POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #56: Lecturing on Game Design at the Technical University

“You were predestined for this, Jeff,” Hartmut wrote in a reply to an email sent out to several Berlin game designers. It was a request from Berlin’s Technical University. Their first-year architecture students were beginning the semester with a project on board game design, and they were looking for a game designer to give a lecture on the subject. The faculty had contacted the Spieleautorenzunft (Game Designer’s Association), which, in turn, forwarded the request to me and the other Berlin members of the organization. The problem was that the semester would begin the same week as the Essen SPIEL game fair, which all of us were attending. “They are not flexible in the date of the lecture,” the email read, but thanks to Hartmut’s comment, I decided to see if I could convince them otherwise. After all, who would be better to lecture to architecture students about game design than a former architect who was now a game designer? After writing to the faculty, they agreed and postponed the lecture to the week after Essen.

I enjoy the academic atmosphere so much that I could easily envision a career as a university professor—or, at least, as a professional student. And nothing excites me more in a university than perusing the architecture studios, meeting young students from all over the world honing their creative skills, as I squeeze in between the myriad of drawings and models that are always a “work in progress.” It is especially exhilarating to see the wide diversity of design solutions that are brought out for the final presentations. In fact, I enjoy attending the Göttingen Game Designer’s Meeting for the very reason that it reminds me of the studio setting. Following is the lecture, which I wrote in German and have finally translated into English.


Architecture was once described as the inescapable art. Play is also inescapable, and it follows that game design, too, is an inescapable art. By some sources, the human race has been designing and playing games longer than it has been writing words.

A Brief History of Game Design

Extinct Games: There are early games for which we have archeological evidence, but the games themselves are known as “extinct,” as the rules have been lost. The Egyptian game, Senet, is one of the earliest board games to be discovered and dates to 3500 BCE. Most likely, it is a form of racing game, perhaps a forerunner of Backgammon, but exactly how it is played will probably never be known.1

Evolved Games: Not every game that originated centuries ago, however, is considered extinct. But although we still have the rules to these games, they are probably played much differently today than they were originally. That is because they have evolved over centuries. The rules were modified by multiple designers over different time periods, and oftentimes these designers lived in different countries, modifying the rules to fit their own cultures.

One example is Pachisi, which originated in India in about 500 BCE. It is one of the earliest racing games to which we have rules. Players roll sticks comparable to dice in order to try to bring their own game pieces around the board and safely into their respective “home bases.” By landing on an opponent’s piece, it is possible to send it back to its starting position. The game was later adapted by western countries in the 20th Century: England produced Ludo, the U.S. released Sorry!, and Germany named its version Mensch ärgere Dich nicht.2

Other ancient games such as Chess and Backgammon have similar histories, having evolved over hundreds of years through the influence of multiple cultures to become modern games that are quite different than their original versions.3

Not all games take this long to evolve, however. The Landlord Game was invented in 1903 and was transformed over a period of only 30 years into Monopoly, the game that is now played all over the world. It was originally created by a woman named Elizabeth Magie, who meant it as a social criticism that would draw attention to the evils of corporate monopolies. Her printed copies of the game became a cult hit, especially among economics professors and university students. Many who were introduced to the game made their own copies, and several even modified the rules to the game. In 1934, Charles Darrow was introduced to one of these versions, titled Monopoly, and he gave the game its well-known graphical look. Later bought and produced by Parker Brothers, Monopoly was ironically played more for the fun of making money and putting other people out of business than for the social message of The Landlord Game.4

The German Board Game Market

In the 1980’s—just when video games were beginning to become popular—the board game market in Germany began to explode.

The German-style board game emerged as its own genre of game: multi-player games designed for families with the following qualities:

– for 3-5 players

– a short playing time: 30-90 minutes

– relatively simple rules – constructive rather than conflict-oriented: “building” games rather than “conquest/takeover” games

– thematic rather than abstract

– and the designer’s name was on the box, just like the author’s name on the cover of a book.

Furthermore, a group of journalists founded the Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) award in 1979 to promote original game designs. In 1995, The Settlers of Catan won the award and became the most successful German board game of all time, eventually selling millions of copies worldwide. Due to the success of Settlers, the Spiel des Jahres award has become such a successful promotional tool that the winner, brandishing the recognizable “red pawn,” can normally expect 100-fold sales due to the increased exposure. It has, in fact, become the main goal of most German publishers and designers to release a game that will be picked by the jury that year.

Today, over 500 board games and card games are released in the German market each year. Most sell a few thousand copies and are quickly forgotten, while a few win the Spiel des Jahres or develop a following and are reprinted year after year.

Boardgames lining the walls of the Spielweise gaming cafe in Berlin, with owner Michael.

A Definition of Board Games

A board game is a created world designed for the interaction of the people playing it, with goals and limits defined by a set of rules. In many ways, this is architecture, which is also created with its own boundary conditions and defined space for the interactions between its inhabitants.

And one of the ways in which game design and architectural design are similar is in the design process: how the designer takes an idea from its initial concept to a finished building or board game.

The Process of Board Game Design

1) Program: Defining the Goals & Limits:

Any created work always begins with a program. The program is made up of the specific design goals for the project. For an architect, most of the program is provided by outside sources:

– The client & users of the building share their needs and goals.

– The site, building codes and budget determine important limits.

In addition, the architect has specific design goals that he or she wants to further with the project, in addition to meeting the client’s needs.

Some game designers work in a similar way, designing games specifically for a program provided by a publisher. Usually, this program is connected to a license (for a film, book, television series, etc.) that has been bought by the publisher, and this license defines most of the game’s goals and limits.

Most freelance game designers in Germany, however, are free to determine their own program. They determine the goals of the game they want to design, and, at the beginning, most of the limits are self-imposed.

These are some of the questions a game designer must ask when determining a game’s goals:

– What do you want the players to accomplish?

– How do you want them to interact with the game and with each other?

– What kind of story or narrative do you want the game to tell?

– Is there a theme?

– What kinds of materials do you want to use?

– Who is your target audience (target publisher, included)?

As the designer begins to answer these questions, he or she must also begin imposing limits to the design, even though it may be tempting to want complete creative freedom. Robert McKee, at one of his well-known seminars for screenwriters, said, “That desire to be free—for an artist—is one of the most suicidal notions you can have. You do not want to be free. What you wish is to impose upon yourself creative limitations.”5

Limits challenge us, and they give us focus. One of my former professors of architecture, Mark Rakatansky, once used a familiar metaphor to describe the benefit of limits when he said that “most walls have windows…to something better.” Some of the goals for a game design already hold within them implicit limits. The target audience, for example, might limit the game’s complexity and also its playing time, especially if the goal is to design a game for children or families.

As an example, several years ago, I set out to create the game, Heartland (Eine Frage der Ähre), set in Iowa, the place where I grew up. The goals of the design were to make a family game that had enough decisions and strategy for hobby gamers (target group), that was representational of Iowa and farming in some way (theme), and that provided ways to improve a player’s own position while still being able to thwart the plans of opponents (interaction). I also wanted it to have an element of building up or developing (narrative) and I favored using a tile-laying mechanism (materials).

The German version of Heartland.

2) Research:

It is important for a designer to look at “case studies.” To be a successful architect, one needs to study the built environments of the past and present. For a game designer, it means that one needs to play a lot of games. What has already been done? How were earlier designs adapted or improved upon? What is possible, regardless of what has been done before? It is important to look at a new game design within its rich historical context.

An architect should also study another kind of context: the location of a new project, whether it be in an urban or rural setting. Daniel Liebeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, for example, draws from the dual historical contexts of the city of Berlin and its Jewish history. Hanns-Peter Herz, chairman of the Society for a Jewish Museum, praised Liebeskind’s design, “The intersecting lines of history, which coexist but nevertheless do not always run parallel, and the intersections between the non-Jewish and Jewish sides convey a complete picture of history.”6

For the game designer, the theme can also be more than a setting intended to make the game more appealing. It can be a context that leads to specific design strategies. In the case of the game, Heartland, this meant researching the different kinds of crops and farming techniques. Although the game is relatively abstracted, there are several instances where that thematic context informed the design, as with a “crop rotation rule,” for example.

In my forthcoming game, Nieuw Amsterdam, it began as an abstract mechanism, but the historic theme of the founding of that colony became a driving force in the development of the game. In fact, the game was eventually based on an historical irony that was impressed upon me during the research phase of the design: how the early Dutch settlers needed contact with the Native Americans for their lucrative fur trade, yet at the same time, were pushing them farther inland as their colonies expanded, ultimately straining that trading relationship.

3) Inspiration, the necessary 10%:

I have a collection of sketchbooks filled with ideas, designs and thoughts for architecture and games.

During the program and research phases, it is important to allow oneself to be inspired. And it is even more important to write it down! As an architect and as a game designer, I have always taken sketchbooks with me, so that wherever I was and whenever inspiration struck me, I could record it for later reference.

4) Drafts, Sketches, Models:

A blank piece of paper can be intimidating. Where does one begin? There is a good example of learning how to overcome this fear from the film, Finding Forrester. In it, the experienced writer teaches his young prodigy, “The first rule of writing…is to write. You write your first draft with your heart, and the second draft, you write with your head.” When the student continues to struggle, his teacher provides him with a sample of his own work, and tells him to start copying this “until he begins to find his own words.”

Sketches for Heartland

As a new game designer, it is often helpful to begin with something you already know until you begin to find your own mechanisms and themes. My first game designs were really nothing more than exercises, as they were too derivative to be considered my own inventions. At the same time, however, there is truly “nothing new under the sun,” and every modern board game borrows from the past in some way. As with the architect, the game designer must creatively reassemble known parts to form an original whole.

A prototype for Heartland.

At some point, however, a game idea needs to begin to take form. I begin with flowchart diagrams of rules, sketches of components, and finally move towards making a rough, physical prototype. Because I am a visual person and like the tactile element of board games, I do this quite early in the process. I can actually think about the rules, the mechanisms and the gameplay more when I am making components and moving them around, even though I am not yet actually playing the game.

5) Playtesting

Outside opinions are absolutely necessary when making “inescapable art.” Architecture students have faculty and independent juries to critique their projects. For game designers, this role is filled by playtesters. Their feedback is invaluable, pushing the designer to improve the game—or put it away and start over. It is important, then, to have different types of groups playtest a design, in order to receive reliable feedback. And it is equally important to filter that feedback through the design’s original goals.

Playtesting Alea Iacta Est with Benji, Alea publisher Stefan Brück, co-designer Bernd Eisenstein, and Carsten.

Not every suggestion from a playtester is possible to impliment. Just as one must pick and choose design elements from early brainstorming sessions, the designer must also choose carefully which suggestions will influence his or her further development of the game.

When it is finally finished, or, in other words, when playtesting no longer warrants further adjustments, it is then time to look for a publisher. And if a publisher is interested, there is usually another round of playtesting from their own groups, and further changes are often requested.

6) Production

Finally, after designing a game, playtesting and modifying it, selling it, and working together with the publisher, the final form of the game is produced and put on the market.

The finished production for Aber bitte mit Sahne (Piece o’ Cake).

I’ve described the design process as a linear process, something that looks good on a Power Point, but it usually does not work that way. This is probably a more accurate diagram:

II. Elements of Game Design:

In his well-known Ten Books on Architecture, Vitruvius outlined the three elements of architecture: Commodity, Firmness and Delight.7  For game design, I will instead outline these three elements: Rules, Components, and Experience.

Rules: The rules are not unlike an architectural space for the occupants to move about. You want them to have a sense of freedom and exploration in your game system, but you need this balanced with limits. Ultimately, you are also controlling how much they can do.

There is a balance between freedom and control. Too much freedom means too many options for the players, and they will feel overwhelmed. Too many boundaries, however, means that they will feel too constrained within the game system.

The theme of the game is also an integral part of the rules. The theme or concept has the potential to tie everything together. It can make the rules more intuitive for the target audience, easier for players to remember, and thus, easier for them to feel immersed in the game experience as the rules become more transparent.

Components: Materiality is an important part of a board game, in contrast to a computer game. The game’s components must also be consistent with its theme, its context, and its goal. The aesthetics of the components and their tactile nature also contribute to the experience of the game. Most of all, the game’s usability often depends on the design of the components.

Because of the importance of materiality–even for my prototypes, I keep a reserve of various playing pieces.

Experience: Board games are made for interaction between players. It is not unlike the architectural design of public spaces. At the same time, the goal is also to encourage interaction with the game itself. For this to happen, there needs to be meaningful choices for the players that are limited enough to create tension. Players need to feel immersed in the game’s concept or theme, and they need to feel that this is a meaningful experience.

Oftentimes, the “fun factor” is mentioned here, but I would not go so far as to say that a game must be fun in order to be meaningful, even though that is often the case. Films, for example, do not necessarily need to be fun in order to be meaningful. Can board games, too, be used as an artistic medium in the same way? I believe they can.

With Nieuw Amsterdam, for example, I have intentionally included historical ironies in the design, which I would hope encourage the players to think about these events while playing the game. Perhaps some of them will even research those events further, in much the same way a film that is “based on a true story” encourages one to research the true story.

I have also tried experimenting with using the medium as an art form without attempting to produce something commercially viable. In War Game, for example, the players are opponents in a modern conflict, with the choice each round to play either aggressively or passively. By attacking, a player may weaken his opponent on the board, but he also strengthens her hand, giving her more options to strike back. When the game ends, the players must jointly decide who the winner(s) and loser(s) are. The game’s components and mechanics make references to classical conquest games while, at the same time, critiquing them.

Trying to stretch the perception of the board game design medium with my non-commercial design, War Game.

All three of these elements—rules, components and experience—are vital to the game design process. If the rules are poorly devised or structured, there is no foundation on which the game can stand. If the components are not usable, they distract from the experience of playing the game. And if the experience is not meaningful, players will not be drawn to interact with the environment you have created.


One can learn much from architecture when designing games. And I think that architects can also learn something from game design.

Rory O’Conner & Anita Murphy, game designers from Belfast, Ireland, and creators of Rory’s Story Cubes, showed me a game they are working on whose purpose is to teach players how to design for others. This should be the goal of both the architect and the game designer. We can begin with designing something that satisfies our own goals, but unless others desire to use our buildings or play our games, our work cannot be considered successful. We cannot afford to design egotistically, because our designs are ultimately not only for ourselves.

My hope is that when you design your games—and, in the future, your buildings—you will not only have your personal goals in mind, but especially the needs of the people who will ultimately interact within that architectural space you are creating.

After the lecture, I had the privilege of critiquing the various designs the students were working on.  Their assignment was to take elements from several different board games with which they were familiar, and use those elements in a new design. Following are photographs of the design teams and their work:


1 Piccione, Peter A. (July/August 1980). “In Search of the Meaning of Senet”. Archaeology: 55–58.

2 Glonnegger, Erwin: Das Spiele-Buch: Brett- und Legespiele aus aller Welt; Herkunft, Regeln, und Geschichte. Ravensburger Buchverlag Otto Maier GmbH, Ravebsburg 2009.

3 R. C. Bell: The Board Game Book. The Knapp Press, Los Angeles 1979.

4 Tim Walsh: The Playmakers: Amazing Origins of Timeless Toys. Keys Publishing, Sarasota, Florida, 2004.

5 Robert McKee (October 2008). “Story Seminar – The Setting“

6 Heise, Volker und Holstein, Susanne: Realisierungswettbewerb Erweiterung Berlin Museum mit Abteilung Jüdisches Museum: Voraussetzungen, Verfahren, Ergebnisse. Senatsverwaltung für Bau- und Wohnungswesen, Berlin 1990.

7 D. Rowland – T.N. Howe: Vitruvius. Ten Books on Architecture. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1999.

About jeffinberlin

Jeffrey D. Allers lives in Berlin and has worked there as an architect and youth pastor. He is a published game designer and has been writing "Postcards From Berlin" since 2005 on GameWire, BoardgameNews and now, the Opinionated Gamers. He enjoys writing about game design and his experiences as an American expatriate living in the midst of German boardgame culture.
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5 Responses to POSTCARD FROM BERLIN #56: Lecturing on Game Design at the Technical University

  1. Larry Levy says:

    Very interesting article, Jeff. I hope your lecture inspired the students to come up with some entertaining games!

  2. gamingleet says:

    Great article. I’d be interested in how your talk we received by the students. Did it inspire any specific reactions? I think the overlap of trying to shape experience in an open framework that will ultimately be defined by the user is a fascinating parallel.

  3. Great article – thoroughly enjoyed reading it. That student design third from the top looks fascinating – did it develop into a good game ?

  4. jeffinberlin says:

    Unfortunately, it takes more than one lecture and a two-week project to turn out a great game. For me, it took years of practice–and throwing away the first few attempts. None of the students told me they had designed games before, so these were their first attempts (and only one student was familiar with typical German board games, but, in all fairness, it was a very international group).

    However, several of them have come to the Spielwiese gaming cafe where our Berlin designer’s group meets, so there is hope that some of them might continue to work on their game design skills. The last group, in particular, kept in touch with me and wanted to continue to work on their design.

    There were some creative ideas there, as one can see from the pictures. I think that many of them used too much from the “known” designs they were using as case studies, and that limited their thinking too much. I tried to encourage them to think outside the box, but it is difficult to do until one has seen more of what is possible. Hopefully, they will discover more at the Spielwiese and play some of those games in between drawing and model-building in their architectural studios.

    @Brent: I liked the third project as well, and had quite a few ideas for improving it, although I’m not sure they were following me.

  5. Tanya says:

    Nice article Jeff! I was in Berlin last summer for a puzzle conference but I’m a passionate gamer. I work for a game company (ThinkFun) and I head Inventor Relations. I wish I’d have known about you then because I feel I could have seen Berlin in a completely different way! I travel to Germany three times a year but not to Berlin. Missed opportunity for me but I appreciate now knowing your writing!

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