Board Games and Public History

In this week’s blog, Tim Somers discusses how historians can use their research to develop custom-built board games:

For the last few months I’ve been exploring the potential use of custom-built board games as a way to undertake a public history project. The project would involve collaborating with a board game designer. To prepare, I have been attempting to create a game based on my research into print culture during the Popish Plot and Exclusion Crisis, 1678 to 1685. This is, I hope, the first in a series of posts on the topic.

Why Board Games?

Crumpled boxes of Monopoly, Cluedo and Scrabble waiting to be ceremoniously dusted off during the holidays. This was once the common image of board games. Not so anymore. Over the last decade games have developed in new, creative directions and experienced a resurgence in popularity. ‘We are entering a golden age of board game design’, according to the designer of the hugely successful title, Pandemic. Board gaming in the UK and Ireland is firmly in “growth industry” territory. UK sales of games have been climbing year-on-year (up 24% from 2016 to 2017). Attendance at the UK Games Expo rose to 39,106 this year, compared to 1,200 in 2007. And people are not just discovering exciting games to play with friends and family, they’re also visiting newly-opened board game cafes, such as ‘Jack Straws’ in Belfast. Digital culture has played a factor in the industry’s growth. Gamers can schedule events and find people on; independent designers can use the crowdfunding website Kickstarter to publish new games; and millions watch tastemakers on Youtube to navigate the ever-expanding marketplace. Like vinyl, printed books or the ‘material turn’ in academia, board games are another example of analogue technology persisting in the digital age.[1]

jack straws
Jack Straws Board Game Cafe, Belfast [].
Board Games in Higher Education

Games are not just a growing in popularity among the public, as educational tools they’re also attracting academic attention. Most empirical studies of educational games have come from fields such as computer science and economics.[2] However Benjamin Hoy, a historian ahead of the curve, has recently created a custom game to teach students about North-West Pacific smugglers in the nineteenth century. Based on the gameplay for Sherriff of Nottingham, the game requires players to make ‘difficult moral decisions’ that reflect the challenges of North-West Pacific life. This resulted in increased student participation and an appreciation for the structural factors that shaped ‘normal behaviour’ in the past (‘historical empathy’).[3] Educational history games are an exciting avenue to pursue. But is it also possible, in terms of public history, to create research-led games that are both educational and engaging to the public?

Historians – what are they good for? 

The best kind of public engagement uses models of collaboration and exchange rather than ‘top-down’ dissemination.[4] Historians cannot expect the ‘public’ to be automatically interested in their highly specialised research. By the same token, why should indie game designers – most of whom have “real” jobs to support themselves – invest time and money in your public history enterprise? The world doesn’t need another frivolous passion project, thanks! It’s important to create a clear idea of the practicalities around collaboration and its benefits to the partner organisation before embarking on such projects.

In terms of the creative process, however, historians do have something to offer: ‘theme’. The best board games are a seamless blend of theme and gameplay ‘mechanics’. Usually mechanics are the substance that provides an intellectual puzzle, whereas the theme draws people in and creates a memorable experience. However as more games are published year-on-year, theme is becoming an increasingly important way for designers to stand out from the crowd. In the words of one: ‘It’s time to step up our themes. How many more zombie, Cthulhu, pirate, space empire, wizard games can we make? There are more worlds to be discovered than just these typical themes’.[5]

If game designers need themes, then historians could be of some use. Of course, history has always been a common thematic alternative to zombies and wizards. Usually, though, historical games deal in warfare rather than social, cultural or political history. This is not to ignore the variety of historical games with intriguingly demilitarized themes: Biblio (medieval abbots collecting libraries), Guilds of London (early modern civic culture), Archipelago (Renaissance colonialism), Brass: Lancashire (the industrial revolution), or Mexica (Aztec city-building). However even these games, with their expertly crafted gameplay, usually engage with the past on a skin-deep level. For example, in Guilds of London players are trying to control tiles (guilds) with their pawns (liverymen). On a special tile, players can choose to ship their liveryman to the Ulster Plantation to win extra points. But because the theme is incidental to the mechanic (‘area control’), there is no indication that this might be a problematic decision.[6]

Guilds of London’s plantation tile. Image from Instagram @never.bored.gaming.

Contrast this with Brenda Romero’s ‘The Mechanic is the Message’, a highly personal series of games (including one themed on the Cromwellian Invasion of Ireland) that uses gameplay to create thought-provoking experiences through active participation.[7] In Train, the objective of the game is to move as many passengers as possible to the final destination. At the end, players are told that this destination is a Nazi concentration camp and the passengers are Jews. Often players simply ‘follow the rules’, some refuse to play once they guess the real objective, others attempt to improvise a different outcome. The game therefore asks difficult questions about complicity during the Holocaust. How would you have behaved at the time? This is an extreme example of theme and mechanic working together, turning games into art-installations, but it has provoked me to think more deeply about how we can translate our research into ‘play’. How do we make historically-themed games that engage with the complexities of their topics, impart ‘historical empathy’, and use theme-led mechanics that are intuitive and interesting for gamers? What kind of ‘experience’ do we want this to be?

Brenda Romero, Train (2009).

In the next post, I will discuss the practical steps I took to try and address these issues, as well as the successes and (mostly) failures I have experienced along the way.

Tim Somers received his PhD from Queen’s University Belfast in 2018. His thesis was titled ‘John Bagford and the Collection of Cheap Print in Later Stuart Britain’. He has published on the concept of impartiality in print culture during the 1680s with the Historical Journal. This month another article on the contributions of tradesmen to later seventeenth-century scientific culture will be published in the Huntington Library Quarterly. His current interests include the humour of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century jestbooks and ballads, and print consumers’ reception of humour and satire.



[1] Leigh Alexander, ‘The Persistence of Analogue’ [].

[2] Nancy B. Sardone & Roberta Devlin-Scherer, ‘Let the (Board) Games Begin: Creative Ways to Enhance Teaching and Learning’, The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, vol. 89, issue 7 (2016), pp. 215-222.

[3] Benjamin Hoy, ‘Teaching History With Custom-Built Board Games’, Simulation & Gaming, vol 49, issue 2, 2018, pp. 115-133.

[4] Karen Harvey, ‘Envisioning the Past: Art, Historiography and Public History’, Cultural and Social History, vol. 12, issue 4 (2015), pp. 527-43; Laura King and Gary Rivett, ‘Engaging People in Making History: Impact, Public Engagement and the World Beyond the Campus’, History Workshop Journal, vol. 80, issue 1 (2015), pp. 218-33.

[5] Christian Strain, ‘Stepping Up Your Game’s Theme’ [].

[6] This is perhaps an unfair criticism of Tony Boydell’s Guilds of London, which is excellent. Generally speaking, ‘euro-games’ of this kind do not engage with their themes as deeply as story-telling or narrative-driven games such as Dead of Winter. It is also not the designer’s fault that only three out of forty guilds gave permission to use their names and shields in the game!

[7] Brenda Romero, ‘The Mechanic is the Message’ [].


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