Word Game Workshop

Fordham University, Spring 2016. Mondays and Thursdays, 11:30am-12:45pm

Instructor: Allison Parrish, Digital Creative Writer in Residence. E-mail Allison.

Office hours: Mondays, 4pm-6pm, 511W Dealy Hall.

Turn in homework here.

Here’s a list of student blogs from last year.


What do word games like Scrabble, Apples to Apples, and Once Upon a Time tell us about how language works? This course presupposes that word game design is itself a kind of creative writing—designers of these games are, after all, creating a context in which meaningful engagement with language takes place. Over the course of the semester, students play, discuss and critique a number of classic and contemporary word games, and then are challenged to design games of their own. Along the way, students are introduced to the discipline of game design and learn techniques for prototyping, iterating on, and play-testing their own games. Though digital games are included in class discussions, all student projects will be physical/analog only.

Ethos, methdology and structure

We’ll engage in a number of activities in this class.

  • In-class play and discussion. Over the course of the semester, we’ll play a number of games in-class and have discussions about those games when we’re done playing.
  • Tutorials and lecture. The instructor will give tutorial sessions about particular game design techniques, and occasionally lectures about selected topics (like game analysis practice, word game ontology, history of a particular word game or genre of word game, etc.)
  • Student-produced game design prototypes. There are six game design “prototype” projects assigned for the semester (approximately one every two weeks). We’ll discuss and play these games in class.
  • Reading and reading discussion. There will be some assigned reading, primarily concerning the history and theory of the games under discussion, and game design in general.

The general structure of the class is to have a game design project every other week, interspersed with reading assignments.


This course has one required text, Challenges for Game Designers. It should be available in the university bookstore; failing that, please purchase it from Amazon or your favorite independent bookseller.

Reading material that isn’t in the book above will be made available as links to documents on the web. You’ll find these links in the Schedule below. (Some readings may be distributed by e-mail or as handouts in class.)


There are a total of six projects in this class: five genre-specific game design “prototype” projects, and a final project.

The five genre-specific “prototypes” are designed to give you a chance to make word games of the particular kinds being discussed in class. On the due date for each prototype, you’ll present your game in-class and (as time allows) we’ll playtest it as a group. These prototypes are expected to be playable, but not necessarily “polished”—though you may choose to develop them further (for, e.g., your final project).

The final project is free-form: you’re expected to take the technical and conceptual content of the course and apply it to make a work of your own design. This should be a thoroughly conceptualized and polished piece—something you’d like to put in your clips or portfolio, or show off to the family over the holidays. We’ll take a few sessions near the end of the course for students to present these games, and to provide time for us to playtest them as a group.

You are welcome and encouraged to collaborate on your prototype projects and final project. For some projects, groups may be assigned by the instructor.


You’re expected to maintain a blog for this class. You’ll use this blog to post documentation of your game design prototype projects, and your final project. If you use an existing blog, please make sure that entries relating to this class are specifically marked as such (by, e.g., tags, categories, etc.). If you’ve never set up a blog before, we’ll go over how to do it in-class. Once you have everything set up, send me a link.

The documentation for your prototype projects and final project should consist of the following elements:

  • A description of what materials are needed to play the game.
  • Instructions for your game. How is it played? What are the rules?
  • Photographs (or better yet, video!) of the game being played.
  • For prototype projects, describe how your game meets the criteria of the project description, and contrast your game with others of its kind.
  • Was the game successful? What players have to say about it? What changes would you want to experiment with in the future?

These pieces of documentation must be completed on or before the due date for their respective assignments. Late work will not be accepted.

Turning in

For collaborative work, only one documentation blog post needs to be created per project, but all members of the group must fill in the homework turn-in form here. (This simplifies grading for me, and gives each participant a chance to comment on the nature of their participation in the project.)

Attendance and lateness policy

You are expected to attend every class session. Absences due to non-emergency situations will only be cleared if you let me know a week (or more) in advance, and even then only for compelling personal or professional reasons (e.g., attending an important conference, going to a wedding). If you’re unable to attend class due to contagious or incapacitating illness, please let me know (by e-mail) before class begins.

Each unexcused absence will deduct 3% from your final grade. If you have five or more unexcused absences, you risk failing the course.

Be on time to class. If you’re more than fifteen minutes late, or if you leave early (without my clearance), it will count as an unexcused absence.

In-class behavior

Laptops must be closed during class discussions, and while your fellow students are presenting work. You’re otherwise welcome to use laptops in class, but only to follow along with the in-class tutorials and to take notes.

Creative writing events

As part of their participation grade for this course, students are asked to attend the following three creative writing-related events:

  • Poets Out Loud. Wednedsay, February 10, 7pm–8pm. 113 W. 60th Street, New York, NY (12th Floor Lounge)
  • Poets Out Loud. Thursday, April 7, 7pm–8pm. 113 W. 60th Street, New York, NY (12th Floor Lounge)
  • Creative Writing Prizes Reading. Wednesday, April 27, 7:00pm–8:30pm. 113 W. 60th Street, New York, NY (12th Floor Lounge)

Grading policy

The class has three graded components, set forth below. Extra credit assignments may be offered during the semester, at the instructor’s discretion.

Component Percentage
Attendance and participation 30%
Game design prototypes 5 x 10% (50%)
Final project 20%

Here’s the breakdown of how grades correspond with percentages.

Grade Percentage
A 94 to 100
A- 90 to 93
B+ 87 to 89
B 83 to 86
B- 80 to 82
C+ 77 to 79
C 73 to 76
C- 70 to 72
D+ 67 to 69
D 63 to 66
D- 60 to 62
F Below 60


Week 1: Jan 21

  • Class overview
  • Presentation and discussion: Word play and puzzles

Reading assigned (to be discussed January 25):

Week 2: Jan 25 and 28

  • Reading discussion
  • Student introductions
  • Blog setup tutorial
  • Making crossword puzzles
  • Board Game Mechanics Literacy 101: Hanabi, Sushi Go, Machi Koro


Prototype #1 assigned (Due Feb 1st): Design a crossword puzzle. Bring a completed copy of your crossword for discussion, and 10 empty copies for your classmates to fill in. In your documentation, write about your experience of designing the puzzle. What was easy? What was difficult? Does your crossword follow the “conventions” of crossword puzzles in general, or did you do something that breaks conventions? What makes your crossword fun? (Is it important for your crossword to be fun?)

Week 3: Feb 1 and 4

  • Prototype #1 play and discussion.
  • Game prototyping exercise.

Reading assigned (to be discussed Feb 8). The Hebblethwaite reading shows how Scrabble functions, through the lens of a language other than English (Haitian Creole). The Okulicz reading is about the experience of becoming an expert at Scrabble, and how such communities form. The “Threemails” reading (which you don’t necessarily have to read thoroughly, you can just skim/browse) isn’t about word games in particular, but shows how the process of iteration happens in game design. The reading from CfGD is a basic introduction to the concepts and craft of game design.

Week 4: Feb 8 and 11

  • Reading discussion.
  • Lecture: Parts of language. Notes here.
  • In-class play and discussion (Hangman, Boggle, Scrabble, Quiddler)

Prototype #2 assigned (Due Feb 16): Prototype a spelling/letter game. You can make a new game entirely, or make a variant on one of the games we discussed and played in class.

Week 5: Feb 16 and 18 (Tues/Thurs)

  • Prototype #2 play and discussion.
  • Lecture/tutorial: Word guessing games.
  • In-class play and discussion (20 Questions, Taboo)

Reading assigned, to be discussed Feb 22. The “semantic priming” and Beeson reading are to demonstrate some cognitive phenomena that I believe play into why games like Taboo are fun. The Koster reading demonstrates a very conventional way of breaking down the elements of a game. The CFGD reading is craft-based, giving you some information and exercises for how to incorporate these elements into your design process.

Week 6: Feb 22 and 25

  • Reading discussion
  • In-class play and discussion (Anomia, Codenames)

Prototype #3 assigned (Due Feb 29): Prototype a word guessing game. You can make a new game entirely, or make a variant on one of the games we discussed in class. The game should have among its primary mechanics a requirement that players guess a word—e.g., either one player (under constraints) attempts to get other players to say a word or phrase (as in Taboo, Catchphrase, Charades, etc.), or players are tasked with coming up with words in particular categories (as in Scattergories, Anomia, etc.). Be sure to extensively playtest your game!

Week 7: Feb 29 and March 3

  • Prototype #3 play and discussion.
  • Lecture/tutorial: Juxtaposition games.

Reading assigned, to be discussed in-class on March 7. These readings show various ways in which juxtaposition gives energy to language. The Bartle reading is a game design classic that builds a taxonomy of different player types (killers, achievers, socializers, explorers) and how they interact with each other.

Week 8: March 7

Note: I am out of town on March 10th, so there will be no class that day.

  • Reading discussion

Prototype #4 assigned (Due March 14): Prototype a juxtaposition game. You can make a new game entirely, or use one of the games we discussed in class as a starting point. Your game should have among its primary mechanics (1) the juxtaposition of two or more concepts (words, phrases, images) and (2) the evaluation of such juxtapositions. Try to go further than just making YACAH (“yet another Cards Against Humanity”). Playtest and document your game extensively.

Week 9: March 14

  • Prototype #4 in-class play and discussion.

Reading assigned (to be discussed March 31):

Four readings about the social, emotional and ethical dimensions of game design.

Week 10

No class; Spring and Easter breaks.

Week 11: March 31

  • Reading discussion. In-class play and discussion: Once Upon a Time.

Reading assigned (to be discussed April 4). The two readings from The Living Handbook of Narratology are intended to introduce “narratology” (the study of narrative and narrative structure) as a topic. The Cabinet article is a review of a book called Plotto, intended to be an outline of and guide to all possible stories. Chapter 13 from CFGD is about storytelling in games specifically, and chapter 14 is about more general game design topics.

Week 12: April 4 and 7

Prototype #5 assigned (Due April 11): Prototype a storytelling game. You can make a new game entirely, or use one of the games we discussed in class as a starting point. Players of your game should tell a story (individually or collaboratively) during the course of play. Playtest and document your game extensively.

Bonus reading. These are some more in-detail readings about narrative structure. Labov is talking about narratives of personal experience; Propp discusses narratives in the form of folk tales. (You can skim the chapter 3 of the Propp excerpt.) When reading, think about how these structures could be represented and manipulated with systems of rules in games.

Links to relevant projects:

Week 13: Apr 11 and 14

  • Prototype #5 presentations, play and discussion.
  • Twine tutorial (screencast scheduled for April 14th)

Extra credit prototype assigned (due April 21st): Produce a storytelling game with Twine.

Final project pitch (due by e-mail April 18th): Produce a description of what you intend to make for your final project. Include a description of any tasks already complete and a list of remaining production milestones and responsibilities (i.e., who in your group will be responsible for the remaining tasks). Also, list any difficulties you’ve had so far, or difficulties you anticipate, or other uncertainties that you might need help resolving!

Week 14: Apr 21st

Note: We won’t be holding class on April 18th.

  • In-class workshopping and playtesting for final projects.

Week 15: Apr 25 and 28

  • In-class playtesting
  • Final project play and discussion

Week 16: May 2

  • Final project play and discussion