Critical Playing on the Tabletop

Dana Montello's picture

When I presented the idea of founding the Tabletop Wargaming Club here at West Point’s Preparatory School, I didn’t imagine the enthusiasm this endeavor would have with both the staff and the students. Few cadet candidates, as they are called here, had any experience with tabletop gaming besides Candyland and Monopoly. However, throughout the night of our first session, the students kept pouring in, not only to play games, but to watch them and to watch people play them. Games fascinate us as humans, whether we’re trying to understand them as players or spectators.

This engrossing nature of game play is one of the core traits that make tabletop games so useful as educational tools. A good game provokes engagement and enthusiasm, if not always unadulterated enjoyment (losing with grace is a learned skill). Games compel participants to continue to understand them and explore them in ways that we as educators sometimes struggle with using more conventional materials. While students are often very conscious of spending labor in conventional academic disciplines, players feel the labor they put into games is more fluid and self-owned. Students can choose to play or not to play, and if they play, they may play in the way that garners them the result they wanted. Tabletop gaming like all gaming rests on the fact that players have analytical minds that naturally seek to maximize desired events and minimize undesired ones.

However, when pitching the idea of the club, I focused on two aspects of gaming that I felt best taught these students how to become better thinkers, two aspects that are often missing from video game and thus make tabletop gaming set apart. The first is that tabletop gaming forces players to repeatedly grapple with rules. The second is that tabletop gaming relies on constant face-to-face interactions with other players.

Forcing players to learn the rules is often the barrier with which people new to tabletop games (or even a specific game) have to contend. Instead of having smooth tutorials and a gentle “learn as you go” path, tabletop games require the players themselves to enforce rules. However, learning the rules is the first step towards realizing the limits of the rules and how to use rules as weapons of strategy and cunning. My students noticed that in Risk, there’s a breaking point with armies where it becomes less advantageous to attack. However, they also start to see how timing itself can make such a gamble to attack more than worth the risk. Only when they “run the numbers” do they start to see patterns worth exploiting. Instead of blindly accepting the rules as being imposed from on high, players of tabletop games soon recognize the malleability of any shared structure imposed by consensus. House rules are a natural outgrowth of this recognition that go beyond simply being dissatisfied with the current rule system. Instead, they spring from a deep desire to take ownership of the rules apparatus itself. It is no wonder that as students walked away from a night of playing the treachery-ladened war game Diplomacy, they started to ask much more rules-exploitive questions to me: Could they create false orders for the enemies and submit them to me? (No.) Could they intentionally make an invalid order to sabotage a mission without anyone finding out their true intentions? (Yes.)

The second reason to promote tabletop wargaming is the social aspect of playing games in groups. Players see each other directly whether collaborating, conspiring, or conflicting with other players. Tabletop games that are well-crafted put a primacy on this social aspect that requires you to not only manage resources, but other players. Playing Pandemic for example had the players talk strategies and permissions as they raced to cure deadly diseases. Players had to reach plans of action that would work for everyone going forward as players at cross purposes quickly lose the game. Even games that don’t necessarily lend themselves to alliances like the magical quest game Talisman became a system of learning how to approach the goal. When one player was on the verge of winning the game, all the other players banded together to take them down. Imagine my surprise that with their goal accomplished, they all consensually ended the game on a draw with the remaining players. Games increase our social vocabulary, both when we want to work against someone’s purposes and when we want to join them. Just as the play fighting that toddlers perform is instrumental to a dawning social consciousness, tabletop games hone our social intelligence.

In teaching English, we always talk about the critical skills: critical thinking, critical reading, and critical writing. The struggle for us educators is often finding how to create critical thinking scenarios. Tabletop game playing—like all game playing—is one of the best examples of a critical thinking-required activity. Whether by mastering rules or mastering social interactions, games offer powerful methods of engagement and deep analysis. Time will tell if we take full advantage of these instruments.