In Southeast Asia, the rapid expansion of boom crops like hybrid maize, rubber, oil palm, or banana, has brought about daunting environmental and socioeconomic impacts such as deforestation, land degradation, and indebtedness. Why do farmers engage in and keep on pursuing this farming strategy despite the adverse effects on local landscapes and livelihoods? In the context of the northern uplands of Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), we developed an innovative approach to understanding the decisions that lead to the emergence of the maize boom. We successively studied the adoption, expansion, intensification, diversification, and abandonment of intensive maize practices in locations in which these phases were ongoing at the time of study. To better contextualize decision making, we designed and applied local, serious games with farmers in seven different villages that were going through a maize boom. Then we designed a metagame that summarized our findings across all decision phases and local games in a generalized form. National agricultural experts validated the structure of the metagame by taking on the role of farmers and they witnessed that their cumulative decision making within the metagame lead to a maize boom too. Core findings include: (1) the maize boom and bust can be reproduced in a game environment that simulates the change of six factor combinations; and (2) Farmers in northern Laos reinvest maize profits into their long-term, socioeconomic goals. The approach presented combines micro- and macrolevel analysis of land-use change. On the one hand, it allows the exploration of the local, social-ecological contexts of land-use decisions. On the other hand, it provides a systematic procedure to scale up, generalize, and test the contextual knowledge and systemic understanding of a complex, large-scale land-use change process.