George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A photo of 2 young boys sitting in a big easy chair, playing games on their tablets.

Tabletop games are non-digital games played together socially. They can involve a board, dice, cards, pawns, and other physical elements, or just a group of people. Charades requires no pieces at all. Because tabletop games are played in a face-to-face setting, social mechanics are often part of the action. Social mechanics include:

  • Trading
  • Arguing
  • Judging
  • Persuading
  • Guessing
  • Bluffing

Players guess from drawn clues in Pictionary (PDF, 168KB) and negotiate and trade resources in The Settlers of Catan.

Scaling Games for the Classroom

Pandemic: The Board Game is a cooperative tabletop game that works well for teaching global interconnectedness. All players must work together to win. The board itself is a map of the world -- useful in teaching geography contextually. The goal is cooperating to stop global outbreaks and epidemics. The game teaches systems thinking and collaborative problem solving.

Playing board games with 25 students in a 40-minute bell schedule is logistically challenging. Many board games are limited to small numbers of players -- only three or four can play The Settlers of Catan at a time. What do the other 21 students do? Also, due to cost constraints, it's not feasible to have several sets of the same game. One solution is to take a project-based learning (PBL) approach and create centers or stations around the classroom, one of which involves a tabletop game. After all, the game should support curriculum, not be the focal point of instruction.

I used Pandemic as part of a PBL unit on the Columbian Exchange (the intentional and unintentional trade between Europe and the Americas in the 1600s). One group of students played the game, while the remaining classmates engaged in other simulation activities (often involving the mechanic of trading).

Another idea for adopting tabletop games in a classroom is to look for casual versions. Catan Dice Game and Pandemic: The Cure are dice games derived from their longer-form, board-based counterparts. Both versions teach the same skills, yet are faster to set up and easier to explain.

Tabletop games can also be used to model real-world events in relatable fashion. I use Monopoly when leading discussions on xenophobia. First, I ask who has played the classic board game (most students raise their hands). Next, I ask the difference between two-player and three-player Monopoly. The answer, of course, is that it's easier to win with just one opponent -- there is less competition for the same amount of resources. At this point, most students have that moment where they understand economic reasons (scarcity of resources) that lead people to fear immigration. Just as immigrants compete for people's jobs, the competitive system of the game changes by adding additional opponents.

Flipped Learning to Support Engaged Gaming

The flipped learning model works well to support classroom-based, tabletop gaming. Lower-order thinking tasks become homework, saving class time for student-centered, face-to-face engagement. Game rules can be flipped for home instruction, too, saving class time for the "fun" activity. It was much easier for me to post the rules for Pandemic (PDF, 30.3MB) as well as a YouTube video about setting up the board, before students entered the classroom. Catan Dice Game has a helpful set-up video, too.

BrainPOP offers a wide array of short-form, animated videos to teach content as homework. It's a subscription service, but there are free materials available on its educator community page. One benefit of a class subscription is that teachers can assign videos that relate to what is being taught in a game. For example, my students viewed the Columbian Exchange video at home prior to playing Pandemic in class. I assessed learning based on the online quizzes that accompanied the video.

Sometimes it is helpful to record short-form instructional lectures. The lessons can then be viewed as homework. A penalty for not participating would be not engaging in the class activity -- unless, of course, there are internet or digital divide issues. In those cases, my classroom is available before and after school hours.

Another option for flipped learning is Swivl, a tool for seamlessly recording a teacher's lectures. It's a robotic smartphone and tablet dock that tilts and rotates as it follows the teacher's movement around a classroom. Recorded lessons can be published on Swivl's cloud-based service, accessible by students from anywhere. One benefit of a device like Swivl is its plug-and-play ease of use. Simply dock your mobile device, grab the remote, and press record. Visit this page for more on Swivl as a tool to flip learning.

Students do not need to complete a board game to be assessed on in-game decisions and how skills relate to content. I use a simple exit slip to check for understanding. Students then reflect on the choices they made and the outcomes that resulted. The result is that tabletop games provide authentic, situated learning spaces in which students can engage socially in problem-solving and decision-making processes.

How have you used social game mechanics in your classroom?

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Game-Based Learning in the Classroom
This series offers solid strategies for applying the principles of game design to the learning process.

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Nick Jaworski's picture
Nick Jaworski
Former Edutopia Intern (Social Media) & Music Educator

This is a GREAT article! It's full of specific ideas that a teacher could use in the classroom next week. It's also clear that Matt's classroom is the kind of place I would like to learn: busy, buzzing, challenging, and constantly moving. As a teacher, this kind of environment can feel like a challenge to manage. Do you have any tips for organizing the room or preparing students for situations like this?

TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


Every Wednesday afternoon Miss Velvet supervises controlled chaos in an after-school activity called "Game Club."

Game Club is held in the school's game room. The game room has a big couch in it and some tables and chairs and a couple of TVs hooked up to hand-held software game controllers. There are also a bunch of board games whose parts have all been mixed up a long time ago ... but they play the games anyway.

Miss Velvet had to go do something this afternoon so she asked me if I could run Game Club. She said the school pays her twenty-five bucks for forty-five minutes, but that it usually stretches to an hour and half because most parents are always late picking their kids up anyway.

After two kids nearly killed each other in an attempt to be the first one to play a Super Mario video game that had a Salvador Dali-like effect on me, I sort of hid at a table in the back of the room. I started reading signs that have been glued or taped or tacked to the walls in the back of the room. They had a mesmerizing effect on me, too:

* Use appropriate humor
* Use good timing
* Bounce back
* Speak up
* Try!
* Learn about others
* Join in!
* Once is enough
* LIGMO...let it go and move on
* Stay cool
* Try not to arouse
* Participate
* Make a good impression
* No policing
* Go with the flow
* Stay cool
* Be kind
* Be flexible
* Chat with friends
* Listen
* Stay coherent and on topic!

By the time Game Club was over, Ferrari was asleep on the floor under a blanket. Diego had not choked to death another kid, but had calmly won all the Super Mario competitions instead. Two kids were quietly doing homework, and one girl was staring into space. She had actually been staring into space pretty much the whole time.

I asked her if she was okay.

The rest of the kids said that's what she does in Game Club and for me to freakin' deal with it.

Matthew Farber, Ed.D.'s picture
Matthew Farber, Ed.D.
Assistant Professor of Technology, Innovation and Pedagogy; Game-Based Learning Author

Thanks for the positive feedback! In my class, I use stations (or centers). One station may be a board game or a digital game with content or -- more importantly -- a game core mechanic (actions taken in a game) that correlates and supports the unit's learning goals. This also solves the logistical dilemma of having one particular board game to have students play.

joseph's picture

as a teacher, we are the one you take the first step to make our learners learned.

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