Rivers and Catan

Moving on in our time-traveling-in-ancient-civilizations unit, we made a stop at some major rivers in Asia.

Never was a subject invented for second graders drier than the identification of rivers. Yawn. But the Core Curriculum encourages a look at some of the more major rivers in history, specifically for our purposes the Indus, Ganges, Yellow, and Yangtze. Even more important, though, is that the study of rivers is actually very important to history, and I was a history major before I was a teacher, so I was actually pretty excited to tackle this.

More important, to me, as a historian, than the rote identification of river names, is a basic understanding of why rivers are important historically (and, ecologically, why they remain important today). I’m willing to wager that most of my Bronx second graders have never even seen the Bronx river, nevermind contemplated its impact on their flush-and-faucet lives, or even more remotely, the impact of foreign rivers on ancient civilizations. And we had one, one-hour session in which to achieve something meaningful. Here’s what we did.

If you’ve never played Settlers of Catan, you’re missing out on some serious board game fun. It’s a little like a combination of Risk and Monopoly, where everyone has an equal, small start on resources, and you negotiate luck and skill to accumulate more resources and build your empire. In Catan, you have pieces of territory, each assigned a number between 2 and 12, that produce certain kinds of resources when their number rolled. In real Catan, there are multiple kinds of resources, and you need to accumulate different combinations to achieve different things. We didn’t have that much time – I needed a 10-minute game, so I simplified.

My wonderful and artistic sister made me a map of the Indian subcontinent and sectioned out into 6 territories, one for each table group, and I cut little houses out of index cards and put some sticky-tac on the back.

Our map of India with houses.
Our map of India with houses.

I made up a separate info sheet for each territory, with a list of numbers that, when rolled, would earn that team a resource card. To move things along, there was only one resource they had to accumulate (wheat/food), and each territory had multiple numbers that could earn them a card. 3 wheat cards bought you a “house,” and three houses bought you the “city” and won your team the game. (We did actually have a brief conversation about why having extra food would free you up for doing things like building houses).

Resource cards, dice, city.
Resource cards, dice, city.

Played this way, each game lasted 5-10 minutes. (A normal game of Catan will last about 2 hours). The kids were really engaged and excited to watch their territory develop.

And here’s where the history lesson comes in: I cheated. I rigged the numbers so that the river territories always won. Statistically, when you’re rolling two dice, 6, 7, and 8 will roll most frequently, because there are more ways to combine addends to get them (e.g., 5+1, 4+2, 3+3). 4, 5, 9, and 10 show up a decent number of times, with 2, 3, 11, and 12 showing up least (the only way to roll a 2 is with snake eyes). I assigned the river territories all the statistically probable numbers and none of the rare numbers. I assigned every other territory one statistically probable number and multiple rare numbers.

This worked out pretty evenly. Every team finished with at least one house – so every team accomplished something. But the river territories won every single time, and only once did a non-river territory achieve a 3-way tie.

After playing once or twice, as time permitted, I admitted to each class that I had rigged the game. There were groans and moans, and then I said that the reason I had rigged the game is because in the real world of building civilizations, rivers win nearly every time. Egypt had the Nile. Sumeria had the Tigris-Euphrates. Israel had the Jordan. India had the Indus and Ganges. China had the Yellow and Yangtze. New York City has the Hudson and Bronx rivers. Etc. Then we got to have a discussion about why rivers would be so important for building a civilization, especially pre-electricity, and that was where the really interesting action happened. Once the point had been made, they were intuitive and insightful about all the many benefits of having a large body of fresh running water nearby. So we made a chart. I’m counting it as a win.

What other conversations about geography could you launch from a project like this?

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