Games and IR

by Professor Martini

I’m guessing that most of you IR students have played the board game Risk. I would be surprised if you haven’t (I wonder if IR students are better at Risk than the average person).   It is one of the ultimate IR simulations that covers topics like power, anarchy, the security dilemma, and alliances.  I have always wanted to have my classrooms play this game and then discuss the numerous implications but unfortunately Risk is too long for a 50 minute, 75 minute, or even 3 hour class.

While Risk may be off the table for now, there are many other simulations out there that help us as Professors demonstrate many of the concepts and implications we discuss in class.  Particularly, in my Politics of International Economics course, I run at least 4 different simulations (and I’m hoping to add a few more for the Fall).  Below, I will detail some of these different simulations and how they help us think about IR concepts and issues.  Feel free to try them out yourself.

My favorite is probably a simulation called the Isle of Ted .  This game is great for anywhere from 20 to 50 students.  This game really focused on collective action problems, the lack of information and the incentive for deception, and cooperation problems in general.  In this game there are six groups, representing one of six countries on an island, and you all must work together to improve the economy and prepare the island defenses.  While it may seem relatively easy, it is much more difficult in the classroom (who would imagine that cooperation could be so hard).

Another great simulation is called the International Trade Game .  Students break into six groups and each represent a different country with different resources and levels of economic development.  The goal is to make as much money as possible by selling paper shapes to an international trader.  The catch is that some countries have a lot more capital and are more developed (i.e, scissors, compass, etc) than others where other countries have all the resources (i.e., paper) needed to make the shapes.  Again, this focuses on the need for cooperation between states, but also considered topics like inequality in the international arena, supply and demand, and how countries can develop and compete economically.

Beyond in class simulations, there are also a number of online games/simulations that I have tried in the past.  When we have lecture and discussion around the development of less developed nations and especially the deeply impoverished nations, I typically have my classes play a game called 3rdWorld Farmer.  It certainly has some aspects that are a bit divorced from the real world but I think it does a very good job demonstrating the hardships faced by individuals in many impoverished nations and how random events can cause such havoc when there are no safety nets out there.  This simulation leads to great discussions around what the international community could do to try to help in these countries.

All in all, simulations provide a great opportunity for a first hand observation of many of these concepts and theories that we discuss in the classroom.  We can certainly learn a lot from just lecture and discussing theories and concepts but simulations make them real and tangible.  They may not always go as planned, but that makes it even more applicable (and interesting!).

I’m always looking for more simulations to add to my classes so if you have any great ideas, please feel free to email me (

Professor Martini will be teaching POLI:1200 Introduction to Political Behavior  and  POLI:3516 The Politics of International Economics  during the Fall 17 semester.