schools. This was all about four years ago now and the business has grown and changed tremendously since then. We always had a general idea of what we wanted to do with the games but kept an open mind as to what the school would have in mind and this has proved to be an important consideration. No two schools we have done have ever been the same but this flexibility has been a key factor in showing the schools that we can use the games in a variety of ways to solve different problems that they might have.

I now have a business partner, Christopher Standley, who works with me full time and another colleague, Kevin O’Sullivan, who works with us on more of a part time basis. Both of them believe as I do that games can and do make a huge difference in the learning outcomes of children and adults alike. Both of them have made a huge difference in how we approach, the way we deliver and the way we get the message of what we do out there.

ig2[1]As a service provider within education there is no-one doing anything similar to what we do but much of that is down to how we now deliver our service. It is much more focused around the curriculum and is tied in with government initiatives and aims. At the core of what we do are a range of great games but how we use them, who we use them with and most importantly how we engage and interact with everyone involved is something that makes it difficult for anyone else to follow in our steps.

How are we beneficial to the hobby? I truly believe that if we don’t start showing the younger generation what our hobby is all about, what it has to offer and why it can still be cool, we may no longer have one in the UK in the next ten years. We go out of our way to show the children not only what we do but to give them a glimpse of what is out there in the way of gaming shops and the games they stock. Hobby stores have a key role to play in the survival of the hobby and their survival is an important if we are to get the message across about this new generation of games that are out there.

Why do you do it? What do you guys get out of it?

I do it because I love it. I am good with kids, young people, disaffected youths, families, parents, teachers and so on. People skills is essential in what we do. Simply liking games is no good. Knowing the rules is irrelevant if no-one wants to listen to you. You have to like people and believe you can make a difference to them. That sounds very grand but I am very passionate about it and know firsthand what playing games like this can do for someone’s confidence and self esteem, not to mention making new friends. What do I get out of it? I have the best job in the world. I have never enjoyed myself as much as I do now and I try to make others feel the same way, although I’m sure my colleagues would disagree from time to time!

Your services cover working with schools, libraries, clubs & community groups, and events & festivals. Can you give us a few case study examples what the work you have been doing? Perhaps beginning with your recent work at the UK Games Expo.

ig3[1]Games Expo came about after being a regular visitor there and seeing a similar audience as could be found at other conventions but I saw it had the potential to be much more. They were about interaction and participation. They had a schools tournament going on but at the time it was more focused around the games designed by the organiser and was a winner takes all approach. The first year I took over I wanted to make everyone attending feel like they had won. Expo were able to put together lots of prizes including hats and dice and we had a selection of games that we knew would work well with all of the kids. I took a more light hearted approach to the day and during the presentations at the end made sure everyone had a chance to get up and take home a prize. It proved very popular with both the kids, the teachers and the parents. It has just grown since then. We have now changed the format to make it more of an open activity in which people can come and go as they please. We have a terrific Expo this year and I am confident that next year will be even better and bigger!

Rather than go into too much detail on any of our work  in particular I will put up a link so that people can go to our website and see the info for themselves, should they wish to, but in summary here are just a few examples of some of work we have done recently in a variety of areas.

Children’s University – School Cluster Games Tournament

ig4[1]We were asked by the Children’s University to come up with a format of activities that would encourage children to join in after school activities that were challenging and that could help with cohesion between schools. We came up with a friendly games tournament that ran over the course of several weeks. The kids loved it and although they thought we would struggle with numbers we quickly became oversubscribed for the activity. Friendly competition at it best.

Learning Year – Maths Challenge

This project ran across 15 schools in Sheffield and focused on improving attainment and perception of the usefulness of mathematics in schools. We ran a full day of activities within each of the schools and took data on the effect the work was having. The organization was over the moon with the results and the schools were delighted with the improvements that were made there. In addition each of the schools received a pack of games, where using maths was an essential part of playing the game, so that they were able to sustain the work we had done and they still do to this day.

Primary & High Schools – Zombie Diaries

ig5[2]We use a variety of themed games for this work in order to emphasise the importance of using the imagination and inspiring new ideas. It is based around encouraging the children into creative writing and the activity is another run over several weeks. Developing their imaginations and creative juices is what this is all about and we not only play the games but make our own cards and locations for them, write short stories and finally design comics based upon them. To finish things off we work with local libraries to display the work done and encourage the young people to visit these important resources and get themselves reading.

Friday night Project Leeds – Kids D&D

We were given the go ahead to run a series of one off D&D games at youth clubs across Leeds to see if the kids became as excited about D&D as I did when I was younger and to help them play together more cooperatively. The aim was to have the children mix with kids they didn’t know and to encourage the team ethic through the game. Although we found it hard to bring the kids across the city to non-local venues, those that played loved it and the feedback we got from them was fantastic. Unexpectedly we had a large number of young girls play and like all of the others had never done anything like it before. Running a game for these groups was great fun and it was fascinating to see how the girls behaved quite differently from the boys. It was a great success and I am only sad that this has now finished.

We have lots of other projects we have done and would be happy to hear from anyone that would like to know more about the different groups that we have worked with.

ig6[1]Can you give us a flavor of the kind of feedback you have received from the attendees and also your clients?

To date we have been delighted to find that all of the feedback we have had is extremely positive. Whether it is a head teacher, a teaching assistant, a parent or most importantly the child. All of them have really enjoyed our activities and have felt they benefitted from it.

Here is a VERY small selection of the feedback we have had: –

“The impact of Imagination Gaming on the children has been quite amazing “

Margaret Delee, Higher Learning Teacher

“Many thanks for a fantastic day. I’m not sure who enjoyed themselves more, me or the children! Chris was very enthusiastic and clear in his instructions and had great control of the group. The games were simple to play but cleverly designed with great learning potential, development of social skills and above all fun!”

Emma Danby, Mill Lane Primary

“We had Imagination Gaming in as part of our Math’s week within school. They were professional, helpful and provided us with a fantastic day. The children all loved the games and didn’t feel as if they were actually working, although they did recognise the learning that took place! We recently set up a Math’s club at dinner times due to the popular demand of the games, and are looking forward to having them back to our school in the future.”

ig7[1]Amanda Crowder, Math’s Coordinator

“Nigel has worked with some of the most challenging students in year 10/11, we teach the students ourselves for the whole day and his sessions with them are helpful in order to break up the day. The students enjoy the games sessions immensely with Nigel, they always come back to class talking about the different games that they have played and how they can’t wait till the next session. They interact well with each other and are always learning new skills in a fun and unusual way.”

Glenys Hallas, Learning Mentor

This is only a very small sample and we intend to publish most if not all of it on to our website over the next few months. There is already quite a bit on there, listed next to the games where appropriate or on our testimonials page. Much of it is focused on individual games that someone may have played and we do intend to make sure that each of the manufacturers of these games get to read the positive feedback on their games and what the end users thought. It’s surprising just what a six year old will say about a game sometimes!

What are the most popular games that children really enjoyed and families as well?

Difficult question to answer really. We have around 140 games in the portfolio now and I think we have pulled together a terrific range that caters for a wide age range, covers a number of areas of learning and that’s fits in with what we do. Depending upon who we are working with the range will vary immensely, imagine for example the difference in the range between those games we would take in to a Special Needs school to that of a Primary school or to a High school. The needs of all of them and their abilities vary greatly and the games need to mirror that.

However, all our games try to fit within three golden rules: –

  1. We can explain it in 30 seconds.
  2. It can be played in 5-10 minutes, a school break time.
  3. It must have lots of replay value.

Some of those that have had great feedback include: –

  1. Straw – Card game from AEG.
  2. Take It Easy – Board games from Burley Games
  3. Apples to Apples – Word association from Out of the Box.
  4. Katamino – Puzzle with two player variant from Gigamic.
  5. Zeus on the Loose – Card game from Gamewright.
  6. Catch the Match – Card game from Playroom Entertainment.
  7. Incan Gold – Risk management game from Eagle Games.

ig8[1]There are lots more I could and perhaps should name that we use but these are amongst the favourites from our range with the people we work with.

What is your view of the UK board games market? What are some of the challenges and obstacles that need to be overcome to strengthen the hobby in the UK?

I think the UK market at the moment is in a difficult place and I speak as an owner of an independent game store. There has never been a better time to discover new games, the range out there is simply huge but there are some real difficulties out there that game stores face.

Pricing is becoming a BIG issue and has been problematic for a while now. It is difficult for me to balance what I need to sell a game at to make a decent mark up, to cover all of my overheads, when I have online retailers selling games for what is sometimes my cost price. How do I persuade a customer that spending those extra pounds with me is worth it. I put on game nights for them, run events and tournaments but the gap between what I need to sell it at and what they can get it for seems to be widening and so I rely more and more on my loyal customers that understand what I am trying to do for them. Many customers will only worry about the price and we have to accept that but I feel it is our duty to remind our customers that I cannot imagine Amazon running a role-play night at a local store, free of charge in to the early hours of the morning. We do and we want to because we love our hobby and we want people to be part of it.

I often hear from people that it is market forces at work. This is correct. Unfortunately the market forces, the distributors and the customers, seem to be ok whereas in the middle, the hobby stores and stuck in a situation that is becoming more and more difficult. Would it help if there were more distributors within the UK? I believe it would but wonder whether the market is big enough. It is worrying that I can only buy certain products from one company, who have exclusivity on an item and that item is one of my biggest selling lines that I then make very little profit off.

The hobby is still a fractured one and is one that desperately needs a makeover. I would marry a Hollywood leading lady if I thought it would help make the hobby cool to the mainstream and we could begin selling games in larger quantities! Why are games looked upon so negatively in this country? I don’t find that when I go to Europe. Why do some of the families I work with recoil in fear when I ask them if I want to play a board game. We have let it go on unchanged for such a long time that it has become the norm. We need to change these perceptions and show the public why we like our hobby so much. We need to look at ourselves first and make sure that as store owners we are presentable, our store is clean and that we are extremely polite and helpful but we also need to get out there from behind our desks and hand out flyers, attend local fairs, work with youth groups and speak to the libraries about how we can help them increase the numbers they get through their doors. We have to start treating the hobby in which we work as a business and start making things happen. I think we have become a little complacent and find it very easy to point the finger and blame others when times are slow. I do think the industry missed a trick many years ago when computer games first emerged. They took the marketing of games to a different level and we have not followed suit. It is not easy to do any of this and to change the way we work but if we don’t try then it will fall down around us.

In the light of all this negativity I can see aspects of the hobby coming together and I think this article is just one example of this. There are a number of people within the industry networking, discussing how we can change this situation. I can tell everyone that if people are put in a position where they can see and play the games they will like them and they will buy them. I know, I see it every day. It’s just a case of getting the message out there..

Have you been involved in the Play in Public campaign? If so, how?

We are aware of it but have been so only recently. We are not currently involved in any way which is something we hope to put right very soon. We will get in touch and see what we can do to help out with this as its goals and aims mirror ours and we always try to work alongside campaigns such as this or other organizations whose aims can integrate with ours.

How can we gamers get involved if we would like to?

I guess there are a number of ways in which people can help us out and get involved.

If you know of any schools, libraries or youth clubs, in fact any organizations for that matter, that you think would appreciate our involvement at their venue then tell them to get in touch or direct them to our website. Our reputation is a strong one and we are very highly thought of across all of our customers so we can confidently put them in touch with similar organizations so they may discuss with them what we have done first hand.

If you are or know of a games store that would be interested in linking in with us then do the same. Where possible we try to make our customers aware of local games stores when we go in to an area so that there is somewhere that can sustain their interest in gaming after we have done our work there. Get in touch. Tell us what’s happening in your area.

What are your plans for the future development of Imagination Gaming?

To become more established nationwide is the first priority. To establish a network of school game clubs across the country and to host events between them is another burning ambition and one that we have already done albeit in limited areas so far. A big aim of the company is to change the perception of gaming across the country. Gaming in the UK has a bad rep but one that it has not tried very hard to get rid of. The stereotype of gamers and gaming stores does not help. The label of geek that we get given when we mention board games in schools comes from somewhere, we just need to find out where that comes from and make it cool again. We have never had one single person not enjoy the games we have take into a venue, not one. Maybe not every game was their cup of tea but every person we have worked with has always enjoyed at least some of the games and usually says that it was much better than they expected. Just how do we get this message out to everyone else?

I would like us to get involved at more shows and events, both gaming and non-gaming, and to be the face and destination of gaming for the younger generation and families. We would then act as the window to the incredible world of hobby gaming that we all know is out there.

How and when did you get into gaming?

Age 12 when my cousin showed me the original red box D&D and a WW2 tank battle. Hooked from that moment on. Since then I have played a huge number of games and had a fascination with the hobby.

What type of games do you like to play? Any particular favourites? Any games or game types that you dislike?

I love most types of games and really enjoy understanding the mechanics behind the game rules. I play for sitting around the table with my friends and laughing about the situations that arise.

My current favourites and on-going games include: –

The Arkham horror board game from Fantasy Flight

Legend of the Five Rings CCG from AEG, just played War of Honor for the first time last night and loved it!!

Mijnlieff from Hopwood games.

Great Dalmuti from Wizards of the Coast.

Saboteur from Z-Man games.

Gobblet from Gigamic games.

World of Warcraft TCG from Cryptozoic games

I am also just about to finish running a 4th Edition D&D campaign that I have run for over three years now with 8 difficult players. It feels like a jail sentence some weeks! The final battle is looming so we are planning something special with fancy dress etc and so videos and photos will no doubt follow soon.

Generally, I like any game in which total strangers can meet up and have a great time together in a very short space of time. Most recent memory of this was running a game of the Great Dalmuti at the Games Expo 2011, 7 players all wearing stupid hats that had never met before and they loved every minute of it, as did I. Several of them are now following us on Twitter so I hope they will see where we are next or come along next year and give it another go.

Likes and dislikes in regards to mechanics, theme?

I really don’t mind any game mechanics or themes I just tend to fall out with any player that takes a game a little too seriously. It one of those things that puts new gamers, young people and families off and there is just no need for it. It is after all a game.

I remember several years ago, when I played Magic competitively for a while, that I entered one tournament and got matched up against an older guy with a unusual head of hair. I said hi, told him my name and asked him what sort of a day he had so far. His reply was to ignore what I had said, told me to remove all sleeves from my cards, in case I had marked them, and then told me he wanted to see me shuffle my cards afterwards. My reaction, which was very unprofessional at the time, was to pick up my deck, drop it on top of him and tell him to do it himself, as he had nothing better to do with his life, while I went to the toilet. Upon my return I picked up my cards, declared him one of the saddest people I had ever met and went home. I have stopped playing Magic competitively since. I just hate the fact that people like that spoil what should be a fantastic, competitive but still socially enjoyable occasion. This game did not seem to have improved his social skills. Perhaps he should have stuck to a cooperative board game instead?

Tell us where we can meet you this year.

We don’t generally do a huge amount of public events and the recent funding cuts from the government will no doubt affected this further. Many councils are still not sure if and when the funding will appear with which to organise and run their yearly fairs and carnivals. As and when we do begin scheduling them in we will post them on our website, blogs, Facebook and Twitter. Alternatively just drop us an email or give us a ring. It would be nice to hear from people who are organizing events who feel we could bring our games along and show people something different.

I will however be at Essen this year again, looking for the next selection of games we can introduce to the UK public if anyone wants to meet up there?

What would you like to see done which could help board gaming become more mainstream amongst the public?

I think I have covered some of this off in what I have said previously but think that the time may be right to organise a meeting of like minded people within the industry to see if we can find a way forward that will help all of us. There are enough of us out there that want to make a difference that I’m sure we can come up with a strategy that, over the course of a couple of years, can begin changing the way people look at our hobby. I know I would want to be part of that and will do everything I can to effect that change.

Thanks for your time and giving me the chance to air my views. I know they won’t be shared by everyone but if it gets us talking that’s a start.

Thanks very much Nigel!

For more information about Imagination Gaming, go to –

Folks, please add your comments to Nigel’s interview. There is a lot of food for thought here and a great opportunity to discuss how to take our hobby forward.


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