Tabletop Games, Systems Thinking, and the 1927 Mississippi Flood

Box cover for the Rising Waters game with subtitle "a game based on the 1927 Mississippi flood"The other week I had the chance to play Rising Waters with my colleagues at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. Rising Waters is a cooperative board game where players take on the roles of African Americans in the Mississippi Delta in the 1920s facing a flood of epic proportion. As the description says, “You will confront two forces: racism from white landowners and the power of nature.” Rising Waters is designed by Scout Blum, a history professor at Troy University in Alabama, and published by Central Michigan University Press as part of its peer-reviewed games-for-learning series, a partnership with the Center for Learning through Games and Simulations. Yes, peer-reviewed pedagogical games!

Rising Waters caught my eye because I’m fascinated by the role that games, particularly analog games, can play in learning. It also caught my eye because of its box art, which features one of Harold Fisk’s Mississippi meander maps. In the 1940s, Fisk was a professor of geology at Louisiana State University and a consultant for the Mississippi River Commission of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Based on a ton of geologic data, Fisk detailed the changing course of the Mississippi river over hundreds of years, using different colors to show the meanders of the river over time. I’ve thought the maps were stunning ever since I saw them on display at Reelfoot Lake State Park here in Tennessee. My wife, ever the excellent gift giver, gave me prints of a couple of the maps for Christmas a few years ago, and I’m happy to display them in my home office.

Detail of one of Harold Fisks' meander maps

This game is meant to be used in educational settings. Designer Scout Blum developed the game, in part, through her history courses, and she has written a 100-page curriculum guide that features historical background information, historical explanations for the mechanics of the game, lesson plans for having students play and reflect on the game, and assignments that follow up on ideas introduced in the game. It’s an impressive piece of work. For more on the development of the game, I recommend the Beyond Solitaire podcast interview with Scout Blum.

This game is what I might call educational without being didactic. This isn’t some game where you have to read lots of text on cards about the history depicted or answer questions about the 1927 Mississippi flood. Instead, the game teaches about the experiences of African Americans during that flood through the gameplay itself. The game board is a map of a section of the Mississippi River and the towns around it. Players start out with positions on that map, and they use their actions to build levees to slow the rising waters and rescue survivors from upstream flooding. Every turn, random cards are drawn that represent where the rain falls and thus where the river rises. If too much land and too many towns and levees get flooded, the players lose. If the players can last a set number of rounds, they win. Even if you had no educational use for the game, it’s still a good game in the same genre as the very popular board game Pandemic. The game teaches about flooding and racism through its systems; as players experience those systems they have an experience that helps them understand the real-life systems modeled by the game, both geologic and cultural. As the curriculum guide says, the “mechanics are the message.”

Close-up of the Rising Waters game board mid-play, with hexagons representing land and waters as well as brightly colored player pawns

Perhaps my favorite feature of the game, at least after one play, is that for players to build those levees, they have to collect cards representing job offers from the white landowners. The players have a lot of other resources, represented by a set of richly illustrated community cards: church, education, family, the blues, farm animals, gardens, and resistance cards like newspaper, radio, and outside activism. Each has a reason for the mechanic it supports in the game. For example, the blues cards allow players to travel more easily across water, representing the spread of blues music across the country and the economic mobility provided by blues musicians, producers, and club owners. The church cards make it easier for players for donate cards, either to other players who need particular cards or to community challenges, representing real-world church-based charity. The community cards are a key resources, but you can’t win the game without building lots of levees, and you can’t build levees in the game without accepting job offers from landowners.

One of the discussion questions in the curriculum guide reads, “Why were the job offer cards in the landowner deck and not the community deck? What was the game trying to say about employment in the region?” Those are great questions to ask of students, particularly students who may be struggling to understand the concept of racism. There are landowner cards that represent the impact of racist acts by individuals, including cards representing threats and use of force and even dynamiting levees. But the job offer cards represent a different kind of racism, a structural racism that resulted from centuries of slavery in the United States. As Blum writes in the curriculum guide, “This mechanic reflects the actual nature of labor in the South in a variety of ways. Generally speaking, whites directed, controlled, and forced the labor on levees.” African Americans of the time had many resources at their disposal, but economic power wasn’t one of them.

Several community cards from Rising Waters featuring church, family, and outside activism, each illustrated by artist Lamaro Smith

Understanding this kind of structural racism requires a kind of systems thinking that I believe games, particularly analog games, are good at teaching. I wrote about the healthcare policy game RePlay Health back in 2020, a game that helps students understand how health outcomes in the U.S. aren’t entirely the result of individual decisions but also depend on the choices made collectively through the healthcare system. I interviewed game designer and game researcher Max Seidman in 2019, and he shared research indicating that when players played the physical version of the game Pox, they learned more about herd immunity than when they played the digital edition. The theory is that when you can see the entire game at once, and not just the slice of the game shown on your phone or tablet screen, you can better understand the game systems, which translates into deeper learning of the real-world systems they simulate.

One concern I have about Rising Waters is that the easy version of the game, representing 1926 flooding, is too easy. If you’re new to cooperative games like this, I guess there’s some danger of losing the intro scenario, but my CETL colleagues and I certainly didn’t come close to losing. The standard version of the game, representing 1927 flooding, looks much harder. Almost all the mechanics in the game get more challenging, with higher starting water levels, more heavy rain cards, slower movement for players, and more damaging landowner cards. From a teaching perspective, I would worry that playing the easy version wouldn’t provide students with as rich an experience as playing the normal version, but playing the normal version has a steeper learning-to-play curve and is far more punishing. The easy version also runs the risk of leaving students with the impression that the situation of African Americans in the Mississippi delta in the 1920s wasn’t that bad. That said, I’ve only played the easy version, not the normal version, so perhaps this isn’t a big a deal as I expect. And I would like to trust the game development process at Central Michigan’s Center for Learning through Games and Simulations.

Overhead look at the Rising Waters game board, mid-play, with hexagons representing land and water

If you’ve used Rising Waters or other educational-but-not-didactic games in your courses, I’d love to hear about your experiences!

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