We see our role as essentially defensive in nature.
Heading to College of the Holy Cross for a workshop on using boardgames in college classrooms. Here's an introductory handout I intend to use. Happy to hear your thoughts and comments.
Some elements of games
Theme: The ostensible subject of the game; what a game says it is about (World War II, handling global pandemics, collecting real estate, etc.). “Skin” refers to the thinnest layer of theme; as in a My Little Pony-skinned version of Monopoly.
Bits: The physical materials used to play the game: playing pieces, board, dice, cards, etc.
Miniatures: Three-dimensional bits representing characters, monsters, armies, and other game elements.
Game state: The current condition of a board game in play; e.g., chess diagrams represent game states in chess.
Actions: The things, specified in rules, that players can do to change the game state. For example, an action may be to move a piece of your color, or purchase a card with your game money.
Mechanics: Subsets of rules that define play. Examples of mechanics in Monopoly include the systems for moving pieces, buying properties, and collecting money. Some examples of important mechanics include:
Roll and move: The classic mechanic of many traditional board games; as was said of the game Mouse Trap, “roll your dice and move your mice.”
Worker placement: Games where players take actions by placing tokens (“workers”) on spaces representing actions.
Tile laying: Games where play centers around placing tiles in relation to each other on the table (Allhambra, Carcassonne).
Press your luck: Games highlighting players’ choices to risk game resources for rewards (Can’t Stop, Codenames).
Auction/bidding: Games highlighting auctions among players for game resources (Modern Art, Power Grid).
Card drafting: Players rotate selecting cards from a limited set (Ticket to Ride, 7 Wonders).
Deck building: Collectible card games made this system popular, wherein players draw a hand of cards from a deck that can grow and recycle.
Mini-game: Mechanics can be arranged into miniature competitions within a game (the Wine Fair mini-game in Vinhos, or the mancala action contest in Trajan).
Player position: Players occupy player positions in games, most often associated with a color (like playing the Green US forces in Axis and Allies, or the Medic in Pandemic).
Avatar: Though avatars are more prominent in videogames, it is useful to think about them in board games as well. Who, in the game, does each player position represent? In Risk, players assume the roles of abstract world powers and have no in-game avatar. In games such as Arkham Horror or Pandemic, however, players are represented in the game by cards denoting their identities and characteristics.
Game master (GM): Many games require no referee. Others, though, require a player who runs the game, often through information unavailable to players. The game master can occupy a player position (Mansions of Madness) but more often “plays” the position of the game universe.
Victory conditions: Since games require competition, there must be a way to know who wins. Victory conditions direct players toward certain strategies and away from others.
Cooperative games: Players all work together and against the game system itself (Shadows over Camelot, Forbidden Island).
Player elimination: Games where players can lose, and be removed from play, before the game ends (Risk, Monopoly).
Scoring system: Some games one can only win or lose (Checkers); others rank victory through the use of a scoring system based on the accumulation of victory points.
Theme vs. Mechanics: When asking “what is the game about?” we should be clear about this. Ticket to Ride is a game where players build historical railroad networks (theme); it is also a set-collection game about converting sets into claims on valuable boardspaces (mechanics)?
Theme and Mechanics: It is often valuable in a game for a mechanic to reflect its theme. A game about constructing ancient wonders should require the accumulation of something physical; a game about stock trading will often include cards representing stock certificates.
Types of modern board games:
This list is built on commonly-understood categories, and is purely heuristic, and neither scientific nor necessarily logical. The edges of these categories can get fuzzy and overlap (for example, Chess is a lightly-themed abstract, which can have many different skins), and board gamers get in silly flame wars over them. Don’t let this happen to you. They’re still useful.
Abstracts: Games of highly abstract representation (Mancala, Go, Checkers).
Miniatures: Games built around miniatures, whose rulesets often depend on the measurement of physical distances (Warhammer 40K).
Wargames: Games designed specifically to simulate warfare, often at a high scale of resolution. Wargames developed out of Prussian military institutions, and became a popular hobby in the 1960s and beyond. Many wargames now incorporate elements of new game technologies. Role-playing games: Assuming a role (avatar) in a world played by a game master (Dungeons and Dragons).
Collectible card games: Card games featuring many different characters and actions, which may be accumulated with extra purchases (Magic: The Gathering).
Eurogames: Best generic name for many current generation board games (aka German games, designer games), which focus on abstract bits in nostalgic settings with clever mechanics. (Catan, Agricola, Tigris and Euphrates).
Ameritrash: Often counterposed to Eurogames, these often focus on cool miniatures in fantastic settings with exciting die-rolls (Zombiecide, Blood Bowl).
We see our role as essentially defensive in nature.
The True Father of the Constitution: Delegates and Vision in Founding Fathers
In Christian Leonhard’s and Jason Matthews’s game Founding Fathers, players all compete to impact and shape the Constitution. The game relies on using cards that depict real Constitutional Convention delegates to debate, vote, or trigger a special action. The game places a high value on historicism by emphasizing mimetic learning where interesting facts and pictures of representatives are included despite serving no in-game purpose. The faction alignment and state identification also allow the voting mechanism to be both informative and playable.
However, while the game succeeds in giving historic details, the actual gameplay created through the card system often deviates from convention conditions. Where delegates had a set of interests that dictated their vision, players are incentivized to accumulate points rather than building a cohesive constitution. This is especially evident as players assume the role of a planner, a delegate of particular importance, but are not compelled to follow that figure’s goals throughout the game. While Founding Fathers’s card mechanism provides some historic details, the rule structure and victory conditions fail to evoke a historic argument making card deployment competition based rather than beholden to a historic narrative.
Founding Fathers depicts some level of historical accuracy through the facts and uses of the delegate cards. At the beginning of the game players receive a “planner” card, to represent the role “they will be playing.” The five planners, James Madison, Roger Sherman, William Patterson, Charles Pinckney, and Alexander Hamilton are distinct and chosen because they were some of the most influential members of the Continental Congress. Their label as planners helps reify their importance to the process. The rest of the delegate cards contain depictions of basic information about the representative at the convention as an exercise in mimetic learning. Each card contains the name of the delegate, the state they represent, a picture, the faction they align with, their special action, and an interesting fact or description. While this game could operate the same way and be more generic with detail, Leonhard and Matthews have decided to include this level of factuality in order to highlight the historic themes by providing information on people within the Constitutional Convention. Matthews expressed his excitement to recreate this environment from all the way back to “a course in undergrad, that was a day-by-day examination of the workings of the Constitutional Convention. It was an amazing educational experience, but the whole time I was studying it, I was thinking ‘there is definitely a game in here somewhere.’” Through the information on the delegate cards, Founding Fathers clearly tries to evoke the Convention as a theme.
The card-based voting system in many ways succeeds in mirroring the nuances of the ratification process. Just as in the actual convention, votes are cast not as individuals, but through state delegations. The majority rule decision making process within states delegations is even modeled: “To override a delegation which has already declared its vote, a player must declare the votes of a larger number of delegate cards from the same state onto the opposite side of the article.” Players are also incentivized to match how delegates vote with their historic interests. When a conventional article is passed, delegates who cast a vote on the winning side get an extra point if ratified measure matches their factional bias. Delegate cards can also enter the Committee Room where articles are decided upon, just as in the actual Convention. For delegates, their actions in the Committee Room were extremely important because it was where final Constitutional resolutions were often determined. In one case “Sherman [who] managed to serve on five key Convention committees that played a large role in settling many of the Convention's most fundamental and sensitive political issues.” As delegates vote, the mechanism mirrors some of the historical details of this process.
While Founding Fathers has a notable emphasis on mimetic learning and tries to replicate Constitutional Convention voting conditions, there is no incentive for players to actually align their playing style with a grand constitutional vision. Every player has the same objective: win, regardless of discrepancies in the types of legislation favored. Thus the game lacks an immersive quality, and historical themes are not reinforced. The root of this problem is traced to the planners’ cards. Planners all have the same powers and goal emphasis, despite the fact that they are modeled after some of the most active and opinionated members of the Convention who harbored very different views. While this might be an effort not to pigeonhole these representatives, there is also no encouragement for players to align their actions with the nuanced vision of their planners: the Madison player isn’t rewarded for shaping the constitution in line with the Virginia plan, and the Sherman player can stress large state measures. The reason behind such a choice is the complicated rules necessary to create historic oriented goals. As Matthews describes,
I try to find mechanics that fit the theme. That is key. However, I will abandon any element of a design that makes the game less fun, slower or too cumbersome. I don’t try to design “simulations” as some game designers in the 70s or 80s once attempted. I am a game designer, and to do that correctly, I try to capture the “feel” of my subject matter. The more that feel and game play mesh, the better the play experience.
However, even the feel of the game is off, as players continue to act for the purpose of accumulation of victory points rather than to achieve a historic objective in line with the delegates depicted on the cards.
The lack of greater thematic goals for each player is also seen in uses of the delegate cards. While there is incentive to line up delegates with legislation matching their faction, there is no consistency for how a player is expected to behave. Players can even deploy cards counter to their earlier actions. For a single article, a player can vote with Virginia in support of a large state proposal and the next turn with New Hampshire for small states against the very same measure. Beyond just voting the delegate cards can also be used for a debate or action function. The debate mechanism allows “a collection of delegates who share the same political viewpoint and take to the debate floor in support of their cause. The more that the final Constitution ends up favoring that faction, the more points you stand to earn by being that faction’s most eloquent spokesman.” However, in the Convention debates were tied to swaying votes not existing as an independent structure. The representation of debates as faction based also ignores the intricacy of delegate belief. Robertson writes that the coalition opposed to the Virginia plan “cannot be understood simply as small states.” Just like in the votes, the nuance of delegate motivation is lost to in game functionality. The action mechanism likewise is dominated by its purely in game benefits. While each action is loosely related fun facts about each delegate, the emphasis on points is the true focus, like Charles Cotesworth Pinckney’s action which states “if any of the state delegations from Georgia, North Carolina, or South Carolina have already declared their votes, their controlling player loses 1 point for each.” Throughout the game, incentives are opportunistic emphasizing play to accumulate points rather than historic and try to enact a certain vision. In Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames Ian Bogost emphasizes “the art of persuasion through rule-based representation rather than the spoken word,” and in the Founding Fathers the rules surrounding the delegate cards do not highlight any consistent historic argument, rather emphasizes competition and strategic gameplay.
Interestingly, some historic accounts highlight the fluidity seen through compromise and concessions representatives made during Constitutional Convention, rather than assign singular motive to delegates. Thus player’s flexibility can be interpreted as emulating this complexity, since representatives too weren’t bogged down to a single way of voting and had multiple interests. Delegate Luther Martin explains one such compromise where “ ‘the eastern States, notwithstanding their aversion to slavery, were very willing to indulge the southern States, at least with a temporary liberty to prosecute the slave trade, provided the southern States would in their turn gratify them, by laying no restriction on navigation acts.’” Delegates were able to put aside moral objections to serve fiscal interests. The player’s own desires to create a winning strategy could be seen as a stand in for the self-serving nature of much of delegate action at the Convention. But even the compromises of the convention had a historic root in delegate interests. The seeming flexibility in voting “almost always dovetailed with delegate’s constituents’ interests. His constituents’ interests colored each delegate’s arguments about the true nature of the nation’s interests.” The in game emphasis on competition for competition’s sake thus misses the point of the convention. Delegates were flexible but ultimately tried to shape the Constitution in line with regional ideals.
Games often work as an experiential process. And while Founding Fathers fosters a level of competitive exchange between players, it ultimately lacks a level of historicism. That’s not to say that the game doesn’t make an effort to reflect a historic theme. In fact, the card system contains many details and facts that could teach a player about the Convention or delegates. However, there is no incentive for a player to actually pay attention to details such as the delegate fact because the only information that proves relevant are factions, states, and actions for devising a winning strategy. The mimetic history is thus reduced to a level of window dressing. The in-game historical processes evoked through card play are also riddled with problems from lack of historically minded victory conditions. The gameplay in turn becomes opportunistic rather that cohesive. The article “Towards a Theory of Good History Through Gaming” contends “good learning involves making connections to knowledge already acquired,” and Founding Fathers falls short of reinforcing historic themes by its lack of overall historic vision.
 Christian Leonhard and David Matthews, “Founding Fathers: Planners Guide to the Constitutional Convention,” (Commerce: Jolly Roger Games, 2010), 5.
 "The Art of Design: Interviews to Game Designers #26 -- Jason Matthews," Opinionated Gamers blog (June 13, 2016)
 Christian Leonhard and David Matthews, “Planners Guide to the Constitutional Convention,” 8.
 David B. Robertson, “Madison’s Opponents and Constitutional Design,” American Political Science Review 99 (May 2005), 234.
 "The Art of Design: Interviews to Game Designers #26 -- Jason Matthews."
 Christian Leonhard and David Matthews, “Planners Guide to the Constitutional Convention,” 3.
 David B. Robertson, “Madison’s Opponents and Constitutional Design,” 229.
 Christian Leonhard and David Matthews, Founding Fathers, (Commerce: Jolly Roger Games, 2010).
 Ian Bogost, Persuaive Games: The Expressive Power of Video Games, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), vii.
 Paul Finkelman, “Slavery and the Constitutional Convention: Making a Covenant with Death,” in Beyond Confederation: Origins of the Constitution and American National Identity, Richard Beeman, et al, eds. (Chapel Hill: Omohundro/University of North Carolina Press, 1987)
 David B. Robertson, “Madison’s Opponents and Constitutional Design,” 227.
 Kevin Kee, Shawn Graham, Pat Dunae, John Lutz, Andrew Large, Michel Blondeau, and Mike Clare, “Towards a Theory of Good History Through Gaming,” Canadian Historical Review 90, no. 2 (June 2009).
"The Art of Design: Interviews to Game Designers #26 – Jason Matthews,” Opinionated Gamers blog (June 13, 2016)
Bogost, Ian. Persuaive Games: The Expressive Power of Video Games. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007.
Finkelman, Paul. “Slavery and the Constitutional Convention: Making a Covenant with Death.” in Beyond Confederation: Origins of the Constitution and American National Identity, Richard Beeman, et al, eds. Chapel Hill: Omohundro/University of North Carolina Press, 1987.
Kee, Kevin, Shawn Graham, Pat Dunae, John Lutz, Andrew Large, Michel Blondeau, and Mike Clare. “Towards a Theory of Good History Through Gaming.” Canadian Historical Review 90, no. 2 (June 2009).
Leonhard, Christian and David Matthews, Founding Fathers. Commerce: Jolly Roger Games, 2010.
Leonhard, Christian and David Matthews, “Founding Fathers: Planners Guide to the Constitutional Convention.” Commerce: Jolly Roger Games, 2010.
Robertson, David B. “Madison’s Opponents and Constitutional Design.” American Political Science Review 99 (May 2005).
Discreet Facts or Historical Processes: The Ability to Teach History in Founding Fathers
The Constitutional Convention is the most formative period of American History, taught throughout the nation at all levels of education. Founding Fathers: The Game of Strategy and Statesmanship by Christian Leonhard and Jason Matthews and published by Jolly Roger Games provides a three to five player experience that explores this period of history. As an area control game, players interact with the Assembly Room, Committee Room, and Debate Room to pass articles expressing different factional biases, gaining victory points in various ways. As a game that explicitly retells an important facet of history, it is important to evaluate the game’s value as a tool for learning history. At first glance, Founding Fathers appears to sacrifice any historical complexity for the sake of playability, especially when considering the easily-ignored facts incorporated outside of gameplay and the arbitrary use of historical skins. However, the game accurately teaches the player subtler processes of the Constitutional Convention, such as the necessity of having flexible beliefs and the shifting development of coalitions. As a result, Founding Fathers utterly fails to impart its wealth of discreet historical facts, but more successfully instills knowledge of complex processes.
Founding Fathers provides a wealth of historical knowledge on the Constitutional Convention and its participants, but unfortunately, this research can be easily overlooked by the players. The largest collection of such research appears at the end of the rulebook. Besides explaining the rules of gameplay, the rulebook features ten pages of historical facts on the history of the convention, state flags, and the convention delegates, including age, veteran status, occupation, education, and a brief summary of his role at the convention. While this proves the rulebook to be incredibly well researched, none of these facts affect the gameplay itself, which ultimately provides no incentive for the player to engage with the history featured in these pages. A similar phenomenon occurs with the Player Reference Boards, twelve Articles, and the pieces of trivia on the Delegate Cards. Leonhard and Matthews themselves accurately summarize the problem, when the rulebook states that the pages of facts are “not crucial to gameplay but bursting with great historical details about this pivotal era in American history.” No matter how fascinating Hamilton’s role was, the only part significant to gameplay is the chart to the right of the facts. No matter how important the actual text of Article 1 was to American history, the player only needs to know which faction it supports. No matter how accurately and hilariously Luther Martin’s event corresponds with the historical trivia at the top of the card, only the event itself matters for gameplay. With their tiny scripts, frustratingly italicized fonts, and irrelevance to winning, none of these texts are effective at engaging the player in the history. It is up to the player to choose to spend the time reading them, let alone think critically about the facts.
Although these ignored facts point to Founding Fathers’s ineffectiveness as a tool for learning history, the utilization of certain forms of skins points to inaccuracies in the history due to its inherent nature as a tabletop game. For example, the state flags provide an aesthetically pleasing and seemingly historical way to decorate delegate cards. However, Leonhard and Matthews admit in the rulebook that the state delegations did not have a symbolic flag at the convention, nor did each state singularly use the flag used in Founding Fathers; there were actually many flags associated with every state. Instead, Leonhard and Matthews “selected interesting and distinct flags to help identify the delegations in our game [and] made some shape or color alterations to the originals in order to serve game purposes more effectively.” Because the game uses the flags to fulfill some necessary aesthetic distinctions between states, it falsely implies that these flags were used in the convention and that the flags represented in the pieces of the game are accurate. This is even worse than having easily-ignored details, as these facts are simply wrong. Another misleading implication occurs with the playable founding father allocated to each player. Before the game begins, each player is assigned to a Planner, one of the prominent members of the Constitutional Convention. The Planner card may be used either to redeem an influence token or to vote on an article, with no factional limitations. This seems to imply that Madison, Hamilton, Sherman, Paterson, and Pickney had no particular biases when voting for an article. In reality, these politicians came into the convention with strong beliefs. Madison and Hamilton strongly advocated for a larger national government and Madison’s original Virginia Plan included proportional representation that would favor large states. Sherman contested Madison, advocating instead for greater state rights. Paterson’s participation at the convention focused almost entirely on small state interests. Although the state flags and ambivalent Planners were necessary for the game’s appearance and gameplay, it results in implications of inaccurate historical facts.
But is history only learned through facts? An emerging body of scholarship examining the value of historical simulations seems to argue the contrary. One commission on American Education in history noted that “history teaching needs to focus on helping students understand complex processes rather than merely the collection and memorization of discreet facts.” While Founding Fathers is not very effective at teaching history facts because they are easily ignored and altered for the sake of skins, it does succeed at conveying how the processes at the Constitutional Convention worked, including the necessity of remaining flexible, and the prominence of forming coalitions.
Indeed, perhaps the Planners represented by the player can be inaccurate because Founding Fathers accurately demonstrates the necessity to be flexible on one’s beliefs, a more important conclusion from the history of the Constitutional Convention. The Debate Room exemplifies this necessity. Instead of focusing on what the assigned Planner’s factions were, it is more important in Founding Fathers to win as many factions’ debate tokens as possible, with preference towards the most popular factional representation by the end of the game. Additionally, in the Assembly Room, one can use the Planner card to vote for any faction, which will hopefully contribute towards victory in the Assembly Room or Committee Room. This reflects the history of the time period. Although Madison came into the Constitutional Convention with his strong vision of Federalism and Large State rights in his Virginia Plan, he was thwarted by Sherman and his coalition. Nevertheless, “Madison, defending “state’s rights,” used Constitutional guarantees of state policy authority to build a national coalition of diverse interests…Madison’s political career after 1787, like America’s political development, owes a considerable—if underappreciated—debt to his opponents’ influence on the Constitution’s design.” Despite his original vision of the Constitution, Madison switched his beliefs to support the opposite, but winning, side and benefitted from it. The gameplay mechanics of Founding Fathers strongly demonstrates to the player the necessity of this flexibility and rewards the player for following through with it.
Furthermore, Founding Fathers aptly demonstrates the process of forming coalitions, an indispensable facet of the Constitutional Convention. While playing the game, it is easy to approximately track who is currently winning through the score track in the corner and through the number of debate tokens each player possesses. In order to prevent a runaway leader from remaining so, many iterations of gameplay saw hasty alliances and rivalries. Sometimes two players would distribute factions in the Debate Room to challenge a winning debater together. Another time, players conspired to pass a Nay vote in order to prevent one leading player from scoring more points. In contrast, stealing points from other players easily led to rivalries that prevented any cooperation. While these anecdotes seem relevant only to the gameplay, it actually reflects a deeper history of coalition building and rivalry at the Constitutional Convention. Finkelman explains the development of different coalitions of the convention. At the beginning, small states like Georgia would sacrifice their small state interests in support of the larger pro-slavery alliance of Southern states. Later, an unlikely coalition of Deep South States and New Englanders emerged in order to preserve slavery and support New England’s “carrying trade.” The rapid alliance building not only exists in history, but also in the historical simulation of Founding Fathers. The game easily represents rivalries like that of Sherman and Madison, who had “[thirty-nine] occasions on which [they] took explicitly conflicting positions at the Constitutional Convention,” through rapid races between two players to prevent the other from winning in the Assembly Room. In this way, Founding Fathers splendidly represents the processes of coalition building and rivalries at the Constitutional Convention.
Founding Fathers demonstrates that as a board game medium, it fails to teach a plethora of facts, because they are easily ignored, and insinuate inaccurate facts of history. On the other hand, the game is much more successful in subtly teaching the player processes associated with the Constitutional Convention, such as the historical necessity of remaining flexible in the face of factional bias, and the inevitability of alliances and rivalries. History is a constructed narrative, and historical learning comes with equally constructed biases. While many forms of education focus on fact-learning, there is a growing belief that historical simulations are valuable in conveying complex processes, that are difficult to convey in text. Founding Fathers wildly succeeds in this, showing that the medium of board games has much to offer in teaching history.
 Rulebook for Christian Leonhard and Jason Matthews, Founding Fathers: The Game of Strategy and Statesmanship (Jolly Roger Games, 2010), 1.
 Ibid., 13.
 David B. Robertson, “Madison’s Opponents and Constitutional Design,” American Political Science Review 99 (May 2005): 225.
 Ibid., 232.
 Ibid., 234.
 Tom Taylor, “Historical Simulations and the Future of the Historical Narrative,” Journal of the Association for History and Computing 6, no.2 (September 2003).
 David B. Robertson, “Madison’s Opponents and Constitutional Design,” American Political Science Review 99 (May 2005): 242.
 Paul Finkelman, “Slavery and the Constitutional Convention: Making a Covenant with Death,” in Beyond Confederation: Origins of the Constitution and American National Identity, Richard Beeman, et al, eds. (Chapel Hill: Omohundro/University of North Carolina Press, 1987).
 David B. Robertson, “Madison’s Opponents and Constitutional Design,” American Political Science Review 99 (May 2005): 232.
We see our role as essentially defensive in nature.
Here is a sample of student work. Liberty or Death inspired some great thinking throughout the semester, attaining the status of a kind of Ideal for representing historical arguments in games. This strong paper is an example of what strong students can produce, especially when motivated by equally great games.
Indian Frontier Warfare in Harold Buchanan’s Liberty or Death
Harold Buchanan’s Liberty or Death: the American Insurrection is not a standard two-player game as one might expect from a tabletop simulation of the American Revolution. Along with the American patriots and British, the game incorporates the French and – perhaps more surprisingly – the Indians, as autonomous players. Thus, the patriots not only have to fight the British on the coast, but also engage the Indians in combat on the western frontier. While the Indians have weaker military ability, they are able to employ their war parties to shift public opinion and steal resources from their adversaries. Buchanan’s game represents frontier conflict between the Indians and the patriots as militaristically asymmetrical warfare that was fundamental for victory in the Revolution.
The victory system in Liberty or Death explicitly motivates violence between the Indians and the patriots. The four players are split into two war factions that share a common victory condition, that is, support for their side from the colonial population. However, each party has an additional unique victory condition that is diametrically opposed to that of an opponent. In the case of the Indians and patriots, the victory metric is the differential between Indian villages and patriot forts (adjusted by adding three to the number of forts). To achieve victory, each side must have more of their type of piece on the board than their opponent’s piece. This gives direct incentive for the patriots and Indians to engage in military conflict on the western frontier, both sides seeking to destroy the other’s forts or villages.
That such importance is placed on frontier warfare in an American Revolution simulation might cause some surprise. Amidst their war for independence from Britain, were the patriots as concerned with being more established in the West than the Indians as they were with the popular opinion of the revolutionary cause? By making these victory conditions equally important, the game seems to argue that this was the case. One could contend that since all four players in the game fight for popular support, during the course of play it is likely that the patriots must allocate more energy and resources to maintain this victory condition, and therefore it is the more important of the two. In the two rounds of Liberty or Death that I have played, this has certainly been true. Regardless, the patriots cannot achieve victory in the game without building more forts than the Indians’ villages. So while we might be able to say that Liberty or Death implies that the fight for popular support demanded more patriot attention, this does not deny the game’s implication that overpowering the Indians on the frontier was fundamental for the patriots’ victory.
While the patriots are mostly incentivized by the village-fort victory condition to engage in frontier violence, the Indians have additional motives for their involvement. The “raid” command allows Indians to shift the opposition level (read: public support for the patriots) of adjacent provinces towards neutral, thus directly positively affecting their shared victory condition with the British. Upon raiding a territory, Indians can employ the “plunder” special activity to acquire resources from the patriots. While the names of these actions suggest that they be classified as frontier warfare, unlike other military actions they do not remove pieces – such as forts, militia and continentals – from the rebellion’s side. Instead, these Indian moves serve very different functions inside the mechanism of the game, akin to non-violent actions of other factions. For example, the patriots’ “persuasion” special activity gathers resources and the British “reward loyalty” special activity influences public opinion. Thus, comparatively, the Indians enjoy a wider area of influence in the War through their military operations than the patriots. The diversity of confrontational actions available to the Indians is one of the key elements in Buchanan’s model for Indian-patriot conflict on the western frontier. This advantage is offset by the far greater military power of the patriots.
At its core, the mechanics for war between the patriots and the Indians is asymmetrical. A glance at the commands and special activities of both parties yields this conclusion. The most powerful Indian attack, the “scout” command, requires an Indian war party to begin in the same province as a British regular or Tory, and then allows them to “skirmish” in an adjacent province with the opposition. The only other action the Indians can use to remove enemy pieces is the “war path” special activity, which functions identically to the Patriots’ “skirmish” action with the caveat that the war parties involved must be underground before acting. This situation is complicated by the fact that if the Indians use the “march” command, they must activate their moving war parties if the destination was formerly controlled by the rebellion and the total number of moving pieces plus militia in the destination province exceed three. Thus, the Indians must move in small groups into less-occupied provinces to successfully use the “war path,” which can remove at most two enemy pieces. In contrast, along with similar actions to the Indians’ “war party,” to patriots can use the “battle” command, which is available to all players other than the Indians. The “battle” command is far more powerful than other military commands, and has the capacity to remove large quantities of pieces from the board. In essence, the mechanics of the game depict a powerful patriot military in comparison to the Indians’, but one that is not as diverse in its functionality.
Does the model for frontier warfare offered by Liberty or Death capture the historical reality of such events? Of course, there is no way that Buchanan could depict every nuance of the Indian-patriot military conflict in the West during the Revolution. Nonetheless, it is within reason to critically compare the central aspects of his model with the history it seeks to represent. Thus, we may ask: Was the frontier as important to the patriots’ war effort as the game implies? Does the asymmetry of the Indian and patriot military force make sense as it is depicted in the game? Is there any central aspect of the fighting on the frontier that Liberty or Death does not address?
In tackling the first of these three questions, it is difficult to say on an absolute scale whether fighting the Indians in the West and destroying their villages was central to the war effort. What we can address is more easily and accurately is whether the patriots thought that such an effort was key to their victory. In short, the answer to this question is yes. In Holger Hoock’s book Scars of Independence, Hoock offers a close look at the patriot’s brutal Sullivan campaign of 1779 against the Iroquois Confederation. The campaign, whose objective was to lay waste Indian settlements through total war, was “one of the largest and most complex Continental Army operations of the entire war,” and merited Washington’s supervision in its planning. The scale of Sullivan’s operation marching west in the middle of the War reveals how seriously the patriots took the objective to be. Thus, the game seems justified in heavily incentivizing the patriots to engage in frontier warfare. Furthermore, the way the game motivates this violence, i.e. the village-fort victory condition, reflects the real historical motivation of the patriots to destroy the Indian population. If the historical goal of the game is to incentivize the player of the patriot faction to enter the mindset of their historical character, then the victory village-fort victory condition is successful. However, if the historical goal of the game is to simulate objectively what the patriots needed for a successful revolution through the victory system, then it is less clear if the game is able to achieve this goal. After all, while the Sullivan campaign did destroy many native settlements and food supplies, it ultimately failed to remove the Iroquois from the war.
Now we turn to our second question and investigate the asymmetric model of Indian and patriot military power in Liberty or Death, in which the Indians cannot incite as much physical destruction as the patriots but can employ raids to reduce colonial opposition to the crown. In colonial warfare between Indians and European colonists, historians have identified a dual asymmetry: one of military tactics and one of military culture. In his article Early American Ways of War: A New Reconnaissance, 1600-1815, Wayne E. Lee consolidates many historians’ research on American warfare. On the tactics of Indian fighting, Lee writes “Indian warriors are described as relying heavily on ambush, surprise, and raid, whose wars might vary in intensity and duration, but whose battles tended to be small in scale and low in casualties.” Such methods of warfare are well reflected in military aspects of the game: the need for war parties to be underground to attack patriots with the “war path” special activity alludes to the Indians’ use of surprise and ambush, and the Indians’ incapacity to use the “battle” command reflects the relative low number of casualties in Indian attacks. Thus, it seems as though the Buchanan’s mechanism for frontier warfare captures the differences between Indian and patriot tactics rather well. But, what can be said about the culture of warfare in the game? What does military culture look like in a game?
These questions lead into the third question I have posed in analyzing frontier warfare in the game: what has Buchanan’s model left out? I would like to argue that the primary shortcoming of the frontier warfare in Liberty or Death, as far as accuracy is concerned, is its insufficient recognition for the different cultures of war between the Indians and the patriots. The Indians primarily practiced mourning war to restore their populations by taking captives to replace their losses from past conflicts. A point of particular contention between the two cultures was the treatment of prisoners; the patriots’ war customs did not allow for torturing surrendered prisoners, but did allow for rape. Conversely, the Indians practiced torture and mutilation to terrorize their enemies, but never engaged in rape. The result of these incongruent norms allowed both sides to feel justified in seeking vengeance for the atrocities committed against their people. Thus, the war on the frontier escalated in brutality. Lee writes: “when confronted with a different mindset and a difficult military problem, they escalated the brutality of their war, indeed they adopted a ‘total war’ mentality.” Such brutality is evident Hoock’s writing on Sullivan’s genocidal campaign. Yet this brutality has been abstracted from the game. Playing the patriots in the game, one feels no difference destroying an Indian village or a British fort despite the real historical difference between these two actions.
Of course, it is easy to attack Buchanan for not including some mechanic for acknowledging the brutality on the frontier but hard to think of any to incorporate. And while the game’s inclusion of the asymmetrical cultures of war is not completely satisfactory, it does touch on the subject with the Indians’ “raid” command. This action simulates the terror installed by the Indians on the western settlers, causing them to decrease the support for the Rebellion. Further, the “plunder” special activity that can accompany a “raid,” allows the Indians to take resources from the Rebellion, alluding to the practice of mourning war, which replenished the tribe’s human resources with captives.
How does Liberty or Death make the player experience frontier warfare between Indians and patriots during the Revolutionary War? It conveys that such military endeavors were critical for both sides. It implies that the goal of these endeavors was to be more established in the West, to have more forts or villages. It gives the impression that the Indians could not cause many casualties but still had a large impact in the Royalist war effort. While Liberty or Death does not provide a complete simulation of the conflicts between Indians and patriots during the American Revolution, through the asymmetry of the two parties, it provides a nuanced and mostly accurate model for their interactions on the frontier.
 Harold Buchanan, Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection (GMT Games, 2016).
 Holger Hoock, Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth (New York: Crown, 2017), ch. 9 “Town-Destroyer”, 281.
 Holger Hoock, Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth (New York: Crown, 2017), ch. 9 “Town-Destroyer”, 291.
 Wayne E. Lee, “Early American Ways of War: A New Reconnaissance, 1600-1815,” The Historical Journal 44, no. 1 (March 2001): 273.
 Holger Hoock, Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth (New York: Crown, 2017), ch. 9 “Town-Destroyer”, 278, 286-7.
 Wayne E. Lee, “Early American Ways of War: A New Reconnaissance, 1600-1815,” The Historical Journal 44, no. 1 (March 2001): 274.
This piece is written as a follow up to the first three meetings of the Center’s History Games Club and serves as a critical reflection on our experiences playing with and observing student interactions with several history-based tabletop games.
This post explores the representations and in-game use of Native Americans in three separate games: 1775: Rebellion; Discoveries: The Journals of Lewis and Clark; and, Bang! The Dice Game. While each game explores a different era with different mechanics, they all employ Native American characters as part of the gameplay. Most of this “inclusion” is to forward a particular narrative that reinforces or strengthens the Anglo protagonist(s) position. The purpose of this examination is not to engage in the totality of Native American representation, but to analyze the ways that the structure and mechanics of each game reinforce mythic identities in juxtaposition with a lack of purposeful agency for Native characters. The three games vary significantly in their organization and structure; however, they each employ Native Americans as passive and often aggressive. When there is an action for the Native characters in the games, it is initiated by or in service of the other player characters who are invariably Anglo. The representation of Native Americans on a variety of the gaming components (cards, dice, chits) utilize mythic and stereotypical imagery. The gaming narrative and interaction between player characters and the non-player Native American characters creates coded exchanges between game players about the mythic Native American, which furthers the marginalization of that group. The marginalization is closely coupled with the Native Americans lack of agency within each game and reinforced in the use or usefulness of those characters in the game.
1775: Rebellion does make some attempts to position Native Americans within the game, yet their inclusion is ancillary to the game’s narrative structure, which focuses on territorial acquisition and the battles between Patriot and British forces in the year before the Declaration of Independence. While they are secondary characters in gameplay they do appear in the historical context provided by the creators of the game in the three page “Historical Overview” at the end of the rulebook. In this “Overview” there is a one sentence mention of Joseph Brant and his role in the Battle of Ticonderoga. There is also a paragraph-long general discussion about Native Americans and their role in the Revolution towards the end of the “Historical Overview” that speaks to Native Americans attempt to remain neutral at the beginning of the war. However, except for the brief mention of Joseph Brant (who is also a playing card within the game) and a brief mention of the Cherokee, Native Americans are assumed to be a collective group whose interests and purpose line up together. The game takes the problematic idea that any Indian is just like any other Indian. In fact, Native peoples are represented by a single color block (green), suggesting this lack of diversity and singular native culture. There is no game mechanic that allows them to have separate interests or tribal identities, instead, they are represented as a united front, disinterested until forced to engage by the whims of European and American player interests.
The lack of inclusion and agency reinforce the simplified, stereotypical, and racialized representations of Native Americans throughout the gameplay of 1775: Rebellion. The game is set at the beginning of the American War for Independence and in an attempt at historical accuracy includes a range of different groups who participated in the war, including the French, Hessians, and as already mentioned Native Americans. These three groups are secondary characters and can only be used by the main factions (Loyalist Militia, British Regulars, Continental Army, and Patriot Militia) who in the course of the game's narrative are given historical and ludic agency. Again, the Native Americans are placed on the board as green chits and are only active once one of the four factions moves into their territory. As the rules note, “Native American units in an area are independent until allied with a side. This occurs when British or American units move into [the area.]” They then become a component of the “invading” faction or the unit with agency. Native Americans have no choice in who they support during gameplay; in fact, they switch alliances whenever another main faction player defeats the current faction controlling them. In this case, not only do Native Americans lack agency, but they simply follow the Anglo faction who are making choices for them. The game also implies that Native Americans were mere pawns and had no real purpose or intention during the War. Observations of gameplay revealed that a disconcerting amount of casual racism crept into the conversation surrounding Native characters. The coupling of Native Americans with an Anglo faction often led game players to make claims on Native Americans. Commonly heard around the table during the course of the three games were sentiments like, “these are my Indians,” “grab me those natives,” “push those Indians my way,” “I’m about to use my Natives to kill you.” The game’s table narrative then suggests that ownership of Native people is part of the game.
The creators of Discoveries: The Journals of Lewis and Clark attempt to give some agency to Native groups and a recognition of the diversity of Native American life in the areas explored by the Corps of Discovery. In the game's rulebook, there is a note titled “About the term ‘American Indians’” in which the authors enter the current debate over identity labels. They explain that their use of the term American Indian rather than Native American is based on a survey conducted in 1995 by the U.S. Census Bureau of people who claimed Native American heritage, in which 50% of the respondents preferred the term American Indian over the 37% who claimed Native American as their preferred identity. While that survey hardly settled the debate, the authors are trying to remain sensitive to issues of identity and labels. That sensitivity is carried into the representations of the diversity of Native people who populated the areas explored by the Corps. Thirty individual tribes or bands are represented on the “Tribe Cards” including Clatsop, Tenino, Multnomah, Nez Perce, the Minnetaree (as Lewis and Clark referred to members of the Hidatsa), the Yankton Sioux, Teton Sioux, Flathead (The Salish though not noted on the card), Blackfeet, and Arikara. But that’s as far as the sensitivity goes. The images of Native People on the cards, box and instruction guide, are reminiscent of nineteenth century Romantic paintings that set down the vernacular of the ennobled yet vanishing people. As in those Romantic notions, Native People vanish from the game as well. In the course of play, “Tribe Cards” are collected by players to enhance their “Discovery powers” and facilitate exploration in the game's narrative. While the cards are important in gameplay the tribes or bands that are represented go barely commented on and serve largely as decoration. Most players focus instead on the special actions that allow them power in the game thus eclipsing the importance of the people represented on the card. In collecting “Tribe Cards,” whether a “Wary” (roll two Native Headdress die) or “Friendly” one (roll one Native headdress die), the object is to collect tribes that will help the Anglo character. There are no means by which Native People can resist being collected, thus their agency is reduced to a passive character used in service of the player in the narrative fiction of the game. Actually, there are no actions that a player can take as a Native character; all the action of the game is carried out by the players representing John Ordway, Meriwether Lewis, Patrick Gass and of course William Clark. In this way, the game celebrates the manifest role of Anglo American men, preferences their “discovery” of an already occupied land, and perpetuates the heritage based myths of American exceptionalism born of events like the Corp of Discovery.
Additionally, like 1775, Discoveries’ game structure and component iconography invite casual racism. One face of the dice features a silhouetted Native American wearing a feathered war bonnet and the physiognomic features of the stereotypical sharply sloped forehead and exaggerated nose. While approximately a dozen plains tribes donned some form of the headdress in war and in religious ceremony, the silhouetted image and its stereotypical features serve to reduce the Native character to an abstract symbol of Indianness rather than a flesh and blood person. The generalization of form simplifies the diversity of Native American culture, reducing them to a collective body who dressed, looked, and acted in similar ways. In erasing the humanity of the character and reducing them to a simple icon, players during gameplay are free to take ownership of a people and engage in what otherwise would be described as racist behavior. They “collect Indian heads,” they, like in the gameplay of 1775, lay claim to “my Indians,” and they “use their Indians” for in game rewards. The game also rewards players with points for collecting teepees. These teepees serve the same purpose as the war bonnet in that they reduce Native Americans to a monolithic cultural form, lacking the depth and breadth afforded to Anglos. While not explicit in the narrative of the game this collection mechanic suggests a territorial land grab by the Anglo game characters and offers no means for the Native people to resist. They must passively accept the role of the dice that allow them to be acquired. In this way, Native Americans are sidelined in the game’s narrative, and the structural racism that casts Native Americans as passive historical actors is reinforced, even Sacagawea’s role in the Corps of Discovery is diminished. She appears nowhere in the gameplay and is only present in illustration form on the box, standing majestically, baby strapped to her back, on a cliffside pointing west and down river while a heroic Lewis and Clark plot their next move.
These representations extend into games that are rooted less in their supposed historical accuracy and set in a more fictional landscape as well. Bang! The Dice Game differs significantly from the previous two games in form and its limited employment of Native Americans within the game. Bang! also clearly references spaghetti westerns and the genres violent form is clear throughout the game. Given the game’s association with the American Western, the representation of Native Americans shouldn’t be surprising. In this game like in the Italian or Hollywood western “Heroic civilization [is] shown struggling against the darkness of a “savage,” barbarous native population” (Slotkin, 1992, p. 317). Native People in this game are reduced to faceless savages who attack at random. Native Americans are not just violent, they are only violent. This violence and the Native Peoples presence in the game are represented only by arrows on the dice that players roll and the cards players collect. When a player rolls an arrow they collect an arrow token when all arrow tokens are collected by the players around the table “the Indians attack and each player loses one life point for each arrow in front of him. After the attack, all players discard their arrows, and...resume [their] turn.” (Bang! Rulebook). In the narrative of the game, this “attack” is read as a sneak attack on all players and the Native Americans slow the progress of gameplay. The game then, upholds another trope of the Western, Native Americans stand in opposition to progress and civilization unlike the Anglo characters who stand in for the American nation and “allow for acts of empire or hegemony to be seen as the expression of a national and moral imperative that will ensure progress and promote the development of civilization” (Corkin, 2000, p. 74). Players, taking on the role of the heroic America come to regard Native Americans as an obstacle to be removed or at the very least avoided. Additionally, this violence comes through the use of what most presumed to be the only nineteenth century form of Native American weaponry, the arrow, rather than admitting the possibility that Native Population had access to guns or other weapons of modernity. Their choice of weapons thus makes them anachronistic and renders them a part of the pre-modern past.
The game is purposefully violent, with the goal to kill or isolate the opposing factions (Sheriff / Deputies, Outlaws, Renegades). The ultimate win condition of the game has the Sheriff, the representation of American law and order, survive the Native American attacks, kill the outlaws and renegades and save the lives of his deputies. As such, the game upholds the core ideals of the frontier myth. But consistent with Spaghetti Western themes, the game does allow for an “Anti-Hero” win condition. Here the rugged individual and libertarian view of the West is secured by the renegade characters being the last men standing or the outlaws killing the sheriff and renegades. Notably missing from the game is any counter narrative to the frontier myth where Native Americans survive the onslaught of western expansion and reign over the land that they have occupied for millennia. The use and characterization of Native Americans being almost exclusively non-existent except for the attack scenarios further serve to reinforce the mythology of the Indian attack and the reactionary nature of Native American interaction with their surroundings and other groups. Native Americans in this instance are subsumed not only by the genre, not only of games but of the sub-genre of spaghetti westerns, but also through the stylized and adolescent simplicity of the “Cowboy and Indians” narrative of the Wild West.
Corkin, Stanley, “Cowboys and free markets: Post-World War II westerns and U.S. Hegemony.” Cinema Journal, 39, 66-91. 2000
Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth Century America. (Tulsa: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992).
We see our role as essentially defensive in nature.
Two videos from my college history course exploring history through boardgames. The first is a video take on the game through a historical lens. The second is a class session discussing the game. Below, I'm posting designer Brian Mayer's reaction to the first video. I'm super grateful to Brian for so generously and thoughtfully engaging our conversation. He made a great game; may we see more like it.
Designer's response (Brian Mayer)
Very nice video but a few things I might retort back regarding the criticisms. There are a number of very good and valid points, but there were also a couple of things that actually were a consideration in the design approach. And again, I definitely did not get everything right but tried as best I could to engage players with the people, events and history of the movement. I hope you give some thought to them.
1. The slave infusion is not stated as external slave trade; in fact the ending of that is a card in the game. It is meant as an abstraction of internal trade and population growth.
2. Early fundraising is abstractly centered around attention and support to the state of African Americans in the southern states and aiding efforts to find aid and support for them. The shift in the last era is to signify that with the shift after the start of the war support becomes centered around the voices and actions of those in the North (including fighting for the North) as they continued to shift opinions in the north. Fundraising, while represented monetarily, is also a representation of the drumming up of support for the movement and cause.
I tried to stress in the rules and talking points after that the support tokens represent the strength, influence and support of the abolitionist movement and general popular opinion. Again, though, it relies on the monetary system in the game for play purposes. I sometimes wondered if I should have had support as the currency rather than money but I went with something a little more literal as the raising of money and collection of goods.. etc was also a part. By the acquisition of all of the support tokens that is meant to represent the strength/support of the movement, ultimately culminating in enough to tip the balance. As you acquire more tokens, the movement and support for the movement grows, allowing it to do more. This is reflected by the increasing abilities of the tokens and the cards that players unlock and gain access to as they progress from era to era.
3. Abolitionist movement: The archetypes of the types of characters are meant to represent that different people had different impacts and focus. Even though all the players wind up participating in the different aspects of the game (for play purposes), there was a definite intent to reflect that diversity in approach. Some archetypes focus on political and event interactions, while others are focused on raising funds and others on helping people as they make their way to freedom. Successful fundraising does help "Powerup" the movement as previously mentioned in point 2. It allows you to grow the movement's impact, influence and support by unlocking more powerful actions reflective of a stronger movement as players acquire the support tokens.
4. The best critique and one of my strongest self criticisms. I picked a story to tell with freedom and that was the story of the abolition movement. I have struggled with expansions that gave agency, voice and stories to those seeking freedom. I have unfinished expansion ideas that incorporate stories from William Still's journals to give narrative but I could never find a way that I was comfortable with.
Thanks very much for taking the time and the wonderful words.
We see our role as essentially defensive in nature.
My students did an remarkable job of wrestling with Harold Buchanan’s Liberty or Death. It is the most complex game we’ll play, but this lets it engage the scholarship to a rare degree. What follows is a list of the readings assigned for this game, and a set of essay prompts prepared by the students. Your constructive reactions are welcome.
Ronald L. Boucher, “The Colonial Militia As a Social Institution: Salem, Massachusetts 1764-1775,” Military Affairs 37, no. 4 (December 1973): 125-30.
John Shy, “The American Revolution: The Military Conflict Considered as a Revolutionary War,” in Essays on the American Revolution, Stephen G. Kurtz and James H. Hutson, eds. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1973), 121-56.
Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (New York: Norton, 2016), ch. 6 “Loyalties.”
Wayne E. Lee, “Early American Ways of War: A New Reconnaissance, 1600-1815,” The Historical Journal 44, no. 1 (March 2001): 269-89.
Holger Hoock, Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth (New York: Crown, 2017), ch. 9 “Town-Destroyer.”
Colin G. Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), ch. 3 “Stockbridge: The New England Patriots.” Liberty or Death allows the Patriot faction to raise opposition against the British through the use of propaganda; by way of the Rabble-Rousing command or Persuasion special activity, Patriots place Propaganda tokens in their desired colony/city/territory which the British must remove before they can build support for themselves in that location (forcing them to expend additional resources to counteract the persuasion of propaganda). Also, no equivalent propagandizing action exists for any of the other three factions. This mechanic then aligns with the argument that "Possessing less-skilled polemicists and fewer printing presses, Loyalists altered in the competition to convert atrocities into compelling propaganda" (222 Taylor) but how does it ignore other considerations/challenges that propagandists would have faced, such as the danger of publishing in British-controlled areas or the difficulty of reaching remote areas?
Liberty or Death breaks the continuity of time and places the player as an almost omniscient leader of one of the four factions. Each player can see the entire war unfold and track others’ victory progress continuously. Any player can instantaneously know troop deployments and strength (even underground units) of their enemies or allies, the level of support or opposition in any region, as well as which factions are ‘eligible’ to act (what does eligible even mean in a historical context?). Liberty or Death even grants players foresight - knowledge of the next event card and its effects (barring the Winters Quarters event). Armed with this knowledge, players may make decisions based on a 'known' future instead of the present game state. Given that the game aims to simulate historical goals (British control of the cities for example), how do you think the difference in knowledge between player and historical commander affect play and these goals?
As an extremely complicated game, Liberty or Death comes with not only a standard rulebook, but also a player’s manual that contains the author’s notes about the game, its conceptualization, and a variety of strategies and how they applied to both the game and history as a whole. While not a direct mechanic of the game, this in turn allows for the creators to interact much more directly than normal with the audience of the game, adding an almost meta-esque nature to our understanding of the game. In what ways does this shape our view of the game and its relationship with the American Revolution? Is our perception of the operations of the game affected, either positively or negatively, due to this portion manual? One concept that is common throughout literature is that of the “death of the author” which entails that once published, the author doesn’t necessarily have the right to a say how their novel is viewed by its audience (although some authors still try and maintain that right). Does the same concept mirror itself to Liberty or Death and board games as a whole? If yes, how do the creators’ ideas affect one’s gameplay and perception of the war; if no, how does the creators’ influence benefit us as the audience trying to learn history through such a complicated and multifaceted medium?
In the tabletop game Liberty or Death: An American Insurrection, regular troops are treated as relatively the same between the Patriots, the British, and the French. Indian war parties and Patriot militia count as half the value of a regular. The battle mechanics involve the roll of dice (one for every three units) for each side (almost always British and Patriot). Lack of supplies, the presence of leaders, blockades, etc. are accounted for as small modifiers on the dice rolls of battles. If the battle is a big enough victory, the winning side gets the ‘Win the Day’ bonus, allowing them special abilities to expand their control over the area. Based on the game’s battle mechanics and results, a relatively even-sided battle can result in a rout based almost exclusively on the roll of dice. Considering the randomness of eighteenth century conflict, how well do in-game battles match the military realities of eighteenth century conflict? Coupled with the ‘Win the Day’ bonus, battles within the game can be effectively game-ending events, but does that accurately match the fallout of historical battles from the American Revolution such as Saratoga or Bunker Hill?
Liberty or Death: the American Insurrection is not a standard two-player game as one might expect from a tabletop simulation of the American Revolution. Along with the American patriots and the British, the game incorporates the French and the Indians as autonomous players. These four independent parties are split into two historical war factions that generally share the same interests (i.e. a victory condition). However, each party has an additional unique victory condition, making it possible for there only to be a single winner at the end of the game. Therefore, a player working in his self interest does not want to see his ally fully succeed, because that would ensure his defeat (or more accurately stated, second place finish). While allied parties had individual goals during the American Revolutionary War, did success of one ally in these goals negatively affect that of the other? Does this partial-alliance model make sense in the game’s historical context?
In Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection, the French player must attempt to minimize colonial casualties while advancing opposition in as many cities and regions as possible. This victory condition creates a dynamic in which the French must rely on their Patriot allies to secure their victory for them. Can this reliance accurately be traced to historical events in the Revolutionary War? The typical assumption is that the Patriots were constantly trying to form an alliance with France, therefore bringing them into the war. Why then would the game place such flexibility in the Patriots' hands in regards to French victory objectives? The victory objectives by themselves can be analyzed further. Did the French truly care about Patriot casualties during the war? These objectives may be abstract so as to make the game playable, but they also serve to make subtle claims about the alliance between the unruly colonists and the French.
Liberty or Death represents popular opinion of the patriot forces through a "support/opposition" mechanic. By using the "Rabble Rousing" command, patriot forces can turn cities and provinces still loyal to the crown towards insurrection. However, LoD does not seek to flesh out the metaphor behind this mechanic any further. Initiating the "Rabble Rousing" command shifts support in favor of the patriots, but the game does not ask players to consider the ways American revolutionaries historically completed this task. Alan Taylor recounts the acts of terrorism committed by Whig forces, which, in combination with the consequences of long term British occupation, gradually silenced Loyalist sentiments in the former colonies. If the suppression of Tories during the revolution was a gruesome and bloody affair, a notion that runs in contrast to the American myths of the Revolution, is "Liberty or Death" obligated to factor in this harsh reality into its gameplay and game metaphors? In general, should board games be compelled to challenge our historical understandings and assumptions?
In Liberty or Death: the American Insurrection, the game is divided into two sides: the Patriots and French versus the British and Indians, however, another interesting divide is between the British and French on the one side, and the Patriots and Indians on the other. The British and French are on opposite sides of the war, and their victory conditions and resource conditions are opposite. They care about controlling cities (and the West Indies) and about killing as many of the opposite soldiers as possible at minimal cost. They also can only move via sea lanes on their own. The Indians and Patriots on the other hand, care about destroying the other's villages and forts, respectively. It doesn't matter to them, for victory purposes, how many losses they sustain trying to destroy the other player's territory. They also only move over land areas. Furthermore, both Indians and Patriots rely on militia, even Continentals aren't considered Regulars (an insulting if probably accurate take on their fighting effectiveness), and they are the only ones with the Active/Underground mechanic, allowing them to keep irregular units in an area relatively immune to removal from the board. What does this divide say about the nature of the Revolutionary War? The traditional story is that the Patriots fought the British with the help of the French, but in this game, the Patriots, despite their war with the British, must compete directly against the Indians to win. Does this reflect historical realities such as the importance of George Washington's campaign against the Seneca, or is it a reflection of a more game-based consideration of balance, as it makes the Indians, who are otherwise relatively peripheral as a faction, more central to gameplay?
Moving and maintaining a large volume of troops is incredibly expensive. Gathering the food and supplies to march an army of a thousand men required meticulous logistical planning. This situation is modeled in Liberty or Death with the resource system. To move troops between colonies requires a single resource. The amount of resources required to move troops is not adjusted by the quantity of troops, however. Paying a single resource can move fifteen troops or a single troop. The resource mechanic forces players to mass their armies to lower transportation costs while inhibiting small units of men. Although this mechanic seems to model actual army use, is there better way for the resource and movement mechanisms to function? Should militia units be able to move at reduced rates from British regulars who march in large massed columns?
Liberty or Death frames the American Revolution as an insurrection waged against the British by the Patriots, aided by the Indians and French respectively. The game gamifies intangible measures of victory such as political support and opposition, the levels of which directly affect a players ability to win. However, each victory condition is distinct, and represents the disparate power dynamics of the forces involved. The indian victory condition, for example, village building, is mere survival, while the french victory condition represents merely aiding their allies enough to avoid negative net casualties. This tactic is necessary to make the game playable, but does each victory condition truly represent victory for each side? Was it truly equally possible for each faction historically to achieve victory?
One mechanic I was especially interested by is the Indian Command, Raid. It is fascinating because like the Indian player him or herself, it displays overt aggression toward the Patriots, but can also hurt their British allies. Beyond reducing Opposition immediately, performing a Raid has the effect of leaving Raid markers, which prevent the consensus from straying far from neutral. However, the British Reward Loyalty Reward Loyalty action is severely impeded by the Raid markers, which the nation must remove before it can increase its support. Better than any of the other factions in Buchanan’s Liberty or Death, the Indians work like a double edged sword against enemies and allies alike. I really love this part of the game. Not only because it makes gameplay more interesting by adding another dynamic, but because it does reflect a real on-the-ground view - no matter who you’re loyal to, a raid on your territory is going to make you skeptical of the powers that claim to protect you. Though I like this aspect of the game, it does raise a question: with the Indians being the most independent faction (most easily antagonistic to their allies), is the game simply balanced for Continental victory? Is it right to be so?
Liberty or Death features four separate players that each have a specific variation on a set of victory conditions, including popular support, casualties, or number of villages or forts. The distribution of these victory conditions are such that the Patriots and French align and the British and Indians more or less must cooperate, making the four player game essentially a two on two situation. For the British and Indians, this alliance is particularly fascinating because in many ways the alliance did more harm than good for British support in the colonies. What arguments does the careful balance of Indian and British cooperation create regarding the American Insurrection? Is the erasure of another unlikely coalition, that of the British and Patriot slaves, a way to exacerbate this point, or was it a necessary cut to an already complex set of rules?
We see our role as essentially defensive in nature.
College students in my course "Historical Simulations" are required to write essays analyzing the games we play. To help each other out, we are formulating prompts for possible essays. Here's a sample of the perceptive questions these students are asking. I can't wait to read the essays that result.
The diplomacy track in Colonials is a moral compass that attempts to limit player action in the game. Harming other players economically, repressing native peoples, and, eventually, shipping slaves are actions that the game deems immoral. The game uses war as an enforcement mechanism for its moral order where “good” nations can attack “bad” nations at their discretion. What statement is Colonials making about morality and the relationship between nations during this time period? Did morality factor into the political balance of powers of the era, or is it a construct of the game? What is the meaning of the ambassador character who politically undoes the moral transgressions of a nation without reversing its immoral action?
In Colonial, victory is not determined by a nation’s economy (treasury and merchant fleets), military might (navy), or overseas empire (‘discoveries,’ resources, and colonies), but by its prestige. One could achieve victory by ‘discovering’ a new territory with one ship in their entire fleet, empty coffers, and without establishing a colony or even harvesting resources. This mechanic allows for a result that history would not: a structurally weak nation becoming preeminent. Why allow for a contradictory victory and what does this suggest about prestige?
Colonial includes the disruptive "rebellion" mechanic, in which a player can play a Rebel card and spark the removal of counters from an opponent's territory, so long as that territory already includes an unrest marker. The competing opponents of the territory's colonizers are the ones who spark and see forth the rebellion, which strips the agency of rebellion from the territory's third-party native people. Especially when considering the historical sovereignty and independent rebellious efforts of native people in colonized territories, the "rebellion" mechanic thus may appear problematic. How does this mechanic attempt to represent the anti-colonial actions of native people in colonized territories, and how well does it do that task? Does this mechanic give appropriate agency to these native people? Can and/or should this mechanic be modified?
Colonials is, at its core, a game about controlling and utilizing a variety of resources to one's advantage. One of these resources, slaves, is more complicated than the others for a variety of reasons; not only is there an eventual in-game consequence once a certain point of the game is reached (Economy 10) where not the nation controlling the resource but rather the nation shipping the slaves is penalized, but there is also an external player-based discomfort due to the brutal nature of slavery. How does this game mechanic work relative to its historical context? Does the game accurately portray the slave trade in during the Age of Expansion, or is the game instead forced to oversimplify it to a mere abstraction? Either way, how does or doesn't slavery's portrayal in Colonial add a deeper layer of relevance to the game and the era it focuses on?
Throughout the age of discovery, most major European wars were fought and won, not on the high-seas or in colonies or trading posts around the world, but in Europe itself. However, in the game colonial, while all of the players represent European nations, they only appear on the world stage as colonial powers, and it is impossible to directly attack another player in their home territory. Because of this, not only are major European powers of the time that were not colonial powers, such as the Holy Roman Empire or Poland, excluded from the game, but players are free from the worry of defending the home front, which was a very pressing concern for all European powers during this era. Is the lack of conflict in Europe a justified simplification of the game? Could the absence of Europe as a playable space reflect the trend of Eurogames to avoid direct inter-player conflict? More generally, what does it say about the game that it is euro-centric without making Europe an area which players can directly affect? Do the nation-specific mechanics of the game, such as France's additional sovereign, or Britain's ability to re-roll naval rolls, allow for a different expression of each real-life nation's strengths and weaknesses in conflicts within Europe?
In Colonial, the main function of religion is to subdue native unrest. In the eyes of the game the two themes are binary opposites, each visually represented on the opposite side of the same token. How do the mechanics of religion in Colonial reflect Christianity in the age of European exploration? Is this an accurate historical representation?
In the United States, the history of our independence from Britain has become a cultural touchstone, a morality tale, and a cause of celebration. The story ends with the democratic election of President Washington, thereby establishing the new status quo; an independent republic.
Former colonies across the world have similar independence narratives. The Nations Variant of Colonial, however, ends not with some country’s independence, but when any player earns 10 prestige points. Unlike our revolutionary war myth, in the story of Colonial one colonial power is declared the winner.
While many American countries gained independence from colonial powers in the late 18th to mid 19th century, and the mid-20th century marked the decolonization of most African and Asian countries, some historians would argue that colonization never ended. How does the gameplay of Colonial—particularly the ending—converse with the impact of Colonialism on independent countries? What would the game maker argue is the historical analog for when a colonial power “wins?”
In the board game Colonial, multiple countries compete over resources and land. Players must plan out their moves in order to acquire prestige points. An observation that one can make about Colonial is that just because one player (country) has a large amount of money in their treasury, it does not always guarantee success. While having a vast amount of currency at a player's disposal is helpful, it does not always mean that the player is ensured victory. Many a times, players can be considered a wealthy country, and still be in last place. When this part of the game is thought about in historical context, a question that arises is does a powerful country have to be a rich one? Further more, how important is having a large treasury versus being able to colonize more countries?
In the game of Colonial, one of the actions available to players is to establish a mission in their explored territories and colonies. The function of such missions is to quell pre-existing unrest or to preemptively make native rebellions less likely to occur, with these effects applying regardless of global location and remaining in place for the duration of the presence of the mission. Do these functions accurately depict the reactions of indigenous peoples to European prosthelytizing? Did historical missions have consistent efficacy over time, as those in Colonial do?
The progress tracks are an especially interesting part of Colonial, and especially the Economics track. The four tracks are essentially what the designer lays out as potential paths to gaining PP and eventually victory: exploration (Seafaring), war (Navy), and colonization (Logistics). But Economics doesn’t seem to fit any of the victory conditions in any direct way. Some aspects make sense - the more economic security and greater systems you have in place, the greater loans the financiers will allow you to take and greater amounts of foreign, luxury goods your people might be able to afford from the Trader. But these only deal with Treasury, not any means of gaining PP. And the other mechanics not only don’t provide PP, but also don’t seem to have much to do with economics. Why does it require a certain level of economy to colonize India and China? Why does slavery suddenly become globally unacceptable when pique economy is attained? What is the designer trying to get at with this kind of Progress Track? Could Economy really just be an abstract representation of the designer’s view of societal progress?
In the board game Colonial, resources are grouped together within assigned color groups. Some resources take up their own 'color', and others are combined with others—sugar, tobacco, and cotton for example. Each resource produces the same number of goods for market: 1. And each monopoly provides the same added value to a player in terms of who gets to start the next turn and how many merchant fleets a player can build. Considering the historical significance of resource exploitation to colonization and the interrelations between different lucrative trades (e.g. sugar and slavery), monopolies in the real world would give countries economic power and leverage, Colonial defangs the power of a single monopoly. Since a three hour board game can’t accurately depict sixteenth century economics, does Colonial’s monopoly mechanic allow the game to give mercantilist system due justice? How could the monopoly system and the game's economic model better capture the realities of colonialism? Or is this the best possible simulation?
Colonial makes use of a diplomacy track to determine which nations can wage war on each other. Nations that are more advanced to the rightmost side of the track cannot be attacked by nations that fall to the left of them on the track. An ambassador card serves as the only tool that nations can use to advance on the diplomatic track, unless they discover China or India. Nations move down the track when they disrupt monopolies, trade slaves after slavery has been abolished, or if a player decides to repress the native people after colonizing. Why is it that nations that act immorally, in the case of the slave trade and repressing of native people, or against other nations' best interests, as seen by breaking up monopolies, are hindered in their ability to wage war. Nations that didn't respect the international system seem more likely to stumble into wars or desire to wage them. It seems unusual that the game then sets these countries on a more pacifist path, or at the very least reactionary. Why do nations get punished in their first strike abilities based purely on whether or not they allow other nations to dominate economically?
While all players of "Colonial" act as European powers, the game's board, a map of the world, excludes Europe entirely from gameplay. Instead, "Colonial" players must gain victory points In Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the New World. When Europeans first arrived in these lands, each was already occupied by indigenous civilizations. However, the game's creators seem uninterested in depicting these people's experiences as European's began arriving in these other lands en masse and reaping them for their natural and human resources. Local populations are not a playable faction in "Colonial" and are instead represented by a "native power" ranking on each territory, which serves as a barrier to establishing a colony and increases the power of that territory should it revolt or become a free state.
What does this way of modeling non-European civilizations suggest about the relationship between the colonizers and the colonized and in what ways, if any, does this game mechanic fail to represent the history of these interactions? Should all non-European civilizations in the game be treated equally under this system, or how can it be altered in order to better convey history?
In the game Colonial, players act as sovereign European powers and claim territory across the globe. Players win when 10 prestige tokens are acquired, even if this occurs mid-turn. Interestingly, the level of prestige of each nation is common knowledge amongst players allowing strategy to be adjusted to prevent a winner from being determined. Thus, late game play is often based on sabotage and a ganging up on the leader mentality. In the colonial era, wars and squabbles were often fought amongst the European powers for a variety of reasons. It would be facile and historically inaccurate to label the key or only inciting factor as a leveling of some sort of power ranking. Often socio-religious factors were crucial but even the addition of nation cards (which include historic goals) neglect European rivalries. Does the failure to delineate causes for war beyond strategic planning create a historic weakness for the game? Does the strategy game players implement perhaps allude to a mindset that at times rose above regional differences (alluding to pure competition)? Should the game include details about national character which reward or compel certain nations to go to war for the sake of accuracy?
As its name suggests, Colonial is fundamentally about Europe’s colonization of the world. While the process of exploring and colonizing follows a consistent pattern, one exception is India and China. The rules explicitly prevent the colonization of India and China until a player reaches an Economy level of 6. Furthermore, the player who explores these two areas receives a Diplomacy bonus.
By deliberating creating an exception out of India and China, the game highlights the historical differences between their colonization and that of the rest of the world. However, Colonial argues that this difference lies in the required economy. The Diplomacy bonus is an equally fascinating exception, as it functionally suggests that the exploration of India and China would not trigger war with other European nations.
Are the preexisting game mechanics able to properly incorporate these exceptions and the subsequent historical arguments that the exceptions evoke? By partially attributing the successful colonization to economy, does Colonial unintentionally erase the violent histories surrounding the subjugation of China and India because of the constraints in Progress tracks? Is the Diplomacy track an effective mechanic to convey the historical context of their exploration?