How does each of us cope with emotional pain? Do we bury it, process it, or transmute it? Coping strategies may depend upon whether the pain is the product of one particular event or loss or whether it is compounded by ongoing, socially-mediated processes such as denial of reality, dismissal of worth, ridicule of personal values, or demands for perfection. Anne Wilson Schaef (1988) suggests that emotional pain, which is not acknowledged, ultimately leads to addictive behaviours as a way of over-riding the intensity caused by denial of pain: addiction to work, sex, drugs and so on. An alternative approach to coping with pain is to engage in the creative process of transmuting it through artistic expression, with the emphasis on process rather than product. In a western society where much emphasis is placed on product, end results, achievement and awards, the practice of ‘engaging in process’ for the sake of its transformational experience is not often valued. But not everyone is artistic; not everyone is articulate. The search for a process that did not rely on creative expression, led to a re-examination of childhood games and play. Gameplay is a safer, far gentler approach to dealing with emotional pain. The process of engaging in gameplay is pleasurable, therapeutic, and has the potential to alleviate the effects of long-lasting emotional pain.


This article discusses a therapeutic board game that was developed to explore internal conflict, emotional pain and abuse of power. Although the game design concepts were tested and evaluated by adults in emotional pain, the target audience for the boardgame was young people suffering mental, physical and emotional abuse. But before launching into its description let me contextualise the term ‘therapeutic’ within the gameplay realm.


Gameplay is the dynamic process of cause and effect that engages us in play and games. Many people relegate games and play to the realm of childhood, and yet gameplay can be found in rituals of courtship, law, religion, politics and military strategy (Huizinga, 1955). Play helps us assimilate elements of the outer world into our internally constructed view of the world (Piaget, 1951), whereas game structure helps stimulate cognitive development (strategy games) motor co-ordination (physical games), and promotes a healthy acceptance of the role that ‘fate’ plays (games of chance) in each of our lives (Sutton-Smith & Roberts, 1971). ‘Therapeutic’ games build upon these basics by encouraging communication and personal problem solving, enhancing ego development and contributing to socialization and well-being (Schaefer & Reid, 1986).

A significant body of research by psychologists–including psychiatrist Russell Meares (1992)–suggests that not only children, but adults can heal aspects of their disintegrated selves by entering into the play state, leaving the rigidity and chronic disjuncture behind. Play is a free-flowing spontaneous activity that transcends ordinary life, absorbing players so utterly and intensely that it can create a sense of wellbeing similar to the experience of a sacred space (Huizinga, 1955). The concept of ‘flow’ is important since the constant disruption to flow in everyday life leads to stress. Flow is an internal state of concentration so absolutely absorbed in an activity that emotional problems seem to disappear, replaced by an exhilarating feeling of strength, alertness, effortless control and pleasure at the peak of one’s ability (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). This processing state is sometimes referred to as being ‘in the zone.’ If play is a state of free-flowing activity, and this state of flow is the optimal experience required for wellbeing (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), then it could be argued that gameplay becomes the perfect process for duplicating this sense of flow, and that gameplay promotes transcendence or even transformation of emotional pain. Gameplay, the vital process of engaging in a flowing, adaptable activity that is pleasurable yet tense with uncertainty, becomes a virtual art-form functioning within the liminal realm between psyche and society.


Gameplay mirrors some aspect of reality. Chess originated in Persia to help young leaders develop strategies for accumulating territories and expanding their kingdom. But gameplay can also reflect hidden aspects of the self that society or family may deign as unacceptable (Berne, 1964). Emotional pain is often regarded as something that should be buried: out of sight and out of mind. Fortunately the gameplay process transcends these boundaries, stimulating awareness of dormant issues, reconstructing thought and attitudes, and opening possibilities for healthy change. Board games are particularly useful for those who are unaware of feelings, inarticulate, or reluctant to self-disclose (Frey, 1986).


My gameplay research focused on developing educational tools to deal with the underlying abuse and disempowerment experienced by those in deep emotional pain. Working from the postmodern view of self as ‘multiple,’ I focused on engaging the part of self that can be found in all of us at some time or other: the ‘abused’ self; the self that feels incapable of getting its needs met; the self that has learned to survive by shutting down in fear, grief or despair, switching off to options; the self that has never learned to trust, has not developed the ability to discern beneficial choices, and has not learned to act to achieve its desires (apart from simply surviving). It is the ‘abused’ self who has lost its internal boundaries where precious information is stored; the inner life invaded by external intervention, so that nothing is sacred and no secrets are allowed. It is the ‘abused’ self which cannot discriminate, which cannot discern whom to trust in sharing the preciousness of its inner world, often sharing with the wrong person. It is the ‘abused’ self which is manipulated by the external world rather than actively manipulating the external world to care for its own needs.

I. Fundamental Gameplay Concepts

In developing the game, it was essential to address two fundamental questions: What metaphor would best embody the notion of the ‘abused’ self? And what educational or cognitive tool could be embedded into the game to encourage players to utilise it in real life? The first question was addressed when the name, Ravaged Kingdom, emerged from the creative depths. I had already identified various kinds of abuse, pain and dysfunctional interaction and had metaphorically mapped them onto a geographical landscape (see Figure 1), but until the name of the kingdom surfaced as the over-riding metaphorical dynamic, the gameplay had not progressed.

Each territory within this Ravaged Kingdom resonates with a particular mood: theWasteland embodies depression and despair; the Siege Island Fortress embodies anxiety, withdrawal, alienation, denial and inhibited paranoia; the Ruined Templeembodies terror, trauma and shattered vulnerability; the Battle Field embodies black rage and aggressive paranoia; the Ice Palace embodies white rage and frozen feelings; the Labyrinth embodies addictions to danger, risk and pleasure; the Pinnacle embodies grandiosity, superiority, prejudice and self-righteous beliefs; and the Lost Worldembodies loss of self and confused vulnerability (See Figure1).

The second question was addressed when language was identified as the key component in reclaiming personal power. After considerable research, a set of playing cards was designed to signify four strategic positions and sixteen communicative tactics used during conflict: ATTACK/AGITATE by challenging, confronting, threatening or ridiculing; AVOID by distracting, withdrawing, denying or dismissing; EXPLORE by questioning, analysing, suggesting options or initiating; and SHARE by acknowledging, supporting, informing or revealing feelings. Each of these cards contains a sentence of dialogue reflecting the use of a particular tactic and thus revealing the power of language to hurt or help others.

In order to physically represent these rather abstract concepts, each tactic was assigned an animal, insect or creature whose behaviour essentialised these tactics. For instance, the ‘dismiss’ tactic is personified by a skunk. The dialogue of the skunk might contain a phrase, ‘get over it: it’s not important.’ This dismissive statement sends a subtle but powerful message: ‘you don’t matter to me–your needs are of little value.’ Thus, with the flick of an offensive tail, the skunk brushes aside what it does not value. While we do not want to send this message to those we value, it is a good message to send to bullies; a way of deflecting ridicule and idle threats. Thus each tactic has its helpful and hurtful dimensions.

The juxtaposition of an animal with dialogue allows the player to make a connection between animal behaviour and human intention. Thus. the hawk might challenge with the statement, ‘you might want to rethink your attitude’ or ‘no matter what you say, you canít hurt me.’ The bear might confront with the statement, ‘you’re way out of line’ or ‘quit stalling and give me the facts.’ Players are encouraged to play their dialogue cards as a set of four (such as four challenges) in order to gain the animal icon (such as the hawk) that can protect them from villains or mediate help from allies. The repetition of playing a set of four tactics helps reinforce the concept and embeds it within the psyche. Different combinations of animal cards create ‘totems’ that identify the strategic patterns used by different kinds of villains and allies. A player earns these animal cards by playing a set of dialogue cards that simulate the nature of that animal.

Although the choice of each of these animals is somewhat subjective, they do capture the spirit of the tactics because each animal card points to the behaviour, beliefs and attitudes underlying that entity.

By conceptualising these two metaphoric devices, the rest of the gameplay elements fell into place: game goals, locations, characters, objects, role-play scenarios, strategy cards, gameplay tasks, rewards and punishments. All these elements would guide players in exploring power and its abuses. I will describe each of these elements separately.

II. Elements of the Game

The Gameplay Goal

The goal of the game is to gain rulership of the Ravaged Kingdom by releasing it from its fear, famine, plague and tyranny. This goal is accomplish by engaging in ‘Missions’ which guide the player in a number of gameplay tasks: gathering specific items and knowledge, rescuing helpless victims, foiling villains with the aid of allies, gaining objects of rulership, and capturing surrounding territories with the backing of its people. All game cards and objects are assigned ‘points’ and the player with the most points at the end of the game is considered the ruler. But other players can contest the rulership of the lead player if that player’s gameplay strategies have been oppressive; together the other players may topple the new dictatorial ruler. Hence players gain awareness of the difference between empowering and disempowering behaviour as they engage in the gameplay tasks. The ‘mediaeval fantasy quest’ proved to be a suitable genre for an adventure role-play game dealing with issues of empowerment. Fantasy is one step removed from reality and thus creates a healthy distance from which to look at the issues; and role-play encourages players to rehearse life situations.


Each territory within the Ravaged Kingdom contains a number of sub-locations and characters where the main rescue action takes place. Locations also contain objects of desire, secrecy, information and danger. For instance, the Ice Palace consists of several sub-locations: the Throne Chamber with its frozen scepter; the Prison Tower with the bucket of salty tears; the Icy Turrets with the bottle of ammonia; the Hall of Mirrors with the bloodstained armour, and so on. Players must travel through the locations, avoid danger, overcome obstacles, and rescue victims. The throw of the dice can bring fortune or loss.


Villains and Allies portray archetypal behaviour and attitudes of power or abuse. Drawing on the work of Jungian analysts (von Franz, 1974; Hillman, 1976; Woodman, 1982; Leonard, 1990; and Johnson, 1993), characters were designed metaphorically to mirror the inner landscape of abuse, pain, dysfunctional thought, behaviour and attitude. For example, in the Wastelands the Seeker searches for truth, the Cult Leader bribes the unloved, and the Desperado verges on suicide; in the Siege Island Fortress the Hermit seeks peace, the Hoarder hides his fortune, and the Fugitive avoids shame and retribution; in the Ruined Temple the Weaver spins tales into tapestries, the Flatterer deceives the innocent, and the Orphan collapses, shattered by loss; in the Battlefieldthe Crusader fights blindly for ideals, the Annihilator destroys what is different, and the Madman struggles with paranoia; in the Ice Palace the Chambermaid is torn between loyalties, the Ice Queen demands perfection, and the Weeping Princess bemoans her imprisoned state; in the Labyrinththe Sorcerer’s Apprentice chooses between creation and destruction, the Vampire feeds off unsuspecting thrill seekers, and the Addict obliterates pain through pleasure, risk and danger; on the Pinnacle the Witness reveals the facts, the Ruthless Judge rules with prejudice, and the persecuted Saviour loses vision–trapped in the clouds; in the Lost World the Explorer studies nature, the Interrogator questions all and believes nothing, and the Wanderer seeks a purpose and a way of becoming useful. (See sample villains and allies in Figure 2.)


The gameplay involves gathering a range of objects necessary for rescuing, retrieving, and foiling. It also involves developing positive strategies to outmanoeuvre other players in order to be the first to achieve the mission. The game objects often stimulate discussion around ways of problem-solving–as well as ways of using objects to hinder others–since most objects can be used to help or harm. Thus a Tinderbox of Matches can be used to create warmth or to burn down a dwelling; the Hangman’s Rope can be used to rescue an ally or trip an opponent. Some objects are contained within different territories of the kingdom, some are inherited at the beginning of the game, and others are inherited from allies for doing good deeds.


The player, who is often the ‘abused victim’ in real life, is given the opportunity to role-play the Hero or Heroine who saves the kingdom by helping peasants and ‘freedom fighters’ less fortunate than him- or herself, overcoming obstacles, and challenging forms of oppression. Players choose their board-piece avatar, throw dice and gather resources as they move around the board, encountering tyrannical villains, useful allies and unpredictable victims of tyranny. Tyranny may take the form of an obsessive belief, an event, or character behaviour. But by identifying the abuse and challenging it, the players gain points and escape abusive consequences.

Players not only engage with board characters (Villains, Allies, Victims), but they also engage with each other in order to negotiate artefacts required for their missions. In this process, players explore fair play and abusive behaviour. When one player is confronted by a villain, the other players take turns in role-playing the villain by engaging in dialogue cards that reveal villainous attitudes and behaviour.


Story narrative and meaning unfold in the form of ‘mission cards.’ Mission cards assign a player the task of releasing a victim trapped within a particular territory and then overthrowing the presiding villain. For instance, within the Ice Palace two indentured servants, one maid, and the queen’s daughter are trapped, entranced or imprisoned and cannot escape the abusive power of the Ice Queen. Each character’s plight, which is described on the ‘mission card,’ sets up the situation that must be solved. Figures 3 & 4 reveal two sample mission cards that unravel the narrative.

In each location, three different scenarios are possible. This second scenario also takes place in the Ice Palace.

As you may have noticed from these two ‘mission cards,’ both have different problems to solve with different objects and tactics, but both have the same over-riding goal of seizing the Ice Queen’s Sceptre through different means. Possession of the Sceptre leads to the overthrow of the Ice Queen, but only one player will be successful in capturing the territory. Therefore, timing, strategy, and the roll of the dice–all work together to build suspense.

Strategy Cards

Apart from the Language Tactics, Animal Totems and Object Cards, three other decks of cards are used during gameplay: Fate Cards (similar to Monopoly), Secret Fear Cards and Oppression Cards. Drawing a Fear Card promotes an understanding of the fact that everyone–including villains–have weaknesses, while drawing an Oppression card provides an opportunity to ‘name’ the tactics of abuse and thus avoid its consequences. Since some cards encourage fair play (Language and Animal cards), and other cards help players discover when to protect self through threat, ridicule or dismiss (Villainous behaviour of the Oppression Cards), players begin to discuss their own internal rules which may have inhibited them from using a particular behaviour because it was seen as ‘bad.’ Other players, who may have been more antagonistic, begin to learn that inappropriate use of aggression can lead to loss of points. Ultimately each player discovers that ALL tactics can be used and abused, depending upon the situation. Each card contains positive or negative values, which becomes useful in understanding their importance; and in a practical sense it allows players to tally their points at the end of the game.

Gameplay Tasks

Although the player is largely engaged in strategic thinking, there is a considerable element of chance via the dice rolls which move the player around the board with unpredictable consequences. This kind of gameplay creates scope for exhibiting emotions and discussing fairness; acceptance of fate and deliberate abuse of power since the dice can also lead to drawing an Oppression card. Players are encouraged to plan ahead in gaining and trading cards as they move around the board. However, owing to the complexity of the board game’s multiple tasks, the gameplay elements are initially broken down into four sessions.

The first session is devoted to familiarizing players with the eight language tactics of conflict: the AVOID and ATTACK strategies. Players are dealt 25 cards, which they are encouraged to place into groups pertaining to the various strategic positions: AVOID cards are coded YELLOW; ATTACK cards are coded RED. Each tactic card contains a sentence that illustrates its particular tactic. The gameplay focuses on attempting to play four ëtacticí cards of the same kind within a conversation, in order to gain the animal totem card attached to that particular tactic. During the card game, as players place their cards on the table, they role-play the attitudes of the various positions of power using eye contact, gesture and tone.

The second session is devoted to familiarising players with the eight language tactics of creative solutions: the EXPLORE cards are coded GREEN, and the SHARE cards are BLUE. Again players are encouraged to role-play the attitudes of each tactic through tone and gesture, and to play a straight set of four of a kind in order to gain the animal totem card related to that tactic. During this session players are introduced to the concept that different animal strategies create animal totems for various Villains and Allies. Players are encouraged to work towards collecting the animal totems of the Allies.

The third session is devoted to familiarising players with the ‘mission cards’ and object cards. Each player receives a ‘mission’ and ten ‘object’ cards. They then engage in a card game similar to ‘Go Fish’ where players ask for a particular object, and must pass over, pick up or put down an object card to the pile. The first player to gain all relevant cards to a mission is considered the winner

The fourth session is when players are familiar with the language tactics of interaction and the potential use of objects. Then, all the elements are brought together in the board game. For the purposes of scoring, all language tactic cards are positive except the threaten, ridicule and dismiss cards. Players move between territories in the kingdom by throwing dice and landing on one of eight different kinds of ‘event’ squares:

[1] ‘Market Day’: The player landing on this square can negotiate swaps with other players for Language Tactic Cards they need. However players are not obliged to accept an offer. If no one will accept an offer the player on the Market Day Square can pick up a Language Tactic Card from the deck.

[2] ‘Resources’: The player landing on this square can pick up an ‘object’ card from the deck which may give them the item they need to complete a mission. The ‘object’ card may also be used to defeat a Villain. However once it is used to defeat a Villain, it must be returned to the deck. This limitation encourages the player to use language tactics rather than objects to foil a villain.

[3] ‘Tactics’: The player landing on this square engages another player in a Language Tactic Card game of four tactics in order to gain animals tokens. If the player uses ‘negative’ tactics on another player, then he or she forfeits an animal totem.

[4] ‘Secret Fear’: The player landing on this square picks up a Secret Fear Card, which can be used during future conflicts with the Villain. A secret fear card can foil a villainous act of oppression, and helps players realize that everyone–even villains–have insecurities or weak points.

[5] ‘Oppression’: The player landing on this square must pick up an Oppression Card, which describes an oppressive situation wherein a Villain abuses power to disenfranchise the player. If the player can identify the oppressive tactic, and challenge the Villain through his or her set of animal cards or secret fear card, then he or she can escape the loss of possessions and any damaging effects of abuse. This process is particularly important for helping players recognise abuse and rehearse behaviour that promotes their personal power, personal rights and confidence.

[6] ‘Fate’: The player landing on this square must pick up a Fate card, which causes either a loss or an inheritance of objects or animal totems. Players must deal with the fact that life is not always within their control. It is a gameplay device used in many games, including ‘Monopoly.’

[7] ‘Obstacles’: Players lose a turn due to emotional issues such as ANGER (‘you deny your anger and become ill’) or FEAR (‘you ignore your fear and end up abused’). This can raise discussion around the power of emotions, especially when these darker emotions are ignored. However, it may also raise awareness of how we give away our power by acknowledging, accepting or supporting a villainous act rather than challenging it.

[8] ‘Good Fortune’: Players can go straight to the location of their mission if they have all their objects. They may keep the card until they have all their objects.

The game action is fast moving and intense with constant negotiation. To an onlooker, it is a bewildering mix of odd conversations, incomprehensible card-swapping, collaborations and collusions, as players navigate obstacles, gain objects and overcome villainous behaviour.

III. Transcending Pain?

The question arises about how much room there is for ‘transcendence and pleasure’ when so much intense negotiation is occurring. Curiously, it is the very process of communicating, problem-solving, and social interaction that creates the sense of ‘flow,’ the pleasure of achievement, and the transcendence from emotional pain. One ten year-old who suffered considerable emotional pain in his real life, and was known for cheating in games in order to win, was highly distressed when his parents called to take him home. He begged to be allowed to finish the game, but his parents told him he had virtually won the game since he had the highest score. It was a big step forward for this boy, who been totally engrossed in the gameplay without cheating, when he insisted he did not want to win, he just wanted to play.

The question of one’s ability to transcend pain during gameplay is a valid one. If the mix of strategy and chance is too heavily weighted towards fate, then the player’s pleasure, which is gained through strategic skills and personal control, is frustrated by the overwhelming odds. Balancing pleasurable activity with the tension of uncertainty is the key to creating exhilaration and suspense. Whilst players may revel in the unpredictability that chance presents, too many uncontrollable variables can render the player helpless. Occasionally during the game, when the roll of the dice and fate cards led to uncontrollable losses, some players wanted to opt out, especially those prone to depression.

Debriefing sessions revealed that players took delight in discovering strategies to outwit each other and to deal with danger and abusive threats. They particularly enjoyed ‘naming’ abusive behaviour and foiling Villains by revealing their secret fear. However, if they did not gain the opportunity to engage in these activities owing to constant misfortune, then their frustrations were reasonable: they were not gaining the satisfaction of exploring the game. These frustrations caused by the strong element of chance are being reconsidered in ongoing refinements of the game.

Author’s Note:

All graphics and associated I.P. are the sole property of Kathy Mueller (2000). Anyone who would like to be kept informed about the game’s future developments can contact Kathy Mueller at:



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