On group size and complexity

Sembl works for lots of different sized groups. We reckon that playing in a team of two to four is ideal. Any fewer and the ideas might not flow freely; any more and you might have too little time with your hands on the device :)

Below you can see board designs for three, four, five and six teams. (So a single Sembl game can involve 6 to 24 players – and we can host multiple games simultaneously.) Each team starts with seed content occupying a coloured spot. In most boards, you have your own seed node to work from, but with the board for younger players – the last one, below – you share with another team. Numbers indicate which round of play that node becomes available.

In all of these designs, I’ve attempted to make the game enjoyably resolvable in an hour of play. Round 1 is always a warm-up. You’re not competing for the place on the board, you just need to find one thing that resembles your seed node, and explain how.

In Round 2, each node in contention is linked to two of the Round 1 nodes. With the simple board for four teams, that pattern continues into the final round. With the other boards, Round 3 requires you to find fewer nodes with more connections.

In Round 3 of a six-team game, you compete for two nodes, each of which is linked to three prior nodes. With the other boards, the aim of Round 3 is to occupy a single node, which is linked to either three, four or five others in accordance with the number of teams playing.

I’m fascinated by how the dynamic of the play shifts according to the number of nodes in contention (relative to the number of teams playing), and the number of prior nodes these nodes link to. The board for five teams is probably the most challenging. Not only are you competing with four other teams for a single node, your node must link to five prior nodes. It might push the limits of what’s achievable within the hour – or perhaps the peculiar pressure of such a game will inspire wondrous thinking!

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.