Wargames in Introductory History Courses

I have used wargames as teaching aids in history courses at three Massachusetts colleges. These include Merrimack College, a small Catholic school in North Andover, Bridgewater State College, a medium-size public institution, and Newbury College, a junior college in transition to four-year status. This article presents some conclusions drawn from using board games in three different environments.

Simulations bring several advantages to history courses. First, they illustrate certain problems faced by historical leaders. Even with hindsight, students find that running a country is not all that easy. In short, it offers them a chance to learn history by actually doing something historical. Wargames are an alternate means of presenting historical information, thus reinforcing course material. The game format can help students develop decision-making, negotiating, and analytical skills. Finally, they represent a welcome break in the traditional lecture format for both the instructor and the students.

The first game tried was Origins of World War II (The Avalon Hill Game Company, 1971) in a Twentieth Century European History course at Merrimack College. This class consisted mostly of upper division history and political science majors who tended to be good students. Using Origins linked well with their assignment to read A.J.P. Taylor's The Origins of the Second World War. Prior to the exercise, each student received a packet containing a rules summary, schedule, grading information, playing hints, and forms for deploying Political Factors and recording diplomatic contacts with other countries. The class was divided into three playing groups, with the democracies getting multiple players.

The simulation ran for five fifty-minute periods. The first class consisted of a lecture on historical simulation and a dry run to familiarize students with game mechanics. Essentially, they were walked through the first two turns. This process clarified virtually all of their rules questions. Two turns were then played in each of the next three classes. The last period was a discussion of the exercise. The students received discussion questions, historical information, and a summary of each group's game before this class. The summaries benefitted from my requirement that students record their diplomatic contacts and submit their records to me after the exercise. As expected, player plans and negotiations often misfired due to treachery, misfortune, or better opposing play.

The students reacted enthusiastically to the whole process. On written evaluations, twenty out of twenty-two participants rated it an A, with comments on it being "enjoyable," "hands-on look," "new perspective" on the 1930s, "fun," and a useful lesson on diplomacy and "back-stabbing." Overall, Origins worked well in a moderately-sized, upper-division course for history and other related majors.

While Merrimack offered an ideal situation for an initial foray into classroom simulation, most history teaching loads include large introductory courses. Western Civilization classes at Bridgewater State College are fairly typical of these. They consist of forty or so average, somewhat apathetic, but generally cooperative students meeting some type of graduation requirement. I had not used Origins in the Merrimack version of these classes, believing that the rules were too complex for freshman and the mechanics too awkward in a bigger class. Large numbers of teenagers, counters, and dice did not seem to be a great combination. I would be interested in hearing from other instructors who have tried this.

Still wanting to use wargames in these classes, I designed Stratagem, a simple military and diplomatic game with only limited historical pretensions. Essentially, it is a paper and pencil wargame based loosely on the Origins system, especially Origins of World War I, also designed by James Dunnigan and found in Sid Sackson's A Gamut of Games.

Stratagem has two pages of rules plus scenario instructions which provide player strengths and objectives, a chart for recording moves and attacks, and historical information. So far there are scenarios for the Age of Discovery, Reformation Europe, the Balance of Power era, World War I, and the Appeasement period. The class plays in groups, usually four to seven depending on class size, each with five players and a moderator. The latter chairs the group and records player activity on the scenario chart. Because the moderator runs each group's game, the instructor is free to wander around the classroom and observe, give advice, answer rules questions, and generally be a nuisance. When it is over, the moderator's chart is a good record of the group's game. I tried Stratagem in only one course at first, figuring that it would be better to botch one group than all of them. Again, however, the experiment was successful.

Wargames are now part of all of my Bridgewater courses, and I have designed different ones to match my teaching loads. For American history courses I have A Corrupt Bargain: The Election of 1824, Secession (antebellum politics), and We Shall Overcome (1960s politics). The latter was developed with a grant from MSCA-Bridgewater. My department chair heads the group and has been supportive of my efforts. For European and World courses I use Ancient Near East, Kings and Commerce (Medieval Europe), Imperial Age, European Union (European parliamentary elections. suited for advanced for courses), and EuroParl (a simplified version of European Union). All of these are based on Stratagem directly or indirectly, since the system is flexible enough. More designs will probably follow.

Finally, I used wargames in World Civilization courses at Newbury College. These were adult education classes taught at a satellite campus. The course was required and student quality varied immensely. Classes were small and met one night a week. It was a good situation for experimentation. Generally, the better classes get either version of Origins, while the others play Stratagem. Again all three worked.


Basically, these steps work when using simulations:

(1) Distribute the rules and other supporting materials to the students in advance.

(2) Introduce simulations by explaining how they are used in the military, business, and other fields. The employment of jury simulation firms in the O.J. Simpson trial is something they may have heard of.

(3) Review the rules.

(4) Conduct a dry run by having the class as a whole play two or three turns. Record their moves on the blackboard and point out historical similarities and possibilities. Assign students to groups.

(6) Instruct each group to play a practice turn or two to increase rules understanding.

(7) Start playing. Depending on the amount of negotiation, it usually takes about ninety minutes to play either Origins and roughly seventy-five minutes to do Stratagem.

(8) Close the exercise with a discussion. Give questions to them in advance. Start the discussion by summarizing each group's actions and comparing them to what happened historically. The moderators, if you use them, can be helpful in analyzing player activity.

(9) Grade the exercise. This ensures that the students will approach the simulation seriously. Grading can be done leniently. My students are told that all they really have to do is humor me for a week or so before reverting to normalcy. Attendance, participation, and discussion are all suitable grading criteria.


(1) Classroom gaming has been very popular so far, normally getting a ninety percent approval rating from the students, regardless of the college or type of class. Sometimes students who have vanished from the course appear magically for the simulation, prior to disappearing permanently. Conversely, it is irritating to realize that students prefer playing games over listening to my lectures.

(2) Most students think they learn something from the exercise.

(3) Students react to these in a variety of ways. There are rules lawyers, loose cannons, double-crossers, and those ruled by indecision. Some trust all, others no one. Many take it very seriously, down to constructing perfect plans for each country before playing. Those experienced with computer games, Risk, Chess, wargames,and military simulators like it the most. Some act totally out of character. It is not unusual to see mild-mannered types turn hyperaggressive or treacherous during the course of a game.

(4) The biggest problem is rules comprehension. Many do not read the rules carefully if at all. They often treat this like any other assignment and do as little as possible. Others cannot make the necessary conceptual leaps on their own. This is not surprising in that most people learn games by playing others. Volunteers for moderator are often those who feel totally lost. This can bring confusion to their group. Overall, about one-fourth learn the rules by reading them, another quarter after listening to explanations, a third group from attending the dry run, and the rest by playing the game.

(5) A secondary problem is the limited amount of negotiation. Many groups work out deals early and stay with them regardless of circumstances. fortunately, someone usually breaks an alliance and creates havoc with these arrangements.

(6) Other faculty members show at best a polite interest in what you are doing. They are sympathetic but not really interested in this type of approach.


(1) Schedule the game near semester's end. Most students have papers or projects due at this time, and wargaming gives them one less course to worry about. It also breaks the traditional lecture-style course nicely.

(2) Be ready for skepticism. Students expect nothing but misery in required courses, so they assume that this exercise will not be any different. Normally about half believe they will dislike it. Explaining that it is intended to be fun and more importantly that it is an easy grade helps. Conversely, the moderator position is good for those who hate playing games. In addition, simulation's mathematical aspects interest business, science, social science, and computer majors.

(3) Assume nothing. They will not necessarily do what is logical or historical. Games can produce really strange results.

(4) Anticipate rules comprehension problems. Expect to explain and re-explain constantly. If you can simplify a rules set, do so.

(5) Use simple games. With a commercial product, give them a rules summary written in plain English as opposed to wargamese.

(6) If circumstances permit, use simultaneous submission of orders and moves, a la Diplomacy, and require them to keep a record of their negotiations. Both help in post-exercise analysis.

(7) Schedule a dry run. This is essential.

(8) Encourage them to use their bad personality traits. Remind them that engaging in power politics is a good excuse for being a miserable specimen of humanity.

(9) If class size permits, use board and counter games. It is easier for the students to visualize matters, and rolling the dice is fun. Stratagem sacrifices these advantages for simplicity and ease of use.

(10) Have some type of evaluation of the exercise.

(11) Make further information on wargaming available for anyone who is interested. You never know when you are going to convert someone.

Peter L. de Rosa

The original version of this article appeared in Games & Education 4.1 (Winter 1997):4-6, and can be found at RPGnet.



Football History Course Outline by Peter L. de Rosa