Board Games

It’s a cold winter Saturday night in Winnipeg.  The hometown hockey team, the Winnipeg Jets are not playing, with the Saturday time slot on Hockey Night in Canada usually taken by the Toronto Maple Leafs and other Canadian NHL teams.  At my kitchen table sit a couple of teachers, a welder, an accountant, and a university professor. On the table is Gloomhaven a cooperative strategic role-playing board game that features a variety of complex mechanics, tactical combat, ability cards, modifier cards, a campaign scenario book, and more.  A play-through of the game features complex distributed decision making, on the fly mental math, debugging game-play mechanics, and problem solving. The game differs from traditional board games such as Sorry or Monopoly, with Gloomhaven requiring cooperation, strategic problem solving, and a variety of cognitive processes.  

Gloomhaven and a variety of other modern board games fall into what some call as “Designer Board Games” which feature the name of the designer on the box, differ from traditional games that focus on luck, provide an information-rich environment full of open-ended decisions,while engaging players in a shared community of play that includes common mechanics such as open movement, worker placement, role selection, and cooperation (Mayer & Harris, 2010).  These modern games have become more prominent in our society with websites such as Boardgamegeek where there is a vibrant online community and the advent of board game cafes where for a small fee you can have hours of open play with games of your choosing along with a meal or cup of coffee.  In these physical and digital places as well as the work of Mayer and Harris you will find game titles such as Pandemic, Powergrid, Ticket to Ride, and Dominion, among hundreds if not thousands of others.  

As an educator I have become interested in these games and how they could be implemented in schools as there is an argument that traditional educational approaches may be hindering our students and limiting their development of relevant and important twenty-first century skills that include critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, computational thinking, scientific reasoning, and problem solving (Qian & Clarke, 2016).  In this post I explore this by looking at the theory of game-based learning, research on the educational benefits of board games, and by examining how games could be implemented in a meaningful way.

Game-Based Learning

Game-based learning describes an approach where game content and game play enhance learning, knowledge and skills acquisition, through game activities that involve problem solving spaces and challenges (Qian & Clarke, 2016). Games can help students by providing an engaging platform for reading, decoding, analyzing, assessing, and taking action on dynamic information while providing opportunity to strengthen informational processing abilities from multiple source and take on situated roles at different times (Randel & Morris, 1992).  Playing games and having fun are crucial to child development and can be a powerful tool that uses interaction, social connectedness, problem solving, hypothesis testing, cooperation, and collaboration that promote well-being and resilience that can be enhanced by a facilitator (Hromek, 2009).

Research has also indicated that children are able to perform tasks at higher levels in a playful context (Whitebread et al., 2017).  As games require the active participation of students the material has a greater chance of being integrated into the cognitive structures of the individuals and being retained (Randel & Morris, 1992).   Entertainment games are able to promote meaningful learning through providing players with adaptive challenge, curiosity, self-expression, discovery, immediate feedback, clear goals, player control, immersion, collaboration, competition, variable rewards, and low-stakes failure (Qian & Clark, 2016). Some studies report that game-based learning is not any more effective than traditional instruction but can be more motivating with a consistent finding that games are more interesting than traditional instruction (Randel & Morris, 1992).

Educational Research on Board Games

Treher (2011) suggests that board games can be an important tool providing skill and knowledge development for people of all ages in all subject areas as they provide visual metaphors, vehicles for elearning, reinforcement, problem solving, and opportunities for discussion and collaboration.   Board games have multiple curricular entry points, can be an engaging platform for reading, decoding, and analyzing information while providing opportunities to reinforce higher order thinking in areas such as inquiry, strategic analysis,  problem solving, and critical thinking (Mayer & Harris, 2010).  It has also been argued that problem solving elements in some games might support the development of mental strategy development and metacognitive review and critical thinking (Whitebread et al., 2017).

Despite the arguments on the benefits of using board games, much of the research on game-based learning, centres around the use of digital games.  There is currently a lack of empirical research on board games and learning other than a handful of studies (Gobet, Retschitzki, &  de Voogt, 2004; Whitebread et al., 2017). These studies include two from 2008 where Siegler and Ramani found that playing a linear numerical board game improved low-income children’s numeracy skills and knowledge compared to those who did not.  Another study by Siegler and Laski (2014) showed that playing linear number board games with a count on modification improved kindergarten students’ numeracy and counting skills.   

There has been some research done on the complex thought processes players use while they play board games, Berland and Lee (2011) examined the board game Pandemic in relation to aspects of computational thinking being used while players engaged with the game.  “Computational thinking”, described by Wing(2006) is the process of formulating a problem and expressing its solution in a way that a computer can carry out, involves abstract interpretations, is multi-disciplinary, and comes before any computer technology.    Pandemic is a strategic co-operative board game where players work together to contain and cure disease outbreaks.  Berland and Lee found that computational thinking takes place while playing this game and suggested a next step would be to more closely connect the computational thinking from the game to instructional design for the development of computational thinking.  

Implementing Board Games in a Classroom

Board games may contain untapped potential in the classroom despite more research needed to be done to fully understand their benefits.  There appears to be value in just having them in classrooms or libraries, but they could also be implemented in ways that tie directly into educational goals and outcomes with consideration to content and game mechanics including the number of players.  Hays (2005) suggests that games should be analyzed to see if they meet the instructional requirements and when used should be embedded in instructional programs to complement and help support objectives with an emphasis on debriefing so that learners can understand what happened in the game to see how it connects to learning goals.  Weisberg, Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, Kittredge, and Klahr (2016) suggest that guided play experiences that combine child-directed nature of free play with learning outcomes and adult mentorship, is an optimal medium for delivering educational content in an enjoyable way that facilitates learning with the best possible educational outcomes.  Mayer and Harris (2010) recommend a variety of ways to implement games depending on the game content and subject matter which include learning centre based approaches for smaller group games or whole class experiences for games that are easy to play and scale up nicely with larger groups of players.

An example that I have been exploring is the idea of using Pandemic as an activity for students to practice “computational thinking”.  As noted in the previous section, Pandemic provides opportunities to engage in computational thinking.  This could possibly assist in the development of this skill as that practice and repetition of cognitive skills can lead to automation and more efficiency in these areas (Magallon, Narbona, & Crespo-Eguilaz, 2016).  

As computational thinking is often linked to computer science, which is a introductory subject in multimedia and technology classes that I teach, I believe that using Pandemic could provide a powerful learning opportunity for my students.  A brief outline of a possible approach could be as follows:

  1. As I am doing an introductory unit on computer science (very basic grade 6-8) I would introduce students to the idea of computational thinking, exploring why and how it is important to computer science and a variety of other disciplines.
  2. At some point I would introduce Pandemic as a supplementary activity but I would be explicit with students that this would be a fun activity that would also give them an opportunity to practice computational thinking.
  3. I would guide the playthrough at least at first while offering prompts for discussions and decision making.  I would likely not do this as a whole class activity and instead would give it a learning centre like approach.
  4. A debrief would be essential to discuss the playing of the game in relation to computational thinking with students writing a reflective journal entry about the experience.
  5. Assessment would occur through observational notes and consideration of the reflective journal.

Concluding Remarks

Board games are a complex medium that feature a variety of mechanics and characteristics that can make them valuable in an educational setting.  There is evidence that suggests that they can be beneficial to children and can help support the learning of twenty-first century skills, but ultimately more research is needed to fully understand them.  I have outlined an approach that could be used for one specific game, but it would need to be expanded upon and refined if it was going to actually be implemented in a classroom.


Berland, M., & Lee, V. R. (2011). Collaborative strategic board games as a site for distributed computational thinking. International Journal of Game-Based Learning (IJGBL), 1(2), 65-81.

Gobet, F., Retschitzki, J., & de Voogt, A. (2004). Moves in mind: The psychology of board games. Psychology Press.

Hromek, R., & Roffey, S. (2009). Promoting Social and Emotional Learning With Games: “It’s Fun and We Learn Things”. Simulation & Gaming, 40(5), 626-644.

Laski, E. V., & Siegler, R. S. (2014). Learning from number board games: You learn what you encode. Developmental psychology, 50(3), 853.

Magallón, S., Narbona, J., & Crespo-Eguílaz, N. (2016). Acquisition of motor and cognitive skills through repetition in typically developing children. PloS one, 11(7), e0158684

Mayer, B., & Harris, Christopher. (2010). Libraries got game : Aligned learning through modern board games. Chicago: American Library Association.

Qian, M., & Clark, K. R. (2016). Game-based Learning and 21st century skills: A review of recent research. Computers in Human Behavior, 63, 50-58.

Ramani, G. B., & Siegler, R. S. (2008). Promoting broad and stable improvements in low‐income children’s numerical knowledge through playing number board games. Child development, 79(2), 375-394.

Siegler, R. S., & Ramani, G. B. (2008). Playing linear numerical board games promotes low‐income children’s numerical development. Developmental science, 11(5), 655-661.

Treher, E. N. (2011). Learning with board games. The Learning Key Inc.

Weisberg, D. S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., Kittredge, A. K., & Klahr, D. (2016). Guided play: Principles and practices. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25(3), 177-182.

Whitebread, D., Neale, D., Jensen, H., Liu, C., Solis, S. L., Hopkins, Hirsh-Pasek, Z. (2017). The role of play in children’s development: a review of the evidence.

Wing, J. M. (2006). Computational thinking. Communications of the ACM, 49(3), 33-35.

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