Sustainable Development: It’s as easy as F-E-W

Thushara Gunda, Katherine Nelson, and Nirav Patel
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The game was designed as part of a larger lesson plan on FEW systems that was developed during a SESYNC case study workshop (funded by NSF DBI-1639145). More information about SESYNC and the larger lesson plan can be found here:

This in-class activity explores the complex challenges associated with resilient management of food, energy, and water (FEW) resources. The activity is generally designed after the Settlers of CatanTM game and requires students to use resources to develop products and sustainably establish their communities. Over the course of the game, the students will face different challenges, including unequitable distribution of natural resources and extreme weather events, which they need to navigate through. The interactive and feedback nature of the game enables students to "experience" real-world issues associated with resilient FEW resource management. The game debrief allows the students to reflect on successful strategies communities might engage in to enhance their long-term resiliency. This activity has been successfully tested in a mixed classroom setting, with freshman to senior college students with diverse backgrounds (including arts, sciences, engineering, pharmacy, and business).

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This case study is designed for use in introductory courses of any discipline that address management of natural resources by communities; suggestions are provided throughout the handout on ways to modify the case content to reflect a specific course focus.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

No skills are necessary for the game activity itself.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity can be a stand-alone exercise or be integrated into a larger lesson plan that focuses on resilience of communities managing FEW systems. Visit the associated SESYNC page for resources regarding the larger lesson plan:


Content/concepts goals for this activity

systems thinking; food, energy, and water systems; resilience; community planning

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

As a result of this activity, students should be able to describe the complex ways that FEW systems could interact with each other as well as how a particular community might be impacted by external factors (e.g., neighboring communities' behaviors and extreme events).

Other skills goals for this activity

After the activity, the students could be tasked with a writing assignment (e.g., reflection paper on their game strategy during class, and why it was/not successful) to develop their writing skills. Visit the associated SESYNC page for the policy brief assignment description and associated rubric:

Description and Teaching Materials

Game-based learning is becoming increasingly popular in teaching settings (Kwok, 2017); a significant advantage of a game-based approach is that they allow the students to experience real-world issues and challenges that are not otherwise possible. This multiplayer FEW-related game allows students to use soft-skills (such as critical thinking, negotiating, creative problem solving, and teamwork) and engage in social learning through collaborations.

The FEW game is generally designed after Settlers of CatanTM and requires students to use resources to develop products and establish their communities

. The game activity is summarized in the overview and game rules sections below (Game Overview and Rules (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 2.2MB Feb1 18)); the teacher tips section below summarizes suggestions for procuring the associated game materials. Note: the names of the communities reflect the general US regions that they are modeled after.

An example of the game activity (including a description of the setup and game rules) are captured in the following videos: Game rules overview (MP4 Video 946.6MB Sep12 17), Initial development decisions (MP4 Video 976.7MB Sep12 17), and Example game round (MP4 Video 393.9MB Sep12 17). Note: the version played in the video is slightly different than the rules described in the handout. Specifically, the water landscape patches only contain 3 resource units in the video, as opposed to the 5 resource units described in the game rules handout.

Incorporation of immediate feedback (either during game play or as part of a post-game debrief) is critical to the success of a game-based learning effort. The game debrief presents an opportunity for the students to reflect on their game experiences. After querying which communities won, ask students probing questions, such as:

  • Was there a particular reason (location, strategy, luck, etc.) that contributed to the success of a winning community?
  • What was the most challenging aspect of game play?
  • How often were collaborative (or consensus) development decisions made?
  • If you could play the game again, would you change your strategy?
  • What was one way in which the game reflected real-life? One way it didn't?
  • What could planning officials learn from playing such a game?

Teaching Notes and Tips

  • Time management
    • A 50-minute class should be organized as follows setup (~15 min), game play (~ 25 min), and game debrief (~10 min).
    • The exact time to go through the setup/game rules may vary depending on the students' familiarity games like Settlers of CatanTM, DiplomacyTM, and RiskTM.
    • Allocate at least 25 minutes of uninterrupted game play for the students. Each game round takes approximately 6 minutes. Note: students' behaviors in the game could be impacted by whether they can see the clock/pay attention to how much time is left for game play. So depending on the class focus/learning objectives, you may or may not want to share the explicit time allotted for game play.
    • Set aside at least 10 minutes for the game debrief.
  • Setup
    • We recommend setting up the game board before the start of class; it takes approximately 5 minutes to setup the post-it note board.
    • We recommend a board for every 3 players. However, depending on the class size, a community can be represented by groups of 2-3 players instead; having more than 9 players on a single board can get overwhelming to manage. If there are 10 students in the class, consider making one of the students a stand-alone banker, who is allowed to make suggestions to the communities or even, be involved in the negotiation process.
    • We recommend assigning one student to be the Banker (responsible for distributing tokens and cards), one student to be the Record-keeper (responsible for marking construction of roads, facilities, and use of resource units on the game board), and one student to be the Enforcer (responsible for making sure the Game Rules and Game Play steps are being followed).
    • Materials: The Game Material Suggestions (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 11kB Sep8 17) summarizes the various game pieces needed, amount needed per game board, and suggestions for acquiring each item.
      • Game Board (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 36kB Sep8 17) contains a possible board layout for printing
      • See for example board layout with post-it notes
      • The various cards (product cards, chance cards, population cards, and development cards) can be printed using these templates: Game Pieces (Acrobat (PDF) 916kB Sep8 17) and Game Pieces (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 4.6MB Sep8 17).
      • If you have multiple class sections in which students will play the game, consider laminating some of the materials or printing the cards on cardstock for durability purposes.
  • Game variations
    • Various aspects of the game can be modified to reflect the specific context in which this game used. For example, the game description uses generalized characteristics modeled after U.S. regions to establish context but these can be modified to specific locations in the US or even international locations.
    • If the class is sufficiently large, you could divide the class into halves, with one half explicitly informed to be cooperative with the neighbors (i.e., focus on maximizing success of all communities on the board) while the other half is embodying a competitive environment (i.e., just focus on maximizing success of your community on the board). The cooperative variation could incorporate a timing change with regards to negotiations so that they occur concurrently after each community has finished rolling the die in a given round (this would add approximately 3 minutes to each round). Just be sure to update the associated goal in the Game Overview document so that instead of "the community with most points wins," the document states "the board (i.e., sum of all communities) with most points wins."
    • Some suggestions for incorporating pollution, climate change, tragedy of the commons, and other interesting dynamics can be found on the Oil Springs website:
    • Environmental capacity limitations can be incorporated by changing the time period over which landscape patches can support populations. For example, after 3 turns, a water patch runs dry and new water resources need to be discovered.
    • Groundwater Variation: The cost of building facilities increases to 3 tokens for the 4th and 5th resource units developed on water patches. For example, once all of the easily accessible surface water in an area has been allocated, communities may drill wells to access groundwater, however access to this groundwater comes at an additional cost.
    • Transport Variations:
      • For each facility built on resource patches distant from your community (e.g., more than 3 patches away), an additional one-time payment of 1 token must be made to cover shipping costs.
      • A player may pay 2 tokens to place a roadblock on any road segment (within 2 patches of their community) in order to prevent other players from using the road to access patches.
    • The specific timing of the initial development could be varied. For example, it could occur as part of Round 1 to reflect that different cities develop at different times.
    • Environmental justice variation: Consider having communities start with different numbers of tokens. You could also modify the die roll rules (e.g., one of the communities routinely gets one less token than the odd number they roll).


The debrief following the game activity can be assessed formatively. Any written assignments following the game could be used as a summative assessment. Visit the associated SESYNC page for description about a policy brief assignment and associated rubric:

References and Resources

  • The game was designed as part of a larger lesson plan on FEW systems that was developed at a SESYNC case study workshop (funded by NSF DBI-1052875). The larger lesson plan contains extensive background material and suggestions for class activities that could be associated with this game activity.
  • Kwok (2017) "Enterprise: Game On" Nature 547, 369–371 (20 July 2017) doi: 10.1038/nj7663-369a. Accessed at: