Perhaps every language educator through history has played a board game in the classroom. We have all seen it, and we have all made one:
This workhorse of the language classroom gets students involved, gets them communicating, and provides an opportunity for language review. Yet, with some basic game design principles, we can do something more: We can make it fun!
When designing a game, always consider your audience through a prism of complexity. Young learners can spend hours playing relatively simple games; it’s why kids love tic-tac-toe. As we age, our brains can handle more complexity, which is why adults find tic-tac-toe boring, but chess never ceases to enthrall. This complexity plays out in two ways in games: the luck/strategy scale, and agency.
Luck and Strategy
Our classic classroom board game is often luck driven, as players flip a coin or roll dice to advance. For younger learners this can be fun, but adults enjoy wins derived from meaningful decision-making and strategy. Evaluate your board game by considering what players do when not actively turn-taking. Are they waiting for their turn, or plotting and planning while others take their turns?
Adding strategy gives players the opportunity to plot and plan in the game. An effective way to add strategy is by giving the players more agency. Agency represents the influence a player has through the actions they can take. As a language educator, I think of agency as the number of verbs my players have. With our board game, the players have three verbs: roll the dice, move their piece, and answer questions. For younger learners, three to five verbs is adequate. Adults enjoy far more. As a design challenge, consider what additional verbs could be added to your board game—could players wager, trade, steal, question, or cooperate?
Increasing player agency creates more opportunity for strategy, but used alone it has limits, which is where altering the information of the game can assist. Games can loosely be categorized in two ways: perfect games, and imperfect games. In perfect games, all players share the same information and everything is on the board. Chess, checkers, basketball, and our board game example are all perfect games. In imperfect games, players have information known only to them. Card games such as poker and Uno are great examples, as are the board games Battleship and Settlers of Catan.
Making Games More Engaging
To make a more engaging experience for the players of our board game, I could hide the questions, which are only uncovered when a player lands on a tile. This could be enhanced by adding the verb to wager. Perhaps each player gets tokens they can use to bet. Before a question is revealed, players could wager tokens on whether they think other players will answer their question successfully. Winning the wager gets them more tokens, while losing a wager means giving over their tokens to the player who successfully answered the question.
Balancing luck and strategy, adding agency, and considering the perfectness of your game are all quick and easy ways to increase player engagement. Just remember that every effective game requires playtesting and refining, so be sure to try out your game with family, colleagues, and students—and share your game design journey in our comments section!
Finally, this month, I encourage everyone to check out Betsy Gilliland’s blog post on developing games for L2 writing. In other gaming news, Dr. Ulugbek Nurmukhamedov and Dr. Randall Sadler have called for contributions to TESOL’s New Ways in Teaching with Games, and I encourage everyone to submit! The deadline is 12 April 2019.
Until next month, play more games!
Want to learn more? Check out:
Brathwaite, B., & Schreiber, I. (2017). Challenges for game designers: Non-digital exercises for video game designers. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Fullerton, T. (2014). Game design workshop: A playcentric approach to creating innovative games. Boca Raton, FL: AK Peters/CRC Press.