Can You Use Board Games to Teach and Communicate Science?

There are multiple ways of communicating science to the general public, as well educating people (both children and adults) about scientific concepts and processes. While many people think of your standard teaching and home experiment routes (and in the COVID-19 era, online learning) as ways of learning about science, there is one way that often flies under the radar but is a fun and interesting way of learning science.

The answer: board games. Now, the rise of using science to educate within board games is relatively new (within the last decade or so), and as someone who is a scientist by trade (science writer now), a board game enthusiast and a parent, I can say that board games are an excellent way to learn about science. Obviously, they have to fun otherwise they may seem ‘too educational’, but luckily there are now a wide range of games that bridge the gap between fun and informative.

Fig. 1 – A Stack of some of the different science-themed board games out there at the moment.

Now, many board games teach logical thinking, decision making and strategic analysis skills, but there has been a rise in games which actually teach core scientific concepts, whether this is the internal process of the cell, balancing ionic charges to build molecules, building atoms from sub-atomic particles, to building the strongest virus in an attempt to destroy human tracts before the white blood cells (and immune system) wipe you out.

The ability to provide a fun way of learning is instrumental for and educational tool to be a success. Now these games don’t necessarily need to be educational, as you might want to play it for the gameplay, but the ability for people (especially children) to play them over and over again enables the science to become ingrained in an organic way.

Sounds fun doesn’t it? Now, each of the examples here are from different games, as most science-themed games focus in one (or a few similar) area(s). This is the first article in a science board game themed series that will span 2021, and in each I’m going to go into (what I think are) some of the best science games on the market today.

Obviously, any comments within these articles are my personal opinions (based on my experiences) and are subjective, and all gamers have different likes and perspectives on games. Hopefully, this series will give you some good insights into the types of board games out there and will have a good understanding of what you (and your children/students/friends) can learn from these games. To do this, I’ll be giving a scientist’s, board gamer’s and parent’s perspective on each of the games (much like below).

Scientist’s Perspective

As someone with a heavy science background (chemistry, chemical engineering and nanotechnology), I can vouch that games I’m going to talk about in this blog series are scientifically sound. Not only that, but many of them also get them across the points in ways that you can start to understand how the science actually works, and if you’re not sure in some of the bigger (more scientifically complex) games then they have accompanying information sheets that go into more detail about the real-world science behind the game.

I’m not going to delve here into the science of each game, as I’m going to save that for each individual game, but you could learn things from building organic molecules, to understanding ways of facilitating a greener world, to which amino acids are used to build proteins, to the different underlying trends of the periodic table, and even how the Earth developed in its early years.

Fig. 2 – Choices, choices. Do I synthesise the protein hormone via the rough endoplasmic reticulum, or do I go for the steroid hormone via the smooth endoplasmic reticulum? [Game: Cystosis]

Board Gamer’s Perspective

Now, these games wouldn’t be great if they weren’t fun and streamlined. Now, I’m not saying that all the science games out there are going to be great (you get good and bad games in every genre) but I’ve found a lot of the games to mechanically sound and streamlined. Most of the ‘heavier’ science-based games are done by Genius Games and are very good games mechanically, as well as being excellent at educating on scientific concepts. I have played games by other companies and they are also great, but Genius Games has the most science-themed games on the market (and specialise in it), hence they get a notable mention for the work they have put into this area.

Each of the game’s mechanics, and how they play, will also be detailed in each article in this series, but a wide range of game mechanics are used across the science-themed games. As a gamer, a range of mechanics and game types helps to keep things interesting and many of the games in this series have a high replayability—which means that you can play them over and over again and get to better grips with the scientific content within them.

In terms of specific mechanics, the games in this series feature everything from deck builders, to set collection games, worker placement, bidding and bluffing mechanics, tableu builders, and many more in between. For those among you who are competitive, there are a number which involved being against your opponent, but for those who like to work together, this series also features some cooperative board games (as well as some that can be played as either).

Fig. 3- Is it ethanamine or could it be dimethylamine? The isomerism clue will hopefully tell me if I have it right or not before I choose to use one of my guesses. [Game: Covalence]

Parent’s Perspective

Now, if you’re not necessarily an avid board gamer, but are reading this from more of an educational perspective, then you’ll obviously be more interested in this section of each article. Now, each game will teach you, your child, or whoever you are playing it with, different scientific concepts. Sometimes these are broad, sometimes these are more niche.

For example, Covalence, Ion and Periodic are all chemistry-themed games, but Periodic introduces the different trends within the periodic table and where the different elements are used in real-life, Ion shows you how to balance ionic charges (by using their oxidation states as a guide) to create molecules, whereas covalence is about using clues to build organic (carbon-based) molecules and deducing whether you have interpreted the structure correctly.

In each of the articles, I’ll give my parental perspective on each one into the learning potential that each game provides. Again, this will be subjective based around my experience but will hopefully provide an insight. As an overarching conclusion, I can safely say that my child now knows a lot more scientific concepts (and understands them well, not just regurgitating information) than he would otherwise do if we hadn’t played these games. Moreover, he now knows and understands scientific concepts well beyond his years, so if anyone has any children who are eager to learn about science in a fun way, then board games present you with an incredible opportunity to do so.

Because games are something that you can play over and over again, the terminology and concepts are repeated, leading to a deeper understanding of each area for everyone involved. They say you need to read/implement things multiple times to learn them deeply and board games offers you a fun way to do these ‘repetitions’. So, from a parent’s perspective, I’d wholly recommend board games as an educational tool to introduce concepts, terminology and different scientific areas (especially if your children like games) and I’ll dig more into my parental perspectives of each game in the next articles—as some are more scientifically complex than others.

Fig. 4- I think I’m going to use the Ribosome to transcribe my amino acid (Valine) on to the peptide chain as I have the right RNA bases. [Game: Peptide]

Concluding Remarks

This is just an introduction to the series that is going to be coming and I will be going more into the specifics of each game individually, as well as what you could expect to learn from each one. If you’d like any recommendations (whether it’s for Christmas or at any point in the year), feel free to get in touch with me on LinkedIn.

If you’re happy to wait and see what each game is about and whether it’s something you’d be interested in, then I’ll be publishing one article each month here on the GlamSci Blog—with each article based around a different game—so keep an eye out, and hopefully you’ll also be able to enjoy learning science through board games.

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