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Cody K. Carlson
Board games "Axis & Allies" and "Tide of Iron."

An evening around a board game is a great way to spend time with family and friends because unlike a movie it offers the chance to talk and share a fun and exciting experience with each other.

There are currently many history-themed games on the market that offer a chance to discuss historical events in new and exciting ways. Several World War II games present the conflict not as the stuff merely of history books, but rather as an active history in which lessons about leaders, ideologies, weapons, geography, and the possibilities of 'what if' can excite the imagination and prompt important discussions with children.

Can war games spark an interest in history among young people?

“Absolutely yes,” said Roland Williams, manager of Hastur Games and Comics in Salt Lake City. “Once you get it out on the table and you see how it moves and you roll the dice that excites everybody's interest. It really does."

Jeremy Stomberg, operations associate for Fantasy Flight Games, a major board game company based in Minnesota, also acknowledges the historical accuracy that fans demand.

“It's important in that gamers like to be immersed in the game they're playing," he said.

He also cautions that accuracy often must be weighed against the needs of a balanced and fast-paced game.

“Too much detail can slow game play and limit your audience," he said. "We want to strike a balance.”

“Memoir '44” from Days of Wonder is a card-based tactical game that pits Allied forces against the Germans in 1944. This is a relatively easy to learn game in which drawing cards allows players to move forces and develop strategy.

Being bound by the luck of the draw can be a bit frustrating, especially when your units are in a prime position, but this is definitely one of the easier games out there with the World War II theme.

Quite a bit more complex is Fantasy Flight Game's “Tide of Iron.” “Tide of Iron” is a similar tactical game set in 1944 where the American and German armies duke it out in France.

Strategy is much more important in this game and the cards are a supplement to rather than the foundation of a player's tactics. The pieces are well made and the game engine makes for some truly harrowing play, though given its complexity “Tide of Iron” is definitely not for everybody.

"There are plenty of games that go into greater detail than 'Tide of Iron,' but we think that our total package is just what a lot of gamers want," Stomberg said.

Also from Fantasy Flight Games is “Dust Tactics,” a science fiction take on World War II in which Germany and the Allies find and develop alien technology during the war.

The pieces, including four giant tank “walkers,” are impressive and game play is generally intense. Like “Tide of Iron” the complexity level will certainly turn off many casual gamers. Additionally, some of the game artwork is a bit risquÉ.

Perhaps the most accessible game for families new to World War II war games is Avalon Hill's “Axis and Allies.” It has been around for years and remains the standard of grand strategic World War II games.

Players must build units and manage economies even as they engage in ruthless battles across the globe. Though initially intimidating, the game is easy to learn and provides hours of fun.

Stomberg also notes that war games can be a great introduction to history for young people because of the sense of contingency they offer.

“There are board games that go into the whys and wherefores of battles, what brought these forces to the battleground that day? What was decided by kings and emperors, presidents and prime ministers, that led up to the fighting?” he said.

All of the games rely to an extent upon chance in the form of dice for resolving combat. Also, all have various expansions or different versions available. These games are generally not inexpensive with prices running from $30- $100. This may be too expensive for those who simply wish to break out the old “Monopoly” board for family night.

With regard to "Axis and Allies," Williams acknowledges the cost but also notes the demand.

“You've got the base game and then what's called 'Europe' and 'Pacific,' and they are $90," he said. "And I sell those, even at that price.”

Cody K. Carlson holds an MA in history from the University of Utah. He currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College and performs improv comedy with Laughing Stock at the Off Broadway Theater. ckcarlson76@gmail.com