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ISAW Papers 22.3 (2022)

On Building FORVM: Making Our Research On The Roman Economy Playable...and Fun

Shawn Graham, Carleton University

Tom Brughmans, Aarhus University

Iza Romanowska, Aarhus University

Abstract: This paper discusses the development of the board game FORVM: Trade Empires of Rome. We discuss our process for transforming our research agendas in Roman economic history using agent based modeling and simulation methodologies into an 'analog' simulation. We translate the computational rules of our simulation into rules for a board game where players play as the agent for a Roman senatorial family. In a computational simulation there would be a vast heterogenous population of such agents. In a playable analog simulation we reduce this to four players who need to negotiate and understand the rules, and perhaps even challenge/change them into 'house' rules. In so doing, the game induces a critical reflection in the players on the nature of the simulation which in turn amounts to a playful historiographic engagement with Roman economic history.
Library of Congress Subjects: Board games--Design; History, Ancient--Simulation games; Social sciences--Simulation methods.


It is not unheard of for academics to make games (eg Huffer and Oxenham, Klaassen 2019, Edwards 2019, Hoy 2018). Most often, these games are created with pedagogical goals focused on a particular university course or wider outreach towards the general public (Rubio-Campillo 2020). Sometimes, these are games that are co-created with the students or developed with professional game-making teams. In some cases, already existing games are utilized within a larger game-based learning framework, such as McCall’s ‘historical problem space framework’ (McCall 2020).

In our case, we wanted to make a game that was first and foremost…. fun for us. During the fall of 2016, support from the Ontario/Baden-Württemberg Faculty Exchange Programme enabled the three of us to come together. The original plan was to develop a computational simulation that drew on our complementary research strands in Roman economic history, archaeology, and computation/digital humanities. Our intention was to build a series of agent-based simulations to explore and make explicit aspects of Roman economic history/historiography that normally are not formalized (Brughmans et al. 2019). However, sometimes plans do not come together and for a variety of reasons, the computational aspect of our work could not be attempted.

In which case, we asked ourselves, how can we approach computational simulation when we do not have a computer? If we think of agent-based simulations as a kind of video game that plays itself (Graham 2017), and a video game as being a game where the rule-keeper, the referee, has been automated, then it follows that at the roots of both gaming and computation is a board game, where the ‘computer’ is (as the word originally meant) the “humans that compute”. A board-game-as-simulation removes the impartial computational referee, and forces the players to interpret, understand, and contest the formalization recorded in the rules of the game. A board game is therefore a kind of 'analog simulation' (Whitely, 2016; see also Kaufman and Flanagan 2013 on the perception of complexity in digital versus analog games), in that it aims to represent a dynamic process in an abstracted and simplified way. However, in contrast to a computer-based simulation it admits a lot of noise in the definition and operation of these processes. A board game is also a valuable pedagogical tool in that it enables and encourages players to challenge the rules, or even, re-write the rules free from the tyranny of algorithms typical for any computer-based programme (Huffer & Oxenham 2015). For example, Loring-Albright 2015 asks with regard to the popular tile-laying game Settlers of Catan, ‘where are the Indigenous residents of the island of Catan?’ and uses that question to guide the design of a complete modification (“mod”) for the game that highlights the dormant issues of settler colonialism embodied by the original game. If the ‘rules’ encode the historiography of a phenomena under consideration, then one can see what a challenge a playful approach to the past presents. This is where we found the fun in building our game. You might even call it a ‘serious game’.

Board games as analogue\analog simulations

Simulation is a common scientific technique used in a variety of disciplines, including archaeology (Romanowska et al. 2019). They are valuable in two distinct ways. First, the creation of a simulation forces a formalization, an operationalization, of what we believe to be true about the past (Graham and Weingart 2015; Premo 2006). If we write, "many Romans attempted to improve their lot in life through attachment to the household of a higher status individual", a modeler would ask, 'what does 'attachment' mean? How was the status measured? What benefits does an 'attachment' bring? How much does one gain from attachment? Was it possible to attach oneself to multiple households?' and so on. This type of formalisation works best when it is focussed on a limited number of phenomena. With too many variables one risks losing the ability to track what is causing what in the model (Bullock 2014). The second valuable aspect of simulation is that it enables us to 're-run' history under different conditions, recreating the landscape of possible emergent outcomes this model of the past implies. Simulation forces us to formalize what we believe about the past; and it allows the consequences of those formalizations to be systematically explored. The job of the modeler after running the simulation is to compare the space of possibilities with the evidence of what has actually happened in the past and to first, identify these “pasts” that even if plausible were unlikely to have happened, and second, to explore the landscape of those that were possible (Romanowska 2015). This process enables us to spot the errors in our initial beliefs of how the past was and to better understand the possible pasts.

As we embarked on thinking through our research questions, our normal simulation methodology of coding computational models was moved into an analog context, with pen and paper and eventually a cardboard map and little wooden ‘meeple’ to simulate the interlocking worlds of trade and prestige in the Roman world, around the era of the Early Empire (Figures 1–4). We began by studying games whose underlying mechanics seemed to us to be close to the ideas we had about Rome — but we first had to agree on what it was we understood a networked-influenced economic vision of Rome looked like. Ironically, given the world-wide pandemic that erupted a few years later, we took a lot of inspiration from the co-operative board game Pandemic. We expressed this understanding as a series of procedures sketched out on a whiteboard and a flipboard which we would then play through, trying to understand which ideas we were leaving tacit and so needed to be explained better (see Fullerton 2019 for a similar approach complete with examples from popular games).  Within the serious games literature, this process is also analogous to ‘storyboarding’, which should be understood as the ‘anticipation of human experience’ (Jantke and Knauf, 2012, 401).

Figure 1 Brughmans, Brughmans, Brughmans, and Graham working on the game.
Figure 2 Writing out Netlogo agent based modeling pseudo-code to capture our understanding of how the phenomena we wished to render playable worked.


to setup

        - set $ =100

        - set family_cards = 3

        - shuffle fate_cards

        - set prestige = 0

        - roll dice to see who goes first (order of play then clockwise)



to go

        - move-agents

        - social-intrigue

        - trade

        - build-horrea

        - draw-fate-cards

        - check-for-victory



to move

        - if n_of_agents_available < 4, roll-to-activate

                (if dice_roll >= 4, hatch-on-rome)


        - ask agents

                If desired

                        (move 1 to link-neighbors)



Figure 3: The high-level procedures of the game, expressed as pseudo-code.