Friday, December 09, 2005

Educational Gaming

Games have always been good educational tools. I have fond memories of playing Chess, Checkers, and other strategy games back in grade school. I also have less than fond memories of playing tired worn-out chestnuts like Concentration, Battleship, Life and other roll-and-move style games. These days games have been undergoing a bit of a renaissance, and today's games are quite a bit better than most of the games you and I remember from our childhood. Here's a very brief history of what's been going on over the last few decades to bring you up to speed.

In the 70s, American board games were mostly boring. Monopoly was king and while Monopoly can be a good game when played by the correct rules, no one ever seems to know or use the correct rules. Most popular games were simple roll and move affairs like Life, Candyland, Payday, etc. Card games were usually variants of old standards: Old Maid variants, Slap Jack variants, Crazy Eights variants like Uno, and so on. While wholesome families got tired of playing boring games and turned on their televisions, old men and college students gathered on weekends to reenact famous battles with complicated strategy war games from companies like Avalon Hill and SGI.

In the 80s, Americans became enamored with party games and trivia games. Party games like Oodles and Pictionary became wildly popular and of course Trivial Pursuit spawned a whole army of knock-offs trying to capitalize on its simple formula for success. Meanwhile, poorly groomed misfit teens (count me among them) gathered in back rooms and basements to play Dungeons and Dragons and a long list of similar role playing games.

In the 90s a man named Richard Garfield invented Magic the Gathering and along with it the genre of the collectible card game (or CCG). For many, this sparked a new interest in gaming but parents everywhere groaned as their children's lunch money was devoured by the insatiable CCG monster. Say what you will about Magic, Pokemon and the like, they were fun to play and they breathed new life into the gaming industry. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, a revolution was quietly taking place. In 1995, a German dentist named Klaus Teuber invented a game that would change gaming forever. That game was Settlers of Catan and it was the vanguard of what would become a full-scale German invasion. Settlers of Catan wasn't the first of what would soon be called "German Style Games" or "Designer Games" but it was the first to really catch on in a big way and it continues to serve as a fine introduction to today's popular family strategy games.

So what does all of this have to do with education? Well, it means that there are now a lot of new and exciting games that you can use to help spice up your child's education! It means that for just about any subject you might be interested in, you can find a smart, high-quality game that you will probably enjoy playing just as much as your kids will. Gone are the days when educational games had to mean flash-cards, Concentration, or highly-derivative roll-and-move trivia games. In the following paragraphs I'll try and list just a few suggestions to get you started. Note that none of these games are actually designed and marketed as educational games; these are all games that are produced because they are fun to play and it's only coincidental that they happen to have some educational value. There's more where this came from, a lot more, so please feel free to send me an email if you'd like to know more.

Children's Games

Lets start with the younger crowd. Games for youngsters are tough because if it's simple enough for a five-year-old, it's probably too simple for you to enjoy. On the other hand, almost any children's game will help teach the basics of reading, counting and colors without even trying. Add in a little strategy and logic and your kid's got a leg up on the average student. Chicken Cha Cha Cha is a great memory game with bright colors. Buggo is also an excellent memory game and it's good for very young counters. Spooky Stairs tests counting, colors and memory. Go a little older, perhaps six or seven, and you're ready for Igloo Pop, a delightful little game that has players trying to guess how many beads are inside each plastic igloo. And my favorite children's game of all time is Enchanted Forest, which exercises memory, simple counting skills, a poker face and a little bit of strategy. Any of these games will be fun for parents as well as for kids.

With children older than eight or ten, the world opens up considerably. By then, children have begun to study specialized subjects and they've moved beyond counting, colors and basic logic. Now you can introduce games that take longer than fifteen minutes to play and that are more likely to hold your attention as well. This is where the fun begins. For the rest of this article let's group the games by specific subjects.


Almost any game can strengthen basic math skills since almost every game requires some sort of scoring but some are stronger than others. One of the better games for simple multiplication and addition is Take it Easy. This game is part math puzzle, part strategy game. SET is a classic game which is good for reinforcing set theory.


Everyone is familiar with Scrabble but another good spelling game is BuyWord, a game where players buy letters from the bank, rearrange them into words, and sell them back for a price that's based on word length. Another game you might try is Word Jam, a card game where people try to come up with words that make use of a set of letters. And Quiddler is yet another fun game where players use letter cards to form words.


Apples to Apples is a great party game where players match adjectives and nouns with hilarious consequences. Shakespeare: the Bard Game, is a very nice strategy game that's just loaded with Shakespearean quotes and trivia and yet it's not really a trivia game and one doesn't have to be an expert on Shakespeare to enjoy this game.


Almost any game with a map can be used to introduce geography. 10 Days in the USA is particularly good for learning the 50 States. Its cousin 10 Days in Africa is just as good for African geography. Ticket to Ride is also good for US geography and it happens to be one of the very best family strategy games there is. For global geography you might try a global war game such as Attack or Axis & Allies.


One of the most overlooked subjects in today's schools is economics and yet it's one of the most useful skills there is. One could argue that a good grasp of economics, supply and demand, how money works and what it's good for can do more to ensure a person's future than any other discipline. One of the best economic games out there is Power Grid, a game about building power plants and supplying electricity to cities (either US or German depending on which side of the board you use). Power Grid is a moderately difficult game and probably not a good choice for players under twelve. Modern Art is an excellent auction game about buying and selling paintings at auction and trying to manipulate the economy so as to maximize profits. And if you're looking for a real gamer's game with a deliciously brutal economy, try Age of Steam. It's one of my very favorite games but it's a bit long and new players could find it a little difficult to play.

Logic, Strategy & Tactics

This is another category where almost any game will do. If you're looking for a pure abstract strategy game, try one of the games from the Project GIPF series of games. These are pure two-player abstract strategy games, similar to Chess but very fresh. If you're looking for something that might reinforce computer programming skills, try RoboRally, a frantic madcap programming race that has laser-equipped robots racing and battling one another on a wacky warehouse floor. Working on spatial relationships or abstract planning? Try Ricochet Robots or Blokus.

Biology, Food Chain

Primordial Soup is a very unique game about (of all things) cellular reproduction and genetic transfer. Frank's Zoo is a clever trick-taking card game where cards represent animals and they are ranked by their standing in the food web: this is a game of who eats who.


Of all the educational game categories, this one is perhaps the most wide open. History encompasses such a vast range of subjects and most games are set in some historical setting so pick your time period and you're almost bound to find an appropriate game. If you want to delve into medieval European history you're in particularly good luck because it seems that 2 out of 3 designer games have a medieval theme. For instance, Shadow of the Emperor is a great game about medieval European politics. Louis XIV is an excellent game set in the court of the Sun King. For a good game about ancient civilizations around the Mediterranean Sea, try Mare Nostrum. Struggle of Empires is an excellent game about empire building and global conflict in the centuries after the discovery of the New World. For World War II history, particularly the battles surrounding D-Day, I'd recommend Memoir '44, an excellent light war game with scenarios taken from real battles that took place during the liberation of Europe.

Hopefully you've found something in this article to start you thinking. If you'd like to know more about any of these games I'd encourage you to look up their entries on, the best gaming resource on the web. None of these games will take the place of a lesson, but each of them could be used to spark an interest or reinforce a concept. Most importantly, each of these games is very fun and likely to provide hours of "wholesome recreational activities" for you and your family. And really, that's what gaming is all about!

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