Results from Game Design Challenge: Spoken Word

By Jill Duffy [07.24.08]

 In a recent Game Design Challenge, you had to come up with a new game that required nothing more than people and spoken words. The game had to have no props, no hand gestures, no clapping, no pen and paper -- only spoken words and people. It also had to be easy to learn and easy to explain how to play, which were major criteria in the judging process.

Finding an original idea proved to be more difficult than many people expected, and a fruitful discussion of what makes a something ‘original' shed some light on how to meet the requirements of this challenge.

Many people tried to come up with a "story in the round" style game, in which players take turns adding words, sentences, or some other lexical unit in quick succession to cobble together a story or amusing combination of words. A major problem in many of the submissions of this type was that the rule sets tended to be overly complex, with the game designers trying too hard to refine a fairly general idea into something unique.

Another popular concept was to use either rhyming schemes or word pattern schemes. Several of these submissions were really strong, as you'll see from the best entries and honorable mentions.

Finally, one theme that I was surprised appeared in only a few submissions was numbers. Number games tend to be extremely easy to create and easy to iterate, simplify, or make more challenging if the gameplay turns out to be too hard or too easy for certain players.

I was the sole judge on this particular game design challenge, so I want to be as transparent as possible in how I came up with the best entries.

First, I read all the submissions in full. Then I went through and read them a second time and picked out five or six that I thought 1) sounded like fun, 2) were easy for me to understand what the players would do, and 3) were concepts that I could paraphrase without reading a third time.

That last criterion was crucial, as I was about to share the game concepts with some friends, but only from memory. If the game concept was both memorable and easy to explain, then it would take a spot among the winners.

Submissions that included examples of gameplay proved to be tremendously more memorable, by and large, than ones that did not. Remember this in your pitching and game design document writing future!

When I shared the games with my friends, a new criterion developed: Did my friends ask me to explain how the game worked more than once? If they got it the first time, then the idea was clearly easy to learn and easy to explain and met those challenge requirements. If they needed a second explanation, more than one example of play, or further clarification of the rules, then the game had a few marks against it.

Finally, the first place winner will receive a copy of the book Video Game Careers, courtesy of Random House!

Jordan Espinosa, aspiring game designer and graduate from Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, Math on Speed
(see page 2)
The only game that measured to all those standards was Jordan Espinosa's Math on Speed. While not the most innovative game, it really hit all the requirements of this challenge squarely. It can be played for up to 30 minutes, and it took me only seconds to explain to my friends, who all thought it was a fun concept.

While math games don't appeal to everyone, Math on Speed is suitable for anyone who has passed second grade, and yet because of the "speed," it can be challenging for adults as well.

John Pile Jr., MSc student in Computer Games Technology at University of Abertay Dundee, Revolving Rhymes (see page 3)
John Pile Jr.'s Revolving Rhymes was a close second, though when I explained it to new players, they needed a lot of clarification about what was and was not allowed in the "word association" part of the game.

Ciro Continisio, Flash programmer, Set the Pace
(see page 4)
This was my favorite game concept, but I must admit that the other two winning entries were easier to explain to people and in general, easier to remember.

However, Continisio's game has room for some wonderful creativity, which I realized when I remembered a story about my friend who once took part in a neuro-cognitive science experiment at a research university. He was hooked up to a brain scan and was asked to identify whether certain things were "alive" or not by answering yes or no. A pre-recorded voice gave him single words as cues. The experiment started with words like, "horse" (yes) and "rock" (no). But then the voice said things like, "love," "brain," "arm," "language," and finally gobbledy-gook words. Is an "arm" alive or not alive?

You could play Set the Pace by trying to stump the "decider" in that fashion, too.

The one major criticism I had of this submission was the scoring rule that players play until someone earns five points seemed totally arbitrary and untested.

Matt Roberts, level design student at The Guildhall at Southern Methodist University, Alphawhat
(see page 5)
Matt Roberts idea is indeed simple, memorable, catchy, and fun. In it, players make up a new word list for the NATO phonetic alphabet.

However, Roberts' idea doesn't quite tap into what makes the official phonetic alphabet unique: the words chosen do not rhyme with other common word that starts with a similar sounding letter. For example, ‘b' is for "bravo" and not "brown" because "brown" sounds like "drown," which starts with ‘d,' which sounds like ‘b.'

This game concept needs just one or two more rules to make it more challenging as a game, in my opinion, but it's still pretty amusing in all its simplicity.

Marie Lazar, Michigan State University, The Video Game Name Game
Props to Marie Lazar, who came up with a game about video game names. How meta.

Jordan Espinosa, aspiring game designer and graduate from Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, Math on Speed
The object of the game is to take the number given to you and subtract the base number that is passed on to you. The game starts at 100. Players then subtract from 100 down to 0.

Player 1 starts by saying a number from 1 to 9. Player 2 job is to subtract the number said by player 1 to the base number (100 or less). Player 2 has 5 seconds to answer or he is out of the game. Player 3 counts to five and calls time if player 2 cannot answer. If player 2 cannot answer or gives a wrong answer, the turn is then passed on to the next player in line and player 2 is out of the game. If the question is answered correctly, then player 2 gives a new number from 1 to 9, then player 3 must subtract from the new base number after player 2 answers.

After the base number reaches 0, the players then reverse and add to 100. Lastly all players not currently answering or counting act as judges to make sure right answers are given.

The last player left is the winner.

John Pile Jr., MSc student in Computer Games Technology at University of Abertay Dundee, Revolving Rhymes
Start with any word.

Players take turns coming up with two additional words. The second word must rhyme with the previous, and the third must start with the same letter as the second. Make it harder by not allowing any new word to repeat the rhyme of a previous.

For example, if the starting word is "house":

Player1: house, mouse, man
Player2: man, tan, tall
Player3: tall, fall, fat
Player1: fat, hat, hand
Player2: hand, band, ball ... (failed third word if playing the ‘hard rules' because hall rhymes with the earlier ‘tall/fall')

Variant. Instead of the third word starting with the same letter as the second, the third word must be commonly associated with the second (conjunctions count). The validity of the association is up to the other players.

For example:

Player1: house, mouse -- trap
Player2: trap, map, route
Player3: route, stout, beer
Player1: beer, tear -- jerker
Player2: jerker, berserker, ...???...
Play testing has demonstrated the difficulty lies in that your mind seems to get into ‘rhyming mode', and finding a third word for a different scheme can be difficult.
Player 1: house, mouse, trap
Player 2: trap, map, tap (oops!)

Ciro Continisio, Flash programmer, Set the Pace
This is a game for two people. Players take turns as:

Pacemaker: a player who decides the category and enumerates objects in the speed he chooses.

Decider: a player who says if a listed object is part of that category or not.

Pacemaker has to decide a category, say it clearly, and then the round begins. He has to enumerate objects of that category, one by one. Decider has to say "yes" or "no," depending if the object falls in that category. However, the Pacemaker has to list the objects in a predetermined pace (speed), saying, "1, 2, 3, [object]" and on the following count, the Decider has to say "Yes" or "No," whether the object is a part of the category or not. On the next beat, the Pacemaker has to start the 1, 2, 3 count again.

If the Decider mistakes his yes/no, the Pacemaker scores 1 point. If the Pacemaker does not say an object in time for the fourth count, the Decider gets a point. The Pacemaker can choose a quicker pace to win, but he must keep up with it, too.

The first to get to 5 points wins.

Matt Roberts, level design student at The Guildhall at Southern Methodist University, Alphawhat

Game, multiple-player type, version 1, non-possessive, RTP (Ready to play): Alphawhat
My submission for this week's challenge is derived from my time in the army, and as such is simple and easy for anyone to understand...perhaps even confusion-proof.

I propose a game involving a take on the phonetic alphabet, i.e., Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta. The twist is that here players take turns making up new words for their own phonetic alphabet.

For example:

Player 1: Apple.
Player 2: Brimstone.
Player 3: Cannery.
Player 4: Delicious.
Player 1: Eczema.

Yes, the game is simple, but that's what makes it playable. There are minimal rules and a decided lack of traditional goal-minded competitive gameplay. What makes the game charming is the capacity for silliness coupled with playability for all age groups.

Naturally, a game played between rowdy young men would differ from a game played between grandparents and their grandkids ... hopefully the two games are not played within earshot of each other. Also fun and interesting is the natural patterns that will emerge as people take turns after one another.

Simple, yes, but definitely playable and easily transmissible.

Marie Lazar, Michigan State University, The Video Game Name Game

Ever notice how video game titles seem to repeat themselves? Super 64 this, UltraStar Chronicles that, Legend of the Magic Sword Kings ... it gets tiresome. But how well do you think you know video game titles?

The Video Game Name Game
Play with a friend, a group, or by yourself. Player 1 picks the title of a video game. Player 2 names a title that shares a word in common with Player 1's title. Player 3 thinks of a name that has a word in common with Player 2's title, and so on. Try to keep the chain of game titles going as long as you can. Other players are allowed to make suggestions if someone gets stuck, and the game ends when nobody can think of a way to continue the chain.


Dragon Warrior
Blue Dragon
Lost in Blue
Lost Legends
Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Super Princess Peach
Superman 64

Too easy? For extra challenge, pick a second title to be your endpoint when you start the game.

Not a gamer, or have friends who aren't? Try playing with movie or TV titles, full names of famous people, or book titles (if you're with your MENSA buddies).

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