Making Customized Board Games in the Conversation Class

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Michael Furmanovsky and Penny Sugihara, Ryukoku University


  • Key Words: Speaking, Materials Design
  • Learner English Level: Lower Intermediate and higher
  • Learner Maturity Level: High School and older
  • Preparation Time: Student homework--time varies
  • Activity Time:1 class period to introduce the project, and 1 to play the completed games

EFL board game activities typically ask participants to throw a die or toss a coin, and then move a counter to a square containing a set of instructions that usually involve speaking. Both teachers and students enjoy these games, no doubt because they resemble familiar children's games such as "Snakes and Ladders," "Monopoly," etc. This activity describes how students can design and then play their own board games. Designing an interesting or effective board game is an absorbing activity and one which takes considerable imagination. For teachers, the design process is a good opportunity to engage those students who have a visual learning style.


  1. Distribute a variety of textbooks which contain board game activities to students in pairs or small groups. Give each group a die. Students should play the board game for ten to fifteen minutes and then change textbooks with another group, so that they eventually play two or three games.
  2. Generate a list of common themes of the games. Typically these include (a) past experiences; (b) hobbies, favorites, or enjoyable activities; (c) daily lifestyle and habits; (e) family and friends; (e) future plans; and (f) personal opinions and values.
  3. Generate a list of common approaches to the activities in the games. Typically these include (a) answering a factual question; (b) expressing an opinion; (c) practicing a function such as suggesting, inviting, or describing; (d) talking for thirty to sixty seconds about a particular subject or past experience; (e) finishing a sentence; and (f) unscrambling a word or phrase.
  4. Emphasize the need for simple rules and draw attention to the ways in which these rules are explained in the sample board games. For example, look at a variety of games which use either a die or a coin to decide which is appropriate for different situations. (The main factor will be the extent to which the questions asked are subjective or objective: If the questions are objective and have only one answer, then it is better if fewer students land on that spot, and a die is probably preferable; however, personal or subjective questions are more interesting if several students address them, so in this case a coin might be the better choice.) Other possible problems with rules can be addressed when students test their own games with one or two partners.
  5. Draw attention to the physical design of the games. Typically these consist of squares or circles containing text or small pictures, leading to some kind of target or finishing point. Point out that there are many other possible shapes and designs which could depend on the theme chosen.
  6. Ask students to form pairs and explain that they must now design their own board game with an original theme. These will be played by other groups at a future date. Two to three weeks preparation is usually necessary, depending on how much class time is allocated by the teacher.
  7. Generate a list of possible topics for student-designed board games. Topics should not be too narrow or specific. Possibilities are Part Time Jobs, Past or Future Trips, Professional Sports, Music and Film, Family and Friends, High School Memories, Food and Restaurants, etc. To this list could be added a few topics that pertain to the students' common situation such as Classes at University, the University Festival, Local Restaurants, Popular Places in Town, etc.
  8. Ask groups to choose a topic and write down as much vocabulary relating to the topic as possible. They should then write a few possible questions based on the ideas generated above. (Questions should not be answerable in one word.) Ask them to consider some possible design ideas. Examples from previous classes have included (a) a soccer ball design with sports questions written in the white segments of the black and white ball; (b) a map of Japan, made up of squares, with a domestic travel theme; and (c) a CD with questions about popular music written in concentric circles. There are, of course, innumerable possibilities.
  9. Student pairs make a first draft of the game for homework. An effort should be made to include examples of all the types of approaches listed above (point #3) and to develop an original design. This first draft, which ideally should be done on a computer using a simple draw program, should be brought to class so that students can be given a chance to see the work of other groups. Additional class time should be allocated to put the final touches on the game and to practice with one or two other students in order to iron out potential problems.
  10. On the day of the activity, two pairs join together to play their two games. During this time problems and mistakes, such as obscure or simplistic questions can be identified and corrected if necessary. After the corrections are made, the games can be randomly distributed among the groups. Towards the end of the class, a few minutes can be allocated for students to talk to the designers of the games.

Customizing board games can be an effective way of giving students a chance to incorporate their own interests and lifestyles into a classroom activity. At their best, such games introduce new vocabulary and structures while still allowing for practice of language and functions that have been introduced in class. In addition, the process of making a board game promotes analytical thinking and creativity, since students must break down the components of a model textbook board game and adapt it to suit their thinking and interests. And, of course, once completed, students will be better equipped to see the textbook for what it is, a combination of a resource tool and a springboard for communication, which can be adapted and reshaped to suit their needs.