By Andrew Ragan, Middle School History Teacher
Game of Empire has become an activity every year that seventh-graders really look forward to.
We’ve been focusing a lot on the colonial era. In the Americas, of course, that largely relates to Britain’s colonization of the Americas and the great mercantile (trading) system of the British Empire. Game of Empire simulates the whole British mercantile system in the Atlantic.
In the game, the year is 1735. The class divides into six teams, each representing an important economic/geographic group in the empire, with three to five students on each team. The teams are the:
- London Merchants
- New England Merchants
- European Merchants
- Colonial Farmers
- Southern Planters
- British West Indian Planters
The aim of each team is to trade its own products for products that are not grown or manufactured in its region. The relatively poor Southern Planters, for example, have tobacco to sell, and they need textiles, because there were no cloth makers or factories in the southern colonies in the 18th century (1700s). The New England Merchants were pretty wealthy; they had ships. So what we see is that there are certain groups that have ships and great wealth, and certain groups don’t start off with great wealth, but they have things that other groups need.
The goal in this game is for every a group to try to get as high a percentage of the things they need to make themselves successful.
Those that start off wealthy don’t have an advantage since it’s not based on final wealth, only acquisition of their needs. Not everyone succeeds.
There’s a great big map on on the floor — the ocean. Teams have to go over the ocean to do their trades, and the Navy manages ships traveling over the ocean. A group of students represents the British Navy, the police force of the empire, protecting merchant ships from pirates and enforcing British customs and revenue regulations.
The game includes three or four 12-minute “rounds” when trades take place and the ships carrying the goods move across the ocean from the selling teams to the buying teams. Each round is signaled to begin or end with a “Royal Flourish” as provided by the player or players of brass instruments. The trading can be and should be fast and furious!
There are certain things teams can and can’t buy from certain groups. It’s illegal, for instance, for the colonies to buy from the European merchants, and that brings up a good point about why this role-play is important. This represents the first burst in the American colonies protesting British activities. The British put heavy duties on certain goods, and they did not allow the colonies to sell or buy things from Europe because they wanted all of the goods themselves; that was the whole purpose of their colonies in the first place.
So with those restrictive rules, colonists often resorted to smuggling goods to and from other parts of Europe. The risk was that they could get boarded by the British Navy during the trades and have their ship seized, which in the game does happen by the random flip of a card. The game itself has random events like this built-in. Your ship can be seized, you could be boarded by pirates, and you could be sunk in a storm. If you’re boarded by pirates and the British Navy happens to be there, you’re saved. You pay them a bribe to get your goods back. There’s actually a lot of intrigue going on, and we end up having a beehive of activity.
But the foundation here is really to show the power of the British Empire at this time, what the colonists were up against, and some of those first things that really got on the colonists nerves. The fact that they couldn’t make money by selling to Europe, or even selling amongst themselves in certain cases, really bothered them. Those rules were called the Navigation Acts of the 1690s.
As they play, we encourage students to think about how the trading system of the British Empire worked, noting its good features and its bad features. American colonial teams are asked to try to decide how they would have felt about the trade regulations. We ask them to think about what makes an economic/geographic group—like the New England Merchants—and how people’s jobs influence their attitudes toward government.
Game of Empire leads our curriculum into the American Revolution era, the protest era, and is a perfect progression after talking about the buildup of the colonies in the Americas.
Andrew RaganAndrew came to teach Middle School History at Allendale Columbia School after 20 years in educational publishing and living in Pittsburgh, New York City, Los Angeles, Toronto, and the Adirondacks. He began writing for young people at Junior Scholastic magazine and has since published hundreds of articles in such magazines as JS, Scholastic News, Disney Adventures, Creative Classroom, and more. After teaching freshman composition at the University of Southern California for several years, Andrew served as the Senior Editor for Disney Adventures Magazine. He earned his Bachelor of Arts Degree in English and Communications, with honors, from Carnegie Mellon University and his master's degree in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California.
Posted in: Authentic Learning, Highlights, Middle School, Seventh Grade