Immersive Historical Experiences
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The games that are the most memorable to me are the ones that resonate narratively (thematically) along with the simulation or gameplay they are providing. Although this Geeklist does not comprise the full subset of the games in my collection that I enjoy for these reasons, the games listed here are ones that I can recommend to anyone who is looking for a similar narrative experience and that also provide a sense of—and the chance to explore—history, often counterfactually.
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1. Board Game: 1775: Rebellion [Average Rating:7.78 Overall Rank:247]
O.Shane Balloun
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Bellingham
Washington
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American Revolutionary history is my favorite time period, so 1775: Rebellion was a natural winner for me. I've played it a bunch, and last night I taught my 8-year-old son the game, which he found fascinating. It made me proud that he said that he wanted to be the British because his favorite color is red—the fanciful choice for a side wasn't what made me proud—it was the fact that he knew/assumed in advance of playing the game that the British would be red.

It just occurred to me that the game designers made the Loyalists yellow for a reason: because we judge them 230 years hence as cowards, not that the Patriots were any less fearful. The game grants them the color white not only in homage to classic American color swatches (blue and white), but also maybe because they were white with fear: they flee with equal probability in the game as the Loyalists.

Anyway, it is easy to be immersed in the historical narrative when le Comte de Rochambeau lands his French troops in Rhode Island to help the flagging American cause after the British have just used warships to storm Newport with redcoats, loyalists, and Hessian mercenaries from Halifax. The idea that the game makes it hard to preserve reliable control over the gargantuan New York or the wilds of North Carolina reminds me of the fact that this war was fought in very specific hotspots, not evenly throughout all of the politically contested land.

The narrative text of the cards keeps me engaged in the theme, but with just enough to invent my own story line concomitant with what might have happened in history if history were counterfactually following my course of action.

Every time I see a slew of dice allowing the American army—which is otherwise losing—to retreat into an adjacent region to prevent British control of that (or a nearby) colony, I think of Washington's mindfulness about strategic retreats.

1775: Rebellion—in spite of (or perhaps because of) its simplicity—tells an excellent historical narrative.
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2. Board Game: 1989: Dawn of Freedom [Average Rating:7.85 Overall Rank:411]
O.Shane Balloun
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Bellingham
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See my notes to Twilight Struggle, below. I haven't played 1989 nearly enough to formulate a good opinion about its strategic space, but the effect on my internal storyline is basically the same. I've learned an immense amount about the final moments of communism in the Eastern bloc from playing 1989, and the storyline of the cards as they drive the game immerses me in the history of a set of countries I used to know little about.
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3. Board Game: Andean Abyss [Average Rating:7.54 Overall Rank:751]
O.Shane Balloun
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Bellingham
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Andean Abyss is representative of all of the COIN series—my comments here apply equally to any of the titles.

For wargames that rely on highly abstracted components (wooden octagonal cylinders, flat circular cylinders, and cubes), I find it very hard not to be totally immersed in the narrative driving what those cubes are doing. When green units move into a department in Colombia, I wonder how fast they will be able to set up growing operations. And when the yellow cylinders move in, I think, "What sorts of reactionary terrorism is going to ensue now that the AUC have arrived?" When I see the blue and light blue cubes move around the board, I wonder, "Will the government actually be effective this time in stopping any of the activity, or will they just spend a lot of effort for not a lot of return on investment?" And when I see red components move around, I wonder how quickly the departments or cities will fall to communism.

Of course, the card-driven backbone of the game—flavor text matched perfectly to the curated mechanics—brings this narrative to life. What makes this true—even more so in comparison to other CDGs in which the players actively influence which cards will be played when, and therefore influence the counterfactual history that the game is evoking—is that the order of the shuffled cards in a COIN game are set from the beginning. The story cannot be manipulated by the players. Only their responses to the potential events will change, but the game itself drives the storyline, and that storyline changes from play to play.

But still I find Andean Abyss (and its COIN brethren) effectively didactic (in a good way) and instructional on obscure counter-insurgency histories that are not well understood by most people.
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4. Board Game: Britannia [Average Rating:7.22 Overall Rank:543]
O.Shane Balloun
United States
Bellingham
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Britannia is an ardent reminder that the history of Britain is complex because a wide range of people groups occupied the isles and interacted with one another. Who will achieve dominance? The Celts? The Picts? The Romano-British? The Saxons? Etc. The story plays out differently every time, but the game is always evocative of that story.
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5. Board Game: Civilization [Average Rating:7.52 Overall Rank:227] [Average Rating:7.52 Unranked]
O.Shane Balloun
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Bellingham
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Civilization is one of the grand opuses of board gaming, and I find any game with a map and gameplay as comprehensive as found here provides a satisfying narrative. Civilization is historical opera, and although the civilizations in the game rise and fall differently from gameplay to gameplay—and although their existence is highly abstracted—it's hard not to think about their histories as they were and might have been.
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6. Board Game: Freedom: The Underground Railroad [Average Rating:7.61 Overall Rank:309]
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An exquisitely educational game. It's hard not to desire from the utmost of my heart that I could rescue all of the slaves to the North.

But then my heart breaks when I realize that mastery of the game requires using the slaves in the various cities to market the cause by showcasing them around to donors for money—that even the freeing of slaves from the literal shackles of bondage required the packaging of sellable story to convince people to help.

That's the story for anybody engaged in anything worthwhile. And it's engaging and compelling.
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7. Board Game: Greenland [Average Rating:7.10 Overall Rank:1511] [Average Rating:7.10 Unranked]
O.Shane Balloun
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Bellingham
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See my comments below to Pax Porfiriana. This is another Sierra Madre Games masterpiece. Although its play is drastically different from Pax P., the Eklunds have again brought an abstruse socio-historical period to life.

When I've played the game, I have been mindful—pretty much the entire time—that it was very likely that my Greenlanders were going to starve. That's an unshakable sort of fear that thwarts the vanity of modern civilization.
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8. Board Game: Here I Stand [Average Rating:7.94 Overall Rank:169]
O.Shane Balloun
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Bellingham
Washington
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Reading Ed Beach's design notes enlightened me because it wasn't until I learned that he was attempting to create a grand unified historical treatment of Europe in the 16th century that I realized that there really is no other artistic work in any medium that does what he has done. Unless you count the disparate articles in an encyclopedia, nothing else unifies events of the time period. And it was an epiphany for me to realize that the events of Henry VIII, the French King Henry II, the Holy Roman Empire, the Ottomans—and especially the initial rise of the Barbary Pirates, the Reformation (and the attendant Counter-reformation)—along will all of the post-Crusade Catholic activity in and around the Mediterranean and the old Byzantine Empire—were happening at the same time.

So it's perhaps trivial to say that Here I Stand immerses the players in historical narrative, because that's what the designer intended to do, but he did it masterfully. I long to play this again sooner rather than later.
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9. Board Game: History of the World [Average Rating:7.12 Overall Rank:606]
O.Shane Balloun
United States
Bellingham
Washington
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The opus magnum of the Ragnar Brothers that spawned a mini genre. Small World, for instance, is Days of Wonders' take on History of the World.

What always strikes me as lacking about a game like Small World is that it lacks the narrative depth that History of the World provides. Obviously SW was modeled after HOTW, but HOTW evokes the rise and fall of civilizations not just mechanically but also with a compelling narrative.

You know the Roman legions are coming, but it is quite entertaining to see how much more the Egyptians will be able to eke out of their dying control over their region. It's just not the same with orcs and elves.
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10. Board Game: Kings of Israel [Average Rating:7.41 Overall Rank:2476]
O.Shane Balloun
United States
Bellingham
Washington
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Kings of Israel is a game which touches on biblical history and narrative in a compelling way. Most that attempt to do this do so poorly, but I am engrossed by the story told by moving the prophets around to fight sin. Ultimately, it appears to be (and usually is—and historically was) a losing cause, but they fight the good fight to purvey righteousness and uprightness of heart throughout the land, in spite of a host of ills that thwart them most of the time.

The game's clever use of the few good kings and the panoply of evil kings in the Northern Kingdom's history as a game timer only adds. It's clear that if the prophets do not get hold of the problem and resolve the cultural and spiritual malaise of Israel by the end of Hoshea's reign, the Assyrians are coming and will wipe them out and scatter them.

I shouldn't be surprised when that happens, but it always disappoints me when it does.
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11. Board Game: Liberté [Average Rating:7.17 Overall Rank:702]
O.Shane Balloun
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Bellingham
Washington
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Liberté is an undersung game because, perhaps, it never received the marketing it should have by Valley Games. It reminds me quite a bit of El Grande in its area control mechanics, but they are so much more complex that they seem to tell a story about Liberté, Fraternité, et Egalité in the period of the French Revolution.

Although the area control and voting mechanics are fairly abstracted, the map of France, the typography of the script (though not necessarily easily readable), the bright blue, white, and red of the three main factions, and the historical illustrations of the French aristocracy and revolutionaries evoke a story about intrigue in pre-modern France.
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12. Board Game: Pax Porfiriana [Average Rating:7.69 Overall Rank:377]
O.Shane Balloun
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Bellingham
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The only reason I purchased this game (when it was still in print) was because a gaming buddy I respect owned it. Although I had some passing familiarity with Sierra Madre Games as a small independent publisher, Pax Porfiriana looked obscure enough that it piqued my interest. I'm always fascinated by the idea that a game may exist on the fringes and yet be an irreplaceable gem.

Pax Porfiriana is one of those games.

Not only is the strategic space of the gameplay magnificent because it results in a different game every time it is played, Pax Porfiriana also makes the abstruse history of this time in Mexico come alive. I would venture to say that most of my knowledge of this time and place in history arises out of playing Pax Porifirana, so my profound thanks go to Phil and Matt Eklund for teaching me a great deal through the flavor text of the cards, which I keep reading because the gameplay is so entertaining.
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13. Board Game: Promised Land: 1250-587 BC [Average Rating:7.01 Overall Rank:3855]
O.Shane Balloun
United States
Bellingham
Washington
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Another Ragnar Brothers masterpiece. I know this is the game that they wanted to produce right after History of the World garnered the success it did 24 years ago. I'm glad they were able to wait as long as they did, because it could have been seen as an attempt to piggyback on earlier success.

Certainly, there are substantial similarities between Promised Land and History of the World, but the artefact tiles and the smaller space engender a rich playthrough of the history of the land of Canaan. It's an excellent treatment of biblical history, because one can feel the historical pulsing of the different peoples as the Israelites arrived and eventually wiped them out.
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14. Board Game: Tammany Hall [Average Rating:7.27 Overall Rank:578]
O.Shane Balloun
United States
Bellingham
Washington
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For a Euro, Tammany Hall provides a relatively rich historical narrative, possibly only because of its beautiful map and the offices that have to be handed out to the other players. Otherwise, it's an area control game in the vein of El Grande, different only but for the fact that it invites negotiations, temporary alliances, and backstabbing where most Euros would not demand that level of direct interaction.

It's precisely the stated theme and the invitation to engage in the skullduggery so representative of the time period that makes the game immersive. Even the little ward boss meeples evoke a 19th century House of Cards storyline as they try to whip up the immigrants into shape so as to vote the way the players need the votes to go.
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15. Board Game: Twilight Struggle [Average Rating:8.34 Overall Rank:4]
O.Shane Balloun
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Bellingham
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It's almost pedestrian to state that the number-one ranked game on BGG, which deals with a momentous period of history, provides a rich thematic narrative.

So allow me to walk across the street.

Twilight Struggle rewards successive plays quite deeply—by about the 5th game, it becomes evident what one needs to be looking out for in the Early War, and passable players begin to account for the various cards that will come up and begin to naturally card count. Twilight Struggle's main narrative coup de grace in its card-driven format is that by rewarding successive plays, it also makes players familiar with the titles of the cards—and by making us familiar with the titles, we also become slightly more familiar with the historical context for those card plays.

In fact, many times the cards have led me to internet searches and hours of reading about their subject matter, which only make the intrigue of the game that more interesting. It burns when I have to mitigate and play Nasser, but I am relieved in knowing that the Mid War will later bring out Anwar Al Sadat. Similarly, the idea that I, as the USSR, might have to allow the CIA continued knowledge to my plans (or risk DEFCON 1/nuclear war) causes me to consider how the superpowers often allowed known espionage to continue to occur so as not to risk losing a tenuous détente. the US/Japan Mutual Defense Pact is virtually a foregone conclusion, but there has been at least one game where I have been able (as the USSR) to hold onto the card for so long that I was also able to steer Japan to act as a profound foothold for my strategic purposes. What if that had been?
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16. Board Game: Virgin Queen [Average Rating:8.07 Overall Rank:456]
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See my notes for Here I Stand. The same concepts apply to the period just after that which Here I Stand occupies.
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17. Board Game: Washington's War [Average Rating:7.66 Overall Rank:429]
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Another gem in the topical genre of the American Revolution—with more direct interaction with specific historical events. The complexity of this game lends itself to historical immersion, obviously through its card text, but also through the dispersion of the Continental Congress (if it happens) as well as the wintering phase. Wintering is a common mechanic in similar war games, but because the effects of winter at any time before post-WWII were so profound, they serve to remind the players that the skein of war is tangled by logistical planning and failure.

Plus, the asymmetry of political control and PC marker isolation are reminders of the differences in the way that both factions maintained order over cities and regions under their control.
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