Friday, June 27, 2014

Printable Underground Railroad Quilt Code Game

This idea has been stuck in my head for awhile, ever since I heard about how quilts were used to communicate to runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. Their patterns and blocks were a code, providing direction, signifying safety, and issuing warnings (according to some historians).

Before my son and I played the game I made, we read the perfect book to pair with this activity - The Patchwork Path: A Quilt Map to Freedom by Bettye Stroud.

Having already read a biography on Harriet Tubman, my son had a basic foundation of knowledge on the Underground Railroad. Stroud's book filled in the rest - explaining how quilt blocks held messages for Hannah and her father on their journey from a Georgia plantation to freedom in Canada.

What You Need to Play the Game
Cardstock to print the 10-page PDF on
Tape to piece the game board together
Pictures of slaves who found freedom on the Railroad (I printed
   images of Henry Bibb, Frederick Douglass, Josiah Henson, and
   Harriet Tubman on cardstock and laminated)*
Medium-sized binder clips
Paper cutter to cut the game cards

Cut the pictures so that when they are inserted into a binder clip, the faces are visible. These are your game pieces.

If necessary trim the white border (this depends on how your printer prints full-bleed pages) on your game board pages so that the map image butts up against each other. Affix the pages with tape on the back.

Cut the game cards apart and shuffle.

The Objective
Be the first to move your game piece along to Cleveland, OH (the Underground Railroad station nicknamed "Hope").

How to Play
Each player picks their game piece and places it on the start star. Everyone should be dealt three cards, which they turn over on the table to look at. (Secrecy is not important.)

Before a player can move to the first space on the game board and leave the plantation to begin their journey on the Underground Railroad, they must play the Monkey Wrench card. If it is not in their hand, they draw and discard either the card drawn or another card in their hand. Play continues this way until they draw the Monkey Wrench card and can start their journey. The same is true for the next quilt block space (Tumbling Blocks).

It may take awhile to get these cards. If you suspect that your child will grow impatient quickly, print more of page 5 and 6 on the PDF so there are more Monkey Wrench and Tumbling Block cards in the deck. Likewise, if you have more than two players, additional cards will be necessary.

Anytime a space along the railroad has a quilt block next to it, the player must play that very same quilt block card in order to move there (and beyond it).

A player can move to any space not designated with a quilt square by playing either a Log Cabin or Flying Geese card.

If a player has multiple Flying Geese or Log Cabin cards, they can all be played on his/her turn (e.g. if two Log Cabin cards are played, the player can advance two spaces). The player must always draw more cards to maintain three cards in their hand.

BEWARE! If you draw the Drunkard's Path card, you must move back 1 space. You cannot play any other cards during this turn. NOTE: if you move back to a space before a quilt square space, you do not have to replay that same quilt block card again to move forward. A Log Cabin or Flying Geese card grants you passage forward.

If you run through the entire deck of cards, simply grab the pile of cards already discarded or played and turn them over to reuse.

VARIATION: Use colored binder clips so each player has multiple game pieces (i.e. all the game pieces for Bobby have blue binder clips, while Sarah has game pieces with red clips). Every time a Monkey Wrench card is drawn, the player can begin moving a new game piece on the journey. Decide to play for 45 minutes (or so) and when the time is up, see how many game pieces for each player made it to Cleveland. The player to free the most slaves is the winner.

This is a great strategy game that piques kids' interest in history, codes, and folk art.

Got a kiddo that's interested in quilts? Or looking for a math extension of this game? What about our Quilt Square Fractions?

*Due to copyright protection, I'm not providing you with printable game pieces. A Google search should result in MANY choices, though.


  1. The game sounds very interesting and gives time for discussion along with the play. I can see some great learning happening while playing. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

  2. This sounds so fun, and a great game to play when learning about the Civil War! Thanks for creating it!

  3. This is amazing! Thank you so much! My 4th graders are sure to love it!

  4. UGRR quilt block codes are an urban myth. Please use your favorite search engine and enter "Barbara Brackman quilt code FAQs" to get historical correct information. For example, The Double Wedding Ring, Sunbonnet Sue and most of the other quilt patterns supposedly used as code did not exist before the Civil War.
    • While escaped slaves recorded signals such as whistles, songs and lanterns as useful in communicating on the run, absolutely no first person accounts of using quilts as signals exist.
    • People remembered using quilts in escapes, but they were used to warm fugitives or protect them from view. They did not serve as code.

  5. My daughter and I decided to do a lapbook on underground railroad quilts years ago because we loved the idea so much. The more we researched the more we realized that the story is appealing but it is almost certainly untrue. We ultimately did the lapbook on the myths surrounding them. has a great article about the underground railroad and how the modern stories about UR quilts came to be. They ultimately write:

    "Historians have to be careful not to blur American history with folktales or bend standards of truth to accommodate personal or financial agendas, which seems to have become the case with the Underground Railroad quilt code myth. Those that continue to perpetuate this myth without regard to the mounds of evidence proving it to be questionable if not outright false, often have a financial motive for doing so.

    We have to conclude that there was no special role quilts played in the Underground Railroad. While no one can prove a negative, it seems unlikely that quilts were used as a directional code. Worse, this type of popular myth belies the hard work and dangers faced by the true heroes of the Underground Railroad. When myths are not dispelled and the general public is allowed to believe anything, it hurts the truth of the culture and propagates false truths. History would be far better served if actual research was done on this topic so that we might honor the people who truly deserved it such as Harriet Tubman and Levi Coffin, rather than just endlessly repeating discredited myths and gossip."

  6. Thank you for this resource. We are excited to play it. Thanks so much for sharing. :)

  7. This game is genius as were those who used this method to communicate about the underground railroad! Thank you for the idea and I'll be pinning to K12's Pinterest for other students to enjoy!