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Games in the History Classroom
Thomas Heaney
United States
Quincy
California
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As a teacher, I am always trying to find new ways to involve students and new approaches to learning, and as a gamer I am always sensitive to the possibilities of teaching with games. Now, most games cannot “teach” history – they are best used to teach geography and help understand certain concepts. A game -- or more accurately a simulation -- that really teaches history would, generally speaking, be far too complicated for use in the classroom.

For these reasons, I have tried to play games that are relatively easy to learn, and have a significant amount of player-interaction. In particular, I had been looking for a game to play during the first week of classes when I’m trying to get students to loosen up, have fun, and get to know one another. (I found what I was looking for . . . see below.)

PS I’m going to make another list for future suggestions.
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1. Board Game: Empire Builder [Average Rating:6.92 Overall Rank:866]
Thomas Heaney
United States
Quincy
California
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My first great attempt at combining a geography activity with a first-week game. Before I tried EB, I always had students do various geography-related group activities which were OK, but not quite focused enough. I played EB a few times and decided it might be what I was looking for . . . but unfortunately it wasn’t. (As some of you might have guessed.) I used it once for a 3-hour long evening class, and it took nearly that long to play (including about 45 minutes of instruction). The students were really good sports about the whole thing and they did bond through the sharing of a tragic, collective experience (playing the game). I even had a couple of people ask to borrow a copy to play on their own. But it failed terribly because it was too complicated and too long. Even at the end of the night I discovered students playing it all wrong while others had pretty much given up. They were so overwhelmed by trying to play the game that they didn’t really learn any geography. So, back on the shelf it went.
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2. Board Game: Railway Rivals [Average Rating:6.74 Overall Rank:2887]
Thomas Heaney
United States
Quincy
California
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My next effort. I decided to try using the Railway Rival system in a summer California History class (4 hours a day!) as the introductory activity. I thought this would be especially useful since even native Californians have absolutely no conceptualization of the state’s geography at all. It took too many hours, but I finished making a map, charts, and streamlined instruction sheet. The class of 9 students played in teams of 2-3 and while I was explaining the rules I realized what an up-hill battle I had before me. Just explaining the concept of paying a certain cost for building a line through half a hexagon had their brains running in circles. And when we got to running the races, it got even more confusing. At least it took only about half as long as EB. And again, the students were really good sports and at least _claimed_ that they had had fun. Still, the building costs details and the two-phase aspect of the game meant that it was a bit too much.
 
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3. Board Game: TransAmerica [Average Rating:6.66 Overall Rank:838]
Thomas Heaney
United States
Quincy
California
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Ah, success at last. I made a slightly slimmed-down version of the rules and, more importantly, a PowerPoint slideshow with lots of pictures to explain the game. I tried it first in a small, American West class with great success. They were well into playing the game before I could even finish explaining the rules, and any questions were answered by the students themselves. We set up the games, explained the rules, and played all the way through in less than one hour! And everyone enjoyed themselves. Next, I tried it in a night class with even more success. Lastly, I managed to use it successfully in a 1.25 hour American history survey course with 35 students! Most of the groups were cheering and laughing or at least cursing when outmaneuvered (which meant that they were into the game). [I used several home-made copies of the game to cover all the students. I’m asking the college to buy 5 copies of the game for next year so I can do everything honestly. ]
 
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4. Board Game: Origins of World War II [Average Rating:5.84 Overall Rank:6785]
Thomas Heaney
United States
Quincy
California
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Last year I had students in one of my classes play “Origins of World War II” with the Pacific Origins variant included. I broke the class into 7 teams of 3-5 students each, to play each nation. I rewrote the manual, and went through an example of play, but students were still very confused by the rules and the victory conditions (“I know we’re playing the US, but why can’t we establish ‘CONTROL’ in Poland?”). the game, which was supposed to take one and half sessions took 3 sessions plus time outside of class to finish. The class was really divided about the game – they either thought it was the best thing they’d ever done in a class or they thought I was some horrible, psychotic for forcing them to play it. I gave up on the game until recently, when an older student (a grandma, no less), dropped by to say “hi” and stated that the game had be an “awesome experience.” Hum, maybe next time we’ll just play the European Origins and see how it goes . . .
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5. Board Game: Mesopotamia: Birth of Civilisation [Average Rating:6.84 Overall Rank:7084]
Thomas Heaney
United States
Quincy
California
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At the beginning of this year, I had a Western Civ class dropped in my lap at absolutely the last moment. It really isn’t my field, but I was supposed take care of the class for a couple of weeks and introduce the early middle-eastern civilizations to the class. I excitedly printed out a couple copies of Garry Stevens’ game hoping to play the game. I was just about all set when just hours before class the regular instructor arrived unexpectedly and took over. I still wonder, what if . . . ?
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6. Board Game: A House Divided [Average Rating:7.10 Overall Rank:836]
Thomas Heaney
United States
Quincy
California
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The Civil War really confuses students; I don’t know why. At the end of one particularly bad class, I decided to play this game in the next semester. I made up copies of the first edition, rewrote the rules, came up with a specific scenario (May 1862 to Sept. 1864), created a awkward 6 player version, and got ready to use it. Then I chickened out (particularly after the Origins fiasco). I would like to make it an optional activity, but I can’t bring myself to inflict this upon my students in class.
 
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7. Board Game: Geronimo [Average Rating:5.59 Overall Rank:9729]
Thomas Heaney
United States
Quincy
California
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I originally purchased this game for a small American West class I teach every couple of years. It sounded great: A multiplayer game of the Far West in which players use cards take turns controlling random tribes as well as the US forces on a pretty area map. Sounded just perfect; then I started rewriting the rules. What was I thinking?! I do offer it for extra credit, but even the gamers in the class won’t touch it.
 
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8. Board Game: Business Strategy [Average Rating:6.02 Overall Rank:7984]
Thomas Heaney
United States
Quincy
California
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I picked up a used copy of this with the idea that I’d use it to teach late 19th-century corporate behavior. It doesn’t look like a bad game, and even has a version specifically for classrooms. But it needs some more details like vertical and horizontal integration before it could really be useful. Until then, it takes up space on my shelf.
 
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