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Better Game Studies Education the Carcassonne Way

Following Noah’s lead, I thought I’d post the extended abstract and ask for comments on my upcoming DiGRA paper.  This is joint work with Noah as well as Sri Kurniwan at UCSC.


As game education programs grow, educators face challenges bringing formal study of games to students with varied backgrounds.  In particular, educators must find ways to transition students from viewing games as entertainment to exhibiting deeper insights.  One approach is to expose students to a wider variety of games, particularly German-style board games.  We hypothesize that greater familiarity may lead to improved understanding of game mechanics and test this hypothesis with a study involving students in an introductory game design class.  Initial analysis of the results shows increased understanding and changes in the student’s view of games.  From this we may suggest directions for future research and game education pedagogy.


Introductory computer game design students have difficulty transitioning from being fans to scholars of games [9]. Indicative of this is a tendency to describe games by genre or theme rather than core game mechanics [8].

Hunicke et al. suggest the aesthetic level is the most visible to players [3].  This is particularly true in computer games, since the machine performs the execution of game mechanics, while board games players execute the game mechanics themselves.  Sicart argues understanding of game mechanics is core to the formal study of games [6].  Woods argues the social nature of board gaming fosters a more reflective atmosphere for deeper understanding [7].  Hands-on study of non-computer games is used in game design courses, increasing student’s engagement and understanding [1, 5].

German-style board games are characterized as having simple rules and innovative mechanics. We hypothesize that students exposed to this type of game may exhibit greater understanding of game mechanics than students who are not.  We also predict they will apply this understanding to their study of computer games.

Study Design

We conducted a study on students in an introductory game design class, recruiting an intervention group of volunteers to participate in a 1 hour seminar that met 8 times.  These students played and discussed several German-style games selected to represent a range of game mechanics and variations on those mechanics.  All are considered gateway games, i.e., good introductions to the genre for novice players.  These are listed in Table 1.

Table 1: Games used in study




Bohnanza Uwe Rosenberg Set Collection, Negotiation
Carcassonne Klaus-Jürgen Wrede Tile Laying
Pillars of the Earth Michael Rieneck, Stefan Stadler Worker Placement
Puerto Rico Andreas Seyfarth Economic
Ra Reiner Knizia Auction
Settlers of Catan Klaus Teuber Set Collection, Economic
St. Petersburg Bernd Brunnhofer Card Drafting
Ticket to Ride Alan R. Moon Set Collection, Route Building
Transamerica Franz-Benno Delonge Route Building

Our survey questions assess understanding of computer game mechanics and familiarity with German-style games.  A control group was formed from the students whose surveys indicated the least familiarity with German-style games.  Sample questions are shown in Table 2.  Students took the survey twice: at the beginning and end of the class.  Difference in responses between the initial and final surveys show the change to the student’s understanding of game mechanics.

Table 2: Sample survey questions

Design a player aid for a computer game of your choosing. What information would a novice need to play the game?
Describe how you would create a board game version of a First Person Shooter [2]
Pick a game where the story is an important part of the playing of the game. Name the game and describe it without making reference to the story.

We are analyzing the survey responses using systematic text analysis [4].  Initially, categories of possible responses are formed inductively from the theoretical background.  As the survey responses are observed, the categories are revised, resulting in a coding that combines the existing theory with empirically derived insights.  Initial results show the intervention group’s responses are consistently in categories indicating greater understanding.


We have described a study to show the effects of familiarity with German-style board games on students in an introductory game design class.  Initial results of this study show a difference in understanding of game mechanics between the intervention group and the control group.  From this result we encourage game educators to include more hands-on exposure to German-style games in their courses.


  1. Brathwaite, B., and Schreiber, I. (2009). Challenges for Game Designers. Boston, Massachusetts: Course Technology.
  2. Fullerton, T. (2008). Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, 2nd Edition. Burlington: Morgan Kaufman.
  3. Hunicke, R. & LeBlanc, M. & Zubek, R. (2004) MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. http://www.cs.northwestern.edu/~hunicke/MDA.pdf.
  4. Mayring, Philipp (2000). Qualitative Content Analysis. Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 1(2).
  5. Ryan, M. (2007) Eleven Programmers, Seven Artists And Five Kilograms Of Play-Doh: Games For Teaching Game Design. 2007 Australasian conference on interactive entertainment,   Melbourne, Australia.
  6. Sicart, M. (2009) Defining Game Mechanics. Game Studies 8:2
  7. Woods, S. J. (2009). (Play) Ground Rules: The Social Contract and the Magic Circle. Observatorio (OBS*) Journal 3(1)
  8. Zagal, J., Bruckman, A. (2007), GameLog: Fostering Reflective Gameplaying for Learning. Proceedings of the 2007 ACM SIGGRAPH Symposium on Videogames, San Diego CA, 31-38.
  9. Zagal, J.P., Bruckman, A. (2009) Novices, Gamers, and Scholars: Exploring the Challenges of Teaching About Games.  Game Studies 8:2.

This is just a very general, high-level description of the study, as that’s all we had room for in the abstract submission. The final paper will have much more in-depth discussion of the study and analysis of the data.

Some selected reviewer comments:

  • The paper could be improved by providing references and validity for similar surveys (methodology and analysis) used generally to demonstrate effectiveness of various educational interventions.

Anyone know of any?  I consider Zagel et al.’s various game studies education to be related work, but they didn’t do any studies of this nature.

  • a key area to expand in the full paper is demonstrating the importance of understanding game mechanics for game designers

Again, I can refer to the related work, in this case Sicart’s papers, Fullerton’s book, Brathwaite and Schreiber’s book.

  • I am not completely convinced of whether German board games are better than “non-German” board games.  This should have been incorporated into the study (perhaps as the control).

Not sure of the best response to this.  Early in the study design we decided to narrow the focus to German-style games.  The original plan was to do a wider variety of table top games, including RPGs, traditional card games, etc., but that jsut seemed to broad.  I suspect thsi is related to the previous point – we have to argue that German-style games are fundamentally about mechanics, and that understanding mechanics is crucial for game designers.

Any comments/thoughts/advice are appreciated!

About the author:  Kenneth Hullett is a Ph.D. student in Computer Science at UC Santa Cruz. He is researching level design and its effects on player behavior. Read more from this author

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  1. Posted July 22, 2009 at 4:32 PM | Permalink


    We’ve also tried using Euros in the game design classroom and they certainly help to increase student understanding of mechanics..

    “we have to argue that German-style games are fundamentally about mechanics, and that understanding mechanics is crucial for game designers.”

    It wouldn’t take too much to make the argument that Euros are mechanic-focused and that that makes them particularly relevant to design students. There are a number of interviews with designers scattered around the net that talk about the Euro emphasis on mechanic over theme.

    E.g. Knizia:

    “In America, the theme is seen as the game where as in the European the game mechanics and the game system are seen as the game. ”


    Looking forward to reading the final paper…

  2. Posted July 23, 2009 at 3:48 AM | Permalink

    Just re-reading:

    ” a key area to expand in the full paper is demonstrating the importance of understanding game mechanics for game designers”

    Um, what?

    If you are teaching writers, do you need to explain why it’s important that they understand grammar and spelling?

  3. Posted July 23, 2009 at 5:57 AM | Permalink

    Most of the papers here are about digital games rather than board games, but they might satisfy the reviewers while showing your paper’s unique contribution.


  4. Posted July 23, 2009 at 4:18 PM | Permalink

    @Stewart Woods,
    You would be surprised. Many Freshman students in our “Foundations of Game Design” class here at UCSC simply have not had the mental tools to critically think about games and their design. This is, in fact, the most important part of what we teach them. Although we teach video games primarily, I think the same ideas still apply.

    Often, students will get wrapped up in the presentation (“I liked that I got to shoot people”) but haven’t separated the mechanics from it. They would realize that the combat in Mass Effect is not the same as a first-person shooter, but wouldn’t be able to articulate why. This is not to say that they aren’t able to do this, just that they haven’t been given the tools with which to do so.

    It is much like me with movies. I am able to watch a movie and say, “I liked the ambiance”, but I would be unable to tell you what directorial decisions went into making that ambiance. I am even worse with wine, and can tell you only what I like and dislike. This does not, however, prevent me from attempting home movies or home fermentation, and the number of tools that let our students create games or levels before they reach university level is rising, and there have been students that have created games in their own time (a passion you can’t teach) without having a strong critical framework with which to excel (something that we can teach!).

    So yes, it appears unnecessary, we really do need to explain why it’s important to understand the game mechanics.

  5. Noah Wardrip-Fruin
    Posted July 24, 2009 at 12:22 AM | Permalink

    I suspect the first reviewer quoted — who wants “references and validity for similar surveys (methodology and analysis) used generally to demonstrate effectiveness of various educational interventions” — is not asking specifically about game-related interventions. Rather, this person wants some backup of the idea that you can actually use this kind of method to figure out if educational interventions are having an impact.

    As for the reviewer who isn’t convinced about German-style games, rather than get into a long discussion of “Ameritrash” (etc) I would just side-step. Say these games were chosen because they are part of the mechanics-emphasizing tradition, but that it might be interesting future work to see if even more thematically-focused games show a similar impact, because players still need to operate the rule system themselves.

  6. Posted July 24, 2009 at 4:56 AM | Permalink

    In response to Chris and Stewart, my major motivation for doing this study was reading the game proposals from the many times I TAed the Foundations of Game Design class. So many of them went on fro pages and pages, but after reading it, I had no idea what the game would be like. There would be no mention of mechanics whatsoever.

    To use your writing analogy, imagine if you were teaching a writing class with a big final project, and when the students turned in their proposals there was no mention of the plot of the stories they were writing, just lengthy descriptions of the fonts and page layouts.

    Games is still a relatively new field, and as educators we need to find ways to get students to look past the surface elements and think critically about what games really are.

  7. Posted July 24, 2009 at 5:20 PM | Permalink

    @Chris & Ken

    Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been there with student’s lack of understanding of even the notion of mechanics. It was more that the Digra reviewers wanted an explanation of why it’s important for students to understand this that I found strange. I would have thought this was a given.

  8. Posted July 24, 2009 at 11:02 PM | Permalink

    I am never surprised by anything a reviewer says, ever, any more :)

  9. Erik Champion
    Posted July 26, 2009 at 6:22 PM | Permalink

    perhaps DiGRA is a broad church?! I look forward to hearing the presentation at DiGRA, my one query would be why put Carcasonne in the title as
    -a over here (Australasia) I don’t think it is that well known and you are evaluating many games aren’t you not just this one..is it the exemplar of the (German) field?
    -b I was expecting/hoping for a paper just on this board game as I like it very much!
    I also note that what game mechanics are seems to be defined differently/loosely by various people (see for example the ‘Defining Game Mechanics’ paper by M. Sicart in Game Studies).

  10. Posted July 28, 2009 at 2:41 AM | Permalink

    Carcassonne is one of the better known German games here, along with Settlers of Catan and Puerto Rico. Made for a punchier title, though.

    There’s probably some room in the paper for discussion of different definitions of game mechanics.