When an individual states that they are a gamer, the first questions that comes to mind for most people include:
However, in recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in tabletop games thanks in large part to the development of Eurogames such as Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride and many others. These games tend to require a short period of time to play, contain lots of social interaction, use simple (and a wide variety of) game mechanics and lack player elimination during gameplay. And, unlike video games, tabletop games have a longer shelf life as they are not dependent on hardware that quickly becomes obsolete. You can still play tabletop games that originate from hundreds of years back but have great difficulty playing the popular console games from even just 10-20 years ago. In fact, tabletop games have grown so popular in recent years that many popular video games have been converted to the format. There are highly acclaimed tabletop versions of games like XCOM, Portal, Gears of War, Bioshock, Street Fighter and even World of Warcraft. And that is not to say they fall into the genre of roleplaying games.
One of the things a game designer needs to keep in mind when converting a digital title to tabletop format is how to keep the feel of the original game. This becomes an interesting balancing act for designers because the rules, procedures and mechanics need to be significantly simplified due to players officiating the game instead of a computer. But, it must still remind the player of the gameplay they experienced on a computer/console. For this post, I want to examine how this was recently accomplished with a classic game many will remember from their youth: The Oregon Trail.
For those who do not know, The Oregon Trail is a video game title produced in the early 1970s by a couple of student teachers and has often been used in schools since its creation. The game has continued being wildly popular since then with new releases coming every few years covering a variety of platforms (Macintosh, DOS, Windows, Wii, and 3DS) and as recently as 2012, when it was ported to the Windows phone platform. The Oregon Trail video game was designed to teach students about life in the 19th century as pioneers traveled by covered wagon along the Oregon trail from Independence, MO to the Williamette Valley along with the hardships they endured along the way. The goal of the game is simple: move your character to the Williamette Valley without being killed by starvation, disease or any other peril along the way. So, how did they measure up with the card game?
So, why/how do I use tabletop games in my classroom? By examining and creating tabletop games, young designers have to think critically about the various components that make up games including: objective, conflict, rules, procedures, resources, probability, and boundaries. And, there is often a faster turnaround time to create a board/card game as well as see problems with the overall design. Because students need to think about the limitations of people officiating their game instead of a computer doing it for their players, examining, playing and creating tabletop games forces them to think more critically about what will make their game fun for other people to play. If a game is too difficult or too easy, players will stop playing the game so it is important for young designers to grasp the concept/techniques of carefully balancing the components that make up all game formats.
So, the next time a friend says let's play a game and you see them pull out a box and dice, don't come up with an excuse to do something different or mock them because it's not on a computer/console. You just might learn something about design techniques and have fun along the way!
I am a high school Career & Technical Education (CTE) teacher located in Durham, NC with a focus on game art and design. This blog provides a place for reflection on relevant classroom practices.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent those of my employer or anyone else associated with Durham Public Schools.