Making Board Games in the Classroom

I just got home from THATCamp Games II at Case Western Reserve University, where we played and made a lot of games. In the past I’ve talked about making games for the classroom using lots of technologies (Inform 7, inklewriter, Twine, Scratch), but games don’t require any computing power to be great. Physical board and card games can be powerful systems of representation and more immediately accessible for exploring something in a classroom. This might bring back made memories for some of us of classroom jeopardy–but when the mechanics of the game fit the content, it can be much more powerful than that.

During THATCamp Games II I taught a crash course workshop in making educational board games. Here’s the full Prezi from the workshop. The same basic process can be used for designing a game for a lesson or in asking students to make a game, which itself can provoke a different way of thinking about an idea. Here’s an overview of the process we used:

Phase One: Imagine

  1. Brainstorm an educational objective
  2. Choose a central mechanic
  3. Clarify your theme and concept

Most of us learned through board games at some point–even if it was the foundations of capitalism in Monopoly, a reductive version of the American dream in the Game of Life, or just color recognition from Candyland. But board games can address much more complex topics: Pandemic models cooperative disaster response to the spreading of infectious diseases; Eco Fluxx poses questions of environmentalism through a changing rules system; and there’s even an Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose board game.

A straightforward goal–a purpose behind the game–works best when it can clearly be connected with the game. One of the teams during the workshop chose creative thinking and connected it with competitive challenges, as seen in the prototype above for “Think. Build. Tell.” These mechanics can then be interwoven with a theme, ideally in a way that strengthens both. For instance, a rebranded version of Monopoly may have a new “theme”, but it doesn’t really change gameplay–while moving a strategy game to a different era often rewrites all the rules.

Phase Two: Make

  1. Imagine your game space metaphor
  2. Design your system and pieces
  3. Prototype your playable design

There are lots of ways to think of game boards, but all of them have to represent something complex in a simple way. Most of them do that through using a visual metaphor–Monopoly simplifies the city to a single block, Sorry uses complete abstraction, The Game of Life conflates movement through space with movement through stages of life. One way to jumpstart game design thinking is to take all the pieces of a game box and throw away the rules, then imagine a new ruleset that makes all those pieces work together. This helps us explore how all the pieces of a physical game combine to form a system–it’s a lot more transparent than most video games.

The most important part of this rapid building is using cheap, totally destructible materials. I’m a big fan of Crayola markers, poster board and construction paper. With these supplies it’s usually impossible to make anything that looks “good” — especially if you forgo rulers– and that means there’s no cost to “failure.”

Phase Three: Revise and Repeat

  1. Playtest your game concept
  2. Revise and eliminate “unfun”
  3. Rewrite your rules and materials

Just like in any creative exercise, games need to reach an audience. With board games, that’s especially tricky, because the players have to provide the “engine” that makes the game go by interpreting the rules–there’s no computer to keep track of how things work. Playtesting and getting feedback helps us understand what’s working and what isn’t “fun”–or helpful to our goals for play. Usually, this process gets repeated over and over as the idea takes shape. You can see one of the rulesets for a game created during the workshop and refined by Sanjaya Gajurel: “Collaborative Play Against Global Warming.”

Finally…share your game!

No board game goes anywhere without players. A game made (and played!) in class might seem to be a failure at meeting certain goals, but the very process can be a learning experience.

Have you tried making a physical game either as a class project or as a different way to teach a topic? Share your experiences in the comments!

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