The room is filled with the sounds of play. Dice clatter across tables, playing cards are shuffled and dealt, tokens and game pieces change hands, and every once in a while, the room fills with shouts of laughter and triumph.
But this isn’t the back of a comic book store — it’s a computer science class at Columbus State University.
“Underneath all this, there is problem solving, decision making, there are statistics and mathematics that actually go into making these games,” said Rodrigo Obando, Ph.D, an associate professor of computer science at CSU, creator of CSU’s game design program, and architect of the board game design class.
“Go to any game studio, and they have a room with a big table and arts and crafts. They cut pieces and assemble things — that’s how they check the mechanics,” he said. That’s what he taught students to do over the summer at CSU.
Board games, Obando said, allow students to understand the mechanics that make games playable. If a game isn’t fun, or it doesn’t make sense, all the programming skill in the world won’t help make it better.
Students started the class by creating a basic game that could be played in about five minutes. After that, they studied classic board games and learned what made them work. What made people want to play in the first place? Is the game still fun, even if you’re losing? Why?
“The idea was that they would learn these things and then create a game by the end. And they did,” Obando said.
In one game, called ATK, players used cards to build their power (or decrease others’ power) and ultimately take down a boss “virus” to win the match.
Another was an Apples-to-Apples based game called It is Clearly Not Written, where players built silly, nonsensical stories by randomly choosing cards with beginnings, middles and ends from a table and reading them aloud.
Another had players racing around a game board to collect votes before election day, and another allowed players to trade and mine resources, similar to the international hit Settlers of Catan.
Students like Rebecca Green, a senior computer science major, said the class opened new avenues for them to stretch their abilities.
“Sometimes in computer science, a lot of our classes are very intense,” Green said.
“If you’re on the games track, you’re looking at these games, you’re building them, but your mechanism is entirely the computer. So you’re limited by how advanced you are at programming. In this class, you learn the mechanics, but you’re doing it through play.”
Obando said the skills students learn in this class will give them a leg up on other students who focus only on the technical side of programming and design.
“It’s more art than science. You can actually create something very mathematically sound, and that’s great, but if you don’t have that special part, it’s not fun.”
By practicing good game design now, and having peers test their creations simply by pulling up a chair and playing, Obando believes students are already on the path to creating successful games and programs.
“If you want to be a game designer, well, you design games, and design games, and design games,” Obando said. “And at some point, you may design something that is very very good. That’s what you learn to do here.”
Scott Berson: 706-571-8578, @ScottBersonLE