While I’m a pretty big fan of strategy games in general, historical strategy games are particularly interesting, especially from a pedagogical standpoint. As I and many of the other Play the Past authors have previously discussed, these games allow us to look at the past through a different lens than we typically get through other media. Games are a particularly effective way of engaging in playful historical thinking, putting us in the same situations as our predecessors and letting us see what we can do given the same tools. Of course, some games are more effective at this than others. Risk, for example, despite being perhaps the most well-known games of this type, has never been my favorite. It’s not that it’s impossible to create interesting counterfactual histories in Risk. I once played a game where the Ottomans and Scandinavia formed a grand alliance in an attempt to hold their eastern borders against rampaging armies from Asia. Although it sounds like an interesting premise, it wasn’t as exciting as it sounds. Although my friends and I took on the names of the countries in the rough areas of where our armies started, technically, Risk players don’t really control countries. They simply control a number of generic pieces scattered randomly about the board. Though the alliance between the yellow wooden cubes and the green wooden cubes was the high point of that game, there was nothing except their position on the board that made us think at all critically about history. While geography plays a significant role in how a game of Risk plays out, there’s not really much historical context to the supposedly Napoleonic-era game.
As Trevor has previously argued, good counterfactual arguments mobilize real historical facts. I would propose a corollary to that statement, and suggest that good counterfactual gameplay requires deep, non-trivial game mechanics for modeling the past. Just as the counterfactual part of a counterfactual historical argument is really only interesting if it gets you to bring in credible historical evidence, a counterfactual game is only interesting if it gives you the tools to explore the historical space it places you in. The more tools you have, the more interesting things you can do with them. In this sense, Risk has very few tools to play with. The player has armies and territory, and that’s about it. You can play with historical events in the sense that your armies, like historical ones, are subject to world geography (or at least a loose abstraction thereof), but beyond that, it doesn’t give you very compelling historical situations.