[Prototyping & Playtesting] Higher-Order Historical Concepts

Qianou Ma
27 min readMar 18, 2021

05–418/818 CMU Design Educational Games Prototyping and Playtesting Assignment

This article is structured into the following sections & subsections: Ideation (Concrete Educational Goals, Brainstorming Process, 10 Game Ideas), Prototyping (Game 1: Timeline Jigsaw Puzzle, Game 2: Price War), Playtesting (Play-testers, Playtest Procedures, Playtest Sessions, Insights & Potential Changes), Iteration (Iterated prototype, Iterated playtesting, Final Reflection).

Phase 1: Ideation

Concrete Educational Goals

The educational goal that I decided to focus on is to teach different second-order history concepts (time, change, empathy, cause, evidence, accounts) to different-age children. Specifically, students will learn one or a subset of the following in each of the proposed game ideas:

  • Time: develop a sense of distant past, understand historical periods are intertwined, and can develop in parallel. Also, there are multiple ways for time reference in history.
  • Change: changes in history should be considered in terms of a continuous state of affairs, not an “all or nothing” event. The same change may have different significance within different themes.
  • Empathy: understand past social practices or actions as making sense in the way people saw things and the circumstances in which they had to make decisions.
  • Cause: history has a network of relationships, and causes are those without which a resulting event would not have occurred; what counts as a cause is partly determined on the question. Causes in history may be deterministic but sometimes just by chance.
  • Evidence: history doesn’t solely rely on truth reports, we can construct a picture of the past by inference, and know things about the past that no witness has reported.
  • Accounts: accounts demand selection, and a position from which selection is made. A point of view is necessary; perspective-free accounts are not possible.

Brainstorming Process

My general strategy for brainstorming is to

  1. List out all sorts of table game format that I know,
  2. Listen to the second-order history chapter while I’m cooking, taking notes on interesting teachable concepts I heard, during which some of the game formats already come up naturally with the concept, so I write them down as well,
  3. Tell my parents about this assignment in my daily video call and some more ideas just emerge during the conversation so I already have a list of 10.
  4. Originally I planned to do some random combinations of game format and second-order history concepts to get more ideas since 10 seems to be a daunting number, but in reality, it’s not as hard.

The more difficult part is how to describe a rough idea using some concrete game mechanics and gameplay rules, the inclusion or exclusion of features & rules seem quite arbitrary at this stage, but the refinement can be left for the prototyping & playtesting phase.

10 Game Ideas

Game 1: Timeline Jigsaw Puzzle

History concept: Time

  • A jigsaw puzzle with different timelines in different themes, e.g., scientific invention, war, art, political history.
  • Different events/objects in a consistent theme are on the same horizontal level and ordered chronologically from left to right.
  • Students will learn that different historical periods intertwine with each other and develop both sequentially and parallel in time.
  • Explicit time references like 1945 or the 18th century should be presented to help students learn multiple representations of time in history.

Game 2: Send Your Explorers

History concept: Change, Cause

  • Players each represent a country (e.g., Italy, Spain, Britain, and France), they each have a team of 4 explorers (or 4 navy ships) that they want to send to discover the new world.
  • At each round, a player will roll the dice, if it a 6, they can choose to move one of their explorer/ships out of the home box (set off!), or they can move one of the existing explorer/ships on the path with the number of the dice roll. If two players are in the same cell, the late-comer will send the previous player home. Whoever sends the whole team over the center box (America!) will win.
  • Players can strategize to optimize their move (as prepare for resources and plan to make their expedition smooth), their choices will cause changes their destiny, but many things in history can just be caused by chances & luck!

Game 3: Is it Irrelevant?

History concept: Cause, Evidence, Account

  • A host provides an account or an outcome of some events, and players need to guess what’s the causes by asking a series of yes/no questions and derive the causal link, the host can only reply with yes/no/irrelevant, and whoever correctly guess the whole story wins.
  • E.g., the host may say “Tulips was introduced to Dutch at 16th century, in February 1637 it worths a mansion, but a week later it doesn’t even worth an onion.” The player can ask about causes “Is it because of the weather” or evidence “Is the tulips harmful to health,” and the host may reply with “no” and “irrelevant,” respectively.

Game 4: Group the Same

History concept: Time, Cause

  • Each player has 10 cards initially, at each round the player can group at least three of their cards, justify their grouping, and discard them if it’s valid, or they need to draw a new card from the pool. Whoever used all their cards first wins.
  • The cards/blocks have different types of relations and can be grouped in different ways. For example, “Pharaoh,” “mummy,” “pyramid” can be grouped since they all belong to an Egyptian theme; “Pharaoh,” “Emperor,” “President” can also be grouped as they are political leaders of different institutions; “pyramid,” “stone henge,” “Uruk” can also be grouped as they belong to the same historical period.
  • Students will learn that there’re multiple possible connections in history, events, or things that are not simply discrete and relationships are not linear, it’s really a network. Different relations and concepts of time and causes could be discussed and debated.

Game 5: Weretruth

History concept: Evidence, Account

  • Similar to the game werewolf, players are assigned randomly to two parties (here the history-revealer camp vs. the history-concealer camp).
  • The host has a set of evidence cards that reveals a historical event, players of the concealer camp will look at the cards at “night” when all other players close their eyes and decide which card to reveal at “the next day,” they should try to mislead the revealers or hide the most important information from them, but they are not able to verbally communicate or discuss their strategies.
  • All players can see the chosen card at “daytime” to provide their accounts and reasoning in turns, concealers again should try to mislead the conversation, and all will vote to eliminate one player from the group. They can also choose to let one player try to recover the truth in any N rounds (N=2?).
  • There can also be a “detective” in the revealer camp that can discover additional information in an evidence card, and/or a “lucky guy” who will get a random new evidence card from the pool.
  • Players can strategize to reveal or fake their roles & additional information. The revealer/concealer camp will win if all concealers/all revealers are eliminated, or if N attempts to recover the truth succeed/failed.

Game 6: Find the Distorter

History concept: Evidence, Account

  • A role-playing detective game, where players are assigned randomly to a single history-distorter vs. all others being the truth-miner.
  • Each player will be given a role and their own accounts, and each of them will have reasons to distort the history but only one of them (the actual distorter) put it into practice.
  • Each player can choose to get 3 new evidence cards of some players at each round, they can also choose to reveal the information to all others or not. All players should try to convince others why they are not the distorter, and they’ll discuss & vote for the distorter after 3 rounds.
  • Truth-miners will win if they successfully identify the distorter, and the distorter will win if they fail.

Game 7: Government Roleplay

History concept: Cause, Account

  • Each player represents a role in the government, (e.g., a president, FBI officer, treasury, chief justice, etc., can change based on different institutions) and they should all have their own goals and perspective even given the same situation.
  • Players will use special dice rolls that serve different functions (e.g., location, subject, time, etc.) to decide an event that they encounter, and each should push forward their own agenda. Whoever successfully achieves their original goal after N rounds win.

Game 8: Team Explorers

History concept: Change, Cause

  • Players represent teams of explorers from different countries and they are in search of the lost gold mine (or some other fantasy like the Oregon Trail). They will have $100 to start with and should decide to buy whatever resources (e.g., water, food, miners, etc.).
  • They will move on a map (introduce more chance with dice or just let a host announce) and different events will occur during their journey that cost different resources & consequences, e.g., if they run out of water, they’ll die, and if they run out of miners, they can’t get gold even if they successfully arrive at the mines. The team that got the most golds at the end of N rounds will win.

Game 9: Price War

History concept: Change, Cause

  • Players can play individually or form teams, each will represent a particular type of product in the market (e.g., pig, solar panel, oil, cabbage, etc.) and start with $100. The host will announce a random event (e.g., hurricanes, WWII, the discovery of America, etc.) and the player should decide to either sell or buy how much of their product at the current price. Prices will change after events, so whoever earns the most after N rounds or whoever didn’t break will win.
  • Students will learn that the same event can have different impacts and cause different changes under different themes.

Game 10: History War

History concept: Time, Cause, Account

  • Players start with a random set of 10 cards (such as location, historical period, historical figure, historical event) and try to tell a story using their and others’ cards.
  • At each round, a player can use 1 or more of their cards to tell part of the story (need to be consistent with the previous accounts), or they can draw a new card from the pool. Whoever uses up all cards wins.

Phase 2: Prototyping

I selected two of my previous 10 ideas to implement the prototyping & playtesting, the original Game 1 (Timeline Jigsaw Puzzle) & Game 9 (Price War), which are renamed to Game 1 & Game 2 below. All of my design & research materials are uploaded to this google drive folder.

Game 1: Timeline Jigsaw Puzzle

Firstly, I searched for timelines of 4 themes (US history, world history, science/invention history, and art history) and take down a list of 5 events each in the 20th century, each with a short description in 10 words and the associated time (a descriptive time that’s used to describe that historical event that I’ll put on the puzzle pieces, and the time span in B.C. years for timeline ordering design). I enter all data in a google sheet so I can rank & sort the historical events by time and by categories.

Then, I search for some jigsaw puzzle blank template with 4x5=20 pieces. For the puzzle background, I did minimum art & design and simply search for some images of these different themes and overlay them at each row of the puzzle pieces using photoshop; finally, I just put the plain text information of the events & time on top of it.

Game 1: Timeline Jigsaw Puzzle Prototype 1

Game 2: Price War

I actually modify my original thoughts on game mechanics & dynamics to back this game up with real history. I decided to let the players buy and sell the same product: different types of tulips from the famous Tulip Mania story. Since it’s the same product, it doesn’t make sense to restrict players to only represent and buy one type of tulips, so I decided to let them freely sell or buy different types of tulips based on the announced event from the host. The main game logic is still the same: different types of tulips may be influenced by different events in different ways.

However, after I did some initial research on the Tulip Mania history, which seems to be very detailed but complicated, I decided to not back everything in my game by actual history to simplify the game & research. So I take down a list of 9 timestamps from a research paper (Thompson, 2007) and just randomly mix up & come up with some events/factors that might influence tulips’ price change (please refer to this google sheet for the design).

Thompson, E. A. (2007). The tulipmania: Fact or artifact? Public Choice, 130(1), 99–114.

Again I did minimum art & design, I just simply search on the internet (e.g., wiki commons, art museums) for some images of tulips and money and use them as my cards (prototype on the right).

Since the price and tulips are in different counting systems, I implemented them in separate sets of cards. There may be many other ways to import the currency system, like the coins in monopoly may be a better choice but I’ll try cards first and see how it work.

Tulip Cards
Money Cards

Phase 3: Playtesting


Because of the difficulty of recruitment (even my roommate is too busily doing her midterms so I can’t make her participate), both of my games’ playtesting sessions were performed on my parents. Since they are adults working in business, they are familiar with the world history and the tulip mania event. Additionally, I had discussed some of my game design ideas with them during the ideation process, although not in detail, they may not be completely fresh eyes on my games.

However, they wouldn’t know much about the art, science, and US history in Game 1, also Game 2 was designed in a way that should not be completely predictable. Meaningful feedback was collected, especially since the learning goal for the games is the second-order historical concepts like time, change, and causes, which should not rely too much on one’s factual knowledge about history. Nevertheless, adults are mature enough to have a good sense of time, change, and causes, so using them as my play-testers may not reveal potential issues in the game for kids.

Playtest Procedures

I made the puzzle pieces in Game 1 the cards in Game 2 into printable (the translated version) and send it over to my parents to let one of them cut and prepare the materials. Then through video chat, I watch the other one who didn’t get to see the puzzle picture individually played Game 1, and I had them play against each other in Game 2, where I served as a host/news reporter to announce the events and price changes of tulips.

When I tested on my parents with game rules and the cards, I originally wanted to conduct remote playtesting on https://playingcards.io/; however, I couldn’t get any participant to do it, so I just report the playtesting sessions that I did with my parents as follows.

After each gameplay, I asked this list of questions suggested in class just to gauge players’ generic thoughts on the game.

More specifically, I wanted to learn about whether the design of my game was really targeting the learning goals, whether the design & placement of the puzzle pieces in Game 1 makes sense, and whether a realistic historical context is necessary for Game 2 and whether the design of events and price curve is reasonable. So I further asked questions such as

  1. What do you think you have or have not learned in this experience?
  2. Using the same historical events in Game 1, how might you design the puzzle board?
  3. Out of all announced events & price changes in Game 2, what makes the most and least sense to you and why?
  4. What are some other events that you will design for Game 2 and why?
  5. While playing Game 2, how do you feel about the background story (tulipmania)?

Playtest Sessions

Game 1: Timeline Jigsaw Puzzle

The playtesting session went quite smoothly, as the puzzle is very easy for my play-testers with a lot of explicit hints. Some surprising and inspiring aspects for me include the general strategy they adopted and the different themes & knowledge organizations that emerged during gameplay.

For example, the players would first categorize the pieces with the same theme together, during which they are naming multiple possibilities that are perfectly reasonable but don’t match the solution, like “The Great Depression” and “World Trade Organization founded” was identified to be an “economy” theme instead of the US & World history that I designed, the “Titanic sunk” event was put together with “Wright Brothers’ Flight” in a “technology” theme, and all sorts of wars were separated from other political events. Therefore, some higher-order historical concepts of “cause” and “change” are actually very prominent features of this game, besides the original objective of “time.” According to their description of the game:

“It’s more than a jigsaw puzzle, there’re hidden rules of history and connection of the development of events in this game.”

The main difficulty or confusion for my play-tester was the specific logic in which the puzzle board is arranged since the puzzle board only enables one correct solution, but the player may have organized the historical events in some other ways. Some categories like art are more distinct from others, while others may be more intertwined, like US history and world history. According to their account:

“It’s really hard to distinguish which things are on the US history side & which are for the world events like both cold-war and WTO has the US as a big player, and even the Titanic was driving to the US. I don’t see a clear boundary between the global events and the US domestic events, which is frustrated but actually fun at the same time.”

Another thing that I observed was that my play-tester put the world history row & the US history row together, since the background image of the puzzle board is not a consistent piece, this different arrangement was allowed and also makes more sense to the player, as they see a really close connection between US history & world history as mentioned above.

Game 2: Price War Prototype - Events Design

Game 2: Price War

The playtesting session went smoothly (≈15 minutes) and the players enjoy this game more, saying

“I would definitely recommend it to my colleagues, but one cannot play it twice.”

Although the players suggested an auction system from the very beginning, I did not ad-lib it into the game just not to overcomplicate things and test out the basic rules and design of the price curves.

One surprising and inspiring aspect for me is the dynamic of communication between players. Although they are playing rival against each other, having players explain the reasons of sell or purchase will influence others’ own decisions, which enables room for strategizing and mimics the actual rules and crowd effects of the market. These shifts of perspectives and complex interaction may also help with students’ understanding of high-order historical concepts of “change,” “empathy,” and “account,” in that they can think from others’ perspectives and understand why people make decisions that seem so foolish from the hindsight.

Some other interesting things on the card design note include that the players develop their own nicknames of the tulips (e.g., the small, tilted, and large ones) during the game instead of referring to their designated names. Also, the players ended up using papers and pens to calculate and keep track of the transaction done at each round instead of using the tulips and money cards, which may be because of the physical absence of the host, so no one can monitor their transactions as the authority, and so they need to use some written records of the gameplay at each stage ensure honesty and transparency.

Several points of confusion exist in the fantasy aspect of the gameplay, which wasn’t designed initially but seems to be a potential element to add to the game. For example, a player kept wondering about their roles and participation in the announced events and asked

“Are we planters? Do we need to join the wedding party with tulips?”

Another point of confusion exists in the timing of the buying & selling of tulips, as players are tempted to immediately react with buy and sell after the price change before the next event is announced. Probably the instructions of each round of game can be clarified and established at the beginning of the game.

According to my players’ accounts, the most satisfactory moments were when their prediction matched the announced results of the event (the planters’ gathering), but the most memorable moments were when they made the wrong decisions (the mansions and the weather one). The most well-designed and enjoyable events were those that enable multiple equally valid explanations (the bankrupt and the weather change).

Players got very excited and engaged in their hypotheses, and great communications and reactions happened when they made their decisions and when the outcome was announced, which really align well with the “change” and “cause” objectives.

Insights & Potential Changes

Game 1: Timeline Jigsaw Puzzle

  • The horizontal arrangement of sequential events within a theme makes sense, but the interleaving of different themes needs to be synced into one general timeline.
  • The puzzle is too easy, several possible ways to work around it:
  1. Delete the explicit time and use better graphic design of the background to let students put different events together, but if we rely too much on graphics, then students probably wouldn’t be paying attention to the time logic.
  2. Simply put more rows or columns to make the whole puzzle more complex, expand the time scale, and don’t limit it to the 1900s.
  • One major thing that needs to be changed is the fact that the current design only enables one interpretation of the events, i.e., there is one correct arrangement of the events by theme, which may work against a possible educational objective of “recognizing multiple possible connections in history, events or things are not simply discrete and relationships are not linear, it’s really a network.” Several possible solutions exist (which makes the game more difficult at the same time):
  1. Design different modules or series of jigsaw puzzle boards with different themes, and have more events and for a specific themed timeline, so people can do targeted training or choose a themed puzzle based on their interests, and also the confusion across themes wouldn’t occur.
  2. Design the jigsaw puzzle board better and harder to force players to focus on the textual & time hint of the historical events instead of using purely graphics or shapes of the puzzle pieces; for example, using the Beverly Micro Pure White Hell Jigsaw Puzzle.
  3. Design extra pieces of different themes so that we can allow for multiple interpretations and arrangement of the events in the way that makes the most sense to the players.

Game 2: Price War

  • Logistics-wise, it should be clearer that each round of the game would follow the same structure: announcement of starting price => announcement of event => free discussion and decision of buy or sell => announcement of price change. Phrases like “the market opens with the price of …” and “the market closes with the price of …” can be provided in the instructions.
  • The most unreasonable event is the sudden announcement from the court, which is a real event in history but wasn’t nicely integrated into the game, as the market’s panic wasn’t well hinted at. There could be an addition of two events, one push the tulips’ prices absurdly high (e.g., tulips become the national flower) that one can hardly buy a bulb, and the next event is a rich merchant who has 0.5% of all tulips in the market suddenly sell all of their bulbs in half price (claiming that they’re going to invest something else), which trigger panic selling and contract breaking, so the court has to step in.
  • An auction rule can be added to the game, where each player can compete to buy tulips using higher prices. A more interesting game dynamic may emerge from it.
  • More variation of prices of different products can be introduced and the prices can fluctuate more as well.
  • No actual timeline is needed, the specific date is unnecessary, just use abstract rounds.
  • To provide players with a more immersive experience, I can potentially add more fantasy & role play elements (like the selection of individual planters, nobles, and merchants roles or parties at the beginning of the game), so that different roles may be required to participate and buy tulips in certain events and may be influenced by the same event in different ways (to emphasize the “empathy” and “change” learning objectives).
  • A host can be replaced by a set of event cards so the game can be played among the players themselves. I can make the announcement and price changes into a set of cards and just randomly sort them, but the bubble breaking (end of game card) should only be shuffle into the card deck in the last 3–4 rounds, so the game possible to stop at any time and players will need to act on uncertainty. But I may or may not make this change because I like the interaction between the host and the players, and a specific series of events make the most sense in the design of the price curve.
  • A more contemporary theme of this game could be the Game Stop stock, which could be fun for kids but definitely not suitable even for college students who invest and watch the news. Or subprime mortgage crisis or great depression contexts can be used, as the game is a nice way for students to study that historical period as well as high-order concepts. Hypothetical products without historical context may also be used, but more extensive testing and group comparisons are needed to argue for one way or the other.
Part of the iterated game rule (google doc)

Phase 4: Iteration

Iterated prototype

I decided to iterate my price war prototype and based on the feedback I received last time, I decided to make the following changes:

  • Formalize how the host would deliver game rules and announcements with clear instructions in a handout, so whoever gets the handout would be able to host the game. The handout should include:
  1. Context introduction (explain rules, offer fantasy and role-play context like the host as guide & news reporter, players as merchants)
  2. Announcement of market opening, the event of the round (not the specific date), and restate the starting price of each product
  3. Let players decide to purchase or sell different products starting from a minimum price with an auction system and explain their decisions
  4. Announcement of market closing with the price change, calculate players’ earning and loss
  5. The introduction of new species shouldn’t be revealed at the beginning of the game by announcing a N/A price, just don’t mention it at first.
  6. Add narrative elements to the events, let the host make comments with personal bias.
  • Redesign the events so that more inner connections and hints were added.
  • Redesign the price curve to make the 3 products’ prices more variable.
  • Add 2~3 events before the court steps in:
  1. tulips become the national flower (which push the tulips’ prices absurdly high),
  2. weather is hot (supply reduces and price rise since tulips can’t grow in hot weather or price is already so high that no one buys, so price stay stagnant and changes are small)
  3. a rich merchant who has 0.5% of all tulips in the market suddenly sell all of their bulbs at half price (which trigger panic selling and contract breaking)
  • Add an auction rule to the game so players can compete to buy products at higher prices.
Part of the iterated game design (google doc)

Iterated playtesting


My mom helped me recruit 4 of her colleagues as playtesters, 2 men and 2 women, and all of them are financial managers working in the bank. As adults working in business, they are also familiar with the tulip mania event so they are likely wary of the price surge and slump. They are also mature enough to be comfortable with the high-order historical concepts of “change,” “empathy,” “cause” and “account,” which are the learning objectives of this game. But they didn’t know that it’s a game designed for educational purposes, so they are fresh eyes on my games.

Playtest Procedures

Since my mom invited her colleagues to play a game in an after-work hour (through a remote meeting), I trained her to be the host and provided her with the written instructions (a translated version was used), so I was mainly assisting and observing the playtesting session.

The cards were not used because of the remote format, so again the playtesters were using papers and pens to keep track of the transaction, which is acceptable as I mainly want to test out the modified rules/events and role-play context setup.

Before debrief and revealing the design purpose of this game, they answered the same list of questions as in the first playtest session (translated version as below), with an addition of one question asking them how would they describe this game to their kids.

Playtest Sessions

The playtesting session also went smoothly (≈30 minutes), but the conversation is limited because of the remote meeting format, so there were fewer personal interactions and direct discussions as I observed last time on my parents when they were sitting beside each other. Probably because of the format and the increased number of players, there was more silence rather than discussions around the announced events. Players need some rounds to develop a sense of the game but this game only lasts for 10 rounds, so no special strategies were observed in players.

We had to ad-lib some additional contexts about the market setup during the gameplay, as there was some confusion around whether it’s an international market or a domestic one. Since the game is fantasized but related to realistic historical events that the players know, the players — all experts in the finance field — were looking for more detailed information. One player said they felt frustrated because they have to make random decisions with so limited amount of information:

“Normally, investors will investigate the product before investments, and if I want to buy tulips I will of course search for its growing conditions first, so when I hear relevant news during the game I’ll be able to make more rational decision, but I have to make a guess in some rounds.”

A surprising aspect for me is that with 4 people, groupings naturally occurred even when they play independently. There were indeed about 2 investment patterns, one being more aggressive and successfully earned a lot of money in the middle of the gameplay, one being more conservative so they can’t buy a lot when the tulips prices rise. The two people who adopted the first strategy ended up with $1230 and $940, respectively, and the two people who used the latter strategy earned very little but fortunately did not broke ($125 & $135). This really shows an opportunity for a team mechanism when more players are involved and if this game is played in person. It also reflects design flaws in the price curve, as some early events have a large influence over the following gameplay, and people may not be able to participate or reverse this disadvantage if they missed some initial opportunities.

The playtesting session also revealed a major flaw in the auction system: it wasn’t used at all since so many tulips are provided. It can be partly attributed to the characteristics of the playtesters, as they are all moderately conservative investors. To quote some of the interesting conversations that happened during gameplay:

“You’re in full position now, that’s dangerous!”

“The trend is not clear, I’ll wait and see for now.”

Some remarks from the players during the gameplay seem to reveal that they were able to learn some aspects of the “cause” and “change” objectives; for example, a player commented “You won’t lose if you don’t invest” while another player commented, “You won’t earn if you don’t participate.” However, during the debriefing after the playtesting sessions, playtesters didn’t see a strong connection between this game and historical concepts. While answering how they would describe the game to their kids, they unanimously used “investment education” as a keyword. And according to their account:

“Probably it’s because of my mode of thinking, but I really see this more as an investment game rather than a history game.”

Another interesting thing that I observed is that I purposefully introduced a narrative for the host to emphasize the “account” and “empathy” objective so that the host always sounds positive in the reports and may offer biased comments. However, none of our mature investors were fooled by the host, and some even made a comment like

“Ahh, all those noises from the market!”

Insights & Potential Changes

  • The context setup could be more clear, and the fantasy and role-play elements can be expanded that players don’t have to all be rich merchants, let them pick their roles. Some interactions between special events and specific roles can be added, e.g., nobles need to attend wedding and planters can attend the gathering, nobles can be required to buy a specific amount of tulips and even loan money from others with interest rate if they don’t have enough cash, and planters can purchase tulips with cheaper price but will also lose more in bad weathers, etc.
  • If there are ≥ 4 players, they can be split into teams and discuss among the groups to address disagreement and reach consensus, which should shorten the length of gameplay and also increase interactions.
  • Let there be only n tulips at each round instead of 5n to motivate the auction system. Or let the host decide how many tulips to offer at each round (by eyeballing each players’ condition), but this will add some burden to the host.
  • Reduce the range of price change in the beginning, to enable players to familiarize themselves with the game, but make the price curve fluctuate more in the middle to make it more playable.
  • Increase the initial amount of money to enable the players to discover more strategies. (Some players wanted to monopolize one species of the flower but failed because they started with very little money. Some other players said they would like to practice short selling, financial leverage, or crowdfunding in this game, which all sound interesting but may be less relevant to the higher-order historical objectives).
  • Use some other products like chocolate or toys if this game will be played by small kids.

Final Reflection

If I can do it again, I wouldn’t even spend any time creating the cards for the price war game. The meat in this game is really the game rules and the design of events & price curve, and the calculation of price can be done simply using paper and pen. Dealing cards may even be harder than purely manipulating numbers and writing mathematical formulas (at least for adults, need to test if it’s the same for children), and especially given the practical constraints of remote testing, the cards are not as useful for a one-time game like this.

Part of the translated handout
The written transaction notes by playtesters

The recruitment of participants was surprisingly hard, and getting to your target population is even harder, so I have to make different language versions of each prototype and test them on a very specific population (adults in business), which may have given me very distinct feedback from actual children.

Twisting variables in the game is also hard, like how many tulips should you make available to motivate the auction system, or how steep should the price curve be to enable most participation, these numbers indeed have an influence on actual game dynamics, so making them up is very hard.

Another difficult aspect in design is the combination of realistic histories and fantasy gameplay, improper combination can cause confusion and misinterpretation, getting overly realistic may make the game less playable and require much more research efforts. However, it’s surprisingly easy to get people to engage in the game and my playtesters are able to enjoy it even when the rules had some flaws.

A major issue that will be left unaddressed in this game is that it’s a disposable (one-time) game. We can of course add more themes and different events but the design effort will be proportional since some events only make sense when placed in a specific order and there are some cross-referencing embedded in the design; for example, the price of a rare, new species will increase the most in nobles’ wedding, and when the road construction let companies discovered a suburban plantation, they may want to purchase land there as well in later rounds.

Unlike games like monopoly where each gameplay will be different even with the same set of rules, if more gameplays are needed for players to practice higher-order historical thinking, the design required is enormous. I’d like to come up with some solutions with it if I have more time, or probably it’s just the inherent nature of this game and is thus unsolvable (time to write some scripts to autogenerate the game events).

If I’m going to continue on this project, I’ll also specifically examine how well aligned is the game with the educational objectives of “change,” “empathy,” “cause” and “account:”

  • Change: changes in history should be considered in terms of a continuous state of affairs, not an “all or nothing” event. The same change may have different significance within different themes.
  • Empathy: understand past social practices or actions as making sense in the way people saw things and the circumstances in which they had to make decisions.
  • Cause: history has a network of relationships, and causes are those without which a resulting event would not have occurred; what counts as a cause is partly determined on the question. Causes in history may be deterministic but sometimes just by chance.
  • Accounts: accounts demand selection, and a position from which selection is made. A point of view is necessary; perspective-free accounts are not possible.

Because my playtesters were all mature adults in business, I wasn’t able to observe much improvement, and whether the lessons learned in games (if any) can be transferred to real-life history classrooms is another big unknown. In fact, many of the design decisions were arbitrarily made, but if I can evaluate the educational efficacy of them I’ll definitely be able to save my time for more important designs. For example, if the deliberate cross-referencing design of the events (which target the educational objective of “change”) is not effective at all, I can make the game events into a set of cards so that they can be randomized and replayed several times.



Qianou Ma

I go by Christina too, and I’m a Ph.D. student at CMU HCII. Find my Chinese blogs at WeChat 一千只海鸥