Teaching with Board Games

By Sara Lovett


Four graduate students set up for the board game workshop.

On April 5, the UW Libraries and CIC co-sponsored an event on teaching with board games. The libraries have six board games (Risk, Betrayal at the House on the Hill, Settlers of Catan, Pandemic, Dominion, and The Resistance) available for check-out as part of a pilot program. At our event, participants rotated through stations and each learned about three of the six games and brainstormed how they might use these games as part of their teaching. In this post, I will recap overall takeaways and present specific ideas related to three of the six games.

Takeaways

  • Games are ideologically-rich, and they are an excellent site for critical analysis. Dominion and Settlers of Catan, for example, replicate a settler-colonialism narrative whereas Pandemic offers up a narrative of consent and transnational, interdisciplinary collaboration.
  • One attendee, Dorian, drew upon scholarship from comic studies to point out that games are easier to analyze than books or movies because of distance from the material.
  • Though it is not usually possible for all students to play a game at the same time, we came up with several solutions: 1) students can check out and play the game as homework, a task that would also orient them to the library’s space reservation and course reserves systems, 2) instructors can use a “fishbowl” structure, in which students alternate between playing the game and analyzing play while observing their peers, writing reflections and engaging in discussions on both experiences 3) students can use free online clients such as Dominion Online (https://dominion.games/) to play some games, and 4) for some of the games, instructors can request additional copies via interlibrary loan.
  • Games offer a site for students to engage with multiple modes (e.g. tactile, visual, spatial) and reflect on the literacy skills they used to learn and play the game.

Betrayal at the House on the Hill and Genre

Betrayal at the House on the Hill board game tiles and character pawns

Betrayal at the House on the Hill (click the link for a playthrough video from Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop series) is a narrative game in which players explore a house. Players explore a house by flipping over tiles and moving figures representing their characters from room to room. Characters’ traits change through items and rooms they encounter (e.g., a book might cause your character to gain knowledge). Though players begin on the same team, the “haunt” occurs partway through the game, and one or more players may turn traitor. The traitor(s) and the heroes (the remaining players) each read a separate set of new rules and story elements that affect the rest of gameplay. The game contains 50 haunts, so the gameplay experience varies with each new playthrough.

Betrayal lends itself to analyses of narrative construction and performance as well as genre analysis and production. As students play multiple Betrayal scenarios and/or peruse the game manual, they can take notes on the conventions of the genre of these scenarios. Then, individually or in groups, they can create their own scenario to be playtested by their peers. This activity can generate conversation on the topics of genre, uptake (i.e., do the rules in the scenario “work?” What kind of play is taken up by the playtesters?). Students could even create scenarios that teach particular course concepts (e.g., players need to construct a complex claim in order to successfully leave the house).

Pandemic and Remix

Pandemic board game board, cards, and character pawns

Pandemic is a cooperative game in which 1-4 players act as the world’s top public health specialists collaborating to stop four pandemics. We noticed as we were discussing this game that it facilitates narratives about cross-national collaboration–the players can travel easily between cities, and though there are four regions, there are no explicit borders between nations–and about consent: the dispatcher role card states that this player must gain “consent” before moving another player on the game map. This game offers opportunities for discourse analysis and remix. Specifically, we thought about how students might revise Pandemic to reflect real-world conditions such as unequal resources privileging the global North over the global South, international borders hindering collaboration, and separate research agendas and incentives for each player (think culture jamming for the classroom).

Dominion and Visual Analysis

Dominion board game cards

Dominion is a deck-builder (i.e., a game in which each player acquires, draws, and plays cards throughout the game). The rules of the game are simple: players play cards, take actions (denoted on individual cards), and buy cards.

We spent most of our time at this table discussing the theme, which is best summarized by the game’s creator, Donald X. Vaccarino:

You are a monarch, like your parents before you, a ruler of a small pleasant kingdom of rivers and evergreens. Unlike your parents, however, you have hopes and dreams! You want a bigger and more pleasant kingdom, with more rivers and a wider variety of trees. You want a Dominion! In all directions lie fiefs, freeholds, and feodums. All are small bits of land, controlled by petty lords and verging on anarchy. You will bring civilization to these people, uniting them under your banner.

But wait! It must be something in the air; several other monarchs have had the exact same idea. You must race to get as much of the unclaimed land as possible, fending them off along the way. To do this you will hire minions, construct buildings, spruce up your castle, and fill the coffers of your treasury. Your parents wouldn’t be proud, but your grandparents, on your mother’s side, would be delighted (Dominion game manual).

There is much to analyze in the opening text alone, and the cards offer even more material to unpack. We noticed, for instance, that most of the cards are gendered and raced in ways that uphold stereotypes. We wondered how the game itself would change if the images on the cards were replaced and nothing else were changed. Students could undergo this project as part of a visual analysis or a word inquiry project, investigating the origins of words like “witch” and “bureaucrat” and interrogating the relationship between card names, images, and game mechanics.

Playtesting the Curriculum

Certainly, there are many more ways to use these games in the classroom. What are your ideas? Feel free to share in the comments or at our next event on May 3rd, which will build upon the first. Participants will “playtest” a curriculum that I am developing based on the insights from the first event. I hope to see you there!

Acknowledgements: Thank you to the attendees of this event for collectively generating knowledge. I am especially grateful to Elliott Stevens for his continued support in facilitating this partnership with the libraries and to Holly Shelton and Ahmed Al Awadhi for serving as roundtable leaders (as well as photographers and editors).

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