Around the Classroom In 80 Games: Candidate

Candidate. From:

Candidate. From:

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: 1960: The Making Of The President

John F. Kennedy token positioned on Massachusetts; from

John F. Kennedy token positioned on Massachusetts; from

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

Machi Koro...player 1 nearing victory. From:

Machi Koro...player 1 nearing victory. From:

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.

Around the Classroom In 80 Games: ZENDO

Looney Pyramids , the tool of critical thinking and scientific reasoning in Zendo.

Looney Pyramids, the tool of critical thinking and scientific reasoning in Zendo.

"Around the Classroom in 80 Games" is an ongoing series about directly using games of all sorts in the classroom.

Zendo, designed by Kory Heath and published in 2001, is a game of thought, critical thinking and reasoning. In the game, a "Master" selects a card from a deck that describes an assortment of different states into which Looney Pyramids might be arranged. These cards could describe a huge number of patterns into which these game pieces could be arranged. The Master starts the game by constructing two such patterns. One conforms to the card's rule; the other doesn't [these rules are expressed as mystical koans..."the koan has the Buddha nature if and only if..."] The players then build patterns from the supply of pyramids attempting to discern the actual pattern or koan shown on the Master's card.

Looking at the photo above, one can note that there are red pyramids stacked on top of other pyramids (as well as one on its side in the background...I'm going to leave that out for this argument). how might this match the card? The card might say: "The koan has the Buddha nature if and only if it has two red pyramids stacked atop at least one other pyramid." Or it could say "The koan has the Buddha nature if and only if it has two stacks, one with a small blue pyramid and one with a medium green pyramid." And so forth. If a player uses his turn to guess the pattern, the Master either acknowledges that the answer is true (and the player wins), or must build a pattern from the pyramids that matches the card but not the player's guess.

Zendo is a masterpiece of design for a teacher who wants to use games in the classroom because of the purity of its rules. What's the game about? Reasoning and critical thinking. Any teacher with an interest in having students work on developing their critical thinking skills directly and purely could use this game successfully. Winning the game depends on the same kinds of skills that scientists use every day to study whatever concerns them. Consider past a working hypothesis...test that hypothesis...lather, rinse, repeat.

Your Assignment: Set up your classroom in stations with one station being Zendo. Set a timer for 10 minutes. Have students play as many rounds of the game as they can in 10 minutes (it's very likely they won't even complete one round) and then reflect on their thought process while they were playing for 5 minutes. In the next classroom, use the Zendo method to demonstrate a principle that they can apply going forward in your discipline.

"Game On"

Zendo - a great game for learning about the scientific method and critical thinking.

Zendo - a great game for learning about the scientific method and critical thinking.

This site is a community for gamers, teachers and students to learn from each other and to make games and game-based methods a bigger part of their learning and their work. This section of the site is devoted to the games themselves. The games I'll discuss in this section will usually have three properties:

  • They are fun to play.
  • There is something about the way the game works that could be applied to a learning context.
  • The game isn't necessarily a game one would play in class (without modification).

The argument I'm making is pretty straightforward (and there are plenty of folks who disagree)...the game mechanics that make games fun is more important to teaching and learning than any individual game.

Perhaps this is your first go-around with games and education. If so, what follows is for you. This is a version of a blog post I made a number of years for those new to games. I hope it helps if you, like them would say "I understand how play might motivate students and I know my students play games, but I don't play games. Where do I start!" 

The best place to start is by doing a little mental inventory. Surely nearly everyone has played tic-tac-toe, checkers, chess or backgammon. I bet you've played Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders or Uncle Wiggly. You've probably also played other great games of the American golden age of games like Monopoly, Sorry, Clue, Careers. If you've played them, you've got a good start on the basics of game mechanics and game-based motivation.

From there, let me make some suggestions (and if you haven't played these games, find a 5-year old and break out Chutes and Ladders...a far better game than Candy Land, if you ask me…).

Got a smartphone? Try Words With Friends (which I play and would be happy to play with any of you - my WWF id is joncassie) and Angry Birds (which I don't play, because I know I'll get sucked in and never get back out). They are pretty good examples of mobile play. WWF is asynchronous, which is a feature of a lot of games these days.

If you've graduated beyond Monopoly and Risk, I would start with one or two games, generally considered "gateway" games to the more complex German-designed boardgames. The first is called "Settlers of Catan," in which you harvest and combine resources to build a settlement on the island. Simple rules; complex strategy. The other is called "Ticket to Ride," in which you are building a railroad network across the country trying to link up certain cities (which you have in a hand of cards) while your opponents are trying to build their own network. I like "Ticket" a lot more, but "Catan" is a classic. Or visit your friendly, local game store (just about every city and town has one) and get their suggestions. They may have better ones. If you're interested in 2-player games like checkers and chess (abstract strategy), see if you can find a copy of Dvonn or Zertz. Both are 2-player abstract strategy games, highly accessible and very, very fun.

If you've got a gaming console (a PS3, Wii or Xbox), I would heartily recommend games like Super Mario Galaxy (for the Wii) as a definitive example of what Wii is about or the Wii sports games that make such great use of Wii's special motion controllers. I have heard outstanding things about games like Assassin's Creed and L.A. Noire has received enthusiastic and well-deserved praise.

If you've got a desktop or laptop computer, you can't go wrong with Portal 2, an insanely fun puzzle game with a deep story element. I have long been a fan of The Sims franchise as well and Sims 3 doesn't disappoint. Directing the lives of your avatars (sims) as they grow up and live their lives is totally addictive.

The final frontier in gaming commitment might be the MMO. I play World of Warcraft and, now that the first twenty levels are free, you could get a sense of how the game works without taking the big plunge. Other MMOs are much smaller and I don't have any experience with them, but I'd love to hear from players of these other games.

So - go play and report back!!