I played Condomania the other day. I lost.

The reason is simple. I had a hard time keeping straight the difference between simulated reality and real reality. This turned out to be the key to the game.

Condomania is an ingenious role-playing game designed by Paul Feicht and Peter Stengel, students at the University of Maryland, for a fourth-year course called "Gaming Simulation in Design, Architecture and Planning."

Stengel explained the rules to me. Like the other players, I would be given a set of secret cards instructing me to take a position for or against a designated list of issues coming up before a meeting of "our" condominium owners' association. Success would be judged on a tally sheet recording which propositions were voted up or down.

At first I couldn't get my heart and mind behind the restrictive positions I was supposed to defend -- to establish a singles-only building, to allow pets only in certain buildings and to install a buzzer entry with a video monitor in each apartment.

Then, when I thought I had the hang of the game, I came on so strong for a proposal to require that all the windows look alike ("to maintain the external appearance of the buildings") that my bias was challenged, successfully, by another player, and I lost a bundle of points. I had sounded like Mies van der Rohe on a grumpy day, fulminating against uneven curtains that destroyed the austere purity of his designs.

Fortunately the game was played by Grantland Rice rules. The point, as I was later told by Prof. Juan Bonta, who designed and taught the course, was not to win but to learn.

Simulation games have been used for years by the military and, in education, by business schools, but their use in architectural education is relatively recent. Bonta, an architectural theorist who emigrated from Argentina to the United States in 1975, has been requiring students to design games for about a decade. "To construct a game," he explains, "students must first thoroughly understand the area that the game simulates."

Condomania is relatively simple, as architectural games go. Restricted to a single situation, it hones debating skills and requires that the various players understand each side of a given issue. Or, as Stengel put it, the game develops the "ability to kind of fall into a position." Bonta refers to it as a "frame type of game," whose structure can be used to simulate any number of different situations, the meeting of a school board, for instance, or of a planning committee.

Among the games designed by his students in past years are Would You Like to Be an Architect?, a sort of architectural Life that simulates an entire career; Poligrip, a game that focuses upon political power (and that "typically develops into a throat-cut battle between coalitions," Bonta says); Heating and Air Conditioning, or HAC, an energy game that rewards long-term husbanding of resources; and Semiotics, a fascinating exercise that explores the ways buildings are interpreted.

Semiotics, based upon semiology, the science of signs, is played with a set of simple wooden dowels from which each player is told to construct something ressembling a well-known building type, such as an airport, a bank or a gas station. Each player is then asked not only to identify each building, but also to describe its style by choosing from a list of adjectives such as avant-garde, modern, classical, traditional, luxurious and so on.

The curious and instructive thing about Semiotics is the way the game is scored. Success is judged not by matching interpretations with the designer's intentions but by the way the building is most frequently interpreted. If structure intended as a classical bank building is commonly interpreted as a modern gas station, for instance, the designer loses points while the majority gains.

The game is played in a succession of rounds and, as Bonta says, players quickly learn that the winning designs are usually not the more innovative ones; rather, the winners are likely to be the most easily interpreted designs. In other words, the game rewards cliche's. The point is not to encourage bad design, Bonta emphasizes, but to make students aware of the meanings people read into buildings regardless of the architect's intentions.

If gaming has obvious beneficial uses in the real world -- it has been used on occasion by large firms to stimulate clients to talk about their needs, and more innovatively by planners to bring together different interest groups involved in various large-scale building projects -- it is used by teachers like Bonta to encourage a broader conception of architecture than students customarily encounter in the architectural schools.

"The main value of the games," he said, "is to demonstrate that the architect is only one player in a more complex 'game' involving bankers, lawyers, developers, politicians, critics, community groups and the like."

This is a fact of life known and ruefully accepted by architects trying to work in the real world. By participating in his gaming course, Bonta said, architectural students can prepare for the world in a more intelligent way and avoid the shock of finding out "that the banker or the developer couldn't care less about their beautiful models."

Bonta's point, and that of the other architectural gamemakers, is that to make good architecture designers can neither ignore these pressures nor give in to them. It is a useful, important lesson. When you get right down to it, it involves a new perspective on the art of architecture. The modern movement endorsed a romantic view of architecture as the product of the isolated genius who gave us his forms. If indeed these were very great forms, they also were unresponsive to the desires and needs of a great many people.

Anything that encourages a more realistic view of the process is welcome for, as Bonta says, "In a democratic society architecture should be for and by the people. Society actually can help us solve our architectural problems."