My first “homeplay” assignment – design a game in 15 minutes

Ballpoint Sumo

Ballpoint Sumo is my homework for the 15 minute Board Game Challenge – details at but basically, this is the brief:

“Following the four steps set forth in Level 1 (summarized below), try to create a board game in only 15 minutes, using a sheet of printer paper for the board, and a sheet of notebook paper for the rules. Four Steps:

  • Draw a Path
  • Come up with a theme or objective.
  • Create a set of rules to let the player move from place to place.
  • Create conflict.”

— [Restricted access. Login required]

BallpointSumo is for 2 players, although it could be single player at a push for training. You will need two ballpoint pens (preferrably not the end button retracting kind) or soft leaded pencils (not too sharp) of different colours, and a piece of paper.

The paper should be marked with an odd number of circles (3 for a short game, 5 or more for a challenge) – drawing round a 2p would be about right, but a diameter of 2-3cm and roughly round will do. Circles should have a gap of 2-5cms around them. So, the paper would look roughly like this:

| ( )  ( )  ( )  ( )  ( ) |

Both players play by controlling their pen(cil) with one finger at the blunt end while the point is in contact with the paper; carefully balancing the angle allows players to push the tip to draw a faint line. The skill involves judging the correct angle: too shallow and the pen will fall; too steep and pressure will not draw a line. Both players start in the centre for an evenly matched game, but handicaps can be allowed by starting in circles closer to one end or the other. The goal is to WIN in the last circle nearest to the opponent. It would be expected that some back and forth might occur, so a time penalty could be appointed and a win on points be declared by who was nearest to opponent’s end.


Each balanced pen(cil) is a Sumo wrestler trying to unbalance or push the opponent out of the circle; aka “Fell Mighty Tree”. If a nib moves out of the circle or finger loses control then that player moves back one circle towards their end and prepares to battle again; aka “the short hop of lamentable defeat”. If both pen(cil)s fall or leave the circle at about the same time, the loser is the one with the least distinct or most broken line, or a draw can be declared.

The mechanic is to use your pen(cil) to push/trip/bump the opponent into losing control and falling or leaving the circle.  The winner has to then navigate their Sumo Wrestler from the current circle to the one where their opponent is waiting; it is acceptable for the player to reset their finger before attempting the “Long Walk to Victory” but this allows for and requires the current victor to be at a slight disadvantage because they have to successfully maneuver their Sumo to the next dojo. Once successfully navigated to, but not through or out of, both players can reset their hold on the pen(cil)s before beginning a bout. Bouts basically involve moving your finger to control the pen(cil) into pushing the opponent out of the circle.

An alternative strategy exists, because a player might simply plant their pen(cil) vertically with a strong downward pressure; aka “Stand like Tall Oak”. As this could lead to a stalemate and be rather boring, an opponent can “Bend like Gentle Willow” by drawing a controlled line – nib does not leave paper, finger does not drop, with a continuously drawn line into next circle, stopping to show control of the nib. If achieved successfully, the opponent will have to move back to join the currently winning player. Again, both players then have the chance to reset their grip before the bout begins again. This option would not be possible as a victory condition in the final edge circle, as there would be nowhere to ‘bend’ to. So, at least one proper bout will be needed to win.

Clearly, this second strategy is risky, as it involves (potentially deliberate) leaving the current circle, but it allows for greater variety. The super risky third approach, “Flow like Running River” would be to draw an uninterrupted line from the start circle through all the intermediate circles, with a pause in each to show continued mastery, to the opponents end, with no jumps or loss of control. However, one bout in the final circle would still be needed, and I think that this should only be a tie break option.

This is a non-contact sport with only pen(cils) and controlling finger able to contact the opponent. Hand contact with opponent’s body, finger or pen(cil) will receive a first warning, then concede a point by moving back one circle. If this occurs in the last circle a foul will be awarded as a victory against the fouling player.

A victory in the circle nearest the opponent’s end, either by getting there first with Willow or River, then winning a bout, by opponent fouling, or by simple Sumo wrestling –  “Dig up Stump!” – in each circle one at a time.


Playtesting and Version 2 modification

Post Lesson 2 post-mortem: After playtesting three things became apparent. The first was that the winner of a bout guiding their pen forward to the next circle was just too hard for most people. It was, therefore, decided to scrap/simplify this constraint. Subsequently, the ability to side-step combat by drawing a line to the next circle was also removed, due to the difficulty spike. It had been originally put in to provide an alternative strategy, because it was thought that a conflict only game would be too samey; actually, this was not necessary as play testing never highlighted bout only play as a problem. This was an example of over-complicating things unnecessarily. The third issue from gameplay testing with young children, young adults and seniors – ages ranged from 8-70 – was the rule that the clearer line wins when both pens leave the circle at the same time. When people of different strengths played together it was quite common for there to be bouts where both pens shot out of the circle. Clearly, when only one pen skidded out there was an obvious winner. When both left, but one was measurably before the other, again a winner was straightforward. However, the rule of clearer line was expected to be seen as a mistake prior to testing. In fact, the surprise of testing was what seemed to be an inconsistency, was a perfect way to balance game play. When a 9 year old girl played with a 17 year old sporty boy, the latter’s attempts to force his opponent out of circles, consisting of brute force, frequently resulted in both pens falling, but his making a fainter line, resulting in a loss. This was an unexpected bonus in playtesting. therefore, the anticipated removal/reversal of this rule was not justified. The only caveat being that after extended play – think Roddick v Federer! – the paper gets rather marked up, making calls difficult/easier to contest. In playtesting, we just called draws more often than expected. When the paper gets scuffed up, new paper or circles drawn in different places might be necessary. So, some changes, some justified non-changes. A simpler game.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.