The Military Bubble – And How to Find Out of It

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


An early wargame: Chess.

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 (Amabel Holland, 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.

The Grizzled

Is about front-line soldiers, but is not listed as a wargame on BoardGameGeek: The Grizzled. Image ©Sweet Games.

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!

Games Referenced

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 (Amabel Holland, 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)

23 thoughts on “The Military Bubble – And How to Find Out of It

  1. Pingback: Idealism and Realism in the Fourteen Points | Clio's Board Games

  2. AFD

    There are some games that explore grand political strategy, such as Democracy under Siege, which isn’t a war game though war is certainly one of the bag of tricks a player can use. (I think the game Churchill may also fall under this definition.) Many, many years ago, Avalon Hill covered the same time period as Democracy under Siege with the game Origins, which handles power politics much more abstractly. Though neither are war games, they both require competition more than cooperation. The old Avalon Hill Diplomacy game also plays on the tension between cooperation and competition. Personally, I am interested in historical games that allow for competition but also require cooperation to achieve overarching goals, as well as games that allow for more than one “winner” and more than one defined set of objectives.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. cliosboardgames Post author

      Yes, Democracy under Siege is a very interesting game – not only for its focus on political strategy. I was also intrigued by the web of allegiance on which you move the small countries. I haven’t gotten a chance to play Churchill yet, but since it’s designed by Mark Herman, the godfather of taking a war out of the operational bubble, I don’t doubt its qualities. As for the game design goals you mentioned: I could not agree more!


  3. whovian223

    Great post! A bit of your first section touches on what I was getting at with “Should We Be Playing at War?” but in a whole new way.

    I’d love to play some of these games, either wargames or the games with conflict that aren’t technically wargames.

    I really would like to play Here I Stand. I had to pass up an opportunity at CascadeCon because it’s apparently a *really* long game and I was only there one day with my friends. I couldn’t really justify that kind of time.

    But one day, I will. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. cliosboardgames Post author

      Thanks for reading! I really enjoyed your “Should We Be Playing at War?” post, so I’m glad you see them as kindred spirits!
      As for Here I Stand: Getting a game of that together is my big project for the year!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Both Sides of My Table

    Pigeon-holing titles by non-progressive thinkers like BGG doesn’t help the situation in my oppinion. I am not a war film fan but love the likes of Kelley’s Heroes and Hanibal Brooks. Both set in WW2, both have high conflict content but neither storyline is actually about the war. The war is almost incidental to the plot. Does that make them ‘not’ war films. I would say my experience of This War of Mine, for example, make me convinced it is a war game even though it is only set in a war torn city and no play to date has seen me encounter soldiers except at a checkpoint in a hospital…are fantasy games also war games if unit A moves from one hex to another to encounter unit B? That is just mechanics and has no exploration of the consequences/effects of that engagement on protagonists or the wider population.
    Not sure what I am rambling on about but for me numerous more-recent “war games” have mechanics in that go beyond -shoot-destroy-. The results of combat are such that unit loss is almost non-existant because the results take into consideration the bigger picture of moral, effects on local populous, attrition, etc…so retreats and advances, positioning, supply, shaken conditions become more prevalent. Labyrinth (gmt) has no battles…almost entirely political ballance & tactical area control/support and as such probably doesn’t get labled as such, even though it is a war on terror.
    It may be a Hollywood legacy that influences the categorising of war-games requiring the only game mechanic to be shooting guns…re-educating a wider audience is needed, I think, that war is a far greater and complex beast than the simplicity of country A fighting country B, and so too with board-game representation of war (in all of its many guises)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. cliosboardgames Post author

      Yes, I’m all for a wider understanding of war (in games and elsewhere). That’s why I found the BGG characterization so puzzling – it seems to have such a narrow idea of war.
      Interesting how you see a Hollywood legacy in that! I had never thought about that, but it makes sense to me intuitively. Here, as well, I like those movies best who go a bit beyond the operational – say, Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers.

      Liked by 1 person

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  6. B B

    On what basis do you assert that wargames overshadow other types of games? Other types of games sell in much, much larger numbers. You say its easy to live in a wargames bubble. Well, it’s even easier to completely ignore wargames and live in a non-wargame bubble, so what is your point?

    Do you know who invented wargames, and why? Staff officers, in order to study how to win wars. This is their original purpose and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. You arbitrarily place a demand on these games that was never there and is not required to be there. Maybe you want it; that’s fine. That’s your preference. But that doesn’t mean, as you try to suggest, that there is ANYTHING wrong with the hundreds of existing wargames.

    You state that there is no wargame that explains the outbreak of the American Civil War. Well, yeah, the period before the outbreak of the war was peacetime so it wouldn’t be the topic of a wargame, would it? A wargame about the period prior to outbreak of a war would be a contradiction in terms.

    The CDG games that you seem to like have their own serious contextual problems, obstacles that, frankly, are larger than the ones you raise. When a player can decide to play a card that says something like „Bad Weather Delays Attack“, who is the player in this context? Unless it’s a science fiction game in which weather control exists, certainly it’s not one of the antagonists. Maybe it’s God or Luck or ..? And it’s not just obvious things like the the weather that are on these cards. There are a whole host of cards that represent actions of individuals and groups who do not represent any of the antagonists, but players can decide whether and when they appear anyway. Most of these CDGs have introduced politics, yes, but in a way that makes gods out of the players and leads to useless experiences because having these godlike powers the players can never hope to reduplicate anything close to the situation actually faced by Hannibal, Alexander’s Successors, Martin Luther and so on.


    1. cliosboardgames Post author

      Thank you for your long and thoughtful comment!

      One of the great strengths of gaming is to expose the player to new things – being thought-provoking, maybe even educational, and at the same time fun. So I counsel everyone to get out of their gaming bubble, no matter if it’s made of military operations, farming, or survival in a zombie apocalypse. This blog, however, is about games with a historical theme (more precisely: games who take their historical theme seriously instead of just pasting it on), and among those, games about war, mostly dealing with operational matters, rule supreme. That is a compliment to wargames and their designers – it is not their fault that others don’t take the trouble of trying to recreate an in-depth historical situation which is not military/operational. I think, however, that historical gaming would benefit from having these other games, so I’m encouraging players and designers to consider them. Therefore, it’s very pleasant for me to see that people who design a conflict game do not only think “Hey, let’s make the n-th Civil War game” but also “Hey, let’s make a game about the crisis that sparked the Civil War.”

      For the staff officers learning how to conduct successful military operations, a purely operational game (like the original Kriegsspiel I mentioned in the article) can be very useful. They should of course also learn things beyond the operational, for example understanding the political goals of a war so that they can adapt the military means to that. Just as well, modern gamers (who are normally not professionally tasked with conducting military operations) can gain insights from a purely operational game, but might understand war in a more comprehensive way if their games go beyond that – and maybe even beyond a war. By now, the definition of “wargame” seems to have developed into “conflict game which might also be non-military if it is historical” – examples would include spreading Soviet influence over the world in Twilight Struggle, translating the Bible as the Protestants in Here I Stand, or conducting a campaign of civil disobedience as the Indian National Congress in the upcoming Gandhi. Most wargamers would not bat an eye if someone referred to these experiences as “wargaming”. Of course, board gamers (and wargamers) are free in the choice of their gaming topics, but I would say that it’s at least as useful for the understanding of history to grasp the connection between slavery, states’ rights, the plantation economy of the South and the factory economy of the North as it is to understand the effects of Grant’s successes in the Western theater.

      I’m all with you about the muddy agency in CDGs. Quinns from Shut Up & Sit Down has called this the “overworked Time Lord – delaying discoveries, accelerating accidents”. This agency problem – who am I playing here, and why can I do all these things? – is very significant in CDGs, but also occurs in other games. For instance, Jim Dunnigan’s The Next War – a classic wargame if I ever saw one – sets out to put the players in the shoes of the supreme commanders of the Central European NATO or Warsaw Pact forces. Yet the game is so detailed that the players face decisions no supreme would have ever faced – for example, how exactly to deploy a single battalion of Italian reinforcements. Often, players have full control over all their units, no matter if the time and space would allow for that – as an example, consider Columbia Games’ Julius Caesar, in which a player can command an army in Gaul and one in Egypt, even if in reality the commander could only have been in one place at a time and would have to wait weeks for news from the other theater even to arrive (and the same time to send his orders there). CDGs, of course, take this a bit further still – you have already pointed out the supernatural abilities as well as the host of individuals the player seemingly impersonates at the same time. I would add the often abstracted view of resources if the command/ops/whatever value of a card is a simple number which obfuscates the various different sources of power one can have – financial resources, an educated populace to draw upon for sophisticated tasks, an efficient bureaucracy, personal negotiation skills, nationalistic fervor etc. But this question of agency is a topic of its own. Maybe I’ll write an article about that some day. Or, if you write something, let me know.

      Neither this agency problem nor a purely operational depiction of a war mean that a game should not be played or that it is not good. (I’ve certainly spent many hours pushing panzers over a board.) But these issues certainly deserve to be talked about. Once more, thanks for reading and commenting!


  7. B B

    You must not be paying much attention to what going on in the wargaming world. Whether or not Twilight Struggle is a wargame is probably THE most contentious argument in that (small) part of the hobby. By far the majority of wargamers aver that TS is not one, actually. Pretty much only non-wargamers are asserting that it is. Publisher GMT calls it a “crossover game” which is probably fairest.

    But a bigger problem is that you while acknowledging the problem of agency you don’t seem to realize there’s an even larger problem of agency in the phantom game you seem to want to play. Did it never occur to you that it does not exist for a reason? The scope used to examine events that lead to war is an entirely different lens than one would use to fight the war itself. A game that included both would be long, unwieldy and likely not please very many. If you feel otherwise, please be the change you want to see, invent one, and prove to the world otherwise.

    Actually you can have this experience by combining games, such as combining Days of Decision, already a long game with the compatible, and much, much longer World in Flames. Probably 100 hours should suffice to finish it. How many will sign up for this? But again, you are now acting as both the political leader and the general and colonel and admiral and ship captain and on down to rather junior levels, having omniscience. Let’s not forget that the purpose of a game is not to educate, but to have fun. If we are not having fun, why bother? If some education happens to come along for the ride, that’s fine, but don’t forget the primary goal in the process.

    Rather than take aim at wargames, you would do better to look at all those fake historical games, the many, many games by Knizia, Feld, Dorn and others that pretend to be about something historical, but could actually be about anything at all. Taj Mahal, for example, supposedly all about India, was originally set in England and Wales. That’s appropriating history for commercial purposes, fails to honor the reallities of history and is much more objectionable.


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  12. Jonathan Townsend

    I am with R.Steiner re Clauswitz’s oft cited dictum -“If war is politics by other means then divorce is marriage by other means”. If we consider politics to be about the interests of our group in opposition to those of the other groups then, yes, war and politics are basically the same thing done in different ways. However if we consider politics to be the art of living togther then war is something quite different. In this sense it does exist outside normal life. In war life is torn apart and normal standards do not apply, you murder and destroy, which one would not do under normal conditions. The bubble is there for a reason, to protect normal life.

    Unfortunately (thanks Darwin, et al) we are taught that life is war. Hence the confusion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. cliosboardgames Post author

      Thank you for your thoughtful response, Jonathan! I’m all with you regarding the destructive effects of war.
      However, I understand Clausewitz differently – not that war and politics are the same thing, but that war is an instrument of politics (as are laws, negotiations, etc.). Keeping war in a military-operational bubble (in games) does not fully capture the war, and to understand it, we must also study the politics that are behind it. And, hopefully, then we will be better equipped to avoid wars…


      1. Jonathan Townsend

        I agree in that C. saw war as an instrument of politics, not that they are the same thing. My point is that results from taking politics to be what it should not be. If you are married, with a family etc. there is an everyday art to living together. If we realized that internationally we are living together in the same place, earth, then politics would be that too. Instead we tend to take it that ‘our’ polis has to live alongside ‘their’ polis in a zero sum game. Eventually we have to win or lose. My corner must be defended because they are trying to take it from me. Can you imagine living like that with a spouse. It is really a perpetual state of undeclared war, not living together.
        Part of the problem is that politics is not distinguished from economics (and culture too). Without going into all that here suffice it to say that economics could be associative and politics could be viewed in quite a different light. A marriage, not a divorce of contracts and litigation – who gets custody of what, what are the visiting rights, payments, etc.

        Liked by 1 person

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