Board games can be designed to teach many subjects and principles alongside the competitive objectives. As a kid, my parents introduced a German board game called “Deutschlandreise,” which means “German travel” or “German vacation,” as a way to get me excited about our trips to visit family in Germany. In essence, the objective was to complete your travel itinerary, which directed you to several cities on the board–a map of Germany. As you “visited” each city, you learned about some of the city’s highlights. It is a Cold War era game, so while travel through the GDR was included in the game, the borders were clear on the map and provided a useful talking point for my folks when we played the game.
I think one of the best ways to utilize board games in the classroom is to ask students to create one on your subject. For example, a Greek unit could cover a great deal, but let’s say it covered the following subjects:
- Homer - The Illiad, The Odyssey
- Athens – democracy, philosophy, orators
- Sparta – the 300, the military state
- Hellenism – drama, history, city-building, agoras and commerce
- Conflicts – two wars with the Persians, the Peloponessian War
- Alexander the Great
A game could be designed that focuses on any one of these subjects, or on multiple subjects. For example, a game could be made on Odysseus and his travels designed somewhat like the game of Life, with a map and a winding path that includes the many challenges he and his companions faced. A Risk type of game could be adopted for Alexander the Great. Or, a Monopoly style board could be created in which each color, instead of being purchasable properties, could be one of the subjects above. Instead of acquiring the colors through purchasing, you would gain them through answering questions. Similarly, anybody landing on your colored spaces would have to answer questions, with a more difficult questions being reached as more of the colors are acquired, i.e. a “monopoly” is earned. Failing to answer questions correctly would result in loss of points, much like paying cash in Monopoly. There is also always a simple Trivial Pursuit spin-off as well.
Of course, many games can be created without resorting to existing favorites. They can be based on commerce, battles, knowledge, or Greek “skills” such as drama, oratory, philosophy, history and art (something like Cranium comes to mind, here). Small groups could be assigned a specific feature from the above list so that a variety of games are created and can be played and shared. Parents could be brought in for a class game night and Greek food could be part of the experience (there are numerous resources for historically-based recipes). Alternatively, the teacher could establish a particular theme and the game development could be a classroom activity.
How does this help your student learn about history? By delving into the subject enough to establish game objectives, students hit numerous points on Dale’s Cone of Experience, building off of classroom learning: listening, reading, writing/creating. I recommend an accompanying essay that functions both as a “how-to” with the directions, plus an explanation of what historical elements the game recreates and teaches. If you encourage the students to go for authenticity and professional presentation, they will usually go all out. Collaborate with the art teacher who will be able to help them with materials and supplies. You may want to also collaborate with the English or Language Arts teacher on the “how-to” essay or in coming up with a “story-outline” for the game–but many very good games could be designed that do not follow a specific storyline.
Games have also been an essential part of leisure time throughout history. Many historically created games have been recreated and are available, today. While many of these were gambling games, many were akin to our modern board games. Mancala or similar games were played in many places in the ancient world. The Vikings played Hnefatafl–like chess, but where one player has a greater advantage–sort of like Leonides and the 300 versus the Persians! And, of course, there is chess which has gone through many evolutions before being played the way we know today, each informative about the culture. These games can also be incorporated into teaching, but it is a considerably different experience from students creating a game based on history and sharing that with their peers.