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Saturday, February 17, 2018

Why Do Block War Games Teach History So Well?

Recently I discovered a highly informative article over at the Useful Historian website. In a two part post titled, Learn history through board games, the author Zach Morgan notes:

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.
In this below excerpt (reblogged with permission) Morgan elaborates upon the attributes previously listed. While he is not speaking exclusively of block wargames, we often find these aspects present in games of the genre:

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.

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.

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.

Kinesthetic Learning   

There is one other quality that I would point to beyond that which the Useful Historian noted in his article: kinesthetic learning. We know from educators that people learn through visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (tactile) means. Block wargames beautifully incorporate these methods. Seeing the blocks  present on the map board, seeing the historical setting and terrain, while rolling dice and moving blocks all serve to bring to life history for both child and adult. History is lifted off of the one dimensional pages of a text book and brought to life on a table.

In this age of online gaming and electronic tablets with thousands of downloadable game apps, let’s hope that the current resurgence of board games can further connect the children of the present with the glorious history of our past!

Pictured: Crusader Rex by Columbia Games (2005).


  1. What a thoughtful read. Thanks! :D

    1. You’re welcome Alan! Please follow the blog and watch for more posts whch illustrate how we can learn about our past through the war games of today.


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