At the 2015 annual conference of the National Communication Association, I presented this poster on some inchoate research ideas.

Complex, dynamic systems are increasingly central to both STEM disciplines and to everyday life in general as we interact more and more with systems that involve interconnections between the social, technical, conceptual, and material. As such, systems thinking is an increasingly important skill.

Many have suggested that games are particularly well-suited for fostering systems thinking. But this connection is unclear and complex itself: so how do we get from playing games to systems thinking?

When people play games, they interact with a heterogeneous collection of actors, including entities in the game, other players, and concepts such as formal rules. As such, games themselves are complex systems in miniature.

During gameplay, people also communicate with other players and observe their actions, as well as the outcomes of those actions. Through interaction, observation, and communication, players develop mental models of games systems that involve these various entities and their relations.

Because games are complex systems, under certain conditions, these mental models should be transferable to systems thinking in other contexts.

Research Questions

• What entities and entity relationships do people include in their mental models of game systems?
• Do observed interactions and communication during gameplay predict players’ subsequent mental models?
• Do digital and analog games have different affordances for mental modeling and subsequent systems thinking?

Potential Methods

• Stimulus: learn and play an unfamiliar cooperative game, which should foster communication between players about rules, strategy, and the game generally.
• Elicit mental model entities by prompting participants to list consequential things they considered during gameplay
• Elicit mental model entity relationships by asking participants to physically arrange and graphically draw the relationships between previously elicited entities
• Elicit clarifications about the entities and entity relationships in participants’ graphical diagrams
• Between-subjects comparisons of mental models, both qualitative and quantitative, at the levels of a) entities and direct relationships, b) feedback loops, c) and holistic models.

Throughout my experience as an amateur game designer and game jam organizer, I’ve found some good sources for cheap but good supplies online. You can buy fancy blank tiles and tokens and things, but they’re not ideal for initial prototypes because using notecards is so much cheaper and simpler.

I love these buckets of plastic cubes in 10 colors, the colors of which happen to match pretty closely the colors in an 8-pack of Sharpies:
1000 cubes:
500 cubes:

400 cheap 6-sided dice in 4 colors:

250 transparent counters in 4 colors:

24 pawns in 6 colors:

Goodwill or other thrift stores are a great source for cheap poker chips. You can also cannibalize the parts from other easily found games in thrift shops, like Risk (cubes, tiny figurines, or numeric counters depending on the edition), Scrabble (blank wood tiles!), or random games that have a bunch of dice.

A lot of people are inspired by Settlers of Catan and want to use hex tiles for their games. A cheaper alternative is to use squares or rectangles (i.e. notecards), which can be offset or rotated to be functionally the same as hexagons. See and for additional explanation of how you can interpret a grid of squares as a grid of hexagons.

Instead of playing cards, consider using notecards in card sleeves. Or slips of paper in front of cards you already have many of (e.g. land cards from Magic the Gathering) in card sleeves.

After iterating on a design using notecards instead of playing cards, I do like upgrading to these blank cards for easier shuffling and playtesting:

Craft stores and educational supply stores can be a good source for unique bits.

For other, fancier prototype supplies like blank tiles, blank tokens, and blank dice+stickers, I like Print and Play Productions.

The Game Crafter also has a selection of fancier prototype supplies.

I’ve focused on what’s available in the US, but in Europe Spiel Material is a good source for all sorts of game components.

Since 2006, I have designed board games on an amateur basis. The majority of these designs were experiments that have since been discarded, but those that are in later phases of development or are notable for some other reason will be posted here.

Paper Game Jams

Since January 2014, I have organized and facilitated twice-yearly (summer and winter) paper game design jams for alumnae/i and current students of my alma mater, Reed College. Over the course of 24-48 hours, we brainstorm ideas and iterate on game designs by creating, playtesting, and revising prototypes. After each jam, at least a few participants have created something compelling enough to continue developing.


Candy Factory – I started designing Candy Factory in the August 2014 Reed Game Jam, and have been iterating on the prototype and design document ever since. It is a game of building an efficient machine to transform a pool of dice and produce the most points.

Speculation – I made Speculation for MITx 11.126x, Introduction to Game Design, in the winter of 2014. My goal was to create a simplistic, fast-paced, pure share-buying game in the vein of 18XX or Rolling Stock but without any company operation mechanics.

The Barbers – I started developing The Barbers in August 2013 during the first Reed Game Jam, but have since abandoned it. Although it does not seem like an interesting game to me, I do want to reuse its unique customer demand mechanic at some point in the future.

I’ve taught a couple classes to talented and gifted youth using board games. But never in a context in which I could assign homework. Which is a shame, because I have an idea for what I think would be a wonderful class!


This class would integrate one of my favorite instructional aids, playing historic and strategic board games (in this case A Brief History of the World), with independent research, creative writing, and public speaking. I think drawing on such diverse activities and intelligences in a single class would be a highly productive, stimulating, and exciting experience for students. Class time would be spent in several ways: 1) an introduction to history as a varied subject beyond a series of events and dates, including the notion of embedded historians using examples like Thucydides and Homer as well as more contemporary historians. 2) Playing games! 3) Presenting research and discussing how it relates to what happens in the game. Homework would include independent research on the kingdoms, empires, and nations students have played as within the game, as well as writing, either purely historical or historical fiction, on some aspect of the history of that kingdom/empire/nation.

I did use A Brief History of the World in a week-long class for Saturday Academy‘s week-long summer camp in 2011. Although I couldn’t assign any homework, I did use a watered-down version of this curriculum by offering the option for students to do some research and present it to the rest of the class each day. Although it wasn’t as deep as I would expect from a longer course, it did add some additional detail to the events students were playing through in the game.

Image of A Brief History of the World from BoardGameGeek is copyright its creator.


By playing A Brief History of the World, students would start to see history as not merely a sequence of events and dates, but as an interaction of systems. By making decisions within the game, they will come to understand some of the forces that influenced historical actors.

Playing the game would be complemented by their own research on the kingdoms, empires, or nations they represented in the game. Depending on the age level, this research would be supported by providing research material, an in-school trip to the library, discussions with librarians, or other research resources. Because board games are necessarily abstracted and simplified versions of reality, this historical research would add depth to the class as students relate it to the events that happen during the game. They would also cultivate skills like using primary and secondary sources for research, keeping track of their sources and collected information, and evaluating sources.

After being introduced to a range of historical texts, including those written by the people living through the events they’re writing about, as well as those on topics other than typical wars and nations, students would write their own histories (or historical fictions) informed by their research. In addition to expository and narrative writing, they would develop their ability to synthesize, summarize, connect, and creatively deploy disparate information from varied sources.

At the conclusion of the game, students would select one of their researched histories to expand into a presentation to deliver to the class. Because public speaking is so frequently feared, this practice would help students become more confident and engaging presenters.


On five consecutive Fridays for 1.5 hours each, I taught this class for the first time in January/February of 2010 to 6th and 7th graders at Laurelhurst School in Portland, OR through Saturday Academy‘s in-school LEAP program. In this class I created for 6th-8th graders (but realistically up to 12th or beyond), students work in pairs, playing a variety of board games featuring various economic mechanisms, starting with simpler games like Settlers of Catan and advancing to more complex, like Wealth of Nations. They manage their scarce resources, experience first-hand the importance of capital investment and development, and alter their plans as supply and demand fluctuate.

All images are from BoardGameGeek and are copyright their creators.

Learning and Class Materials

Instead of learning economics through equations and graphs out of textbooks, students engage with simulations of economic mechanisms first-hand. Supply-and-demand affect their production and profits as they struggle to maximize their gains. Students reap the long-term rewards of their earlier capital investments if they have speculated accurately and invested shrewdly. Through this process, they develop a deeper appreciation and experiential understanding of abstract economic principles.

Each class, I provide my students with a handout of some economic concepts with brief definitions (all of which are available in the downloads section). As they play, I prompt them to relate their game-playing and decision-making to these handouts, and vice-versa. I also ask more general questions to get them to think critically about their decisions, like “Why did you choose to..?” and “What goal are you trying to accomplish by..?” Students creatively connect their experience of playing the game to their pre-existing knowledge, as well as to their handouts, to create new knowledge.

Economic concepts in each game (see the handouts in the downloads section for details):

Settlers of Catan

  • Capital
  • Raw Materials
  • Supply and Demand
  • Diversification
  • Scarcity
  • Opportunity Cost

Modern Art

  • Speculation
  • Expected Value
  • Common Value Auction
  • Winner’s Curse
  • Bid Shading
  • Path Dependency

Wealth of Nations

  • Marginal Cost
  • Economy of Scale
  • Scarcity
  • Capital
  • Raw Materials
  • Supply and Demand
  • Opportunity Cost

Settlers of Catan

The Games

My students played three games over the course of five sessions. Two days were spent playing Settlers of Catan twice, one day to Modern Art, and two days playing one game of Wealth of Nations. In Settlers of Catan, players build settlements, roads, and cities with resources that they produce and acquire from trading with each other. What they produce depends on where they build their settlements. In Modern Art, players speculate on the art market as they auction and purchase paintings. In Wealth of Nations, players develop their nation’s industries and trade crucial resources with each other.

Wealth of Nations

Student Evaluations

Both Saturday Academy and I like finding out what students thought of my class, though I’d prefer not to use a survey. Three students liked Modern Art the most, three others Wealth of Nations, and the remainder named Settlers as their favorite game played during the class. All students self-reported on a last-day survey that they a) are more interested in the topic of the class, b) know more about the topic than when before the class, and c) would recommend the class to their friends. And they all described me as “good” or “excellent.” Awwww. Of course, they knew that I would be seeing their surveys, which is guaranteed to bias their responses. But Saturday Academy constructed the survey, not I!

Room for Improvement

Next time, I would like to switch out Modern Art for another game. Of the three, it has the least similarities to the other two, so provides less opportunity for building on what students learned while playing other games. Instead of touching on a broad range of concepts, I would rather go more in-depth with a smaller number, building on their understanding as the class progresses. Each handout would include less concepts on it—I think the amount this time was a little overwhelming for some students. Perhaps next time I’ll use Power Grid or Automobile.

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