Joe Wasserman
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I don't think he would like that.
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This past weekend concluded a three-day board game design workshop for middle schoolers that I volunteered to run at a local education enrichment nonprofit. So I wanted to share some brief reflections on how it went.

Day 1: Thinking like a game designer

We began day 1 by talking about games in terms of their constituent parts, including goals, end conditions, mechanics, player interactions, etc. Some of this discussion was guided by Mark Rosewater's Ten Things Every Game Needs. Students then chose a game they were already familiar with and broke it down into the parts we discussed. It was a completely new way of thinking about games for them, so they required some encouragement to think beyond just one or two things for each category. I think this was fairly successful, given the relatively young age of these students. You are welcome to download and modify the note-taking worksheet I gave them to organize their thoughts on each game here.

I described game mechanics simplistically as "the actions given to players by the rules of the game," even though this isn't quite accurate, because I wanted them to focus on giving players choices to make and things to do during gameplay. They didn't seem to latch on to game mechanics in this way, however, and I'm still not satisfied by this simplified definition.

For most of the rest of the first day, students played games and did the same activity of breaking each down into its parts. They played Red7, Dominion, and Carcassonne. Most had already also played Ticket to Ride and Pandemic with me previously. In retrospect, I think I would try harder to expose students to a greater breadth of game mechanics—I was trying to make use of quick-teaching games that I or the program I worked with already owned. But more game mechanics would have given them a larger "toolbox" to work with when working on their own designs.

At the end of the first day, I asked students to choose a game they were familiar with and to make one big change to the game. Next time, I would devote more class time to this activity—not only conceptualizing this change, but implementing and testing it, too.

Day 2: Game design practice

We started the second day with a brief conversation about my design philosophy: prototype as quickly as possible to playtest as quickly as possible. This was effective, as no students belabored the graphic design of any of their games. I also forbade two game mechanics: trivia and roll-and-move.

Next, we did a "10-minute game design challenge," which is just what it sounds like: create a complete game in 10 minutes or less. I set a timer and occasionally announced how many minutes remained to give them a sense of pressure. I was pleased to see that no students hesitated—they all started working on something right away. They played each others' games, and gave each other feedback (both positive and negative, given the age group). I tried to get them to say just what they liked and what they didn't, but they kept giving feedback about specific things they would change.

The remainder of the day was devoted to game design, playtesting, and iterating their designs. My design restrictions were not enough: all students designed games that incorporated draw-a-card-and-do-what-it-says. At the end of the day, they took notes about their game designs using the same format as the previous game breakdowns.

Day 3: Game design part two

This time, I framed game design restrictions as a game design challenge like the 1-minute design challenge. I think this was an effective way of getting students to comply to the restrictions and to think of it as something fun and not just a rule. I added draw-and-resolve to trivia and roll-and-move as forbidden mechanics. I gave them an optional challenge of incorporating two game mechanics from a list I provided, but no students took me up on that.

The final day was devoted to design, playtesting, and revising. The designs students created were much more interesting than the previous day's!

A persistent challenge during both design days was to encourage students to incorporate feedback in their designs. A typical pattern was for students to receive feedback and then write it off for some reason—as just one person's opinion, for example. This may be partly due to the students' ages, but structuring the giving and receiving of feedback is something I'm going to be thinking about for next time. I think that even just practicing giving and receiving in the context of a relatively low-stakes board game design workshop is invaluable.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this was a fun experience! I'd do it again, and probably give students more, smaller "game design challenges" instead of more unstructured game design time. In such a short period of time, there isn't really enough time to take a game all the way from initial conceptualization through extensive playtesting and refinement to completion. Instead, more game design practice activities seems like it would be more effective and would emphasize the importance of trying out more ideas to see what works.

(cross-posted from https://www.reddit.com/r/tabletopgamedesign/comments/5okou7/...)
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Derek H
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Mymil wrote:
This time, I framed game design restrictions as a game design challenge like the 1-minute design challenge. I think this was an effective way of getting students to comply to the restrictions and to think of it as something fun and not just a rule. I added draw-and-resolve to trivia and roll-and-move as forbidden mechanics.

It would be interesting to see how they respond to the challenge to design an abstract game (2 player). No dice or cards; just a geometrically symmetric board and simple pieces (could be restrictive: 'only type of piece' or 'not more than 4 different types').

This could spin off into discussion about fixed vs variable powers; positional elements; use of abstract terrain concepts; board tiling mechanisms (lot of interesting examples on-line); plus the application of symmetric/asymmetric concepts in design. By avoiding a theme, you are getting closer to the heart of what goes into a design.
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Jeremy Lennert
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I think I would be hard-pressed to design a game in 10 minutes...


I'd be a bit nervous about banning "draw-and-resolve", because an awful lot of popular game mechanics are arguably variations on it:

- Carcassonne is arguably draw-and-resolve except you get to choose where on the map the tile will be resolved
- The first part of your turn in Dominion is arguably draw-and-resolve except you get to choose the order and can choose to ignore some cards
- 7 Wonders is arguably draw-and-resolve except you get to choose one of several options to resolve
- Co-op games often use some form of draw-and-resolve to control the opposition (Pandemic, Ghost Stories, States of Siege...)
- Story-heavy games often use draw-and-resolve as a key mechanic in delivering narrative (Above and Below, Robinson Crusoe, Arkham Horror...)

Avoiding trivia and roll-and-move sounds pretty easy. But draw-and-resolve arguably implicates perhaps three-quarters of my personal game library.

I think what you're really trying to do is get them to do more than draw and resolve, but I'm not sure how to accomplish that.

Of course, it's possible I'm getting too technical for this age group...
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Andrew Birkett
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This sounds like a great exercise! I recently did a game design workshop at a college campus. It was only two hours, but it was a lot of fun. I like how you organized your time. I would have difficulty designing a game in 10 minutes. I don't know that I conceptualize that fast. I have a learning disability though so that might factor into it, too.
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Jon Vallerand
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Antistone wrote:
I think I would be hard-pressed to design a game in 10 minutes...


I'd be a bit nervous about banning "draw-and-resolve", because an awful lot of popular game mechanics are arguably variations on it:

- Carcassonne is arguably draw-and-resolve except you get to choose where on the map the tile will be resolved
- The first part of your turn in Dominion is arguably draw-and-resolve except you get to choose the order and can choose to ignore some cards
- 7 Wonders is arguably draw-and-resolve except you get to choose one of several options to resolve
- Co-op games often use some form of draw-and-resolve to control the opposition (Pandemic, Ghost Stories, States of Siege...)
- Story-heavy games often use draw-and-resolve as a key mechanic in delivering narrative (Above and Below, Robinson Crusoe, Arkham Horror...)

Avoiding trivia and roll-and-move sounds pretty easy. But draw-and-resolve arguably implicates perhaps three-quarters of my personal game library.

I think what you're really trying to do is get them to do more than draw and resolve, but I'm not sure how to accomplish that.

Of course, it's possible I'm getting too technical for this age group...


As a former teacher, I think the point is more about avoiding they go to the easy answer. Roll-and-move and Draw-and-resolve are more or less the same thing: randomness instead of choice. Of course, they can be used well, but I also would make sure my students don't go there either.
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Caroline Berg
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Sounds like you should check out Meta Geeklist for My Amazing Students' Board Game Designs!

Kathleen Mercury teaches game design to students and posts their designs up for feedback in the winter/spring when the class is almost over.
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Joe Wasserman
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I don't think he would like that.
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Thank you for all the encouraging feedback, everyone!

Antistone wrote:
I think I would be hard-pressed to design a game in 10 minutes...
abirkett2 wrote:
I would have difficulty designing a game in 10 minutes. I don't know that I conceptualize that fast. I have a learning disability though so that might factor into it, too.

It's not easy, and the game probably won't be very good. But for someone who has never designed a game before, I think it's an effective activity to get them used to just making something—even if it's not good! I gave them all the same limited pieces with which to make their games, so it was more about making a prototype with the materials provided than anything else. I was actually impressed by how my students did with this activity, since like you both point out, it's not an easy one.

JVallerand wrote:
Antistone wrote:
I'd be a bit nervous about banning "draw-and-resolve", because an awful lot of popular game mechanics are arguably variations on it:

[snip]

Avoiding trivia and roll-and-move sounds pretty easy. But draw-and-resolve arguably implicates perhaps three-quarters of my personal game library.

I think what you're really trying to do is get them to do more than draw and resolve, but I'm not sure how to accomplish that.

Of course, it's possible I'm getting too technical for this age group...

As a former teacher, I think the point is more about avoiding they go to the easy answer. Roll-and-move and Draw-and-resolve are more or less the same thing: randomness instead of choice. Of course, they can be used well, but I also would make sure my students don't go there either.

This was exactly my rationale for doing it. In a longer class, maybe a more nuanced discussion of more appropriate uses of draw-and-resolve would be possible, but given our limited time, this was easier. Part of why I felt comfortable eliminating draw-and-resolve was that they weren't using it as a mechanic to provide players interesting decisions, they were using it as a mechanic that randomly determined each turn's outcome.

adularia25 wrote:
Sounds like you should check out Meta Geeklist for My Amazing Students' Board Game Designs!

Kathleen Mercury teaches game design to students and posts their designs up for feedback in the winter/spring when the class is almost over.

I have seen that—the game design that she does with her students is inspiring! Her work is part of what made me feel confident that this age group could successfully engage with the activities I designed for them.
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This is great! I'm also a teacher at a high school. We have an intersession class for students during and after testing. I'm teaching a 3 half-day session on game design which looks similar to what you are doing. Check out https://gamedesignconcepts.wordpress.com/page/3/ This is an incredibly detailed 14 week class with readings. I really like some of the activities in this course. For example, take the simple card game, War, which could technically play itself, and add a rule or group of rules which give the players agency over the game. I also liked the short game design activity he describes where everyone makes a path, splits it into spaces and determines how player move from space to space. That opens up the conversation on roll-to-move and card draw-to-move and lets you show how those mechanics force players to not really have to think or have a strategy. During this time, I am also going to discuss how ages affect game design. Young children are learning how to play within a set of rules. Older players need to start being able to interact with the game and each other inside of the rule set.

Love what you did and I will be checking this thread for other ideas and strategies. Thanks!
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Dave Schroeder
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Mymil wrote:
At the end of the first day, I asked students to choose a game they were familiar with and to make one big change to the game. Next time, I would devote more class time to this activity—not only conceptualizing this change, but implementing and testing it, too.


I would also spend more time here. Change something, see what happens, iterate. It could potentially be the whole second day, being a quicker way to get into the real meaty stuff than starting with nothing. Play dominion with a hand size of 7: what do you think will change? what type of things will be more/less powerful? How might cards need to be rebalanced to counter this?

Mymil wrote:
They played each others' games, and gave each other feedback (both positive and negative, given the age group). I tried to get them to say just what they liked and what they didn't, but they kept giving feedback about specific things they would change.


I'm not sure that this is a bad thing, as long as you make them articulate what they think the change will do to the overall game, and why they think that is better. That is a tough age for criticism though, and certainly outside my expertise.

Mymil wrote:
A persistent challenge during both design days was to encourage students to incorporate feedback in their designs. A typical pattern was for students to receive feedback and then write it off for some reason—as just one person's opinion, for example. This may be partly due to the students' ages, but structuring the giving and receiving of feedback is something I'm going to be thinking about for next time. I think that even just practicing giving and receiving in the context of a relatively low-stakes board game design workshop is invaluable.


Were they working in pairs/groups? It might be easier to take feedback from within the group since they all have some ownership of the game. You could also possibly play "pass the game" where they give feedback, take the game, and iterate it themselves to present in the next round.

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