IAT 312: Foundations of Game Design

(Current offer­ing: Spring 2021 (online); first taught in Fall 2017)

Course outline

Brief course intro video (spring 2021)

Course description

In a nut­shell: you’ll learn how to design, build, ana­lyze, and iter­a­tively refine a number of non-digital games.

Course goals

This is an intro­duc­tory course in game design and we will exam­ine the dis­ci­pline and prac­tices of game design. Games are stud­ied across three ana­lyt­i­cal frame­works: games as rules (formal system), games as play (expe­ri­en­tial system), and games as cul­ture (social system). This course will include ana­lyt­i­cal and prac­ti­cal exer­cises in game design includ­ing small non-digital game design projects. Game design is a cre­ative endeav­our requir­ing prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence through design, cri­tique and iter­a­tion. We will explore some of the more uni­ver­sal game mech­a­nisms, such as ran­dom­ness, eco­nomic sys­tems, player moti­va­tion and psy­chol­ogy, and a few spe­cific topics in more detail. This course will pre­pare stu­dents to under­take the fun­da­men­tals of game design includ­ing design­ing, build­ing, ana­lyz­ing, and iter­a­tively refin­ing a number of non-digital games.

During the 2021 Spring semes­ter, this course will be taught online and will apply a flipped approach to learn­ing. Each week stu­dents will work inde­pen­dently and with peers learn­ing about game design through videos, read­ings, dis­cus­sions and small indi­vid­ual and team activ­i­ties. In the live lec­ture part of this class, we will read and dis­cuss some of the work that ana­lyzes play­ers, games and the game design process to estab­lish common ground and pre­pare you for prac­ti­cal work in the labs where stu­dents will play(test), cri­tique, improve and design games as well as report on the course’s longer game design projects.

No pro­gram­ming or Unity knowl­edge is required. All games cre­ated in this course will be or mimick analog games.

Intended learning outcomes

The course is intended to sup­port you to gain both prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence with and a crit­i­cal under­stand­ing of the foun­da­tions of game design in spe­cific con­texts. Specifically, by ful­fill­ing the require­ments of the course you will be pre­pared to accom­plish key tasks in 4 main game design areas:

  1. Game Design Basics:
    1. Explain and crit­i­cally reflect on games, and the char­ac­ter­is­tics and fea­tures of dif­fer­ent types of games includ­ing their com­po­nents, mechan­ics & rules, dynam­ics, and aesthetics/UX/fun, the “Magic Circle”, and what makes for a com­pelling game
    2. Analyze and argue what makes for a com­pelling game (or not) and why people like to play games
  2. Game Design Frameworks & Psychology
    1. Compare and con­trast dif­fer­ent frame­works and under­ly­ing assump­tions, and deter­mine how and when to use which frameworks
    2. Explain dif­fer­ent player types and psy­cholo­gies, how they affect their game­play, assump­tions, and pref­er­ences, and use this knowl­edge to improve game designs
  3. Game Design Process:
    1. Explain and effec­tively uti­lize game design best practices/processes/frameworks/mechanics, and explain how you did this when design­ing sev­eral games in teams. This includes typ­i­cal game design phases such as ideation, pro­to­typ­ing and play test­ing as the base for an iter­a­tive game design cycle
    2. Analyze, dis­cuss, and cri­tique games using appro­pri­ate ter­mi­nol­ogy, and pro­vide well-structured, con­struc­tive, and useful feed­back (e.g., after playtest­ing or game pitches).
    3. Discuss the dif­fer­ence between game cri­tiques vs. playtest­ing, and demon­strate why, when, and how to use either of them effec­tively to improve your game and design process
    4. Effectively demon­strate and reflect on how to effec­tively com­mu­ni­cate your game across dif­fer­ent stages (from early pro­to­type to final game), to dif­fer­ent audi­ences (both inter­nal and exter­nal), and using dif­fer­ent pre­sen­ta­tion for­mats (incl. writ­ten instructions/rule sheets, pitches, game design doc­u­ments (GDDs), and game videos)
  4. Game Design Teams:
    1. Reflect on and apply suit­able processes and team-based, col­lab­o­ra­tive prac­tices used in game design includ­ing ideation, pro­to­typ­ing, iter­a­tive revi­sions, and playtest­ing as the base for an iter­a­tive design cycle to a game design project.
      1. Specific processes cov­ered in this class may include struc­tured team brain­storm­ing (affin­ity dia­gram­ming), mood­boards, inspi­ra­tion analy­sis, Razor & Slogan, Play Matrix, playtest­ing scripts, struc­tured game critique/analysis, and Agile project management)
    2. Explain what makes a good game designer, and why and how they often work in teams
    3. Reflect on your own and others’ assump­tions, lenses, beliefs, what people really care about, and pref­er­ences about games/playing, and how do they affect game design and teamwork
    4. Explain and uti­lize a tool­box of how to  foster a col­lab­o­ra­tive, con­struc­tive, and sup­port­ive team cul­ture and process, includ­ing pat­terns of think­ing and behav­iour that sup­port effec­tive teams, as well as spe­cific  tools, tips, processes and frame­works (incl. Agile) that might be useful
    5. Find ways to effec­tively address chal­lenges that can occur in team-based envi­ron­ments while being respect­ful and con­struc­tive. (This could include col­lab­o­ra­tively resolve chal­lenges that com­monly occur in team-based projects, such as bal­anc­ing between leading/following, com­mu­ni­ca­tion chal­lenges, con­flicts that arise, ensur­ing all team mem­bers con­tribute mean­ing­fully, engag­ing all team mem­bers, ensur­ing all care for the project and each other, get­ting people on the same page, and fig­ur­ing out a shared vision/purpose that all can care about).

Delivery Method

This course will include a weekly live lec­ture (110 min­utes) and a workshop-tutorial (110 min­utes) com­po­nent. The course for the spring 2021 will be deliv­ered via remote instruc­tion and will use a “flipped” class­room approach. Students are expected to par­tic­i­pate in:

  • syn­chro­nous activ­i­ties during the sched­uled course times. This includes a live, inter­ac­tive lec­ture with demon­stra­tions, dis­cus­sions, and some indi­vid­ual and peer/group work, as well as a live workshop-tutorial where stu­dents will prac­tice and apply the con­cepts of the lec­ture in design­ing sev­eral games
  • asyn­chro­nous activ­i­ties (e.g., inde­pen­dent prepa­ra­tion before the lec­ture, team work, peer work etc. to pre­pare each week and to pace your­self care­fully in order to stay on top of the activities/assignments and to get the most from the class).

The learn­ing envi­ron­ment will be active, sup­port­ing, and will afford oppor­tu­ni­ties for stu­dents to strengthen knowl­edge, skills, and feel a part of a community.

Teaching/Learning Activities

these include:

  • Interactive lec­tur­ing and demonstrations
  • Flipped-classroom activ­i­ties: e.g., stu­dents are asked to watch online tuto­ri­als & do read­ings at home so they can come to class pre­pared to do a short quiz, dis­cuss and apply the mate­r­ial, and fill out the weekly JiTT online assignments
  • Tutorial ses­sions
  • A team project made up of sev­eral team assignments/presentations that cul­mi­nate in a final group project report/presentation and project video
  • Group dis­cus­sions (in-class and online chat– and dis­cussing forums)
  • Short in-class writ­ing and other activities
  • Weekly read­ing and short writ­ing assignments
  • Several short stu­dent team presentations
  • Peer feed­back and evaluations

Main textbook

  • Fullerton, T. (2019). Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, Fourth Edition (4th Edition.). Boca Raton, FL: A K Peters/CRC Press. ISBN: 9781315104300. This is our main text­book, so make sure you have access and get your own copy by the first week of the semes­ter. You should be able to access it online through the SFU library.
  • Schell, J. (2019). The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, Third Edition. A K Peters/CRC Press. doi:10.1201/b22101. You should be able to access this online through the SFU library.

Additional read­ings will be pro­vided through Canvas.

Software used for game design & playtesting: Tabletop Simulator

As this is an online class in Spring 2021 you won’t need to pur­chase phys­i­cal pro­to­typ­ing mate­ri­als for design­ing your own games. Instead we will use an online board game sim­u­la­tor, the “Tabletop Simulator” https://www.tabletopsimulator.com/about. Course assign­ments will be taught and demon­strated with this soft­ware, and other soft­ware will not be sup­ported by the course. You can also use this soft­ware for rapid pro­to­typ­ing and design­ing your games in your teams, and it also works really well for online and dis­trib­uted playtest­ing (and of course gaming just for fun), and shar­ing your final games online. Thus we strongly rec­om­mend that you pur­chase, down­load, and install your own copy of it before class starts, see link above of directly from Steam https://store.steampowered.com/app/286160/Tabletop_Simulator/. it runs on both Windows and MacOS and cur­rently costs CDN$ 21.99. The soft­ware has a lot of excel­lent online resources and tuto­ri­als avail­able at https://www.tabletopsimulator.com/about. Note that to min­i­mize your extra costs for this class, we are remov­ing the need to pur­chase phys­i­cal pro­to­typ­ing and game design mate­ri­als, and I chose a text­book where our library pro­vides free online access.

Weekly Structure

The course will apply a “flipped” approach to learn­ing. This requires you to pre­pare each week and to pace your­self care­fully in order to stay on top of the activities/assignments and to get the most from the class. Each week it will go some­thing like this:

Preparing Before Lecture

You will begin the week by check­ing the weekly plan and your tasks on Canvas, and then watch­ing short, online tuto­ri­als, lec­tures, or other videos related to this week’s topics; then you will be invited to do the weekly read­ings that will cover topics of the week. You will use a read­ing guide/Jitt ques­tions to help you focus on key aspects of the read­ings, to answer key ques­tions that will help you to under­stand the ideas in the read­ings, and start apply­ing them in the JiTT (“Just in Time Teaching”) online short weekly assign­ments. We will also ask you about any “muddy points” or ques­tions you might still have after going through the videos, read­ings, and JiTTs. This will be done before the live lec­ture and will help us decide what aspects to focus on specif­i­cally in the “lec­ture”.  Occasionally you may be asked to do a short quiz to indi­cate how well you have under­stood the con­cepts in the read­ings and videos.

We will assist you in form­ing small study groups for those inter­ested to help you digest and reflect on the mate­ri­als before class, and have people to dis­cuss the topics with (as that can some­times be a chal­lenge in online teach­ing). We will also have a course slack chan­nel for online dis­cus­sions and Q&A.

Engaging in the Live Lecture where we discuss and apply the material

The lec­tures will be inter­ac­tive and include small group dis­cus­sions,  demon­stra­tions, stu­dent pre­sen­ta­tions and feed­back ses­sions, and instruc­tion on key ideas. Parts of the lec­tures may be recorded for review. It is impor­tant to real­ize that the lec­tures will focus on key ideas and appli­ca­tions and will not be a re-teaching of con­tent found in the read­ings and videos. You are required to read and pre­pare for the live lecture.

Participating in the Tutorials (aka Workshops or WKS)

Following the live lec­ture each week there is a tuto­r­ial aimed to pro­vide oppor­tu­ni­ties for prac­tic­ing and apply­ing the knowl­edge and skills of game design. The tuto­ri­als will include small group learn­ing, team activ­i­ties, game playtest­ing, and peer feed­back in par­tic­u­lar on the game design projects. Teams may be called upon to do short pre­sen­ta­tions or pitches of their game ideas and receive feed­back from peers and the instruc­tor on their designs. The tuto­ri­als will be highly engag­ing and prac­ti­cal and require your full con­tri­bu­tion. They also require active par­tic­i­pa­tion in the prior lecture.

Examples and details from the Fall 2017 course offering

For their final game project, stu­dents were asked to design a non-digital game that includes “Transformative Fun” aspects, also known as “seri­ous fun” (e.g., Lazzaro): That is, the game should be meaningful/purposeful or add value by some­how trans­form­ing the user, e.g., by pro­vid­ing a novel/meaningful user expe­ri­ence, dif­fer­ent perspectives/viewpoints, altered states etc.

Pictures from the final showcase on Dec 13, 2017

Sample Project Videos




Left Behind Bars   

False Illusion   


One Week to Refuge   


Another excel­lent game exam­ple from the 2019 offering:

Obsessed with success YouTube Preview Image