Board Games and Political Theory- Summary

Having completed the research project this post is a summary of my work and insights.

My goal for this project was to use board games to help explain the nebulous and sometimes confusing theories of International Relations (IR). To do this I wanted to elucidate the parallels between specific IR theories and concepts and specific rule-mechanics in board games.

Before I analyzed the board games themselves I constructed a concept diagram of all applicable IR theories and concepts. This concept diagram carried with it many advantages: it reduced the chance of omitting certain theories (memory lapse, etc.); it delineated the ‘edges’ of analysis by establishing a finite set of theories, and it aided in the consistency of my analysis since all theories were equally accessible. During this phase of my research I was surprised at the amount of overlap between paradigms. I spent considerable time extricating theories and concepts from the veritable tangle of connections and parallels between theories. Seeing the interconnectedness of IR theory visually helped to drive home that the international system is best understood by applying theories from across paradigms and disciplines rather than restricting insight to one subset of thought.

The meat of my project was the analysis of board games. To describe the connections between board games and IR theory I analyzed the rule-books of Risk, Settlers of Catan, and Diplomacy. I chose these games for their popularity and my own familiarity with their rules and game-play (after all, there would be little point in trying to analyze a game I had not played). I took excerpts of rule mechanics and matched them with the IR theories and concepts they demonstrate. I also wrote an overall summary of each game describing which paradigm it most closely resembled and why as well as other general comments. Although I was not terribly surprised by this, 2 of the 3 games I surveyed focused on inter-player conflict, and all of them allowed for it. The implications of this are intriguing. The idea that conflict between groups is inevitable and that a winner requires many losers may have broad-reaching effects on society and politics, both international and domestic. Perhaps a future research project could delve deeper into how the games we play condition our worldviews.

The final piece of my project was taking what I understood about the link between board games and IR theory and making it applicable. I was originally inspired to do this project while sitting in my ‘Intro International Politics’ class thinking that I knew all the concepts we were being taught because I had played through them in board games. Naturally, I wanted to show how board games could be used in such a class to simplify the teaching of IR theory. I made a slide presentation that used Risk, Catan, and Diplomacy to teach select IR theories as a proof of concept to demonstrate that board games could be successfully integrated into the classroom. I then developed an example of a possible group project where students would play a board game in a group and describe how specific scenarios they encountered while playing related to IR theory. This phase of my research was the most speculative, as I have no training in education. However I think it is the most exciting because I believe there is real potential for board games to enhance the classroom experience. Learning by doing is often more effective, and brings an intuitive understanding to a discipline that demands more than rote memorization.

Below are links to the written products of my research. The links should work as long as you are logged into a W&M google account. I apologize that the link to the concept diagram is only an image; there is descriptive text for each node but the software I used to produce the diagram seems to be incompatible with WordPress. I will be presenting the full interactive version at the 2017 Charles Center’s Summer Research Showcase.


Concept Diagram-

Risk Analysis-

Settlers of Catan Analysis-

Diplomacy Analysis-

Example Board Game Lesson Powerpoint-

Example Board Game Project-





  1. William Moore says:

    It’s fascinating that you note, in a somewhat surprised manner, that the majority of the board games that you looked at were competitive in nature, implying that International Relations are presented as inherently competitive and not cooperative. However, do you think that this is due to the nature of the medium that it is presented as competitive? Also, you describe, and imply, that you examined three games. Does the small sample size influence the result?

    Very interesting, however. I had never really considered these games as a way to teach International Relations.

  2. William,
    Thanks for the insightful comment! I was not entirely surprised that the games I analyzed were competitive, but in doing this project I reflected on the overall nature of the games we play. Although I am certainly no expert, it seems to me that most games are competitive. From a constructionist point of view, that need not be the case. Perhaps there is some underlying factor such as gender norms that influences board games to be more competitive. In a hypothetical scenario where most games are cooperative, I believe that people would be conditioned to think of conflict as unnatural and cooperation as the norm.

    As a related matter, my own personal observations suggest that, on the whole, European board games are less conflict oriented than American games. This may parallel, on the whole, more hawkish attitudes in America compared to Europe. It would be extremely interesting to research the causal nature of this apparent relationship. Is the character of board games determined by social attitudes or are social attitudes influenced by the games we play as children? Does the causal arrow point both ways? My thoughts on this matter are purely speculative.

    As to your comment on the small sample size, yes, if I were to do any statistical analysis on my work the sample size would have to be much larger. However, my project was more exploratory in nature, and sought to demonstrate the existence of a relationship between board games and IR theory. As I explained in previous posts, my sample for this project was indeed extremely biased. I thought it best to analyze games I was familiar with so that I could offer more accurate insights on actual gameplay.

  3. This project presents a fantastic application for such an abundant resource! With the vast amount of games on the market today, I have no doubt that a teacher could find an in-game example to illustrate any IR theory imaginable. I think a follow up project studying the effect of these exercises on memorization and learning could yield some really interesting results. Besides keeping students engaged, I would be interested to find out if having physical game pieces better encourages deeper learning compared to lecture or textbook readings. A lot of recent education studies have found that students learn better when they can physically interact with the material. It could add a whole new aspect to the formation of memories.

    One question I would pose is did you find any relationship between the country of origin for the board games and effectiveness for use in explaining theories? There seems to be a trend in European games to favor cooperation or indirect confrontation versus American games which aim more for direct confrontation. Where either of these features more useful or did they each have a place in theory explanation?

  4. cmahlbacher says:

    First of all, I love that your PowerPoint presentation has your name as Professor Larsen. I think the idea of using these board games to motivate concepts in International Relations is powerful. It adds a layer of validity and concreteness to these concepts when you exhibit those behaviors in a game. A professor of mine last year used games in a similar way and it greatly contributed to my understanding of those subjects.

    It would have been interesting to see how these theories might change in games that are completely cooperative in nature. In many of these games, all the players are working together to defeat mechanics in the game, as in Pandemic. This type of thought presents a somewhat more encouraging parallel for real life or international relations, in which everyone works to overcome challenges posed by the universe.

  5. Thank you for your comment Ian!

    If I had more time and expertise I would pursue the educational application of this, as I strongly agree with your belief that board games in the classroom would help with memorization and learning. Perhaps the subject of a future study? I know I would prefer a board game or two to lectures.

    Incidentally, my original idea for a research project was very similar to the question you pose. I initially wanted to compare European and American board games to investigate whether there is a genuine difference between them. I expect that, on the whole, European board games would be more cooperative and American board games would be more confrontational. European and American games would be equally useful in explaining IR theories, as International Relations can be both conflictual and cooperative– and sometimes both at the same time!