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Can You Beat Churchill? We’ve Got a Winner!

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Last month, we invited our readers to provide a brief description of their favorite historical simulation used in class, for a chance to win a copy of Can You Beat Churchill?: Teaching History through Simulations, by Michael A. Barnhart. Thanks to everyone that participated! The responses we received were phenomenal and required some serious consideration, but after evaluating all answers, it’s time to announce the winner!

First place: Bryon Greenwald (congratulations!):

I found success in engaging war college students in role-play at the institutional, strategic, and campaign level by using Hearts of Iron, an off-the-shelf, low-cost WWII simulation. The National Defense University Center for Applied Strategic Learning took on the task of organizing and operating the simulation, which let students focus on the “game.”  We tailored it to focus students on issues of national strategy, coalition strategy, industrial policy (e.g., submarines vs bombers vs tanks), campaign design, and the commensurate decision-making in those areas, reinforcing the JAWS curriculum.  

I found success in engaging war college students in role-play at the institutional, strategic, and campaign level by using Hearts of Iron, an off-the-shelf, low-cost WWII simulation.

We assigned groups of students to play various Axis and Allied nations or coalitions in different theaters and intentionally forced them out of their comfort zones or areas of familiarity. Doing so drove them to think through their decisions and required them to describe their actions vis-à-vis the historical record and how/why they might deviate from it—for example, Operation Underlord (via S. France) vs Overlord.

We assigned groups of students to play various Axis and Allied nations or coalitions in different theaters and intentionally forced them out of their comfort zones or areas of familiarity.

All this made WWII history at this level more relevant and “sticky.”  It taught them about the time lag between decisions, especially industrial decisions, and action, and familiarized them with global geography—something many students lack. Given the right gamer support, I strongly recommend it.   


—Bryon Greenwald.


Outstanding mentions: Michael Seitz and Lee Eysturlid (read their respective entries, below):

My favorite historical simulation took place in Professor Sarah Kreps’s course GOVT 1817: “Making Sense of World Politics” and concerned fictitious countries with real-world diplomatic issues:


The in-class simulation involved two made-up countries in the Middle East, “The People’s Republic of Syldavia” and “Borduria.” Syldavia and Borduria were engaged in a hostile dispute over the “Gray Region”—an area that was subject to destabilizing riots caused by military occupation and armed rebels. Upon closer examination, it was found that the weapons were supplied by Borduria—which held the ultimate goal of annexing the region for its own control. Borduria also attempted to steal Sylvadia’s stored nuclear weapons in the Gray Region. 


As part of the simulation, I was elected to serve as the Vice President of Syldavia. Unfortunately, my public service career was cut short as I was assassinated by Bordurian intelligence forces. My murder constituted an act of war by Borduria (who also engaged in bombing raids), but Syldavia responded with the deployment of small brigades to diffuse the situation and prevent further casualties without using lethal means. 


Ultimately, this hands-on class learning experience provided me with a thorough exposure to crisis handling, the strategy behind war, and international relations.


—Michael Seitz.


Students have a real problem, understandably, developing a physical or psychological connection with the idea of close-ordered combat. To deal with the issue in my “Conflict in World History” class, which deals with hoplite warfare, I engage in a participatory modelling exercise.

Making use of old sledding saucers (painted with shield faces), PVC 8 ft. spears (dory), and a few efforts at cardboard armor/helmets (I actually have one metal helm they take turns with to see the visual restrictions). They stand together in the form of a “phalanx.” Students have watched videos and read background sources.

Standing in formation, we discuss the formation’s possibilities, what seems historically realistic, and the benefits and drawbacks. The class then talks and moves its way through a potential engagement. I will even combine a couple of dory to create a sarrisa at 16 ft. (duct tape works—or bolts). This allows for a later discussion on the phalangite array. Students also get a sense of length, range, and the feel of “distance” they wouldn’t get otherwise.

That class day is never long enough, filled with questions, and a great recruiting tool for the topic. 

—Lee W. Eysturlid.

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