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Beat the Boredom of Social Isolation

Beat the Boredom of Social Isolation

Design Your Own Board Game Using a Design Thinking Co-Creation Process

While the reality of the world around us is wild and unpredictable at the moment (and I hope you’re all staying safe and healthy out there), I hope this article gives you a fun distraction to bond with your fellow housemates.

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A lot of you may be staying at home. The more fortunate of us get to spend self-isolation with family, with roommates, with significant others, and friends.

And even though you’re surrounded by people, you’re already running out of things to do. Some of you may have already found a ton of online resources out there to beat the social loneliness, like taking online yoga classes, watching a marathon of Disney movies, and video chatting with friends.

Even us introverts are getting a little restless.

So, using my knowledge in design thinking and workshop facilitation, I’ve decided to share with you my most recent beat-the-boredom-with-a-board-game workshop (catchy huh?).

Let’s call this workshop “Game-Making” (not to be confused with Gamestorming, a book I refer to often). I’ll lay out each step and an associated design-thinking activity that you can try to get the juices flowing. I’m not a game designer by any means, so I’ll try to keep it loose and juicy so you can adapt this process to however you see fit.

And keep in mind the 3E’s that make up the design thinking principles: Empathy, Expansive Thinking, and Experimentation as you convince your housemates that, “yes, I swear, this will be much more fun than the last time I made you do something with me.”

1–2 hours

  • A stack of 3 x 3 Post-its
  • A stack of 1 ½ x 2 Post-its
  • Pens and colorful markers
  • A healthy number of 8.5 x 11 scrap paper
  • Tape
  • Miscellaneous game items, like a deck of cards or dice

Step 1: Gather your fellow social isolation mates: Mom, dad, partner, friend, whoever (disclaimer: this process works best with 2 or more people since it’s a collaborative, co-creation process)

Step 2: As part of a warm-up and to introduce people to the idea of design-thinking, begin with a “Favorite Games” activity. This warm-up is important to loosen the group a bit and get them used to sharing ideas. Plus we’ll build on this later in the next step of the process.

Favorite Games

  • Each person writes their favorite game (any medium, type, or age-level) on a post-it. Feel free to write more than one game, but be sure to keep it on different post-its. And stick them onto the wall or on the table where everyone can see them.
Example of my family’s favorite games. It’s fine if people generate duplicates.
  • Then, on the smaller post-its, write what qualities make this game your favorite. Why is it so fun? What makes it great?
  • If others see a game on the wall that they also like, invite them to write qualities about the game they enjoy as well. The more post-its, the merrier.

Step 3: You should have a whole table full of different games and the aspects that make these games so fun. See the below photo for an example of what your wall could look like. In this step, we’re interested in what these smaller post-its say, and we can return to the bigger post-its later.

Have your friends place their small post-its on the bigger post-its if it helps them think about qualities more concretely tied to an example.

Affinity Mapping

  • Ask your group to start moving the post-its around to another blank part of the wall based on similarities and relationships in the qualities. Some of them will naturally fall into clear and obvious clusters, whereas other post-its might not belong to a group at all, which is ok!

For example, if someone said that they like chess because “you have to think a lot” and someone else said they like mahjong because “it requires you to have a good memory,” you might sort those qualities into the same cluster.

  • Next, once you get some well-defined clusters, ask the group to label them with a category name. See the example below of how we labeled our categories.
Example of categories that my family assigned to each group: Communal, War, Strategic, and Flexibility
  • Make sure that people don’t label a category as just “fun.” That means we’ve made a full loop and haven’t defined what fun really means!

Step 4: A lot of my workshops that I design for my job build in ample time for group discussion. As the facilitator, it’s up to you to help everyone talk about these qualities and aspects. The objective of this discussion is to socialize the ideas with the group and pull out the best qualities to replicate in your game.


Here are a few questions to get your conversation started; let the conversation flow naturally but focus everyone if comments seem tangential.

  • Which qualities do people really like?
  • What do people need clarification on?
  • What is something that sounds boring, or not their cup of tea?

Step 5: Next, we’re going to take a step back, and return to the 3 x 3 post-its of the different games from our “Favorite Games” activity. Draw out the format or layout of each of these games.

Hang these beautiful sketches up on the wall for inspiration in our next phase of the workshop.

I hung up the beautiful sketches on our kitchen cabinets so every could admire each other’s work

We have all of the foundational pieces that will make this next phase of ideation super fun. All we have to do is put them together.

Step 6: Using the sketches of various board games that you drew as inspiration, everyone will have a chance to draw a mock-up of the board for the board game. Remind everyone that this is just a prototype! We’ll continue to reiterate and redesign a few more times until we have the final product.

Board Sketching

  • Everyone should have a couple of sheets of blank paper. Draw random shapes (circles, squares, arrows) on the paper that could be used as the board of a board game. Be creative — the movements of the shape don’t have to make much sense yet. What is important to capture is the general shape of the board.
  • Now, everyone has a chance to present the skeleton of their board to the group. As a group, talk through the potential of the board using the qualities defined from our affinity map. Think about the qualities that people said they really enjoy in other games: which board has the most potential to be ‘strategic,’ ‘cooperative’, ‘flexible’?
  • The answer may not be very apparent right from the start, but try to build to consensus amongst your crowd using a quick dot-voting activity, and see if you can narrow it down to one board (i.e. a flimsy 8.5 x 11 piece of paper).

Step 7: Fold up a couple of pieces of paper into little crumples and voilá, you have prototype game pieces. Be creative: you can use other objects laying around as well, like pasta shells, pipe cleaners, cotton balls.

Step 8: Now it’s time to define the soft mechanics of the game, which is arguably the hardest part. These are bound to change as you continue to test the game, but defining these rules will help you move through your first round of the game:

  • The Objective of the game i.e. how will people win?
  • Game Pieces i.e. (if any) little doohickeys made out of paper that you can use to move around on the board
  • Starting Player i.e. who gets to start and how is that decided?
  • Player Interactions i.e. How will the players interact?
  • Mechanisms to move i.e. how are your pieces (if any) going to move around the board?
Image Credit

By now, you should have:

  • The high-level mechanics of the game (these will firm up as you test a couple of rounds of the game)
  • A prototype board; this can be kept on normal printer paper or can be transferred onto stock paper or even cardboard
  • Prototype game pieces
  • The qualities of the games that you really like

Now, lay out the game pieces on the board and start talking through the objectives of the game. See how the rules or the conditions of the game could chance to make it more challenging, more easy, or more interesting to move your pieces through the layout.

Go slowly through the board game as a group and talk through what’s happening. Someone should be in charge of writing these thoughts down. It’s important to continue through one round of the game without make any changes so you get a full picture before iterating.

Ask yourselves…

  • What’s working well?
  • What do you think is driving this game forward? (e.g. do you think it’s mostly based on luck, strategy, or something else? Is that the right mix?)
  • What’s not working well?
  • What is hindering the game from flowing from turn to turn?

If you nailed your game design and creation in one try, fantastic. Keep playing and have fun!

Very rough sketch of our game board

If you didn’t nail it down the first time (like us, as you can see above), tweak the board shape or edit the rules based on the discussion and try again. Sometimes it’s helpful to test it immediately so it’s fresh in your mind. But if your board game has the (blessed) curse of Monopoly that tends to start family feuds, try again the next day with fresh eyes and minds.

Remember, this is supposed to be a fun process to do with your social isolation/quarantine mates. It’s okay if your first or second iteration is not perfect!

The most important part of this process is spending time with your loved ones, and learning something new along the way.

Here are some additional photos of our final(ish) game from my family’s workshop!

Final version of our game!
Close-up shot of the game pieces: you can see it’s still all made out of paper, but that doesn’t make it any less fun or playable!

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