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:
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’ 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.
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.
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Here are few useful links: