Board Games in the Classroom

Within the past few years, I have really grown to love board games. While they used to be something we would play only when the power went out, they have now become my go-to source of entertainment and interaction with friends. I believe this is because they work on so many levels. I can relax with some games, like allowing my mind to think only about matching pretty colors in Lanterns, instead of all the crazy stuff I need to get done. I can give myself a mind-bending puzzle to solve in the complex systems of games like Euphoria. I can bring lots of people together for a simple game full of surprises and laughs with Liar’s Dice, or maybe help some build camaraderie with Pandemic. However, it’s only been recently that I thought I could use games outside of my recreational time and begin to use them to do my job.

I’ve been an educator for 9 years, and recently moved back to the high school level after some time with middle schoolers. In working with my curriculum, I’ve become extremely interested in how problem solving is taught to students. Many people think this is an inherent skill (either you have it or you don’t), but there are definitely methods by which students can grow in their approach and execution. With a desire to see the students I teach become great problem solvers, I created a unit last year that focused solely on this skill. We worked through different activities, watched some TED talks, and practiced developing solution systems for basic problems (usually my own, like making sure I get my lunch to work or that I arrive on time). My favorite part was that we were able to go to an escape room as a class, where the students were able to put their problem solving skills to the test.

Escape Room
I also got to watch from the control room to see how hard they tried to cheat.

The escape room was great, although it wasn’t exactly financially friendly. It ends up costing a few hundred bucks for one class to have the experience for about an hour. It just didn’t make sense for my classes this year, where I was set to teach more students. So as I began to brainstorm ways for students to practice coming up with solutions, trying them out, and making adjustments to plans as they go along, my mind quickly arrived at board games.

I’ve played board and card games with students before. During lunch at my previous school, we often brought out games during our lunch breaks, and One Night Ultimate Werewolf and Tenzi became quick favorites. One Night is fairly popular at my new school as well, in addition to Jungle Speed. The high schoolers also hosted a game night recently where I was able to introduce them to new experiences like Caveman Curling and Uptown. But all of these have been independent of instruction and take place during down time. This was going to be the first time that the students would actually play games as part of their learning process.

Sushi Go Party in the classroom

This is still a work in progress, but I’m proud of some of the stuff I’ve been able to do so far this year. With different classes I was able to try different things. With my smallest class of just eight students, I broke out one of my favorites, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. I’ve already gone through all the cases, but it was great getting the chance to relive that experience with some new players. The students were assigned different tasks, and they worked together to figure out which leads to follow, which clues were the most important, and how to use their problem solving skills to develop their final solution for the case. In the end, they did pretty well, and have been asking me constantly when we will do another case.

These activities weren’t graded or anything, but instead were used as experiences for students to see how they could put the problem solving skills that they had learned into action without any sort of life-altering consequences.

For some of my larger classes, I used the first three versions of the game Unlock! by Asmodee Games. These games allowed me to simulate the experience of an escape room in a much more financially reasonable way. For most of my classes, these games went really well. I had the students all watch the tutorial video as part of their homework, so they were prepared after we reviewed the major rules at the beginning of class. I ended up helping out a little more than I would have preferred, but most of the teams were able to escape before time ended, which I think was more fulfilling. The only major issue we had was that one of the games ended up having a card missing, and we didn’t realize this until the second playthrough. Aside from that, though, the puzzles worked well for the students to put their problem solving skills to the test.

Finally, with my biggest class, we were able to play the most basic version of Two Rooms and a Boom. This game, intended for large groups, splits everyone into two teams. One group has the president, who must be protected by all of those assigned to his team. The other team is tasked with… well, in our version, they are tasked with getting their one ‘zombie’ player to infect the President. The real version involves a bomber who takes out the President, but that felt less appropriate for school, so we adjusted a little bit. The game is played over 3 rounds, and at the end of the game the winner is determined by whether or not the President and zombie are in the same room. This game worked pretty well for many of the students, though some seemed pretty disinterested because they didn’t have much to do. I think if I can take my time and pick roles that get everyone involved in the game, another round of Two Rooms may go down very smoothly.

Now, these activities weren’t graded or anything, but instead were used as experiences for students to see how they could put the problem solving skills that they had learned into action without any sort of life-altering consequences. I think that everything we’ve done so far has gone pretty well, and I hope that I can improve upon the lessons and make it even better next year. I am also looking for ways to involve other games as we move through different content, like probability or functions. In addition, I keep on the lookout for games that might work well for teachers in other disciplines to utilize in their classrooms. We already have a teacher who plays Marrying Mr. Darcy with her students after their Jane Austen study.

Game Design
I also had a class on board game design, but that’s enough for a whole other post.

So, what’s the purpose of writing this? Well, I guess part of me wants to show that education doesn’t only consist of sitting and listening to lectures, but that’s for another blog. I also suppose that I could talk up board games and how great they are for being usable in yet another situation. But maybe even more than that, I want to encourage people to embrace their interests and see if they can make them a greater part of their careers and lives. You’d be surprised how the puzzle pieces of your life can fit together sometimes, so go on and give it a try!  I’m sure it’ll be fun.