It’s Back to School Week! Late August into September is one of my favorite times of the year, even though it’s one of the most terrifying. It’s great to see my previous students again, back for another year, and there’s plenty of fresh faces to meet. It’s also time to see if my summer course planning paid off—and part of that planning is sneaking in board games where I can. I’ve had a lot of success with it, not only in mathematics classes, but in a course I did previously tying board game concepts to mental health issues—and of course, just having game nights as student activities. I have several suggestions below, but here’s the big one: Know your audience. Many of your students are not gamers, although there seems to be a heavier overlap in STEM areas, particularly math and computer science. If a game illustrates the concept you want but is a complicated game, do not use it in the classroom. You need games that you can teach in under 5 minutes, so that the class can focus on playing and learning. To that end, here are some of my favorite suggestions, and what topics they can work with.
Whoops, did I just break my own rule? The Resistance is actually a fairly complex game to play for non-gamers, not only to understand the rules, but also the strategy. I would not play this game in many circumstances, but I use it in one particular case: with sophomore computer science majors. They are nearly all gamers, and many of them have even played this game before. Thankfully most have the right demeanor to be okay with a game full of lying and backstabbing. The reason I teach them this game is to clearly illustrate how easily someone is swayed by a valid argument which is not sound—“I’m not a spy, so the only logical conclusion is that Richard is a spy!” As homework, I give them the puzzles outlined in this journal article. Although our focus is strictly on understanding the mathematical logic used in the game, the issue of valid, unsound arguments also applies to important discussions in philosophy, political science, and psychology—those classrooms might not be as full of gamers open to a game like this. One other warning: I use the version of the game called The Resistance: Avalon since the sci-fi edition has gun tokens in it, and I made sure to remove the Lady of the Lake token from the boxes—it’s for a variant we don’t use, and the artwork on the token is risque. Despite those caveats, this has been an immensely successful project we’ve done three years in a row now, and I’m looking forward to doing it again this fall.
The best way I’ve had Codenames described is Battleship meets Taboo, which is fairly accurate. This fairly “thinky” party game has players trying to describe as many words on the table as possible, using only a single word clue, and without overlapping with cards belonging to the opposing team or the deadly Assassin. It’s one of the most successful party games of all time, winning tons of awards and now even showing up in department stores like Meijer and Target. This game would be fabulous for a language arts, ESL, or communications classroom, as it really hits home the many double- and triple-meanings that can be found in the English language. And for those looking to make a similar point about artwork, Codenames Pictures is the same system using cards with specifically tailored artwork, instead of words.The game system is also very flexible—you could use your own sets of words and pictures, e.g. to review vocab from a lesson, from any subject!
Wits & Wagers
Using this game requires a little DIY incentive, but that flexibility is precisely why it works so well. In Wits & Wagers, players answer a trivia question with a numerical answer, then place bets on who they think got the right answer. If betting is inappropriate for your classroom, the Family edition removes all betting, and it can easily be removed from the Party edition. While the game comes with a variety of trivia questions, the trick of the game is to make your own. For example, in a history class, important dates and numerical facts can turn the game into a review day that students will remember more after having a more enjoyable experience. I used the game myself before to get students loosened up and acclimated to the university by asking questions related to the university—year founded, annual revenue, size of a certain statue, and so on. If you have numerical facts you want students to remember, this is a great way to get that information across.
The Chameleon is another social deduction game, but one of the simplest ones of its kind. In the game, all players except one (the chameleon) know a secret word out of 16, all in the same category—all players can see the choices on the category card. Each player says a single word to describe the secret word, while the chameleon has to make something up, trying not to get caught. Even if the chameleon gets caught, he then has a chance to guess the secret word, so the other players can’t be too obvious!
The reason why this works in the classroom setting is the flexibility of the categories. Like in Wits & Wagers, teachers can make their own category cards (the game even includes a dry-erase board for making up category cards on the fly), and being able to subtly reference a particular word without giving it away demonstrates a very high level of understanding of the concept. After each round, the teacher and the players can dissect the word choices, which tends to happen when you play this game anyway, but it will give the teacher full insight on how well the players actually understand the concept. Also, because the game includes two sets of key cards to rotate back and forth, you could really play this with 16 students (two sets of 8 players) at once, and even more once the app eventually goes live. It’s also a really funny game to play, which is the reason to use games in class anyway: rope students in with fun, and make them learn on “accident”!