Wargaming is one of the traditional sub-sections of boardgaming. It’s not hard to see why. By definition, games need to be interactive (that is, the game state changes according to the actions of the players, in contrast to, say, a puzzle) and provide struggle (that is, non-trivial effort is required to achieve the goals). Conflict between players provides amply for both, and one of the prime kinds of conflict is that of a military nature. Games with a historical theme are no exception, depicting wars from antiquity to our age. However, the popularity of wars and military conflict as a subject for historical games is not without problems. It overshadows other areas of human enterprise (and conflict). In addition, many wargames present a de-contextualized version of war. Therefore, it’s easy to live within a military bubble as a gamer. This article will explore these problems, but also look at the solutions already being implemented to deal with it.
The Military Bubble
Board games about wars have existed for millennia. Chess (and its Indian and Chinese siblings) is an early example for a battle game. In the early 19th century, the Kriegsspiel (wargame) was developed in Germany as a training tool for military officers, but it also became a pastime for them. After World War II, two different models for games about war emerged: Risk (Albert Lamorisse, Miro) emphasized easy rules and eclectic flavor, Tactics (Charles S. Roberts, Avalon Hill) aspired to be a genuine simulation of combat. Nowadays, “wargame” often means “conflict game” in a wider sense – not necessarily limited to the depiction of a purely military conflict. Still, military conflicts loom large: There are only a few games about how the American Civil War came to happen (notably: Founding Fathers (Rick Heli, Up And Away Games), but plenty about the Civil War or its various campaigns and battles. Just as well, various games deal with the Russian Civil War, but none with the revolutions before it that were so much more important historically than the war. With this focus on wars, we miss a lot of history of the non-wars, the pre-wars, post-wars and in-between-wars. It also conveys the false idea that conflicts in history are mostly military – an idea that falsely portrays the absence of a war as overly harmonic and sweeps the political, social, or economic conflicts through history under the rug.
Another problem is that many games present a version of war that contains nothing but the operational aspects of it. The questions the players ask themselves are “Will this grove cover my platoon from the enemy’s artillery fire?” or “Can I cut off the enemy’s supply lines by taking this strategically important city?”. The questions “Which goal beyond a military victory in this war do I want to achieve with my maneuvers?” or even “What do I do with the civilians I’ll encounter in the village I want to occupy?” usually remain unasked. In such games, the military proceedings are unconnected to any other sphere of human activity. It’s easy to see why. Military fighting is a morally muddy business, and many people prefer not to think about its repercussions. The pawns in chess represent the pre-modern militia troops recruited from the country regarding their low combat value, but they will not return and try to till their fields after the battle without the arm they lost in it. The politics that precipitated and accompanied the military action are left out for the same reason: Players may have no qualms moving cardboard chits to represent their intention of attempting a breakout from the pocket at Stalingrad, but they usually would not want to be reminded that the more successful they are, the longer will the country they represent ravage the territories the player has conquered before and kill all Jewish people they find there. If you see games purely as entertainment, you’d rather not have this part of the history in them. It cuts the history woefully short, however. Strategy theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s dictum that war is the continuation of the political intercourse with other means spells doom to any attempt to understand a war of which you don’t know the politics. As Clausewitz himself says: “The political intention is the purpose, the war is the instrument, and the instrument can never be considered without the purpose.” (Clausewitz, On War, Book One, Chapter One, 24).
Ways out of the Bubble
How do we get past this double problem of the focus on military history and, within it, on the merely operational matters? The answer is simple: By designing, publishing – and for most of us, this is where we can take action – playing games that do not limit themselves in that way. There are quite some games which offer a deep glimpse into history while covering a period with both war and peace (for example Here I Stand (Ed Beach, GMT Games)) or exclusively peacetimes (for example 1960: The Making of the President (Christian Leonhard/Jason Matthews, GMT Games)) while still offering the highly interactive, conflict-intense experience for which wargames are famous. And, of course, there are games about military conflict that meaningfully link the operational to the political, economic and social (such as the COIN games). As you might have noticed, all the examples I mentioned so far are card-driven games. I think that is no coincidence. Games need to limit their complexity in order to remain playable, and working with a slim set of basic rules and putting the rest on the cards is one way to do so. Therefore, CDGs can accommodate a much wider range of topics beyond the operational sphere and still be accessible.
Beyond the Bubble
Conflict gaming is moving in the right direction. A much wider set of games is nowadays accepted as a wargame – for example, a game about 44 years of subtle conflict between two states with no military confrontation between them whatsoever (Wir sind das Volk!, Richard Sivél/Peer Sylvester, Histogame). Also, the two examples of “missing” games on the non-military part of important historical subjects are both being amended this year – Fort Sumter (Mark Herman, GMT Games) will close the gap for the Civil War (and there is even a game about the forty years before the Civil War coming up – This Guilty Land (Tom Russell, Hollandspiele)), Dual Powers: Revolution 1917 (Brett Myers, Thunderworks Games) does it for the Russian Revolution. These games take the dedication to historical detail and fine-grained modelling of classic wargames and apply them to a wider range of subjects.
In other respects, however, the focus on operationalism still rules supreme: Neither a game about civilians in a war-torn city (This War of Mine (Michał Oracz/Jakub Wiśniewski, Awaken Realms)) or even a game about soldiers on the frontline whose goal is to endure their individual hardships instead of fulfilling an operational objective (The Grizzled (Fabien Riffaud/Juan Rodriguez, Sweet Games)) are considered wargames yet (at least by BGG‘s standards). Conflict games are a fascinating medium to explore and understand history. If we want our insights to go beyond “Napoleon should have reinforced the afternoon cavalry charges at Waterloo with more infantry support”, we must keep making conflict games more comprehensive and inclusive.
What do you think about the depiction of war in board games? And which games that go beyond operationalism have broadened your understanding of conflict? Let me know in the comments!
Kriegsspiel (Georg Heinrich Leopold von Reisswitz)
Risk (Albert Lamorisse, Miro)
Tactics (Charles S. Roberts, Avalon Hill)
Founding Fathers (Rick Heli, Up And Away Games)
Here I Stand (Ed Beach, GMT Games)
1960: The Making of the President (Christian Leonhard/Jason Matthews, GMT Games)
Wir sind das Volk! (Richard Sivél/Peer Sylvester, Histogame)
Fort Sumter (Mark Herman, GMT Games)
This Guilty Land (Tom Russell, Hollandspiele)
Dual Powers: Revolution 1917 (Brett Myers, Thunderworks Games)
This War of Mine (Michał Oracz/Jakub Wiśniewski, Awaken Realms)
The Grizzled (Fabien Riffaud/Juan Rodriguez, Sweet Games)