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A winning strategy: Students invent board games that tap into Inca culture, history

students Aaron Minoofar and Guy Dotan

Aaron Minoofar (left) and Guy Dotan, both students in a on archaeology of the Inca Empire, play 'Mitmaqcunas,' a Quechua word meaning colonists. Students said developing the board game based on Inca history and culture took research, creativity and collaboration.

When Alexei Vranich, an archaeology visiting assistant professor in the College of Letters and Science, was thinking about an innovative and memorable final project for students in his winter quarter class on the Incas, he thought back to his childhood.

“I remember every toy I ever purchased in a gift store,” said Vranich, who fondly recalls a Star Trek taser-like toy his mother bought him at the UCLA store. “And I thought that’s the excitement I want my students to create.” 

Vranich decided his class would develop a board game that incorporates what they’ve learned in class.

And he added an extra incentive. The final designs will be presented to officials with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and the game they select might be included in a 2015 exhibit that Vranich is helping to curate on the Inca road system. There’s also the possibility that the game could be sold in the museum’s gift shop.

“This is the opportunity for us to present something to literally millions of people,” Vranich told his students before they presented their final games.

Vranich has a good track record when it comes to his students’ projects reaching a mass audience. At the University of Pennsylvania, he led a class that developed a 3-D computer graphic on a Bolivian archaeological dig that appeared on the History Channel’s series, “Digging for the Truth.”

From history to marketing

Most board games about indigenous Americans have traditionally focused on the Spanish hunt for treasure or warfare between the Spanish and Incas, Vranich said. He encouraged his class to look beyond those topics and showcase as much about Inca culture and history as they could.

The Incas built the mountaintop city of Machu Picchu in Peru, and their road system spanned 25,000 miles, the most extensive in pre-Columbian South America. After the Spanish came to Peruvian lands, the Incas successfully resisted them for several decades. The Incas’ royalty survived for nearly half a century.

“The common misconception is that the Incas fell to the Spanish immediately, but there was a lot of resistance, and we should give them credit for that,” Vranich said.

In addition to reading about the Incas, students also heard from Elizabeth Tucker, a Mattel representative, about the different elements to consider in creating a board game, why some designs are more popular than others and how to market the final product.

In the last class of the quarter, a panel of archaeology experts judged the board games and recommended improvements. Vranich will now send the final games on to Smithsonian officials, who will decide if one group or more should travel to Washington, D.C., to present their designs. The Cotsen Institute of Archaeology has offered to cover the airfare for three students.

Spotlight on roads

One board game, titled “Road Warriors,” is based on a historical account that claimed the road system was so efficient that the Inca emperor could dine on fresh seafood in Cuzco.

In the game, players deliver fish to the Inca emperor by building a road from Lima to Cuzco. Along the way, players pick up “Inti” cards, named after the Inca sun god, that can help or hinder road construction and navigation.

Student Peter Benquist tried to convince the judges that his team’s game was superior because it combines teamwork, strategy and education.

“We wanted a game where people actually engaged in this environment, where they understood more completely how these individuals existed and how they traveled and constructed roads,” Benquist said.

But the judges — Emily Uyeda Kantrim, a program representative with UCLA’s Armenian archaeology and ethnography research program; Abigail Levine, an anthropology lecturer; and John Papadopoulos, a classics professor and chair of the archaeology interdepartmental graduate program — said the concept was too simplistic and needed to better educate players.

In another game, which was originally titled “Party in Cuzco” (the panel suggested they change the name), players pick up different cards and accumulate Andean products, such as potatoes, maize and textiles, that are needed to host important religious festivals in the Inca capital. The player who collects the most products wins and has the honor of hosting the most important town festival. 

Strategy and learning

The panel praised the educational value of a game titled “Rise of the Inca,” which focuses on the expansion of the Inca Empire and requires players to work together.

In the game, each player employs workers to help build the empire, a concept based on the Inca mit’a system. It required people to work on public projects, such as road construction, in exchange for food and clothing; employers also hosted a large festival when a project was completed.

In "Rise of the Inca," players can hire workers, but need to acquire food tokens to pay them. Players can also pick up cards on Inca inventions, arts and events that can advance or hinder their progress in the game.

Student Jessica Dickely explained that even the game’s smallest details are linked to the Incas. For instance, each player gets 10 turns because “the Inca Empire lasted 100 years so that’s roughly 10 years per turn.”

The judges praised the game for introducing Inca culture and history to the players. But they suggested the group include more information about the card topics, including a pioneering skull surgery performed by the Incas.

“I love the fact it’s a game of strategy,” Papadopoulos said about the game. “It’s something much more complex than a board game.”

Vranich suggested to Dickely’s group that they let museum officials know how they could create an online version of the game.

Students said after the class that the game board exercise was challenging. Michael Mahoney said it required creativity, collaboration and a refining of his research and presentation skills.

“We had to apply our knowledge rather than simply regurgitate it,” Mahoney said.

The class is part of the Undergraduate Education Initiatives and was funded by the Waldo W. Neikirk Term Chair for Innovative Undergraduate Education.