We like to play homemade board games here and I like to use board games as a way of getting the children to practice different skills. Today it occurred to me that I could write a blog post about some of the possible variations in board games. This is a sort of mix and match recipe book for how to make your own board game.

The basic ingredient is a board with a path drawn out on it. One simple way to do this is to draw a big S on a piece of paper and then a second S alongside, and to divide this pathway up into little squares. Or you can draw a path around the outside of a square (like a monopoly board) or a circular path.  Circular paths lend themselves to games where you need to do more than one loop of the board and/or where you can change direction. I have used circular games where I’m trying to encourage a child to work on memorizing something, whether it is multiplication questions or sight words or homophones. One question/word/example is written on every square and whomever lands on it needs to answer the question, read the word or use the homophone in context. Using a small circle and doing several loops on it we can practice the same ten facts over and over.

## Different board games can have different goals.

A few of the possible goals include:

Getting To the End First

This is the basic “race game.” The board might be marked with obstacles that make a person move backwards, with spaces that vault a person ahead or with alternative paths one can take only if you land on a certain square.

Winning can be a matter of the luck of the dice or it can be made more complicated. Players might have to answer questions to be able to move on (like a math question, or reading a word, or spelling the name of an object drawn on the board). Missing the question might make a person loose a turn. If I’m playing against a child, I often have it where I have to answer wrong at least a portion of the time and if he catches me answering it wrong, then I get whatever penalty he gets when he answers wrong, but if he doesn’t catch me, then the penalty does not apply. This forces him to mentally answer all the questions I do, makes the penalty for wrong answers seem more fair (because it applies to me too) and allows me a way to purposely slow down if I’m too far ahead and I want him to have time to catch up.

Picking objects up
In some of our games one of the goals is to pick one or more small objects up. If we’re using a circular board, the goal might be to pick up one object from each square and we might use a different set of objects for each person (one person gathering nickels, another pennies). This is particularly good if there are questions on the board and I want the child to answer every question.
Another variation would be to race to pick up as many of one object as one can. If you are going only once down the board, this means that the person to roll the smaller number and have to take more turns is likely to gain more of the objects. On the other hand, if there is only one object on each square, then the slower person is likely to land on more empty squares where the pieces have already been taken. Or perhaps objects are just on random squares and not every square awards the player with an object. Then luck of the die is going to have more of an effect.

A further variation would be to have a specific benefit to certain objects. For example, the goal could be to build a lego car, with different lego pieces on different squares. In that case you would want to either have plenty of extra wheels and important pieces to go around or limit the number of any particular type of piece that a person is allowed to pick up, so that the other players are able to build their cars too.

Laying Objects Down

In this variation we each have a pile of math tiles (or blocks, or differently colored coins) ready to put down on whichever squares we land on. The angle circle game I wrote about earlier is one variation of this. The goal can be to put an object down on every square where it doesn’t matter whether or not your opponent has already put an object down on that square. Or you can play it where objects are stacked and the person whose marker is put on last controls that square, and the person controlling the most squares wins.

Catching the Other Player

This works best on a small circular board. You can play it where both players are trying to capture the other (by landing on the same spot) or you can play it where one player is trying to run away and the other catch up. A player trying to escape needs to have another goal, like to survive for a set amount of time, or to pick up all of a type of object or to circle the board a set number of times.)

## Yet More Possible Variations to Games.

A few more variations include:

• Having to decide which direction you go can encourage a child to mentally count out the squares before he moves his man and encourage him to think through his strategy.
• Having more than one man on the board. Decide ahead of time whether players are required to name which player they will move before they roll or whether they can choose after they roll.
• Allowing players a choice of how to use the dice.  Choose the rules at the beginning of the game, depending on the skill level of the players, the layout of the board and the goal. Perhaps players can use two dice and then choose to add, subtract or multiply the numbers on the dice. Perhaps the number on the red die must be subtracted from the black die, and a negative number means you move backwards.

Board games can be themed. The board can be decorated with pirate pictures, castles and knights, space travel, fairytales or any other theme you can think of. Obstacles on the board can be accompanied by a story. There is endless variety.

In case all this possibilities seem to overwhelming, I offer one example of a game my four year old and I played today and this free printable copy of the board. It is called Cat and Mouse. One person plays the cats, one person plays the mouse. Little markers representing cheese are placed on the star locations and all animals start in their homes. The mouse player rolls the die, chooses which mouse to move and moves the appropriate number of places. Then the cat  player has his turn. The cat player has to try to land on the space the mouse is on. The mice to try to collect all four pieces of cheese. If you want to make it harder for the mice than the mice have to make it home afterwards. The mouse-player wins if the cheese are retrieved, even if one of the mice perishes in the process. If you land on “roll again” or “go home” then you do what it says. I created the game quickly because I wanted a fairly easy game that would encourage my little one in plotting out where different rolls would take him before he choose which one to move.

After a couple of games my son drew on a few more special places. He added “lakes” where if you landed you lost a turn. I think another option would be to have one “cat-nap” location where if the cat lands on it that cat has to return to his bed and remain there for the rest of the game. I doubt the square would be used much, but it would be an extra challenge for the cat.

I allow my children to modify the games I make up and I encourage them to make up their own. Making up and then playing one’s own game encourages a child to think through the implications of different rules. What makes a game fair or unfair? What makes a game challenging? What happens if you have too many “go back to the start” spaces? I think the kids enjoy having times when they can make up a game that is crazily unfair and they can laugh as I circle forever in a loop back to the beginning.

From here you might want to go to my page Five Steps to Making Games to Math with Children at Different Levels. That post was born out of my attempting to find games that could challenge different children in different ways.  Or you might want to check out my post on making your own UNO-Style card game to practice all sorts of skills. I also have a post about a super simple math game.  You can also find ideas for using dominoes to teach different math skills at my post on that topic.

If you enjoy thinking through the rules of games, you might also be interested in the endless patterning games, as described on my other blog post: Endless Patterning Game(s).

If you enjoy games with a story or theme, you might enjoy my blog post about a game for Making Your Own Oz Story (includes printable game-cards).

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