Home > Game Design, Lesson PLans > Prototype A Available – De Agricultura: The Universal Abstract Overly-Simplified Ancient Peasant Agriculture Game

Prototype A Available – De Agricultura: The Universal Abstract Overly-Simplified Ancient Peasant Agriculture Game

Like all prototypes, this will break, and I’d be grateful if you sent me a note about how it broke so I can improve on it. But I think Prototype A probably works well enough (I haven’t group playtested it — that’s where you all come in) to use in a class (I’m going to this August).

Prototype A PDF

Briefly, the goals of the game are this.

A better appreciation/understanding of peasants in agrarian societies. It is very hard for moderns to appreciate that the vast majority of ancient agrarian societies (some 80-90% of population) were peasant farmers, i.e. subsistence farmers. They lived and worked in a state of subsistence, just enough to get by, with little bits of surplus food. That tiny surplus, magnified over thousands of peasants, was what the state extracted to fund non-farming activities from armies to building projects etc.

I wanted to design a game way to better introduce students to aspects of the subsistence farming life, preferably one that could be played reasonably quickly and without too much difficulty. More specifically, I want De Agricultura to illustrate (or better enable students to think about these points:

  1. That poverty and hunger could be as close as one bad harvest away
  2. That risk management was critical when choosing crops
  3. That the state looked pretty sinister when harvest and tax season came (design note: I very much believe taxes are an important social contribution to a (hopefully) democratic society that should provide a social net; ancients peasants likely did not agree, not least of all because ancient governments usually did very little for their subjects )
  4. Why all those laws in Hammurabi’s code etc talk about a neighbor messing up your fields as a big problem
  5. How important neighbors and social relations were in agrarian ommunities
  6. Why sacrificing to gods of field and stream and water and fertility and such was a really good idea

I have relied on three sources primarily

  1. Ancient Historian Bret Devereaux’s (Twitter @BretDevereaux) blog series on ancient farming (here’s part 1: farmers). I have been working on a game in the back of my mind on peasants for 20 years. His essays, especially the first one with the focus on risk-management and social relations were the inspiration for this version.
  2. Friend and colleague, Ancient Historian Neville Morley (Twitter @NevilleMorley) who has written a lot about agriculture and kindly answered my nagging questions about barley and wheat planting.
  3. Peter Garnsey’s apparently classic text, that Neville introduced me too, Famine and Food Supply in the Greco-Roman World

There’s a lot more to say and I will add to this soon. For now though a note on wheat and barley. I’m going to use this as a game to illustrate the basic historical problem space for my students of any peasant farmer in the ancient world. Clearly though, my sources and leanings are ancient Mediterranean. To remove that bias, change the Wheat and Barley to Crop A and Crop B. This game works in broad brush strokes anywhere where a more valuable cash grain that is higher risk and a less valuable, less high brow grain alternative is lower risk and farmers do risk mitigation by planting some combination.

I’d be delighted to hear from you via email or Twitter with any feedback from playing, suggestions, etc.

Categories: Game Design, Lesson PLans

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