“Keep it Simple, and Plagiarize” (Classroom Games, that is!)

I likely just gave every academic a heart attack!

I’ll assuage your worries. The words are from legendary wargame designer Jim Dunnigan, author of Wargames Handbook. What he meant by those words was that first, use the minimum amount of game mechanics necessary to model your game’s objectives, and second, you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to design games from scratch. I’ll discuss objectives further in a later post and focus on design “plagiarism” here.

Game mechanics are the rules that govern player behavior, such as card game hands, using dice to measure chance in a roleplaying game, or dribbling a basketball. Odds are someone’s already designed game mechanics that comes close to modeling your game’s objective. Even the first roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons, was born from tabletop wargaming mechanics. Instead of designing from a blank page, borrow mechanics from those other games. Indeed, since game mechanics can’t be copyrighted, you can often download game rulebooks for free directly from publishers.

What this means for you as an educator is that there’s a world of material out there that you can use, mix, and match for gaming your course learning objectives. For example, For my Fall 2019 Comparative Authoritarianism course, I borrowed mechanics from Risk and Pandemic to build a zombie apocalypse game that measured students’ knowledge of different regime types and their expected regime behaviors (assessing games will be another topic!).

Great, where do you learn game mechanics? The best way is to play games (or watch people play), and the second best way is to read rulebooks. I’m lucky that Fort Collins has two game stores where customers can borrow games in the store for free (and Gryphon Games & Comics also rents out games for a few dollars a day, which is nice when games such as Gloomhaven cost $150).

In the absence of a local game store, BoardGameGeek is a fantastic resource. PAXsims is also great for following the professional, training, and education gaming scene. If you want a handy mechanics reference, I recommend Engelstein and Shalev’s Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design (2022).

The holy grail for political science educators, however, is Gaming Political Science, hosted by the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. I imagine Dr. John Filter cloistered away like a gaming monk, gathering games published in the Journal of Political Science Education, International Studies Perspectives, Perspectives on Politics, and so on (I’ll do future posts on games in journals, let alone numerous other resources).