June 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Board Game Design | The Gaming Life

A pedagogical tool for inquiry and expression

“It’s about Barbie” the first girl began. I chuckled and then began to smile as the two high school seniors began to explain their game. They were just one of six groups in a class participating in a collaborative project facilitated by Kathy Wahl, Avon (NY) Central School Dis-trict’s high school librarian, the school’s statistics teacher, and myself that centered around utilizing board game de-sign as a method for inquiry and expression.

We divided the learning experience into two segments. The goal of the first part was to establish a foundation for inquiry. We started building background knowledge for the students by brainstorming to identify the differences between a game and a simple activity. Elements that dis-tinguish games include: rules, end goals, challenges, in-teresting choices, and interaction. We talked about the difference between game mechanics and theme, and the need for them to support each other. We also explored some of the fundamentals of game theory, especially those related to statistical and probability elements. One example discussed from game theory, the “Monty Hall Problem,” is a probability puzzle based loosely on the TV game show, Lets Make a Deal, hosted by Monty Hall. It reflects how people’s intuitive expectations can stand in stark contrast to the math behind a situation.

In the Monty Hall Problem, a game show contestant stands before three closed doors. Behind one of them is a car, and behind the other two are goats. Only the host knows what is behind each door. The contestant is asked to pick the door that is hiding the car, such as door number 3. The host then opens one of the two remaining doors that contains a goat, leaving two closed doors: one hiding the goat and the other hiding the car. The contestant is then given the option to keep the door originally chosen or to switch doors. The question is, which choice is in the con-testant’s best interest? Should they keep the door they origi-nally selected, switch doors, or does it matter at all? We’ll come back to that later.

The second step was to engage students in activities based on their interests to begin to develop their understanding of the concepts practiced in the classroom. Students used personal interests, such as music, history, graphic novels, and pop culture, as a launching point for design. By focusing on board games, we were able to remove many of the techno-logical hindrances that occur when exploring other game design platforms, such as M.I.T’s Scratch or Gamestar Mechanic. While these are both excellent tools, a certain amount of instructional time is taken up by having to learn how to use the tool and facilitate the most basic elements, such as movement. Since execution of the finished product in board game design relies mostly on arts and crafts, more time and emphasis can be invested in helping the students explore ways to integrate curricular concepts into the me-chanics and theme of their game.

Game examples

We began the second part of the learning experience by ex-ploring different examples of games in an effort to determine the styles that piqued each student’s interest. Students were in-troduced to and given several days to play three games—Zendo, Incan Gold, and Carcassonne—which incorporated statistical content and skills and provided a good representation of differ-ent thematic and mechanical game elements. This opportunity exposed them to mechanics and themes beyond those found in traditional American board games and provided a set of tools from which they could draw in designing their own game.

Zendo (Looney Labs) is an excellent example of a purely abstract game. Players take turns constructing sets of figures with pyramids of different sizes and colors in an effort to dis-cover an underlying rule which governs them all. This games helps students begin to think outside the box and to consider more than one approach when working through a problem.

In Incan Gold (Gryphon Games), a card game, play-ers explore ancient Incan ruins in search of lost treasures. At each turn, participants must choose whether to con-tinue or turn back with the treasure they have already ac-cumulated. This “press your luck” mechanic is mitigated by a closed set of cards used to represent the rooms in the ruins. Since players know the breakdown of the cards (15 treasure cards, 15 danger cards, 5 artifacts), they can perform some risk assessment and make decisions based on which cards have been played and the probabilities of which ones may come next.

Carcassonne (Rio Grande Games) is a tile placement game in which players develop the area around the southern French city of Carcassone. They take turns drawing tiles and placing them on the table along the edge of previously laid tiles. Any physical and geographical features on the tiles, such as roads, cities, and grasslands, must be matched. While seemingly a game of spatial skill and tactics, strategy is derived from the distribution of the tiles on the board and the creation of spaces where their opponents are trying to score that cannot be filled by any of the tiles yet to be drawn.

Student game design

The students spent several days exploring these games and reflecting on their design aspects as well as the statistical properties they reflected. Then, taking those elements and synthesizing them with their own ideas and interests, they began creating a design of their own. Students worked in groups to start developing the games. They needed to decide on a theme, layout their rules, and start constructing the bits. To help serve as reference, students were allowed to revisit the games they played as well as explore the mechanics of other game resources that were too lengthy to be played in class but could be incorporated into their designs. Some of these included: Modern Art (Mayfair Games), an auction game emphasizing estimated value, and Stone Age (Rio Grande Games), a worker placement game that requires players to apply probability to gathering resources.

After a few days, the students meet with us to “pitch” their games as well as receive feedback and suggestions on how to keep the games engaging and interject interesting choices. We made sure that we left the choice to the students. The groups had time to revise and refine their design based on feedback and their own play tests. The project culminated with the students presenting and playing their completed games.

Several designs were especially well done. “Two-Face” was a well-balanced card game in which players work towards emptying their hands of cards. Another group created a Western expansion inspired game, “Yee Haw,” in which players race against each other to reach the end.

The students put a good amount of thought into balancing the positive and negative effects that took place during the game. They continued to make adjustments to the distribution and balance of cards used based on feedback received during play tests in class. The “Barbie” game had students working their way up a social stratum. Players progressed by making reaction choices to social and ethical situations. Each answer earned the players points which they could then use to invest in moving up the social ladder.


This project gave students a platform to deconstruct, analyze, and create within a fairly open framework. Most important, it brought a sense of balance to their view of mathematics. Students who took to and excelled at the linear and programmatic nature of statistics struggled and were challenged by the creative application of the project. The creative students, who loved thinking outside of the box, were quickly tethered by the underlying rigor of the math necessary for successful game design.

As for our Monty Hall game show contestant, he would do best if he switched doors because it would double his probability of winning the car from 33 to 66 percent. This is because the contestant was much more likely to have selected a goat at the outset–remember there are two goats (66 percent) and only one car (33 percent). So by not switching doors, the contestant still only has a 33 percent chance of choosing the car and a 66 percent chance of selecting a goat. But if the contestant switches doors, he will only have one opportunity (33 percent) to switch from the car he may have originally selected to the other goat. On the other hand, he will have two opportunities (66 percent) to switch to the car from one of the two unrevealed goats hemay have selected.

So, keep game design in mind as a pedagogical tool, give students the freedom to create while keeping them grounded in the content, and always assume that you have a goat!

Brian MayerBrian Mayer is a gaming and library technology specialist for Genesee Valley Educational Partnership, an educational services agency that supports the libraries of 22 rural districts in western New York. He is the author of Libraries Got Game (ALA, 2009) and is busy working on another book. His game on the Underground Railroad will be published by Academy Games in early 2013.