I remember when the plague struck. It was during Year One, and suddenly every civilization was decimated. The groans of agony made me question my decision to unleash this so early into the game. But only for a moment.
The pain, while palpable, was easily explained. The students in Ms. Marcalow’s sixth grade humanities classes had spent a considerable amount of time dreaming up civilizations they could call their own. These wondrous lands were located in vastly different environments, populated with a wide array of vegetation and animals, rich in various natural resources and technologies. Heartville, surrounded by the Heart Sea (of course), was chock full of roses and horses. Austin Bay Beach seemed like a lovely ocean-side town with fields of wheat and silk. Ellaville had chickens, corn and a row of Victorian houses along the river. Each civilization had a name, a colorful map, and, until the moment the plague hit, a seemingly bright future.
It’s not hard to sympathize with the plight of civilizations trounced by history, but our Civilizations game really made the ideas of Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond personal for our students. Yes, the colonization of sub-Saharan African nations and the birth of our own USA are two great examples demonstrating the rise and fall of real-world civilizations, but when it happens to your own (imaginary) people over the course of two weeks of school, it really hits home. Suddenly, a pack of friendly dogs doesn’t seem as enticing as a herd of cows. Living in the desert may be a bummer during a drought, but it’s great when it saves you from your rival’s naval forces. A gold mine is a bountiful source for trading, but an iron mine is really what counts when war inevitably reaches you.
The structure of our game was simple and low-tech. Civilizations had to survive five years. Five brutal years filled with disease, war and natural disasters. Each year (one turn in the game), civilizations would grow based on their available food resources. For instance, civilizations growing oranges would gain 5 citizens, while civilizations with cows would grow by 20. Each year would also involve five to ten random events – negative things like forest fires and scurvy, and positive things like a rich soil bonus and scientific discoveries. Two years during the game, civilizations could trade resources with one another. In two other years, civilizations went to war and suffered mightily.
By the end of year five, our students understood through first-hand experience why some civilizations thrive and others wither. There was no single right answer – no one made it through unscathed – but now the successes of Eurasian civilizations throughout history made sense. Heartville may have fallen on some hard times over the years, but now that our students and their civilizations have survived the great plague, maybe their unit test won’t seem so scary after all.
If you’re interested in the materials used for this activity, you can find them here.