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CITY ROOTS - a game about gentrification

game design, UI/UX, rapid prototyping


All game pieces available for download/print at the bottom of this page, including cards, boards, and player pieces.

Artist's Statement

City Roots is a game that models gentrification as urban areas develop. Although gentrification is typically a negatively charged word, it is an incredibly complex process that often results in city benefits: reduced crime rates, increases in average income, and lots of other statistics that sound pretty nice. But when talking about statistics, it is all too easy to forget about the people.

City Roots moves players to understand and appreciate some of the complexity of urban development while building empathy for the real-world people who are hurt by gentrification — most notably, the lower-income residents who lose their homes and get pushed out of the developing city, who become part of the “displaced.”

Taking on the role of members of a city council, players must choose which policies to enact. They witness the consequences of their choices as the board, visually representing the city, updates with each decision. Players must aim to increase economic prosperity of the city without displacing too many people, and in doing so, players see how the city becomes divided and lower-income residents are pushed to the outskirts of the city or displaced entirely.


City Roots poses with Pandemic creator Matt Leacock (from L to R: Annie, Grace, Matt, Gilbert, Ben)

Process Overview

Over the course of one month, my team and I went from having an abstract understanding of gentrification to having a fully playable and complex systems board game. A systems game is one that models and typically educates players on an entire system. City Roots is a team vs. game model - either everyone wins or everyone loses.


City Roots is our final project from CS 377G: Designing Serious Games with Professor Christina Wodtke and Game Designer Chris Bennett. Our process was:

+ Research on gentrification as a system - stakeholders and processes

+ Defining a Concept Map (see here), the first step to create a systems game

+ Development of Formal Elements and Values 

+ Designing game boards, pieces, and cards

+ Seven rounds of Playtesting and Iteration

+ A balanced, enjoyable, education, and playable game!


Final game at the Spring 2019 CS 377G and CS 247 Game Design Expo


Playtesters Danny, Kally, Jessica, and Julie (Stanford Undergraduates) celebrate with high fives and peace signs after winning City Roots. They deliberately took a “capitalistic rather than humanist approach.”


Much like Monopoly, we ended up creating a bunch of die-hard capitalists. :/

In making the game strategic and engaging, some players took a different emotional approach — rather than empathizing with the low-income residents represented, they deliberately chose to prioritize capitalism for the sake of winning. Despite this attitude, all of these players acknowledged that they were not taking the humanist approach. Some players continuously expressed that they “felt bad” about displacing people, though these players tended to be more passive players in the group dynamic.


Playtester Quotes

“We don’t need local businesses. Gentrification for the win!”

“It seems to me that the best strategy is pushing the low income houses to the outside..

which is kinda what happens in real life.”

“This feels so real.”

Assessment Results

We also created a survey for playtesters (n=12) to evaluate how they felt before playing and after playing.

  1. 8 of 12 reported an increase in understanding of gentrification after playing the game, and 4 reported no change

  2. 3 of 12 reported an increase in empathy for low-income residents, 3 reported a decrease, and 6 reported no change.

  3. 10 of 12 reported an increase in empathy for city officials, 1 reported a decrease, and 1 reported no change


We delivered our project in two phases: P3 and P4. These process documents explain in detail our various brainstorming sessions, playtests, and iterative improvement.

P3 Process Document: A focus on initial elements and values development. Making a playable game.

P4 Process Document: Honing in on making the game enjoyable, understandable, and educational.

Printable Game Pieces


Policy Cards

Reference Cards

Event Cards


Board Pieces

Skills: Research, Design, Testing, Iteration, Rapid prototyping, User experience


Game boards available for download/print.

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