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MayX Snapshot: Students seek the next generation of board games

Last updated June 1, 2022

By Jerry Salley ’90

This week, we’re highlighting courses from May Experience – a chance for students to explore topics beyond the typical academic year.

COURSE: You Sank My Battleship! Board Game Analysis
INSTRUCTOR: Chris Alvin, associate professor of computer science
OBJECTIVE: This course introduced students to topics in game theory, probability and algorithms that underlie many current board games. Students then used these tools to design their own game.

It’s fair to say that Chris Alvin has more than a few board games.

“My wife and I went to Ikea. We bought a seven-foot cabinet, and I said, ‘That’s not going to be enough,’” he remembered.

Eventually, Alvin and his wife, Lori Alvin, an associate professor of mathematics at Furman, wound up with four seven-foot-tall cabinets, three of which are now crammed full with the couples’ board game collection.

Alvin, who’s been a board-game enthusiast for decades, has been excited to observe a resurgence in board game popularity over the past 10 years.

A 20-sided die was one mechanism of movement studied during a MayX course on board games.

A 20-sided die was one mechanism of movement studied during a MayX course on board games.

“These are not your typical canonical board games from the last 30 to 50 years,” he said. “Yes, there’s going to be Scrabble. Yes, there’s going to be Yahtzee.” But now, more complex games, such as Settlers of Catan, are joining the classics on the shelves at Target, Alvin noted.

This renewed interest in board games sparked the idea to develop a MayX class. Alvin knew that playing board games, like Quixx, MicroMacro: Crime City and Guillotine, can teach you a lot about life. So students in Alvin’s MayX class played for hours, picking apart every aspect of design, mechanics and underlying game theory. Along the way, they probed topics like probability, design, scalability and clarity of rules. Finally, the students were challenged to take what they learned and create their own entirely original board game.

Alvin encouraged the students to explore cooperative gaming – “Not everything has to be competitive, right?” he said – and he was rigorous about having his them test and optimize each aspect of play.

“Creating is so much fun, but testing and refining can take a lot out of you,” said Katie Abbott ’25.

Students also examined game movement. “There were situations where it wasn’t always clear what order a set of actions should occur in, and we talked in length about it,” said Abbott. “For all intents and purposes, we learned to meta-game and have fun doing it.”

When his students suggested using a standard six-sided die to advance players around the board, Alvin encouraged them to use their imagination, explore all their options and tap into all the resources available to them, including a 3D printer.

“I said, ‘[a six-sided die] doesn’t excite me.’ But if they use a 20-sided die or 10-sided die, the sky’s the limit,” Alvin said. “If they want to dream it, I want to see if we can actually make it happen.”

The students quickly learned that there was one game they should avoid mentioning.

“They know I have disdain for Monopoly, because it’s not a game that people typically finish. It takes too long, and the rules have deviated from the original concept,” Alvin said. “I don’t want to hear about it. It’s not a game that exists in my world.”

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