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15 board game variations

By Alex Case
Board games, especially the classic version of tossing a coin and then answering the question in the square you land on, have been the saving of many a tired teacher or bored class over the years, so much so that the students might have had one from each teacher for several years or teachers might […]

Board games, especially the classic version of tossing a coin and then answering the question in the square you land on, have been the saving of many a tired teacher or bored class over the years, so much so that the students might have had one from each teacher for several years or teachers might lose track of the language aims of using such games. The variations below are meant to add language and interest so that board games really can be useful time and again.

1. Students make the questions
One problem with board games can be that the students who are waiting to go are really just waiting and therefore are getting zero English practice. One way of involving them at each turn and making them more interested in other people’s answers is to give them short or even one word prompts like “Drugs” or “Ever + present simple” to make a question for the person who has landed on that square, e.g. by having those words written in that space on the board (see also variations below). As well as asking for personal information and making discussion questions, students can test each other on things in the class, information about the other students or teacher, things in the textbook etc, e.g. if the word “chair” is in that square they can ask “How many chairs are there in the classroom?” (Eyes closed!) or “Does Maria have a chair in her bedroom?”

2. Throw the dice twice
Another way of varying the question or challenge that will be set for each square is to have a short prompt like “Studies” written in it and then throw the dice again to choose one of up to 6 prompts that are used throughout the game and are written in the centre of the board, e.g. “Throw a 3 or 4- Past”. They then talk about their past studies or answer a question about it from the people in the same group. Another way of using the double throwing of the dice is for them to be challenged to come up with the number of examples on the dice of the thing written in the square, e.g. six uncountable things in the classroom or three time clauses that use the preposition “in”.

3. Time challenge
Two problems with the classic “Answer the question in the box” board game is that answering a question is not the most interesting of challenges and that who wins the game is entirely decided by lucky throws of the dice. If you set a realistic time limit for how long they must talk each time, going back to their previous square if they give up before they have talked that long, that adds to the fun, gets the other students involved in listening to and timing the person speaking, and helps them practice extended speaking. This is particularly good for students who will need to take speaking exams or give presentations. You can add to the challenge and the quality of the language they must produce by saying they must talk for that time in total once the amount of time they paused is taken away (e.g. 2 minutes speaking minus 30 seconds in total saying “Ummmm” equals 90 seconds), or that they have to stop speaking if they pause for too long, repeat themselves and/ or go off the subject. A variation is to set challenges that students must do before the time limit is up, e.g. guessing something their partner is thinking of by asking yes/ no questions within 90 seconds.

4. Times challenge
A variation on Time Challenge above is that students can move ahead by a certain number of squares depending on how long they spent talking about the last topic, e.g. 1 square for 30 seconds, 2 squares for 45 seconds etc. This is good for mixed level classes or groups, and takes away the need for dice to play the game. Another variation is for students to score more points the faster they do something such as list all their partner’s family members.

5. Play in teams
For example, have two teams of two people around one board. This means students can help each other, or the game can be set up so that people in the team cooperate to ask each other questions, do roleplays, or test each other on the easiest language they can think of (“Eat”/ “Ate”, “Need”/ “Needed” etc).

6. Board plus cards
Most commercial board games have a pack of cards that add to the interest and challenge of the game. Possibilities are endless and include different kinds of challenge depending on what colour square you land on (red = correct the grammar mistake, blue = make a true sentence about your partner etc.), a few squares that you have to take special challenge cards on (similar to Monopoly), combining the word on the square with the word on the card in one sentence, and defining the word on the card so that your partner can guess it as quickly as possible.

7. Coin toss
Rather than moving around using dice, you can add language and interest and cut down on the amount of equipment needed by using coins. Teach “heads”, “tails”, “toss the coin” etc (if there is no head on local coins, tails is the side with a number on it), then explain how the scores will be added up. One possibility is for someone to toss the coin until they get a tail- the score is then how many heads they got before then. Alternatively, they can get one point for each time the guess heads or tails correctly.

8. Paper scissor stone
A way of moving around the board that demands even less equipment and is more physical and fun is for students to compete by paper scissors stone (= rock paper scissors = janken). This can be done by the winner each time moving forward one square (for a board game with few squares) or the person whose turn it is moving one square for each time they don’t lose paper scissors stone. Even adult classes seem to really enjoy this one!

9. Guess number of fingers
Another way of competing using just your hands to move around the board is to put up a random number of fingers behind your back and then take turns guessing what the total of all the fingers behind people’s backs will be when they are shown. Everyone says “one two three” and reveals their hands, then the person who was closest to the number of fingers that are being shown can move that many squares on the board.

10. Flick counter
This is another physical way of moving around the board, and so another way of giving the more physical and less academic students a way of getting interested and winning the game. The student flicks their counter across the board to try and land on a square further along the way. If they miss all the squares, they have to move back to the square they were on. If they successfully land on a square, they have to do what it says on there to stay there. This gives students the chance to be ambitious and try to flick a long way but usually miss or to progress a square or two at a time.

11. One square one answer
Each square has a task that could have many different answers, e.g. “Ways of apologizing” or “Types of shops in the street outside the school”. The student gets one point for each correct answer they can come up with (or one point for each correct answer until they make a mistake and therefore have to stop), and can then move forward that many squares.

12. One square one answer one minute
In this variation on One Square One Answer, students move forward one square for each correct answer they can come up within a time limit, e.g. within one minute, before another student finishes another task, or before a coin stops spinning.

13. One square one line
In this variation on One Square One Answer, students have to roleplay a conversation and get to move one square for each time they spoke in that conversation before it came to end due to having nothing left to say or due to reaching a time limit.

14. End exactly right
If they don’t get exactly the right number to land right on the “Finish” square on the board, i.e. if the number they have to move is more than the number of squares left until the end, they have to try again the next time it’s their turn. This is a good way of holding up a student who is well ahead of the others in their group or of holding up a group that is ahead of the others in the class. If this is the purpose you are using it for, it is best not to tell them if they have to land exactly on the last square until you see whether specific groups need it or not, or even to set different rules for different groups.

15. Round and round
Particularly for variations where there is no limit on the number of squares they could move in one go, rather than making the winner the person who reaches the finish square, make the winner the person who has make the most circuits of the board or is the first person to go around twice/ three times etc.

Written by Alex Case for Tefl.NET September 2008
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
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