Forget History Books — Bring on the Board Games

Why you should care

Because, for better or worse, playing these games could determine how the next generation interprets history.

Richard Ham, aka Rahdo, says he’s spent “hundreds and hundreds” of hours blathering about board games in nearly 500 video reviews. These are games like Brew Crafters (in which you make beer) and Lap Dance (in which … you guessed it). But there’s also one that inspires the Malta-based video game designer and critic. He becomes visibly choked up, in fact, when describing it: a game called Freedom: The Underground Railroad, in which players assume the role of abolitionists running slaves through the Underground Railroad. “Should you enjoy this game?” Ham asks at one point in his review.

Classrooms have long used games to teach history, but some education experts say today’s board games are maturing rapidly, allowing designers to tackle unprecedented subjects — many of which still have educational value. Navajo Wars (available for $155 through Amazon) pits players against a constantly changing and aggressive army made up of Spanish, Mexican and, of course, American soldiers. Other, unreleased games in the works feature storylines on different Native American tribes and even Mexican kitchen workers. Though no one tracks this sliver of historical board-game sales, overall the industry grew from $735 million in 2013 to $880 million last year, according to ICv2, a trade publication. “Games … immerse people in a way that movies and books don’t, because games are participatory,” says Brian Mayer, a gaming and library technology specialist who designed Freedom and also organizes educational services for 20 school districts in the state of New York.

For Joel Toppen, creator of Navajo Wars, the game was a medium to tell old stories in a new way. After living among the Navajo for 20 years, he made the game partly to fight back against caricatures of native culture — and it has paid off, with a print run that sold out in just over a year. Toppen wouldn’t disclose exactly how many he sold, but he’s working on a follow-up about the Comanche tribe. His games position Native Americans not necessarily as heroes but as protagonists, allowing participants to embody a character often portrayed as either villain or victim in U.S. history.

These games are powerful, but also depend on a surprise — you can never play it again and experience the same realization. 

Other games focus on some of the darkest chapters of human history and try to deliver a powerful punch via a sudden reveal, much like a shocking plot twist might in a TV show, movie or book. Brenda Romero is a video game designer who turned to board games for “The Mechanic Is the Message,” a series designed for conferences or museums that express painful historical periods or experiences such as the slave trade or the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland. Romero is most well-know for Train, which gives players a series of instructions on loading yellow pegs into a train car efficiently, with periodic pauses for them to agree on rules and discuss strategy. At some point during game play, participants discover that the train is bound for Auschwitz and they’ve been virtually complicit in the Nazis’ Final Solution. 

Games like Romero’s are extraordinarily powerful, but they also depend on a discovery, a surprise — you can never play it again and experience the same horrifying realization. For designers like Mayer, re-playability is key, because the game is aimed at hobbyists and for use in educational settings. Many games today are also growing out of both the simplicity and traditionalism of video games like the Oregon Trail, a hit among schoolchildren in the 1980s that advanced a stunningly retro narrative in its original incarnation: The player embodied a pioneer, striking boldly into an empty American West, barely a Native American to be seen.

But history isn’t a new subject for games — and the power of the point of view can instill very disparate values. Look no further than board games like Vasco da Gama and Puerto Rico, which take on historical events entirely from the point of view of those exploiting native workers and colonizing new nations. Not all parents and teachers will agree these board games are for the classroom, of course. And there’s also little hard evidence that playing a game can truly alter one’s view of history, or effectively combat narratives that are deeply, culturally ingrained. 

That hasn’t stopped some from embracing certain games in their classroom. Sarah Prinzi, a teacher in New York state, says her seventh- and eighth-graders do better on exams after learning subjects through games. After her students played Freedom, which costs around $50, they couldn’t get over the fact that they lost some slaves while trying to get them to freedom in Canada. “I watched their facial expressions change,” says Prinzi, “and they kept asking me, ‘Wait, did this really happen?’”


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