A board game project can involve many great skills, from coding to art, from construction to game design. Teamwork, communication, creativity, and collaboration are key to a successful group project. This is also a great opportunity to integrate with a curricular tie-in to the content of virtually any subject--whether it’s language study or history or science or literature. Students with varied interests can team up to design and play in meaningful ways.
In this post I’ll share some ideas for students creating board games. My examples will incorporate 2D and 3D Tinkercad designs as well as ideas and resources for using the micro:bit, the Circuit Playground Express, a Makey Makey, MakeCode, and Scratch; however, you can mix and match any of these tools, other tools and other crafting techniques.
Go forward and back
Most games involve ways to move forward, or even backward. A traditional set of dice will do the trick (3D printed?), but this is a fun place to involve some coding. A micro:bit, Scratch, or Circuit Playground Express (CPX) can be coded to display a random number in a range of numbers. The micro:bit or CPX can also drive a servo to work as a spinner (see video below).
With coding, we can extend the dice's usefulness. For example, the Adafruit CPX could have its ten neopixels light up a random number of lights that are usually green, indicating move ahead, but sometimes orange, meaning move back. Perhaps another case is that red means you lose your turn. Now we can talk with students about variables, elif logic, and probability. (See more ideas for tech below.)
The variable "Initial Pick" determines if the player will go forward with green, backward with orange, or lose a turn with red. The variable "Second Pick" acts like dice would, picking a random 1-10 number to go forward or back. View the MakeCode program here.
Students can create custom game pieces for 3D printing or 2D laser cutting with Tinkercad, or else by other means. Here are some videos with techniques you might use. If you’re using a Makey Makey board, a little copper tape will turn a game piece into an input.
Here are two techniques for designing pieces-swoopy ones with the Extrusion tool, and slot-to-fit pieces, that could also be laser cut.
This video guides you through a couple of techniques for using Tinkercad's 3D editor for designs that could be game pieces if sized correctly.
Types of games
Here I’ll give an overview of some ways of thinking about types of board games that your students might benefit from and enjoy. There are additional variations and approaches, but I’m hoping this might provide a place to start.
You have to love Candyland! This would be a great application of the CPX and MakeCode for younger students. You shake the CPX, a random color is displayed, and that’s the color you get to move to. Some spots could be question spots about a topic. Maybe they even serve as ladders to skip ahead. “What kind of adaptations do you think a woodpecker would need to have?” Get the right answer, climb the ladder (or tree!). Scratch or Scratch Jr. are other coding possibilities here.
Pro tip: specifying the max footprint area that the surface of the board game can occupy will make storing the games easier. Encourage teams to build upwards if they want more spaces and room for features.
|This servo-driven spinner rotates for a randomly-chosen number of seconds and is touch-activated. See the video below for more on the micro:bit integration.|
|This hexagon shape was printed in order to be traced to make positions on the board.|
|A model of Boston's Old South Meeting House sits next to a game piece.|
Ah, Monopoly. A source of both bonding and strife amongst families and friends for generations. In our version, players circle (or square) the board with their game pieces, and if they establish a monopoly, they get to collect something of value from other players. What will constitute a monopoly? Perhaps it’s if I get a swallow’s nest, an eagle’s nest, and a finch’s nest. And I get those by answering avian-related questions. Or, maybe my monopoly consists of four iconic buildings in Guadalajara, and I earn them by conjugating four tough irregular verbs.
This video looks at a prototype game board that incorporates various potential elements.
Cooperative games (co-ops) are, pun intended, game-changers. The concept is that players aren’t trying to beat each other but are cooperatively teaming up to, essentially, beat the game itself. (Gives a new meaning to the saying, “don’t hate the player, hate the game.”) This approach disrupts the go-it-alone paradigm and is, in some scenarios, more like real life. A successful family dynamic or business team has different people playing different roles but cooperating to achieve a common good from which all benefit.
With these game pieces, all players start with a 3D printed disc. Earn your four tokens to win the game!
If you’ve played co-op games like Magic Maze, Pandemic, Robinson Crusoe, Gloomhaven, Hanabi, Crew, Aeon’s End, Mice Mystics, The Captain is Dead, Forbidden Island, Photosynthesis, etc., then you already know this terrain. The players are fighting against time, dwindling resources, increasing problems, or a combination of these.
We think of a game like chess as being a player vs player game, which of course it is. But I’m reminded of the excellent tv show The Queen’s Gambit. [Spoiler alert!] In it, Beth Harmon achieves greatness only after doing what her Russian opponents do, which is actually work as a team, pooling talents and resources for a common, cooperative good. See my deep-dive example below.
An Example of a quiz Q and A program in Scratch
Here the Q and A quiz in action in Scratch. Click the start flag, then click your space bar. There are place-holder questions here. Students would create their own content based on their theme. Find the code here.
This video walks through how the code works for the touch-interactive quiz students can make using Scratch and a Makey Makey board.
Ideas for using technology
- 3D print game pieces, time-keeping tokens, representations of character goal items to be collected, or elements of the board itself (videos above, my playlist)
- Design features for laser cutting into the board.
- Design 2D game elements or even slot-fit game pieces
- Use the Circuits environment to code the micro:bit with blocks or in Python
- Program it as a die that’s “rolled” when shaken.
- Use it to record an element of the game (turns taken, acorns gathered)
- Create a direction spinner to dictate player movement
- Program a countdown timer for an event that sounds a buzzer
Circuit Playground Express
- The entry on game boards from my e-book on MakeCode with Adafruit CPX
- Program it as a die that determines movement, fortune
- Program it as a color picker to show good or bad fortune of some kind
- Create a countdown timer for an event that sounds a buzzer and displays a light show
- Add or subtract neopixel lights to indicate collecting or losing a needed commodity
Scratch and Makey Makey
- Scratch alone can serve as a die, timer, or record keeper of resources lost or gained
- Add a Makey Makey board to give Scratch a touch-interactive element
- Use this program to code quiz questions by coding using lists: My quiz question and answer Scratch code
- Makey Makey’s Getting Started with Scratch page
Deep Dive into a Co-op game example
Loving the player . . . in 1776’s “Missive Mission” game
In a co-op, the players are collaborating to achieve some kind of goal. They win or lose together. I’m going to give the scenario of a history-based game I’m imagining and have partially fleshed out.
The British occupied New York from 1776-1783. The Big Apple had a mix of loyalists and those that secretly supported the cause of the American patriots. Everyone, but especially the Americans, lived with various levels of scarcity under British control. In my game, the patriots are trying to smuggle a secret message--the missive--out to fellow patriots in Boston’s Old South Meeting House. Get the missive past the Red Coats and to Boston, and the players all win.
On my board, the (3D printed) wax-sealed missive advances or retreats along a column toward the goal. The team must advance the missive at least four spaces every 12 turns. In co-ops, different characters often have different strengths (like in, you know, real life). The trick is to design elements of the game that play to different strengths and that encourage people to help each other.
In my pretend game, here are some possible players and what they bring to the game. They each have five Skill Cards to play:
Cook: can delay a negative British action by preparing a meal that is too good to leave
Hairdresser: Can either delay a Loyalist action or advance a Patriot action by picking up on gossip
Victualler (grocer): Can sneak a Patriot in his delivery cart, advancing that person fives spaces (but it must always be five)
We could also make up skills for roles like Blacksmith, Weaver, Chandler, Coopersmith, Baker, etc.
Characters also might have ratings in several categories. The Hairdresser might have a low mobility rating but a high intelligence-gathering rating, whereas the stable hand might have the opposite ratings.
Hating the game
How is the game fighting back? Co-op games usually have a mechanism in which something fatal builds up, or else something vital runs out. In “Missive Mission,” the loss mechanism is failing to advance the missive by at least four squares every 12 player turns. (We could program a micro:bit, CPX, or Scratch to record turns taken, or else have 12 physical tokens that get added to a container.)
To advance the missive, we could have a spot on the board that allows whoever lands on it to move the missive one space. The trick is that you have to retreat outside an exclusion zone before landing on the spot again. This will encourage the players to cooperate in making sure the missive advances.
Other spots have something like draw a card features. This could be a literal card draw pile, or it could be something programmed in an environment like Scratch (see sample project video above). These cards offer some help but mostly put up hurdles. For my game, they might be either “Misfortune” or “Good Tidings” cards of different kinds, like, “Spend the night on a fire bucket brigade; lose a turn,” or else, “Happen upon secret intelligence; double a teammate’s dice roll in the next round.” Draw cards could also offer a resource for later use: “Find a sack of flour. Keep on hand to spend during the next shortage.”
We can connect curriculum to the game through the content of this physical or digital draw pile. In my prototype board, I have “hot spot” locations connected to a Makey Makey board. Touch one, and it triggers a program in Scratch to ask a randomly-picked question. The right answer could advance the missive while a wrong answer results in a penalty of some kind.
Other imagined curricular connections:
- Ecosystem--animals are trying to survive in it, or maybe aliens are trying to navigate it
- Historical or literary setting or topic
- Language--grammar, vocabulary, culture, oral ability
- Math--a polygon escape room?