This activity aims to facilitate an understanding of the factors that led to Federation. It provides an historical context for students before they explore sources from the Treasures Gallery and offers an experience of the inter-colonial disunity that existed in the late 1800s.

What could Federation mean for Australia?

Tell your students they will be engaging in a game that helps them imagine what Australia was like in the late 1800s. Prior to the activity, briefly explain some of the factors that led the colonies to federate.

The game requires at least 26 students. If you do not have 26 students, reduce the number of cities represented. If you have more than 26 students, you could add the city of Hobart (using a ferryman to replace the train driver in that team) to the game or combine the role of customs officer and tax collector at each station.

Nominate students to play the roles listed below. Devise a means of identifying each role; for example, coloured hats or scarves, or laminated signs for students to hold or wear. You could use blue scarves to represent the train drivers, red scarves to represent customs officers, and so on.


  • 5 x train drivers
  • 3 (or more) x passengers (farmers/manufacturers)
  • 4 x tax collectors
  • 4 x customs officers
  • 5 x defence force members
  • 2 x bushrangers
  • 1 x representative of France
  • 1 x representative of Germany
  • 1 x representative of an Asian country


  • A ‘box’ of goods for each passenger (representing a bale of wool, a sheaf of wheat, a bolt of cloth)
  • Fake money (enough for each passenger)

Pre-game set up

Assemble four groups—one for Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney—each comprising a train driver, a customs officer, a tax collector and a defence force member. Assemble a Brisbane group comprising a train diver and defence form member. (Brisbane does not have a customs officer or tax collector in this game begins in this city. If you wish to change the train’s journey, or play the game several times using varying routes, make sure that the starting city has a group comprising only a train driver and a defence force member.)

Arrange students in a geographically accurate distribution in the classroom. You might like to identify each location with a symbolic icon, a sign or a chair.

The bushrangers and representatives of Germany, France and an Asian country stand to one side.

Assign each passenger a role; for example, wool grower, wheat farmer or textile manufacturer. Provide each passenger with a relevant prop, and ask them to create a train, starting in Brisbane. The passengers are Queenslanders; each is tasked with getting their product to Perth.

Play round one

The train (comprising a train driver and passengers) departs Brisbane and travels to Perth via Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. Students act out this journey. At each city, the passengers, with their goods, must leave the train and pay a tax on their goods. The passengers then board a new train, driven by a different train driver (on a different railway gauge). When they board this train, the customs officer must inspect their goods.

The bushrangers can intercept the train at any station and take either the passengers’ money or their goods. The representatives of France, Germany and the Asian country can wander around, attempting to invade each train station. During an invasion, the defence force member for that city will successfully repel the invaders.

After completing the Brisbane‒Perth journey, repeat the exercise, transporting goods from Perth to Sydney and other destinations. Continue the game until students understand the difficulties posed by each colony having its own laws, regulations and defence forces. Students may swap roles if they wish.

After playing the game, ask students if they experienced anything confusing or time consuming that thwarted their goal of getting their goods to their desired destination.

Play round two

Ask students recreate the game with only one train and one train driver. Eliminate the roles of customs officers and tax collectors. Students who played customs officers join the defence force. The four previously separate forces now move as a united group defending any city against invasion by Germany, France or an Asian country. Students who played tax collectors become police officers and defend the train against bushrangers.

At the end of the activity, ask the students to examine whether they felt differently playing round two compared to round one. Compile a list of the keywords describing their experience. As a class, discuss the efficiencies generated by creating a united defence force, by eliminating multiple taxes and customs inspections, and by moving towards standardised railway gauges. Use this discussion as a springboard to explore the motives of those who supported Federation in the late 1800s.