Geography Games Part 1: Board Games

            If you search online for “geography games” or “geography board games” you’ll find a bunch of boring and arguably pointless trivia games that are just, well, trivial. Trivia games reflect a common misunderstanding of what geography really is and how to learn about it. Geography isn’t about memorizing encyclopedic facts any more than psychology is about memorizing the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. All-in-all, “geography” board games fall short in the content department, and in the fun department.
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Seaman playing Risk… and Battleship! (Photo by William P. Gatlin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
           With this in mind, I’m beginning a multipart series on geography-infused games. In future posts, I hope to integrate your feedback and the opinions of expert educators and gamers, along with more in-depth analysis of specific games. Today I’ll discuss the educational merits of classic board games, as well as a few obscure favorites of mine.
            Board games have so much potential to make learning geography fun and engaging. Unlike video games, they give us an excuse to interact with actual, physical, tangible maps. Unlike atlases, they let us to do things on the map, like navigating them with ships, cards, and figurines. At best, they should illuminate the interactions of the physical, human, and biological world. At the very least, they should explore time, place and space in an interesting way.
Why did I feel like I had to include Risk? Maybe because it is the first map-based game that most of us played as kids. But beyond the general shape of the continents, the game doesn’t have any real-world geography to it. The silly sub-regions actually confuse our geographic knowledge because the country and region names are mixed-up and wrong. Why is it that Ecuador and Bolivia become part of Peru? Why didn’t they just generalize it as the Andes? (Yay! I think I found a topic for my thesis…). If you want to keep the fun military strategy and lose the bogus world map, check out this highly accurate version of Risk set in Middle Earth.  Ages 12+, 3-5 players

 Settlers of Catan
In my opinion this is the best board game intersection of spatial science (strategy along the hexagons alludes to Central Place Theory), earth systems (resources), and human geography (roads and cities). The map is a giant hexagon constructed of smaller hexagons that players place randomly at the beginning of the game 

 (pictured below)

. Each hexagon represents a resource (brick, wheat, sheep, etc.). The economics of the game revolves around by trading resources among players and through accruing additional resources at ports on the hexagonal island’s edge. You win by scoring ten “victory points,” mostly by building roads and cities. Ages 10+, 2-6 players (depending on whether you use the original game board, or an expansion set)
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Part of a Settlers of Catan Board with figurines from an expansion set (released to the public domain by Mogui20, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
            National Geographic Trivial Pursuit
There was once a decent trivia game built into a clever map projection. It quizzed on a wide range of geographic topics: economics, history, politics, etc. That was back in 1987 when it was last published. Now it is seriously outdated. However, it has potential to be retooled into a decent game. Ages 30+ (must know what the  “Soviet Union” was), 2-6 players
You start Carcasonne by placing one map tile the size of a chess square, and then building onto it with more tiles that you draw from a shuffled stack. Squares have two or three features: castle walls, roads, fields, or chapels. Players benefit by creating continuous features and messing up the features of their opponents.  So, the central tension of Carcasonne is that players fight over space and the growth of the board. It is a crude competition over urban planning that makes you think about time and space in a new way. Also, because you try to mess up other people’s buildings and roads, the ending map is always an ugly and contorted land-use plan. It is a great lesson in how not to do regional planning. Like Catan, it is set in a fictional medieval farming region, but expansion packs integrate pseduo-real places, such as the New World. Ages 13+ (I disagree; any 10-year-old could play this game), 2-5 players
As with Carcasonne, the central tension of this game is about making a map. I haven’t played it, but this review made it look pretty fun. Ages 8+, 2 players 
One of my co-workers convinced me to include this age-old gem. On one hand, Battleship is a-spatial: no site, no situation, no topography, not even ocean currents; Battleship is about as geographical as chess. On the other hand, Battleship is often child’s first introduction to the concept of a grid, geographic coordinates and…naval warfare! Conclusion: I really believe that learning the Battleship grid through yelling out coordinates and visualizing the unseen grid of the opponent helps kid read maps, even if the game itself isn’t doesn’t have much geography to it. Also, there is a snazzy hex-grid version with islands and other bells and whistles. Ages 6+, 2 players
          What do you think about these games? Have any others to recommend? Share your ideas and links to other educational games in the comments section, particularly good games for kids under 8–I didn’t think of any.
-Cedar, For My Wonderful World

6 thoughts on “Geography Games Part 1: Board Games

  1. Wow, I’ve never heard of On Assignment before, and I’ve been working at National Geographic for more than 4 years. Thanks for the comment, Sandy, glad you like the game!
    Sarah Jane

  2. Around 1991 I purchased this now-outdated but really wonderful NatGeo game called On Assignment with National Geographic. In this game you are a photographer for National Geographic and you travel around the world. The board is a world map. There is a deck of cards with photos and the card you draw determines your assignment (if I remember correctly). You have to go to that location, take that picture, and add it to your portfolio. There is also a deck of geography questions. It’s recommended for ages 8 and up.

  3. Great suggestion Catholicguaze. We were thinking of doing a post on creating entirely new games, but retrofitting well-known games is a great idea. I’ll see if I can get some of the interns to join me for a game of “Geography Chess.” Also, check out Chinese Chess, Xianqi, which has a bit of a city plan built.

  4. Chess can actually be a very geographical game. In Iraq a few people and myself modified the rules to create rivers and fords (block off a middle row and only allow to squares to be accessible). This forced strategic thinking on chock points. We also played a version of chess where there was an “oasis” (a square that one side had to control or start losing pieces due to the unit dying in the desert heat).

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