Gaming Thiessen Polygons

Gaming Thiessen Polygons August 7, 2015

I am pretty sure I am the only person who has ever brought along William Dever’s book The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: When Archaeology and the Bible Intersect to read at Gen Con. There was in fact a good rationale – as I mentioned previously, I have been trying to think of historical reenactment games that can convey aspects of life and history in ancient Israel.

As I read, I found myself thinking of a range of scenarios that could be useful. Dever’s book focuses on the 8th century, and a role playing game focused on ruling Judah, dealing with conflicting prophetic messages, addressing water supply and fortifications, and coping with political tensions both between imperial powers Egypt and Assyria, and also among other vassal states such as Israel and Syria.

But then what I found on p.79 really jumped out at me, given the context in which I was reading:

Thiessen polygons Dever

Any avid gamer will know that hexagonal play boards are common, in games ranging from Star Fleet Battles to Civilization.

What Dever was illustrating was something known as Thiessen polygons, which are a simplification of the arrangement and spread that is typical between settlements of various sizes and types.

Since I was already thinking about how to use games to teach Biblical studies and other things related to ancient religious history, this not only seemed readily gamifiable, but also reminded me that simplification for the purpose of teaching is not something that only games do, but that is always part of the educational process.

The overall shape might seem reminiscent of Settlers of Catan (or Settlers of Canaan). But in fact, the action is focused within and then between the hexagons as well as along their edges. Nonetheless, I wonder whether the inventors of Settlers of Catan had ever heard of Theissen polygons. And I wonder whether those who teach about the economics and social structures of the ancient world find the Catan games teach players anything useful.

I’ll be blogging more about ideas related to the intersection of education, gaming, and ancient religion. If you have ideas, please do continue to share them here!

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    Green Ronin publishes the game “Testament,” which is role-playing in the “biblical era” (basically the Bronze and Iron ages). I have not read it, but I did get their books on their RPG set in early Egypt. I don’t think the focus was on historical value, except for maybe the pantheon. “Testament” looks similar.

    A game in the vein of Settlers would probably work well – an empire or city building/management game. Or even a 4x. I wonder about RPGs, though. The fact is, role-playing an Iron Age Israelite is probably not that exciting. I think you’d either have to shoehorn in classical fantasy tropes (a la the Green Ronin material) or have plots that have little to do with the setting. Like a special mission force of David’s bodyguards.

    • I was on the lookout for Testament at Gen Con. I have heard about it but am not sure it is suited to my purposes.

      You are probably right that role playing iron age life would mostly be boring. I was indeed thinking of focusing on more exciting moments, such as the Hapiru in Canaan revolting against their Egyptian-backed overlords. I was thinking that playing a king of Judah such as Ahaz, dealing with the attempt to forge an alliance to keep Assyria out, Assyria, and Egypt, each with their own demands, and conflicting prophets giving contradictory advice, could be interesting. I would have to make it random which outcome came about, so that you could not just know that the Assyrians win and thus Isaiah turns out to be right.

      I need to figure out whether there will be intellectual property issues if I base it on a particular set of existing rules.

      David’s bodyguards could be a good module, too…

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        Well, you could always make a D20 game. The core D20 system has an open license. Maybe D20 for crunch and some other systems for ideas on classes, etc.

        Pathfinder has an adventure path predicated on the party gradually becoming rulers of a territory. It could probably put a lot of framework around a plot where the players become kings, or perhaps governors of a smaller territory.

        T01 – Testament of the Tetrarchs
        T02 – My Sword Has Drunk the Stars: Edom’s Fall
        T03 – Sicaari Rising

        • I love these suggestions, and the suggested titles for modules. I’m going to be talking to a librarian today about intellectual property issues related to the design of game modules for existing rules. I’ll keep you posted…

          • Phil Ledgerwood

            Alternate reality campaign setting where Judas Iscariot successfully leads a revolt in 30 A.D. that kicks Rome out of Judea and they have to re-take it.

            A messiah rises in Moab claiming to be sent by Chemosh.

            Moses and the fleeing Israelites run into a nation of minotaurs who worship a golden calf.

            Velociraptors take the Sinai Peninsula in tanks that fire hammerhead sharks.

  • jekylldoc

    We play Settlers with our kids in a family of economists. But Thiessen’s hierarchies of central places is much more sophisticated and could be used for a nice simulation game along the lines of Sim City, which I have used in an Urban Economics class. Sid Meier’s Civ games capture the distance element of strategy.

    We really like the trading possibilities in Cataan. You do learn some economics from that – supply and demand, mainly.

  • Ian

    The Hamlet->City map is incredibly clever. Not sure how it’s related to Tiessen Polygons (the lines form the areas of influence of Towns and Cities), but the distribution is great. I’ve not seen a game use that exact structure, though I can imagine it would work well, with the control of villages being emergent from cities and towns.

    I was involved in a research group looking at the use of historical games in schools (I ran a company doing tech for video games), and the key difficulty they faced was the counter-factual nature of games. It is no use making a game, they said, of governing Rome, because people might play it and have things happen that didn’t happen, and remember the things that happened in their game, not the underlying principles. I suspect the danger is overplayed, but isn’t totally unreasonable. For a game to be a game, it has to have meaningful choice possibly leading to failure or alternate outcomes. Lots of attempts at educational games are not games at all, they just use the language and artefacts of games (tokens, rolls, cards, ‘moves’) to linearly feed information. Like the ‘roleplaying your lecture course’ posts from a while back (was that Christopher Heard?).

    I think games can be good tools for teaching language, math, physics, even music. I’m sure history too, though I’ve not had experience of successful attempts (which isn’t to say I have any notable experience, I’ve just not tripped over it).

    • Phil Ledgerwood

      In most of my Civilizations games, my horde of Buddhist Vikings tears across Asia. I haven’t yet mentally filed it as actual history, but it is tempting!

      • Ian

        It doesn’t worry me, but if you taught it in class, and someone’s only experience of the game was playing a civ of buddhist vikings, do you think it might confuse them?

        That seemed to really exorcise the people I worked with on that committee.

        • Phil Ledgerwood

          Huh. It’s hard to imagine that happening. I wonder if there’s data that shows that happens? I guess I could imagine young children maybe getting confused.

          • I really need to go to the kinds of meetings you go to, Ian, so that even if I end up ignoring the advice, I have feedback warning me about the potential pitfalls of a course of action I am thinking of following as pertains to educational gaming.

  • Yuval Goren argued that Amarna-era city-states didn’t really look like Thiessen polygons.