'Gamification' has become a popular term in education lately. When I was a kid, educational games were somewhere between laughable and mediocre, but a generation of gamers has grown up and is now creating high-quality educational content. As a result, teachers now have a ton of great options for teaching and learning across every niche and subject area. I'll be the first to admit, however, that the last thing our kids need is more screen time. The occasional Kahoot is fine for review, but how can we get the benefits of playing video games without spending more time staring at an IPad or mobile device? Board games, of course!
Board games are old, with a history going back 5000 years or more. There is evidence of gaming in ancient Egypt, and games like mancala may have been played long before that. Classics like chess have never gone away, but role-playing and specialty board games have experienced a surge in popularity over the past few years. The pandemic is at least partially responsible, as are hit series like Stranger Things that have helped bring non-digital games like Dungeons and Dragons to a mainstream audience, but it's a trend that doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon. There really is something for everyone, no matter how specialized your subject area is.
What's so great about board games?
Tabletop games have the potential to help students learn new content and develop a variety of skills at the same time. This includes both traditional skills, such as problem-solving and reading ability, as well as less quantifiable skills like patience, organization, and teamwork. For this reason, I've advocated for a gaming club at school which I've run for a number of years. Students spend a few hours a week playing whatever games they choose with no real structure or learning goals to speak of. All I have to provide is a safe, quiet space for kids to enjoy trying out new games and replaying old favourites with their friends.
With the exception of mass-produced standards like Monopoly and Clue, board games can be pretty expensive and sometimes hard to find, so many students will only ever have access to them at school. On top of that, it's hard to arrange for 3 or 4 of your friends to come over and play a game, so by setting aside time for board games in your school or classroom, you're making it easy for your students to socialize (in a productive way).
Lastly, games can be replayed pretty much indefinitely, as long as you don't lose too many of the components, and there is virtually no prep or setup required. Furthermore, board games can be a perfect activity to use as a sub-plan for when you're out. The substitute teacher might even have fun covering your class!
Below are my favourite board games for teaching math and science (ordered by age):
1. Battleship (2 players, ages 7+)
Admittedly, Battleship isn't the most thrilling game for high school students, but it has enormous potential. It's great for teaching younger students about graphing and coordinates. You can also use it to teach about algorithms and programming by having students follow pre-defined strategies and compare what works best. Want to introduce or review the periodic table? Just put some plastic or cardboard ships on a laminated periodic table and have your students play chemistry battleship to learn the elements!
The only real downside with Battleship is that the game is only designed for two players, so you'll have to get quite a few sets if you want to play as a class, but there are ways around this. You can always just make class sets with graph paper, print your own, or use components from the original game on a homemade board. Alternatively, you can even have the whole class play against you, the teacher. Each student gets the normal number of ships, but you get a whole fleet and a larger grid!
2. Ticket to Ride (2-5 players, ages 8+)
We got a copy of Ticket to Ride from my parents last year for Christmas, and we all love it. It takes a few run-throughs to get the hang of it, but even my 6-year-old can play it fairly competently. Most of the math involved is straightforward, but there is a lot of strategy and risk in deciding what you should do relative to the amount of points you can accumulate each turn. There's also some potential for learning about geography (and history, since the place names are based on historical and not necessarily modern locations), but that's secondary to the math and strategy aspects of the game.
Ticket to Ride takes a while to play, but to speed things up we just reduce the number of trains each player starts with. It also has great replay value and many different strategies can be used to win. I think this game would be best for upper elementary or middle school students.
3. Monopoly (2-6 players, ages 8+)
Seriously, is there a better game for teaching kids about economics and money than Monopoly? The game features cutthroat capitalism at its worst, but can also encourage cooperation, teamwork, and deep strategy.
Besides being great for practicing basic calculations and cost/benefit decision-making, Monopoly has the potential to initiate important discussions on fairness, universal basic income, welfare, poverty, equity, the wealth gap, inflation, and of course - monopolies! It can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be, and there are plenty of rule modifications that can be made to make the game more or less challenging depending on the ages of your students. Another economic option for classrooms is Monopoly Deal, a speed version of the game requiring only cards and no setup.
4. Pandemic (2-4 players, ages 8+)
Pandemic was a good game even before Covid, but now it's more topical and relevant than ever. Of course, you and your students are probably sick of hearing about it, but the viruses don't care and will happily keep on infecting people!
Unlike many of the games on this list, Pandemic is a cooperative game where you work together to stop a viral infection from taking over the world. Players take on different roles like scientist and medic and use their abilities to prevent, you know... a pandemic! As with many of the games I've mentioned, there are many ways you can keep the learning going long after the game is over with research and discussions. You can also have students write reflections on how the game relates to themselves and their lives over the past few years.
There are quite a few Pandemic expansions, but I haven't played any of them so I can't say whether they are worth your time or not. Also, despite the 8+ age rating, I think the game would be better suited for 12+ in my opinion.
5. Catan (3-4 players, ages 10+)
Anyone with a passing interest in board games has probably played Settlers of Catan at some point, but it's still great for students learning about resource management, so you could adapt it for both science and math classes. Someone even did a study that showed how students improve their understanding of probability concepts by playing it.
Catan is pretty quick to learn and the games last for around an hour, so it's almost perfect to squeeze into a typical lesson. In terms of difficulty and strategy, it's somewhere between Monopoly and Terraforming Mars and should be appropriate for any middle or high school class.
6. Evolution (2-6 players, ages 12+)
This is one of the first science games I got for my class, and it remains one of the most popular. Designed by a biology teacher and adapted by North Star Games, it does quite a good job of introducing and representing the mechanisms of natural selection. It's not perfect, however, so I weave it into the curriculum by having students write a critical review of how accurately the game portrays the process of evolution.
Evolution is fairly simple once you get the hang of it, but there is no 'best' strategy to win because your playstyle changes depending on what other players choose to do. In this way, it is very much like real evolution and definitely represents arms races in a realistic way. If you want additional realism, you can pick up the climate version of the game. It's far better at taking the ecosystem into account, but also quite a bit more complicated. I have both games in my classroom, but I usually only break out the climate box when my students are really interested in the core game and want to keep playing.
7. Terraforming Mars (1-5 players, ages 12+)
The most complicated game on my list is also one of the most interesting. There are aspects of both teamwork and competition at work in Terraforming Mars, where you represent a corporation trying to make Mars livable for everyone while gaining as many victory points as you can for yourself.
I always teach a grade 10 unit on environmental chemistry which involves learning about the oceans and atmosphere. There's even some content about space exploration and the possibility of terraforming Mars, so I decided to give this game a shot at the end of the topic this year. Unfortunately, I didn't try it out ahead of time and figured I could just learn as we go. That was unwise. The second time we played went a lot better, so I recommend that you check out a video on how to play if you are going to try this one with your students.
Next year I will have my students make a list of questions while we play so we can discuss or research as a class afterwards. There is a lot going on! The game is rated for ages 12 and up, but I'd say it's too difficult for kids that young. Our games took upwards of 2 hours, so prepare for that as well.
8. Taboo (2+ players, ages 13+)
Taboo is a fantastic game for practicing vocabulary in any subject, but it will require some modification for math and science. It's not hard to create your own taboo cards for a unit, and then you're good to go. One benefit of this game is that the whole class can play simultaneously. Make presentation slides of your taboo cards and project them at the front of the room. One student comes up and faces the class while their teammates try to get them to say the word. It's loud and chaotic and always good fun - perfect for a Friday afternoon or review lesson!
This version of Taboo is recommended for ages 13+, which I can only assume is due to some of the vocabulary or content included. The game itself is among the simplest on my list and could easily work in a class of 1st graders, provided they can read.
9. Genotype - A Mendelian Genetics Game (1-5 players, ages 14+)
This is a great game for reviewing inheritance and genetics in high school biology classes. Players take on the role of researchers trying to breed new plants using genoptypes and Punnett squares, and they'll be using lots of genetic vocabulary in the process. There are lots of extension opportunities you can do after playing this game as well, including learning more about Mendel and his work, calculating allele frequencies, introducing non-Mendelian genetics, and so on.
The game can be a bit complicated, so I would only recommend it for advanced level science students in grades 10+. Also, I hear good things about other titles from Genius Games, but this is the only one I'm familiar with.
10. Wingspan (1-5 players, ages 14+)
In this strategy game, you play as a bird enthusiast or researcher trying to collect as many species as you can to populate your habitats. I know that doesn't sound all that exciting, especially if you don't really like birds, but there's a lot more to this game than meets the eye. There's an incredible depth of gameplay here, and although it can be a bit complicated, it's a rewarding and fun experience. It's also a well-made and beautifully illustrated game!
The science comes from the fact that every bird species is real and each card contains facts about them. The game is based on North American birds, but there are expansions available for Oceania, Europe, and soon Asia, so people from around the world can play with their local species. The game lends itself well to discussions about ecosystems, ecology, endangered species, wildlife management, and so on.
11. STEM Family Battle (2-4 players, ages 15+)
Don't let the word 'family' put you off - this is a great game for teens featuring a wide variety of math and science questions. Even without the board, you can use the trivia cards at the beginning or end of class for some quick and educational fun. They're definitely better than the kinds of questions you'd get with a game like Trivial Pursuit.
The game has a high age recommendation, but I think this is due to the fact that there are adult and child level quiz cards included in the game. The kids cards are definitely appropriate for students under age 15.
Having board games on your classroom shelf is a great way to keep kids engaged without resorting to videos and apps. The upfront cost may be a little high, but if you and your students take care of the games, they will last for many years. You also end up with a collection of educational resources that can become instant lesson plans for when you need something to do.
If you don't have the resources to offer board games to your students, there are still things you can do. Some companies offer 'print and play' versions of their games at a reduced price (here is one for Evolution). You could also consider providing your students with a comfortable gaming space to play during recess or after school. When I was in high school we would spend our lunch periods playing cards in the cafeteria, but we would have loved to play in a student lounge or classroom if one were available. Finally, if all else fails, you can also try writing to game companies and asking them if they have any free resources available to educators. I got a free copy of the Story Engine and thousands of Magic cards from the manufacturers just by sending cold emails, so it's worth a shot!
If you have other science and math games that you've played and enjoyed with your students, I'd love to know about them. Add a comment or send me a message on social media. Thanks for reading!
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