“Can you keep your crops watered?” at Edinburgh Science Festival

31st March – 4th April 2018. Edinburgh Science Festival, Edinburgh, UK.

In the River Basin Game, players discover what it’s like to live upstream or downstream along a river, as they compete (or cooperate!) with other players to irrigate their farms.

When I arrived in Edinburgh in October 2018 I heard about the Edinburgh International Science Festival and thought the game would make a great drop-in event for kids. It was accepted and so I set about building a portable, child-friendly version of the original game by Bruce Lankford, using an enormous vinyl banner for the base with wooden parts attached with velcro.

Playing the River Basin Game at Edinburgh International Science Festival 2018



When I saw in the programme that I’d be competing with 3D-printed flying robots at the same venue, I did wonder if the kids would be interested in rolling marbles around a table. However, my doubts were wrong and the game was thronged for five days solid, with plenty of repeat customers!

I wish I’d had the time to write down or think about some of the games that went on during the Festival, because every group of players were different and many fascinating things happened. One upstream farmer dammed all the water into his farm, and responded to criticism that he was flooded and everyone else was thirsty with:

“No – I’m going to sell them the water. But it’ll be expensive, because I’ve got all of it!”.

I was amazed, because I hadn’t mentioned a word about money, and that’s quite advanced thinking from a 10-year-old farmer who had only been in farming for about 10 minutes. I fear he might be my boss by the time he grows up!

We also had little farmers who organised the whole basin to get enough water for everyone, and evicted farmers who didn’t play by the rules. I even had to break up the beginnings of a physical fight over water allocations – not ideal for a weekend museum event I’ll admit, but it shows how well the players connected with the game!


In which I discover the River Basin Game

While working at IHE Delft (a water research institute), as a game-y type of person I was approached to do something for children for the Open Day. I also spoke with colleagues who wanted to do something about water conflicts and thought maybe a game would be a good idea. During this conversation someone mentioned the River Basin Game, something I’d never heard of. She took me upstairs and pointed out something which looked like an enormous wooden board leant against a wall.

Turning it over, I saw that on the other side was a river basin with farms made of wood. “Water” marbles roll down the river and the “farmers” can divert it into their farms, trying to get enough water to irrigate their crops without disadvantaging downstream farmers. This game was developed by Bruce Lankford as a tool for working with farmers in regions with upstream-downstream water conflicts in Africa, and he had donated this copy to IHE. It looked a lot of fun so I bought 200 marbles and decided to give it a go.

We showed up at the Open Day armed with case studies and examples ready for a day of serious play and discussion with adult visitors. However, they never got a look in, as the kids loved the game so much!

I realised that day how easily kids can get to grips with complicated issues related to upstream-downstream equality – and how honest they can be. I remember one exchange in particular, between a child and her father. She had the upstream farm in the game, and had diverted the whole river to irrigate her land. It went like this:

Dad: Careful, if you do that you’ll get all the water and there’ll be none left for anyone else.

Child (rolling eyes): Yes, I know. That’s the whole point!