Authentic Assessment (III): Teaching with off-the-shelf Board Game(s)

In my first blog post “What is authentic assessment and why use authentic assessments in your class,” I talked about how an authentic assessment (AA) differs from traditional assessments on the five dimensions. One of the important dimensions that differentiate between the two is the continuum with “selecting a response” as one end point and “performing a task” in the other end point. While there are of course various ways to create authentic assessments such as working on a real-world problem as term projects (which I do too in my courses), my intent in this series of blogs is to share those not-so-obvious authentic assessment assignments that I have created. Toward that end, in my second mini blog “Create Your Own Problem Set – a Combination of Group and Individual Assignment,” I talked about one idea of creating an authentic assessment by combining group-level and individual-level of assignments. In this blog, I am sharing yet another idea of an authentic assessment that combines an in-class game-playing in groups with an individual post-game assignment as alternative form of assessment.

Game-based Learning and Authentic Assessment

In one recent special issue on “Games and gamification in business school courses: Experiential education that creates engagement and flow” published by Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, my colleagues and I discussed how games can be a kind of experiential learning that promotes active engagement so that students learn by doing, not by listening.

Using simulation games may not be new, but teaching with off-the-shelf board games is different and innovative.  Simulation games published by (textbook) publishers are often designated for certain topics of given courses while off-the-shelf board games are games created for other, typically entertaining purposes. Virtually none of the board games will fit squarely with a course because those board games are off-the-shelf in nature. This fundamental difference is critical and makes the use of off-the-shelf board games even closer to authentic assessments because it requires students to “apply” as opposed to “recognize” and respond—an important differentiation between an authentic assessment from a traditional one. Teaching with off-the-shelf board games, as such, allows an instructor to show students that any application of an abstract concept and/or quantitative tool would require some modifications and often times, making assumptions.  This is of particular importance because I believe business education is to prepare students to be ready to apply what students have learned in the classroom to a real-world setting.  Real world application rarely is as straightforward as plugging in numbers to a given equation. Students should be aware that there rarely exists one and only one option/path with the optimal solution. That is, its not-so-perfect-fit makes it perfect to help students think, apply, and get used to a not-so-perfect-fit (with any formula) world which students face in the real world. 

            In this mini blog, I will first describe what this strategy is and how it can be implemented.  I will then discuss its uniqueness and conclude with the transferability of this strategy.  Finally, like the previous blog, I will discuss how I rate this practice on the five dimensions that differentiates an authentic assessment from a traditional counterpart.

Teaching with off-the-shelf board games: What it is and how to implement it in class

As the title suggests, it literately means including one (or more) off-the-shelf board game(s) in class; more importantly, an instructor should design assignment(s) that go with a game that is used in class. To begin with, I would recommend a paper version of the board game, which can be incorporated in both the traditional and hybrid courses. A paper version is recommended because it has the benefits of being more cost efficient, creating in-class engagement, as well as receiving immediate feedback from the instructor in class. A paper version is more cost efficient because it only involves one-time costs, whereas playing a game digitally implies a continuous expenditure as a licensing fee or the like would incur each time a game is played.  Though I would also acknowledge that this strategy can be modified to fit online courses, subject to the availability of online version of the board game(s), it is not the focus of this blog. 

Contingent on the complexity of the game and the course, one or multiple off-the-shelf board games are introduced in a course throughout the semester to engage students and to illustrate complex concepts.  Using multiple games may keep the excitement as each time is new, but it also comes at the cost of spending more time to learn game rules as each time is also different. To best utilize the class meeting time, students are asked to understand the game rules beforehand so that class time can be dedicated to playing the game.  When playing, multiple game moderators are encouraged but not a must. 

To maximize the benefits, it is essential to have 1) a debriefing right after playing the game(s); and 2) students complete post-game assignment(s) to help students make connections between the game and the specific tool(s) and concept(s) the instructor wishes to demonstrate by playing the game(s).  Like other forms of assignments, the instructor should provide students with feedback of their post-game assignment(s).  In some cases, pre-game assignments also may be implemented to help students strategize without priming their thinking. I also recommend create game logs to help students take notes of key information to help them with the post-game assignment(s).    

Some factors to consider in choosing an appropriate off-the-shelf board game include the maximum player counts, the nature of the games (cooperative vs. competitive vs. semi-cooperative), the complexity and duration of a game, and the game context, to name a few. The maximum player counts will determine number copies to purchase (note that it’s a one-time should the recommended paper version is used), as well as the team size. My suggestion is to have games that range from 4 to 6 players per team, as when a team size becomes too big, it could be either difficult to keep everyone engaged or would tend to take longer to play a game. The nature of the games varies, and each has its pros and cons. If a competitive game is used, I would suggest the instructor does not assign points to the game results—some students are often better at playing games; instead, the points should tie to their post-game assignments. The semi-cooperative games would be my favorite because that is more like the real-world: agents cooperate on some occasions while complete on others; same as firms. The complexity and duration of a game often times come hand-in-hand; the instructor can tweak game rules on a needed basis to ensure the game can be played in one regular class meeting time. There are various off-the-shelf board games, I would recommend choosing games contextualized in a real-world, not fantasy type, settings as playing the game itself is part of the learning process that students practice making decisions while implicitly applying knowledge.

Linking to the Authentic Assessment “Scale”

The most important part of teaching with off-the-shelf board game(s) is to design post-game assignment(s) that help students build connections with course materials. While playing the game is fluid and organic, the post-game assignments should be well structured so that students are directed their attention to tools the instructor intended them to learn. Below is how I would rate the post-game assignment(s) on the five dimensions that differentiate an authentic assessment from a traditional one:  

Teaching with off-the-shelf Board Game and the Post-Game Assignment on Authentic Assessment Scale’s: Five Dimensions

Overall, I believe the using the off-the-shelf board game(s) along with post-game assignments are geared toward an authentic assessment. When playing the game, students are performing a task in a form of meeting the game objectives. As aforementioned, it is important for an instructor to choose a game contextualized in a real world. Playing games in class, therefore, requires students’ active engagement not only by carrying out one’s strategy but also by responding to others’ actions—this is a more interactive approach compared to a simulation game that typically is played against the computer algorithm.  I do want to mention that my rating on the teacher-structured vs. student-structured dimension of the post-game assignment is somewhat in the middle on the continuum. I believe it is important for the instructor to structure the post-game assignments in such a way that directly links the game play and scenarios to specific tools in the course materials so that students learn by playing. In the Appendix, I briefly describe two games that I have created post-game assignments and the topics of each assignment to demonstrate that how the teacher, i.e., I, structured the post-game assignment to build this connection explicitly. I hope my examples would inspire more to incorporate using off-the-shelf board games to class.

Extended Reading

Beatty, J. E., Chen, Y.-S., Klein, B. D. 2021. (Editorial Introduction) Games and gamification in business school courses: Experiential education that creates engagement and flow, Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education. 19(3), 170-172.


Example 1: Pandemic (2008)

This is a very popular game published in 2008. It is a cooperative game. Interested readers are referred to the online board game database BGG for details by clicking the game title above. I had multiple former students emailed me during the pandemic time, telling me that s/he cannot believe we played the game “Pandemic” and now we are living in one. This demonstrates how long lasting students may remember from playing a game.

Tools/topics that my post-game assignments include are:

  • (tool) Network design: various network design models such as P-median problem can apply to decide where to set up the research stations to combat the disease
  • (tool) Various logistics tools such as: Shortest path, traveling salesman problem, etc.
  • (tool) Social network analysis: various network centrality can be calculated to learn how social network can be helpful (combat the disease more efficiently) and harmful (how diseases can be spread widely and quickly)
  • (topic) Risk management: both proactive and reactive strategies can be discussed
  • (topic) Humanitarian logistics

Example 2: Power Grid (2004)

This is also a popular game with various maps to be used. Each team can have up to 6 players. Each player is to build and develop power plants in their area. Unlike Pandemic, this is a competitive game that players within the same compete against each other. The game is very dynamic and one thing I would highlight is, as the game progresses, the greener power plants would become more dominant—a nice way to reminds students that being environmentally friendly may pay off in the longer term.

Tools/topics that my post-game assignments include are:

  • (tool) Linear programming to reach their goal
  • (tool) Decision tree that lays out framework for making a series of decisions
  • (tool) Network design: various network design models such as the P-median problem can apply to decide where to set up the first power plant and how to expand their power plants network
  • (tool) Social network analysis: various network centralities can be calculated to learn how what may be the best way to expand their power plants network
  • (topic) dynamic pricing: power plants’ input materials price fluctuates over time, contingent on the demand and supply
  • (topic) green energy: as aforementioned, the greener power plants eventually become more efficient in the longer term