From modern board games to city planning serious games

Micael Sousa

I felt the post-digital1 effect without noticing it when rediscovering the pleasures of board games during my first job after graduating. I was a heavy Magic: The Gathering player (MTG) (1993), but during my graduation in civil engineering time to play was scarce. Some years later, I rediscovered my Settlers of Catan (1995) and it became one of the main activities to socialize with friends. I bought Catan because it was played also at my MTG local club. Since then, I discovered many other modern board games. Visiting Leiriacon2, which is the biggest modern board game Portuguese convention, in 2008, changed my perspective about the quantity and variety of new games. As time passed, board games became the main activity that allowed me to socialize and play while turning the computer off.  

More than ten years later, I was working in my municipality, participating in several projects about urban planning. I have realized how few engaging techniques we had to attract citizen participation. In the UrbanWins Project, about the circular economy, we desperately needed some “ice-breaking” activities to foster participation and collaboration among attendants. I had the idea to use Dixit (2008) cards to support the attendants’ self-presentations. I was a success. Later I found that games could be used in many other similar ways to achieve project objectives. I found the serious games approach3 and discovered that modern board games could be adapted to become serious games4. My serious game academic experiences began once I got back to the University of Coimbra to do my PhD in spatial planning. It was exciting to explore games and transform them into planning tools using the serious games approach. Analogue games can have higher potentials than digital games since analogue games provide more transparent game systems to analyse, easier to adapt to specific purposes even in real-time. These games foster collaboration among users through the social contact of playing and activating the game mechanisms5. The innovation that modern board games have been introducing6 could amplify the potential of analogue games to deliver engaging experiences. Many new game mechanisms are constantly being introduced into modern board games. They enable simulation and building narratives, as well as challenging the players to make better decisions.  This variety and continuous introduction of new mechanisms enable designers to create new game systems7. These mechanisms are the building blocks of analogue games8. Today we have countless options to build our games to whatever purposes we intend.  

My serious game first experiences started with modding. Modifying some games and following some serious game frameworks proved to result and delivered results. The evaluation framework from Mayer9 was very useful because it proposed guidelines to establish a structure for a serious game session. This evaluation framework helped me to organize and schedule the game sessions. It also helped with the observation and questionnaires. The Design, Play, Experience (DPE)10 provided a method to identify the game mechanisms and the emergent narratives that usually happen during serious games for urban planning. However, there was the need to modify the DPE to introduce the role of the facilitator. The DPE framework is based on the Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics (MDA) very influencing framework from Hunicke11 but adding more layers to introduce the narrative and the learning dimensions a serious game should deliver. The DPE was a useful starting point, although my ongoing research focuses on improving and adapting it to analogue serious games.  

My first modding approach was to teach civil engineers about transport networks with the help of the board game Steam (2009), and it was presented during Educon 201912. This modding approach was later improved and presented in a paper during the Game-On 202013. In this second attempt, the same game, Steam board game, was made even simpler because it could be overwhelming for inexperienced players and due to limited available time to explore the game with students. The game modification provided an opportunity to explore how the game mechanisms could be related to learning mechanics. It became obvious that having a facilitator to support the game was necessary to connect gaming and learning. 

Collaborative urban planning requires establishing a method to discuss, debate, and collaboratively decide with participants. To explore how modern board games could support these needs, I focused on brainstorming ideation and design thinking. Using Dixit and other small and fast games was a success during the project UrbanWins14, but more testing was necessary. UrbanWins was a European Union project about the circular economy principles that demanded public participation and collaborative decision-making about local strategies to reduce environmental impacts. Later, during a small course run by the Leiria Business School15, I created a process to establish fast brainstorming activities among people that never met before16. It proved that using games could provide valuable insights for entrepreneurs even when played with participants from different businesses. A similar approach was tested with students from the University of Coimbra (UC). The games helped to kick-off an ideation process and fostered collaboration17. This experience at UC was important to test how we could select games according to player profiles, following the Engagement Design Model18. In order to create a serious game experience where we may ignore who will participate, having games that can engage the most players is a promising path to success. 

As I dove deeper into game modding, I started to experiment new designs. Knowing some established frameworks like the DPE and a structure to evaluate the serious game approach helped designing new games. One of them was a game that could be played over a printed Google Map19. It combined several game mechanisms8 and delivered a collaborative sandbox for decision-making and generating narratives (Fig. 1).  Students played a turn-based game where they spend action points that represented the public budget of the city. This form of action points supported the narrative of the collective decision-making public process. The collaborative dynamic allowed players to ask other players´ money to place parks, public facilities and define the transport system. Players could also define new housing, commercial, and industrial zones, represented by the coloured cubes. The staking of the cubes represented the urban density. It was a successful way to introduce engineering students to collaborative urban planning. 

Uma imagem com frigorífico

Descrição gerada automaticamente
Fig.1 – San-box collaborative game (Sousa 2020a).

With the outbreak of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the development of these game approaches became much more challenging. But I found a way to transpose these techniques to online sessions. By combining some games like Ikonikus (2013) and Imagidice! (2000) with facilitation techniques to allow playing over Zoom, it was possible to support a collaborative planning session through Google Docs20

Despite the pandemic, it was possible to advance another project where I used modern board game design to build serious games for collaborative planning. In the UrbSecurity21 project, an Urbact initiative to improve urban security, I worked with the municipality of Leiria to develop a new game approach. We created a new game usage proposal consisting of a three-step process. First, we used games to foster creativity and empathy among participants. In the second step, we utilized maps and drawing games. In the last step, we developed the final game that resulted from the previous stages and followed the principles of co-creation with the public officers from the municipality of Leiria. In this last game, the participants should identify the security problems and collaborative manage a budget to implement solutions (Fig. 2). This project is still ongoing, and the gathered data needs to be analysed and conclusions made.  

Uma imagem com mapa

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Fig. 2 – Urbsecurity final game.

These serious games approaches have been fascinating. It was a joy to overcome the challenge of transforming commercial games into serious games tools and entering the adventure of serious game design. This process can be tricky. For these serious games approaches to work, knowledge and experience are necessary. We need to study and learn many games, play them ourselves and evaluate others playing them also. If we start dealing with serious games without solid game design knowledge is even harder. We need to study game design by ourselves, and the available material can be misleading or lack clarity. Much of these sources can be trivial and not useful at all. But we need to explore them anyway. It is part of the learning process. Some courses can help us, and some seminal books might assist us in this adventure to deal with game design22

The COVID-19 pandemic made it clear that we need physical interactions to be mentally healthy23. So, the Post-Digital movement may become even stronger once the pandemic restrictions are down. This need for social gathering and interactions is a renewed opportunity to use modern board game designs for serious games related to all fields of knowledge. 


Abt 1987: C. C. Abt, Serious games, New York 1987.  

Castranova / Knowles 2015: E. Castranova / I. Knowles, Modding board games into serious games: The case of Climate Policy, International Journal of Serious Games, 2(3) (2015), p. 41-62, URL: [Accessed on 14.10.2021].

Cramer 2015: F. Cramer, What is ‘Post-digital’?, in: Springer / Palgrave Macmillan, Postdigital aesthetics, London 2015, p. 12-26, URL:  [Accessed on 14.10.2021].

Elias 2012: G. S. Elias / R. Garfield / K. R. Gutschera, Characteristics of games, Cambridge / London 2012. 

Engelstein / Shalev 2019: G. Engelstein / I. Shalev, Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design: An Encyclopedia of Mechanisms, Boca Raton 2019, URL:  [Accessed on 14.10.2021].

Engelstein 2020: G. Engelstein, Game Production: Prototyping and Producing Your Board Game, London 2020. 

Fullerton 2014: T. Fullerton, Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, London 42014, URL:  [Accessed on 14.10.2021].

Hunicke 2004: R. Hunicke / M. Leblanc / R. Zubek, MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research, AAAI Workshop – Technical Report 1 (2004), p. 1722-1726. 

Mayer 2014: I. Mayer [et al.], The research and evaluation of serious games: Toward a comprehensive methodology, in: British Journal of Educational Technology, 45(3) (2014), p. 502-527, URL: [Accessed on 14.10.2021].

Pfefferbaum / North 2020: B. Pfefferbaum / C. S. North, Mental health and the Covid-19 pandemic, in: New England Journal of Medicine, 383(6) (2020), p. 510-512, URL:  [Accessed on 14.10.2021].

Pulsipher 2012: L. Pulsipher, Game design: How to create video and tabletop games, start to finish, Jefferson 2012. 

Salen / Zimmerman 2004: K. Salen / E. Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, Cambridge 2004. 

Sousa 2020a: M. Sousa, A Planning Game Over a Map: Playing Cards and Moving Bits to Collaboratively Plan a City, in: Frontiers in Computer Science 2, 37 (2020), URL: [Accessed on 14.10.2021].

Sousa 2020b: M. Sousa, Fast Brainstorm techniques with modern board games adaptations for daily uses in business and project managing, Proceedings of the International Conference of Applied Business and Management (ICABM2020) (2020), p. 508-524, URL: [Accessed on 14.10.2021].

Sousa 2020c: M. Sousa, Modern Serious Board Games: modding games to teach and train civil engineering students, 2020 IEEE Global Engineering Education Conference (EDUCON) (2020), p. 197-201, URL:  [Accessed on 14.10.2021].

Sousa 2021a: M. Sousa, Modding modern board games for e-learning: a collaborative planning exercise about deindustrialization, IEEE International Conference of the Portuguese Society for Engineering Education (2021), p. 1-8, URL: [Accessed on 14.10.2021].

Sousa 2021b: M. Sousa, Serious board games: modding existing games for collaborative ideation processes Modding board games to be serious games 8(2) (2021), p. 129-147, URL: [Accessed on 14.10.2021].

Sousa / Bernardo 2019: M. Sousa / E. Bernardo: Back in the Game: modern board games, in: Videogame Sciences and Arts, Springer International Publishing (2019), p. 72-85, URL:  [Accessed on 14.10.2021].


Imagidice!: Emily Daly, Imagidice! (Gigamic 2000). 

Magic: The Gathering: Richard Garfield, Magic: The Gathering (Wizards of the Coast 1993).  

Ikonikus: Manu Palau, Ikonikus (Picnic 2013). 

Dixit: Jean-Louis Roubira, Dixit (Libellud 2008). 

Settlers of Catan: Klaus Teuber, Settlers of Catan (Kosmos 1995).  

Steam: Martin Wallace, Steam (Mayfair 2009).  

Zitierempfehlung: Micael Sousa, From modern board games to city planning serious games, Boardgame Historian 2021, URL: bghistorian.hypotheses.og/1746

Micael Sousa is a civil engineer with a master in energy and environment. His love for the past led him to graduate in History and do another master in heritage studies. He is now doing a PhD in Spatial Planning, focusing on serious board games for collaborative urban planning. One of the founders of the Asteriscos association and the Boardgamers de Leiria project. Creator of the “Jogos no Tabuleiro”, a Portuguese YouTube channel dedicated to modern board games and serious games. He collaborates with the Leiriacon board game convention and is a member of the jury of the Spiel Portugal award. 

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Boardgame Historian (2021, 16. Oktober). From modern board games to city planning serious games. Boardgame Historian. Abgerufen am 22. Mai 2024, von

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  3. Abt 1987. []
  4. Castronova / Knowles 2015. []
  5. Zagal 2006. []
  6. Sousa / Bernardo 2019. []
  7. Sousa 2021. []
  8. Engelstein / Shalev 2019. [] []
  9. Mayer 2014. []
  10. Winn 2009. []
  11. Hunicke 2004. []
  12. Sousa 2020c []
  13. Sousa / Dias 2020. []
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  16. Sousa 2020b. []
  17. Sousa 2021b. []
  18. Zagalo 2020. []
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  20. Sousa 2021a. []
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  22. Elias 2012; Engelstein / Shalev 2019; Engelstein 2020; Fullerton 2014; Pulsipher 2012; Salen / Zimmerman 2004. []
  23. Pfefferbaum / North 2020. []

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