Games That Teach – Axis & Allies and Short Term Planning

When talking about board games, games so old and still so loved as “Axis and Allies” are hard to find. With so many versions, updates, and house rules, defining the core that is “Axis and Allies” can be difficult at times. One of the core elements,though, is most definitely the controlling of factories to get points to build more units with. And while this mechanic (mechanism) might seem like it favors strategy and thinking over the long term, I’d argue that it really encourages planning in the short term, for your next turn and not for future turns.

The one I have isn't the greatest.

The one I have isn’t the greatest.

Let me try to explain before you scream at me for being wrong (or more likely just leave the page). The resources you get at the end of a turn will not be used until the beginning of your next turn or later. A player can save up for long periods of time but there is almost no point when you’re being punched in the face by you opponent’s pieces. The illusion of long-term consequences comes from this ability to save, but really the game is just about how many IPC’s (resources) a player can get at the end of this turn to have the most effective next turn. While a player deploys resources at the end of their turn, it still means that the maximum they are thinking is two turns ahead, and if they think farther than that (i.e. want a battleship or aircraft carrier, which are expensive) they are likely to get taken out by their opponent who didn’t do that and is fighting with superior strength.

This is also coupled with the fact that the ultimate goals of each side are placed only several spaces away, except for the United States, which is impossible to take and has to produce units and move them across an ocean to be effective (which is why they usually have China). Players don’t have the time to think about turns farther in the future because if they do they’ll be beaten by players who thought about the turn directly ahead.

Now I’m not going to say that this makes for a bad game, or an un-educational game. In fact, the game is quite fun and in certain cases even has the player going for historical objectives. I do think, though, that the idea of Axis and Allies being a grand strategy game is silly. It’s a tactical game on a strategic board, which in and of itself is quite a good way to teach people about proper resource uses in the short term. And saving a few IPCs each turn will lead to getting some more powerful units in the future if done right. I quite like the short-term resource management that Axis and Allies has. And I also like the fact that it has the realism of a series of tactical victories leading to a strategic victory. It definitely isn’t like chess where a series of tactical blunders could stumble you into a strategic success. I like games that reward short-term victories with long-term benefits, even if in some, if not most, will make you second-best to the person who thought through the whole game.

Really, though, “Axis and Allies” is just a good game for dice chucking and pretending to be some foreign super-power for a night with some friends. Even if it isn’t as deep as it looks, it still lasts for some time and holds one’s interest the whole way though (if the players like WWII.)

Games that Teach – BattleStar Galactica and Long Term Planning

Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game is, as of now (on BoardGameGeek) one of the greatest board games of all time. And it is definitely the most played in my gaming group, which may or may not be a good thing. It can be gamed, and it can be a little annoying, so we can get a just a little mad sometimes. But really, it’s just fun, it’s one of the most fun times I’ve had almost every time I play it.

But there is something about BSG that I just love, and it isn’t revealing you’re a Cylon on the first turn to game the system. (Though I’m not sure this is a problem in the base game, or that it’s even really a good idea. It hasn’t been when I’ve been playing) It is the planning, and the treason (okay, I like the treason and the intrigue that comes with it), but the planning.

The game requires one to envision the endgame when surviving the present situation seems unlikely. While one is dealing with the current enemy warships, skill checks, and entering enemy robots, they must also constantly be thinking about who is and who may be a traitor, and if you might become a traitor in the future.

While you’re spending all your cards now to stop a Cylon (evil robot) invasion of the ship, or prevent a food shortage, you must think about how far this ship will move, is it really worth it to give up all of your cards now? (Yes, yes it is) Now, usually the worst happens, but if one has experienced teammates’ it usually ends in human victory. But what if it doesn’t, what if your teammates’ actually a Cylon? What if you are a Cylon? As long as there is the possibility of someone becoming a Cylon you have to remember to not do “too” well to avoid later suspicion.

And while avoiding doing too well as a good guy because you might become evil isn’t a realistic scenario, it does apply to various aspects of everyday life. Like, should I sink all of my money and/or time into this project, what will it prevent me from doing in the future (being a good villain)? Will it make other things I want to do harder? Etc. And I believe that it has really positively affected me and the way I look at future scenarios. Not to say that I was bad at long-term planning in the past and now I’m magically good, but I do have a bit of different perspective to look at things from and assess the future by.

In the end BSG is just a fun game of intrigue, bad stuff happening, and betrayal (Okay, I promise it’s fun, that sounded better in my head). But it can give a little push in the right direction when it comes to long term planning. It is by no means perfect, and by no means a class where one can develop the skill, but it could easily help with the development. Which is all we can really ask of a board game. (And Treason, we can ask that, too.)

Games That Teach – Hive and Spatial Orientation

We’ve all played the classic abstract strategy games: chess, checkers and the like. But those are old games. In that last century board games became a family staple and became more colorful and extravagant. And in the last few decades they have advance tremendously in both fun and art design. The days of any new abstract strategy games coming out seemed to be over. Until, that is, Hive came out and opened up the genre again.

The Pieces of Hive
The Pieces of Hive

Hive has won tons of award and gotten some serious buzz (get it?). It’s an abstract that is even more abstracted because it doesn’t have a board. In theory it is played on an infinite grid of hexagons (which is how the game on the iOS and other devices is played) though this grid can only really be about 30 hexes in diameter because of the limitations of number of pieces.

It is also unique in the fact that it has no piece elimination. None of the pieces you play on the board can be eliminated. And you get to choose which pieces you put out first. The objective is to surround the enemy’s queen bee with six of any color piece. And it’s usually a very short game, the longest I’ve played being about ten minutes.

But in my opinion where hive really shines is in the spatial aspect. Each piece moves differently in the two dimensional plain. There are specific, but simple rules governing where you can and can’t move your pieces. It isn’t always obvious where your next move will be, and predicting your opponent’s move can be especially tricky.

Sample Game Unfinished
Sample Game Unfinished

Now I work with spatial things quite a lot, being a cartoonist and graphic designer. I also like to play chess a lot, though I’m not very good, which requires some spatial orientation. But even I can be baffled by Hive at times. It’s such a simple game, but it makes you think so hard, and that is what good games do. Of course you can play more casually as I and most people I play it with (they’re not very cerebral gamers, or even gamers) want to. But even then it’s still flexing your spatial brain muscle or whatever.

Now like, I said spatial resigning is only good in a handful of jobs (architect, graphic designer, artist) and this game really isn’t a teaching tool, it’s more of a practice thing. It helps you get in the zone for such things and it can really be quite relaxing in doing so. It’s one of those games where you marvel at how the other person won rather than being bitter about the fact that you lost. At least to me it is.

So if you already have one of the occupations I mentioned earlier, or are looking into one, try out Hive, it’s great and it can sometimes really help you and let you enjoy things you’ve learned. And you can brag to the people you beat about how your job actually gave you some skill.

Games that Teach – Tetris and Addiction Management

Tetris is an addiction. Of this there is no doubt in my mind. You just have to keep playing. It drives you to keep playing it. You can’t quit Tetris. But you must. Eventually everyone stops playing Tetris, even the best. Eventually you have to put the controller down. It’s when to put the controller down that Tetris helps with.

Some people don’t know when to stop. And Tetris is a way you can learn when to stop without any major consequences. I mean, you could end up playing Tetris all the time and doing nothing else, but that’s the case with almost any video game.

He saw the colors and was never heard from again.

He saw the colors and was never heard from again.

The real reason Tetris is so good is two reasons, really. First it has nothing that could be considered objectionable. It’s just organizing falling blocks. The second is that the game ends every ten minutes or so. Even if you’re super good, a game of more than 20 minutes is insane. The point is that the game ends, which gives you time to decide whether or not to continue.

Learning to quit earlier and earlier will teach you how to moderate and break your habit (and if you don’t, at least you get wicked awesome at Tetris). I know that’s not the most descriptive advise, but it is true. At least it works for some people. Even if you don’t quit, getting addicted to Tetris is one of the best addictions you can have, it won’t hurt your body directly and can probably improve your brain strength in some areas. And if you have friends they can always drink a beer and watch you play Tetris as your social activities.

Games That Teach – Pandemic and Articulation

Some games (even more recently) are cooperative and force players to work together against the game. It’s fairly obvious why this would be helpful. It teaches teamwork and cohesion and all that boring stuff they hammer into your brain at school. But what I want to talk about is how cooperative games, especially Pandemic, affect the way we talk.

pandemic cover

So in Pandemic you and your buddies are a team of researchers, scientists, doctors, and other people out to save the world from various diseases. You have to work together with your various skills to complete your task and ultimately save the world. It’s all a very noble game and is great to play with anyone as no one will object to the theme (I can just imagine someone who doesn’t want to save the world from disease screaming at you about something like a crazy person in a cop show).

To get all of this done requires a lot of communication. Now, I’m sure you have communicated with people before, possibly on a daily basis, but you never realize how vaguely you speak until you have a goal to accomplish with other people. I have made a conscious effort to make my speech more concise since I was at a job parking cars and had no idea what to do because of poor instruction. I would only realize several years later how well cooperative board games help with this.

First you have to make a plan.  This involves critical thinking skills which this game also helps build. Then you have to figure out everyone’s role in the plan and if they could be doing anything more productive. Then you have to communicate this plan to the other players. The plan must be well dictated so as to not confuse the the players and to allow them to also think about what would be the best thing to do. Since all of the moves in the game are fairly similar you have to be clear about which moves to make when. And since you can’t show the other players your hand of cards you must make sure they know exactly how many cards you have of what type. You don’t want to make a mistake and end up with a plan that is unelectable because of some miscommunication.

The skill to speak clearly and be understood is a great one to have. It is not necessarily a skill with any applied purpose but it is just useful. Like being able to walk doesn’t qualify you for a lot of positions, but it helps. Pandemic and other cooperative games will help you improve your coordination, leadership, critical thinking, and articulation skills. On top of all that, it’s fun. After playing several games I definitely feel like I can more clearly explain my plan to someone else or give orders in a workplace. To speak clearly and articulate concisely is a very useful skill and if you want to learn while having fun, there is almost no better way than with Pandemic.