51 Mechanics: Action/Movement Programming

Find the rest of the 51 Mechanics series at www.gamelevellearn.com.

BoardGameGeek (BGG) is a singular repository of gaming information, knowledge and wisdom that has been serving the modern board game hobby since 2000. I consult it regularly and have used its database to manage my own game collection. I also used it when I was writing my 2016 book on gamified instruction, particularly with regard to the game mechanics that BGG identified and organized content into. While there are more than 85,000 games, even now, there are just 51 mechanics. Since every mechanic offers something to the teacher who wants to use games in the classroom, I'm going to use this section of Game Level Learn and my own contributions to it to assess games from each of these 51 mechanics. Next up?


Action/Movement Programming games require the player to secretly, but unalterably, make decisions about what s/he is going to do on their next x number of turns. Once the decisions have been made by all players, the consequences of these decisions are executed. Very, very frequently, a move that seemed perfectly reasonable, even genius, when it was programmed becomes a disastrous error when it is executed because of the way the state of the board has changed. These kind of games strongly stimulate algorithmic thinking in players and are really good at helping younger players develop a capacity to see various strategic states that might develop on a board as a result of players' decisions. They're strategic, intriguing, maddening and exciting in equal measure. Here are five you should consider picking up at your friendly, neighborhood game store:

Colt Express (BGG Rank: 255)

Colt Express is worth having in your collection if only for its three-dimensional board (and the fact that its great fun). It implements the action/movement programming mechanic in an especially crazy-making way. Players follow the game's instructions and play action cards into a common pool of action cards which are executed in order once all players have put cards on the stack. Insane, but there are rewards for being able to understand the board (a skill I sadly lack...).

duck, duck, Go! (BGG Rank: 3,458)

Any game whose pieces are rubber duckies is going to get special attention. This game's adorable! And it's a good game for younger audiences to begin to get their brains around the notion of programming. Players give ducks certain movements and they execute these movements trying to find their way to a number of checkpoints in a race. The first duck to complete the circuit wins. Great for kids...totally interesting for adults, too, though.

Gravwell: Escape From the Ninth Dimension (BGG Rank: 765)

Another very accessible game, in Gravwell you are the pilot of a ship stuck in a black hole's gravity well. Your object is to use a variety of fuels that you harvest from the gravity well to get your ship out of the event horizon first. The problem is that fuels have different firing times (the earlier in the alphabet is a fuel's name, the earlier it triggers) and, moreover, some fuels pull you towards other ships or push you away from those ships. A trickier prospect than it would seem. Great fun and accessible to younger players.

Robo Rally (BGG Rank: 287)

The definitive example of a action/movement programming game, Robo Rally gives a nice balance between exciting play and infuriating play...it gives both in more or less equal measure. Your object is to move a robot through a simulated factory floor while conveyor belts, pits and your fellow players are trying to thwart you. And you have to program your movement before you execute it. And you can't see what the other players are doing first. MADNESS.

Room 25 (BGG Rank: 769)

Designed by my friend François Rouzé, in Room 25 you are attempting to escape from a prison which has no discernible exit. You must program your actions before you take them, sometimes resulting in surprising turns of events.


The Star Wars X-Wing Miniatures Game, Star Trek Attack Wing and an old classic, Full Thrust, also feature this mechanic in one way or another and would be worth your consideration, mindful that they can very quickly become VERY expensive!



On the Star Trek CCG

I don't generally make quick post-links on this page, but I recently encountered an extraordinary story of a game that I have always loved - the Star Trek Collectible Card Game. I haven't played this game in a long time, but I know where my cards are! In my own work on games and gaming, I've long argued that games are a uniquely useful tool to build community, share stories and learn together all of the essential metacognitive skills that traditional learning doesn't succeed as well in.

Give this story a read. It's author, Cyrus Farivar (find him at @cfarivar on Twitter), is one of the great contributors to Ars Technica. I love his work - and you should read it!


My Philosophy of Education

“...every place is given its character by certain patterns of events that keep on happening there.” -- Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language.


Education, particularly in the twenty-first century, has a threefold purpose. First, an excellent education gives young people the opportunity to make dignified and dignifying choices about their lives. It affords them the capacity to make decisions about work, family, self-direction and engagement in local, American and global cultures that are informed, rather than reflexive. Second, by developing the critical capacities of young minds, education gives students the capacity, as adults, to be full participants in democratic society. Third, through rigorous questioning, problem-posing and creative thinking, education affords students the power to solve any problem to which they might set their minds to solving. Schools that prepare students best for life in the twenty-first century are those that do all of these things while taking Christopher Alexander's maxim cited above to heart. They become places where students do more than just learn content for its own sake (or for exams); they also become places where teachers do more than just teach that content. Students and teachers of the twenty-first century learn and teach best when applying time-tested wisdom to the opportunities presented by the transformative now.

Young people (and adults, for that matter) learn best by doing. Classrooms should be learning laboratories, connected to the world and tethered to rich, meaningful questions based on essential concepts and questions. Classrooms should be rambunctious places of active study and vigorous student-to-student teaching and collaboration, like a design studio or an engineering lab. Students should be given the opportunity to learn by applying their knowledge to real problems. Furthermore, they should be expected to be able to teach the relevant principles to anyone. There is nothing more likely to show how well or how poorly a student understands something than trying to explain it to someone else.

Our children crave the opportunity to make connections between disciplines and to reach out to peers across the country and the world. They are ready to teach us what they know and what we don't. Moreover, our teachers are lifelong learners with the skills to empower students to make these connections and to guide the development of their critical skills, if only we as school leaders would let them unleash their creative spark. Students will always need to learn how to read, to solve mathematical problems, to understand cause-and-effect relationships and to know how to use the tools of rationalism to understand the workings of the world. It may be the twenty-first century, but the Greeks got it right. To be problem-posers, to think critically and to give sound, reasoned answers to complex questions is the foundation of learning success and a productive society. While the Greeks understood the heart of the matter, they could not have anticipated the web and web-ways of thinking. Hypertextuality, game-based learning, crowd-sourced wisdom and crowd-sourced critique can enhance students' understanding of truth and sharpen critical engagement. This is the age of the mash-up...the age where interconnectivity matters more than nineteenth-century learning silos. Mathematics divorced from science? Impoverished. Literature outside of its historical contexts? That leaves the job half done. Both or either separated from art? Why make that choice when math and literature through art encourage so many meaningful connections?

All of this learning takes place within an American society that is changing faster and faster every day. To ensure the stability of our learning community, we have to make our schools embody three notions - respect, spirit and balance. Respect reminds us of how essential it is to treat one's self and others in a way that dignifies. Spirit reminds us of how important it is to engage with others in an openhearted, joyful way. Balance suggests that we stop now and again, breathe, reflect and restart. These values form the core of what I can bring to a school community. Helping kids become their best selves is what I do. I am an optimistic, intellectually curious, playful futurist. The 21st century will be whatever we make of it.

"For Me, They Built This Utopia:" Northland Pioneer Commencement Speech

On Saturday, May 12, 2018, I was the commencement speaker at Northland Pioneer College. My remarks:

What an honor it is to be with you this afternoon as you celebrate one of the few remaining rites of passage that exist in American life…the college commencement ceremony. I’m grateful for the opportunity to celebrate with you and to share some thoughts that I hope will give you some perspective on what your commencement could mean, not just to you, but to all of us here. I have been an educator for my entire career, in which time I have taught kindergarten students, university students and everyone in between. Of late, I have come to realize that students I taught in the early days of my career are approaching their fortieth birthdays…which has given me pause! White-hair notwithstanding, surely I am not old enough to have taught students that old! That thought led me straightaway to a more properly sobering realization. Consider this. A child born this year in 2018 who lives a reasonably lucky life will still be alive, at the age of 82, in the year 2100. Indeed, there are probably millions of people across the globe right now who will be alive at the dawn of the 22nd century. We can’t say what they will be doing with their time, of course.The future’s secrets are the future’s to reveal to us.What we can say is that they will have lived through the better part of the 21st century, shaping that future based on their values, perspectives and, most importantly for our purposes, what you have taught them. It may not have occurred to you, given all of the nonsense that’s thrown at members of Generation X and Millennials, but this century is for all intents and purposes yours to master and shape. That 82-year-old grandmother of the year 2100 who even as we speak is an infant somewhere, perhaps even in this room, is your responsibility. Her destiny belongs to each of you.


Now, from my vantage point here in Generatino X, the rap on you Millennials, namely, that you are narcissistic, likes-obsessed, screen-addicted, shiftless, lazy, coddled, fragile and shallow is just nonsense. Just look around you and consider what you’ve accomplished so far in your lives; reflect on the triumphs you’ve had and the reversals you’ve overcome to get to this day. Each of you has a story, a story unique in the collected library of human stories stretching back to primordial times. You’ve taken a careful look at the world you’re inheriting and your actions show that you’re asking good questions about it. Why are millions of Americans still being educated like its still the Garfield Administration (for those of you keeping score, that’s 1881)? Why have so many of my fellow Americans graduated from high school without the skills and abilities to get to a day like this one themselves? How are we going to balance living in a world of rapid change with our soul’s need to build lives of meaning and dignity? Why do people by the tens of millions in industrialized societies resist critical thinking, believe what is demonstrably false, reject reason and set their life course based on magical thinking? What should we do next to shape the world for the better?


This might all seem a bit daunting - it might feel like a hill that’s actually a mountain, one that’s perhaps too tall to climb. To that I say, don’t be foolish! I believe we are in fact at the beginning of a Golden Age for all humankind, if only we have the courage to seize the opportunities right in front of our eyes that look, from our perspective here in 2018, like Mount Everest. We live in the age of what I have taken to calling the “transformative now,” by which I mean a world of rapid, seemingly daily change that can nonetheless be shaped by the efforts of those who commit themselves to taking the long view and doing the hard work of shaping.


So, what do you need to do to become a shaper of the transformative now? Would it surprise you to learn that much of what you need to learn you probably already know, particularly if you like to play games? When I’m not teaching, I’m gaming. I wrote a book in 2016 about using what makes games great to make teaching and learning even greater. And I suspect many, if not most, of you graduates play games…on your phones and tablets, your Wiis, X-boxes, PS4s and PCs. Maybe some of you are, like me, players of tabletop board games and roleplaying games as well as video games. Either way, and regardless of anything else that you think might separate you from your fellow classmates, if you play any kind of game, you’ve got the tools you need to change the world. What do games teach us about the skills you need to master and shape the 21st century? Five things, I think.


Level One, Level up!: One of the most important things games teach is the immeasurable benefit of sticking to something once you’ve started it and learning as you go. We’ve all been first level at something, be it writing an essay, playing soccer or executing a perfect Pikachu Greenhouse combo. By design, games help you master first level before you get to second level and so on, introducing more complex skills just as you’ve developed the mastery of the previous skills. A game doesn’t expect you to master everything all at once; nor does it expect you to be good at the hardest things first. It does, however, expect you to be resilient. You’re going to have setbacks on the road to victory. Those setbacks are going to be the most important benefits you’ll ever get on the road to full mastery. So, commit to leveling up your life one level at a time…and don’t ever think you’ve reached max level. There are always new challenges coming!


Level 2: Build Teams Based on Merit!: Games remind us of the utopian world we are building in our story as a human species. Games offer just about the only utopian space we’ve invented on our human journey so far. Because remember, games don’t care about gender, sexuality, race, religion, color, national origin or anything else. Games care about how well you play the game. They’re purely about merit. Surround yourself with great people who merit your attention and who deserve, by virtue of their shared commitment to merit above all else, to be on your team.The 21st century is unworthy of antique dogmas and pernicious racism. They bring you no benefit and the people who still think along those lines don’t deserve you.


Level Three: Be A Risk-Taker!: Here are some things I think are likely to come to pass during your lifetimes (and perhaps even during mine): commercially-viable fusion power, direct brain-software interfaces, completely personalized education, a space elevator, the cure for most disease through genetic editing, orbital travel that’s no more surprising or expensive than flying from Los Angeles to Singapore and virtual environments that will rival Ready Player One’s OASIS. None of these will be brought about by the timid. The people who are driven to accomplish these extraordinary feats are not fading flowers. They’ve learned one of the critical lessons that playing games teaches. Sometimes a move that seems outlandish or flat crazy is exactly the right move to win! Develop your ability to see patterns and learn to trust the innermost voice that’s telling you to go left when everyone around you is saying go right.


Level Four: Find Your Flow!: You’ve all no doubt had that experience of losing all track of time when you’ve been fully immersed in something totally cool. Right? Psychologists call that experience “flow.” It’s critically important that you find those things that let you drop easily into that flow state, because when you do, you’ll know that you’ve found your calling - what it is you should be doing. Don’t de-value this! If you’re working in your flow state, you will make intuitive leaps that will blow your mind and discover solutions to problems you weren’t even fully conscious of. It’s the place where you can make radical connections and see patterns that no one has seen previously. Find your flow!


Level Five: Boss Level: Get Playful and Stay There!: The world you’re graduating into is imperfect, I think we can all take this as a given. But games teach us that regardless of how difficult the road ahead is, the only way to approach it is with a joyful, playful heart. A playful spirit keeps the fabric of the mind flexible, fights despair and helps us put both success and failure in its appropriate context. Savor your wins, and learn from them. From your defeats, learn more still, but don’t let them break you; you’re too important. Reflect, draw conclusions and proceed to what is next, mindful that, as the sage Rabbi Tarfon taught, “you are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it."


Perhaps it is best to consider the words of The Beatles. “All you need is love.” Or the sentiment of Burt Bacharach and Hal David who reminded us that “what the world needs now is love, sweet love.” Love is certainly something we need more of in this world! Go out into the world with a playful, loving heart and take pleasure in how awesome and bizarre and glorious the world is. But perhaps better still, is the advice of one of our greatest wisdom teachers: Gandalf the Gray. Quoting now from The Fellowship of the Ring:


“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.


“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”


Before you stretches the as-yet unmade 21st century. Direct the works of your hands, mind and heart towards making it a place worthy of that infant grandmother who is with us today. Level up your skills. Keep your focus on flow. Defeat bosses. Do this, and when that grandmother reflects back on her life, she will remark: “for me, they built this utopia. For me, they built this world of plenty, this world of wonder.”


Thank you and once again, congratulations!

A Gamer's Take on the 2016 American Election

The mechanism by which Donald Trump will assume the American presidency has had my gamer's hackles up ever since Election Day. For the second time since 2000, the candidate who won the popular vote is not going to be president. Why? Because of the mechanism mentioned in the previous sentence - the Electoral College. There's ample conversation and discussion about most of the inadequacies of the Electoral College, but my perspective as a lifelong game player is this: the Electoral College is an example of a terrible game mechanic because it confuses the win state of the game.


A well-designed game has a single win state. Just one. And it's clear. Monopoly (not a great game, but properly designed) ends when every player but one has been eliminated from play due to bankruptcy. Settlers of Catan ends when one player scores 10 points. Badly designed games do not do this well. 

The Electoral College is a classic example of not doing this well. Why? Because without exception every other election in the United States is decided by the popular vote. The most important election in the country, rather than being decided in the same way that every other election is decided, is instead decided by an 18th century edifice designed to manage the will of the people and increase the voting power of the slave interest. That's bad enough. Worse still is the fact that even though the popular vote doesn't matter at all in the presidential election, that vote tally is nevertheless reported to the whole country. A reasonable alien from another planet would see this state of affairs and assume she'd landed in Cuckooland, not a republic that professes to be the gold standard model for doing democratic government for the rest of Earth.

Imagine how this might work in the World Series, gloriously won this year by Chicago's own Cubs. In baseball, if you've got the most runs at the end of nine innings, you win that game. Win four games before your opponent does and you win the World Series. Easy to understand. One way to win that's clear to understand. And it's the only way to win the World Series.

But in a Cuckooland version of the World Series, it works like this. The rules of winning for every regular season game, divisional series and league championship series are modified. The teams will play seven games. At the end of the seven games, a victory committee will be empaneled. Whichever team has the most hits over seven games in the first, third and eighth innings, will get 12 votes on that panel per inning. Teams that had the fewest errors in the second inning get 3 votes on that panel. Teams that score the most runs in the fourth and the ninth innings get 17 votes per inning. The teams that give up the least runs and hits combined in the fifth and seventh innings earn 9 votes per inning on the panel. The sixth inning doesn't matter and earns no votes. Once the seven games have been played, the victor committee votes to decide who wins the World Series. But every network in the country will also share who would have won if the rules for every other baseball game played was in effect.

Imagine how betrayed the team that won more games in a seven game series would feel to lose this kind of World Series. Quite betrayed indeed.

It's one thing to have a poorly designed sporting contest. To have an election process that can generate two different "winners," only one of whom is going to take office, is both ridiculously unfair and ridiculously dangerous. Democratic government is fragile and is dependent on everyone believing in three things:

  • the system creates a clear winner and,
  • the system is fundamentally fair and without obvious "rigs" in favor of one side or another and,
  • a reasonable person would argue that "even though we lost this round, we'll win one down the road and then we'll have a chance to move the country in our direction."

This country stands in 2016 in a place where each of these three notions is imperiled. 

Notion 1: A Clear Winner? Twice since 2000, the winner by one metric loses by another metric...the metric that matters, but only for this one election in the entire country. Both times, the popular vote loser / Electoral Vote winner is from the same party. A toxic outcome for the side that earned more votes (and would have won any other election in the country).

Notion 2: Fundamentally Fair? Unclear win states lead the players of games to rail and rail about the smallest slights and injustices. Unclear win states put everyone on edge and cause players to dream up all kinds of complainings. 

Notion 3: "We'll have our chance." If we all play the game by the same rules, I'm happy to lose this time because I have a good chance of winning next time...but if we don't play the game by the rules/conventions/customary practices, then very quickly players feel something is fundamentally wrong with the game. And that's fine if we're playing Monopoly. But it's a real problem if we're trying to decide how a country we share is going to be run. I voted for Barack Obama twice. When the Republican leadership in Congress decided on January 20, 2009 to do everything in their power to ensure that his presidency was a failure, they undermined this fundamental principle. When the Republican leadership in the Senate refused to confirm Merrick Garland, defying customary practice going back to the dawn of the republic, they undermined this fundamental principle.

I've played enough games to know that if the rules/conventions/customary practices are going to be bent or stretched, it won't be long before no one trusts the game anymore and will either want it to be redesigned or they'll play something else. What does "want it be redesigned" mean? It is the reason Electoral College protestors protest. "They'll play something else" is the home base of both California secessionists and white supremacists. If either get their way, the country will be radically different.

Around the Classroom in 80 Games: 1812 The Invasion of Canada

If you’ve read previous posts in this section you know that some games require a little massaging in order to effectively use them in a classroom (even for their intended purpose). This is not the case for 1812: The Invasion of Canada. Like nearly everything published by Academy Games, 1812 is both a fantastic game on its own, but completely accessible in an education context for very bright middle school students or high school students.

The War of 1812 is a bit difficult for most Americans to get their heads around. Fundamentally misunderstood in the midsection of North America as a war all about Americans (it was really a side show in the broader struggle by England against Napoleon), and seen by Americans (to the degree they think about the war) as sort of a way-station on the development of American hegemony, it isn’t given nearly the credit it deserves for the way it transformed North America. This was was basically ignored in the United States, but it was one of the key formative experiences for Canadians and essential to the development of a Canadian national identity distinct from the United States. While the game doesn’t capture that national identity formation, it does make British regular troops and Canadian militia distinct for purposes of playing the game.

The straightforward rules set of the game is the first thing to the credit of the designers. The elegant, tense and fun gameplay are a real hallmark, even for players who have a limited interest in wargames. There are special cards in the decks that simulate developments in different parts of the world that have an impact in this war. What makes this a game worth your consideration is the sophisticated way in which it combines play elements to generate an understanding of the period. This gameplay would generate substantive reflective work on the part of upper division students.

Links and Ladders 7

Turning one form of content into another is a great experience for students and one they're naturally inclined to do in this mash-up culture. Here's a great story about novels that would make great video games. Could not agree more with these choices, particularly the suggestion about Iain Banks' "Culture" books.

When you're planning gamified learning experiences, what is the nature of the opposition? What do your players/learners have to do to overcome that opposition? Here's a story about the nature of oppositionin certain contemporary video games and why they need to improve.

A fascinating article about virtual realism. When thinking about creating simulations in classrooms, the depth of the realism of the experience matters. This is why many games built specifically for classrooms don't ultimately work.

Around the Classroom in 80 Games: 7 Wonders

A six-year old game that still feels as fresh as the day it was first published is exciting to encounter. 7 Wonders, published in 2010, is one of these kinds of games. Fun, compulsively replayable, easy enough to learn but with great complexity and featuring lots of paths to victory, 7 Wonders is both the sort of game that is useful to play in a classroom right out of the box and that gives of itself to the gamifying teacher. Its mechanics are straightforward. Take a card from a diminishing hand of cards and play it to your play area and then hand what’s left of your hand to the person on your left or right, depending on the game phase you’re in. Pretty simple, but because of the large number of different “suits” of cards you might have in your hand, the mechanical simplicity is made maddeningly fun because of the difficulty of planning.

Using the game right out of the box could be easily useful in a classroom setting. It’s a useful way to examine resource scarcity, for example, as there are only so many science cards to go around and they have to be grouped in a precise way or the player playing them is bound to lose. While all of the resources are affected by scarcity, in my judgment the science cards are particularly susceptible to it. Better still is the way the game can teach resource balance. I would think it a useful way to spend some class time to play 7 Wonders and then have students write reflective journals on the kind of society they built as a result of playing the cards they played. What sort of society maxes out the score of military cards and doesn’t build any civics? How about the society that prefers the commerce cards but builds no science? 7 Wonders simulates (but not in a hardcore takes six hours to play sort of way) the consequences of choices made by societies. An interesting way to begin grade 9 history or a course on human geography.

Around the Classroom in 80 Games: Campaign Manager 2008

As the United States election process continues its grind towards November, the pre-Labor Day campaign period is as good a time as any to conclude my short series on election-based games. And apologies for the delay, but since posting about Die Macher, I’ve moved from Pittsburgh to Orange County and taken a new job. Phew!

So, today’s game is Campaign Manager 2008. Designed by the same team that brought us 1960: The Making of the President (a masterpiece of design), gameplay in 2008 features a very nice, taut balance between the two players. 

By itself, it would be illustrative to reflect on the ways the two games simulate differences between the two campaigns. That would be an intriguing lesson for high school students interested in politics. The way the two games address media and how media works would be a meaningful lesson. Moreover, the way the game understands the relationship of candidates to states interests me. In 1960, states that were safe were safer for other reasons than what was safe in 2008. In 2008, factional interests had become so entrenched, that the game doesn’t even need to simulate the election in the better part of the country. That would make this the only game I know of that’s interested in simulating an election that doesn’t even bother to simulate the whole election.

Campaign Manager 2008 does a very good job of capturing the essence of modern campaigning. The way in which states enter gameplay is highly reflective of the way the contemporary media environment goes local and then national and then local again. The way that the game handles the ebb and flow of issues is also intriguing. And also worthy of study.

If I were using this game out of the box in a classroom, I would want students to design a way to represent the unique economic conditions that prevailed in the 2008 election. It’s impossible to just create a straightforward election game in 2008 (or 1932 or 1860) when there are “elephant in the room” issues in the election. Also, my argument about 2008 and the collapsing economy issue intersects with the personality of the candidates. One candidate seemed smooth and steady. The other’s behavior was more erratic.

A worthy game for classroom use; more worthy still when paired with 1960.

Around the Classroom in 80 Games: Die Macher

Today is Iowa caucus day here in the United States, which means our national election process now has less than nine months to run its course! What a long strange journey it’s been. And much the same can be said here at Game Level Learn - the last three games reviewed have been games trying to simulate aspects of the American election system. They accomplish that goal with varying degrees of success, generally capturing one aspect or another reasonably well while leaving other critical parts un-covered or un-simulated. So as I’ve reviewed 1960 and don’t yet have a copy of Campaign Manager 2008 (which I will review later), it seemed prudent to leave our shores and visit another country and its election process. So, today’s game is Die Macher - a simulation of the German election process.

Die Macher is an exceptionally complex game. It richly simulates the nuances of German election politics by giving the players control over one of the major German political parties. The game then simulates elections in eight different German regions. Players compete with limited resources to secure victory in these regional elections. It is the management of these limited resources that gives the game much of its complexity. The game does a very good job of balancing media, money, party concerns and captures the feel (if not the exact reality) of Germany’s different regions very nicely. While it takes a long, long time to play the complexity of the game is deeply rewarding to the gamer who likes such things.

For the educator, Die Macher is a much greater challenge. Its complexity makes it totally outside the realm of possibility for anyone below grade 8. It’ll be hard for Grade 9 and 10 students to be honest. For a class that really wants to understand the parliamentary election process, though, it could be worth a play through. I would be most likely to use Die Macher in a class setting where I could teach comparative elections. In that context, I would teach one of the other election games I’ve discussed in this series and then teach Die Macher, asking students to assess the different assumptions present in each rules set.

Around the Classroom in 80 Games: Road to the White House

Election season continues here in the United States (as it does for uncountable months) and with it comes another investigation of a board game for use in the classroom. This week it’s 1992’s Road to the White House!

Road to the White House, unlike the previous two entries in this sub-series (Candidate and Campaign Trail), brings what to me is the critical dynamic in election games into the game - the candidates themselves. And with the candidates come positions that the candidate holds. Once this mechanic is present in the gameplay, the game is going to be a much more effective model for the American campaign process. I would contend that Road to the White House is a more effective model. It isn’t necessarily a better game than Candidate or Campaign Trail, however.

Once again, the game really functions more like a primary nominating season simulation rather than a general election simulator. Players have the opportunity to take a variety of actions on their turn as the game simulates the raising of money, the building of state-level organizations and the intrusion of new issues and ideas that come from events that are just part of the regular ebb-and-flow of an election season.

Where Road to the White House gets it really right from the perspective of the gamifying teacher is in its candidates. There are dozens of characters to choose from all of whom have really different perspectives on issues. These differences can combine sometimes in very lively ways (very much like a game of Cosmic Encounter’s tone is pretty dependent on the powers each player picks). It can be difficult understanding the relationship between ideas and issues, state-level thinking, candidate success in those states (as opposed to others) and the long-term approach candidates have to take to their campaigns. Road to the White House does a pretty good job of simulating these decisions a candidate has to make.

Road’s only real problem (but it’s a biggie from a teaching/learning perspective) is the length of time requires to play. You’ll need to set aside 4 to 5 hours to get through a single run of the game. I played this a lot in the 90s and it didn’t seem that brutal, but in this day and age, a 4-5 hour game is going to feel like a slog for many of your players.

Having said that, I think this game is best used in the classroom as a way to get students to think about candidates. After even an abbreviated run of the game, students could no doubt create their own fictional candidates. Even better…have your students create themselves as candidates and have their peers evaluate their qualities as candidates. How likely would it be that these students would win an election? An interesting way to help your students personalize the experience of the candidates running right now, who, after all, were at one point in their lives elementary school, middle school and high school students themselves.

Around the Classroom in 80 Games: Campaign Trail

It’s election year here in the US and for the next couple of weeks, I’m going to detail an assortment of board games with election themes that one might use in classroom settings. Nearly all of these games are going to work just fine in a high school setting. I don’t know of any election-themed board games that are appropriate as published for elementary school students.


What’s good about this week’s game - Campaign Trail, published in 1983 by GDW and long out of print - is that it would be totally accessible to a middle school audience. In fact, it’s probably better for middle school students than for high schoolers. To its credit, it is just about the right length for what it is. It shouldn’t require much more than an hour to play this all the way through.

Campaign Trail, as a roll-and-move game, simulates the grinding quality of campaigns very effectively. It also does a good job of representing the value of successful planning. Its gameplay is very straightforward. I played the heck out of this game in the 1980s and enjoyed it because it did reward planning.

The game features a number of random event cards that captures pretty well the vicissitudes of a national campaign. Unlike Candidate, it isn’t very good with representing money in American politics and it doesn’t care at all about issues, identity or ideology.

If you can find a copy of Campaign Trail, you might use it in your classroom to:

  • help your students understand the sheer size and scope of the United States and how easy it would be for a candidate to struggle to get his/her message to be understood across the full breadth of the country. It doesn’t hurt that the game makes air travel somewhat exotic and can serve to help the student understand the nature of retail politics before the air age was fully emerged.
  • investigate how candidates had to position themselves near larger cities in order to maximize their votes.
  • help students understand rudimentary polling. As candidates win states based largely on their visits to those states, a candidate needs to be able to discern how close they are to their opponents in a variety of states and determine whether that state could be won.
  • provide a framework in which to jury rig part of the game. One could have students create candidates that would give the game greater subtlety and personality, for instance.

Around the Classroom in 80 Games: Candidate

It’s election year here in the US and for the next couple of weeks, I’m going to detail an assortment of board games with election themes that one might use in classroom settings. Nearly all of these games are going to work just fine in a high school setting. I don’t know of any election-themed board games that are appropriate as published for elementary school students.

The problem with election games lies in the complexity of what they’re trying to represent. Elections in the United States are vexingly complicated and long. There are intersections of questions about money, policy, character and history in play as well as sometimes significant differences region-to-region and state-to-state. These differences are quite difficult to model. As a result, games generally ignore them. This leads, unfortunately, to a situation where the game is really only modeling one aspect of the broader election experience. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s worth noting.

Candidate, published in 1991 by Avalon Hill, does a good job of modeling two aspects of the campaign: the importance of money and the transitory power of scandal to temporarily derail a campaign. The object of this and nearly all election games in the United States is to get to 270 electoral votes. This one is no different. It plays quickly and is pretty engaging, even though it is not a particularly thorough representation of federal election politics. It’s closer in some respects to a simulation of the primary process if the primaries were held according to the same rules that elections are held under.

I would use Candidate in the classroom:

  • to give students a feel for how the money race in American politics works. Sometimes it really is a matter of simply having enough cash to hold on through rough patches and to wait for the news cycle to break against your opponents.
  • to give students a very general feel of the rough-and-tumble of a campaign season. Each player has 5 cards normally to play in a particular context (there are rules by which a player gets more cards, but most players have only 5). How to manage those cards, this resources? If you blanket the campaign with scandals in the first pass, will you inadvertently create an opening for an otherwise weak opponent?
  • to help students understand the relationship between lower electoral vote states and higher ones. Because this game pays no attention to issues or ideology, it’s useful to understanding electoral politics as a purely numbers game. It’s more like a primary simulator in this regard as well, as it comes closer to capturing the flavor of Barack Obama’s 2008 primary win (by cobbling together delegates from lots of smaller states).

Around the Classroom in 80 Games: Betrayal at House on the Hill

When it came out, “Betrayal at House on the Hill” was so unlike most other games that one's first play through was astonishing (even if the Haunt turned out be sort of meh…). Even now a decade after it was first published, playing “Betrayal” is still a refreshingly different game experience, two games essentially, a light fun haunted house exploration game until the story pivots, one player becomes the bad guy and we’re in that race to victory where the players are struggling to figure out how they can manage a victory against a classic haunted house trope or villain. It’s not a perfect design. Some of the Haunts aren’t, really, all that fun. Some of the mechanics can interfere with each other in a really unhelpful way. But from the perspective of using it in a classroom, it’s an easy to teach and broadly elegant design that is actually usable in a classroom (unlike something like “Mansions of Madness,” much more complex, arguably no more fun than “Betrayal” and much harder to set up).

I might use “Betrayal” as a learning tool in the following ways:

  • Understanding character and narrative: The creative team behind “Betrayal” offers a dozen different characters with four different statistics/qualities defining those characters. Why? Why not just a handful of characters? Why these statistics? How do they connect to classic horror themes/tropes? Should they connect? What about connecting those characters to critiques of those classic themes? There are all sorts of ways to understand character and narrative.
  • Criticism: Ask players to design a scenario that makes use of the game mechanics but subverts them in some way, like the movie “Scream” did in the 1990s. Because the game is all about tropes, this gives students a chance to treat the game as if it were a film, novel or other source.
  • Decision-making: Because “Betrayal” is a cooperative game, it is a great opportunity for groups to study and assess the nature of decision making. How do groups function? Why do they function the way that they do? What do characters do to shape the way decisions are made?
  • Like all storytelling games, “Betrayal” is a perfect game for understanding on a straightforward level the principles of mimicry that form the foundation of what games are.

And besides, “Betrayal” is super fun - get out there and play!

Around the Classroom in 80 Games: Beowulf, The Legend

Over the course of the last twenty years or so, a handful of German game designers have stormed the world of board gaming offering a host of interesting, fun and fiendish mechanics that were hitherto essentially unknown to North Americans. One of these mechanics, is the “auction” mechanic, in which players much bid something (currency, power, knowledge) to take actions. While not a classic example of this mechanic, “Beowulf: The Legend,” designed by Reiner Knizia and published in 2005, is a good example of the auction-based game mechanic (which I think is one of the most enjoyable of all German/Euro designs). Moreover, “Beowulf: The Legend” is a great game that you might use in your classroom out of the box to help your students understand the development of narrative excitement through a structure based on choices.

I heard an interview with Russell Banks recently in which he discussed the writing of short stories. He described the process for him as, essentially, a series of choices that restrict the narrative step-by-step until you’ve only got one choice remaining. In gameplay, “Beowulf: The Legend” works much the same way. Your journey through the game and through the story of Beowulf is based entirely on the choices you make, the risks you take and avoid and the way you interact with the environment of Anglo-Saxon England. A criticism of Reiner Knizia games is that they are little more than abstract game engines onto which have been slapped themes. This is less fair for this particular game, but it is not entirely wrong. The fact that it isn’t entirely wrong works to the advantage of the teacher who wants to integrate a game into the teaching of narrative, narrative structure, the building of a story arc and the hero’s journey.

Simply stated, while the theme of “Beowulf: The Legend” is Beowulf’s many adventures in Anglo-Saxon England, it would be simple as can be to reskin the theme to the American South, the Canadian frontier, Victorian England or whatever you like. Characters are always making choices, confronting challenges, grappling with complex relationships and growing or choosing not to grow.

This game would work especially well for high school students but would also work for strong middle school students.

Around the Classroom in 80 Games: 10 Days In Africa

For a time in the mid-2000s, there was hardly a game day that didn’t feature one of the “10 Days In X” hitting the table. Whether the game was “10 Days in Africa” (my personal favorite because the map is pretty strategic to manage, making the game a little more engaging for adults and strategy-minded players), “10 Days in the Americas” or one of the other variants, these games consistently got played because they were fun (naturally), harder than they seemed and were really engaging to the puzzle-solving, pattern-making brain. Engaging to the adult, equally engaging to the child it seems to me.

All the games in this series could be used by teachers without modification to help students develop a sense of spatial relationships within the continent in question. In an American setting, many students don’t know that Egypt is in northern Africa, Guinea is in the west, Tanzania the east and Namibia is in the south. Simply knowing this could be the spur to curiosity that we need to see more of in American education. Students would, of course, benefit from having exposure to all of the different continents on offer in this game series.

But more than straightforward geographic awareness, what might a teacher of students between grades 3 and 7 do with a game like this?

War and Chaos: the teacher could introduce the study of war by showing how it disrupts lives. Every four or five turns, for example, students playing a regular game of “10 Days” might be told by the teacher that all routes that went through a certain country or region were no longer eligible to win because they were too dangerous to cross. The teacher could then assign students to study these areas of war and chaos as part of a more comprehensive learning objective.

Travel and Cost: Travel isn’t cheap! Students could build a route in the game and then do a project afterwards to understand what would actually be required to travel on that route in real life. This might include pictures of airports, airplanes, ground transportation and a budget worksheet. They could then act as travel agents selling their route and why its the best.

Personal Narrative: Students could play a game of “10 Days” and then use the journey they create as the skeleton for a story they would write about a character who might have travelled as they did in the game.

Interest in regional studies, economics, social justice, literature and history could all be enhanced by a round or two of this game right out of the box. It’s a great model for gamifying instruction as well, but that’s for another day.

Around the Classroom in 80 Games: 1960 The Making of the President

Happy Monday, gamer teachers? Or should that be teacher gamers…something to think about.

This week’s game of the week is a fiendishly tricky 2-player game published a few years back called “1960: The Making of the President.” Despite the fact that “1960” is a 2-player game, it is surprisingly suitable for use right out of the box in a classroom context where learning about the election process is the order of the day. It might also serve the purpose of helping students learn to accomplish a goal in a large, complex team. My sense is that it would be a great fit for any high school grade and potentially a solid fit for grades 7 and 8 with high interest / high ability students. The complexity of the game mechanics would not align with students below grade 7.

Published by Z-Man Games in 2007, “1960” quickly rose in the estimation of gamers due to the sophisticated manner in which the game depicts the shifting landscape of an American presidential campaign. Moreover, because the nature of American politics means that campaigns last months or years, the game engine has to keep shifting that terrain over the course of the game. The skill with which the game pulls this off is one of the reasons why the game is so effective (and so effective in a classroom context).

The biggest challenge facing you in using “1960” in your classroom centers on the fact that it’s a 2-player game. You are going to have to create teams of players to represent each candidate’s campaign. I believe this is actually a better representation of the complexity of managing a “media age” political campaign. The fact that different forces might be at work in a campaign pulling it in one direction or another or pushing it towards consensus is actually the way things work. Diminishing the omniscience that is embedded in a 2-player game actually helps. But you will have to do it yourself. Perhaps you divide your class into teams of 4 or 5 and assign them to represent the Kennedy campaign or the Nixon campaign. Teams of 4 or 5 are ideally suited to the game as the game is played over 9 turns. This would allow each player to have at least one and sometimes two turns where they could be placed in the position of "campaign manager” - breaking ties on the team, having responsibility for allocating resources or however you saw fit to sort out the responsibilities.

While the game is an excellent representation/simulation of how the political process works (or doesn’t) and how the ebb and flow of daily change can swing a state back and forth between candidates, it is even better as a source for understanding highly time-bound events in American history. The game’s authors have given very careful thought to the salient events in the campaign. One could almost read the card deck  used to power the game as a rich historical source in-and-of itself. Students could be encouraged to keep a running journal of events they choose to play and at the end of the simulation they could be asked to reflect on their particular series of events and how that series helped/hurt their candidate. Individuals might be asked (as an assessment) to more deeply research one of the cards their candidate played. Maybe the final assessment (in addition to the reflective essay that I think is a natural for this learning experience) is to design a new card that might fit in the context of the game?

Around the Classroom in 80 Games: Machi Koro

For the past six months or so I’ve been playing Machi Koro as many times as I can get it to the table. The charming art goes a long way towards making it a game I’d like to bring to the table again and again, but in reality, the simple yet complex game play is probably what brings me (and I bet many others) back to the game over and over again.

Machi Koro is a game of city construction. Players are trying to gather wealth (from an assortment of city buildings they choose to buy over the course of the game) by rolling a six-sided die (or two, if the player’s city is sufficiently advanced) and having the die match wealth generating buildings in their city. The object of the game is to build four particular buildings called “landmarks,” namely the Station, the Shopping Mall, the Amusement Park and the Radio Tower. Once a player has built all of these landmarks, that player wins. Simple, strategic and with a healthy dose of luck.

Teachers, particularly teachers of elementary school age children, could use Machi Koro in their lessons in a number of different ways.

Consumption and Production: Buildings in Machi Koro represent different kinds of resources. Students studying the game as an artifact would be able to use its abstractions as a springboard to a deeper understanding of resources for consumption and those for production.

Wealth and Wealth Creation: a simple social studies unit on capitalist economics could be enhanced by playing just a couple of rounds of Machi Koro and having students then discuss how the different buildings worked, the effect of luck on their success and what buildings they might have purchased to have greater success.

Local Models: Students are often asked to think about what makes their particular part of the country special. Students could play a few games of Machi Koro and then redesign/reskin the game based on their interpretation of their own city and what makes it special. For example, I live in Pittsburgh. The four landmarks for Pittsburgh might be: Union Station (trains), CONSOL Center (hockey venue), PNC Park (baseball stadium) and Heinz Field (football stadium). Students could then share their different versions of their cities with parents who could be taught how to play the game. Machi Koro is so straightforward, it can be taught in two minutes.

Teachers interested in very straightforward urban studies could use this game as a model for thinking about cities. What makes them function? What’s missing in this game-utopia version of city life? Where are the people? The workers? Where are those things that make living in a city problematic? 

Machi Koro is an example of a game that gives great game play and immediate in-classroom application at all levels K-12.