Board Games and Political Theory- Part 2

After completing the concept diagram of IR theories and concepts I began the next step of my research: analyzing board game rule-books. I consider this phase to be the ‘meat’ of my research. The concept diagram (phase 1) was compiled to enable board game analysis and any educational applications of the relationship between board games and political theory is dependent on said analysis.

I presented my analysis of each board game in three sections: A summary of the board game’s links to international political theory, an annotated rule-book, and several hypothetical rule changes and their probable effects. The summary section was no more than 3 paragraphs in length and outlined the IR theories and concepts central to that board game. The annotated rule-book consisted of block quotes taken from the rule-book itself with attendant analysis of the meaning and implications of the quoted rule(s). This section comprised the bulk of each analysis, as the implications of certain rules and their theoretical underpinnings can be quite complex and nuanced. The hypothetical changes and their effects was both exploratory and demonstrative. While the creative exercise of imagining new rules and their effects on the game was enjoyable and certainly worthwhile, the primary purpose was to show how certain rules were axiomatic to the each game’s game-play and grounding in IR theory.

The three games I chose to analyze were Risk, Settlers of Catan, and Diplomacy. I chose these games for their relative simplicity, their popularity (and thus, relevancy), and my own familiarity with their rules and strategy. Although the third criteria certainly introduced bias into the board game selection process, I believed it was necessary in order to be able to speak to the actual game-play and strategy of each game.

Although I will attach the current drafts of my analyses on Risk, Catan, and Diplomacy to my third blog post I will present a very brief summary of their ties to IR theory here. Risk is by nature a conflictual game in which one player’s gain is equal to all other players’ loss, making Risk a solidly zero-sum game. The strategic environment makes borders difficult to defend. In the face of this fundamental insecurity, aggression (risk-taking) is the best option, making Risk an elegant demonstration of the incentives behind offensive realism (a subfield of realism that advocates aggression in the face of insecurity).

The Settlers of Catan is decidedly less aggressive than Risk. Conflict between players does occur, but it is not required for victory, and players can even experience mutual gains. Since multiple players can experience gains through cooperation (as with trade or sharing of resource tiles), Catan is a non-zero-sum game. Catan provides an effective demonstration of the prediction of commercial liberalism that conflict will decrease when the gains of conflict are more difficult to realize. Since it is costly to attack other players directly (as with the Robber), conflict is rare and isolated.

Diplomacy is a game built entirely around game theory –a branch of mathematics used to deduce likely outcomes given the  preferences and options of actors. The prisoner’s dilemma of cooperation vs defection is the operating principle of the game. Players negotiate agreements, then decide whether or not to follow through based on the costs and benefits of each choice-combination. For a war-game, Diplomacy is surprisingly non-zero sum. Although there can be only one winner, it is possible for all surviving players to end the game in a draw. This enables cooperation without eliminating competition.

I was pleased to see how neatly IR theory often lines up with board game design. The parallels between global politics and simple board games offer an analogy for the usefulness of IR theory. A board game like Risk is not an exact representation of a struggle for global conquest, but is a simplified representation of such a conflict. Rules hold board games back from 100% accuracy, but enable them to magnify specific scenarios. Likewise, theories in IR (although they often claim to be) are never 100% accurate or all-encompassing. Rather, they are useful generalizations that help us understand the processes behind global phenomena.

IR theories simplify the world in order to explain it. In many cases, board games are constructed to represent these simplified worlds. From an educational standpoint, it may be helpful to think of certain board games as microcosms of IR theory. The next phase of my research is outlining possible uses of board games in the classroom to help students understand what IR theory looks like and feels like, as opposed to memorizing definitions.


  1. I think its interesting how the interactions work in different games and how they all fall into certain theories. I especially think diplomacy contains an interesting simulation of realism. For one the game is definitely an anarchic system. In the game, there is no higher power that can force you to do something. Instead the game seems to be based solely on the use of force or the threat of force to get other people to do what you want. In the game the players sole goal is power and security rather than trade or humanitarian issues as one would expect from a game like Catan with a liberal influence. I agree with you that board games could be used as an educational tool. It would be a great way to gain practical experience.