Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 08/09/2014

Teaching international relations through popular games, culture and simulations (Part 2)

PAXsims is pleased to present the second of five blog posts by David Romano (Missouri State University) on teaching International Relations through popular games, culture and simulations. You’ll find the introduction to the series here.

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Power Politics and Cooperation For Peace: Two Board Games

In general, board games offer several advantages. First of all, they are meant to be enjoyable and can therefore offer a welcome respite from more traditional academic assignments. If played early in the academic calendar, board games can also help engage students with the material and develop social bonds between members of a class – and as any professor knows, a group with a positive esprit de corps facilitates teaching and learning for the rest of the semester. Finally, board games are generally simple – meaning that they can be deployed early in a course (or program of study), they need not take up much in the way of class time and their key lessons should be easy for students to grasp and recall.

The drawbacks of board games stem from their advantages, naturally. Most of all, they can simplify the world beyond recognition. If the objective of a course is to describe the world and familiarize students with key world events as much as possible (as opposed to introducing IR theory to them), then board games would likely prove of little value.


risk-board-game-0uap8xyjBoard Game #1 – RISK

  • Pedagogic Audience:
    • Introductory IR courses; early in the course semester for any IR theory class
  • Key Concepts Highlighted:
    • Neo-Realism, Anarchy, Offensive Realism, Security Dilemma, Balance of Power
  • In Class vs. Out:
    • Outside of class – student groups of 5-6 (some newer boards only allow 2-5) students with or without professor/TA

Most of us studying or teaching international relations in the West are very familiar with this classic board game. A few too many of us probably became interested in international relations at least in part as a result of this game. Originally released as La Conquête du Monde in France, the game is sold by Hasbro today and can be found from virtually any toy and game seller on line or in town. The game board divides the world into 42 territories on 6 continents, which at the outset of the game are divided between the number of players. The goal of the game is to capture all the territories and hence dominate the world. Battles between players are determined by dice rolls, although contrary to what many students think the system is not completely random since larger numbers of armies get to roll more dice and tie results go to the defender. The fickleness of the dice combined with strategy to maximize one’s chances of success allows professors to say something about the “iron dice of war” and the uncertainty of such undertakings, no matter how well planned.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Because most students are quite likely to be already familiar with RISK, the game offers the pedagogic advantage of taking something students thought they knew and having them think about it in new ways. Via the model of RISK, concepts such as the neo-realism, the security dilemma, balance of power, anarchy and offensive realism are quickly and simply highlighted for students. Since the victory condition of the game is world conquest, a very cutthroat offensive realist vision is presented. Students who think they can be friends, rather than short-term allies of convenience, with anyone else in the game are quickly disabused of the notion when they get betrayed by their “ally,” which serves to explain the concept of anarchy. Those who fail to balance against the strongest player (or better yet, those who fail to convince someone else to balance against them) quickly understand the whole balance of power paranoia when that player amasses so many territories that they become unstoppable. As students place their new armies at the beginning of each turn (the number of which are determined by how many territories or entire continents they control), they will also invariably tell the students on adjacent territories that they are putting so many armies on ‘x’ territory “strictly for defensive purposes” – at which point the other student will do likewise on their turn, creating an instant security dilemma. Finally, the neo-realist “billiard ball” model of states is well represented, since the internal governing structures, culture, identity and domestic politics of a player’s “state” or his territories are not touched upon in the game.

The directives I provide students with for this assignment are as follows:

  • Please familiarize yourselves with the rules of RISK before class – they are available here:
  • We will be playing the “World Domination” variant of the game.
  • There will be 5 players per group
  • You must play either until a winner emerges or 20 turns have elapsed
  • For games with a winner (as defined by RISK rules), the winner receives +8% on their RISK essay mark.
  • Players who are completely eliminated from the game receive a penalty of -4% on their mark.
  • Players who survive a game that has no winner all get a +2% to their mark.
  • No inducements, agreements, incentives or other interactions outside the framework of the game are permitted — for example, you cannot offer another player money or personal favors, or threaten to never sit next to them again in class, in order to influence their actions in the game. You can, however, make alliances or agreements that do not refer to factors outside the game – for instance, agree not to attack another player’s holdings in ‘x’ country if they attack player #3 in ‘y’ country — but remember that in a system of anarchy, no higher authority (including your professor) exists to enforce such contracts and alliances.
  • By ‘X’ date, you will prepare a 5-page essay in which you are expected to relate how the RISK simulation brings out (or fails to illustrate) paradigms or theories of international relations, via the structure, rules, and conditions for victory in the game. I suggest that you choose one paradigm and one or two of its theories (hint: balance of power and its effects is a theory, while realism is a paradigm containing within it many theories) that the game brings out well. Do not discuss how your particular game went (except perhaps in footnotes if you wish, as illustration for the points you are making about the rules, structure and victory conditions for the game). What assumptions about the world did the creators of RISK seem to hold? In your essay please include details of who the other players were in your game and what the end result of the game was.

In these directives, I introduce two key variations to the game: First, the game has a 20 turn time limit (something which can still require several hours of play, which is why the game is done outside of class); and second, incentives are given via bonuses or penalties for the required essay assignment relating to the game. The incentives might seem harsh, but I have found that they are necessary for all students to take the game seriously (and if students do not think life can be harsh, they’re not listening to your lectures). Together, the two variations allow students to break out of the offensive realist imperative of the game if they wish and if they manage to coordinate such a transformation of the anarchical system. (Although I do not tell the students this, it would be perfectly acceptable for them to agree on a pacifist union and each time their turn came around, forego attacking anyone else. If all the students in a group do this, the 20 turns will end very quickly and they will have completed the assignment. If just one refuses, however, then the game will either play out normally or that student will be faced with a coalition bent upon containing and punishing him or her for violating the norms of the international society that the students created.) Since the game ends on the 20th turn even if there is no winner (meaning world conqueror), no one must win. Survival becomes sufficient (especially given the bonus for surviving compared to the grade penalty for being eliminated).

Especially astute students will quickly see that the incentives in the assignment actually encourage the creation of a system of collective security, wherein players rally together to check the power of any student that appears to be trying to win the game and amassing the necessary power to do so. Students already familiar with constructivism may even have something to say about balance of threat (Hopf 1998) as a result, or the possibility of transforming the RISK system. In my experience, with the help of this game even the weaker students have no problem grasping anarchy and the basics of the neo-realist paradigm. Depending on whether or not a winner emerged from their game (especially of the maniacally laughing, sore winner variety), some students also end up making bitter observations about classic Realism and human nature in their essay.

Several on-line versions of RISK also exist, wherein students create free accounts and can play games against each other with moves happening in time intervals (from an hour to a day, typically) determined at the time the game is created. This can be a good alternative for distance learning classes in particular. It has the disadvantage, however, of discouraging the social bonding and potential for creation of a collective security regime and community that an in-person board game offers.

Diplomacy is an alternative board game (likewise available on-line) to RISK, and very similar in set up, logic, victory conditions and amount of time required to complete the game. The instructions for students provided above can easily be adapted to Diplomacy. The main difference between the games comes with the absence of randomness and uncertainty that RISK includes with the dice rolls that determine battles. In Diplomacy, attacking armies and defending armies get support from adjacent armies – whoever has the most support wins, with ties leading to no change. All moves in Diplomacy occur simultaneously, after players record their orders. The trick of the game therefore involves predicting what other players will do and securing support from other players to defend and attack certain points, which gives Diplomacy pedagogic value for explaining game theory which RISK lacks.


diplomaticmissionBoard Game #2 – Diplomatic Mission

  • Pedagogic Audience:
    • Any IR course, particularly those dealing with Liberalism and Constructivism
  • Key Concepts Highlighted:
    • Liberalism, interdependence, principal-agent models, constructivism
  • In Class vs. Out:
    • In a small class or tutorial group – game requires 1-2 hours to play


Most board games involve a contest between opposing players, such as in the aforementioned RISK game. Other examples abound, such as Stratego (wherein one player tries to capture the flag piece of the opposing player), Monopoly (wherein each player tries to bankrupt the others), Snakes and Ladders (a race with only one winner) or even the much older Chess and checkers. Contrary to the more standard conflict dynamic, Diplomatic Mission is a cooperative game wherein both players achieve a joint victory by ending the war between them or fail together if the war continues. The game is made by Family Pastimes Cooperative Games (, an Ontario-based company that specializes in cooperative rather than conflict games.

The game box offers the following description of Diplomatic Mission:

The battlegrounds are quiet, but full of tension. One false move, a deliberate or accidental casualty, and hostilities will be renewed. Then the game is declared Lost. To win, a lasting peace must be made. To realize that objective, the players each send out a team of Diplomats to each other’s Castles to secure the respective Royal Signatures & Seals on the Peace Documents.

Players must use all their mental and negotiation skills to move the Diplomats through the respective Territories. Deploy Scouts & Bodyguards to prevent Journalists or Politicians from sparking off a new War. You may have to use your few Wise Peacemakers to diffuse potential hostilities. All the while, the Military, ever vigilant, continues its maneuvers. The Royals await your Diplomats.

Although the game states that it is suitable for children aged 12 and up, this professor along with his graduate and undergraduate students initially had a difficult time understanding the rules. This was not because the rules are particularly complicated, but rather because they are atypical of games we were familiar with. Some pieces move like chess pieces, while others can only be moved by stacking on the movable ones. In the “neutral zone” in the middle of the board, either player can move either side’s pieces. In each player’s territory, only that player can move pieces – including the other side’s pieces. If a piece is moved and left beside a military piece of the other side (represented by a gorilla for “bodyguards,” a fox for “scouts” or an eagle for “soldier”), conflict erupts and the fighting resumes – ending the cease fire, wrecking the chances for peace and causing both players to lose the game. This offers an immediate example of a “principal-agent” problem – although the “principals”, meaning the players, wish to achieve peace, their military units (“agents”) will engage in hostilities if left in proximity to the other side. The game is thus a kind of cooperative puzzle in which players must figure out how to transport each other’s diplomats to the other home base without allowing conflict to erupt.

When I had my students play Diplomatic Mission, they were immediately confused by the very premise of the game – both players win or both players lose together. This offered instant insights about interdependence, multiple sum gains and constructivism. The socially constructed reality of my students assumed that board games were a contest between players, betraying unstated assumptions about the world, human nature and board games’ depiction of these things. The game’s premise – the quest for peace on presumably equal and just terms for both sides of the conflict – reflects Liberal or Idealist norms. The very fact that this kind of game seems so unusual for the board game genre, and initially hard for us to understand, brings up ample discussion material about the mutually constitutive aspects of structure and identity: our world produces certain kinds of games, which socialize us from a young age to feel that the “fun” in board games involves crushing and humiliating one’s opponent (as in RISK), which in turn reinforces a Realist, conflict-based view of the world.

I found that using this game in a small class or in break-out tutorial groups required only a few minor changes. A group of a dozen or less students can be divided in two and assigned to the side of “Player 1″ or “Player 2″. To insure that the more introverted students play a significant role, I then instituted three additional rules: First, each student takes a sequential turn moving the pieces for their side, which insures that everyone think actively and participate in the “simulation;” second, oral communication is forbidden within a team/side or between the teams/sides unless a diplomat piece from one side is adjacent to a diplomat from the other side in the neutral zone, which simulates open channels of communication between the “opponents;” and third, students communicate internally to their side/team only via written messages, which I describe as simulating bureaucratic messaging but is really intended to prevent the more assertive students from just telling the introverted students what moves to make when it is their turn.

For my pedagogic purposes, I found that just playing this game in my smaller IR class for an hour or two was sufficient. Following the game play through, discussion flowed easily and proved very enlightening for the students – especially given that they had already read some Liberal and Constructivist IR literature. The extent to which students appeared startled by such a “new kind of game” cannot be emphasized enough. The exercise also convinced me to try playing this with my own young children rather than the more competitive games on the shelf.


David Romano
Missouri State University



Hopf, T., 1998. The Promise of Constructivism in International Relations Theory. International Security, 23(1), pp. 171-200.

Parker Brothers, 1959. RISK!. Pawtucket: Hasbro Inc.

Deacove, J., 2002. Diplomatic Mission. Perth: Family Pastimes.

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