5 boardgames I use in the classroom

With the anti-COVID19 measures (hopefully) relaxing a bit, I am running several training courses on how to integrate the power of games and play in personal and professional life.

Strangely enough, games are still somewhat underestimated in educational settings everywhere. Especially in old-fashioned systems there is a running assumption that “fun is bad for learning” (wrong, there is a ton of science to prove it) and educators who want to work more with game-based learning (what is it? not to be confused with “gamification”. A good article is here) are still seen as risk takers who use non-orthodox methods.

Things are changing, sometimes not so fast, but the crushing evidence shows that games are extremely powerful tools to activate personal engagement, emotions, long-term memory, creativity and social connections – and these are all crucial dimensions in learning. So, long story short, every learning experience can be made more effective by including some “gamey” aspects in it.

One thing to use are educational games: games that are designed with a clear educational purpose in mind. They are great, but they suffer from a couple of issues: 1) they are usually low-budget compared to commercial games (because, sadly, education suffers from budget restrictions even in the luckiest cases); and 2) sometimes they are, well… boring not so engaging! Maybe because their learning objectives are a little bit too obvious, on the nose, or because they were not created following a clear game design approach. What I am trying to say is, if we want to keep our people (players, students, learners) engaged, FUN should always come first.

Learning will follow for sure if the teacher / facilitator does a good job allowing some time at the end for individual and group reflection, asks good critical questions that help focus the discussion; and harvests conclusions in a way that brings closure and favors insight.

That’s why I like to use commercial games in an educational setting. They look and feel good (a very important part of why we love games so much is that we enjoy them as multi-sensorial aesthetic experiences); they have been thoroughly play tested; they usually tell fantastic stories, sometimes inspired by major book or movie franchises; and the more popular they are, the better, as chances are some people will already be familiar with them.

Here follows a short overview of 5 popular boardgames I use in the classroom, and my experience with them. Some are super popular, some maybe less but they still offer interesting learning opportunities, so I hope everybody can discover something new reading the list.

Evolution (2014)
by North Star Games

players: 2-6
time: 60 min
age: 12+
complexity: intermediate

gameplay: strategic, competitive, card-based, limited resources
topics: biology, science education, nature, ecosystems, systems thinking

I really love this little gem because it describes dynamically how ecosystems are formed and evolve over the course of time. And yes, because it’s about dinosaurs (even if it doesn’t say so). Players compete for scarce resources (mainly: food) as they control a bunch of “creatures” just out of the primordial soup. The way these creatures evolve will depend on a number of factors, as they create complex and delicate interconnections and food becomes more or less abundant. Some will choose to develop huge and aggressive carnivores (think: a T-Rex with the largest mouth you can think of), others will prefer placid herbivores who rely on factors like hard shells or numerous packs for their survival. And what about generating an intelligent omnivore who can climb trees and use tools? The fun thing is, these abilities can be acquired or lost, once they become useless. It’s dynamic, and players get to represent millions of years of evolution during the span of one game.

In my experience, not everybody likes this game because it’s not exactly immediate to play. Allow yourselves half an hour to familiarize with the rules, or make sure somebody is there to give a fast and effective introduction. But thanks to its elegant mechanics, meaningful gameplay and evocative artwork, once this experience kicks off, it can really suck people in.

Dixit (2008)
by Libellud

players: 3-6 but also more
time: 30 min
age: 8+
complexity: easy

gameplay: storytelling, simultaneous action, competitive, voting, clues
topics: art, humor, semiotics, communication, memory and interpretation

EVERYBODY loves this game. Literally everybody. And it’s a testament of its fantastic design, a masterpiece balance of so many of the ingredients we love in games: inspiring, dreamy artwork; easy and captivating mechanics; a social experience that can be hilarious, thrilling and an opportunity to shift from easy to deeper topics in a heartbeat.

In Dixit, players draw wonderfully illustrated, surreal cards (out of the many available decks, that can be all combined) and have an opportunity to describe them with a short story. The goal is to have most people – but not everybody, so it’s not too obvious – guess which card matches our description. It’s an incredibly easy interaction that leads to fantastic dynamics: guessing, bluffing, reverse psychology… in other words, lots of fun.

At the heart of the game is the ability to tell stories: the fundamental human ability to see patterns and connections that are not immediately visible, and to draw other people into our own imaginary worlds. It’s fast to learn and guarantees virtually endless repetitions, and it can be so immersive, many don’t really play it to win, but more for the pure fun it offers. Used as an educational experience, it’s a workshop for wordsmiths, and an opportunity to exercise social deduction, creativity, abstract thinking and interpretation. Many like to use it as a reflection tool, like a less intimidating version of Tarots or wonderful coaching cards.

Codenames (2015)
by Czech Games Edition

players: 2-8
time: 15 min
age: 14+
complexity: easy

gameplay: team-based, wordgame, deduction, communication
topics: communication, language, strategy

Codenames is a more recent game that became an instant classic. It’s essentially an easy party game where players have to guess words, based on a few cryptic hints given by their team mates. Make a mistake, and you may give a point to the other team; make a big mistake, and it’s game over for you. The game is wrapped in a “spy story” narrative, which makes it more immersive and raises the suspense somehow.

This is it, it’s incredibly easy, a full game lasts no more than 15 minutes, and you will want to play another one right away. The team element makes it fun and there are enough cards to make sure you will not run out of ideas so soon. And then, why not try the other existing versions: the Disney-themed “Family Edition”, “Harry Potter”, “Marvel”, or “Pictures” which uses pictures instead of words.

One great aspect of this game is that it’s so immediate, nobody will ever hate you for bringing it to a party. It’s great to practice strategic thinking, team communication and language skills (it’s translated in many languages). A family-friendly, almost-casual party game that can also offer deeper experiences to those who look for a more mature challenge.

Jaws (2019)
by Ravensburger

players: 2-4
time: 60 min
age: 12+
complexity: easy to intermediate

gameplay: strategic, one-versus-many, area movement, hidden movement, card play
topics: strategy, communication, deduction, resource management, uh… sharks?

Some pictures are so iconic you can hear them. I am sure for many people this is the case when looking at this box, obviously recalling the 1975 Steven Spielberg movie poster (ah, in case you haven’t seen it, go watch it now. Seriously, and thank me later). Can you hear the shark theme?

A giant white shark decides to relocate to Amity Island, a small community that lives off the income from East Coast beachgoers. Summer is coming, and the shark is hungry.

A simple idea, masterfully executed is behind the success of the movie, and the game tries to follow those footprints as faithfully as possible. One player is the shark, has a bunch of special abilities, moves secretly across the board, and more importantly, gets to eat people. Everybody else is a shark hunter, a ragtag team of characters with different profiles and abilities (again, if you have seen the movie, you will instantly recognize them). The game is divided in two phases: Amity Island, where the hunters try to pinpoint the predator’s location before… uh, all the swimmers are turned into shark food; and the Orca phase, a climactic kill-or-be-killed battle where the hunters try their hardest to defeat the beast, on a sinking ship.

It’s not an entirely casual experience, as it takes about 30 minutes to learn the game, but it can make for a very rewarding experience. And obviously a stronger one, if one is a fan of the movie. Or of sharks. The one-versus-many gameplay opens the door to many opportunities to replay it, as everybody will want to be the Shark. It’s a fun experience that can be used to reflect on teamwork and communication, smart use of resources, strategic thinking, bluffing and deception.

And yes, you will find yourselves repeating these words again and again.

Pandemic (2008)
by Z-Man games

players: 2-4
time: 45 min (but really, more)
age: 8+
complexity: intermediate

gameplay: strategic, cooperative, card-based, set collection
topics: biology, systems thinking, teamwork, communication, and duh! pandemics

I know, in 2021 this may sound like a very dark and creepy joke but really, “Pandemic” (the board game, not the real one) is a classic that made history and deserves a place in every anthology.

In the classic version of the game (the one I use), players cooperate as members of a special task force with the goal to eradicate several – not just one – deadly viruses that threaten humanity. The game takes place on a big board that represents the Earth, each character has a specific profile and abilities (which gives space to some role-playing and more strategic thinking), and players have to communicate and cooperate to the best of their abilities if the want to stand a chance.

It’s already difficult to win the game, despite the fact that as a simulation, it’s much easier than the real-world scenario we are currently in. For one, in “Pandemic” (the game) there are no conspiracy thinkers that will spread rumors about the credibility of the threat; no populist faction or tv channel will openly sabotage your work just to win the next election or make money; and once a vaccine is developed, everybody will take it so we can win the game, and move on. If only, right?

But still, a match can offer a thrilling experience and you will always be sitting uncomfortably on the edge of your seats, trying to use your team’s abilities in the best possible way in a race against time and luck (drawing cards ensures that events will happen at random and this will make each game unpredictable and unique). It’s a very reach experience where all players have to cooperate, and I recommend it as a team building, as an exercise in group communication, leadership and long-term strategic thinking.

And you? What are some of your favorite boardgames that are also rich learning experiences? Feel free to write in the comments and let’s have a conversation.

I am always looking for suggestions on what to buy next, and I think I will write another post like this at some point in the future.

Thank you for reading! And keep on gaming :)

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