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  • Writer's pictureSpencer Bennington

Bracket Blog #2 The "Elite Eight" Board Game Designs!

Welcome back to the Rhetorical Roundhouse blog where, recently I made my students fight to the death in a March Madness bracket-style tournament. Of course, when I say “fight to the death” I mean submit prototypes of original board games they’ve designed for class to be a representative of their group’s HONOR!

Last time I took the 16 board game designs from my first-year writing courses and narrowed them down to today’s elite eight!

Round 1:



Climate Chaos

Round 2:

Feed Frenzy


____ You for your Service

Round 3:

Fast Fashion


Fortune’s Path/Path of Fortune

Round 4:

Dispensary Disparity


What's Pup Dawg?

In addition to sharing who will be moving on to the Game Design Final Four, I want to share a few key ideas that my students are learning in class this semester. This will give me a chance to report on how my students are learning about visual rhetoric, multimodal composition, and concepts like usability, accessibility, and human-centered design.

Without any further ado, let’s get ready to GAME! Up first we have Tagged vs. Climate Chaos.


“Our team created Tagged, a competitive and cooperative board game bringing awareness

to the worldwide issue of animal poaching. This game meets the criteria for RRN, as it

introduces a true worldwide issue with reasonable efforts to educate and offer solutions for the

ongoing problem of poaching. Tagged is a 2-6 player cooperative and competitive game bringing awareness to the issue of animal poaching centralized in the continent of Africa. You must work as a team to defeat the opponents and determine the fate of the herds nearby.”

Climate Chaos

“My group designed a game called Climate Chaos. It is a learning game that uses cards

and gameplay cards with actions to play. There aren’t many games on the market like this. What

makes it different is that Climate Chaos is made for learning as well as fun. The game teaches the players how to take care of the climate to help with the overarching problem of climate change. There are action cards that have different phases that take you through how someone can go about helping the environment. It is a five player game where each person takes a different role to help the cause. The roles are scientist, engineer, technical writer, politician and

environmentalist. The goal is to have the players have to fix a few pollution problems before the pollution meter fills up.”

I think both of these designs were excellent in the concept stage, but Tagged has managed to develop a pretty interesting prototype. On the other hand, the designers of Climate Chaos are less than enthused with their functional, complex, but ultimately boring game. This round goes to Tagged!

Round 1 Winner:


Lesson #1: A Text is Anything that can be Read

One thing I love to teach first-year college students is the big idea of relativism. Last semester I thoroughly stumped a student when I kept referring to material objects, human bodies, song lyrics, music videos, and other media as “texts.” Eventually he asked me, if ALL of those things are texts, what is a text? My answer is lesson # 1: a text, especially in the theoretical sense a la Roland Barthes, is anything that can be read or interpreted. A text is something with symbolic meaning, something with space for the interpreter to make sense of. A text takes shape because of its interpreter, its reader, and because we know people to be unique in their perspective of the world, each text has infinite possible meanings.

So, while I’ve been teaching students how to interact with research sources and scholarly texts this semester, I’ve also been teaching them to read and compose with data and visual texts. I’ve been teaching them, THE BASICS with resources like these:

Free Design Tools

I ask them to EXPERIMENT at first, and they have a good time with that. Maybe they had a little TOO much fun designing some concept art for their game prototypes…

Nevertheless, I try to reign them in with sensible activities where we really dig deep on visual design theory…like playing with Magic cards! That’s right, recently my classes all got their hands on some Magic: the Gathering cards to learn about how they can communicate concise technical information, design theme, narrative, and game mechanics through a combination of visual, textual, and numerical information in a VERY small amount of space.

First, I have to say that this activity would not have been possible without the generosity of MagiKids, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping educate young people through the medium of MTG. As they describe in their mission statement:

“We give kids access to the card game Magic: The Gathering, by giving teachers and mentors the cards and resources they need to teach the game. We believe that teaching Magic builds skills such as critical thinking, math, and reading. Magic also helps encourage socialization and engagement. At our local MagiKids groups, there’s not a phone in sight.”

I wrote to them and described my class and they decided it would be a great thing to contribute to–they sent me ALL SORTS OF STUFF for my class!

Cards, lands, deck boxes, dice, life counters…Rick and Morty was in there somehow…amazing stuff! I can’t believe the resources they provide teachers who want to give back to young people in their community. Thank you Magikids for enriching my class and I can’t wait to find a way to give back.

If you’d like to support the MagiKids mission by donating cards, time, or money, please check out:

Though I did make functional 40 card mono-colored decks for my students, we didn’t actually play the game in class (way too complex for our learning outcomes). Instead, we used the cards the way most new players do–I asked them to look through and pick out the ones they liked and didn’t like. This immediate reaction almost always had to do with the art and the visual language of the card, so it opened up a nice conversation about aesthetics and how art can communicate story/theme. It also gave students a motive when I gave them the opportunity to trade cards with their peers. In short, we had a nice time looking at cards and analyzing how something so small can contain so much important and relevant information.

To conclude, my students had to go home and watch some amazing YouTube essays about Magic’s card design and art history before writing a summary of their experience. Even if you know nothing about the game, you might be interested to check these out.

These videos give insight into some of the earliest days of the original trading card game, Magic the Gathering. The first focuses on one of the most highly sought after rare cards--the Black Lotus. The second focuses on how the visual templating of Magic cards has changed over 25 years for a variety of design reasons.

These videos discuss more specific elements of MTG's visual design. The first discusses the "great wave" as it exists in art history and then in Magic card art. The second discusses a particular type of card (sagas) and how they represent a unique example of top-down design.

I’m a big nerd and I could talk MTG all day…as I write this, a new set of cards is being pre-released this very DAY! But, the last thing I want to say is just one more BIG thank you to MagiKids for generously providing me with materials to make my classes something…magi…

Too corny? Ok let’s move on to the NEXT ROUND!

Feed Frenzy

“In this competitive tower building experience, you will learn how to work as

a team while combating the evils of social media. Feed Frenzy addresses ways to combat social media violence with teamwork.”

____ You for your Service

“Will you be able to handle the life of a veteran that has been re-enlisted in the real world?

Will you be able to overcome the issues that face the normal person while still facing the results

of your past life? Like the game of life but with real consequences. ___ You For Your Service is

a tabletop board game, where you will take on the persona of a veteran after discharge or

separation. You and your fellow vets must depend on each other's assets and opportunities to

survive and make it to the end of the game. In the community of veterans that you build when

playing the game it is crucial that all your fellow vets make it to the end of the game. Even if just

one person doesn’t make it to the end, the game is over. The development of friendships are key to winning the game.”

If I’m being honest, “___ You for your Service” crushed the preliminary draft of the R&D report (where the text above was excerpted from), but I have my doubts as to whether or not they will have a completed and usable prototype to demonstrate by the final class day. There seemed to be some consistent issues with getting the game cards completed and worked out and I don’t know that it will be resolved in time. Meanwhile, Feed Frenzy provided a fairly lackluster R&D report, but their concept/prototype is one of the best. Their game is extremely fun and if they produce some standalone accessories (rules set, timer, packaging design, original concept building blocks, etc) then they could sweep this whole competition. This is another close one because I still think both games can be a slam dunk by the end of the month, but I’m giving this round to Feed Frenzy!

Round 2 Winner:

Feed Frenzy

Lesson #2: We Compose with Multimedia to Produce Multimodal Texts

If a text is anything that can be read and I teach First-Year Writing, am I to teach students how to make…everything? Kind of! I view my job as utilizing two superpowers–one is technical communication. I can actually design and do and make some stuff. It may not be the best, but it doesn’t have to be. It just needs to be useful as an educational example. Second, I got mad rhetoric skills, so I can explain how the things I like to design and compose resemble and provide transferable skills for what my students want to design and compose in their own careers. Just this past week, I had a student tell me that they want to earn their civil engineering degree in order to one day design stadiums. They smiled when they said the word.

I smiled when they agreed that the research, design, development, and reflection process we’re learning and practicing in this “writing” course mirrored what they knew to be the same design process they’d need to follow to one day build their stadium.

So, no, I don’t need to teach my students HOW to write or design or compose every single thing they are passionate about–I’m not nearly that talented or interesting. But, what I can do is teach them transferable skills from my disciplines and demonstrate to them how learning to organize a research paper, write a cover letter, or develop an original board game aligns with their own dreams and desires for their future, even if they’re as big as the grandest coliseums.

Obviously I can get MUCH better at this, but since this was my first time teaching the course, I really just wanted my students to understand that they are already paying for resources on campus that can help them achieve their goals. One that I’m excited to explore more was recently just spotlighted in this promo video:

I shared this video as well as these other campus resources with my students over the past couple of months:

The prototyping lab is free for all VT students and there is no limit so long as what they print is designated for a class project like ours…pretty cool stuff! If you’re a long time reader of this blog, you may remember some of my own early adventures into the Digital Humanities and the world of 3D printing.

I’m excited to see what kinds of game pieces my students print, especially if they use sites like I hope that the Feed Frenzy group especially finds an interesting way to print their own Lego-style building blocks that are designed specifically for their theme and rules.

This is a pretty simple way to wrap this one up, but it is what it is: every time I ask my students to do something “hands on” as part of a lesson, they become more engaged. Duh, right? My point is, in the future of this class, not only do I plan to connect students to campus resources, but I want to do a better job of transforming my classroom into a mobile maker space…more on that later! For now, let’s get back to the bracket!

Fast Fashion

“Fast fashion is a collaborative, competitive board game designed to bring awareness to

the environmental problems surrounding the fast fashion industry. Through each round of the

game, players take on the role of different consumers or producers and make strategic

decisions, balancing economic and environmental costs, to ultimately protect their Earth.

In making the objective of the game to protect and eliminate pollution from their Earth

boards, players experience the type of anti-violence education that is so valued and promoted

by the Rhetorical Roundhouse Network. This game specifically addresses and brings

awareness to Environmental/Ecological violence through fashion, in hopes to educate people on

non stereotypical, but equally as detrimental, ways that humans damage and pollute the Earth.

Players not only learn about these issues, but are also introduced to ways that they, as

consumers or producers can make choices that help to minimize or resolve these issues.

There are many other board games with a similar thematic focus on environmental

issues, such as Polar Eclipse or CO2: Second Chance, however very few, if any, relate these

issues to fast fashion.”

Fortune’s Path/Path of Fortune

“Fortune’s Path is a 4-6 player turn based game which incorporates aspects of both Monopoly

and Life. Players strive to become the richest while testing their luck in a simulation of day to

day life. With unequal access to education as the central theme, Path of Fortune aims to

educate and demonstrate how education is not fairly distributed or given to students throughout

the United States through playing a board game.”

I think Fortune’s Path has a pretty well-developed prototype and they definitely got some useful playtesting done, but I didn’t see that anyone was having too much fun. In addition, I’m still struggling to see the theme of the game and research shine through. By contrast, Fast Fashion became very competitive and fun at points and the team explored ways to get rid of dull spots during playtesting. I hope to see an improved prototype for the final demo, but I think this round goes to Fast Fashion for excellent connection of fun gameplay and theme.

Round 3 Winner:

Fast Fashion

Lesson #3: If You Don’t Read, You Can’t Write…

I was always a really slow reader and I hated it. My mind would wander and I’d realize that I was moving my eyes over the words but thinking of something else entirely. I’d have to reread the same page, the same paragraph, the same sentence…I had to sit still to read, reading in the car gave me a headache. But I LOVED listening to stories. The radio, the TV, my mom and dad reading to me while I played with my other toys–these were wonderful, transformative moments that engaged my imagination and gave me the tools to one day write my own stories.

I got better at reading in high school and, as a result, I got better at writing. But then I got bored of reading the same high-minded “literary” fiction, the classics, the canon…at some point I realized that I had been told a great lie. That lie was this: books are the superior medium for storing important ideas. This elitist garbage is classist, racist, and just plain outdated at this point, but the idea is still prevalent. Nevertheless, it took me a long time to realize that non-traditional texts played a huge part in my literacy and career success.

I didn’t like to read, remember? Yet, I loved writing–so much so that I became an English major in college, continued on to study literature in graduate school, then became a professional researcher and educator in the field of rhetoric, technical communication, and writing studies…not so bad for someone who hates reading. But how can this be? What sorts of texts sustained my interest in writing after I made my way through the imperialist syllabus? I’ve written before about how Hip-Hop played a major role in my development as a writer and scholar. But, truthfully, I watched more TV and movies than anything, so if I really want to trace my literacy or style to any source, it would be the great and infamous writers of classic films and trashy adult animation alike. My point though is this: it doesn’t really matter what kept me interested, what inspired me, what lessons I learned from each source…what matters is THAT something kept inspiring me to research, read, write, and listen.

So, in this class, I hoped to get students interested in rhetoric and design broadly by helping them develop their tabletop game literacy. If they want to (write) design a board game, they need to (read) play a variety of board games. This semester that meant me bringing in a sack full of board games for a few weeks of “game labs” where students practiced research methods like playtesting and user observations.

One thing I’m excited about for the next go of this class though is the fact that our library offers board games as something students can check out! I’ll definitely have them use this service to increase the number of games they get to interact with and write about. Not only does this help students get ideas for game mechanics and design elements of their own games, but it exposes them to the ways in which concepts like usability, accessibility, and human-centered design show up in components of published games. Below are some resources I shared with my students this semester, but I’m looking to refined these by the next time I teach the course…

For more information on accessibility, see

Information on Usability:

Sources on Ethical Design

Sources on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusive Design

Ok, let’s get to the final fight shall we?

Dispensary Disparity

“Our game is best described as a cannabis based game with inspiration from monopoly.

It is a game where your objective is to make the most money off cannabis dispensaries.

It addresses the needs of the Rhetorical Roundhouse Network because the game

incorporates racial elements that reflect the real life problem of unjust cannabis related

arrests for people of color. Similar games on the market are Monopoly and Stoner City. Thematically, our game is very different from monopoly, as instead of purchasing properties to rent, you purchase dispensaries to make money. It’s different from Stoner City in the sense that race plays a role in our game, much like it does in real life.

What's Pup Dawg?

“Our team has created a collaborative and light hearted board game addressing the

problem of animal abuse. This game is easy for kids from all ages to understand, while also

sending a message about the commitment it takes to be a pet owner. This game design meets the requirements and needs of the Rhetorical Roundhouse Network (RRN) because this game

addresses the local and global issue of animal abuse. “What’s Pup Dawg” sends the message that owning a pet is a huge commitment and it is not something that should be taken lightly. This game design hopefully will send the message early to young children that although owning a dog may be fun, it is also a job and requires responsibility.”

Both teams have a usable prototype and both teams have experienced their fair share of team member absenteeism…hmm, this one is tough because I love both ideas/themes. I suppose because Dispensary Disparity is a bit more derivative in its design, I’m going to have to give this round to What’s Pup Dawg? I do hope to see a revised prototype with some cute 3d printed doggo tokens by the end of the semester, but we shall see…

Round 4 Winner:

What's Pup Dawg?

Thanks again to Magikids and to my students for being such great sports. They will be presenting on 5/3 and I’m currently wrangling audience volunteers...know anyone? Poster presentations and final portfolios will determine this year's winner of the first annual RRN design the dream challenge…stay tuned to find out how it all shakes out!

Thanks again for taking an interest in the wonderful work of my students 🙂


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