What board games can teach educators

Making learning playful, personalised, collaborative and human

Educators have much to learn from the world of board games.

I live a 10-minute walk from the UK’s first board game café, Thirsty Meeples (a meeple is the name given to any person-shaped figure used as a player’s token in a board game). Until recently, my board-gaming repertoire was distinctly modest; rarely had I ventured beyond the safe refuge of Scrabble and Monopoly. But Thirsty Meeples thrusts you into a whole new world of gaming possibility, with over 1500 games to choose from (not to mention a delightful selection of chai lattes).

Thankfully, self-named Gaming Gurus are on hand to guide you through the choices. The Gurus more than justify their title. First they ask a series of probing questions, such as: what previous games have you played? Do you want to play against each other or as part of a team? How long do you want the game to last? Do you like collecting items? How much randomness do you want in the game?

From there, the Gurus recommend a game that matches your individual gaming profile. My own responses vary from one visit to the next, with much depending on who has accompanied me to the cafe. My wife and I usually elect shorter, co-operative games like Pandemic (it helps keep the peace), but an evening out with competitively minded friends invariably results in the ruthless combat of Small World.

Inside ‘The Meeps’ (source)

There are digital equivalents to board game recommendations — this flowchart is eerily prophetic — but the Thirsty Meeples experience is defined by its human touches. On a given evening, the small café plays host to families, casual gamers and aficionados, all enjoying a gaming experience perfectly suited to their individual preferences. Personalised gaming at its very best.

Every trip to the cafe yields new discoveries. Each board game is its own small universe of logic, rules and patterns. There are two ways to learn a new board game: one utterly soul-destroying, the other delightful. At Thirsty Meeples, I have experienced both.

On one occasion, an overzealous Guru was adamant on orating every rule of 7 Wonders before we were even permitted to start the game. I took hurried notes as he mercilessly rattled through an endless stream of what seemed to be arbitrary, disconnected rules. After the Guru departed (he returned just once in order to deliver my much needed spiced chai latte — his one good deed that evening), my friends and I toiled for a couple of hours as we desperately sought to connect my scribbles to the strange shapes on the board, poring over the tattered rule book in search of the missing details. Our allotted time expired before we had a chance to play the game proper. As wasted evenings go, this ranks pretty high on my list.

Perplexing for all the wrong reasons

I’m glad to say this is a rarity in Thirsty Meeples; most Gurus take the time to play through a few moves so that the rules are embedded in actual game play. But even the most illuminating Gurus are limited by time. With so many tables for the Gurus to serve, players are usually left to discover the intricacies of each game for themselves. The most virtuous contribution a Guru can make under these circumstances is to seed a basic understanding of gameplay by introducing the most essential dynamics as they occur.

In recent weeks, my wife and I have adopted a new approach. At each session’s conclusion, we identify (with the help of Gurus) the next new game we will trial at our next visit. Prior to the visit, we look up the rules online to gain initial exposure to the gameplay (YouTube delivers dynamic explanations more often than not). Our upfront effort ensures a head-start when sitting down with our Guru (we may even earn their respect by impressing with our advanced knowledge). Most importantly, we can skip past the mundane aspects of setup and dive straight into the gameplay.

Our ‘blended’ model is proving to be a game changer. Gone is the frustration and anxiety of handling a disconnected web of arbitrary rules. Instead, we engage with each rule within an authentic gameplay context, understanding how it interacts with others as part of a tightly integrated system. The more we play each game, the more we solidify these connections and marvel at the game creator’s ingenuity. The most delightful games induce a gradual feeling of inevitability: of course moving X leads to Y. It was only during our third attempt at trading game Istanbul that we finally grasped the reasoning behind all the complex manoeuvres. In fact, we have yet to encounter a poorly conceived board game; confusion and anxiety is only ever a result of weak pedagogy.

You can imagine the horror that would unfold if education policymakers were tasked with running a board game café. We would all be subjected to the same game, at the same pace, irrespective of our needs and preferences. Families and hard-core gamers would be forced to move through games in a fixed progression — but not before being tested on the most arcane details of each game. Players would be permitted to play only when they have fluently recalled entire chunks of the rulebook. Co-operative games would be out because there would be no easy way of measuring each player’s contribution to the outcome. We would be condemned for showing any signs of struggle, relegated to the ‘low ability’ tables where the only game on offer is Dobble.

Good job we leave the board games to the experts. It’s only a shame that so much of Education is fraught with narrow instructional models predicated solely on knowledge transmission. Just imagine if the structure and design of board games was reflected in our approach to curriculum and assessment. Learning could be playful, personalised, collaborative and deeply human all at once.

Dan Finkel dared to imagine. He is the rare hybrid of math educator and Gaming Guru. I have written separately about Dan’s inspired representation of the number grid, which forms the basis of his board game, Prime Climb. I finally had the opportunity to trial Prime Climb with my own students, with remarkable results — rarely has a mental maths task induced so much joy from the outset. A full review will follow in a future post.

Prime Climb: Mathematics meets play (source)

Suffice to say, the allure of Thirsty Meeples is within reach of every classroom. Education is overrun with false prophets, but we have much to learn from the Gaming Gurus.

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