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Time-traveling the table top world

by Evan | Sep 26, 2017
In days of yore, board games about history or geography existed mainly to a) teach children the prevailing facts and fallacies, b) entertain those children and c) be pretty. What kaiser kinder could resist a game that looked like Deutschland's Kolonien-spiel did?

Kaiser's colonies game

That's from 1890, but as late as 1960 I was reveling in a childish American game called Pirate and Traveler that inspired wonder about geography, even if the art was no longer so elegant. A generation later, however, British game designers started reaching out to adults with such grand -- and very long -- games as Civilization (about the ancient Mediterranean world) and History of the World. 

The Germans -- longtime lovers of family board games -- quickly outflanked the Anglophones with a tsunami of excellent shorter geography/history games for adults and older children. Tigris and Euphrates looks back 5,000 years and entraps you in its religious and political subtleties. El Grande employs a map of late-medieval Spain to stage a dance of competing courtiers. Amun-Re divides the ancient Nile Valley into 15 regions of shifting value for pyramid builders. 

An Anglo-American designer, Alan Moon, upped the stakes further with Ticket to Ride, which appeals to adults and pre-teen children -- probably in the millions by now. The original game is set in North America, but I suspect you can place your colored trains on maps of 20 different parts of the world today.   

My family's current favorite game is Terraforming Mars, which came out last year. The original game is played on a map of part of the Red Planet. We bought an expansion that adds two game boards with different areas of the Martian terrain. Geek glee ensued. 

Can you actually learn real history or geography from such games? Yes, if the game is well done. Not long ago I was so inspired by playing Brass, a superb game about 18th century western England, that I used Google Maps to see whether any of the canals on the game board still exist. The plain Brass game map can't compete with the colorful one from Deutschland's Kolonon-spiel, but Britain's Industrial Revolution lasted far longer than did the German Empire. And the canals are still there.

EvanEvan - Married, three children, two grandchildren, formerly a newspaper journalist, now a public librarian, at all times a board game nut.
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