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Untold Play

Five tools to turn physical learning games into virtual learning games

Five tools to turn physical learning games into virtual learning games

by Terry Pearce

2 years ago

My background is in face-to-face learning. For twenty years I’ve been designing learning experiences, most of them face-to-face, and for the more recent half of that, I’ve been increasingly using games-based learning solutions, and gamifying learning experiences.

Just like for many people, everything changed for me in March 2020. Since then, I’ve been spending a lot of time reviewing the face-to-face experiences I’ve designed over the years. I’ve been adapting them for virtual training and digital environments. And that’s taken me on a journey through a lot of tools that can help this process.

If you have a learning game, gamified experience, or game-based solution, I’m sure you will be able to use one of these solutions to digitise it and take it from the classroom to the virtual setting.


Mural is a popular interactive whiteboard app, with a strong focus on digital ‘post-its’. But you can import any graphical element you like, and arrange, lock, and move them around along with your participants. Participants can join via a one-click link with no sign-up.

All of which is a great set-up for any facilitator-led learning game or gameful activity. Just set up your board, or cards, and move pieces around according to your rules in response to player decisions and instructions.

A game created using Mural

I used Mural to create a motivation card game, where cards represent individuals, their motivations, and ways to try to motivate them. I used a simple app from Steam, Card Creator, to design the actual cards, but you could do this in any graphics or desktop publishing app. For classrooms, I would have created this as a physical boardgame, but I can do it all within Mural.

Kanban Boards

Kanban boards such as Trello and KanbanFlow are generally used for task, team and project management. Boards consist of columns, under which a series of cards are filed. Cards can be moved around, changed, and properties assigned to them, like ‘subtasks’ or colour-coding.

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. Any game based on cards and their position on a table layout or in people’s ‘hands’ can be rendered using a Kanban app. I took a scenario-based physical game of branching choices and consequences and used KanbanFlow to make it into a Zoom game.

Teams have their own ‘board’ in their breakout room, and they make choices by arranging their cards in certain ways. The facilitator is logged into their boards, so can sit in a kind of ‘control centre’, switching between browser tabs to view and respond to each team’s actions by adding, moving or changing cards, showing consequences.


One of the joys of working in this way is adapting the most everyday tools for purposes they were never intended. Excel is a great engine for running ‘turns’ within a game. Give players options, with their output being something they can enter into an Excel sheet, and you can give the output of what happens.

The best implementation I’ve seen of this is the Visible Value game from Profitability. It’s a game about business finance. At its core is a simple set of choices about where to invest money each turn. The choices from each team are fed into the spreadsheet, and then all teams watch as the results of their investment choices are produced for that turn.

I’m no Excel expert, but using some of its more complex functions such as VBA, I’ve seen people use it to create card games and other complex creations.


Tabletopia is a powerful web-based tool for playing 2D boardgames. Players can join in one click via a link, and can move pieces around, draw and hold cards, roll dice and more, all within the browser window. You can keep score, show turns and more besides.

Tabletopia in action

It won’t automate the rules for you with code, but if the players know the rules they can do it, or it can easily be done by a facilitator as with Mural. Digital implementations of commercial games are what this is designed for, so you can render your classroom-based games more or less perfectly.

I’m using Tabletopia to create a dice game with a partner in Canada. It’s a game to train key concepts in humanitarian disaster intervention, and it looks very slick as well as being fully functional for rolling dice, placing tokens and helping players explore the learning objectives.

Inklewriter or Workflowy

If your game is narrative-based, with branching choices, digital is probably much better than face-to-face. I used to design and run paper-based branching choices games for classrooms a long time ago, and they were heavy on the paper and needed an organised facilitator.

Apps like Inklewriter allow you to create a mapped-out branching choices narrative that players interact with simply. You work out what choices you want players to have, and the consequences, use the app’s interface to lay it out, and can share a link for players.

Or, if you want an extremely simple version, the collapsible-bullet-points app Workflowy can be adapted for the same purpose. Players can start with two or more choices (bullets) on-screen, and get further choices when they click each one, for as long as you have options there for them to explore, without any code at all.

More besides

These are five examples I’ve used. If they inspire you to use these five solutions, I’m pleased. But more than that, I hope they inspire you to use and misuse other apps and services to wrestle the learning games you know and value into a new digital life.

If we stop thinking about what an app is intended to do, and start thinking about what it will allow us to do, the horizon of possibilities gets a lot further away.