Instructional Objective | Learners
& Context | Object of Game | Game
Time Required | Rules | Design
Process | References |
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
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
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
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.