Games for an Evening of Conversation

An Evening of Conversation was part of the 2015 Come Out & Play SF Festival, featuring a series of talks on various play-related topics. I designed a suite of games to be played by the audience between speakers.

Each of the games was a sort of gamepoem designed to encourage conversation between players (that was the theme of the event after all) and self-reflection on their identities as game designers, players, and enthusiasts.

The games were received well at the event, but since I was also busy with lots of CO&P duties that weekend, I ended up half-forgetting about them. Fast forward to a year later, when a player at this year’s festival told me how much they had enjoyed those games and asked for a copy of the rules. After I dug them out of my notes, I realized that forgetting about your own work is not a good habit – hence this report.

You Can't Go Home Again

“You Can’t Go Home Again” is a parlor game in which one player tells a story about their home town, but doesn’t say where the town actually is; the other players then make up stories set in that mystery town. The result is an alternate-reality history of the first player’s home.

The game was originally conceived of as a way to test certain dynamics for a larger game project (one that I’m only now getting around to; stay tuned for more in 2017!). But after a few runs, it felt strong enough to stand on its own as a small but fun parlor game.

The game is about inventing stories, and the phrasing of the initial prompt makes a big difference in the types of stories that players tell. Asking a player to “tell us something about the history of the town you grew up in” results in a very different game than “tell a story about your childhood home.” But in all cases, the collaborative worldbuilding that goes on during the game serves to create a bond between the players – one player even referred to the stories as a “gift.”

Watching people play this game helped me to solidify a feeling I’ve been having about the way I want to use narrative in game design: I’m less interested in using games to tell stories than I am in making games that act as a framework to help players tell stories. This game doesn’t necessarily achieve that, as it doesn’t do anything to help players who aren’t already good at making up stories on the fly. But as a signpost pointing the way towards something, it’s been really helpful.


Gridagram is a word puzzle in which you must solve a series of crossword-style clues by unscrambling a grid of letters.

The prototype was initially conceived as a followup to Voyage of the Starship Lexicon, a previous game made in collaboration with Caper Academy. We had a puzzle mode in that game, but it felt a little undereveloped, and the arcade mode was the main emphasis there anyway. Coming back to it much later, I wanted to try out some ideas for taking the grid-manipulation mechanic and evolving it in a slightly different direction.

The problem with the prototype as it ended up is that it just ends up being an anagram puzzle with hints, which is not necessarily the most exciting thing. If I were to come back to it, I’d want to implement more of the sliding tile action that felt so good in Starship Lexicon, and see if that influences the design of puzzles at all.


Melodomatic is a procedural music generator that is controlled by a custom scripting language, with a goal of being a tool that I can use for live-coded improvisation.

This is a little different than most of my projects in that it’s a tool rather than a game, and it’s made strictly for myself. When I design a game (or just about anything else), I’m usually thinking about how the user will interact with it, whether they’ll find it learnable, etc. But in this case, I wanted to make a tool that was specifically fitted to the way that I think through musical ideas, harmonic progressions, etc. The result is something that by works for me, but is hopelessly cryptic to an outside user, and I kind of have to force myself to be okay with that.

The risk when making creative tools is that you can end up spending so much time adding neat features to the tool that you forget to actually do any creating with it. This is definitely a trap that I’ve fallen into with melodomatic – I’m already at the point where I need a cheat sheet to remember the syntax for some of the goofier functions – but I’m hoping to come back to this soon and make some music that’s more than just test scripts.


CodeCombat is a web-based game that helps kids learn to program by throwing them into a fantasy world where battles are won and gold is looted by writing short programs. Unlike a lot of other games that teach programming, CodeCombat emphasizes using textual, real-world languages (Python and Javascript) over visual learning languages like Scratch or Blockly.

I had been consulting with CodeCombat on and off for a while, but in late 2015, they began working on a product-wide revamp to focus on the institutional market, which necessitated lots of UX changes and ton of new content, which I pitched in on where needed. The new “courses” version of the game was launched this fall and has been well received by teachers and students.


Masterswords is a vocabulary and spelling game for kids (and grownups!) age 12-ish and up. In the game, you battle monsters RPG-style, but in order to attack, you must spell words from a set of tiles. Basically, it’s Combat Scrabble.

In a bit of a change from my usual m.o., I did not do any game design on this project! (Though I did do some UI design here and there.) On this one I was “just” the programmer, subcontracting for Asymmetric Publications on a project commissioned by Amplify. The bulk of the work was done in 2014 and 2015, and the game was released as part of Amplify’s educational suite, where it was received well by teachers and students, and even won a silver medal at the 2015 Serious Play Awards.

In 2016, we only did a bit work on the game itself, but we finally shipped the long-delayed commercial release of the game on the iOS App Store, now published by Touch Press Games (who acquired Amplify in early 2016).

Come Out & Play SF 2016

[Cat On Yer Head at CO&P SF 2016 Night Games]

Come Out & Play SF is San Francisco’s annual festival of real-world games and participatory art. I’ve been part of the festival as an artist and volunteer for a few years now, and this was my second year as Artistic Director (i.e., the jerk who yells at artists to show up on time).

Early in the year, Fort Mason approached us with the idea of holding this year’s festival on their grounds. Somehow, this snowballed into us programming a full season of events throughout the fall, including a number of ticketed games, something we’d never done before. Luckily, the Bay Area is full of game designers, interactive theater producers, and crazy artists, so scheduling a season’s worth of events from scratch is not as impossible as it sounds.

While the expanded format was a lot of work (a lot of work), it allowed us to do some things we’d been wanting to do for a while:

  • Expand our curatorial footprint to include more than what people think of as “the typical CO&P game;”
  • Encourage players and artists to think of play as being worth something, both culturally and financially;
  • Facilitate crosstalk and collaboration between members of the various scenes that make up the broader regional play community (immersive theater, indie board gamers, alt sports players, Burners, and so on).

Mostly, though, we wanted to do what we do every year – introduce people to the best real-world games that the region has to offer – on a bigger scale, and by and large it was a resounding success.

One big personal failure, however, was that I didn’t run any of my own games this year. While I love supporting other artists, I need to be a little more selfish in the future, and block out some time and mental space to show off my own works.


[A Gamepost sign showing the game Color Count]

Gamepost is a system of signs that encourage positive engagement with public spaces by presenting games for people to play while walking down the street, waiting for the bus, or hanging out with friends. Each sign presents the rules for a different minigame; each game can be played without any special equipment, devices, or skills.

The signs were installed in downtown San Francisco as part of the Market Street Prototyping Festival, a three-day exhibition featuring 40+ projects designed to make Market Street more beautiful, engaging, and fun.

From a game design perspective, Gamepost games are almost degenerately simple. This is intentional. The project had a number of goals, none of which would be helped by making complex games with subtle dynamics:

  • Attention to Environment: Gamepost games were designed to encourage players to pay more attention to their surroundings, in a positive way. Instead of staring at your phone or at the ground, you can look at the buildings, vehicles, landmarks, and people around you and find things you hadn’t noticed before in them.
  • Making Play Routine: The games are designed to be simple and playable without any disruption to your current walk or daily routine. The ultimate goal is to give people a sense that play is something they can and should be doing on the street, and that play is not something you need to mark out specific blocks of time for, but can do in the moments between appointments.
  • Integrate With Existing Infrastructure: As part of making play a part of regular living, the signs should integrate smoothly into existing infrastructure, where they can easily become a permanent, reliable feature of the local landscape. Where possible, signs should be mounted on existing fixtures; if specific signposts are erected, they should fit smoothly into the local environment and not disrupt normal flow.
  • tl;dr: The goal is not to build a playground in the city; it’s to help people recognize that the city already is a playground.

Another reason for keeping the games simple is that they had to fit on a 18”x12” parking sign while being readable. In fact, the bulk of the design phase was spent iterating on copy, trying to get rules down to something that would fit and would be clear to the player without a facilitator around to explain things.

This focus on short text had a feedback effect on the game design, as anything with complex interactions or systems would be impossible to express within my self-imposed word count limits. Even most Hide and Seek-style Tiny Games (obviously a big inspiration for this project) would be too long to fit.

The heavy emphasis on copywriting did pay off: during the festival, half of all pedestrians who noticed the signs seemed to take at least a cursory read of the text. Contrary to popular belief, people are willing to read, as long as you’re respectful of their time.

While lots of people interacted with the signs over the weekend of MSPF, I ran into a hitch while observing them – when you make games that are meant to be played while walking down the street, you can’t observe people playing them unless you follow them around! There are limits as to how much of a creeper I’m willing to be in the name of research. But while fully measuring engagement was tricky, I’m still excited about the idea of injecting playfulness into public spaces, and thinking of more ways to approach it.

Twitter Bots

Towards the end of the year, as all of my other work wrapped up, I chose to unwind(?) by making some silly Twitter bots:

@jlj_ebooks: I had made the original version of this a while back, but I rewrote the code as part of this run of botmaking. Everyone should have their own markov bot.

@FloorIsX: This is a bot that spits out variations on “The Floor Is Lava.” For some reason, I wrote my own generative grammar system instead of just using Tracery like a normal person.

@SecretHistBot: This bot tries to guess at the secret history of a city by looking at its trending tweets. This involves a somewhat convoluted series of queries meant to try to filter for local significance.

The main things I learned by making this bot are: A. trending tweets are an awfully grungy data set to play with; and B. the main purpose of Twitter is for people to retweet other people tweeting out football scores.

@UnicodeParade: I had originally planned to make a bot that draws letters from an imaginary alphabet (I still might do that one), but while looking through tables of Unicode characters for reference, I got excited about the beauty and diversity of existing letterforms, and made a bot that renders illuminated random characters as SVGs and posts them.

@RhymingIpsum: Who hasn’t thought to themself, “I wish I had an unending stream of sentences that kind of rhyme with ‘Lorem Ipsum Dolor Sit Amet?’” This bot mostly emerged from a dive into NLTK, a Python library that provides interfaces to a bunch of natural language processing tools and corpora.

Hello 2017

2016 was a long, tough year in many ways both professional and personal (not to mention global), but I’m a bit proud of how much I was able to create in spite of all the turmoil. Not all of the projects listed here were huge successes, but they all were enjoyed by at least a few people, and they all helped me to refine how I think about and make things, which counts for something.

But now it’s time at last to leave 2016 behind! 2017 brings a clean slate and the opportunity to reevaluate and refocus. A couple of projects are already underway, and more exciting things are brewing. Stay tuned!

Got questions or comments on anything that happened in 2016? Want to hear more about what’s in store for 2017? Contact me at

-jl, Jan 4 2017