Educational Board Gaming: Inspiring Stories of Learning Through Play

This article delves into real-life experiences showcasing how board games can be powerful tools for learning and development. From enhancing critical thinking to fostering social skills, each story reveals the multifaceted educational benefits of game-based learning. Join us on a journey through captivating tales that highlight the role of board games in pedagogical innovation, proving that learning can be both engaging and effective when play is involved.

Written by

Máté Lencse

Educator, game designer,

founder of PlayWise

Why listen to him?

Máté has been regularly playing modern board games and classic abstract board games since 2013. He plays because he loves to. He plays because as an educator, it is his most important motivational and developmental tool. He plays because as a father, it is one of the highest quality times spent with his daughter. He plays because it adds to his marriage. He plays to get to know games and as a game designer, to be able to create new ones. Thus, it's not surprising that he often plays through 15-20 games weekly. Learn more about him and his background on his author page or follow him on social media:

I have been involved with board games for educational purposes for ten years, so I have collected my favorite stories. When I talk to people about how useful board games are, I very quickly end up discussing these stories. I have told them numerous times and now they can finally be compiled together. Over the years, I haven't found anything more convincing than players' reactions to games and game situations. Of course, we tried to thematize the operation of board game pedagogy, but as an argument, our stories have always been the strongest.

Read the stories carefully, then sit down and play a lot so that you can find your own stories too!

Dóra Marton's illustrations



Certainly, this is something no proper educator should be proud of. Of course, there are countless moments in our work when we let go of the principles we learned from books, but this seems like a real exaggeration.

The last time I was proud as a proper educator was in the spring of 2023 when I saw that the whole gang was playing board games for days. It was raining, and we had no other option but to stay in the tutorial center, where we barely fit all together. Especially not in a way that we could separate into smaller groups, so we mostly had mass activities: crafts, board games. And they sat at the tables for days, within days for hours, playing board games. The only sensible answer I have is that they were born into it. Those who are in lower primary in 2023 typically weren't born yet when we started playing board games on Told (Hungarian village) in 2013. They got the tutorial center ready-made, the brightly colored board game shelf, the everyday nature of playing.

But let's start from the beginning. We simply bribed the kids. We had no other choice because they didn't want to play board games with us. Sitting, thinking, learning, and following new rules is not an easy task, and it's especially difficult for someone who has never done such a thing. It's very different to work with a team where family life includes playing together; we only had Hungarian playing cards, Poker, Uno, Mill as our hooks. That's not too many hooks. We wanted to introduce the wonderful world of abstract games and modern board games, which we had also recently discovered. It didn't work right away.

External motivation is bad, internal motivation is good. We knew this, we were taught this. And we watched as internal motivation didn't develop, since they didn't play with the games that could have developed it. So we decided - we had a bunch of donated chocolate eggs - that those who play would get more chocolate than those who don't. Doesn't sound too good, does it? We weren't thrilled either, but we strongly believed that only one important and small step was missing for the breakthrough, namely, trying out the games. We knew the kids so well - having worked with them as volunteers for almost a year - that we knew a lot of what we brought would appeal to them.

We were right. We gave chocolate, and in return, they sat down to play board games. Then we didn't give chocolate, and they still sat down to play. Where's the chocolate? - a few asked. Wasn't the game good? - we could respond. Oh yes, it was! - many said.


This was one of our first major hits. When we started this whole board gaming thing in 2013, we had no money, no games, and no equipment. So, when Jóska (József Jesztl) taught us Pig, we were astonished. It required only one die, the rules were simple, yet it worked. Since not only were we beginners, but so were the kids we were teaching to play, we couldn't start with anything too complex, or we would have failed. So, short playing time, simple rules, minimal equipment needed.

For Pig, you only need one die. The goal is to be the first to reach a hundred points. You can roll as many times as you like and stop anytime to write down your accumulated points. Except, if you roll a one, you lose all the points for that round and must pass the die. That's it. It's essentially a game of chance with decision-making moments. Plus, during the game, it quickly becomes apparent that it's good to adjust your risk-taking to the current standing, the specific situation. You can progressively get better at the game, and I still teach it in trainings, workshops, and to kids.

We instantly saw its pedagogical depth alongside its wonderful simplicity, so we were eager to deploy it. We weren't wrong; it was a great success and helped us a lot from the beginning. But there was a great lesson right at the start. We introduced it confidently, feeling that the kids would learn proper risk management. After all, if they never stop, if they never secure their points, if they're not patient, they can't win. A one will come up, and it’s all over. This is what board game pedagogy is about: learning through the game's inherent events. And what happened? During one of the first sessions, one of the most troublesome kids rolled all the way to a hundred in his round. So, he rolled about thirty times without a one. Unlikely, but possible. So much for our confidence. What did the kid learn? That sometimes it works out. And who was right? The qualified educator or the kid?

The twist of the story - but not its moral! - was that the kid didn’t stop. We asked him to declare he was stopping and winning. But he rebelled, didn’t stop even well over a hundred, and eventually ended his round with a one. Zero points."

Glory to Rome

One of our first major realizations in using board games for educational purposes was that some games contained texts. Where there are texts, reading is necessary. On one hand, this is a technical issue, meaning that encountering and experimenting with various texts often improves reading skills. On the other hand, the chance to develop proper text comprehension comes from struggling with different kinds of texts. Board gaming - ideally - is a chosen activity in which we participate motivatedly, even if there are harder elements in a particular game. In a gaming situation, we tend to push the boundaries of our comfort zone more easily.

We observed that children, who were reluctant to read in learning situations, tended to have fewer issues, or at least were more easily persuaded, while playing board games. They enjoy gaming, trust us to show them good games, and therefore are willing to read if it is essential for the complete gaming experience. Utilizing this is the essence of board game pedagogy.

Once, we taught a group of boys the board game "Glory to Rome". This is quite a complex game with about a 60-minute playing time. So, it was significant that they learned it. We made a concession for the first few games: the effects of the cards did not count. This made learning and playing easier, of course, without the full experience, but sometimes such compromises are worth it for the sake of the goal. Then, after one learning session, one of the older boys said that we should learn the additional rules and now play the game properly!

What did this mean? It meant that a boy, who was dismissed by the school and labeled as unmotivated, asked for a bigger challenge in his free time. But not just that. It also meant that he requested to spend his free time reading and interpreting dozens of card texts. And this request was especially special because it came right after a learning session where I simply could not persuade him to read at all. Then we sat down to play, and at his own request, he started reading. Of course, I didn't draw his attention to this, I just rejoiced and have been sharing this story here and there ever since. Because I love it.

Sweats, struggles, suffers

The educator, however, is happy, satisfied, and joyful. And this is not some strange, inherently evil reaction characteristic of us, but rather an infinitely professional joy. Because exactly what we want is happening. The child is trying to solve the task on their own. They neither ask for nor receive help. They can't ask for and indeed can't receive help, of course, and this is somewhat the key to the story.

We were still very much at the beginning of this whole movement for pedagogy with board games, and it was easy to show something new. Sissi was the unofficial - pirate? - Hungarian version of Love Letter. Nowadays, you can buy Love Letter, but back then it wasn't available in our country. This is typically the kind of game that's easy to pirate from the internet, as it consists of only 16 cards. A total of 8 different characters. It's easy to make a new one, easy to find fan modifications, but we didn't even have to do that much; we got it from Jóska. (My personal experience, and true for me too, is that those who make unobtainable board games also buy a lot, so let's move beyond the ethical issues.)

So, we had 16 cards, Sissi was the theme, and several young teens, tough guys who don't read well and don't like to. There was a kind of letter aversion observable in them. So why not bring them a reading game? Of course.

Love Letter is at least as cool as our boys were. You have one card in your hand, when it's your turn, you draw another, then try to hunt someone down or stay alive. Quick, exciting, smart, mischievous. Who cares if you have to read in the meantime? It turned out, no one.

You're sitting in the game, it's the turn of a kid who can't read, hates reading. They draw a card, poker face, take the reference card, interpret their cards. Looks at you, you know they want to ask for help, but you also know they know they can't because they're trying to hunt you down. In this game, information is very valuable. If I know someone's card, they're in great danger. They can't show it, there's nothing they can do, they have to solve it on their own. They sweat, struggle, suffer. Letters become words, words become a sentence, the sentence has some meaning, a meaning that's perfectly in context, as it will affect the game. The little fighter hopes it will affect it favorably. That's why they want to decipher it. And that's why they do decipher it.

There, behind the playing cards, on the faces of the hiding children, we understood why it's important for us, educators, to sit down and play, why it's more than enough to let the game itself have its effect. And while we were pondering this, the kid put down the Guard and knocked us out, Kings, from the game.

Dóra Marton's illustrations

And then they stood up

I'm not sure if this is even a story. But I usually tell it, so it must be one in some way. It's about one of my favorite pictures from the tutoring sessions. A picture that lives in my head, but also a photograph, as we were fortunate to capture the moment. And what is it about? I think it's about involvement, motivation, and the emergence of existing characteristics in a new environment.

This event, documented with a photo and a blog post, happened in the fall of 2013. Two boys were standing while playing a board game. (I said it might not be a story.) So, they stood at the table and played. It didn't start like this, of course. It all began with them sitting at the table and playing. Back then, we had only been working with modern board games in the community for a few months, so it was already a wonderful achievement that two were playing. Without us. This is always a big moment, as we're not needed for them to engage in a motivating, valuable pastime. Essentially, this is the goal of the tutoring sessions, for which board game pedagogy is one of our important tools, as it makes these processes visible.

Of course, I watched the boys. They were playing Jaipur, an excellent two-player card game - which is why I couldn't join in - that, while not complicated, was more complex than the structures the teens were moving in on their own at that time. I watched to see if they were playing by the rules, if they weren't crossing the line with healthy trash-talking, watched the dynamics of their gameplay. This is how I saw first one, then the other stand up. They didn't step out of the game for a second, I think they didn't even notice they were standing. The game moved them, they were up against each other. There's always a point of tension in Jaipur: will they take what I'm collecting; will they draw what I want; will they change the market; can I fit my move in before the round ends. At first glance, it might not seem so, but this is a confrontational game, so the excitement, the emotion, the clash is totally justified. Of course, all within the framework of a board game's mechanics, story, and atmosphere. The fact that they stood up was a completely natural reaction, because we constantly heard from school that they can't sit still. Their lives, their interests, their hobbies aren't tied to sitting around. Board games typically take place at a table, sitting around it. There was a table here too, and there was a board game, but the two boys were standing.

I don't know if you understand. I don't even know if I understand. But I feel that something important and beautiful happened here.


I like many modes of giving advantage, but I think simultaneous games are my favorites. One adult against several kids. In such cases, we say that if any child wins, the whole team wins. My friend, József Jesztl aptly puts it as the knights defeating the dragon. In one of our tutoring camps, we organized abstract competitions and team competitions. Four kids against one adult: if anyone from the team wins, the team wins. Another twist in the story was that each team received three advantages: large, medium, and small. And on one of the boards, there was no advantage. It was the teams, the children, who decided who plays on which board. Who do you think deserves the biggest advantage?

At first, it seems that the weakest player needs the biggest advantage. This is usually the answer I get. And except for one team, the children at our camp made the same decision. However, one team decided to sit their strongest player at the board with the biggest advantage. Why? If you think about it a bit more - I don't know if the children thought more deeply or just had a hunch, it doesn't really matter - it's logical. Because what's the goal? To win. Is it enough to win on one board? Yes. Then it's indeed advisable to give the strongest player the biggest advantage, as this maximizes their chances of winning.

I already mentioned that most people don't think this way when I tell this story. But I didn't say that we didn't think this way either when we came up with this competition. So you can imagine our faces when we saw the biggest advantage in front of the best player. A child who would have had a tight game even without any advantage, because they are really good at abstract games. The children won. And so did we, because when such decisions are made, when they play a system like this and are right, then the educator is happy.

Dóra Marton's illustrations


But here we're not talking about the classic unboxing, but rather about when we dismantle or unfold a box. Why, you might ask?

One of the aspects of board gaming is that sooner or later a pair, a group, a team of kids, or anyone really gets hooked on a specific game. Those who play together a lot will find a shared gaming experience they want to relive over and over again. I could list quite a few such games, many of them not very exciting stories because they are some funny party game that we then had to hide so it wouldn't be constantly brought out, and there are those that are just a regular obsession for a few people. But there is one that beautifully connects to our beginnings at the Toldi Tutorial Center.

We managed to play Carcassonne so much in one summer that I've barely seen it since. But back then, we were very proud of it and loved it a lot. It's a real classic, an essential title among modern board games, which, while not too difficult, requires a good deal of thought. Especially when talking about a group of kids who had played few games of similar depth at that time. The frenzy that developed around Carcassonne was one of the first strong indicators that something good was happening in Told under the banner of board game pedagogy.

So we reached a point where they wanted to play it on the soccer field, in the grass. Playing cards before and after physical activity, lying in the shade on the grass is a pretty good thing and remains a regular gaming experience for us to this day, but Carcassonne isn't quite suitable for this. It requires a fair amount of space and a flat surface. So we looked for a large box, unfolded it and took it to the field. We even have a photo of this, where I'm playing with a young adult and a primary school boy, watched by a kindergartener. It's nice to look at this picture, and it shows you can play anywhere and anything.


I strongly believe that situations can be interpreted in very different ways, and thorough analysis is essential for choosing our reactions, even in seemingly clear-cut situations.

Breaking rules and stealing are unacceptable, and it's hard to imagine a pedagogical situation where such actions can be reframed positively for the perpetrator.

Once, during an outdoor camp session, one of the boys stole the Inferno card game from the volunteers' and educators' bag. An apt title in this context. We only realized it when we saw them playing with it.

Obviously, the game must be stopped, the cards returned, and depending on the style, the act should be punished.

But let's look at the situation again and pay closer attention. Kids are sitting and playing. It was immediately clear that they were playing by the rules. On a second glance, it was also evident that we hadn’t taught the younger players this game yet. And then it should have been noticed that there was no adult with them. So, the one who stole the game from the bag recruited a team, taught them the rules, and led the game.

If this had been planned, we could have patted ourselves on the back for getting a child to be so proactive with board games. But how does the theft change the situation? He should have done something else at the time, as the program was different, and he also reached into a forbidden place and took an item belonging to someone else. I am convinced that from the child's perspective, this is irrelevant.

If anyone is to be criticized, it's us, the educators of the situation. We are the ones who did not assess the situation correctly, who did not realize in time what the boy was capable of (if I remember correctly, he was about 6 years old), who thus could not control or shape the events in this direction. So, the punishment was omitted, but of course, we clarified that next time he should not take things out of others' bags. However, the essence was the gameplay itself and the creation of a game situation without adults. All this is a matter of joy and pride.

To be cowardly afraid

Fear and uncertainty have many faces.

In April 2014, I wrote in the tutoring center's blog that we were mistaken about Dixit. After a year of intensive board gaming, we only dared to introduce it to the children. A groundbreaking, world-conquering, and since then indispensable family classic. We thought they couldn't play it well enough. Not because it has a very complicated set of rules, but because it requires something our children didn't have. And yes, if I imagine an ideal typical Dixit game, it is very different from what we saw. But let's admit that my previous sentence makes no sense. How can I imagine a game session if I don't know who is playing? If the our children play differently than we do, does it mean one way of playing is incorrect? They sat down, said things about pictures, guessed pictures. So they played Dixit. Many of them. And joyfully.

Another fear comes to mind. Jungle Speed. A huge wooden totem that needs to be grabbed. A fast-paced game where it's easy to argue over who was quicker, whether the duel was still valid or an action card overruled it, whether the cards were flipped correctly, and so on. And then there's the huge, hard, wooden totem. We waited until 2016 to play this game, which by then had become our iconic team-building fun for the volunteer and educator team, with children. And do you know what happened when we finally took a deep breath and showed the game to the kids? Nothing. They loved it. If I have to recall the top five Jungle Speed quarrels, there are never any kids involved. Only us, adults. We, who protect and worry about the children.


I believe silence isn't the truest medium of board gaming, as doing something together naturally brings interactions. Yet, it's understandable why an educator might be drawn to silence. The hustle and bustle belong to the children. It's good to listen to it. And it's also possible to get tired of it. However, creating silence isn't easy; it rarely arrives on request or command. I have strong experiences related to silence in three games.

The silence of Fruit Mix. My favorite Hungarian-developed card game is quite simple: you need to remember what you already have and look for what you still need. It requires a level of introspection rarely encountered. You casually draw cards, chat, look around, as usual, then gradually you dare not look away, you start chanting numbers in your head - whether you're a child or an adult - searching for the rhythm of your memory. And you become silent.

The silence of Kiwi. We follow the path of a kiwi, but only in our minds. We interpret movement cards, step in thought, and suggest the path, imagining the little kiwi where we think it is. This game doesn't immediately lead to silence. You can start it with usual chattering and looking around, but the game's response to this is to give very few points. And if you understand this, you become silent.

The silence of Happy Salmon. Know it? Two minutes of madness. Loud clapping and high-fives. It revs you up and winds you down. And then I introduce a new rule: no talking. Nothing remains but the whoosh of movements, the shuffling of shoes, the thud of cards. Everyone quieted down.

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Spread the Fun of Learning!

Love our content? Show your support by sharing our page with your friends and help us inspire more families and educators with the joy of learning through play! Your shares truly make a difference. Thank you for being a wonderful part of our community!

Spread the Fun of Learning!

Love our content? Show your support by sharing our page with your friends and help us inspire more families and educators with the joy of learning through play! Your shares truly make a difference. Thank you for being a wonderful part of our community!

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