Playing the PhD Game: Board Game Jams with Postgraduate Research Students

Designing a board game. Photo credit: S Kirkwood.

In this post, Dr Steve Kirkwood, a Senior Lecturer in Social Work, describes how he was inspired by a talk at the 2018 Learning and Teaching Conference to develop a board game as part of his new PhD students’ induction…

You learn more about a person in an hour of play than a year of conversation.

(paraphrasing of Richard Lingard, 1670)

Since I was a boy, I loved played board games. I would often make up my own games, with convoluted rules, and force my family members to play, with resulting bewilderment. So when I saw there was a session on board game jams at the University of Edinburgh Learning and Teaching Conference in 2018, I had to sign up.

In the session, Stephanie (Charlie) Farley and Dr Eva Murzyn gave gave an overview of board games and outlined how to run a board game jam. In small groups, we then created our own games. Our team came up with an co-operative educational/ecological survival game (inspired by the documentary March of the Penguins) where you have to keep your penguin colony alive through the harsh Antarctic seasons (working title: ‘Life on the ice: It isn’t black and white’). Creating the game was fun, challenging and forced us to get to know colleagues in a short space of time.

I was soon to take on the role of Postgraduate Advisor for the Social Work PhD programme, which included organising a course for new Postgraduate Research students. It occurred to me that a board game jam could be a great way to induct new students, so I decided to run one during the first session of the course. Students would be invited to create a board game about the experience of doing a PhD. My rationale was that it would a nice way for students to get to know each other and work together. Also, the PhD process is hard to communicate to those who have not gone through it, and, in my opinion, many of the factors that impact on PhD students’ experiences originate outside the PhD itself (such as personal, family and health issues). I therefore thought the process of creating a board game would encourage students to think widely about what doing a PhD might be like, in a non-threatening environment, allowing students to think proactively about how they can ensure their experience goes well and prepare for challenges.

We had four first-year students plus one final-year student. I started the session by asking students to talk about their own knowledge of board games. I was a bit surprised when most of the students said they didn’t know that many – fortunately one student had extensive experience of playing board games (and role playing games) including some pretty obscure ones!

Based on the materials provided by Charlie, I then introduced the task of designing a board game about the PhD journey. I explained my rationale for the session:

  • It should be a fun way to get to know each other.
  • There is no one way to get a PhD.
  • It allows us to explore our assumptions.
  • It’s an opportunity to ask questions and explore ideas.

We discussed and decided on game mechanics, determining the goal(s) of the game, and agreeing the rules. We took a short break, then we regrouped. I was a task master, and made the students make the game (which involved creating the board and cards), and then we played it. Because we made it under strict time pressures, the game didn’t *quite* work, however we did get a sense of how it could work.

Playing the PhD Board game. Photo credit: S Kirkwood.

For me, the session achieved its goals. The main intention was to have fun and allow the students to get to know each other. We also explored a lot of the key issues around completing a PhD, both the technical aspects around writing and research, as well as issues about working relationships with supervisors, relationships with peers, and other factors that will affect progress, such as relationship breakdown, getting a new job, physical health, mental health, and support from friends and family. We had some good discussions about different career paths, meaning that for some people certain activities would be beneficial and even necessary (such as having academic publications) whereas for people who aren’t necessarily pursuing an academic career they would be less relevant.

I’d recommend people giving this a shot! Two hours feels pretty short for the whole exercise, but the time pressure can also increase the fun and force creativity. If it’s feasible, it would be helpful to allow people more time to design, make and play the game. Remember that the discussion is the real point of the game, not making the game itself, so ensure that you allow lots of time to discuss the process of doing a PhD, and reflect on the kinds of issues that might come up and strategies for dealing with these. Have fun!

Outline for PhD board game jam (2 hours)


  • Large paper
  • Spinner
  • Paper to cut into cards
  • Scissors
  • Dice
  • Post it notes
  • Counters

Introduction (5 mins)

Briefly introduce each other, and outline the session.

Games you’ve played (10 mins)

Ask the students these questions:

  • What are some games that you’ve played?
  • What are the win or end conditions of the game?
  • What are the mechanics that drive the game?
  • Which games do you like or dislike?
  • How much does luck or skill influence the outcome?

Why have a game jam? (5 mins)

  • There is no one way to get a PhD.
  • It’s an opportunity to ask questions and explore ideas.
  • It allows us to explore our assumptions.
  • It should be a fun way to get to know each other.

Decide on the goal(s) (15 mins)

  • What are the end / win conditions for the game?
  • What are objectives are the players seeking to achieve or avoid?
  • Can you win by different degrees?
  • To what extent is the game co-operative or competitive?

Game mechanics – 15 mins

What are the different mechanics?

  • Dice rolling: For moving pieces, influencing outcomes.
  • Cards: Collecting / discarding to obtain winning hand, playing strategically to influence outcomes, turning to reveal game events.
  • Maze: Create or navigate a maze, create obstacles to prevent other players from winning, co-operate to capture another player or prevent them from winning.
  • Bluffing: Players need to hide their true intent or actions by using bluff, lies, or misdirection.
  • Pick up/deliver: Players pick up or deliver an item or good when they land on or reach a particular destination. Different destinations may deliver different goods, which incorporates an element of strategy.
  • Memory: Players need to recall previous game events or information in order to reach an objective.

Define the rules (15 mins)

  • How many players / what are their roles?
  • What are the rules that govern the game?
  • Are there exceptions to the rule?

Reflections on the PhD process (5 mins)

Play the game (20 mins)

Create the game (20 mins)

Break (10 mins)

You can find further info and resources on board game jams here.

Steve Kirkwood

Dr Steve Kirkwood is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work at the University of Edinburgh, Postgraduate Advisor for Social Work Research Students and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. His research and teaching mostly focuses on criminal justice social work and the integration of asylum seekers and refugees.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *