Joshua Gillingham

Joshua Gillingham is a teacher, educational presenter, and author from Nanaimo, Canada.

The act of ‘play’ has long fascinated historians, educational theorists, and developmental psychologists alike. Why do we play? What purpose does it serve? And, most critically for educators, can the spontaneous and seemingly inexhaustible energy of play be utilised to fuel instructional activities?

Roger Caillois (1913 – 1978) was an early influence in the field of studying play and defined four types of games: agon are games of strength or skill such as football; alea are games of pleasureful abandonment such as playing the slots; ilinx are games of thrill or vertigo such as roller coasters; mimicry are games of role-playing and imagination. It is this final category that modern boardgames, a genre which has gained incredible popularity over the past two decades, fits nicely. Historically-themed boardgames seem particularly well-suited to mimicry, placing players in the position of notable figures from our past or at the center of ancient cultures in eras gone by. 

The brilliant success of such history-inspired games as Castles of Burgundy, Caverna, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, A Feast for Odin, Agricola, Puerto Rico, 7 Wonders, Tzolk’in, and Viticulture (to name just a few)  have caused many to speculate about the potential impact boardgames could have on education. Perhaps most vocal among them is the infamous Shark Tank mogul Kevin O’Leary who took over The Learning Company, designers of such beloved classics as Reader Rabbit and The ClueFinders, and ran it into the ground. Yet efforts to mobilise (a thinly veiled term for ‘monetise’) educational games have failed rather spectacularly, especially alongside the success of the aforementioned boardgames which continue to break sales records around the world.

I am an educator with a background in instructional design as well as a published boardgame designer and I think this failure has a fairly simple explanation. Educational activities tend to be convergent (for example, upon some specific learning outcome or concept) while truly great boardgames are carefully contained universes of divergent possibility. 

An educator’s approach to designing an ‘educational game’ in a historical context would probably follow the rather formulaic processes associated with instructional design, including Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction or Merrill’s Principles of Instruction. A clear learning objective would be stated, such as ‘students will learn concept X about culture Y in time period Z’ and an appropriate assessment tool would be used to determine its effectiveness against more traditional means of delivering that material. Overall this is an excellent approach for reaching curricular objectives and an absolutely terrible method for designing games.

At teacher conventions and education conferences I am often approached by educators following my sessions who have an idea for an educational boardgame. They exuberantly describe their idea which, they are all sure, will soon replace exams all together in ‘you-fill-in-the-subject’ classrooms across the country. Besides the small matter of actually playtesting and designing the game, Kickstarting it for tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of dollars, and handling marketing and distribution, these ideas appear so fantastic that they could hardly fail. And yet, when you understand the convergence/divergence paradigm, it is clear that these utopian assessment tools are doomed to fail as games before even the first prototype has been put together. 

Early successes cited are usually anecdotal stories of how much students enjoyed early prototypes of the game which is obviously great for students. I am all for teachers (myself included!) coming up with unique and creative ways to teach our respective subjects. However, I caution against using this as ‘evidence’ of the commercial viability of the game. Consider first that students are a captive audience (quite literally) and that they are participating as an alternative to regular classroom activities, not necessarily of their own free will in their own free time. Further, such educational games seem to have, in my experience, extremely low transferability between classroom environments as often the creator’s enthusiasm is a large factor in the success of the original runs.

So how does one succeed in creating a boardgame that can survive ‘in the wilds’ of the commercial market? In my opinion it must be a game first; not a history lesson and not an assessment replacement. Rigorous playtesting, including both facilitated and blind playtests (by complete strangers, if possible), must be carried out in an iterative process of development toward a final, polished product. The number of playtests required will depend on the central mechanics and the effectiveness of the playtesting methods used.

The starting point for my historically-themed game Althingi: One Will Rise (published through Outland Entertainment in Spring 2021) was my own personal sense of wonder and fascination about Viking Age Iceland. I did not set out to teach others about this particular period in time but the Icelandic sagas and other historical texts inspired a world which I wanted to step into. Like a scene that comes into focus through an old telescope, the game developed into a portal which invited players to step through and glimpse life as an Icelandic Chieftain in the Viking Age.

Althingi: One Will Rise

Within the convergence/divergence paradigm for designing historical games, I found that creating possibilities for divergence in gameplay was very easy. However, it was the matter of carefully containing those divergent possibilities in a way that did not interfere with the player’s immersive experience of acting as an Icelandic chieftain that became the focus of my work during development. Symptoms of a lack of containment in your game design may include an excessive number of game pieces, overly complicated rules, continuous playtester trolling (i.e. people breaking the game in unexpected ways or finding logical loop-holes), or playtesting sessions that run on for way too long. 

My early prototypes had much more ‘historical’ content than the final product, including many in-game terms derived from Old Norse. For the sake of Althingi being a game first and a journey through history second, I had to simplify the language in order to make it more approachable for newer players and to broaden the audience for the game overall. The original game mechanic was much more punishing to losing players and had to be made more forgiving to ensure that they would continue to have fun and play again even if they lost.

In the end, I was very happy with how Althingi: One Will Rise turned out, despite the fact that it was much different than the game I had originally set out to make. Though many historical details ended up being trimmed out, the ones that remain seem more potent now, if that makes sense. Indeed, history provides all manner of fascinating scenarios and personalities on which to design new games with unique and original mechanics; the problem is, perhaps, that there is just so much of it! With that in mind, my encouragement to historical game designers is this: don’t teach history through boardgames, provide players a brief opportunity to live it!

Althingi: One Will Rise


Caillois, R. (2001). Man, play, and games: University of Illinois Press.


Gagné, R.M. (1985). The conditions of learning and theory of instruction (4th ed.). New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.


Merrill, M.D., Tennyson, R.D. & Posey, L.O. (1992). Teaching concepts: An instructional design guide (2nd Ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.


Worgaftik, G. (2018). ‘Shark Tank’s “Mr. Wonderful” helped kill the educational computer games industry’, AV Club, 26 September. Available at:

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