Michael Nardell

Daniel Roggenkamp
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| Instructional Objective | Learners & Context | Object of Game | Game Materials |

| Time Required | Rules | Design Process | References |

Instructional Objective

The aim of this game to inject some fun into what is often considered a dry and frustrating topic, sentence parsing. Rules of English grammar are explored and reinforced within the framework of established practices of sentence parsing and grammatical concepts.

This game could be used in class to reinforce and help students internalize concepts of grammar, syntax, sentence parsing, parts of speech, and phrase structure rules. Outside of class, it can be used as a heuristic device for exploring varying approaches to sentence parsing. And for the odd minority that enjoys this sort of thing, it can be played just for kicks.

Learners & Context of Use

This game is designed for university-level students of linguistics, computer science, language teaching, and language learning. Players with little or no exposure to sentence parsing but with a good high-school knowledge of English grammar could play this game using a simplified selection of phrase structure rules. Players who have been exposed to sentence parsing and phrase structure rules can play using a broader selection of rules.

This game can be played anywhere that has space for a game board. However, it would be an excellent supplementary learning tool for in-school use. As language has an infinite number of possible sentences, this game has no limit on the number of times it can be played. Experienced players can maintain challenge by increasing the number and complexity of phrase structure rules used in play.

Object of the Game

The object of the game is to play out all your pieces before your opponent while at the same time constructing a grammatical sentence that is fully parsed.

Game Materials

  • Playing board
    The game is played on a board with a triangular-based design. The triangular design provides a foundation on which phrase structure rules can be constructed. Players begin play from the colored circles on their end of the board.

  • 6-sided die

  • Game pieces
    The game pieces are simply flat squares with abbreviations for phrases and parts of speech printed on them. The initial set includes only the simplest phrases and parts of speech (representing words), including: S (sentence, the initial part of a parsed sentence), NP (noun phrase), VP (verb phrase), N (noun), V (verb), and DET (determiner.)
An important element of this game, however, is that pieces can be created by the players as their skills and knowledge of grammar and sentence parsing increase. So, for example, players might choose to add PRO (pronoun), PP (prepositional phrase), P (preposition), PASS (passive), or many other possible cards.

Time Required

This game would take only a couple of minutes to set up. The only setup required is putting the pieces face down and in random order.

The length of a game depends on the complexity an number of pieces used. With the simple set of pieces shown above, a game could easily be played within 30 minutes. With an extensive set of phrases (pieces) in play, a game could go on for hours and be played over several play periods.

The Rules

  1. Overview
    In this game, players attempt to build complete syntax trees on the game board. A syntax tree is complete if the phrase structures have been properly used.
    A phrase structure specifies how the game pieces can be connected on the game board. For instance the phrase structure: S --> NP VP specifies that a S piece can connect to a NP and a VP.

    The diagram on the right shows an example of a complete syntax tree. All of the pieces are correctly connected together, and all of the phrase structures have been properly used in the game. Note: the orange lines indicate connections on the board, the do not represent a piece used in the game.

    Connections always fall along a straight path on the diagonal lines of the game board. The diagram to the left shows a proper connection from the S piece to the NP piece, indicated by the orange line. However, both of the VP pieces in this diagram are not connected to the S. The VP marker above does not lie on a straight path to the S marker. The connection to the VP marker below is blocked by the presence of another piece.

  2. Getting started
    • All game pieces are placed face down then shuffled. Players then take turns drawing five pieces each.
    • Players roll the die to determine who goes first. The player with the highest roll starts the game.

  3. Roll the die to determine value of a move
    • Each player's turn begins with a roll of the die.
    • The value of the roll can be used for moving pieces or acquiring new pieces.
    • Each point on the die allows the player to move one piece one space. So, if a player rolls a five, they may move one piece five spaces, or five pieces one space, or any combination thereof.
    • Each two points of the die gives the player the option of drawing a new piece. Any points left over can be used for moves.
      A player rolls a 5. They can acquire two new pieces and move one piece one space. Or, the player could acquire one new piece, and make three moves. Or, the player can use all five points as moves in any combination: moving one piece five spaces, two pieces two spaces and one piece one space, etc.

  4. Move pieces onto the board
    • Players move pieces onto the board by placing the pieces on the row with the colored circles closest to them.
    • One point, as determined by the roll of the die, allows one piece to move one unit.
    • Moves must follow the lines that connect circles on the board.
    • Pieces cannot jump other pieces or share circles.

  5. Arrange your pieces on the board into a parse tree
    • Once you have pieces on the board, you start arranging them into a parse tree.
    • A parse tree is complete when all of the nodes are connected to the subnodes of the tree. Connections must follow along the diagonal lines, and can be any length. Connections must be uninterrupted; they cannot pass through other pieces or connecting lines.
    • The first player to build a complete parse tree wins!

Design Process

The impetus for this game was a card game that Michael had worked on previously and that involved the playing of cards on which were printed phrase structure rules. We quickly realized the potential for this concept to be extended to a board game. The triangular presentation of parsed sentences provides a natural geometry for the board, while grammar rules provide a natural set of game rules on which our contrived rules of play could rest.

We devoted the bulk of the design process to brainstorming rules of play and design of board and pieces. We decided fairly early on to use pieces representing individual nodes rather than complete phrase structure rules, thinking that this would allow for greater flexibility and creativity in play.

The board design took a bit longer to work out, and we experimented with multiple designs. All designs were based on triangles, with the designs differing in how the triangles were constructed and fitted together. It was in the board design that questions regarding the basics of play had to be worked out. Various designs included play starting from the center of the board with two players or teams playing towards themselves on their respective sides, play starting at one end with players sharing play space, and play starting at opposing ends with play building inward. In fact, the rules as they stand now could be applied to a variety of board designs; however, the current design allows for less crowding of pieces and maximum use of board space.

Deciding on rules was the most difficult stage of development. This was probably because there are so many possible rules that could be used, and some of them could be very cool indeed. We tried to strike a balance between creating rules that would drive a basic level of play and add some element of chance and strategy, while at the same time not building in rules that would disrupt the focus on the grammatical basis of the game. We discussed an advanced set of rules including various jumps and steals, which we'll no doubt pursue.

We have purposely left an element of of flexibility and creativity in this game. This version of the game includes only the most basic 'pieces', or nodes, or elements of phrase structure rules. The idea is that players can add pieces as they play and as their knowledge of various rules increases. The limits of this game are only determined by the scope of possible sentences, which is infinite, and possible players, which one would hope is also infinite.

Testing this game proved... testing. Grammar and parsing sentences is a tough sell even to students of linquistics, and this presented a problem regarding testing. Fortunately, we both had a willing, and by coincidence captive, audience with which we could test our prototypes.

Michael tested with students in the SDSU EdTech program, and Dan tested with 3rd-year students of English education in a teachers college in Taiwan. Testing occurred using various boards and sets of rules. The biggest concern was, Would the players get it? Would they understand what was to be done, how the game was to be played, and what the heck a parse tree was.

In general, they got it. What did we learn? We learned that we want to pursue this game. Sentence parsing is somewhat addictive. It has a certain appeal to the brain. This sort of game gives one a reason to explore the inner workings of an utterance.


Books & Journals

  • Celce-Murcia, M. & Larsen-Freeman, D.(1983). The Grammar Book: An ESL/EFL Teacher's Course. Cambridge, MA: Newbury House Publishers, Inc.
  • Chomsky, N.(1957). Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton.
  • Pinker, S.(1994). The Language Instinct. New York: Harper Collins.



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Last updated October 12 2003