by Gabe Turow, Lindsay Dixon, LaToye Adams, Ting Yuan

Amazing Continents was the first game that I helped design from scratch. I worked on a team of 4 people in my Video games and Education class taught by Dr. Joey Lee. The game we invented is an interactive board game designed for upper elementary students to explore geography from sociocultural, historical and spatial perspectives through hands-on experiences solving puzzles, decoding questions, and building 3-D maps,. It like a 3-D version of trivial pursuit. 

The following is a brief description of our design process. It is included here to highlight our concerns regarding our audience, age-appropriate content, use of game mechanics, management of resources, and management of the playtest process. 

The design of Amazing Continents began with the objective of increasing geographic learning. Discussions for visual and conceptual designs began with an initial brainstorm. The game-board was designed using foam core board. 


The countries were colored in and labeled to facilitate gameplay and initial sorting of the continents. This shows the completed puzzle phase of the game:


Landmarks (left) and the six types of land forms (right) were each molded out of Sculpy and scaled so that they would fit on to the game-board:


A name and LOGO was designed and incorporated into the cards. The front and back of each card was printed on an inkjet and bound together. Landforms are lightly colored while landmarks have a dark shade.



Playtest 1- Revisions

•    Maybe include a variety of question types instead of one type

•    Figuring out a away to bring slower players to catch up to the more proficient players

•    Added steal token, a competitive feature that allows a player to answer another player’s question and move ahead.

•    Added a “Pass” token that allows struggling players to avoid getting further behind

•    Added a “Help Me” token that increases interpersonal conflict by making other players linked to a player’s success

•    Added “bonus” tokens that can be turned in for game pieces so players can advance at any time in order to increase tension or the perception of uncertainty

•    The wording of the questions was revised so it is easier for young player to understand.

•    The target age was adjusted to 9 and up

•    Food and language levels were removed so players can focus on geography

•    Instead of building distinct game pieces for each land form, standard pieces would be used to represent each type.

Playtesting revealed the enormity of game’s scale. The team worked together to simplify the quantity and kind of game pieces. After diving in with all the “stuff” of the game, we realized that we needed to focus more on designing engaging gameplay, the feeling of adventure, and a sense of accomplishment for winners. It seems the hardest part of the process was the intangible… the game dynamics and aesthetics. 

With these revisions, visual design and final game construction got under way. Team members started by dividing up responsibility of the final documents and submission. We set up a Google documents collection to organize and share files. Email was the primary method of communication. What follows is an edited and expanded version of our initial document. It has been expanded for the purposes of this competency paper.

Documentation and Analysis

Audience: Ages 9 and up.  2 to 6 Players or Teams.

Objective: Be the first player to collect ten game pieces for your continent!

Pre-Game Setup

Each player / team gets the following resources at the start of the game:


1 “Help Me” Token

Play this token when you are stuck by asking another player for help with your current question. If the question is answered incorrectly, you and your “Help Me” partner both lose a game piece of your choosing from the board. If answered correctly, you get the piece associated with the card and your “help me” partner gets a “Bonus” token.


2 “Steal” Tokens

Play these tokens after a question has been read by any opponent but before they / their team has answered the question. You or any member of your team may shout out “Steal!” before the other team answers to try to steal their turn. If you answer correctly, you receive a “Bonus” token. If you answer incorrectly, you must remove one game piece of your choice from the board and the person / team stolen from gets the piece from that card automatically.


2 “Pass” Tokens

Play a “Pass” token when you / your team is stuck on a question and want to draw another card instead. You must call out “Pass” and turn in your token before the timer runs out on the question or your opponents play a “Steal” token. The timer re-sets with the new question and no one may steal the new question.


0 “Bonus” Tokens

Each player / team starts out with zero bonus tokens...but, each time you steal a question or answer a question that was missed by the player next to you, you receive one “Bonus” token. After you collect four “Bonus” tokens, you may turn them in for one game piece of your choice at any point during your turn.

Instructions / Procedures

I. Each player or a representative from each team will roll the die to determine who rolls first in the puzzle round (next step). The highest roll determines who goes first.


II. Each player / team representative rolls the die to determine which continent pack they will use for the remainder of the game.

1 = North America        2 = Central America + Caribbean        3 = South America

4 = Europe            5 = Africa                    6 = Asia


III.  Once each player / team has selected a deck and continent, the puzzle round begins:

A. Take the country pieces that correspond to the number you rolled on the die.

B. After you start the timer, race against your opponents to put your part of the world together the fastest! If the timer goes off before all puzzle pieces are in place, the player / team with the most pieces placed correctly wins the puzzle round. (Check the “Puzzle Answer Key” to see the proper location of every country / puzzle piece)

C. Every player / team must now finish

D. The player / team who wins the puzzle round gets to go first in the questions round and gets one “Bonus” token.


IV. The winner(s) of the puzzle round goes first in the questions round:

A. Draw a card from your own deck and either cover the back of the card with your hand or lay it flat on the table.

B. You or another player must flip the hour-glass to begin the timer for your turn.

C. Read the question and answer choices out loud and answer the question if you can or, if you choose, use a “Pass” or “Help Me” card.

D. If you answer the question correctly, place the corresponding game piece on the board in the correct location. If you answer incorrectly, do NOT say the answer out loud. Merely say “incorrect” or indicate that you got the answer wrong. The player / team to the left may make one guess (the time restarts) and if answered correctly, they gain a “Bonus” token. If they answer incorrectly, the turn ends there.


V. Once the first player’s turn has finished, take turns going clockwise around the board in the same manner (drawing cards, answering questions and collecting game pieces) until one player / team collects six natural landmark game pieces and four man-made pieces (ten game pieces in total per continent / team). Once this has happened....YOU WIN!!


Re-play: Play again as many times as you want. Become a master of Asian geography or try to learn about by whole world by playing with each deck.

Game Premise and Rationale

Geography represents a domain of knowledge that goes far beyond the traditional model of learning basic facts of country/continent locations; instead, it is closely tied to the experiences of human beings, who are not only participants in their local regions but also designers and producers, as individuals and communities, symbolized by art, music, religion, food, architecture, social power, etc. All these elements can be traced back to cultures and histories that were/are lived and (re)built by human beings. Further, geography is about spaces. It is about layers of natural wonders, historical memories, cultural relics, and influential individuals. These spatial layers interact with and add to each other in different places. So, to design a game for students to learn about geography is to design activities that match that expanded concept of geography and to include the sociocultural, historical and spatial aspects of knowledge.

The Bank Street School for Children, an innovative independent school in NYC, provides an excellent example of designing geography learning units in relation to the larger sociocultural, historical environment. For instance, the school has a regular unit for its second graders to study the Hudson River, with a goal of having a refined understanding of the relationship between land and water as well as the influences brought by human communities; students in the process make their own 3-D maps of the river, by adding layers of cultural/historical objects to their maps (Mitchell & Cunningham, 1992). Based on of the author’s, Ting Yuan’s, observations during field visits to the school and information communicated by the teachers there, this program has been effectively expanding students’ repertoire of knowledge, motivating self-directed learning from pre-kindergarten to upper elementary school.

Out of school, many young people become savvy users of popular digital media, and particularly (digital) games (Gee, 2003), and so there is a need to connect school-based learning to gaming. Gee claims that “[games] operate with—that is, they build into their designs and encourage—good principles of learning, principles that are better than those in many of our skill-and-drill, back-to-basics, test-them-until-they-drop schools” (2003, p. 205). Furthermore, there is a need to provide students with more hands-on learning opportunities through gaming to truly address students’ needs in the contemporary landscape. Students today multi-task and need more spaces to be “naturally” motivated to learn in self-directed ways, echoing Montessori’s educational theory (Squire, 2011).  However, even if games can be a potential vehicle to promote an interconnected, multimodal learning environment (Gee, 2007), integration of gaming into school curriculum, or educational games that are good enough to make academic connections are scarce (Gee, 2003, 2007; Squire, 2011).  Amazing Continents is designed to address this gap in both the fields of gaming and curriculum by highlighting curricular connections between geography’s sociocultural, historical, and spatial perspectives.

Game Values and Goals

The game content and activities are designed through the aforementioned perspectives of knowledge as well as theoretical notions connecting Montessori’s self-directed approach to gaming (Squire, 2011), some learning principles of good video games (Gee, 2003), and Costikyan’s (1994) game design theory. The goals of our game are to teach and provide hands-on learning opportunities for game players to explore geography socially, culturally, historically and spatially.

Furthermore, the game not only extends from the “spatial separation from ordinary life” (Huizinga, 2006, p. 113) to real-world geographical culture and history, but also creates a layered space for players to constantly “play with thought, reflection, and engagement with the world around you” (Gee, 2007, p. 8), through (1) puzzle solving—mapping geographical regions, (2) question decoding—interacting with peer players, thinking about card questions and reflecting on the completed puzzle pieces, and (3) 3-D map building—re-reflecting on the regions and adding objects to maps.

Educational Theories

First, the principles of Montessori education contribute to the premise and rationale of the game design. Squire (2011) argues, by delineating his own teaching experience, that Montessori education provides a good model of what a game-based learning environment should look like. In the Montessori model, learning occurs when students are guided by adults to select materials on their own, and to work on various projects, which allows students to “follow [their] interests, engage the senses…and test ideas” (pp. 49-50). Via the environment, students learn lessons in order, discipline, concentration, independence, self-directedness, interaction and other socio-emotional skills. According to Squire, a good gaming environment is similar to a Montessori school: it addresses students’ interests and needs and gives them appropriate opportunities for self-directed learning.

Gee (2003) asserts several learning principles that he considers equally relevant to learning in gaming and learning in school content areas. Throughout the process, our game took into account the following learning principles:

1.     Cultural model about semiotic domain principle: conscious and reflective learning about a particular semiotic domain. This game is about geography.

2.     Cultural model about the world principle: students consciously and reflectively explore the in-game cultural models regarding the world, making connections to their personal experiences.  Our game is designed to explore the geography of six continents. Based on students’ prior knowledge, the game offers an interactive, reflective environment for students to pay attention to the cultural and historical aspects of regional knowledge. They are also encouraged to look closely and recognize what famous landmarks look like. 

3.     Discovery principle: chances for learners to experience, experiment, and make discoveries. The puzzle and spatial components of the game enable players to have a variety of experiences (the ability to replay as a different continent), explore through trial and error, and discover new knowledge through game challenges and reflections.

4.      Distributed principle: the distribution of meaning and/knowledge across learners, objects, tools, symbols, technologies, and the gaming environment. The spatial layers of the game require players to navigate within and across the game-board, the place and identify landmark objects, and read and make connections to game cards. The 3-D map fills up with landmarks as new questions answered.

Design principle: the appreciation of design. The game is unique in its combination of physical designs. The puzzle pieces in combination with varied and color game pieces draw players in immediately. For classroom purposes, the game offers the potential for student-designed cards and objects related to respective continents. Features such as population density and languages spoken could be added as flags or other custom pieces. Students can make more puzzle pieces by conveniently cutting respective country areas from the current 14 puzzle pieces of each continent.

A related set of game design heuristics proposed by Costikyan (1994) further inspired our work:

1.     Decision Making: Decision-making happens throughout the gameplay as students work through the initial puzzles, to answering multiple choice questions, to the stratetic use of game tokens and other resources.

2.     Goals: Each stage of gameplay has clear goals, such as solve the puzzle, answer the question, place landmark in the correct location, etc.

3.     Opposition: Players compete with each other and “race” to complete their respective 3-D maps; they answer questions in a race to be the first player to fill their map with landmarks.

4.     Managing Resources: Players must shrewdly use limited game tokens and help requests to influence the play of the game and the fate of their fellow players.

5.     Game Tokens: The tokens include a game-board, a dice, puzzle pieces, cards, “bonus” tokens and landmark objects.

6.     Information: The game content and activities address some of the physical, sociocultural, historical, and spatial knowledge of six continents.

7.     Color: The game-board, the dice, the puzzle pieces, the landmark objects, and the cards— all the details are organized and laid out artistically to provide a novel and attractive landscape. This not only creates an appealing atmosphere for gamplay, but encourages ongoing discovery through the chance to connect visual imagery and miniature sculptures to interesting information.

8.     Simulation: This game simulates some physical features and sociocultural, historical symbols of continents.  

9.     Variety of Encounter: Through the use of the dice, the puzzles, and the game cards, this game would be experienced differently on every encounter based on players’ prior knowledge, reflections, and decision making. By playing the game as a different continent, each player could have up to 6 different experiences with the map, and more than that number in their probability of getting the chance to answer different questions from the random deck of cards. 

10.  Position Identification: The game allows for multiple players or teams of players (as many as six), and the players are positioned against each other in a type of map-building race. They “race” based on their prior knowledge, reflections, and decision making.

11.  Socializing: Players interact during gameplay by questioning, answering, and/or giving help to each other, based on the use of in-game tokens.

12.  Challenges: Players face a variety of challenging but doable “demands” during gameplay, from the puzzles to the card questions to the challenges posed by opponents who play game tokens forcing certain actions of players or teams.

Originality and Playability

Centered on culture, history, and space, Amazing Continents gives players a variety of opportunities to explore the world’s sociocultural/historical environment through hands-on, interactive, and reflective experiences during gameplay. This game is somewhat novel in its curricular connections that remix different perspectives in the domain of geography, and for its game design that remixes game mechanics from puzzle games, board games, and 3-D games.