Teaching With Board Games

30 May 2020 8:29 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By: Stephanie Richman, Ph.D., Baldwin Wallace University

One of my absolute favorite hobbies, and the reason my fiancé and I got together, is playing board games. I love to combine my passions, so of course I looked for a way to use board games in my teaching.

I created a first year seminar called "How to Spot a Liar," largely because I was interested in exploring the idea of using social deduction games in the classroom. Social deduction board games, defined by game designer and author Ted Alspach, are those "where the goal is dependent on figuring out information that isn't readily apparent and that involves discussion among players as one of the mechanics."

The content of "How to Spot a Liar" includes learning about why people lie and, importantly, how to spot when they are doing it. We learn about lie-detection methods from books written by CIA agents and articles written by psychologists or other behavioral experts. Then, students put the methods into practice through the games.

We started with a game called Werewolf, in which some players are Wolves, trying to eat the Villagers, and other players are Villagers, using their lie-spotting skills to hunt the Wolves. While there is an "official" board game, you don’t actually need any materials. It can be played with a deck of cards or just a moderator (i.e., the instructor). This is the simplest of the social deduction games and worked well to introduce students to this type of game. While some students were quiet at first, they quickly became engaged and interested in the game.

Next, we moved on to a game called Spyfall, in which one Spy tries to guess a location which all other players know (determined by the game mechanics), and the others, aware of the location, try to guess the Spy. Everyone asks and answers questions, trying to be specific enough to clear their name but not so specific that they will give the location away to the Spy. While this also has an "official" board game, there is an easy-to-use phone app, which all my students downloaded and used to play in class. I scheduled the class to begin playing this game just after learning about the verbal cues of lying, which fit very well with the game’s mechanics.

We also played Avalon and Two Rooms and a Boom, slightly more complex social deduction games, as students learned more about how to spot a liar.

I was always excited to hear claims of "That’s an exclusion qualifier!" or "Non-specific denial!" as students played, utilizing the skills they learned in the content part of the class. Course evaluation feedback for the four times I have taught this course has been positive, especially in regards to the games. Students report that, "The games actually helped in teaching us more about the class and the content." They also mentioned that the most effective learning activity in the course was "Werewolf," "Playing games," or "Playing deceptive board games with the entire class in groups."

However, you don’t have to teach a class based around board games in order to use them for teaching in your classroom! Many of the social deduction games mentioned (especially Werewolf and Spyfall) would be very effective for classes on body language, acting, or communication.

Further, social deduction games are not the only type of board games that are useful for classroom instruction. In fact, there are quite a lot of different genres and games that can be used. For example, in my Social Cognition course, an upper level psychology course about how people mentally represent social information, I use a game called Codenames to represent a challenging concept called Parallel Distributive Processing (PDP). PDP is a model of memory in which units (such as words or concepts like "mom" or "dove" or "house") are connected with facilitative and inhibitory links to each other. It is a challenging concept, but one I thought would be made simpler by using a board game.

In Codenames, two team leaders try to get their respective team members to guess words on a board based on a single word clue. The best clues can get people to associate multiple words together. However, to be successful at this game, you need to be aware of which words people will associate with other words or concepts – just like how they are arranged in your memory according to PDP.

Many of you may also be wondering if these games can be played remotely, given the temporary move to remote learning due to coronavirus (or because you regularly teach remotely). Good news – many board games are able to be played remotely and it is not much harder than doing so in person. Werewolf has a specific website that you can use to play over Video Chat. Spyfall can be done on a phone app, also usable over the internet. I would also direct you to this excellent Distance Gaming Guide, which includes all of the other games mentioned in this article, as well as many more.

Ultimately, I highly encourage you to use these games while teaching in your classroom or to try finding board games that work with your material. As far as I know, there aren’t any teaching-specific websites related to board games, but Board Game Geek is an excellent website to look up board games. I’m also happy to answer any questions you may have about using board games in your class. Good luck!


Dr. Stephanie B. Richman is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Baldwin Wallace University. She teaches courses in Social Psychology, Research Methods, Close Relationships, How to Spot a Liar, and more. Her research focuses on rejection, self-expansion, and close relationships. She is currently combining her personal and research interests to conduct research on self-expansion in tabletop and live action gaming. In addition to gaming, she is passionate about inspiring others through her teaching and writing, which she explores in her blog.

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