Some advice and tips on creating educational games

This post gives you some practical tips and advice for creating a functional educational game.  Whether you are inventing the game that your students will play or assigning them a project to make an educational game, these are some useful tips to guide you through the process of both game creation and production.  I have culled these from experience and other advice I have picked up along the way.  If you aren’t yet convinced of the educational value of these, read my earlier post about some of the advantages.

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Creating the game play and rules:

  1. A theme: the game should have a directed theme.  This should be pretty easy since you are linking it to an educational concept or unit, but you may need to review the game theme of your students who might need help focusing it.  Here are some examples, anyway:  If you assigned a fiction reading or movie with your history unit this could also be a good way to have the students interlace it into your history unit.  You could focus on a particular set of primary sources and have them create a game out of it.  You could also ask students to create a game based on a particular battle or an economics game based the unit’s trade system.  You could ask students to consider different players or cultures from a unit and represent each according to their differences and similarities in the game (think Life or Scategories).  Or, you could challenge the students to come up with their own theme from the units after offering some suggestions or provide options that they could select.
  2. Establish the object of the game: Every game has an objective for each player.  In the game of Life, you are trying to acquire wealth; in the game of Monopoly, you are trying to acquire wealth and drive your opponents into bankruptcy; in the game of Risk, you are trying to take over the world while conquering the armies of the other players; in the game of Scrabble, you are trying to earn points by creating the longest or most point-laden words; in the game of Clue, you are trying to establish whodunnit based on logic and elimination; in the game of Scattegories, you are trying to gain points by filling the most categories with words starting from the letter you’ve been assigned; etc.  Each game will need a goal for which the players are aiming to attain.
  3. Advancement in the game:  Related to the above point, the steps need to be put in place that will allow players to progress through game play to the objective.  Is it by rolling the dice or spinning a spinner, making decisions, answering trivia, performing an act or drawing a picture?  It may also be necessary to work out the minimum and maximum number of people that will needed for game in this phase, and likely the general board design or card types–depending on how the game evolves.
  4. Game’s ending:  This may seem obvious, but depending on how the game has been set up it may be trickier than you might think.  Does the game end once the first player has reached the objective, or does it end once everyone has reached the objective and the winner is determined through a comparison of points, acquisitions, etc.?  Some games are a winner-takes-all sort of deal, while others may be more of an everyone-wins type of game but with different results or products.  With the latter concept, think about a game that involves more of a role-playing feel,wherein the objectives for each player vary slightly depending on character/culture/occupation the player has adopted.  (For example, let’s say you are creating a colonial American game in which a player might represent a tribe, a governmental body–such as England or a colony, a religious minority–such as the Quakers or Catholics, individual frontier pioneers or city people–such as one you may have studied with primary sources, and slaves or indentured servants: different objectives would be in place for each group, and different obstacles might have a greater toll on different groups.  Therefore, if you are progressing through a game board, there may simply be a built-in ending point and once each player has reached that point the results are compared for how successfully each player did.  The measurements could include health, wealth, population, legislation, etc., to determine each players’s success.  Or, the game may play end up being more of a role-playing card game where players seek to build their decks in order to play.  These have a less obvious end point and are often played continuously unless a player dies or loses their deck in more cut-throat versions, however for a classroom-created version there would be no way to purchase more cards and endlessly expand the deck, thereby allowing for the end of the game to be established either by loss of cards, inability to play, death of character, or another generic end point.)
  5. Rules:  This another obvious one, but it can create problems if the rules do not allow for a logical play of game (such as a game board where a spinner or one die makes more sense than two dice, i.e., the maximum advancement in one turn should 6 or lower, instead of 12 or lower), render certain steps meaningless (for example, if the there is money used in the game, but it serves little to no purpose because the ultimate objective can be reached without it or because there is not enough means for gaining more money while the game requires that it be spent), or create a scenario where the endgame comes to quickly or slowly.  The best way to avoid this difficulty is actually to develop a working prototype well before the production of the final project.  This segues nicely into my next set of tips.

The above is advice for game creation.  Below, are tips for successful game production.

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Game Production

  1. The Prototype:  This is essential in any game-making process!!  The prototype allows one both to create a draft for the final game board, but also to create a method for playing the game to work out the kinks that might sneak up in the above phase and thus avoid rules that interfere objectives, allow for a solid endgame, etc.  This step cannot be skipped!  Too many things can go wrong in the board appearance or game play, so this draft phase must take place.  As with other assigned projects, it also provides a logical mid-point deadline to make sure everyone is progressing at the necessary pace.
  2. Game pieces:  These need to be designed and constructed.  There are numerous ways to make figurines or acquire pawns such as the following: put stickers on thick cardboard or foam board and cut them out, kidnap them from another board game rescued from a thrift store or garage sale, carve them out of balsa wood or use a Dremel and make wooden pieces, reuse and recycle items from the house (bottle caps, pieces from other games or toy sets, buttons, pins, holiday decorations, etc.), Lego people, etc.  The more these fit with the theme the more fun they are.  For example, let’s say the theme is America in the Cold War, pieces could include an old Coca Cola bottle cap, representing capitalist economics; a peace symbol or smiley face pin; an astronaut or Apollo mission equipment; an American flag; a Soviet flag; a Chinese flag; a miniature book that could be a Playbill or a miniature director’s “cut” board; indicating the Red Scare investigations into actors; an “I Like Ike” button; a domino, representing the “Domino Theory” in Asia; a hockey figurine in red or red, white, and blue; an Olympic flag; a miniature globe or world map; a missile; a submarine; a toy car from the era; a miniature nuclear fallout shelter sign; a toy bomber plane; etc.
  3. Board design:  I recommend purchasing some blank game boards (I found a couple websites that sell these for a few bucks plus shipping, see below), otherwise, white poster board will suffice and you can make it more sturdy by gluing it to two pieces (one for each half of the board game) of corrugated cardboard (which can be covered in cloth, wrapping paper, or adhesive liners) so that it can still be folded down the middle.  In decorating the board, I recommend typing, printing, and pasting squares or other features down on the surface.  You can also print onto Avery stickers with Microsoft Word products that bypass the pasting requirement.  Talented artists may be able to do something more elaborate and those skills should definitely be tapped if they are available, but not assumed.  The prototype should have provided clues for the placement and proportions–another reason that it is critical!  Another possibility is taking an old board game from a thrift store or garage sale and simply spray-painting a neutral color over it to create a new board.  If the game is a card game than one can try using index cards or spray-painting a purloined set of cards from another game or deck (though some materials will be difficult to paint) and pasting down printed pieces or stickers.  As with blank board games, blank card sets also exist (again see below).
  4. Printing up final directions: These can be made into a simple rule book that goes with the game and its pieces, or can be written up in an essay that explains the game play and the educational value of the game and its play.  For example, historical knowledge may be required, skills that our culture has gained from the historical cultural might be demonstrated, antiquated skills or rituals may be required, etc.  Or, role-playing games may recreate the narratives of past people from either specific individuals found in primary sources or invented characters based on primary source (and potentially secondary source) research.  If it is a game that you created for the students to play, than the necessary reading(s) would be built into the assignment of playing the game.  (Note: if you create a few games for small groups to learn and teach each other early in the semester/school year, then you may plant creative seeds for students to tap in a later assignment in which they create their own games.  I love creating things like this, so I would want to do both, personally, but I am not everybody!)

Once that’s all been done, the next thing to do is host a game night!  It’s a great way to bring parents in if you are a classroom teacher; a great way to bring investors in if you are in museum education or historical site education programs; a great excuse to throw a party if you are in home schooling.

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Game-making resources

Check out your standard craft, hobby, and office supply stores if you are making your games from scratch.  If you would like to purchase blanks, check out the sites below:

And, individual game products can be acquired through Amazon, such as:

Books about making games:


Collaborative Opportunities

History and social studies classes can team up with other teachers’ classes.  Art teachers are an obvious collaboration, but for narrative-based games, also think about English and language arts teachers who may help students create narratives for the game.  Computer or tech teachers may be able to help with graphic design for game boards, boxes, or cards.  Shop teachers may help with game piece design where applicable.  These are could opportunities to introduce other disciplines and problem-solving for students.

Make sure to invite these teachers to the game night!



Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Games

2 responses to “Some advice and tips on creating educational games

  1. Pingback: Gaming the Past: How to Teach History with Video Games | Brush off the dust! History now!

  2. Pingback: Smart Summer Fun: 30 Ideas for History Dorklets | Brush off the dust! History now!

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