“Game Hacker” – A Board Game for Teaching Games Design – Part 1

the-game-box1 xxx

Sometimes whilst teaching on a broad curriculum based games design course, we (the tutors) find ourselves walking a fine line between teaching “Games Design” and “Asset Development”.

I can understand how the student’s interpretation of what they are doing here comes to lean that way, especially perhaps for those interested in 3D modelling, and especially for the first half of the first year whilst reorienting themselves to self motivated learning and higher academic standards.

I also understand, because I personally place a great deal of stock in the design process and drawing, having a background in illustration and production design. But as beautiful and interesting as Concept Art and 3D modelling for Games can be, it is far from all there is regarding Games Design, and we should be exploring the theoretical side of Games Creation with our students as well.

One session we* run in the second year of our degree course deals with the various Theoretical & Psychological elements to/behind Games and Play (in particular the module called Aspects of Play), looking at the theory of Flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi), the work of Callois and others, as well as ideas related toGamification“.

All of which gives students the opportunity to understand/predict audience expectations, as well as a little more structure by allowing them to identify the core types of play they are directing their audience to partake in when designing “game-play” elements or rules for their game prototypes.

The term Gameplay has been deconstructed, defined and described in various ways, Sidney K. (“Sid”) Meier, the American/Canadian games designer (universally acclaimed by critics as one of the most influential practitionersin his field) and architect of the game “Civilization, suggested it was simply,  “A series of interesting choices.” (Rollings & Morris, 1999).

Somewhat simplistic, but without doubt exposing the major element that can be lost or overlooked by students of Games Design. Especially in their desire to rest control from their potential audience with fixed-future characters and linear stories and plots; i.e. Choice.

The process of teaching this subject can be difficult, especially as this more theoretical side to the Gameplay/Games Design design process (especially with students who are deeply immersed in playing games) often remains hidden from the year one degree student, overlaid as it often can be with the distraction of tangibles such as “high end graphics” and flashy visuals.

That said, it is possible to draw parallels between complex game choices and branching decision systems found within fully immersive digital game worlds and their more overt (yet potentially just as complex) counterparts found within board games. Using board games allows us to distance ourselves from elements such as graphics, animation and 3D modelling and concentrate on game mechanics and structure.

As part of “Aspects of Play” we* get the students to play both board games as well as digital games during a research phase, and we have in different modules given briefs for the adaptation of existing digital game concepts into board games, or the adaptation of other entertainment media properties into board games with some success.

It is for this reason I decided to look at boardgames as the starting point for a way of teaching students about designing rules and “a series of interesting (adaptable and expanding) choices”.

The following experimental board game is designed to strip some of that distracting digital sheen/or “chrome” away and get the students to look at the fundamentals of devising rules and regulatory devices, whilst still being fun to play.

So… here we go.

Game Hacker.

– A Board Game for Teaching Games Design & Game Play.

…an Abstract Strategy Game with no rules (until you make them).

The Game Box

The game would be presented as a board game boxed set with a set of (none exclusive) quality pieces reflective of “German (or German-like) Games” that can be augmented at a later date with either, additional versions of the original box, or smaller bespoke/branded expansion packs or sets (see later description of expansion possibilities), or simply “hacked with pieces from other games.

Note – Some of the language in this description will be vocational Game Design Language or Educational – For a Game/Board Game Design glossary of terms see the excellent and useful BoardGameGeek.com

The reverse of the box will/may feature examples of moves/rules that could be implemented by the players – ideally using graphics only, no text.

Inside the Box:

1 – A “No Rules Book” with a cover featuring the Bishop Piece (standing on a Tile and holding the Tile), this might only have a the URL of a website with suggestions posted by beta test subject players, a forum could then be added to allow further players to add their own interpretations… the rest of the pages would be blank allowing the players to make notes of their own rule decisions and game variations for future reference.

2aThe Board or Board Tiles.

A series of repeating jigsaw pieces (9 distinct repeating pieces, that interlock/extend endlessly – see below – like a train set or a scaletrics track) some with pre-assigned values in the form of graphic icons that can be “interpreted” by the players as rules, actions or mechanics.

0 Board Tiles 001

The game starts with the players setting up the board – which in this case can be any shape as designed by or agreed upon by the players.

0 Jigsaw Extendable Game dxx

The pieces of the board should be drawn from the bags in which they are kept (see illustration of box and bags above, and the divisions of type below) in what ever manner is agreed by the players, this could be done by using a spinner/dreidel, teetotum or dice to determine which bag is drawn from, while another dice is rolled to see how many pieces from each bag a player takes (similar to the method used in Scrabble), or they could be divided equally and then placed down in a simple turn-by-turn rotation fashion.

As stated the Board Tiles would have various graphics denoting typical game tile and turn attributes… for example.

Jigsaw Tile Interpretations

(At present I’m fluctuating between these graphics looking archaic, Victorian or somehow aged to fall in line with a classic traditional aesthetic, or the other extreme of them looking like contemporary app icons on white)

There are more graphics still in sketch form all which need balancing for inference of accepted mechanics as well as ambiguity allowing flexibility and modification/customisation of gameplay.

0 Icin Sketches

For example players could implement elements of roleplay such as Monsters/Big Bosses/Cthulhu, or Co-Op or Team Strategy play.

0 Monsters Eye

2b – a number of bags (colours and number are not yet fixed):

  • Bag One (grey/brown): A number of jigsaw style interlocking game board squares/tiles – with NO FIXED ATTRIBUTES.
  • Bag Two (Red): A number of jigsaw style interlocking game board squares/tiles – with TRAVELLING & PORTAL attributes i.e. tiles that can allow you to roll/spin again, tiles that halt your travel, tiles that cause you to miss a turn, send you to jail, port you from one square to another etc. these allow differentiated gameplay within the same rule set, allowing temporary advantage and disadvantage to be experienced by all players as seen in Snakes & Ladders, Monopoly, etc..
  • Bag Three (Amber): A number of jigsaw style interlocking game board squares/tiles – with ATTACK/DEFENCE attributes i.e. tiles that can be interpreted as granting additional lives, losing lives, instant death/exit game, player re-enters game, disable/disadvantage player etc. – these allow players to play each other and not just the game itself – for example a player landing on a square with a sword graphic may be able to roll a die (ACTION SELECTION see custom die below) to see if a player is in reach that they can attack, dice may then be rolled for attack and defence as per Roll Playing Games like Dungeons & Dragons/Call of Cthulhu etc.

0 Attack Die

  • Bag Four (Blue): A number of jigsaw style interlocking game board squares/tiles – with CARD DRAFTING or COLLECTION attributes, i.e draw a card, cash in your cards, take a card from another player, collect a “cheese” or other peice (as seen in Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit) etc.
  • Bag Five (Black): A number of jigsaw style interlocking game board squares/tiles – with AREA ENCLOSURE attributes, i.e. walls, castle towers, gatehouses etc. – these allow the annexing of areas within the extended the board (as in games like Risk) allowing for game play in an Area Control Game style.

3 – Starter pack Player Pieces, including five main pieces, and several minor player pieces for extending strategic/tactical game play through multiple player piece options (as seen in Chess/Draughts, Risk, Warhammer).

4 – Several different sided Dice and a Spinners/Dreidels/Teetotums/Origami Fortune-Tellers or “Salt Cellars” with all the graphics from the standard board tiles as attributes or specialist attributes such as the chess attack die above.

5 – Two sets of Chance or Game Drafting style cards:

  • Pack One featuring several of the “active tile” graphics.
  • Pack Two featuring unspecific (at this point) additional graphics related to advantage/disadvantage game-play elements.

These drafted cards will alter game play by offering the chance to add or counteract existing rules or just add further complexity.

The illustration below shows possible situations, A – where game Tiles have been removed isolating areas of the board, whilst B – shows and area bridged to create a shortcut, C – in this case simply shows the lack of a closed edge or border to the game and its infinite expansion possibilities (whether through adding more pieces to the game from other packs or simply moving pieces from one side to the other), and D – where tiles have been claimed as designated areas for particular players, whether those are safe zones, or tax/rent/forfeit collection points in which to trap other players.

Jigsaw Extendable Game a x


The game could be played using all the peices and tiles provided, but there is nothing to say it could not be played (at lunch) with a pocket full of pieces and say 10 to 15 tiles.

There is also nothing to stop players setting the tiles up to represent other game boards, the interlocking tiles can be configured to represent a typical chess/draughts board, Ludo and even the Cluedo board or any variations on its theme.

Extending the game:

  1. By putting two or more boxes worth of game tiles and pieces together the game can be extended to develop higher levels of complexity.
  2. It’s possible that certain standard gaming ideas could be used to extend the game. For example by adding an extension pack that perhaps simply contained a set of Game Tiles marked with Standard card Game Suits and Hierarchies… plus a pack of cards, the game could now involve/evolve rules that incorporated traditional playing-card game elements.
  3. Branded Additions; Buy-ins from properties like Indiana Jones/Star Wars Lego could add different a different themed/hybrid slant to the game-play.
  4. Gameplay augmentation packs with specific or mixed attribute additions could add further diversification of potential strategies and rule hacks.
  5. Blank piece/tile/die/card augmentation packs to allow players to add their own specific game tiles and decision tools.
  6. Side games can be set up so that say two players reach the side game and have to play for dominance, a reward or sudden death.

Further custom game elements that fix to the tiles (via jigsaw fixings) could be added by people/designers and shown on a central forum attached to the games release, this bespoke Game Hacking would be encouraged, it would be great to see some of the invention used in the construction of Domino-Topple Challenges and Rube Goldberg Machines.

Of course it could simply be played as a capture the flag style game (Trivial Pursuit, Ludo etc), but with pieces drawn from other places to add a theme. Grab the plastic soldiers from your kid brothers room to adapt the game into a WW2 The Eagle has Landed style affair, or take your Warhammer barbarians and roleplay Conan in Hyboria.

I guess I’m trying to hit a target audience of fans of boardgames and roleplay as well as students and teachers of games, and with the quality of the initial pieces, fans of “Designer Board Games” too perhaps.



*Aspects of Play is in fact run by my colleague Paul Starkey who is also currently engaged in the development of Game Design devices related to education and Gamification.


Appendix 1 – Reasoning and References.

Clearly this type of game puts the onus on the players to develop there own rules, and to do this effectively they must probably go through a phase of trial and error, perhaps failing to create a rule that allows satisfactory gameplay and having to recover from failure through redeveloping ideas. At which point we can begin to see the whole game as a metaphor for Independent Study, particularly with their engagement with the theory of Games and Play.

Caillois – Four Play Forms

1 – Agon, – Competition, the opportunity to beat an opponent. Chess being a highly Agonistic game. – GAME HACKER can be played as a single or multi-player game against a custom devised system or as a player-on-player attack and defence strategy game.

2 – Alea, – Chance, rolling (fairly balanced) dice for example. GAME HACKER allows for multiple chance opportunities through its hybridisation of various Dice and custom Teetotums etc; as well as the incorporation of Card Drafting.

3 – Mimicry, – mimesis or roleplaying …what BGG calls “Acting”. GAME HACKER allows for themes or “chrome” to be over-layed only dependent on what the players have to hand or their own interest. The game could be spy themed, one minute, science fiction themed the next. Plots and “roleplay” could be devised to the complexity that the players deem suitable. Or abstracted to the point of no Theme or “acting”.

4 – and Ilinx, – from the Greek For “Whirlpool”, or vertigo, in the sense of perception altering elements to games, for example the game where you spin around a cricket wicket with your head touching it and then try to run in a straight line, blind mans bluff, the “drunken” unresponsive controls in the bar in the digital game Red Dead Redemption, and even the altered or obfuscated viewpoints mimicking the “fog of war” evident in this emphasised 3D version of chess,   “Rough Terrain Chess” (below). – GAME HACKER can be played in a way that new configurations can happen mid-play, at the roll of a dice or the draught of a card.

0 Rough Terrain Chess 001 x

GAME HACKER can also (as many other games) be devised/hacked as a drinking game… and that definitely covers Ilinx.


Flow –

0 Games and Flow

Csikszentmihalyi’s Theory of Flow (see part of my “Hacked” version of his chart above) – to me there are clear links between Flow, a students ownership of their own learning and engagement too. Perhaps the conditions and causality are not yet fully clear as to the links between those students willing to push into unfamiliar territory regarding knowledge and experience (See other posts on The Learning Process/Fear of Failure) and Flow – but through observation it can be seen that those students willing to push into this area (hopefully the “Game Hacker” Board Game encourages that)

Csikszentmihalyi stated that happiness is derived from personal development and growth – and flow situations permit the experience of personal development.

He suggests that three conditions that have to be met to achieve a Flow state:

      1. One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task.
      2. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.
      3. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.

 – Csikszentmihalyi, M.; Abuhamdeh, S. & Nakamura, J. (2005), “Flow”, in Elliot, A., Handbook of Competence and Motivation, New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 598–698

Put More simply:

Clear Goals – in this instance – To devise and implement rules for a game of their own making – whilst learning about games, and hopefully having FUN.

Immediate Feedback – Competition and each progressive achievement or successive “roll” and move provides a feeling of moving forwards. Even seemingly negative aspects such as missing a turn or having pieces removed from the board, in a game situation increases engagement and perhaps teaches something about devising games with balance and challenge.

Balance between opportunity and capacity (or current skill level) – As above, this game can be played simply by rolling dice and moving pieces towards a central goal to start with, the players adding levels of complexity as they go.




Bloom – In line with some recent rethinking regarding Bloom’s Taxonomy – Here Reversed and seen as part of a cycle where Creating or Playing can happen first…

Blooms Revised Taxonomy


Semiotics – The ability to infer different meanings in a particular sign, or to assign meaning to a particular symbol or signifier. This in itself could be a session related to critical and theoretical study.


Appendix 2 – Bibliography & Weblog

Rollings, Andrew; Morris, Dave (1999). Game Architecture and Design. Coriolis Group Books. p. 38. ISBN 978-1-57610-425-5.

Board Game Geeks’ Glossary of Board Gaming Terms

Board Game Geeks’ Glossary of Game Mechanisms


Appendix 3 – Other Rule Hacker/Extension Tile Pack Games include:

a – Fluxx – A rolling rule adapting card game.


b – Carcasonne – A strategy based extending terrain game – Visual

c – (The World Of) Munchkin by Steve Jackson (US) & John Kovalic.


Appendix 4 – Other interesting Games utilising Symbols over Text include:

This film/Raven/tarot themed game over on BoardGameGeek.com by Todd Sanders (dumarest123)

Graphics Resources – I took a look at game-icons.net after a discussion with Paul, a great resource if only for inspiration.


Appendix 5 – Acknowledgements:

I am particularly grateful for the assistance through the provision of additional examples, discussion and read-throughs given by Paul Starkey, Nathaniel Griffiths-Scott and Matt Heaney.

~ by hesir on February 13, 2013.

8 Responses to ““Game Hacker” – A Board Game for Teaching Games Design – Part 1”

  1. […] THIS example (A Board Game for Learning About […]

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  3. […] of my Game Hacker […]

  4. […] so remember my GameHacker […]

  5. […] part of his Masters study, he is developing a number of board games, one, Game Hacker looks to help his students understand game play and the development of game […]

  6. […] you remember – Gamehacker is a visual and tactile aid project that sets out to use a simple to complex board game to teach […]

  7. […] Game Hacker is a game created by Gareth Sleightholme. The game its self has no rules or mechanics, however, you are given a few basic building blocks on which a game can be created. Therefore Game Hacker is any game you want it to be. Its purpose of design was to help students like myself think how games work, how rules created can conflict with each other and also how every game needs a goal. As you can see in the above picture a group of students got together to play Game Hacker. […]

  8. […] “Game Hacker” – A Board Game for Teaching Games Design. […]

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