Game-based Learning: Catan in the Classroom

As a board member of NASAGA, I have long had an interest in game-based learning. I’m also a career educator, so I actually use games as learning tools in my classroom.

My go-to game to get students working together and introduce critical thinking is Catan. If you aren’t familiar with Catan, you can skim the rules or see it played on the web series Tabletop. There’s a lot to love about Catan in the classroom. The rules are simple, so students can start playing more quickly. Provide some online tutorials ahead of class, and it’s even faster. The gameplay is highly interactive.

While the board and strategy are important, the majority of the gameplay happens above the board as players negotiate trades with one another. And the mechanics of the game can be used to demonstrate a variety of basic concepts: probability, supply and demand, bargaining and trade. Catan could be a fun addition to any middle school or high school syllabus that covers these concepts.

Catan as a Model

At the college level, though, I like to use Catan for a more “meta-” purpose. As a political scientist, I’m often teaching theoretical models. But, first, I want students to understand the strengths and limitations of a model, and game-based learning is perfect for this. After all, a board game is just a model. It presents a simplified version of the real world, focusing on a few mechanisms that produce a variety of outcomes. Catan doesn’t present players with a real-world economy. That would be too complex to be fun. Instead, Catan uses only five resources that can be combined in different ways and only four outputs that can be generated using those resources.

As a result, players can easily and intuit the relationship between these different factors. Similarly, theoretical models try to explain complex systems using only a few moving parts so that we can better understand how they interact. Playing Catan lets students explore this relationship between the model and the real world. Class debrief after the game lets them compare and explore how the mechanics of the game represent real-world systems.

Catan to Inspire Debate

But that’s only half the story. When we model the real world, we make choices about what factors to include and which to leave out. And these choices reflect the modeler’s perspective. Enter Bruno Faidutti, a French academic and game designer, and his excellent blog post, “Postcolonial Catan”. Faidutti poses an important question–where are all the native inhabitants of Catan? As he points out, the original title of the game, Settlers of Catan, translated into French as Colonists of Catan.

Faidutti then takes us on an interesting trip around the board gaming world as he points out that the many ways that board games may reflect the biases of the board game designers, who usually happen to be white men from Europe and America. This is a great introduction to thinking about the way that the biases or assumptions of the designer affect what goes in or gets left out of a model, whether that’s a game or a theory. 

I like to spend a couple of class periods on Catan. On day one,we stop mid-game and we discuss how the game models economic concepts and what we can learn about that from the gameplay. Then I assign the Faidutti article as homework. When the students come back to resume the game on day two, they see the game in a whole new light. We wrap up the game and then have a much different discussion focusing on what was left out of the game.

We also talk about what the trade-offs might be for including these missing elements–certainly, it makes the game more complete, but it also makes the game more complex. Now they aren’t just thinking critically as consumers of the theories, they’re thinking like theorists themselves. 

Using Game-based Learning is Worth the Time Investment

My colleagues sometimes question how I can devote so much of our limited class time to a board game, but I find the investment well worth it. Students come away with a more sophisticated understanding of theoretical models, including how to evaluate and critique the models and their assumptions. Moreover, we have a shared experience that we can refer back to as an example throughout the semester.

The time spent on the game pays for itself in better discussions and deeper learning later on. Not to mention, the students have fun. I routinely hear from former students who are still playing Catan, and they can’t set up the board without thinking back to this lesson. 

Author Byline 

Jeremy Caddel, JD, PhD

Washington University in St. Louis

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