Friday, July 3, 2015

Gaming Our Way Through History… (Part 1)

I may have mentioned once or twice that I homeschool my kids and that games are a big part of our “curriculum”. Games are great. There’s so much going on there that can be used across the various “subject areas”. The ability to simply read, comprehend, follow and explain to others very complex instructions (like the rules for games with wildly differing mechanics) are vital “language arts” skills necessary for functioning in society today. A lot of games require logical thinking, planning, resource management, and quick mental calculations – of both simple math (adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing multiple sets of numbers) and considering the statistical probability of success and balancing risk and associated rewards and recognizing there are multiple pathways to achieve a desired outcome. And, as we shall see, a lot of the games we played this year (all the games I’m talking about in this post) were related thematically to our study of the ancient world – providing the kids with a hands-on, interactive way of understanding the dynamics of relationships and interactions between different peoples and cultures we read about and the relationships of power and authority within those various societies, as well as understanding the decision-making processes concerning the distribution of resources. Well… sometimes…

This past year we began reading A Story of the World Volume One: The Ancient World.  I think it’s a pretty good series so far – for what it’s set out to do (provide a very basic general survey of world history for children). It may be a tad western-judeo-christian-euro-centric, but the beauty of homeschooling is I can bring my children’s’ attention to the fact that it may be written from a certain point of view and that others may have a different point of view and that I can supplement it with additional stuff about topics/areas/cultures that I don’t think got enough attention… I’m trying to use it for what it is - a very basic general survey of world history for children – that, when we are finished, the kids will have a pretty decent general understanding of world history that we will use as a springboard for further study of periods and cultures that we are interested in studying more in-depth.

So below are listed the games we played along with reading various sections of A Story of the World Volume One: The Ancient World. (We did play a LOT or OTHER games as well… but these are the one specifically related to the sections of history presented in A Story of the World Volume One: The Ancient World).

Ideally what I was looking for (and didn’t always have or was able to find) were games with maps of the regions and some method of showing the movement of peoples and/or the aforementioned dynamics of relationships and interactions between different peoples and cultures, the relationships of power and authority within those various societies, as well as understanding the decision-making processes concerning the distribution of resources, etc…. a tall order. Some were better at this than others. I wasn’t really looking for “war games” – though there were some - which showed the conflict involved when cultures clashed and Empires expanded. In some cases I already had some of the games (I bought a HUGE pile of games about five or six years back from a distributor that was going out of business and dumping stock on ebay) others I sought out and bought specifically for our “studies”. At times I knew of better games out there, but I don’t have limitless resources to buy games to cover EVERY chapter of the book – I did the best with what I had.

I also tried to look for games with les luck/dice-rolling and more planning and decision-making.

(Remember: click on the pictures for a bigger version)


The first chapters – after discussing what IS history and how to we know what we know and a bit about prehistoric hunter gatherers – focused on the development of the earliest civilizations in Mesopotamia – Ur was one of the city states that developed there and was the first game we played as part of our “gaming through history” program.

This game was fairly abstract. Each player is supposed to be the leader of one of the city-states of Mesopotamia developing their own civilization. The gaming area itself is a modular “game board” made up of tiles There are five different types of tiles representing different aspects of civilizations; agriculture, trade, law or politics, culture and military. Ultimately players want to control as many tiles as possible of as many different types to have the “most rounded” civilization. There is some ability to change the layout of the tiles. It is also possible to built a ziggurat… but I forget how that worked. At the end of the game victory points are counted and players are awarded more points for more complete sets of tiles.

I guess it reinforced some of the ideas of civilization building and that to succeed one has to have a balanced civilization…? 


Then we moved to Egypt…

(Despite the fact that we've played this game more often than any of the other games - so far -  I somehow never got a picture of us PLAYING it?!)

Another fairly abstract game bidding and set collection. Tiles representing different aspects of ancient Egyptian society – pharaohs, the Nile, floods, civilization (agriculture, art, astronomy, religion, writing), monuments, gods are drawn out of a bag and set out on a track – throughout the rounds there are a number of opportunities to bid on the sets of tiles laid out. There are three rounds representing Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, and New Kingdom periods. At the end of each period/round points are awarded for collecting various sets of tiles. I felt the theme was a little bit stronger in this one than Ur, but it was still fairly abstract.

Not all of them have two letter names - this one has THREE!

While covering straight history the Story of the World also covers various civilizations… well… stories – they’re myths and legends and such. While many other stories of the bible are included – Noah’s Ark wasn’t – there was a very similar much older story in the epic of Gilgamesh, which involves a great flood and someone collecting up pairs of animals to preserve in an ark… So we busted out Ark – a fun little game of trying to load animals onto the ark. It’s been a while so I can’t remember how the game is scored, but I do know you have to keep the ark balanced (lest it capsize in the water) and you can’t have carnivores omnivores loaded up in stalls with herbivores, and can’t have herbivores in stalls with feed and can’t have cold climate animals in with warm climate animals…

Okay this one was not so historical… and not tied specifically to any of the stuff  we were reading about. I had it… there were Greeks… and Egyptians… (and… er… NORSE!?) and the kids had fun playing it….

This was only a two-player game and I only got around to playing it once with The Boy one night. Again, very abstract, “bolt-on theme” with cards/tiles could easily have just been different colours – but they were supposed to represent different peoples on the ancient world (Medes, Sumerians, Hitites, Persians, and Assyrians – all peoples we did read about) building monuments…

We did read about Nebuchadnezzar and the gardens he built for his Persian wife Queen Amytis – which would become one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. In this game you are using cards with different garden elements on them to “plan out the gardens” when a certain number of grouped together you get to select from a number of tiles that are available – variable points are awarded at the end of the game for those who were able to collect certain sets of tiles. It’s fairly abstract and there’s more pattern recognition and planning than history… but it sort of tied into what we were reading. Sort of…

In this game players represent a civilization trying to build one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient world.

You collect cards from hands that are passed around putting into play cards that represent buildings or resources that your civilization builds or develops some just give you victory points some just make it easier to complete the next stage of your wonder.

We played this a lot - with different groups of people - it's pretty easy to teach the basics of and because of the simultaneous action adding more players doesn't make the game any longer - as it does with most games.

Each player represents a Greek city-state. This is a worker placement/resource management game – the “workers” are priests that you send to different temples to pray to different gods of the Greek pantheon which offer different rewards to further the advance of your city.

Victory points are awarded for building certain buildings and for being the first to reach the maximum value in the six aspects of each city’s civilization are tracked: population, culture, military and productivity of the three resources (grain, venison and fish).

Love this one.  Now this was more what I was looking for in a “good game” for learning. WE played it a few times... 

This is a commodity trading/resource management/building game set in the Ancient Aegean (c600BC). The game board is a map of the Aegean sea (with all it’s islands),  some nearby lands (the Greek mainland and the coast of Ionia – where lots of Greeks settled), and some foreign lands (Egypt, Carthage, Italy). Players control one of those islands in the Aegean and try to develop the civilization on the island – first by developing resource production, and then trading for other resources required to build other infrastructure (to increase or diversify resource production or allow other special activities/abilities). Players can trade with other islands (the other players) or with neighboring lands or further “foreign” lands. Journeys to neighboring or foreign lands are more risky - storms or pirates can mean losing entire fleets – or one can arrive only to find there is a surplus of what you want to trade at that port… but there can also be big pay-offs… Players who are co-operative and trade more with the other players can do quite well.

It’s way more fun with more players as there is a lot more deal making and trading amongst the islands.

This was another really great one. I had really wanted to include some sort of game about the campaigns of Alexander the Great - unfortunately most of them are two player war games where one player plays the roles of the Army of Alexander and the other plays the role of the Persian Empire and other opponents… play doesn’t necessarily follow the route of Alexander’s campaigns…

Then I stumbled across this game – which was perfect (for what I was looking for). The campaigns of Alexander are pretty much a forgone conclusion in this game – the army marches on, conquering lands following, more or less, the route that Alexander took.

Players represent various generals/advisors in Alexander’s army. The game is mostly a  game of resource management. The campaign is broken down into six stages. Each stage take two or three turns to complete and at the end of each turn and stage victory points are scored for areas controlled (most army markers in each province within the area of the current stage of the campaign) and for cities founded and temples built. There is a final scoring for whoever has the most temple/cities in total and the most in each stage area.

I like it because it’s sort of a war game, but not really a war game. The game board is a great map of the region and the play follows the route of Alexander’s campaigns, but the focus is not-so-much on the battles (which most war games are) but on the resources that have to be managed to keep the armies marching and the spread of Greek culture through the region (through the building of temples and founding of cities) that followed in the wake of the campaign.

The wars of the Diadochi (Alexander’s Successors) was a bit of a footnote in the chapter on Alexander the Great – but, I felt, an important part of understanding that whole period of history. Alexander spent all this time and effort building this HUGE empire… which was then shattered immediately after his death – shortly after returning from his last campaign – when the empire was split between his generals, who immediately started fighting against each other…

 This is a more traditional area control war game that was simple enough for my kids to play, allowed a number of players. Play is similar to the old Milton Bradley big box game Shogun/Samurai Swords - the provinces are even supposed to be dealt out at random.

I changed this a bit to give each of the generals a core of four or five provinces in the area they historically controlled (Ptolemy in Egypt, Seleucus in Persia, etc).

Players play different tribes trying to settle the seven hills that will eventually become the city of Rome. The board is modular, roughly hexagonal tiles representing the seven hills of Rome.

The players take turns placing different inhabitants (Soldiers, Merchants, and Farmers) which will interact with the others placed next to them – depending on the number and type of inhabitants - then the hills are scored and victory points awarded. Seemed simple enough. We played a couple quick games one afternoon, but haven’t returned to it.

Another great game for learning history – though it covers a great deal of history of one particular area - in this case 330-80BCE.

The game board is a map of Italy and surrounding areas and plays over a long period of time with successive groups moving into the area, dominating the previous groups (or at least trying to) and then being dominating by other groups moving into the area

It’s sort of like an historical version of Small World (if you’re familiar with that game). The game is based on another game called Britannia. I have a copuple other games based on the Britannia system which I will be using later on - Maharaja for India, and China: The Middle Kingdom. I also would have LOVED to have been able to track down a copy of Britannia itself or Chariot Lords, but they’re all out of print and not-so-easy to find…

Italia is a fairly complicated game and it took us two days to play it. The game also includes a second set of tiles to play a completely separate game covering the period of history from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 390CE through the tumultuous period of  medieval Italian history until 1100CE – so we’ll be playing that again pretty soon!

There were slightly different mechanics to represent different kinds of incursions - some turns are played over decades or even hundreds of years - representing groups of people slowly migrating in, while others are played as specific military campaigns over just a few years:

hannibal marching across the alps with his elephants... Except unlike what actually happened, Flaminius there stopped Hannibal and his elephants dead (I just had the WORST luck with the dice...)

...and here is Scipio (soon to be called Scipio Africanus) after he lays waste to Carthage! 

I don’t actually have this game, a friend brought it over one weekend and The Boy and I got to play it. I really liked it – it’s card game of city building and resource management after the fire of 64CE – there are lots of different ways to use each cards and multiple paths to victory. The Boy was a little overwhelmed…?

Ostia was the port of Rome. This is another trading game. Rather than shipping anything you are simply buying the stuff coming off ships from… wherever… and storing it or selling it at the markets in Rome to make money or donating it to the senate to gain favour (and victory points!). You do need to sell a certain amount to stay solvent – but the more you sell of any one commodity on the market the lower the price per unit gets – so you have to keep track of what other players have bought that round and guess at which they will be donating and which they will be selling. An interesting game, but the theme was a little “bolt-on” – in that it could be easily be any port anywhere in time (or even a space port in the far future). But the box said “Ostia” and the commodities were right for the period so it worked.

A latin phrase meaning “where are you going?”

You are trying to get your candidates into the senate – that’s where! Moving up through comities – needing a majority of votes from the committee. Other players will ultimately have playing pieces in said committees so you need to negotiate to get the aid of other players and help other players – but not help them TOO much – because ultimately you want YOUR candidates to get to that senate chamber…

It’s hard to find games with eastern themes set in ancient times that had the elements that I was looking for - which I really wanted to do because they are kind of glossed over in the book. I didn't really find anything for India - either the Harapan/Indus civilization or the Mauryan Empire that we read about - but I was super excited to find ZhanGou as it fit the bill perfectly – Board game is a map of China – it takes place just after Shi Huang Di unified china and became the first Qin Emperor.

The players are Emissaries of the Qin trying to culturally unify China through the various building projects and establishing governors and quelling unrest. You had a hand of cards each round that could be used in different ways to recruit officials or workers or build stuff or establish There was a LOT going on in this game and different ways. I liked it.

In this games players are legati Augusti – Representatives of Augustus – trying to maintain the empire and vying for the title of consul. To do this the players must gain the support of influential senators to take control of the various provinces of the empire.

The provinces and senators take the form of “objective” cards that require a certain number of parkers on each to win over. Markers are drawn randomly from a bag. Once a player has completed (gained the support of or taken control of) seven of these objectives the game ends and victory points are calculated for various combinations of stuff… it’s quick.

I don’t think we actually read about Pompeii in the story of the world – but did read about it in some of the supplemental readings and some other books we read on our own about Rome. There are two phases to the game – phase one players are trying to populate Pompeii with as many of their friends and family as possible…

Then, once the volcano starts to erupt on 24 August 79CE, phase two begins where you try to evacuate as many of your friend and family as possible before they are buried under tones of pumice and ash…

This is a set of rules for playing miniature skirmish wargames set in urban areas of the ancient Mediterranean in the first century BCE (+/- a century or two). We played a few games of this with various different factions we put together.

You can find more detailed reports of some of the games we played below:

 ...and an article I posted about putting together a faction for the game here:

Still to Play...

A larger war game similar to Alexander’s Generals that I’ve been trying to organize a game of for months, but just haven’t been able to get the game on the table with people around it ready to play. It’s a longer game and would take up most of a day. I’ve been trying to get a bunch of players together (up to six can play) – but I should probably just sit down one day and play it with the kids…

During out study of the ancient world we had a few “missed opportunities”…

I have a BUNCH of De Bellis Antiquitatis armies for the ancient world; Egyptians and Nubians, Multiple Greek Hoplite armies, Skythians, Thracians, Macedonians, multiple Alexandrian Successor armies, multiple Early Imperial Roman armies, Ancient Germans, Picts… Unfortunately none of them are completed. I had hoped studying history might have motivated me to get a pile of them finished so we could play out some historical battles with them… alas… I didn’t really get to finish up any of them.

We also could have played more skirmish level games. I’m not sure how much useful history there is to be learned there – but playing some historical miniature games has got to be somewhat more educational that playing straight fantasy games… We totally could have played A Song of Blades and Heroes with various historical figures I have – or Song of Arthur and Merlin

Getting a little less historical – I totally could have run  Of Gods and Mortals with a mix of historical and Mythological Greeks…

Nothing can immerse players in a setting like a good role-playing game – I’ve been itching to run a Cthulhu Invictus campaign… but just didn’t find the time to prepare and run it…

While we were originally doing about a chapter a week - giving us time to do other activities and additional readings and activities for each chapter – I realized this will take us about four years to get through the four volumes… So we’ve decided to speed things up and are doing 4-5 chapters per week… so hopefully we’ll be done this survey of world history by the end of December this year. We are already well into Volume 2 – and have been playing lots of game to go along with it!  WE should have the second volume finished up by mid August – so I’ll post again then about all the games we’ve played along the way. 


  1. Tim - Well done! We home school also.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks! Some of them definitely were a lot of fun... others... we may not play so much...

  3. I wish you had been my teacher! I had one teacher who introduced some of us to D&D and then later some WW2 gaming. But games can teach so much. Why did the Americans struggle so much with the War of 1812? The map of any 1812 game

  4. Wow! Tremendous post, on all accounts! Congratulations Tim! :D

  5. Let me know when you would like to borrow Advanced Civilization...

    Seriously though, I just picked up Genesis: The Bronze Age, a multiplayer area control game by Berg. The downside is the play time (4 hours?)
    After the Flood is a 3 player game set in Sumeria
    Byzantium may take place too late still
    Empires of the Ancient World (3 hours, 3-5 players)
    Tigris & Euphrates (2-4 players about 90 minutes)

    These are all ancients games, some are more accessible than others. If you want to borrow any of them, let me know

    1. We definitely will borrow some at some point...

      Right now we're kind of at the end of the Middle Ages and rolling into the early Renaissance - the last chapters we read were about the Wars of the Roses (and played Z-man games Wars of the Roses: Lancaster vs. York) and The kingdoms of Spain and Portugal (about Ferdinand and Isabella uniting Spain and Henry the Navigator of Portugal - didn't have a game for that one).

      This week is Medieval West African Kingdoms (mali, etc) and India under the Moghuls - neither of which I really have any games for (though I do have Avalon Hill's Maharaja - which covers India from 1500BCE to 1850s CE - which we will play at some point).

      The next few weeks we're on to pre-European Americas (Inca Empire, Z-Man Games) and the Exploitation of the Americas by the Europeans (Glenn Drover's Empires: Age of Discovery looks like it would have been perfect, alas it is not quite out yet...). Then Martin Luther, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation...

    2. Empires: Age of Discovery is just AoEIII the board game in new clothing.
      Princes of the Renaissance
      God's Playground (Poland in he 1500s, 3P only)

      And some 2P wargames from that era (Kulikov etc)

    3. I am aware it is a reimplementation... it also not-so-avaialble these days (unless YOU have it!?)

      Princes of the Renaissance looks cool!