VERBA: A Design Manifesto

Overview and Influence

There’s a long string of wonderfully creative card games which have been popular with a mass audience. Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity both have great social mechanics based around wordplay and Dixit has absolutely incredible imagery. For quite some time we’ve wanted to create a language learning game which harnessed some of the best aspects of the rulesets from those types of games in way that scaffolded authentic learning.

As the collection of art assets which came out of the Picturae Kickstarter project began to grow, I started to create mock ups of a few different design and layout concepts while simultaneously building out a ruleset which would allow for the 1:1 play to learning objective ratio which forms the core of all of our game-based learning endeavors. I wanted a minimalistic design, simple enough rules so that anyone could jump right into a game, and a way to make use of the beautiful art assets we now had at our disposal.

“Untitled Latin Game” was born shortly after that.

What to Keep, What to Leave...

Creating a language building game is always a challenge because it’s on the one hand designed to help learners acquire language, but at the same time they need to have a certain level of familiarity with the language in order to begin play. Having settled on a “fill in the blank” mechanic using sentence cards and then a separate set of noun cards, finding that balance was going to be a challenge.

In order to make the sentence cards as comprehensible as possible to novice learners (the target audience for the Core set), I looked to word frequency lists generated by a number of digital humanities projects, common initial vocabulary from various textbooks, and to the Latin Best Practices “50 Most Important Verbs” list; ultimately using many verbs from the latter resource as a base to the sentences. One of the major concerns as well was to find a way to situated the sentences in the ancient world as much as possible while still preserving an opportunity for playfulness.

In order to ensure that the sentences players would form were ‘correct’, I also decided to include the prompt for the case required to the complete the form for the blank. In the first real play test with my classes, without that prompt there, I found the students reverted to using just the nominative far too frequently. This small element ensured a greater opportunity for reinforcing correct usage in a way which kept the flow of the game steady.

Speaking of cases, the noun cards also forced a bold (and possibly controversial in the Latin world) design choice -- to include only three cases (nominative, accusative, and ablative) on the cards. For starters, one thing that I didn’t want to happen was for the noun cards to become glorified flashcards for vocabulary or declension charts. I wanted the Latin word to take prominence and Steve’s artwork to stand out, occupying at least half of the card. Adding in a full declension chart would dominate the card and those three would provide the most flexibility for creating sentence cards now and in the future while preventing the novice learner from becoming overwhelmed. Again, the goal here is to scaffold correct usage and comprehensible output -- not to create a gamified declension chart.

Fonts and Layout

Fortunately the font choice was an easy one -- we have two main fonts used in CARD-tamen. It made perfect sense to embrace a continuity across the products and so the sentence cards received the all caps look of Trajan, while the noun cards received Trajan for the title and then the softer News Cycle for the various forms. I also wanted plenty of white space on the noun cards for the text to stand apart and, more importantly, for the artwork to really pop. For the sentence cards, the solid color background makes the font very readable and easily distinguishes between the two sets of cards.
The vertical orientation of the sentence cards was another difficult design choice. I felt it was odd to have two different orientations despite the fact that it would have been easier to lay out the sentence cards if they were orientated horizontally. I didn’t like the look of the noun cards in a horizontal format and so I quickly discarded that as a viable idea.

Scalability and Growth

Because the noun cards don’t scale with any kind of difficulty, the sentence cards became the focus for figuring out how to scale for learners at various proficiency levels. Fortunately this is where the game (and ruleset) really shines -- all of the difficulty is embedded right in the sentence cards. While Steve was working on the artwork, I took that time to experiment with advanced clauses on the purple cards. The result was an easy way to scaffold things like the ablative absolute and indirect statement (two clauses found frequently in Caesar and Vergil, for example).

The best part is that all of the noun cards from the Core set can be used with future expansions and the increased familiarity will only aid the student’s acquisition of the language.

Returning to case usage for a moment, this scalability of language in the purple allows for ample opportunity to work in dative and genitive usage without overwhelming the learners on the white noun cards. It also allows the learners to see that usage in context.

On the Name…

This was harder than it should have been. Naming things is difficult! I had picked out VERBA as an option early on but we continued to explore various options. After a few brainstorming sessions, I finally just designed a logo using the VERBA name, showed it to Steve and we agreed that it was the one to use. Future language versions will still keep the VERBA name (only the color of the sentence cards will change between language sets.)  

Gameplay in Class

Ultimately the rules required only minor changes after the first draft. For the “reading” of the cards, I decided the onus should be on the “judge” to use the correct forms and to read the sentence multiple times with each of the noun options. Hearing the sentence multiple times as well as “seeing” the various nouns all leads to greater opportunity for acquisition and transfer.

In the initial play testing sessions, I also observed a great deal of social learning happening within the groups. When one student didn’t know a word, he or she first turned to his or her peers and often received a response. Gameplay continued with little interruption.

I found that shorter sessions, 15-20 minutes in total, worked a lot better than a full class period. Regardless of the time, though, there hasn’t been a session where there wasn’t a roar of playful laughter and copious amounts of Latin being read and spoken aloud by the students. At least in my classes, they've found humor in a large number of areas where I wouldn't have expected them to. There's also a higher level of meta-reflection than I had anticipated -- often the judge will explain their thought process for picking one card over another which is fantastic for furthering language acquisition.


VERBA isn’t a replacement for a curriculum. It’s not an instructional device in of itself. It is, however, an engaging and (dare I say) fun way to provide additional opportunities for comprehensible input and output in a playful way where the learning objectives align perfectly with the learning objectives.

I think you're really going to enjoy VERBA, especially if you've read this far. Take a look, there's a free print-and-play file available on the TPG website and the professionally produced decks are available for immediate shipment.

If you have used VERBA already, I'd love to hear about how it has gone in the classroom and if you've created alternative rules to facilitate further play. Start a discussion on the Facebook Page or here in the comments.

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