Middle School Students Design Board Games to Explore History

By Mr. Alex Griffiths, Middle School Social Studies Teacher

This past fall semester, seventh graders at MVA learned about Europeans exploring other continents, ending the semester with how England came to control land in North America between the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Ocean after the French and Indian War. All seventh graders worked in small groups on a semester-long social studies project, taking their knowledge of this time period to create a tabletop game prototype.

The goal of the project was learning about and through game design, perhaps making a game that some students might consider marketing to educators, game companies, and/or the general public in the future. That’s what high school biology teacher Matt Montrose eventually did in creating his Ecologies card game about the natural world. And, don’t forget Gimkit, the online game that was started as a school project and created by then teenager Josh Feinsilber. And, if you think that middle schoolers can’t be entrepreneurs, fellow Floridian and founder and CEO of Gladiator Lacrosse, Rachel Zeitz, started her sports equipment company at age 13.

Granted, there are already some tabletop games that have been made for the French and Indian War time period as well as later time periods in United States history. Three examples are 1754: Conquest – The French and Indian War, 1775: Rebellion, and 1812: The Invasion of Canada. And other games have even been inspired by earlier historical events that impacted medieval European life and later European exploration. For example, Viking raids and settlements inspired two popular games today — Catan and Raiders of the North Sea. While those were based on historical events, other board games are sometimes based on current events. One of them is Matthew Leacock’s 2008 Pandemic cooperative board game series, which was inspired in part by the real-life SARS outbreak from a few years earlier. A 2015 reimplementation of the game — Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 — is currently ranked in the top five on the BoardGameGeek (BGG) website. More recently, in 2020, a group of sisters from Germany created a board game inspired by the recent COVID pandemic — Corona. 

To prepare for creating their own games, MVA students learned about different game mechanics through lessons and through playing games. Some of the games students played included Catan, Cover Your Assets, Ecologies, Forbidden Island, Gnoming A Round, Hoot Owl Hoot, Memoarrr! Nuts about Mutts, Raiders of the North Sea, Risk, and Uno. These games provided students with opportunities to learned about area control, hand management, set collection, worker placement, and various other game mechanics.

This past January, seventh graders at MVA had opportunities to play their own student-designed games, which were inspired by the bubonic plague (Plague Party), Columbus’s journey to the Americas (The Hunt of Columbus), the diffusion of sugarcane production to the Americas (Sugar Rush), the French and Indian War (The Merchants of the Atlantic: Invest, Invade, Improve), and much more. This semester, some MVA students might take the opportunity to improve their game design for their end-of-the-year capstone project, and who knows? bring it to market someday soon.