Teaching Board Games #1: Mental Models

Cross-posted from my professional blog…

Back in college, a friend named Chad introduced me to the board game Settlers of Catan. More precisely, he introduced me to Die Siedler von Catan, since it was only the original German version of the game that was available in South Carolina back in the mid-90s. Somehow in the early days of the internet, Chad had managed to obtain a copy of the game from Germany, along with an English translation of the rules. We played several times that year, usually with our computer science major buddies.

Settlers of Catan changed my understanding of what board games could be.

I grew up playing Sorry!, Monopoly, Battleship, and other classic American board games. Settlers was something completely different. Unlike Sorry!, your standing in the game wasn’t determined almost entirely by the luck of the draw. Instead, Settlers presented players with a number of different actions to take each turn, all part of multiple paths to victory. Unlike Monopoly, you didn’t have a runaway winner, where it’s clear halfway through the game who’ll end up on top. Instead, Settlers featured a trading mechanism that meant two players could team up on a leading player, keeping the game competitive right through the end. And unlike Battleship, which runs off hidden information, Settlers kept almost all parts of the game out in the open, leading to more strategy than guessing.

Settlers opened my eyes to the world of strategy board games. And these days, I play a lot of these games, with both friends and family. Splendor is one of my favorite games to introduce to non-gamers, since it’s easy to teach, players in about an hour, and has many of those qualities of Settlers (multiple paths to victory, no player elimination, very little hidden information). Love Letter is another great intro game, one that uses hidden information to create a clever little deduction game, all in just 16 unique cards. Isle of Skye is my favorite board game. Players take on the roles of chieftains, building their clan territories by buying and selling landscape tiles, then fitting those tiles together in clever ways to score points. One of my favorite parts of this game is that there are 16 different rules for scoring territories, but you play with a different set of four rules each time. The variable scoring conditions means you can play the game again and again, and each play will feel different. I do not get tired of playing Isle of Skye!

Between introducing games to new players and introducing new games to my regular players, I end up teaching a lot of board games. A couple of years ago, a friend mentioned that when there’s a new board game at the table, he likes it when I teach the game. I realized then that when I’m teaching a board game, I draw on many of the principles of learning that I share regularly in my educational development work. I thought it might be interesting to explore that dynamic here on the blog, as an example of matching teaching practices (in this case, the teaching of board games) to principles of learning.

For example, we know that learners make sense of new information using their existing mental models of how the world works. When I’m teaching a game, I’ll often ask players if they’ve played other particular games in the past. If they have, then I can describe elements of the new game as similar to or different from those other games. For instance, when I’m teaching Isle of Skye, I’ll ask players if they’ve played a game called Carcassonne. Both games involve fitting square landscape tiles together so that landscape features (grasslands, mountains, cities, and so on) found on the edges of the tile match, edge-to-edge. If someone has played Carcassonne, they’ll be familiar with this mechanism, and I can point out that Isle of Skye works much the same way. One exception: in Carcassonne, roads must connect across tiles, but that’s not required in Isle of Skye. I’ll note this, too, because if I don’t, the Carcassonne players’ mental models will trip them up in Isle of Skye.

Another way I tap into players’ existing mental models is using the theme of the game. Some games, like checkers, have almost no theme. There’s no setting for the game, no story you’re telling, no particular context for the game mechanics. Other games, like Love Letter, have a lot more theme. In Love Letter, players are trying to get their love letter to the princess. Each of the 16 cards in the game represents some member of the court: the prince, the king, a handmaid, a guard, and so on. Each card is numbered from 1 to 8, with the higher numbers representing court members closer to the princess. The guard is a 1, the handmaid is a 4, the prince is a 5, the king is a 6, and the princess herself is an 8. You take turns drawing and playing cards, and at the end of the round, the player with the highest numbered card left in their hand wins the round, because (here’s the theme) they managed to get their love letter to the court member closest to the princess, maybe even in the hands of the princess herself. As a thematic game, the mechanics of the game go along with the story of the game, and so I can use that story and what players already understand about royal courts (fictional ones, at least) to help them understand and remember the mechanics.

One more note on Love Letter: One of my favorite parts of the theme is the countess card. She’s a 7, very close to the princess. But if you have her in your hand with the prince or the king, you have to discard her. Why? Because the prince and the king don’t approve of her, so when they come around, she has to make herself scarce. Again, the story makes the card mechanic easy to remember!

I’m planning to share in future blog posts more examples of how principles of learning inform the ways I teach board games. For now, however, if this topic interests you, I recommend you listen to this interview with Rodney Smith on the Low Player Count podcast. Rodney Smith hosts the YouTube channel Watch It Played, where he posts really excellent “how to play” videos for a variety of board games. He’s an excellent teacher, and he talks about his process in that Low Player Count interview.

And if you’re interested in more board game recommendations, I share a lot of recommendations on my dad blog. We play a lot of family board games at my house, and I try to recommend a few good ones each fall, in advance of gift-giving season.

6 years ago

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