Documenting the process of imagining and bringing-into-being…

A steampunk device

Very early on, our trusty developers had the idea to figure Sembl as a machine. Seeing as it’s an iPad app, we started to think about it as a handheld device, made of wood and metal, so *of course!* it wasn’t long before we started to draw on the wonderful steampunk zeitgeist for inspiration.

I wondered how faithful we could be to the figure of the device – how plausible (in a non-slavish way, of course) – so I started to sketch.

Hand-drawn sketch of a device with a button, a slot, an aperture and a key

Above is a rough (and dodgy!) early sketch of the spine of the device, where teams will register to play. Below is me dreaming up how a node on the gameboard might change as it becomes available and then filled with an object.

Hand-drawn sketch with notes of three connected nodes, one 'locked', one with an aperture and one filled with an image

These are early ideas; they may well be superseded by those of the visual designers… but drawing in this way helped me to think through the visual dynamics of gameplay and, yep, fed my already substantial enthusiasm for this project!

Sembl: conception

Dream announcement: the Museum is developing a prototype of an iPad game for teams of students visiting the physical space of the Museum. It’s called Sembl and I’m just a bit excited about it.

The game

Sembl is a game of relatedness. The challenge is to think about an object’s attributes – composition, shape, colour, use, provenance, whatever! – in order to find a way in which it relates to another object.

The aim is to occupy nodes on the gameboard, by making meaningful – and appealing – connections. In each round, players must identify an object and describe how it relates to existing objects on the board. Each round is time-limited, but teams need to take care to create connections that are interesting or delightful in some way – whoever proposes the best object and relationship wins the place on the gameboard.

Paper gameboard seeded with four items

Board design

We’ll provide a few different boards, to suit different player numbers and levels – we want kids as young as 10 to enjoy the game. Above is a sample board for four teams, which might work well for older children and adults. Seed content can be anything on display at the Museum but in this case all the objects are on display in our Landmarks gallery.


Sembl is based on a conceptual game that Charles Cameron aka @hipbonegamer has used for decades now – hipbone games – which take many forms and work for many purposes, from pure amusement through to thinking deeply about the connections between apparently disparate opposites. Charles’ games are in turn inspired by the glass bead game in the Herman Hesse novel of the same name.