April 2011 BGJ – CardBoard Jam – Looks Good On Paper

On the weekend of April 9 & 10th, from morning until night, about 30 game developers gathered into 8 groups at GAMBIT Game Lab on MIT campus to participate in a new type of Boston Game Jam. This time around, video and computer games were set aside for board and card game projects. Jeff Ward and Tim Volpe wrote up their enthusiastic perspectives on the Cardboard Jam shortly after. Check back with Boston Game Jams soon for more details and comprehensive coverage of all the Cardboard Jam projects.

Here we offer two unique perspectives in separate posts from members of the one jam team made up entirely of Boston Indies community members. Andrew Brockert’s post shows us the internal experience of the jam and provides a setting and atmosphere with its words; the other, by Chad Serrant, is a play-by-play breakdown of the mechanical and collaborative decision-making efforts that combine during the development of a board game in two days.

From contributing writer Andrew Brockert

You are seven years old, on the playground at recess.

“The ground is lava!”

“But if I run to the swingsets, I’m safe!”

“OK, but you have to get on a swing, and then you can only swing ten times before you have to run back.”

Minutes later…

“This isn’t fair, there aren’t enough swings!”

“You can only swing three times now. If you swing more than that, you burn up and die.”

In our digital medium, it’s easy to get tunnel vision about what play is. At the Cardboard Jam, we stepped into the world of board games for a weekend and got a reminder of the full possibility space open to us as game designers.

It started, true to game jam style, with pitches. Here we were led by Jonathon Myers, as Darren Torpey, the Honorable Boston Game Jams Czar, was occupied for the morning wrangling three wildebeest. The ideas and coffee flowed. Play a senator in a game of pork barrel politics? Work together to deal with a superhuman AI that thinks it’s the Messiah? Be an advisor to the mayor in a SimCity-like government, and compete for the leader’s ear?

For me, the idea of a board game inspired by Inception resonated, so I joined up with Tim Crosby, Chad Serrant, and Jeff Ward to go deeper. We started from a simple premise: begin at the top, build a path to something at the bottom, then retreat back through that path.  The items you lay down on the way make your descent easier, but then they turn into hindrances on the way out. Based that idea, we labeled different index cards as “path”, “secret”, “move”, and “gear”. These cards gathered arcane annotations as we tried different variations, rejecting more ideas than we kept. Rule changes often took place in the middle of play: “You can only place gear on the path you inhabit or the path immediately below it.” We played variations of the same game for hours. I was on the playground again.

When we needed a break, we wandered around GAMBIT, listened to and played with the games of other teams. Of course, we also partook in the sublime results of Vickie’s food jam. I played one of Luther Patenge’s prototypes, which resembled a creative twist on the shell game. Walking through the halls and labs from time to time, I caught glimpses of the evolution of several other extraordinarily original games. GAMBIT’s label as a “game lab” is well-deserved.

It seems repetitive to underscore yet again how original and clever every game was, but the closing presentations of our work did just that. Everyone present (including a few people who showed up just for that — I’m looking at you, K. Adam) got to see the results of a weekend’s work. At the end, everything was still a little rough around the edges, but that’s precisely in the spirit of a jam. Regardless, the thought and effort that went into each and every game was plain to see, and it manifested in different ways. Swamped! had beautiful imagery in its pieces and cards. Light Fuse and Get Away had a deeply intense and fast-paced dynamic between its two players. Everyone there learned a little more about the craft of game design.

[Photos of note card pitches and demos by Rik Eberhard. Swamped! photos by Calvin Nelson]

All game development events in Cambridge must, it seems, end in beer. A pilgrimage to Cambridge Brewing Company was a foregone conclusion, and it proved a cathartic post-mortem. Even after the jam, much conversation was in the future tense (“we’ll have to try it with a larger deck and see if it becomes less swingy”). It wasn’t all about the games, though — there was much passing of a Nintendo 3DS for analysis, talk of current and future plans of the jammers, and, when I brought out our cards, a tiny bit of complaint about the amount of black toner used over the weekend (sorry, Rik!).

You — yes, you, reading this now — can learn something by getting together with friends and jamming on paper. Anyone who makes games, whether as a pastime or for a living, needs to know how to iterate, and going back to the absolute basics of pen and paper can remind us all of how to do that.

Until next time, I’ll be on the tire swing.


Andrew Brockert is an engineer, writer, dabbler. As a Massachusetts native, he is thankful to have an extraordinary game development community in Boston. He blogs sporadically at

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