One of the great things about board games is that they can be educational. Basic strategy is often the foremost of skills you increase your knowledge of – learning to anticipate your opponents moves, setting yourself up for later moves, and the generalities of board control. However, board games can take you far beyond this, helping you learn vocabulary or math with the mass market Scrabble or lesser known Paperback. While a lot of games benefit from imagination and creativity, a few like Dixit or the more abstracted Rory’s Story Cubes feature these in the forefront. The majority of games utilize competition, but many focus on teamwork and cooperation such as Pandemic or Flashpoint. Cam and I enjoy a wide variety of games, but I must say that we most enjoy board games that focus on a particular historical event or period. I consider myself an eternal student of history, so I love diving into a board game that is also going to teach me a history lesson. Geography is also one of my favorite subjects, and most history board games focus on a regional or world map from that era.
We’ve already reviewed a couple of our favorites, including Twilight Struggle and Memoir ’44. Twilight Struggle is, hands down, my favorite game. It is a two-player strategy game based on the events of the Cold War. One player is the USA and the other is the USSR. It’s a brilliant card-driven game that has consistently been the #1 ranked game at Board Game Geek. Not only does it accurately portray the events of the Cold War, it also does a pretty good job of mimicking the tension between two political ideologies. While players are competing against each other for influence all over the world, a bit of realistic cooperation must be obtained while watching the DEF-CON status. When each player makes an aggressive move, such as a coup or realignment in a country, the DEF-CON status moves down. If it were to reach zero, nuclear war ensues, the game is over and both players lose. One of my favorite things about it is how it is somewhat realistically unbalanced. In the early war cards, USSR definitely has an advantage, and in the late war cards, the advantage tilts towards the USA. Overall, I think it’s a great teaching tool for the era and a must-have for history buffs and gamers alike.
Memoir ’44 is also a two player game, Allies vs. Axis during World War II. It is a war game designed to emulate specific battles during 1944. Like Twilight Struggle, it attempts to be realistic and some of the missions seem a bit unbalanced to portray each battle as it happened in history. Setting up a game can take a while (laying terrain, villages, soldiers) as each mission is set up to depict a battle from history you choose out of the scenario book. Game play isn’t very long, so it is possible to play the mission multiple times. It’s a fairly simple game for someone wanting to get started playing war games. It involves a mix of strategy and luck based on cards drawn and played. The mechanics are fairly simple and you don’t have to constantly keep track of multiple war theaters or variables like you do when playing Twilight Struggle. I would definitely suggest it as a first wargame.
Another great game is 1775: Rebellion. Players of the American Continental Army and Patriots against the British Army and the Loyalists. The game can be played with between 2-4 players in teams, and the game ends with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. 1775: Rebellion was published by Academy Games, a publisher that focuses on historical board games. Their games generally blend your typical wargame with political influence games. Like most historical games, you don’t have to know a lot about the American Revolution to enjoy it, but it does give detailed write-ups so you can understand the social and political context.
If you don’t feel like competing with your friends, you can also try a different Academy Games’ offering, Freedom: The Underground Railroad. This is a cooperative game about slavery in the American South during the early to mid 19th century. Players take on the roles of Abolitionists attempting to free slaves through the Underground Railroad and into Canada. Again, it comes with excellent write-ups and a teacher’s guide so you can learn/teach about a controversial time in America’s history. Instead of battling through a war game with your friends, you can work together. It’s still tense as you attempt to avoid slave catchers.
If you’re not in the mood for a lengthy game, but more in the mood for some easy trivial knowledge, Timeline might be more up your alley. Timeline is a simple card that can include up to 8 players. Each player is given two cards with a picture of an invention on each. One card is randomly drawn from the deck and placed in the middle of the table as the first card in the timeline. During each player’s turn, he/she must decide where in the timeline does the invention go? When was it invented? In the beginning, it’s fairly simple to determine that fire was invented before the light bulb. Once a player’s card is placed on the timeline, it is flipped over to reveal the year of the invention. Once several cards are played, it becomes a bit more difficult to estimate whether the fax machine was invented before or after the photocopier. There are several versions of the game, from Timeline: Inventions to Diversity, Discoveries, Music and Cinema. We’ve only played Inventions, but I dream of a day where I can really test my historical knowledge and play several decks at once.
There are historical board games designed for all major world events, from ancient to modern. They are designed for all levels and ages as well. While I realize this list only scratches the surface of historical board games, I wanted to highlight a sample across different historical eras and types of games. These are the ones we are most familiar with, but hopefully our shelf will be filled with more historical games as our collection grows. Are there any other historical games you’ve played that you recommend we add to our collection?