Teaching the Underground Railroad with a Board Game

Freedom:  The Underground Railroad

Freedom: The Underground Railroad teaches players about an important historical event.
Image: Boardgamegeek.com

Early childhood educators understand the value of play as a teaching tool. They dismiss the idea that play is meaningless or a waste of time and insist that it can be valuable for teaching children important concepts. The same can be said for older students and adults as well.

In case you missed it, board games have made some pretty huge leaps in the last two decades. The days of Candyland and Monopoly are long gone and, spurred especially by European designers, board games have matured considerably. Contemporary board games, sometimes called “hobby games,” depend on far more complex design theory than a lot of classing board games. The game ending because everyone stopped having fun and wanted to quit is a thing of the past. If you know where to look.

The best games, and those with the most interesting and demanding concepts, are often made by smaller companies, such as Academy Games, which specializes in historical board games. One such game, Freedom: The Underground Railroad, is an excellent example of a game that can teach its players quite a lot about American history.

The game is cooperative, in that everyone either wins or loses together — a concept that would have been mostly unthinkable a few decades ago — and the players take on the role of conductors in the underground railroad. They have to use the resources they can scrape together to help a number of slaves escape to Canada before too many are sold to plantations. They have to deal with slave catchers and an increasingly hostile political environment, represented by various cards that make the game more difficult.

The game is steeped in history, and the events and actions depicted are those of real historical actors. You can’t play the game without learning something. If it’s not a politician you didn’t know about, it’s an event or a law. The game takes the subject seriously, treats it with respect, and, most importantly, it helps put players into the mindset of the period in question. And that’s the goal of every history teacher.

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