Operation LAPIS: Iteration of the CARDs

Jul 21, 11 Operation LAPIS: Iteration of the CARDs

A few months ago here at Play the Past, I wrote about the collection mechanic that’s a large part of the grammatical instruction in Operation LAPIS. The rewards for completing categories in that collection mechanic were those wonderful CARDs (digital only) that would then appear in their personal dossiers. From a certain point of view, these CARDs were nothing more than glorified badges and achievements — examples of the dreaded gamification.


I’m here today to tell you that those versions of the CARDs as rewards for a grind were indeed a failure. I’m not really surprised that they were a failure, much as I tried to convince myself that they would work. On the other hand, the collection mechanic itself, rooted in the “Pokemon Thing,” was not a failure. The students that bought into the collection mechanic demonstrated a higher level of proficiency in the finer points of Latin grammar that I’ve seen most Latin I students demonstrate in the past.


So what was the problem? It’s actually quite simple. Why does the collection mechanic in Pokemon work as well as it does? The players get to do something with their Pokemon. They are collecting them from the wild in order to raise them, train them and battle them. We needed to figure out how to turn those CARD rewards into something that could be used, preferably something that also tied into the learning objectives for the course. You know, that whole 1:1 game rules:learning objective thing.


When we first started down the road of development with the CARD idea, we wanted there to be a physical game tied to them–that is, an imaginary-yet-real purpose to collect the CARDs. We looked at a lot of different models and were first intrigued by ways we might incorporate some form of the mechanics of Top Trumps — namely, head-to-head battles between players that really go back all the way to the playing-card-game War. However, Top Trumps’ number-value mechanics don’t particularly align with any learning objectives for the course (it might be helpful for students to remember that Cicero was a better public speaker than Octavian, but assigning Cicero a 10 and Octavian an 8 actually seemed to us to cut against possible learning).


We also were particularly interested in ways that we might apply some of the mechanics from discussion games like Apples to Apples. Also, tor the classically-uninitiaed, there is also a serious (and seriously, nay wildly, popular) college-bowl-esque trivia contest in the classics sphere known as certamen. We also wanted to incorporate the high level of knowledge that participants in certamen have about all aspects of ancient history and culture in the new iteration of the CARDs.


Unfortunately we kept hitting the same brick wall over and over again: if you remove the straight numbers battles of something like Magic: the Gathering or Top Trumps, how do you determine a winner? Finally, at Games+Learning+Society 7.0 in June we saw the solution laid out before us: one of the mechanics of Eric Zimmerman’s (along with Local No. 12) renowned-in-the-game-community Metagame.


Metagame revolves around intelligent discussions about video games. From my perspective, the key mechanic in the Metagame ruleset is that any appointed bystander can function as a judge who decides the winner of the debate. This mechanic, I think, has a lot of implications for education.



On the CARD redesign


Decompressing after GLS, I sat down and laid out what would be the rules for what we now call CARD-tamen™ and the tie-in to the collection mechanic of Operation LAPIS. Also realizing that the original CARDs (while cool-looking) were obvious knock-offs of Magic: the Gathering, we also decided on a complete redesign centered around a Roman-themed deck with four categories of CARDs: historical people, significant ancient structures, places of renown, and Roman divinities.


We wanted to keep the overall feel of the CARDs the same but we needed a stylistic change that would allow us to be free of any litigation with Wizards of the Coast. The new designs, both in terms of content and style, are a beautiful representation of Roman culture in the form of a deck of cards.


The old Pompeiī CARD (left) compared with the new CARD (right)


On the rules of CARD-tamen™


The idea of CARD-tamen™ is simple: a roll of a d20 decides which of the twenty controversies the players will have to debate and then each participant, after selecting a CARD from their deck, has two minutes to prove to the iudex that their CARD is the more compelling answer to the controversy. The controversies range from declarations such as “More significant to world history” to “Greater contribution to the development of public speaking” to even “Inspired more significant stories.” (Students of Roman culture may recall that not-dissimilar controversiae formed an essential part of the education of young men destined for public life.)


In order to make their declamations better, players will go to resources beginning with Wikipedia and ending with scholarly articles on JSTOR to research more about their CARDs before playing their next game. In the very first round of play-testing with students, it took only minutes for one of them to take out a phone and look up some quick facts on Cicero. It took only a nano-second more for one of the other students to claim “Hey, that’s cheating!” to which the first student replied, “How? I’m using a resource to make my speech better.” When I heard about that exchange, I couldn’t have been happier: that’s precisely the effect that we wanted the CARDs to have. We’ve put just enough information on them to create a need to find out more.


But it’s the presence of what we call the iudex-mechanic, with its powerful effect of drawing in the bystanders to the activity, that makes the game matter, finally. Much research in educational psychology supports the notion that one of the most effective methods of helping students learn is fostering peer interaction. We hope that the iudex’s active role in deciding the winner will cause him or her, too, to feel the need to become more knowledgeable in the content covered by the 63 cards. In addition, anyone else observing the game will of course also hear the declamations made by each participant and gain knowledge of the topics.


The rules of CARD-tamen™ require the participant to talk intelligently about various aspects of Roman history and culture. That play objective also happens to be one of the learning objectives for an introductory Latin course or even a much more general course about civilization or history. The rules of the game foster the learning, rather than trying to transmit the content like so much chocolate on the broccoli of Roman culture.

We just launched a Kickstarter campaign for CARD-tamen™ and would love the support from anyone interested in quality educational games or Classical studies. A preview of the 63 card deck (offered as one of the rewards for contributions) is located on the Kickstarter page:



  1. Pledged!!! I love Kickstarter and I’m a huge game fan. I’m excited to see if you make your goal.

  2. Wow, Brianne, thank you very much for the support!


  1. Operation LAPIS: Iteration of the Collection | Play The Past - [...] my previous post, I discussed the iteration of CARDs and the development of CARD-tamen™ Rome. This week, I want…

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