Tabletop and card games in the classroom

The theme for our first meetup for 2018 was “tabletop and card games in the classroom”. Our mission was to share (and play!) a whole range of different games, and talk about how we could play and hack these in the classroom.

A few of us brought some games to show and tell, but the true hero of the event was experienced game-using teacher Chris, who brought two bags chock full of games that we were itching to grab and play.

All the games we had in the room!
A pile of games waiting to be played

We had a wonderful mix of enthusiatic meet-uppers. This included primary, intermediate and secondary teachers, some game designers, a researcher, someone who works in cyber securities, and a visitor from the San Francisco Bay Area who has worked a bit in educational policy and tech sector reporting. We also had one other crucial ingredient: coffee! (Thanks to Jessie and Hīnātore|Learning Lab at Te Papa for hosting us in such a wonderful space).

After a brief introduction round we jumped right into play mode.

I showed a few people how to play Gut Check, the microbiome game. It’s a really fun card/board game where players try to build a healthy gut microbiome (to gain health) while trying to make other players sick by swapping pathogens or playing wisely or recklessly with antibiotics, etc. The game is a little complex (though not as complex as a real gut microbiome) but our players could quickly see  relevant learning leaping out of the game, including understanding the problems of antibiotic resistance, and how some pathogens could turn from “beneficial” to “harmful” or vice versa depending on other conditions, infections, dietary factors, etc. They also had some great ideas about how you might “hack” or simplify the game to help beginners grasp some of the ideas they might need to explore first before tackling the whole game.

Gut Check: The Microbiome Game

Science teacher and game fan Tony was really excited about how the game could be used with his senior bio students, and also made the best exclamation of the meetup “It’s just that I have leprosy!”

Tony showing his leprosy (mycobacterium leprae) card

Meanwhile Diana-Grace had a precious copy of kuputupu, a prototype word game where players use word tiles to spell words in te reo Māori. The game was devised locally at Taita Library and it was neat to see players consulting the Māori dictionary to discover new words as well as using kupu they already knew.

Kuputupu in play

At another table, players were diving into the tabletop version of Space Team. This was a revelation to some of us who only knew about the digital version of the game! Both versions are great for learning how to communicate under pressure and are also pretty hilarious.

Space Team in play
A dynamic moment playing Space Team!

A few people had a lovely time playing Möbi, a game that was described as “like bananagrams but with equations”. This was another game I’d not seen before but is apparently fairly easy to find in shops. (Just look for the cute whale pouch!)

Möbi in play

After playing these and other games in a fast and furious hour or so, we wrapped up with a discussion about what people were excited about or had learned through the games, and how they might use (or hack) them with students or people in any learning situation (including adults learning in the workplace). It was great to hear the range of ideas, and especially to hear from the game-using teachers who have already done a lot of gaming and game design in their own schools and classrooms.

One big topic that came up was how to get past the steep learning curve that some games require to get started. What do you do when “you hate to read game instructions” or “the instructions are terrible”. People suggested several ways around this, including:

  • hacking games down to a few elements that you could “play with” first, to scaffold you into the full game. (E.g just explore a few cards and see what they can do)
  • looking for youtube video tutorials – there are tonnes out there!
  • throwing out the rules and instead “figuring out” by playing, or making up your own way to play
  • finding the person in your group/class who LOVES reading the rules (or already knows them), and having them teach you or walk you through the game play.

We also talked about how to support students to go from game players to game designers, and how tools like our Gameful Praxis Cards can be used to extend student’s critical thinking about games and game mechanics, and aid them in thinking about designing their own games.

Gameful Praxis cards

Before we knew it we’d reached midday and the end of our meetup. My big takeaway for the day was: we need more time to play more games! (A few people mentioned some of Wellington’s board game cafes and the wonderful Wellycon gaming weekend.

Some of us were keen to try getting together again in cafes to play some of these games again, or to try ones we missed out on. Dan and I did exactly that, catching lunch at a nearby cafe where we played my favourite game Concept, and brainstormed heaps of ideas for continuing to bring more games and game design into schools and classrooms all over Aotearoa.

Did you miss out on this Meetup? 

Oh dear, how sad for you! Make sure to join the Gameful Praxis meetup group to be notified about our next events. We are planning to do at least one meetup per school term this year, and maybe more if there is interest! If you are keen to host or facilitate a session that fits into our Gameful Praxis “ethos”, please get in touch.


“What’s in a game?”: The first Gameful Praxis card deck

Almost a year ago the Gameful Praxis crew created our first prototype card deck called “What’s in a game?”. We’ve been using this deck in lots of our game design workshops, and we are happy to share it. Here’s the link to the downloadable pdf if you want to print out your own set!

Here’s how they look printed in colour, cut up, and laminated. (Mmm… laminated….)

Here are some notes on what you can do with them. These are just a few suggestions to get you started and you may find lots of other creative ways to use them to stimulate thinking, discussion, and design relating to games.

Our dream is for these cards to evolve and grow through use, experimentation, and iteration, which is why gave them a Creative Commons license. (Who knows – we may even add further expansion packs to the original deck…watch this space!)

The backstory to the cards

The deck was invented in my living room one weekend in 2016 as Leanne, Diana-Grace, Dan, and I were planning for a half-day workshop we were going to be running with teachers at the ULearn conference. The workshop was an iteration on a process that Dan and I had developed and run  for the first time in 2015. The workshop was (and still is) designed to inspire teachers to dip their toes into thinking like a game designer, and seeing how game design thinking and processes can be relevant for the  classroom curriculum.

It seemed to have gone pretty well the first time around in 2015. We were especially excited that we’d inspired Leanne, one of the workshop participants, to take the game design process back into her classroom the following week with exciting results. Even better, Leanne was now part of our Gameful Praxis team and, along with Diana-Grace, would be co-facilitating the workshop with us. With new facilitators in the mix, it was time to update and refresh the workshop and think about how to make it even better.

Iteration, iteration, iteration…

Like good game designers, we were reflecting on what had worked well in the first workshop, and what could be improved in our next iteration. At the core of the workshop is a group-based design challenge, where participants are supported to “gamestorm” a concept for a game for a particular “client”, and then at the end of the session pitch their game idea to the room for some rapid feedback and suggestions for improvement. In getting to the game idea and concept, we support participants to unpack what they already know (and sometimes don’t even realise they know) about games, and to pick apart how different features and attributes of games can be used to design engaging and powerful learning opportunities and experiences for their imaginary “client”.

In the early days of the workshop, we noticed some participants seemed to struggle a bit in the part of the workshop where we were starting to explore different game mechanics and think about what kind of game (or game features) they could incorporate into their own concept design. We’d tried using a very well-known game design card deck, Jesse Schell’s Art of Game Design 100 lenses. This is a fantastic resource that helps game designers to consider various ways to tweak, improve, and enhance their game design. But the deck proved to be a little bit too advanced for people who might be taking their very first steps into game design.  I get it. People in our workshops often feel like they don’t really know much about games (even though we as facilitators know that they actually probably know much more about games than they realise!). I’ve asked lots of rooms full of educators to raise their hands if they consider themselves a gamer, and most of the time less than 10% raise their hand. I’ve asked those same groups if they know what it means when we talk about “game mechanics”. For many, this is an unfamiliar term.

We needed an easier way to get people started in dissecting and unpacking the features of different kinds of games. This is how the “What’s in a game?” card deck was born. We wanted a simple, plain-language card deck that could help people quickly latch onto the huge breadth of possibilities that games can offer. The card deck contains 30 words or phrases that describe different things that different sorts of games can be and do in terms of the player’s experience. (You might notice that many of them could also apply to other media too such as books, films, and television). Without getting bogged down in the complexities of game mechanics, the cards help people to think about games they may already know, and to think about all the different sorts of experiences that various games can offer. The cards can be used to play games – like “guess the game”, and they can be used to help in the design of games, as designers think about what kind of game experience they want their player to have.

Between the four of us, we’ve now run this workshop – or variations of it – dozens of times, with different groups including:

  • Practicing teachers and school leaders
  • Primary school students
  • Secondary school students
  • Pre-service teachers
  • Mixed groups

The cards are an optional part of our process, but I think they’re a really useful tool.  We’re always exploring different ways to remix the process, including experimenting with different ways to use this card deck.  A few months ago I even had participants play with integrating these cards with NZCER’s new Key Competencies curriculum design deck. 

We’ve heard rumours that there are teachers and students out there riffing off the original deck and creating their own cards and ways to use them. We’d love to hear your ideas about how to continue to expand the usefulness of the “What’s In A Game” Cards!