Classic word-building games like Scrabble and Boggle might seem like they offer great educational value, but they actually do little to enhance one’s vocabulary beyond a certain highly specified world pool. Any Scrabble player worth her salt knows the high-scoring and efficient qi, but how many can explain its meaning–or even care? (It’s a variant spelling of ki or chi, the invisible energy that flows through all things.) A better option is often sentence-building games, in which players are given preassembled words and challenged to put them into context.
The options here are many and varied. For a light party game with a rich vocab-building payoff, try Roots from Predicate Group (the nerdiest name possible for an arts and design collective?). Wordwright, now funding on Kickstarter, starts from the same design space–assemble words from word parts, with their meaning included–but proceeds in a less social, more puzzle-oriented direction. (I also find its selection of word parts a little more flexible and generally applicable.) Finally, Timothy Fowers’ Paperback is exactly the kind of build-a-word game I decried earlier, but in a less restrictive format that rewards the acquisition of a wide vocabulary. It’s also all mixed up in a deck-building card game, adding layers of strategy beyond a simple spelling bee.
For an exercise in creative storytelling, look for Out of the Box Publishing’s Snake Oil, which challenges players to market a product based on the happy conjunction of two unrelated words. There’s also Atlas Games’ timeless Once Upon a Time, a card game that has players crafting a collaborative tale while trying to shoehorn in (or force another player to) one of the words in their hand of cards. While it doesn’t have a specific game attached to it, I can personally recommend Button Shy Games’ Storyteller Cards as an indispensable tool to jog the imagination or create constrained writing challenges.
Silent storytelling in the style of Pictionary or Charades works just as well, though there’s no reason to waste money on prepackaged versions of these classic parlor games. For a devilishly mind-straining take on Pictionary, have a look at Pictomania from Czech Games Edition and designer Vlaada Chvátil. Or, for a Charades alternative, check out Monikers, which begins as a Taboo-like guessing game then devolves over three rounds into silent theater. Finally, the aforementioned Czech game designer’s Codenames is a new twist on the familiar Taboo: using only a single-word clue, you must somehow get your teammates to guess the words you want while avoiding the ones you don’t. If all else fails, I’ve never been disappointed by a game of Balderdash or its idiomatic cousin, Wise and Otherwise.
Tabletop Games Curriculum
I can’t overstate my central thesis that all games, electronic or analog, have educational merit; however, here is a short list of tabletop games, by subject, that I feel are particularly suited to supplement a K-12 curriculum. I’ve chosen to focus on tabletop games for a few reasons, foremost among which being that it’s an area that I currently find intellectually stimulating. Each content area will be released as a separate update.