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Dice and Drawbridges Inspire Games Designed By Scouts At Balboa Oaks Spring 17 Merit Badge Midway

Several times a year I volunteer at local merit badge midways to run workshops for the Game Design Merit Badge that I helped to create for the Boy Scouts of America. On Saturday I led a three-hour workshop at the Balboa Oaks Merit Badge Midway in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, and as with every time I’ve run these workshops, I was impressed with the wide variety of games these young men designed.

My workshops always begin with a Socratic-dialog-heavy talk about the various elements that comprise a game, the different ways we can describe a game’s play value (what makes it fun to play), and how intellectual property rights apply to games. I then do an exercise with the boys in making changes to game rules to see what effects those have on players, using set of Spider-Man tic-tac-toe sets.  (You’d be amazed at the number of variations on tic-tac-toe the scouts have come up with over the past couple of years).  With each of these topics, the scouts satisfy various merit badge requirements.

The more advanced (and most fun) requirements involve the scouts proposing a game concept, and once I approve it, prototyping their game and playtesting it with other scouts.

Here are some of the games the scouts designed last weekend.


by Dylan M, Troop 1003

Video games are the most difficult type of games to do at these merit badge workshops because of the limited time to make improvements to your game after making your playtest observations. But Dylan M. of Troop 1003 managed to earn his Game Design merit badge with this platformer.

Vision Statement: A single-player electronic 2D platformer set in a medieval kingdom in which the protagonist must defeat enemies to save his kingdom.

Play Value: Challenge.


  • Player starts at the left edge of the level with 4 Lives, 10 Health and 0 Score.


  • Controls: arrow keys (left, right= move left, right, up=jump).
  • Enemies: All enemies die upon collision.  However, unless the player jumps on them from above, collision also takes away 1 Health from player.
  • Scoring:
    • Killing an enemy: 5 points.
    • Collecting gold: 2 points.

Resolution: The game ends when player gets all the 4 keys and unlocks door, which completes level.

Resources: Score, Keys, Health, Lives


Match Em
by Nathaniel Y, Troop 773

This dice game looks deceptively simple, but I found it to be the most engaging game of the day to play.

Vision Statement: A free-for-all dice game where 2-4 players roll dice in an effort to be the first person to collect 3 Match’em cards.

Play Value: Challenge.

Set-Up: 2-4 people can play.

  • Three cards are taken from the deck and laid on the table, face up. Cards will display a picture of 6 dice. The object of the game is to roll your dice until you can match what is displayed on one of the cards.
  • Each player has six dice. Players will roll 1 die to determine who starts the game. Highest roll wins. Players who roll the same number must re-roll against each other until a winner is determined. Once the starting player is determined, turns move clockwise from the starting player.


  • Three cards are taken from the deck and laid on the table, face up. Cards will display a picture of 6 dice. The object of the game is to roll your dice until you can match what is displayed on one of the cards.
  • Each player will take turns rolling their dice once. After a player rolls their dice, any matching numbers can be placed next to the card they want to obtain. Those dice are now “locked in” to the card. Any non-matching numbers will be taken back to re-roll on their next turn. Multiple players can work on the same card as other players. The first person to match all 6 dice on card wins that card and they take it from the table. All dice that were locked on that card will be returned to the players and a new card will be pulled from the deck to replace it. The first player to obtain 3 cards wins the game.
  • Take back rule: At the beginning of their turn, a player has the option to take back all their dice and re-roll them. This can be helpful if a player wants to work on a new card or attempt to steal a card that another player is currently working on. This must be done at the beginning of the player’s turn. No dice can be taken back after the player has rolled on their turn.

Resolution: The first player to collect 3 Match Em cards wins.

Resources: Dice, Match Em cards


Medieval Quests
by Grayson R, Troop 1

This was the most visually impressive game at the workshop.  Grayson R of Troop 1 created this board game to teach players about knights, kings, queens, people, weapons, foods, customs and other information of the medieval time period.

Vision Statement: A medieval board game in which 2-4 players answer questions related to Medieval times in a race to reach a castle.

Play Value: Novelty.

Set-Up: 2-4 people can play.

  • Each player takes a game piece and puts  it at the starting point, on the brown tile.
  • Place dragon cards and treasure cards in card holder.
  • The youngest player goes first.


  • Each Player takes drawing a white dragon card and reading the question to the player on his/her left (the answer is located underneath the question).

  • If the question is answered correctly, then the player who answered the questions correctly will move the amount of spaces indicated in the parenthesis after the answer.

  • If the question is answered incorrectly, the player will remain where they are and not move forward.

  • If a player lands on a red tile, a red treasure card will be drawn and the directions followed.

  • The person to the player’s left has the next turn.

Resolution: The first player to get to the castle will win the game.

Resources: 40 dragon cards (white), 12 red treasure cards (red)


As always, the scouts were very inventive, given the limited resources and time they had available.  Even better, they were not only proud of the games they made, they really enjoyed playing other scout’s games.  After all, as I explained to them, creating fun experiences for others to enjoy is what game design is all about.

One Life Or Many? How Long Should Players Survive In Your Game?

“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” American spy Nathan Hale famously said in 1776, just before his execution by the British after being captured while on an intelligence-gathering mission in New York City. Old Nate obviously wasn’t a video game character, or he might have had more than one life to lose.  In fact, if he were a character in Super Mario Bros., he might have been able to finagle himself an infinite number of lives.

As anyone who has played Super Mario Bros. or just about any other video game knows, lives are a resource determining the number of times a player may catastrophically fail before a game session is terminated. Players can lose lives in games variously by losing in combat with an enemy, being the victim of a deadly trap, or running out of time. The player may keep on playing the game as long as he or she has a least one live left, providing the player with the continuous goal of surviving.

It can be said that all video games provide the player with at least one life, but game designers may choose to allow the players to have more, based on the experience they are trying to create for players.

One factor designers take into account when determining the number of lives to give to players is the game’s threat level.  Threat is one of the domains described by Jason VandenBerghe in his landmark article The Five Domains Of PlayMapping Psychology’s Five Factor Model to Game Design. Threat is the negative tone of the game that can evoke negative emotions in the player, such as addiction, anxiety, anger, or sadness. The fewer lives a game has, the greater the threat of the game.  And when players believe that one of their lives, especially the last one, is at risk, the greater the feeling of anxiety for those players.  Such feelings can make a player become more emotionally immersed in a game.

The number of lives granted to players can impact another of VandenBerghe’s domains: challenge.  Challenge is the part of the game that requires the player to use self-discipline: overcoming obstacles, work, avoiding danger, and (literally) collecting achievements.  When players have multiple lives, they can repeatedly attempt tackling a particular deadly situation in a game, eventually developing the skill and/or information necessary to overcome that challenge. A game with only one life available would require the player to start over again and progress all the way through the game until encountering that challenge and having the opportunity to try another tactic.

Another factor that a game designer takes into consideration when determining the number of lives to give to a player is how long he or she wants the game session length to be, providing there is no way to gain more lives during the game session.  If the average game session is intended to be short (say, for a quarter-eating arcade game), the designer will give the player fewer lives than perhaps for a game intended to be played for a lengthy session at home.

By varying the number of lives given to players, the game designer can make significant changes to the overall game experience. However, there are other game elements that the designer can alter to modulate threat, challenge or game session length.  The designer can lower the game’s difficulty by allowing the player’s avatar to accumulate damage before losing a life.  Or, the designer can place pick-ups for the player to collect in the game level to replenish lost lives. Both of these elements also increase the game’s complexity, while a damage attribute additionally increases a game’s tension as players watch the damage level reach the point where their avatars are in danger of losing their lives.

A game designer can alternately make a game more difficult without adjusting the number of lives by adding more enemies or deadly traps, or by shortening time limits, which increases the game’s tension level as well.

So, one life or many?  It all depends on the type of experience you want to create for your player.