Last July, I and my colleagues killed Hitler. OK, we did not literally kill Hitler. We spent two hours in a coffee shop near Ewha playing a board game called Black Orchestra. The game is a cooperative game where each player takes on the persona of an historical figure who was involved in one of several plots to kill Adolf Hitler before and during WW II. When I had first read the rules, I thought we would easily complete our task, but just as in history, we had an extremely hard time accomplishing our objective. The clever dynamics of the game mimicked Hitler’s growing power and the attending risks for anyone who plotted against the Nazi regime. In the end, we managed to pull it off in a last-chance gamble before our characters were captured or the war ended. Although abstracted, the game is thematically rich, with historical events impacting every turn. It doesn’t hurt that it was fun as well.
My students know that I am an avid board game fan. My board game collection is weighted toward pivotal historical events, especially in the realm of international relations, war, and politics, with titles ranging from Hannibal (the Punic Wars), Here I Stand (Protestant Reformation), The Injin War: 1592 (Medieval Japan’s invasion of Korea), to 1960: The Making of the President (the Kennedy/Nixon election) and Kremlin (political machinations in the Soviet Union). I’ve designed several board games, including Hegemony, based on the ancient Greek city states and a few mini-simulations for my freshmen classes. This summer I did preliminary research for a new game I’m titling Spark of a Diviner Fire, based on the Taiping Rebellion in 19th century China.
I see historical board games as an adjunct to studying history. Board games can inform, illustrate, and heighten interest. They can highlight causal relationships of events. One of my favorite YouTube historical board-game reviewers is Marco Arnaudo, an American professor who teaches a course at Indiana University that synthesizes historical text and board games to give students a better sense of how and why important historical decisions were made. Professor Philip Sabin uses a similar approach at Kings College London to create a more enriching experience for students taking courses on military history.
Both professors inspired me to employ Aftershock last year in a freshmen class for the Department of International Studies. Based loosely on the humanitarian crisis following the Haiti earthquake of 2010, Aftershock is designed to simulate the problems of coordinating efforts of NGOS. Aftershock has been used in the Canadian Disaster and Humanitarian Response Training Program and as pre-deployment training for the US military. You might call it a serious board game, or a “simulation” if you have trouble with the word game in the context of academia. Before taking on roles of NGOs in Aftershock, my students first read pro-and-con essays written by members of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) critiquing the international response to Haiti. The game experience drove home the point that there is no quick fix for disasters of scale since they invariably involve painful tradeoffs regardless of good intentions.
If I could, I would design an entire class around teaching history through board games. For now, I remain delighted to play a game or two with students or teachers who also find historical board games an interesting venue to explore the “what ifs” and “whys” of history. If you’re interested, I’m game!