Historia Nostra: Teaching and Learning History with Board Games

By Erin Isaac and Dr. Benjamin Hoy

For many, board games conjure up memories of time spent with family and friends around the dinner table. I remember, when I was young, drinking cream soda while watching my sister eviscerate my hopes of owning Park Place and my mom bend the rules to keep me out of bankruptcy. Years later, I still remember the stories those games created.

Yet, board games offer much more than a low-stakes evening of family fun or the indoctrination of capitalist principles—they can be used to teach and understand history. As primary documents, historical board games provide scholars with a glimpse into the past. Games made in the 1960s, for example, project ideas about American expansionism and female domesticity that seem distant from our ideals today.

As teaching tools, board games give players a stake in the narrative’s outcome. They bring to life concepts and ideas that are otherwise hard to teach. Games can help students understand the risks and benefits historical people weighed when making decisions. Would they smuggle? Would they participate in the Underground Railroad?

To explore these ideas, I visited Dr. Benjamin Hoy at the University of Saskatchewan to talk about his research and the ways he uses board games in his own classroom.

My conversation with Dr. Hoy is broken into two parts. In Part 1 we discuss the ways in which historians can use board games in their own research, particularly as a way to understand what people historically taught their children using games. Dr. Hoy describes some of the methods historians use to study 19th and 20th century games and his own time at the Strong National Museum of Play.

The second half of our discussion focusses on the ways in which modern board games teach history. It explores the differences between historically themed games and games designed to teach. It also provides practical advice for designers interested in improving these games. In our discussion we talk about two games Dr. Hoy pulled from his, frankly impressive, collection of historically-themed games: a German-created game called Tenake; and a American-created gamed called Freedom.

Dr. Hoy was one of my professors when I was a student at the University of Saskatchewan in the 2010s, which is where I first learned about his interest in board games and had the chance to play a game he designed for his American History survey course called Policing the Sound.[1]  Dr. Hoy’s research focuses on the Canada-U.S. border and Indigenous History, and many of the board games in his collection reflect these themes.

If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Hoy’s non-board game related research check out his first book A Line of Blood and Dirt: Creating the Canada-United States Border across Indigenous Lands, now available for pre-order from Oxford University Press.

Erin Isaac (PhD student, Western University) is Historia Nostra’s creator, writer, and producer. Suggestions, collaboration pitches, or feedback should be directed to historianostra@outlook.com. Benjamin Hoy is an assistant professor of history and the Director of the Historical GIS lab at the University of Saskatchewan. His work focuses on the Indigenous history and the creation of the Canada-US border. Historia Nostra is on Facebook (@historianostrayoutube), Twitter (@historia_nostra) and Instagram (@historianostrayoutube). Follow us there to get updates on what we’re working on and to get notified when new videos go live.

[1] Learn more about Policing the Sound see Eden Friesen, “Playing to learn and translate history.Arts and Science: The Magazine (March 2018); Hoy, Benjamin. “Teaching History with Custom-Built Board Games.” Simulation & Gaming 49, no. 2 (2018): 115–33.


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