Sunday, June 25, 2006

Taking a "Risk" to Teach Strategy

Today’s guest speaker…uh, blogger is Sagrilarus. I enjoyed his article on Board Game Geek and asked him to spruce it up a bit to post for our readers. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

This past spring I had the opportunity to volunteer at my daughter's elementary school in a "Strategic Thinking" after-school activity that used board games to introduce students to the basics of tactics, strategy, and long-range planning. The brochure that came home in her backpack included pictures of hot games like Ticket to Ride and Age of Mythology and when I saw it I got very excited. My daughter playing board games! She’s just getting to the age where she can give me a good run! And she lives in the SAME HOUSE with me! She won’t be able to escape until she’s sixteen! “This is perfect!” I said out loud. “Kaylin! This is a great opportunity for me to . . . uh, YOU to learn new things and to think out of the box! Girl! Don’t pass this up! I’ll take care of everything. I’ll get you all signed up and ready to go.”

The next day Kaylin was signed up for the course, designed for 12 kids, along with 34 others. The following week an email with the faint aroma of desperation on it arrived in my inbox from the instructor asking for parent volunteers to help with the oversized class and I signed on for the next eight weeks along with three other men and one woman. I’m going to try to summarize what happened here so that anyone naïve enough to wander into the same situation will know what to expect and perhaps learn from our experience. Let’s start with a rundown of the course at hand:

The class was aimed at the elementary school level, grades 1-5.

The course itinerary consisted of three games -- Battleship to start showing basic game rules, placement, and simple geographic awareness; Stratego to show information hiding and strategic placement of resources; and then Risk last, which showed long term management of resources, consideration of goals and threats, and political maneuvering. Risk would consume more than half of the entire course time.

A quick aside here. I know what you’re thinking. Where was Ticket to Ride? Where was Age of Mythology or the other hot games on the little sheet the instructor had sent home? I dug into my bag and reviewed – damn! The flyer did indeed have Battleship Stratego and Risk on it, although sort of on the edges instead of in the middle. We had been Technicalitied. The course would be fun, but I . . . uh, Kaylin would have to settle for 1960s game technology. So be it – all I needed this course to do was set the hook in this girl and I would be able to game six nights a week.

Each session started with a brief description of the gaming for the day, and then broke out the boxes. Since the instructor had let so many kids into the class it was necessary to create teams of players, as there were not enough boards to go around. For Battleship and Stratego, this proved to be nearly disastrous. Virtually every team could not resist the urge to cheat. Since both games are so heavily focused on hiding information about your layout from your opponents, and since the kids were playing two or three to a team, it was just too easy for someone to quietly walk around behind the other team’s board, “gather intelligence” (something the instructor had told them was a good thing, although I doubt he meant it quite that way) and report back home. Remarkable how quickly games would turn. “Hey! We sunk your PT boat with two shots. It’s uncanny how lucky we got! again!” With the rampant cheating the class began to unravel and my daughter very much considered quitting out of frustration. I told her to give it one more week and sent off an email that evening to the instructor indicating that he had a real problem on his hands. The cheating issue essentially evaporated with Risk as there is little or no information hidden from other players in the game.

For Risk, the instructor broke off the younger grades into their own Risk game playing one-on-one with a full time instructor. The remaining older students played in teams on one Risk board. We adults were given the job of advising the teams on what their options were.

Ok, now to get down to serious game playing. At the beginning of the team Risk game, the instructor spent some time telling the players the basics, indicating that the capture of countries and continents and finally the entire board was the goal. However when it came time to select countries to start the game, many of the students had not fully internalized the goals he had set out for them – they did not think of a long term strategy and instead chose countries based on personal rivalries with other students or in one notable case preferences for culture. It’s unreasonable to expect young kids to play a game well the first time, but even with that level of expectation it is worth noting that more preparation was needed so that the kids could make better decisions about troop placement.

Emperor #1 became enraptured with the notion of his troops being Vikings, selected Iceland and placed all of his extra pieces there. In all the breadth of history no one has attempted to conquer the world starting in Iceland. Indeed not many Risk players have tried it either. This decision placed “Leif the Unlucky” in a squeeze between three other players, who quickly armed-up to counter his threat. Because of this less-than-wise decision his team was severely hamstrung at the beginning of the game. The curious issue here was that his four teammates continuously advised against this action as the pieces were being placed -- they had excellent position in Africa and were in a position to be the first team to solidify a continent. But this team leader simply overwhelmed them with persuasion and they capitulated to the Iceland position. Once the game began Iceland was disassembled in short order and the team started dedicating what piddly resources they had left to Africa out of desperation to stay in the game. Lesson learned -- occasionally Emperors don't listen to their advisors and take a beating for it (feel free to insert the despot of your choice as an example here).

Emperor #2 ended up with a strong position in Europe and western Asia. Although this is generally a hard place to start in Risk, he was uniquely set up to land Europe (once Iceland was decimated) and hold Siberia. The remainder of Asia was a mishmash of pieces and fortification, so the threats to his position were not as bad as others on the board.

Emperor #3 may have been a ringer – he selected all of Australia on startup, and no one chose to block his initial domination of the continent.
Here’s a curious thing about kids – as the countries were being selected, us three adult advisors who had probably played a total of 150 games of Risk between us walked around and gently recommended to the other team leaders that they not let this player take all of Australia without a fight. When he took the third country in Australia without anyone interceding we got a shade less gentle, with statements such as “You absolutely positively under no circumstances in any way whatsoever want to even remotely consider letting this guy get all of Australia without a fight.” The kids would give us that kind of look you get from your dog when he tries to understand English, and then go right back to what they were doing. All five other teams showed no interest in mixing it up with this team in Australia and even let him have Siam.
The obvious winner, yes? Well, sometimes things don't go as smoothly as planned.

Emperors #4 and #5 seemed to have a bit of history between them and decided to have their own personal war in North America and part of South America. Neither had a commanding position and both deployed the vast majority of their armies in a fairly even fashion, with the exception of NW Territory and Quebec, which were heavily built to counter Iceland.

Emperor #6 was about as evenly spread over the board as is possible, resulting in a role as a spoiler or even a nuisance more than anything else.

At this point the pieces were placed and it was time for blood to spill. And was it spilled. The largest deficit in the play of the six teams was any consideration of defense. The instructor had warned of overextending. We advisors kept telling the teams not to overreach. But all but one team felt obligated to conquer vast swaths of territory on every turn -- a standard rookie error. The one exception was Emperor #2, the guy in Europe and western Asia. On his first couple of turns he took territory cautiously and was able to land all of Europe after the boys in the New World chewed up Iceland for him. Defended, he became the player to beat and had an ace in the hole -- he had eight units in Siberia detached from the remainder of his forces. We'll get to that.

Australia Emperor received two additional armies for the first few turns which can make quite a difference early on, especially when everyone is depleting themselves. He wisely sensed danger in the guy in Europe, and chose to take southern Asia and go after the Ukraine, depleting his defenses in the process. Falling short, he had a reasonable force in Afghanistan, but his rear was all single-army. I pulled Mr. Europe aside and explained to him that Siberia had a unique opportunity to route all of Asia's backfield and maybe even reach Australia with a few breaks. I said, “you can pulp him in Asia and Australia behind Afghanistan’s back and he’ll have to fight back home instead of attacking the Ukraine. There’s no risk here.” I got that blank look again. I gave it one last try, but made it short and sweet: “Asia is weak. Attack it and you can win the game.” Kids don’t like to take recommendations from adults and can be a bit short-sighted on taking advice in general. I think one of the things I learned most from this course is that you need to establish a pretty solid relationship with kids before they start trusting you enough to consider your advice. We beat “don’t trust strangers” into their heads for most of childhood so I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise. Anyway, he chose not to go after Asia and Australia in spite of getting eight armies to distribute, and the opportunity was lost.

North America became a sink for armies, South America was finally held by Emperor #6, and Africa became a battleground for 2 on 1 fights and the like, resulting in little progress. At times the player holding South America would reach across and sting Europe, just enough to deplete the European Emperor's strength. As the course progressed the team from Australia was largely ignored by everyone except Europe and had the opportunity to build force and slowly make headway. By the end of the course there were two teams knocked out, one team in its last throes, and two that were waning (including the Europe team). All in all a well fought match by the players once they had three or four turns under their belt and began to understand the game mechanics.

Recommendations for Doing a Similar Course

1- I think one of the major issues that escaped the students was a full assessment of their positions prior to the beginning of each turn. Granted, the kids were nine and ten years old and should not be expected to play well their first time, especially on their first few turns. But were I involved in the course again I would try to emphasize three concepts prior to each turn: where am I threatened; where am I trying to go; and where has an opportunity appeared? I would put those questions on a sheet of paper and have the players actually write answers to all three questions prior to starting each turn. I would also have them write a short statement regarding how the turn went after it was finished. This would be an excellent task for the second or third in command as it would give them a good opportunity to be heard.

2- I would also try to get team size down to two so that there would be a more reasonable opportunity for everyone's voice to be heard. The range of ages made it difficult to place command in the hands of all players. Given the number that showed up for the course I think this was more a matter of being caught by surprise without sufficient resources to manage four or five games simultaneously. As in all things, student-teacher ratio is important, as is the physical resources -- we needed three more game boards. The instructor was a good sport and accepted all comers into the course and, quite frankly, did a remarkable job of managing what could have been a very chaotic situation.

3- I would segregate games by age if possible, given the human resources available. Younger kids (including my daughter Kaylin) were too easily sidelined by the older male players who seemed to dominate their teams too easily.

4- If there are two or more players on each team I would have the players take turns being the emperor. This would make sure that a situation such as Iceland would not occur. The members of the Iceland team learned a valuable lesson -- project management can be derailed by one person in a position of authority or with sufficient charisma to fly everyone into the side of a mountain in formation. But this lesson played out quickly and the team did not get to enjoy the remainder of the course as much as the other teams.

5- Elementary kids are like gremlins -- don't feed them if you know what's good for you. Snacks should be small and completely devoid of the evil white granular substance. The woman helping with the course was providing snacks to eight-year-olds. Pain and suffering ensued.

6- Assign the adult volunteers to specific teams instead of having them advise all. Split them as necessary given the numbers -- if you only have one volunteer then he gets all six teams. Introduce the volunteer to the team, establish a relationship between them and get some level of rapport going. By the time most of the teams started considering our advice they were already in the soup. But take care -- I think it is equally important for the adult volunteer to not run the game. It is useful in this situation to limit the adult advisor to only asking questions. "You should go after Africa" is inappropriate. "Have you considered Africa?" puts the students in charge of the answer.

7- The sessions included a volunteer to run the mechanics of the board. This person needs to take care of a couple of things up front, most important was deciding on what the official rules for the session will be. Each adult volunteer that participated had played as a kid, and none of us played by the same set of rules. I appeared to have played by the most strict interpretation of the rules, but the current game rules include official variants that were in play and there were other homemade rules that came up that required a decision mid-turn for some moves, slowing the game and resulting in a couple of fairly important changes for players who had been advised differently by us adults. This issue needed to be cleared up front. Each volunteer (and perhaps each player) should have a set of rules with the appropriate variants highlighted to show exactly how things would play.
The other change I’d make for the "board master" is his role as advisor. If enough volunteers are available, I would limit his advising to the rules. This puts him in a much clearer role and limits his otherwise formidable position.

8- Generate inter-session interest in the game by getting a minor web page up with photos of the board. Likely a photo of each continent would be sufficient to fully describe the board. A scorecard would likely interest players as well – number of countries owned, number of armies on the board, etc. The instructor issued a newsletter each week with a summary of the session’s events which was excellent. It kept the players and their parents informed, but was not as informative on the current status of the game. With appropriate information the students could consider moves through the week.

9- Consider a less bloody game for the girls that decide to participate. If two instructors are available the two games could be run in parallel. This will require an additional level of dedication however, so step lightly into this suggestion.


Considering this was a first-time attempt at the course and the size of the student response was so high, all went quite well. The students learned the games with ease. Battleship and Stratego turned out to be less useful choices as it was exceptionally easy to cheat given the size of the class and the open room environment being used. Risk proved more effective and there was little ability to get an unfair advantage on your opponents.

If you decide to tackle something such as this be prepared for a big turnout, and don’t get my . . . uh, the kids’ hopes up by showing cool new games like Ticket to Ride and Age of Mythology on the flyer.

Working with the kids was a lot of fun, and let's face it, if you're reading this you love games. This was an excellent opportunity for me to have a lot of fun helping out and my daughter appreciated my volunteering at her school. Well worth the time I put in.

Oh, and as for Kaylin, what does she think of board games now that she’s gone a few rounds with them at school? Thumbs up baby! It’s Carcassonne tonight!


1 comment:

Wilson Tan said...

That's a wonderful write-up! Thanks sokalady. Latria (Siow Hwee) and I had been introducing boardgames to some youths in our churches for a few sessions. I do stress the teacher-student ratio needs to be considered very carefully. We would get about 100 youths of ages 13-21 and a vast collection of simle games to choose from. Some favorites were scotland yard, carcassonne, blockus, rumis, jungle speed, blink, etc. i must say that it gets easier after more of these teaching sessions. As more youths get to know more games, they can take over the role of teaching quite easily.