All games are about playing together, really, even when your goal is to win and defeat the other players. For the game to be enjoyable, though, everyone needs to play by the rules, pay attention to what others are doing, and know when it is their turn. All of these things make board games great social learning opportunities for young people. There is co-operation in all competitive board games, even if players have opposing goals. This is one of the benefits of having students play board games. Of course, they’re not always aware of it, and it isn’t instant learning, and sometimes requires coaching and time, but the game sessions get better as they play and begin to realize how much more fun they have when they put effort onto maintaining their attention on the game.
But what if I told you that there are games in which all of the players work together on a common goal? Would you like groups of students to work together as a team and further improve collaborative skills, while enjoying the experience? I know there are fun challenge activities that you can do (and maybe do already!), but will students with some extra time decide that the thing they want to do most is build another tower out of spaghetti and marshmallows? Making available games that require them to work together could be the practice that they’re not only willing to do, but will seek out.
I present to you a small selection of co-operative games:
Pandemic, by Z-Man games is a very popular game with several expansions and variations. In this game, players take on roles of characters of different professions each with differing skills sets. The players will need these skills and abilities to rush around the world map containing and ultimately curing diseases that are popping up. Each player has a limited number of actions each turn, so they need to carefully consider their next few moves, but also how they can co-ordinate with the other players, best using their special abilities, to get to where they need to go to get the right resources to make the cures, and then deliver them to the right places before they are overrun.
Other incidental learning that comes from this particular game is geographical locations of world cities, as the game board is a world map. Discussion topics that might arise from this game is how diseases spread, and what medical organizations do in order to prevent them. This game is listed as being for 8 years old and up, but due to its complexity, I would recommend it for a slightly older group, unless an adult is playing with them to moderate and assist. Also, it has a lot of pieces in the forms of small cubes, so you’ll want this played by students who are responsible about tidying up after a game. At 45 minutes or so in game time, you could fit a game into an hour-long period of a lunch hour, once the players are familiar with the rules.
The Mind is an interesting game which has also garnered a bit of controversy as some wonder whether it should actually be classified as a game or not. You’ll recognize the premise if you’ve ever done the “Zen Counting” activity with your class. The idea behind this is the players need to work together with one mind to complete the goal. The deck comprises cards numbered 1 – 100. For “Level 1”, each player gets one card at random, and does not share what number they got with the others. Once everyone is ready, they must play their cards in numerical order from lowest to highest, without communicating. It becomes an interesting exercise in reading body language, and interpreting a lot of stares. If all players manage lay down their cards in order, they have beaten the level. For level 2, each player gets 2 cards, and a new round begins. If a player puts down a card, and another player has a lower card in their hand, they reveal it, and the group loses one of their 4 “life” cards. Once all of the life cards are gone, the game ends. However, certain levels give you back life cards if you succeed in them. The group also have access to a “shuriken” card. If the group unanimously votes to use this card, every player openly discards their lowest card, and then play resumes.
This game requires focus, and even being near it when it is played can be entertaining, with its periods of intense silence, followed by occasional disappointed “ah, noooo” and cheers of success. Rounds of this game can go by fairly quickly, but the game gets longer the better the players get at it. The premise and rules are fairly simple, so players as young as 8 should be able to handle it.
Shadows Over Camelot
Shadows over Camelot has the players choosing which of King Arthur’s knights of the round table they’d like to be, and then working together to protect Camelot from a plethora of dangers, including invasions by Picts, Saxons, and siege engines. They may also need to defeat the Black Knight, win tournaments, find Excalibur, or, the Holy Grail of achievements, find the Holy Grail. Each knight has a different special ability to aid in their quests, which may help players decide which quest to undertake. Players start with a hand of cards that might be used at some of the different quests, so may choose which quest to undertake based on which cards they started with. They are limited in their movement, and some quests reset if they leave, so they need to choose wisely. They defeat the quest by playing the requisite number of correct cards there, one per turn. If they defeat a quest, a white sword goes on the one of the 12 spots on the round table. If they fail at a quest, a black sword goes on the round table. The players lose if they end up with more black swords than white, which means 7 failed quests will end the game and the age of Arthur. What makes this difficult (and at times frustrating), is that at the end of every turn, a player draws cards for bad things to happen. That is, cards which advance the quests in favour of the enemies of Camelot, whether there is a knight attempting that quest or not. This game is akin to running around putting out small fires, and deciding which ones to let burn in order to put another out. Those who already lead lives like this may find the game too frustrating to play. There is also an option for one player to secretly be a traitor, who will be the victor if the players lose the game. This means they must secretly work against the players and try to fail on purpose. I say “secretly”, because if the other players suspect who the traitor is and call them out, they are out of the game.
The artwork in this game is great, and as a fan of Athurian legend, medieval history and fantasy, I love the theme. Additional learning may come in the form of researching the characters and their roles in different versions of the story of King Arthur. This one has more pieces that Pandemic, so be confident with who you leave in charge.
Of the games on this very short list, Castle Panic is my favourite.
I have played this many times, introduced classes and summer camp groups to it, and it has been very popular with the kids who have played it.
Players work together to defend their castle in the middle of the board from the monsters attacking from the surrounding forest. They use their hand of cards to play Archer, Knight, or Swordsman cards of the corresponding colour to hit the monsters in the red, blue, or green rings around the castle (the Swordsman ring is closest, then the Knight ring, and then the Archer ring is furthest out). There are other useful cards as well, such as brick and mortar cards which players can use to rebuild the walls that have been destroyed by monsters. They cannot, however, rebuild the castle towers, and when there are no more towers, the game ends and the players lose. The players win by having at least one tower still standing when the monster tokens have all been used up. At the end of each player’s turn, all monsters move one ring closer to the castle, and two new monster tokens are randomly drawn and placed in the board.
During their turn, before playing their cards, a player has the option of trading a card with another player. This part provides an opportunity for negotiation and planning, not only so that the active player gets what they need, but so they can trade away a card that might be useful to another player in a subsequent turn. Once players have played enough times, they may get pretty good at this game, and then end up winning more frequently. If they need a greater challenge, there is an expansion called Wizard’s Tower that adds new monsters and cards to the game. And it is a challenge, even for veteran Castle Panic players!
This game can take up to a full hour, but with practice can be completed in about 45 minutes. The game itself say ages 10+, but I’ve been able to teach it to 8 and 9 year-olds and they’ve done well with it. Also, it can be played by up to 6 players, so more participation!
Challenges and Speedbumps
Of course, it’s not going to be as easy as showing the students how to play, giving them some time to play and watching them all work together in perfect harmony and collaborative bliss. There are some thing to watch out for that cause potentially cause issues, but can also be turned into learning.
Also known as “quarterbacking”, this is when one player takes control of the game and starts making decisions for other players. They see what they think should be done, and either plays another’s turn for them, or just tells them what to do. This is a good opportunity to take this strong personality aside and talk about the difference between a leader and a boss. This student could be a good voice to support others and get things done, but just needs to be reminded to let others have a voice as well. This student would likely be a good moderator to keep everyone on track and keep the game flowing, with a little direction.
The opposite of the above I suppose, is the quiet player who doesn’t want to speak up or make their own decision. A game is a small group environment, so they should be encouraged to see how their contribution can make a difference. It would be great if this encouragement came from other potential leader-types practicing their own leadership skills.
Some students freeze up when presented with too many options, and take a long time to consider and reconsider each one, slowing the game down and potentially frustrating other players. While it is good to consider consequences of your actions and choice, at some point you actually have to make an action or choice! Hopefully the game is a low-risk environment so that even if the choice or action leads to unfavourable consequences, it will be seen as a learning opportunity by the student and group and we can avoid finger-pointing and blame.
This is frustrating. Can you imagine putting the time and effort into getting the game and teaching it, then playing it once before pieces get lost and it becomes unplayable? One of the youths at the summer camp I worked at actually said to a friend there “These games have all the pieces, not like at the other place!” I address this one directly and openly ahead of time. I tell them the cost of the game, which surprises many of them, and that I can hear a piece hit the ground from anywhere in the room (which I can, and which I demonstrate by calling out “somebody better pick that piece up!” when I hear it happen). We talk about taking the time to look around on the tables and on the floor, and EVERYBODY participating in the tidy up. And if I find a piece on the floor, that game comes out of rotation for the next session.
Learning for Skills as Well as Content
And there you have it. Social skills are important, and many feel that video games don’t give the same type of practice as face-to-face board games. And although all board games require some collaboration, trying out some co-operative games will help to reinforce those skills as the players work toward a common goal. Plan enough time to pre-teach the rules and demonstrate how to play, and then have some playtime! I think that a good follow-up or consolidation could be as simple as a journal response and have them describe how the game experience went. They could reflect specifically on what they did in the game, or whether the collaboration was effective or not. You could get some procedural writing from having them write rules summaries, or even have them extend their understanding of how the game works by getting them to add additional characters or rules to the game.
There are many, many co-operative games out there; this example list was tiny. Do you know of any others that you’d like to share? Can you make any other suggestions about follow-up learning, or associated topics?
Anyway, keep on learning and playing!