Designing a Learning Game? Play these 3 Games First


At Bottom-Line Performance, we have a “learning game design peer group” that meets a few times per year. I started the group three years ago to help build game design skills and to foster deeper knowledge of the power of games as learning tools. People who design games need to play games to gain perspective and understanding of core dynamics, game mechanics, and game elements and how these all weave together to create a good or poor game experience.

Here are three great games we have played within our peer group. All three are commercially available; one is marketed explicitly as a learning game. I’ve made a few comments about each one to help people understand the value of playing and evaluating the game design of each one


This is a cooperative game rather than a competitive game, which is one reason to play it and evaluate it. It is a complex strategy game where the players work together to stop the spread of four diseases. It’s a difficult game to play—and difficult to learn—but it’s also incredibly fun. I think playing it brings out a few key questions a learning game designer should ask:

  • What’s the impact to learning the actual knowledge or skill when the rules (game mechanics) are complex?
  • When does rule complexity actually enhance learning? When rules are part of understanding process complexity, it can be a good lesson.
  • How would you debrief an experience such as this one with players?
  • Is a game such as this realistic to create for the workplace if players don’t have at least 1/2-day to a full day to play and then debrief the experience?

Ticket to Ride

There are a ton of versions of this game, each with slightly tweaked game rules. The basic game goal, regardless of version, is to score the most points by executing the most lucrative train routes.  We explored mechanics that made this game a bit different. These are key questions to ask as you evaluate this game:

  • You didn’t have full knowledge of how you were doing in comparison to your opponents as you didn’t know what tickets they were trying to complete. How could you use this concept in a learning game?
  • There were no limits as to the number of cards you could hold in your hand. You could acquire unlimited resources but you had to give up the opportunity to create a route if you opted to collect a resource. How could you use this concept of choosing between two good actions as a concept in a learning game?
  • You had to gamble a bit when deciding to take a ticket and attempt to complete it. If you failed to complete a ticket by the game’s end, you had to deduct the value of that ticket from your score. Again, how could you leverage this concept within a learning game?

Robot Turtles

This game is actually designed for ages 4 and up. It’s a cooperative game as well. No competition involved at all. It is a bona fide learning game designed to teach players programming logic. You have a “game master” who moves turtles on a board at the direction of the players. The turtles and the game master are a metaphor for programming code and a computer. (The computer only does what the code specifies.).

We had a group of non-programmers play the game, which was designed to have several “levels” of play. As players mastered a basic level, the game master introduced a more complex element. Key questions we discussed:

  • Would players “get” the comparisons to the true skill being taught without a facilitator/instructor making the connections with them? (We decided “no,” which brings up an interesting question about using a learning game as a stand-alone event where there is no set-up or debrief of the experience.)
  • Was the use of levels effective in helping people get started playing fast and then building complexity as people got proficient? We decided yes. We strongly advocate learning game designers to consider the use of a tutorial level or advancing levels of complexity to make it easier for players to learn.

Continue the lesson with Play to Learn

Want to dive deeper? Pick up a copy of Play to Learn: Everything You Need to Know About Designing Effective Learning Games. I co-authored this book with Dr. Karl Kapp, another expert in game-based learning. This book bridges the gap between instructional design and game design; it’s written to grow your game literacy and strengthen crucial game design skills.