Teaching Political Theory by Letting Students Play Games
Mika Luoma-aho
Finland
Rovaniemi
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Mine is a familiar story: teenager plays RPGs, then wargames and some AH boardgames. Then he grows up, gets his degrees, married and kids. Years pass. Two years ago finds Euros and falls in love. Now, I am a boardgamegeek (and this is my first geeklist).

I am also a political scientist. I was trained in the UK and now teach International Relations and political theory at a Finnish university. This is a serious business.

Fortunately I am in a position, where I can pretty much call my shots and do my thing. It does not take a long time for a gamer/political scientist to look up Proper Game Theory, find it utterly boring, and look for other ways to incorporate a favourite pastime into a curriculum. About a year it took. This January, I recruited another fellow gamer/post-graduate philosopher, and we premiered a course in "Political Game Theory". Our theory was that if we start with a dead-serious lecture on Hegel (and a good number of other serious continental business-men) we can go on doing whatever we want -- that is: play games with our students. This we did.

This is a list of the games we played (and some others we considered). Please add items worth a try next ac. year. There is something I would like you to consider before doing so. Firstly, about a dozen students will enroll and I have to prioritse games that (either) accommodate the (a) whole group or (2) take at least half a dozen students, so we can split the group in two. Secondly, I want to teach a lesson in political theory. I am not picky: any lesson is a lesson learned -- what I am looking for is any piece of pedagogic wisdom I can articulate in terms of political theory (see items 1-3).

Here we go.
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1. Board Game: Werewolf [Average Rating:6.75 Overall Rank:726]
Mika Luoma-aho
Finland
Rovaniemi
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After meticulous scrutiny of the Geek and other sources, we decided to start out with Werewolf a.k.a. The Mafia Game. It was the first time we had played anything with students and moderated Werewolf, so basically anything could have gone horribly terribly wrong. Fortunately nothing did.

We printed the Red Scare cards from the Geek, introduced basic concepts and rules of the game and went on to moderate. Only one of the students had played before years ago, and it did take a couple of (game) days before anyone really knew what was going on. When they began to realise how the game plays and how to play it, it was fun to watch and even the "dead" players had a good time -- everyone wanted to stay and see the last team standing. Communists won, thanks to this small quiet girl who gave everyone a masterclass in Machiavelli. It was a good game for the students and a sigh of relief for the teachers.

The theoretical point I tried to pick up from the game concerned the symbiotic relationship between politics and uncertainty. Basically: where there is doubt, there is politics. For example: take heliocentrism, i.e. the idea that the sun is the centre of our solar system. Since the 16th century this has not been a political question, because it is pretty much 100% settled that it is indeed the earth that goes around the sun, not the other way around. When we simply don't know or can't be sure what happens in outer space (pre-Copernicus) or who is or is not a communist (or Werewolf, or Mafioso), we have talk politically: try to persuade other people to accept our point of view. When doubt becomes anxiety, even fear, politics reigns.

Werewolf is a great game, and will start our course again come next year.
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2. Board Game: Playing Politics [Average Rating:7.50 Unranked]
Mika Luoma-aho
Finland
Rovaniemi
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This book by Michael Laver encouraged me to give this class. Laver is a political science professor at NYU and has made a career of the (boring) Game Theory thing. But he is not boring, because he has played political games with his students all over the world and written an excellent book about it.

What Laver attempts is "to distil some of the essence of [...] real political interactions and to present them as simple games that anyone can play. The reason for doing this is not just so that everyone can have fun and not at all to suggest that politics is a trivial process. Everyone really ought to have fun and politics may indeed seem trivial to certain world-weary eyes, but I do hope that exploring the simplified dilemmas that follow will give people at least some sort of a feel for the fascinating complexity of real-world politics."

This I feel he accomplishes. Playing Politics is a collection of games that can easily be played with limited accessories: pen & paper, deck of cards and the like. We played the first game in the book -- and according to Laver quite possibly the nastiest game in the book -- called Primitive politics. What is needed is lots of fake money and a trough. I took the role of the moderator ("Nature") and divided the money evenly among the students. At the start of each round, each player pays dues of, say, 20 000 to Nature in order to stay alive. Nature throws all these dues in the trough and doubles the money from her own, unlimited resources. Nature then auctions the contents of the trough to the players. Any player can bid any amount by placing the amount of each bid, in cash, on Nature's table. Previous bids can be raised. The auction ends when no further bid has been made after Nature has asked three times for one. Nature then gives the entire contents of the trough to the player making the highest bid and takes all of the bids on the table for herself.

The game is much like poker without cards. The money you put on the table is no longer yours: you are bidding to win the pot. What makes the auction political is that while the players may do whatever deals they like with each other, Nature will only accept bids from, and will only give the contents of the trough to, a single player. It will quickly become clear that some form of co-operation between players is necessary -- otherwise everyone loses money all of the time. This is how Primitive politics teaches a lesson in politics and trust. After a few rounds the players are divided into two or three "parties" led by "politicians", who make the bids and divide the pot among their "comrades". In this game all this happens naturally, and the reason it does is that people have trust in other people. Where there is trust there also is, of course, a risk of betrayal, which makes the game all the more interesting. In the end, it is the player with the most money that wins the game. One well-timed sellout and you could be it..

An excellent game that will certainly feature in next years course.
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3. Board Game: Lifeboats [Average Rating:6.64 Overall Rank:902]
Mika Luoma-aho
Finland
Rovaniemi
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I landed this game on eBay last year, playtested it and absolutely loved it. I thought this might be a good game to teach voting and negotiation. I divided the group in two. The first group had the right chemistry for the game and the session was a success. With the other group this was a miss, I'm sorry to say. Negotiation makes this game tick, and if people don't do that for some reason, it becomes a pretty meaningless show of hands.

After trying this, I hesitate to give my students anything too heavy or game-y to play with. It has to be fairly simple and things have to move along without rulebooks and such. If I am to try anything like this with them again, I'll post them the rules beforehand so that they know what to expect.
 
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4. Board Game: Power Grid [Average Rating:7.99 Overall Rank:11]
Mika Luoma-aho
Finland
Rovaniemi
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I really like this game and I can't think of a better one to teach a lesson on politics and resources. But I am not offering this as part of my course, though. The problem with Power Grid is that it probably overwhelms the average politics undergraduate. No offence to my students, they are a smart lot, but you would have to be a bit of a gamer to grasp the multitude of things going on here.

Still: I need a game to teach about politics and resources. Any ideas?
 
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5. Board Game: Die Macher [Average Rating:7.68 Overall Rank:96]
Mika Luoma-aho
Finland
Rovaniemi
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I have this one but it is still shrinkwrapped, waiting for the right moment. I imagine this game would give an excellent lesson on the workings of parliamentary democracy, but the problems of Power Grid as a teaching tool apply here. Just too much game.
 
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6. Board Game: Koalition [Average Rating:6.37 Overall Rank:3865]
Mika Luoma-aho
Finland
Rovaniemi
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I bought this one with this course in mind, but opted not to play it. Having read some of the reviews I began to have reservations about the 2nd ed. rules; they are probably broken. I need to play this with my gaming group first to see if there are problems. I do need a good game with voting and negotiation and this takes up to ten players.
 
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7. Board Game: Ideology: The War of Ideas [Average Rating:6.23 Overall Rank:2404]
Jimmy Lin
Canada
Toronto
Ontario
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How about this one, I've never played it myself but I was intrigued by its theme when I first saw it and it fits your class quite well.

The problem is that the game only accomodates 5 players and might be too game-y as you describe it.

just thought this game is a perfect fit on this list.
 
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8. Board Game: I'm the Boss! [Average Rating:6.87 Overall Rank:640]
Un Streetfighter avec un doctorat
Canada
Edmonton
Alberta
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I've never played this one, but I believe you could teach coalition formation with it...
 
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9. Board Game: Poleconomy [Average Rating:5.36 Overall Rank:10361]
Un Streetfighter avec un doctorat
Canada
Edmonton
Alberta
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The rules are very loose, so some house rules are needed, but it has inflation rates, deficit (through bond emissions), taxation, and voting. Anyone who has played Monopoly will get it quickly.
 
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10. Board Game: Diplomacy [Average Rating:7.09 Overall Rank:363]
Hunga Dunga
United States
Portland
Oregon
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Diplomacy is the ticket. Seven players, and you can have more than one person play one country. Because the game needs a gamesmaster, you can play that role. The rules are simple, and even though the game can go on for 6 hours, it's really easy to put it away and set up again.

I've done this with Grade 8 students and it's worked beautifully. Message me if you want more details.
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11. Board Game: Genoa [Average Rating:7.21 Overall Rank:294]
Hunga Dunga
United States
Portland
Oregon
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Total negotiation and positioning, all the time. No downtime. Five players max. But this game really shines. You have to always be open to possibilities, and EVERYTHING is negotiable!
 
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12. Board Game: A Game of Thrones (first edition) [Average Rating:7.35 Overall Rank:191]
Hunga Dunga
United States
Portland
Oregon
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A bit like Diplomacy, but it takes less time to play. 5 players, the expansion adds a sixth. This could be played in teams as well. Not as elegant as Diplomacy, but this game incorporates economic factors into the game affecting the ability to both build and concentrate forces.

The fantasy theme gives it a bigger audience than Diplomacy.
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13. Board Game: So Long Sucker [Average Rating:6.25 Overall Rank:6440]
J C Lawrence
United States
Campbell
California
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Purpose made for your needs, clearly illustrates many aspects of economic theory crossed with political theory, especially as regards emergent coalitions, dynamic incentive systems and the manipulation of trust.
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14. Board Game: Intrigue [Average Rating:6.38 Overall Rank:1385]
J C Lawrence
United States
Campbell
California
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Intrige doesn't do as well as So Long Sucker in most of the ways that you are interested in, but has the advantage of more clearly rewarding the connections between leverage, value and trust in negotiations.
 
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15. Board Game: Mid-East Peace [Average Rating:5.05 Overall Rank:10455]
Kent Reuber
United States
San Mateo
California
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Up to 6 players. Each player plays a Mid-East country. The game can either end in War or Peace, and the victory conditions are different for each. Countries can also ally with the US or USSR.
 
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16. Board Game: Succession: Intrigue in the Royal Court [Average Rating:5.77 Overall Rank:6587]
Kent Reuber
United States
San Mateo
California
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The king is choosing a successor. Rather than being the successor candidates themselves, players are kingmakers (toadies if you prefer) who are creating intrigues and trying to control the "spin" which will elevate them in the eyes of the various candidates. At the end of the game, the king will appoint a successor and the player with the highest reputation with that candidate will win.
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17. Board Game: Pax Romana [Average Rating:7.26 Overall Rank:1324]
 
Colin Hunter
New Zealand
Auckland
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I did a lot of political science in my undergraduate degree. This sort of game I wish I had played at university. Well this is more on the compicated side, but I think it is a lesson in lots of different political ideaologies, especially foreign relations/
Themes
War is bad, but are the alternatives can be worse?
Can you trust your neighbours?
How much deterence do you need?
When will bribery work?
The power of mutual interest
The necessity of public support for war
Asymetric positions.
The difficulties of power projection.
Realism vs Idealism

However it is a rather complicated game for non gamers so it might not be ideal.
Many Card Driven Games could work well, like Here I Stand, Twilight Struggle, or even Free at Last (which is a cool free print and play that explores the civil right movement).
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18. Board Game: Colonial Diplomacy [Average Rating:6.64 Overall Rank:2562]
James Davis
Australia
Canberra
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Another Diplomacy Style Game, but with a different geographical area.
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19. Board Game: Kremlin [Average Rating:7.02 Overall Rank:574]
VETRHUS of Rogaland
United States
Milwaukee
Wisconsin
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An ash I know, Yggdrasil its name. With water white is the great tree wet; thence come the dews that fall in the dales. Green by Urth's well does it ever grow.
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KREMLIN: A method of humorously broaching the subject of corruption in politics using the former Soviet Union as a model.

With the rare Revolution variant, the actual historical figures, and the propensity for executions, it is interesting as a pseudo-history lesson.

Although it is rather sensationalized, there are several interesting notions: certain politicians would be strong or weak in certain positions; individual interests can buy votes or influence; the chain of command is utilized when certain political entities are unable to fulfill the duties of their position; supporters of ideals may rise up after the former leader is deposed (or deceased); and that politics takes a serious toll on the health of the politician--especially in corrupt systems.

I always find this fascinating, and engaging. Humor can be quite an educator, and metaphor can often teach what direct instruction cannot...
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20. Board Game: Mall of Horror [Average Rating:6.71 Overall Rank:842]
Zachary Woolever
United States
Unspecified
Illinois
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I dont know if this game would fit it is up to a max of six players but i think that can could be over come with some homemade pieces. This might be to gamey but it seems like it has some of the same ideas you said earlier.
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21. Board Game: Illuminati: Deluxe Edition [Average Rating:6.57 Overall Rank:992]
Dan Reger
United States
Issaquah
Washington
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This game might have too many rules, given your description of what you're looking for. However, you might explore it and/or use it as a basis for another game. My description below will make more sense to those familair with the game, but will impart a touch of the flavor, I hope.

This may be the only game I've played which actually made friends angryangry which might not be good for a classroom, but the game provides an environment for some power dynamics between the weak and strong.

I recall a particular session in which I'd managed to cobble together a solid position and on a particular turn my opponents were all somewhat weakened from recently acquiring new groups. After collecting my income I threatened each in turn, taking a payoff in return for not attacking them. This is completely legal and within the bounds of the game. (Such an attack would have cost me money, but would have likely resulted in my taking over one or more of their groups, leaving them seriously weakened.)

I didn't have enough money - or actions - to attack them all, but could have seriously harmed any single other player while strengthening myself. After each had paid their "protection money" I then earned a 5 MB bonus for passing my turn, as I hadn't taken any "game action." The bankroll thus acquired positioned me well for later victory.

One alternative would have been for one of them to refuse to pay, "taking one for the team" as it were. Then I wouldn't have the power left to extort the others - though I selected the order in which I threatened carefully to account for this possibility. Alternatively they could have formed an aliance against me, which would have forced me to attack and weaken the player with the second strongest position. The mechanics of the game, and the fact that each player is really playing for themselves, makes any such alliance temporary, however.

This game is on the opposite end of the spectrum from "cooperation" games, I think - you'll often grow faster by taking from your opponent, though it then becomse difficult to defend all the groups you control from the other players.

This game is American-culture-centric, now that I think about it, and while I feel it takes fairly equal shots at everyone, the very fact that you could have, for example, Madison Avenue controlling the Republicans who in turn control the Democrats (or vice versa) could upset some people.

Perhaps best to pull ideas from this one - but it's sure more political than your average game.
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22. Board Game: Origins of World War II [Average Rating:5.72 Overall Rank:7013]
Frank Eisenhauer
United States
Atlanta
Georgia
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Have a look at this one. It's inthe Gamut of games, downloadable on the geek or relatively cheap to have as the Avalon Hill Bookcase edition. There is also a WW I Variant. It was designed as a teaching tool, so it should be right up your alley.
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23. Board Game: Quo Vadis? [Average Rating:6.46 Overall Rank:1294]
Frank Eisenhauer
United States
Atlanta
Georgia
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And another one, along the sames lines as Lifeboat but set in Rome.
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24. Board Game: Tribes [Average Rating:6.44 Overall Rank:5559]
Frank Eisenhauer
United States
Atlanta
Georgia
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This is probatly the best of my suggestions. Accomodates however many players you like. Every "Tribe" chooses its own form of government, creates its own laws and customs. Aim of the game is to be the most succesful tribemember by having born / fathered the most children. But you can't win if the tribe dies out because everybody is to selfish. The game is cheap (under US$ 20,-), easy to get and perfect for your purposes. GO, CHECK IT OUT !!!
And no, I don't get money from SJG for writing that!
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25. Board Game: First Past The Post [Average Rating:6.33 Unranked]
Tony Ackroyd
United Kingdom
Brighton
E Sussex
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Try this one. Its published by a BGG user called Luke Morris and is available on BGG for free!

Having read the rules it seems like a much simplified version of Die Macher, set in the UK.
 
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