Top Of The Table – Seven Stellar Games That Actually Teach

The educational game scene likely deserves some of the criticism that gets leveled its way. Taking a bunch of facts and jamming them into a tired trivia or card game format isn’t good game design, and whether your potential players are kids or adults, they’re sure to see through the ruse. Fortunately, recent years have seen a surge of excellent releases that treat educational elements like any other potential theme, and build a great design around that concept. 

If you’re a teacher or parent, the games below are ideal for young people who learn best with supplementary game experiences. But in choosing the titles to select for this article, I’ve also tried hard to only include games that I’d happily recommend to any adult gaming group as well – stuff that is fun enough to come out on any game night. 

I’ve also steered away from the wealth of clever releases that teach in an abstract way about strategic thinking, logic, or critical thinking; while those skills are eminently valuable to anyone, the focus here is on games with discrete subject themes like math or history.

Photosynthesis
Publisher: Blue Orange Games
Recommended age: 8+
Applicable subjects: Ecology, Life Science, Environmentalism

Selected as one of our best tabletop games of 2017, Photosynthesis is a phenomenal game about growing a forest. Two to four players each take on the role of a specific type of tree, like blue spruce or oak. Small trees can grow into towering behemoths that cast shadows across the rest of the forest. The unique hook is the ever-moving sun, represented by a game piece that rotates around the board to communicate the passing seasons, demanding that you consider how shade is cast from multiple perspectives over time. The growing table tableau is beautiful, filled with multi-colored cardboard trees of various sizes, each competing for light and life.

Players learn the principles about how plants use light to grow, the ways trees compete for placement in a crowded canopy, and showcases how a tree’s completed life cycle makes way for new life. The game also offers remarkably challenging tactical dilemmas, as tree placement must be considered from multiple perspectives simultaneously. 

Timeline
Publisher: Asmodee
Recommended age: 10+
Applicable subjects: History, Cultural Studies

Proving that you probably know less than you think about the order that important historical moments happened, the aptly named Timeline challenges players to put major benchmarks in order. Every player has a hand of cards with specific instances to consider. It’s easy enough to know whether the domestication of sheep happened before the first 45 rpm record. But how about the invention of the pull-tab can or the typewriter? Timeline is expandable and combinable across several subject areas, including Music & Cinema, American History, Americana, Events, and Inventions. It makes for a great family game, as adults and kids alike encounter subjects they know more or less about; inevitably, played cards elicit longer conversations about the historical moment in question, and why they were important. Played with adult friends, I think you’ll be surprised how frequently you’ll be off the mark. As a special note, while players under age 10 will have trouble having the necessary historical context to succeed, the simple core game mechanic is easy to grasp for a younger player, especially with help from an adult. 

In addition to standard card packs for Timeline (which easily supports anywhere from two to eight players), you can also expand into the more fully-featured Timeline Challenge board game, or branch off into the similar Cardline series of games, which focuses on individual topics like animals, geography, and dinosaurs, and challenges players to compare and contrast them side by side.  

Cytosis: A Cell Biology Game
Publisher: Genius Games
Recommended Age: 10+
Applicable subjects: Biology, Physiology, Health

Genius Games is built around educational games (and books) that tackle a variety of subjects, and teachers and parents would be well advised to check out the company’s full catalog. But I’m especially impressed with Cytosis, a game all about living cells for two to five players. Immaculately presented and modeled scientific concepts like cell detoxification and the role of the mitochondria are all communicated seamlessly through the natural flow of the game. But strip away the science jargon, and Cytosis is a remarkably fun worker placement game. By placing tokens on various organelles on a board that represents a cell, different tasks may be completed like building enzymes and hormones, with the end goal of completing particular objectives and scoring health points to win the game. 

I’ve rarely encountered a game that so aptly communicates complex topics through the DNA (no pun intended) of the game’s mechanics and structure. Cytosis also includes relevant details about the actual science behind the game and its presentation. Cytosis is a surprising, and at times highly competitive, experience that stands quite strong even before considering what might be learned along the way.

Next Page: Taking trains across the world to learn geography, and growing vocabulary with bananas

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