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Gameplay Variations for The Thing From The Future

Since The Thing From The Future was first published in 2014, it has been used by thousands of players at many dozens of events around the world. Over that time, we’ve discovered a range of alternative ways to use the cards. Some methods make it possible to play with larger groups, such as lecture audiences, while others adjust the pace of play, or the focus of participants’ imaginations.

From the beginning, it was our intention that the game would work for diverse contexts and purposes – from social play on a Friday night with friends around the kitchen table, to breaking the ice at conferences or in new classes, to priming community, government or industry groups for strategic conversation, to supporting ideation by professional creatives tackling particular imaginative challenges.

Here we capture some of the main variations in how the game has been used to date – ten basic patterns that users of the deck can readily deploy as-is, or adjust to suit the purpose at hand.

Note: Situation Lab’s printable #FutureThing Playsheets, designed to help you capture and share ideas generated during the game, can be downloaded for free here (A4 size) and here (Letter size).

1. Co-created Prompt (aka Standard Rules)

Useful For: Collaborative ideation
Difficulty Level: Medium

In a small group (usually 3-5), players take turns contributing cards to make a prompt, to which everyone then responds separately. Players may pick their favorite “future thing” and award the cards used in that round to the winning player.

As used at: United Nations Development Programme (New York), 5D Science of Fiction Conference (Los Angeles), Learn Do Share (Los Angeles), Studio Y/MaRS (Toronto), School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Parsons Mumbai, Indiecade Games Festival (Los Angeles) [pictured, below], etc.

Variation 1: The Twist. Allow one (or more) overrides of a completed prompt. This is a good way to make sure that everyone gets to participate when you have more than four players. To override or “twist” a completed prompt, a player simply replaces a card already in the prompt with a new card of the same kind from their hand.

Variation 2: Conversational play. Instead of players responding to the prompt separately and then sharing their ideas, have them generate a “thing from the future” in pairs or small groups.

2. Collective Hand

Useful For: Quick play, Large groups
Difficulty Level: Easy

All players respond to a centrally dealt hand, rather than creating one together. In a large group icebreaker or demo situation, the facilitator may share and describe a prompt (whether preselected or randomly drawn), inviting people in the room to turn to each other and create a response through conversation. Suitable for time-compressed group engagements: this is perhaps the shortest way to expose groups to gameplay.

As used at: INK Conference (India), IRAHSS (Singapore), CRTC/NFB Discoverability Summit (Toronto), World Future Society Conference (San Francisco), Amplify (Sydney) [pictured, above], Toronto Maker Festival [pictured, below], ArtCenter College of Design (Los Angeles)

Variation 1: Dealer. A Las Vegas-style dealer table setup works very well for small groups. A single facilitator can also very quickly compose a series of prompts by dealing from separate piles for each suit.

Variation 2: Timer. Add a timer countdown (e.g. 3 minutes) for each round, beginning once the prompt has been completed.

3. Choose your own adventure

Useful for: Quick play, Teaching
Difficulty Level: Easy

Facilitator pulls two random cards in each suit from the deck, inviting different players to select which of the two-up options will apply for the round. Or, a randomly pulled card for each suit is announced to the group and it is left to players themselves to decide and record on their playsheets which of the two-up options they will pursue.

4. Texas Hold ’em

Useful For: Quick play
Difficulty Level: Easy

Players complete a variation or riff on the deal at the table, using one or more cards from their hand, e.g. dealer puts three elements forward and the fourth is supplied by each player individually.

As used at: Museum of Tomorrow (Rio de Janeiro) [pictured]

5. Hack the Deck

Useful For: Bespoke future-thinging
Difficulty Level: Medium-Hard

Customise the deck by removing certain elements (e.g. Time Horizons longer than a generation), or use blank Terrain and Object cards to have players contribute their own entries. These may be either created in advance and shuffled into the deck, or alternatively, players dealt a blank can write their own content with a marker and play that in place of a regular card during a round.

As used at: MIT Media Lab, Ryerson University (Toronto), New York University ITP camp [pictured, below], Hot Docs Film Festival (Toronto), Eyebeam (New York), Stanford University

Variation 1: Hackpack. Use one of the Object Hackpacks produced by Situation Lab (e.g. Poster, Film, Text, Situation) to lean exploration into particular categories of design output.

Variation 2: Real object. Use an actual object in place of an object card.

6. Card-at-a-time

Useful For: Rapid brainstorming
Difficulty Level: Medium

Use a reduced prompt–for example, Arc only, or Object only–and ask players to compete to see who can imagine the most responses in a given time. It is interesting to observe how one’s imagination and thinking handle constraints of different complexity levels, so presents a useful teaching activity for classes dealing with game design, imagination or foresight. Note that laying out multiple cards at once can be challenging for players’ focus under time pressure; having them look through the deck and respond to one possibility at a time may be easier for most.

As used at: Institute for the Future/Imagination Institute Retreat (Palo Alto) [pictured, below]

7. Existing Stories

Useful For: Worldbuilding, Design fiction projects
Difficulty Level: Medium

Use selected categories of card with other existing prompt info. For example, use the Object suit to brainstorm artifacts from a pre-existing “found” science fiction story or scenario.

As used at: OCAD University Think Tank (Toronto), 1-888-FUTURES/University of Southern California (Los Angeles) [pictured]

8. Solitaire or Self-facilitation

Useful For: Exposing players to the game in their own time
Difficulty Level: Medium

Leave a deck at a table for players to organise their own gameplay. A downloadable instruction pdf can be found at the Situation Lab website. Self-facilitated gameplay can be set up easily by laying out four separate piles of cards, one for each suit.

As used at: The Interval Bar at the Long Now Foundation (San Francisco), World Future Society Conference (San Francisco) [pictured]

9. Multicard

Useful For: Challenging experienced players
Difficulty Level: Hard

Integrate more than one terrain, or more than one object, into the prompt. For example, use both elements of a 2up terrain card instead of disregarding one. Or add a core theme to every round, in addition to the prompt shown on the cards. This is more challenging variant may be better to build up to, rather than starting here with new players.

As used at: University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts (Los Angeles)

10. Design & Media Generation

Useful For: Transmedia future-thinging
Difficulty Level: Varies 

Any gameplay format above can be used at an event to create artifact or performance options, which can then be turned into actual objects in physical media (etc). Depending on materials and time available this can be set up as anything from a short exercise (~90 mins), to the one- or two-day creation of a popup exhibition.

As used at: Nesta FutureFest (London),Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival (Toronto) [pictured, above], Stanford d.School, Futurematic Vending Machine/OCAD University (Toronto) [pictured, below x2], Futurematic: Canal Street/New York University, Futurematic: 1-888-FUTURES/University of Southern California (Los Angeles), Museum of Tomorrow (Rio de Janeiro), US Dept of Arts and Culture (across USA), Swinburne University Strategic Foresight program (Melbourne)*

Variation: Storytelling. Any gameplay format above can be used with the variation that the output be in the form of story, rather than an object or description.

* At Swinburne, players have also experimented with putting People or Personas in place of the Object card (e.g., “You” the player, “A resident of Aleppo”, “The Murray River”). Thanks to Simon Bown for sharing this variation.

Finally – do get in touch to let us know what else you’ve tried, and how it went! We’d be delighted to grow this list, and will credit your gameplay innovations.

There are 12 responses

RT @sitlab: Just posted: Ten different ways to get the most out of your copy of The Thing From The Future #FutureTh…

Comment author: @roseveleth

RT @sitlab: Just posted: Ten different ways to get the most out of your copy of The Thing From The Future #FutureTh…

Comment author: @itsanisah

RT @sitlab: Just posted: Ten different ways to get the most out of your copy of The Thing From The Future #FutureTh…

Comment author: @leebalki

RT @futuryst: Ten ways to play our award-winning #FutureThing card game and boost your imagination: #designfiction

Comment author: @_riwsa

RT @remotedevice: Worried about the future? Imagine it differently w/ 10 new ways to play our @sitlab game, The Thing From The Future https…

Comment author: Stuart Candy (@futuryst)


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