How to play board games in lockdown

What would a board game be without the occasional outburst of rage? [Source:]
It’s been a tricky year for getting together for board games, serious or otherwise, so I thought I’d share some tricks.

There are several board and card games which have free online versions, for example:

  1. Settlers of Catan: at you can play with strangers or friends (base map is free, expansions are paid)
  2. Codenames: at Horsepaste – with Zoom/Teams/etc. in the background
  3. Ticket to Ride: available (paid) on Steam
  4. Cards Against Humanity: play at All Bad Cards or be a guinea pig and test out new cards (against the computer) at Cards Against Humanity Labs
  5. Board Game Arena: huge number of games available including Hanabi, Love Letter and Carcassonne (you can join for free, larger choice of games in the premium version)

Alternatively, there are Tabletop Simulator (paid) and Tabletopia (free), which are “tabletop game simulation engines” which can run any game you build, with virtual dice, boards, counters and even flipping the table in rage (Tabletop Simulator). You can build any game you can think of in there, and also download games built by others.

An easier way to play is Miro or Google Jamboards. These are effectively virtual whiteboards where you can create elements (images, notes, shapes etc) which others can move around and play with. You can also draw. I find these invaluable for teaching with games – though there’s no built-in dice or shuffling, so you need to have honest players!

Using Rapid Games Design to help groups tackle messy problems

Imagine you’re going to a one-day workshop to discuss a key issue for your organisation or project. However, the problem is very ‘21st century’: it’s messy, complex and there are widely varied ideas about what the problem itself actually is!  For example, “how do we create a resilient and equitable food system under the threat of climate change?”.  The organisers might well have been pulling their hair out trying to come up with a format that caters for a diverse group of people who come with conflicting strong opinions, opinions they doubt, or no opinion at all.

With only one day available, how can we help participants frame and discuss this challenge? Is it possible to deliver durable new shared understandings in an immersive, inclusive, thoughtful and light-hearted way?

An RGD kit featuring the ever-popular plastic rhino.

Rapid Games Design attempts to solve this problem. The approach, developed by Bruce Lankford and myself, involves small groups of participants designing (but not playing) table-top games using nothing more than the groups’ ideas, paper and pens, and games materials (e.g. counters, dice, money and the occasional plastic rhino).

During the workshop, participants build up and question their understanding of the problem as a group.  The four steps are: an introduction to games designing, the game designing itself, the groups presenting their game to the whole workshop, and then a plenary workshop discussion on the topic.

The games create a common world or language which participants use to talk productively about deep issues. For example, the decision about what is in players’ power to do and what comes from a chance card stack leads to discussions about where players assume system boundaries to be, and avoids asking the question in a direct and polarising way. By comparing the various games produced participants can dive into the wide variety of perspectives on the problem which often exists. Facilitators can also reflect on the day and the games in order to then circulate a follow-up communication.

Interested? Read more on the Rapid Games Designing website.

More information on the approach can be found here and a recent paper on the application of the method, applied to several recent workshops is located here. The citation for the paper is Lankford, B.A.; Craven, J. Rapid Games Designing; Constructing a Dynamic Metaphor to Explore Complex Systems and Abstract Concepts. Sustainability 2020, 12, 7200.

Based on a text by Bruce Lankford.

Developing the Planetary Health Game

Feeding the global population while protecting the natural world is one of the greatest challenges facing us today. One in three people worldwide are affected by some form of malnutrition – hunger, obesity or micronutrient deficiency. Agriculture is key for food security, but is both a driver and a victim of environmental degradation.

The Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security at Edinburgh University brings people together to work on this complex global challenge. Postgraduate taught programmes at the Academy need innovative teaching methods to help students navigate the extremely complex trade-offs involved in feeding the world. Games are increasingly used as immersive teaching tools, where players can experiment and learn together. And so we developed the “Planetary Health Game”, where players battle to keep people, the planet and their own businesses healthy.

To develop the game, we began with a day workshop where we worked out the most important message of the game, and then got straight into prototyping our ideas. I then took these away and built them into our first playable prototype.

At our first play-testing session we played the game with several players aged 8 to I’d-rather-not-say, from board game novices to veterans. We did very well at first. Buoyed up by our (misplaced) confidence, we adjusted the rules to make things a little harder. The second time – catastrophe! Another small tweak and the last couple of plays were neither too easy nor too hard.

There also seemed to be too much information in the game, so we hid some of it away. Trying to guess together what the impacts of the policies would be was what the game needed to get people talking – which is its real job. The final version of the game is now being printed ready for the beginning of the MSc programme.

Interested in developing your own game? I can help in lots of ways, from kick-off workshops to beginning-to-end game design – just get in touch!

Fruit and Veg vs. the Future on tour

In Fruit and Veg vs the Future, your challenge is to keep up supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables to the inhabitants of Main Island in a fiendishly difficult future scenario set for you by another team, whilst they struggle for survival in a future set by you. The game explores how uncertain future water risks affect the fruit and veg system, and how we can make it more resilient.

I developed Fruit and Veg vs. the Future for the research project “Increasing resilience to water-related risks in the UK fresh fruit and vegetable supply system“, with colleagues from the University of Oxford, Cranfield University and the University of East Anglia. We are interested in finding out how future water risks might affect different actors in the UK fresh fruit and veg system, and how their responses affect the system as a whole.

To answer some of these questions, we used the game for two workshops involving 22 participants including growers, retailers, processors and government. Each group played the game twice: the first game representing “business-as-usual”, and the second game trying to improve on the status quo.

We saw dramatic futures play out: three-year droughts, cut-throat competition, and innovative collaboration. Playing the game, participants were free to step out of their professional roles and think as a group about different ways things could be done. In participants’ words, “the concept was alien, but proved [them] wrong” and “delivered a lot more in thinking and understanding than [they] expected.”.

Within our research project, we are combining the results of the workshop with interviews and other data to build up a picture of how resilient our fruit and veg supply really is, and how we can make it more resilient to whatever tomorrow throws at it.

If you are interested in the game or would like to play it in your organisation, please get in touch. We would be very happy to hear from you!

Inside the factory: quick card deck prototyping II

Sometimes you might want to make decks of cards at home to try out ideas, but you still want them to look professional. Cutting them out by hand either takes a long time, has messy results, or both. You can use a paper cutting machine (I describe steps for the Silhouette Cameo here) to cut the cards automatically, meaning less cutting and more playing.


  1. Create your cards on this Cards template (do not change the margins). You can create the cards following the steps or paste your own table of cards. The template includes registration marks – marks that the cutter reads to know where it is.
  2. Go to Options -> Advanced -> Printing and uncheck “Scale content for A4”.
  3. Print the cards using “Finish and merge” from the “Mailings” tab.
  4. Download and extract the card cutting template and use it to cut the card sheets using a Silhouette Cameo paper cutter. If you have another cutter you may be able to convert the format of the template here.

Inside the factory: quick card deck prototyping I

Making games inevitably involves lots of testing and remaking. However, cards can be time-consuming to produce. I use Mail Merge inside Word to automatically generate cards and then a paper-cutting machine to cut them out. You get good quality prototype cards without going mad checking whether you typed the right text on all the cards. You can easily duplicate cards, reprint subsets of cards and update your card design.

Cards template is here if you want to get started straight away, otherwise follow the steps.


  1. Design your card on paper to decide which elements it’ll need (colour, title, image, flavour text, points…).
  2. Create a database in Access or similar with one column for each element and fill in one row for each card. To make multiple copies of a card, copy the line in the database.
  3. You now have two options:
    1. Use the Cards template, and click “Select recipients” on the “Mailings” tab to link it to your database (the table you set up in step 2).
    2. Open Word, and on the Mailings tab click Start Mail Merge and choose Labels. You’ll be taken through a wizard where you’ll set your label size (I do 9 per A4 page) and your recipient list (the table you set up in step 2).
  4. Design your card on the first label, using “Insert Merge Field” to add text from your database. To handle colours and images, see the tips below.
  5. Click “Update Labels” to copy your design to all the cards, and “Preview Results” to toggle between the text and the field names.
  6. To print your cards, click “Finish and Merge”. Here you can print the cards or save them as a PDF.
  7. To cut the cards automatically, see the next post on cutting cards with a cutting machine.


You can use a database field to add images to your cards.


  1. Save all your images to one folder, and give them easy-to-recognise names (cow.jpg, person.jpg…).
  2. Create two new columns in your database: “Picture” and “PictureLocation”. Set the types to “Text” and “Calculated” respectively in Access Design View.
  3. Switch to Data View. Put the names of the images for each card in the “image” column (e.g. cow, person…).
  4. Right-click the “PictureLocation” heading and click “Modify expression”. Fill in an expression to add the file folder and extension to the image name, for example “img\”+[Image]+”.png”. This example works for png images stored in a folder called img. Note that the img folder must be in the same folder as the Word document.
  5. Follow the steps here to add the images to your labels.


You can colour parts of your label differently depending on a value in the database (the type of card, for example). A how-to can be found here.

Printing subsets of cards

Changed some cards but not others? You can filter the cards by any of the database fields by clicking “Select recipients”.

Teaching myself to teach serious game design

I’ve recently come back from IHE-Delft where I was teaching on the third edition of the “Serious Gaming for the Water Sector” summer course. I’m very lucky to be able to spend a week a year having fun with bright, creative people and piles of game bits and pieces and call it “work”!

The course has changed quite a bit since I organised the first edition in 2016. It’s a week-long course aimed at all IHE-Delft postgraduate students, and looks at how to use games to solve water-sector problems – and how to design your own.

The first year (2016), I was quite new to teaching and had a mortal fear of ending up in front of a class with nothing to say. Every hour was planned. Workshops, guest lectures, lectures by me – you name it, it was in the schedule, and had been meticulously prepared with slides and worksheets and cards and activities and and and…

This first edition did go well and I got really positive feedback. However, some participants commented that they’d like to have had more time to work on designing their own games. I took that on board and the second year, I stripped out some planned activities and devoted more time to the “Game Design Challenge” – the game design activity that took up most of the week. However, I got the same feedback again – the participants wanted more time to work on their own.

So, this year I took the plunge and devoted the whole week (bar an introduction and a short theory workshop on the Monday) to the Game Design Challenge, with other small bits of content brought in informally as the game design progressed. I wondered if the lack of theory would hamper the students, or if they’d feel they’d been “thrown in at the deep end”. Well – no! The games from this year were some of the best I’ve seen, and the reflections on game design in general given during the final presentations were also more developed than I’d seen before.

It’s made me realise that most of the content that might be given in a lecture will come up organically during the process anyway, and that when students come up against it on a real project it’s more likely to stick. And I think I might’ve got over my nothing-to-say phobia.

You can read more about the course here.

If you’re thinking about teaching your own serious game design course, I really recommend the Triadic Game Design workshop, the Systems Thinking Playbook (or the Climate Change Systems Thinking Playbook (pdf)), and for building up your game materials collection (no sponsorship, I just really like the site)! Also feel free to contact me if you’d like any pointers.

Reversing serious gaming: letting the players design the games

If your industry was a game, what would it look like? We asked over 100 people from the South African fruit industry this question and gave them two hours and heaps of game components to answer it. By getting industry experts to express themselves through game design, we were able to open up lots of underlying assumptions about the sector that usually go unvoiced. Idea inspired by conversations with Bruce Lankford.

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“Can you keep your crops watered?” at Edinburgh Science Festival

31st March – 4th April 2018. Edinburgh Science Festival, Edinburgh, UK.

In the River Basin Game, players discover what it’s like to live upstream or downstream along a river, as they compete (or cooperate!) with other players to irrigate their farms.

When I arrived in Edinburgh in October 2018 I heard about the Edinburgh International Science Festival and thought the game would make a great drop-in event for kids. It was accepted and so I set about building a portable, child-friendly version of the original game by Bruce Lankford, using an enormous vinyl banner for the base with wooden parts attached with velcro.

Playing the River Basin Game at Edinburgh International Science Festival 2018



When I saw in the programme that I’d be competing with 3D-printed flying robots at the same venue, I did wonder if the kids would be interested in rolling marbles around a table. However, my doubts were wrong and the game was thronged for five days solid, with plenty of repeat customers!

I wish I’d had the time to write down or think about some of the games that went on during the Festival, because every group of players were different and many fascinating things happened. One upstream farmer dammed all the water into his farm, and responded to criticism that he was flooded and everyone else was thirsty with:

“No – I’m going to sell them the water. But it’ll be expensive, because I’ve got all of it!”.

I was amazed, because I hadn’t mentioned a word about money, and that’s quite advanced thinking from a 10-year-old farmer who had only been in farming for about 10 minutes. I fear he might be my boss by the time he grows up!

We also had little farmers who organised the whole basin to get enough water for everyone, and evicted farmers who didn’t play by the rules. I even had to break up the beginnings of a physical fight over water allocations – not ideal for a weekend museum event I’ll admit, but it shows how well the players connected with the game!


In which I discover the River Basin Game

While working at IHE Delft (a water research institute), as a game-y type of person I was approached to do something for children for the Open Day. I also spoke with colleagues who wanted to do something about water conflicts and thought maybe a game would be a good idea. During this conversation someone mentioned the River Basin Game, something I’d never heard of. She took me upstairs and pointed out something which looked like an enormous wooden board leant against a wall.

Turning it over, I saw that on the other side was a river basin with farms made of wood. “Water” marbles roll down the river and the “farmers” can divert it into their farms, trying to get enough water to irrigate their crops without disadvantaging downstream farmers. This game was developed by Bruce Lankford as a tool for working with farmers in regions with upstream-downstream water conflicts in Africa, and he had donated this copy to IHE. It looked a lot of fun so I bought 200 marbles and decided to give it a go.

We showed up at the Open Day armed with case studies and examples ready for a day of serious play and discussion with adult visitors. However, they never got a look in, as the kids loved the game so much!

I realised that day how easily kids can get to grips with complicated issues related to upstream-downstream equality – and how honest they can be. I remember one exchange in particular, between a child and her father. She had the upstream farm in the game, and had diverted the whole river to irrigate her land. It went like this:

Dad: Careful, if you do that you’ll get all the water and there’ll be none left for anyone else.

Child (rolling eyes): Yes, I know. That’s the whole point!