Monday, September 7, 2020
September 7, 2020: History through Games: War Games
[One of the most consistent through-lines in my life as an AmericanStudier, from my own childhood through my experiences with my sons, has been games, both board/card and video. So this week I’ll analyze a handful of games that offer complex lessons about our past, leading up to a Guest Post on the wonderful Reacting to the Past pedagogical games!]
On three board games through which I learned a lot about war histories and stories.
1) Ambush!: Ambush!, which began with a focus on post-D-Day European campaigns and then expanded to include Italy and the Pacific as well, stands out as (by far) the best solitaire board game I ever played. But its style of gameplay also captures the uncertainty and constant danger of warfare as well as anything I’ve encountered: as the player moves his eight squad members across the board in pursuit of each unique mission, anything and everything can suddenly transpire: sniper fire, the arrival of an enemy tank, an encounter with a civilian, a mine or other explosive device being triggered. Awaiting the results of each move was, as board games go, as nerve-wrecking as it gets.
2) Sink the Bismarck!: Something about board games with exclamation points, I suppose. Inspired by one of the most unique naval histories in World War II, as well as the 1960 British film of the same name, Sink the Bismarck! was an incredibly complicated board game, and I’m not sure I ever played with every rule and feature (or even most of them). To be honest, I spent a good deal of time just examining the board, the pieces and cards, the rules and peripheral materials, learning not only about the game but also about the histories and stories connected to this famous German battleship, to the Axis and Allied naval armadas, and to all the complexities of naval warfare. I don’t think Michael Scott Smith would mind that outcome one bit.
3) Gettysburg: Ah, the genius of Avalon Hill’s Gettysburg, a game that was at one and same time deeply grounded in the battle’s histories (the board alone taught me a great deal about the battle’s locations and landscapes) and open to each player’s and game’s unique choices (I still remember the time I had J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry flank the Union lines and capture General Meade, winning the battle in one fell swoop; luckily for all Americans it didn’t really work out that way!). The battle and war are history, but the game made them come alive, made them new and meaningful for each player and experience. I owe much of my enduring love of history to precisely such effects.
Next game tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other historical games you’d highlight?