As some of you already know, I am a mathematics professor at a small school in Indiana (Trine University). Despite our size, we have a very large engineering program – but more importantly, we have a class on the books called “Social Board Games”! The person who usually teaches it no longer has time, so he suggsted I take it up. No need to ask twice!
The course description says that “The object of this activity class is to expose students to the history, rules, strategies and fundamentals of a variety of social board games including Chess, Checkers, Backgammon, Cranium, Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, Taboo and Monopoly.” Or, in the words of another professor, the point of the course is “to get the guys in engineering to actually talk to girls before they graduate.”
Of course, since I’m the kind of guy who runs a board gaming blog, I threw all of this out the window. While games like Pictionary and Taboo have some good social interaction and are closer to my aims for the course, games like Chess and Checkers are played in pairs and in virtual silence, and Monopoly and Scrabble can be frustrating and longish. More importantly though, I wanted to have a central goal for the course. I want students to actually learn a thing or two. The course is just 1-credit pass/fail, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a waste of time.
When I think back to my experiences in college, such as our “freshmen college experience” course that everyone college has now, I think of things I would have like to have known then, and what I want students to know now as a professor. The most important thing that came to mind was that I want students to take control of their own learning. (It amazes me the extent to which students who are confused in class will refuse to ask a question, for fear of looking stupid.) This led to me thinking about a variety of mental health issues that people don’t even realize are “issues” until it gets them fired from a job. My wife is a licensed mental health counselor, so with her help I came up with a list of ideas I wanted students to engage with and the games with which to do it. (In the future, I hope to try and get this course to count as a Social Science credit.)
What has been most amazing so far is the generosity of publishers and retailers alike. Since I was rebuilding a course from the ground up for which we already had materials (the old games), it was a safe assumption that I would have no funding from the university for new games. However, almost all of the publishers that I contacted were willing to step in and send some games to use in the course, and only a few were completely unresponsive. CoolStuffInc stepped in when I really wanted to use a game from a publisher I could not seem to contact, and I can’t be thankful enough. MeepleTown is not sponsored at all, by any publisher or retailer, but on a personal level I really want to thank (in no particular order) Rio Grande Games, Days of Wonder, Steve Jackson Games, R&R Games, FoxMind Games, North Star Games, Gamewright Games, Gryphon/Eagle Games, and Indie Boards & Cards, along with CoolStuffInc. This class as I envision it would not be possible without the generosity of every single one of you.
I am not going to share the entire syllabus, but I am going to share the flow of the course and the kind of assignments the students will have. This is a Wednesday night class, and each week students will be playing a game after I lecture a bit beforehand about the concept in mind as well as the ruleset. After about 90 minutes of play, we’ll recap the concept I want them to get and talk about how it appeared within the game. Then they have to go home and write a one-page paper on the importance of the mental health concept and how it appeared in the game. I’ll grade these out of 10 points (5 for grammar, 5 for substance) and they simply need to average a 6/10 on their assignments to pass the course. I hope to collect some important thoughts from these as I blog each week about the course, and maybe talk at some conferences about the importance of play, both psychologically and mathematically. (All that mathematical researchers do all day is goof around until something works. Play is of utmost importance.)
To pick games for this course, I needed them to satisfy some pretty important criteria. They needed to have a relatively short playtime – some games like Ticket to Ride will take a bit longer, but I was really aiming for 20-30 minute games that could be played several times in a row. It was also very important that they had a simple ruleset – the toughest game is probably Dominion, but I’ll be setting out the simplest Kingdom Cards in the basic set when they play, and that’ll be towards the end of the semester. I’ll also be walking around the room to answer rules questions as they play. Most importantly, they had to model some sort of important mental health concept that would be useful later in life as well as right now in college. To that end, the first unit is the most important one for college: realizing that it’s okay to be a little ignorant, and that everyone is a little ignorant too. The point of college is to become educated, which you can’t do if you won’t admit that youaren’t completely educated. The second unit is about communication, whose importance is hopefully obvious, although we will focus on several different types of communication. The third unit is on applying strategic thinking to life in general (which is, of course, a game, although we’re all a little fuzzy on the rules and victory conditions). The last unit is on separating play from reality – students (and even children) need to learn not to huff and puff and scream and stomp out of the room when they lose when they are still young, lest they act the same way at a board meeting.
I’ll talk more about the individual games chosen in detail as they come up each week, and I’ll also talk about responses from the students and what I lectured about. But for now, here is the list of games along with the mental health goals and writing prompts. (The game synopses are straight from BoardGameGeek and included for the students, who have probably never played or heard of most of these, since my Finite Math students at IUPUI did not even know the content of a deck of standard playing cards.) Check back next Friday for Part 1!
UNIT 1: Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone
The goal of this unit is for students to get comfortable with their own limitations. No one – even a genius – knows that much about the world compared to everything there is to know, and not everyone has the same skill set. It’s okay to be wrong or not know something! It’s more than okay to ask a question during classes! These games are meant to illustrate that.
Week 1 (1/8) Telestrations
Game Synopsis: Telestrations is the award winning, laugh-out-loud party game that has players simultaneously draw what they see, then guess what they saw to reveal hilarious and unpredictable outcomes. In this fun, modern twist on the classic “telephone game,” there are multiple words being passed around between players, with everyone sketching and guessing at the same time! But the real fun and laughter is the big reveal, where players get their own books back and get to share how “this” became “that”!
Mental Health Goal: Learning to laugh at yourself.
Focus for Review: Were your drawings guessed correctly? When the meaning was entirely lost, was everyone (including you) able to laugh at the errors? How can you apply those aspects of the game to failures in everyday life?
Week 2 (1/15) Wits & Wagers Family
Game Synopsis: Wits & Wagers is the trivia game you can win without knowing any trivia! All you do is bet on the answer you think is the closest. Get lucky and your team will be cheering like they hit the jackpot!
Mental Health Goal: Learning to properly assess how knowledgeable other people are.
Focus for Review: When answers revealed, was your answer ever far from the rest? How did players react to “out there” answers? Did anyone lose self-confidence for that reason? Was an “out there” answer ever right? Were ever you afraid to bet on your own answer, but then it turned out to be right? How would you apply those aspects of this game to real-life situations?
Week 3 (1/22) Fauna
Game Synopsis: Do you know where the panda lives (… you most likely know)? Do you know where the babirusa lives (… you are less sure about that)? Some of us are not entirely sure what a babirusa is? In Fauna, you are not expected to know all the answers, simply gather your wits and make an educated guess. You are right on target? Great! You are close? That’s good too, since you score partial points. Playing Fauna involves some fun betting for points, but don’t get cocky, as this may cost you your hide!
Mental Health Goal: Learning to strategize and assess a situation with imperfect knowledge.
Focus for Review: A big difference between this game and Wits & Wagers is the way you play the game on the board. Did you ever make a tactical move that wasn’t really related to what you know? Were you able to still strategize and accomplish things without knowing exactly what the right answer was? How did you use what you thought other players knew? How could this idea be applied in a real-life situation?
Week 4 (1/29) Time’s Up!
Game Synopsis: Time’s Up! is a party game for teams of two or more players (best with teams of two). The same set of famous names is used for each of three rounds. In each round, one member of a team tries to get his teammates to guess as many names as possible in 30 seconds. In round 1, almost any kind of clue is allowed. In round 2 no more than one word can be used in each clue (but unlimited sounds and gestures are permitted). In round 3, no words are allowed at all. Time’s Up! is based on the public domain game known as Celebrities.
Mental Health Goal: Being comfortable with acting like a fool (in an appropriate situation).
Focus for Review: Did you have trouble “loosening up” and acting silly in this game? Why or why not? Do you think that the ability to act silly is an actual, important real-life skill? Why or why not?
Were you able to get your teammates guess the correct words? When you were not able to use words, how were you able to still indicate the card? Were you able to reference what happened in the previous rounds? How could you use this to communicate in real life?
UNIT 2: Communicating Effectively
The goal of this unit is to get students to communicate effectively with each other. This means working together as a team, as well as learning to interpret and use both verbal and nonverbal communication.
Week 5 (2/5) Dixit
Game Synopsis: Every picture tells a story – but what story will your picture tell? Dixit is the lovingly illustrated game of creative guesswork, where your imagination unlocks the tale. In this award-winning board game, players will use the beautiful imagery on their cards to bluff their opponents and guess which image matches the story. Guessing right is only half the battle – to really succeed, you’ll have to get your friends to decide that your card tells the story!
Mental Health Goal: Making mental and emotional connections with strangers and acquaintances.
Focus for Review: Was it difficult to make up appropriate clues? How did you respond when your clue was too easy, too hard, or just right? Were you able to make mental or emotional connections with other players via the clues? How can you apply this idea to real life social situations with new people?
Week 6 (2/12) Forbidden Island
Game Synopsis: Dare to discover Forbidden Island! Join a team of fearless adventurers on a do-or-die mission to capture four sacred treasures from the ruins of this perilous paradise. Your team will have to work together and make some pulse-pounding maneuvers, as the island will sink beneath every step! Race to collect the treasures and make a triumphant escape before you are swallowed into the watery abyss!
Mental Health Goal: Working together as a team.
Focus for Review: The game requires that you cooperate with other players to win. Did anyone try to be the “alpha player” and tell everyone what to do? How did you decide on what actions to take? What was different when you played with hidden cards? How does this correspond to working on a team or a committee at a real job, or on a group project? Did you win or lose? Why do you think you won or lost? What lessons did you take away from playing the game?
Week 7 (2/19) Hanabi
Game Synopsis: An intriguing and innovative card game. Race against the clock to build a dazzling fireworks finale! Trouble is, you can see the cards that everyone holds…except your own. Working together, you must give and receive vital information in order to play your cards in the proper launch sequence. Build and light each firework correctly to win the game and avoid a fizzling fiasco!
Mental Health Goal: Learning to properly intonate and infer silent communication.
Focus for Review: Were you able to correctly guess what your teammates were trying to say? Did they infer what you wanted them to when you gave clues? What changed when you did not allow intonation? What are some real-life situations where you need to pick up on silent clues?
Week 8 (2/26) La Boca
Game Synopsis: In shifting teams of two that sit across from one another, players try to create skylines on challenge cards – but the players can see the completed image only from their point of view, so they must consult with one another constantly to make sure each colored block ends up in the right location while racing against the timer. The faster the players complete their building, the more points they score. Then the next team takes a seat, breaks down the blocks, then begins building anew. Whoever has the most points after a certain number of rounds will stand atop La Boca and glory in the cheers of the Argentinian public!
Mental Health Goal: Communicating effectively under pressure.
Focus for Review: Now that you have communicated with your classmates for a few weeks, was this easier or harder other communication games? Do you think that made a difference? Were you able to communicate under pressure? Did you work better with some teammates than others? Why or why not?
UNIT 3: Applying Strategy to Real Life:
So far, many of the games we have played have been party games, and maybe not what people typically think of when they think of board games. In this unit, we will play some strategy-based board games that will challenge your brain, but more importantly, we’ll talk about how to apply strategy to the game of life (metaphorically, not the board game Life).
Week 9 (3/12) Ticket to Ride
Game Synopsis: Ticket to Ride is a cross-country train adventure in which players collect and play matching train cards to claim railway routes connecting cities throughout North America. The longer the routes, the more points they earn. Additional points come to those who can fulfill their Destination Tickets by connecting two distant cities, and to the player who builds the longest continuous railway.
Mental Health Goal: Learning to adapt your strategy after short-term setbacks.
Focus for Review: Did someone ever claim a route that you wanted? Did you claim a spot someone else wanted? What happened afterwards? Were you able to recover and do your best, anyway? How did you react to winning or losing?
Week 10 (3/19) Dominion
Game Synopsis: In Dominion, each player starts with an identical, very small deck of cards. In the center of the table is a selection of other cards the players can “buy” as they can afford them. Through their selection of cards to buy, and how they play their hands as they draw them, the players construct their deck on the fly, striving for the most efficient path to the precious victory points by game end.
Dominion is not a CCG, but the play of the game is similar to the construction and play of a CCG deck. The game comes with 500 cards. You select 10 of the 25 Kingdom card types to include in any given play—leading to immense variety.
Mental Health Goal: Learning to understand long-term consequences of your actions.
Focus for Review: How often did you see a card that you bought early? What was different about a card you bought in the first few turns, compared to the cards you bought at the end of the game? When do you think you should buy the action and money cards – early, or at the end? What about the victory cards? How does this idea of a game decision having long-term consequences translate into real life? As you approach the end of the game, the consequences of your choices don’t last as long – is there an analog to this in real life? Why or why not?
Week 11 (3/26) Skull & Roses, Coup
Game Synopsis: Skull & Roses is the quintessence of bluffing, a game in which everything is played in the players’ heads. Skull & Roses is not a game of luck; it’s a game of poker face and meeting eyes.
In Coup, you are head of a family in an Italian city-state, a city run by a weak and corrupt court. You need to manipulate, bluff and bribe your way to power. Your object is to destroy the influence of all the other families, forcing them into exile. Only one family will survive…
Mental Health Goal: Understanding the moral, psychological, and strategic implications of lying and bluffing.
Focus for Review: How often did you and your opponents lie in these games? Was it absolutely necessary to tell some lies to win? Were you comfortable with doing so? Do you think it is ‘okay’ to lie to get ahead? On the other hand, is it sometimes correct or even moral to withhold truth? Is it lying to tell the truth in a way that paints it as a lie? Is it important to be able to recognize a liar when you see one? Can this be done without lying yourself and putting yourself in a liar’s shoes?
UNIT 4: Emotions During Gaming
We’ve all been there. Someone won the last game, so you don’t want to cooperate with them in this game. Someone attacked you within the game, so you want to punch them in the face. The goal of this unit is to get students comfortable with competition, so that they can properly separate play from reality, and deal with competition at their future jobs.
Week 12 (4/2) Hearts
Game Synopsis: Hearts is a trick taking, standard deck playing card game, without trumps, which has been played popularly for generations and has many variations. The object is to avoid capturing hearts at one (1) point apiece and (in the most commonly played version today) the queen of spades, at thirteen (13) points, the card on which the whole game pivots. But to make it interesting, it is also possible to “shoot the moon,” taking all the hearts and the queen, a coup that gives 26 points to each of your opponents!
Mental Health Goal: Separating frustration and “mean” play within a game from the reality outside of the game.
Focus for Review: Did you ever feel targeted or attacked during the game? How did you react? What would you do in a social situation where you became angry because of the game being played? What’s a good way to avoid getting in this kind of situation in the first place?
Week 13 (4/9), Part 1 Zombie Dice
Game Synopsis: You are a zombie. You want braaains. More brains than any of your zombie buddies. Zombie Dice is fast and easy for any zombie fan (or the whole zombie family). The 13 custom dice are your victims. Push your luck to eat their brains, but stop rolling before the shotgun blasts end your turn! Two or more can play. Each game takes 10 to 20 minutes, and can be taught in a single round.
Mental Health Goal: Learning firsthand the risks of “gambler’s logic.”
Focus for Review: Did you ever get greedy while rolling, and refuse to stop? If it paid off, did you begin to think that that is “okay” to always do? If you busted after being greedy, how did that make you feel? How do the experiences you had during the game apply to real-life gambling?
Week 13 (4/9), Part 2 For Sale
Game Synopsis: Bid and bluff your way to purchase the most valuable real estate for the lowest amount of money. Then turn around and sell those houses (and shacks) for cold hard cash. Be the richest mogul at the end of the game to win this Stefan Dorra classic. Considered one of the finest bidding games of all time, For Sale has a devoted following of fans that is about to grow much, much larger.
Mental Health Goal: Learning when to back down from a “fight.”
Focus for Review: You see it quite often in television and movies – someone is angry about being overbid and won’t back down from an auction. Did this happen in your games? Did you feel the urge to overpay for a property because someone outbid you? How do you calm yourself down and convince yourself to walk away? How can this be applied to real life?
Week 14 (4/16) Bohnanza
Game Synopsis: This great card game is about planting, trading, and selling beans – 11 kinds of beans! Players try to collect large sets of beans to sell for gold. There is limited growing space and always new beans to plant. To avoid planting unwanted beans, players trade them to other players who want them for their bean fields
Mental Health Goal: Balancing cooperation with competition.
Focus for Review: How often did you trade or donate within the game? How shrewd were you and the other players? How did cooperating and trading work into your strategy and/or the strategy of the winners? How important was the emotional metagame (the game outside the game)? What kinds of situations in real life require you to cooperate with your competitors?
COMBINING ALL 4 UNITS
Week 15 (4/23) The Resistance
Game Synopsis: The Resistance is a very intense social deduction game for 5-10 players. While it shares similarities with games like Werewolf,Mafia and even Battlestar Galactica, it has many very unique features such as a quick 30 minute play time, no moderator required and no player elimination.
Mental Health Goal: Learning how to read people’s tells, and to recover from misguided trust.
Focus for Review: Were you loyal or a spy? How did this affect your actions? What did you do to figure out whom to trust, or to trick people into trusting you? What verbal and nonverbal clues did you use? How did you and the other players react when the truth was revealed? Was anyone upset? Were you able to pretend to know things, or otherwise make use of your partial information? How could you apply what happened in the game to real-life situations?