Learn history through board games: Part 2

In my last post I introduced the idea that we can learn through play, and that board games are a particularly good way to do this. As an historian, I am most interested in games that teach history. Naysayers might accuse me of looking for excuses to goof off.

In addition to teaching, games can serve as a sandbox for the curious. Historians like to explore the great ‘What If’ questions, and board games provide a priceless opportunity to see those questions followed to their conclusion. What if the U.S. had ignored the communist push in Southeast Asia in the 1960s? What if Hannibal had not crossed the Alps? What if the Allies had adopted a ‘Pacific first’ approach to defeating the Axis powers in World War II?

In my last post I mentioned www.boardgamegeek.com, a website that has placed more than 70,000 board games into these categories: Abstract, Customizable, Childrens’, Family, Party, Thematic, Strategy, and War games. This post is focused on (and I am most interested in) strategy and war games because they generally deal with historical topics.

Here are a few games from which I have learned the most history:

Hannibal Photo credit: Hiew Chok Sien
Photo credit: Hiew Chok Sien

Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage

This game is set during the Second Punic War (fought between Rome and Carthage in 218-201 B.C.) and simulates the political and military conflict on both strategic and tactical levels. This is the war in which Hannibal famously brought his elephants over the Alps into Italy. I learned a great deal from this game, especially the complexity of ancient Mediterranean politics and conflict.

Hammer of the Scots Photo credit: Sean Johnson
Hammer of the Scots
Photo credit: Sean Johnson

Hammer of the Scots

‘Hammer of the Scots’ allows players to jump into the world of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and Edward Longshanks, and vie for control of Scotland.

This is the story that many people first learned from the movie ‘Braveheart,’ and moving armies around a map of Scotland makes it come alive.

The poignant lesson for me was the restriction that the geography placed on the mustering and movement of armies.

Twilight Struggle Photo credit: Chris Kirkman
Twilight Struggle
Photo credit: Chris Kirkman

Twilight Struggle

What is the best way to fight a Cold War? In ‘Twilight Struggle’ you can test your theories! This is a fascinating game that has simple rules but complex strategies. It pits the U.S. player against the Soviet player in the global passive/aggressive arm wrestling match of the 20th century. This game revolves around strategic decisions, but often forces players to focus on a particular country (e.g. Vietnam, West Germany, Afghanistan). It is a struggle to exert the most influence worldwide, and shows how delicately global affairs are balanced.

Why do games teach history so well?

Games usually include basic parameters which limit space/geography, time, and resources. These limitations are instructional, and cause us to search for creative ways to solve problems. In terms of historical scenarios, they show us what decision-makers were up against.

1. Geography as it affects decision-making

Most games include some kind of map, which limits movement in some areas (mountains, rivers, etc.) and boosts it in others (roads, etc.). Some historical lessons we can learn through the spacial limitations in board games include: The devastating effect of holding the high ground at Gettysburg, the difficulty of consolidating troops in the ancient Mediterranean (if you don’t rule the waves),  the mobility problems presented by the Norman hedges in 1944.

2. Time limitations

All games must come to an end, and they usually have a limited number of rounds or turns allowed. In historical games, rounds represent years, days, or hours, and there is incentive to complete objectives within a certain time. I am often amazed when I play historical games, at how quickly the original participants achieved their objectives, compared to how long it takes me to negotiate the same problems on the board.

3. Economy and resources

Most historical board games, especially those that are set on the strategic level, have a heavy economic component. The most basic lesson here is that conflicts, wars, and international politics are often decided financially rather than through tactical victory. Another thing we gain from practicing economics in these games is the ability to plan for the future. Games on the tactical level teach players how to make decisions with limited resources as well.

You will also develop an ability to react to, and sometimes anticipate your opponent. The military has a concept that I have found useful in this anticipation. Think about what the enemy’s most dangerous course of action (MDCOA) would be, and also his most probable course of action (MPCOA). If you are able to prepare for both of these possibilities, and stay focused on your own objective, you won’t often be caught by surprise. Gaming is a perfect place to practice this, and once you figure it out, it can easily be applied to real-life.

…Those are a few things I’ve learned from board games, but maybe I’m just goofing off.

Was this article interesting to you? Please take a moment to share it with your friends – then set a date to play a game with them!

Here are few useful links:

Facebook group for teaching history with board games

Suggested historical games at Board Game Geek

History educators who love games

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Garrett says:

    Thanks for sharing! As a gamer, I agree with your belief that games can teach history, but only in a limited sense. In his book “The Landscape of History,” historian John Gaddis asserts that historians explore history through simulation, and games can occasionally approach simulation (though some stop at simple modeling…)

    Anyway, I think one should be wary of the history learned through games though. The lessons are usually narrow because games cannot sufficiently model complexity without bogging down. They should be fun, after all. One also gets a view of history through the bias lens of the game’s creator. Take “Twilight Struggle,” for instance. It is one of my favorite games and I think that it gives the player a feel for being pulled in to peripheral issues in the Cold War, but it also propagates a too-simple bi-polar view of the Cold War in which the US and USSR are the only real actors.

    Long winded, but my argument is that games can teach history, but only in a limited sense. If players really want to learn some history, they should identify bias and supplement the experience with some additional reading…and enjoy their gaming.

    1. Zach Morgan says:

      I absolutely agree with you Garrett! One of the things that prompted me to write these articles was that I realized how often I end up looking for books on a topic because a game I played made me curious. ‘Hannibal’ is a good example – I knew next to nothing about the Punic Wars before I played that game, but it got me interested in reading books about how history actually played out.

      In the case of ‘Twilight Struggle,’ I also agree that the conflict seems a little over-simplified. One of the game’s strong points though, is that it reminds the players (U.S. and U.S.S.R.) that they are not in full control, sometimes events are out of their hands. 🙂

      It is essential to keep in mind that a board game won’t have the final word on history, but it can sure make history fun!

      1. Garrett says:

        Speaking of which, when are we going to get a game in on VASSAL? We are moving in early July, but I might have some time later this month if we get something on the calendar.

  2. Roger says:

    I think learning complex board games probably teaches more than just history or planning skills. Mathematics and good linguistic and interpretive skills are required to appreciate and play a lot of wargames. I started playing in my early teens and I think there’s a bit of a missing audience there.

    1. Zach Morgan says:

      I agree, Roger! That’s a good point, and it reminds me of an anecdotal comment someone made once about how Napoleon’s genius was not always centered on brilliant strategies or maneuvers as much as it was his ability as a logistician.

  3. Abhishek says:

    Hi Jack , I run a school in India and want to open a Gaming Hall in my school where students will play and learn . I have short-listed following games as of now :
    Maths : Math Dice , Yathjee
    Geography : International Monopoly , Risk , 10 days in Asia and Europe , Axis Vs Allies and Ticket to Ride
    History : Twilight Struggle

    Please tell me games for following areas :
    Anatomy , Geology , Economics, Nature etc. or any other you wish

    1. Zach Morgan says:

      Abishek – thanks for your interest! While my focus here is history, I really enjoy all kinds of games, and my favorite economics game is Power Grid. I highly recommend visiting http://www.boardgamegeek.com and asking your question on the forums there too. You will find a wealth of info there!

  4. Julien says:

    Nice article. I am searching for board games about history. Yesterday I read about “levee en masse”, from victory points. This game seems to have cards for all major events of the French revolution (and anti-revolution coalitions) between 1789 and 1802. You have to manage internal and external threats, and switch from monarchy to republic at the same time.

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