World War II (Century of German History, #6)

I’m doing a series on German history in the 20th century on my blog this year. In intervals of 10 years, I pick a crucial event and explore it – with the help of precisely one board game. You can find the previous posts here:

Today, we go back to September 1, 1939 and the German attack on Poland – the beginning of World War II. The game that accompanies us is Unconditional Surrender! (Salvatore Vasta, GMT Games). Now the events of World War II from the first shots to the final surrender of the Axis powers are well known (and covered by myriads of books, articles, and, yes, board games). Therefore, I’ll skip the narration of who conquered what when and instead focus on three crucial perspectives on the war and the board game: How was this war different from other great power wars before? How does the game balance between freedom of action of the players and recreating a historical outcome? And why does Unconditional Surrender capture an essential aspect of the war?
Finally, this post will also serve as the starting point of a new project: I’ll do a detailed Unconditional Surrender after action report. Follow my Twitter account for live updates (and vote on strategic decisions) and check out the larger narrative on the blog!

A Different Kind of War

Why is September 1, 1939, usually seen as the starting date of World War II? After all, the Italians had begun their expansion in Africa in 1935 and the Japanese theirs in Asia in 1937 (or 1931, if you count the Manchurian crisis as the first part of a continuous conflict). The Italian and Japanese advances, however, were war of the old kind – war for territory, access to resources, national glory. With Germany’s attack on Poland, a new kind of war began – a war to violently change the demographics of the globe. Its perpetrator understood that well: Hitler backdated his intent to murder the people with disabilities (originally issued in October 1939) to September 1, just as he moved forward his announcement to murder the Jews (originally from January 1939) to that date. To Hitler, the war was only secondarily about who would rule the world. It was about who was still allowed to live in it.
And in this way, Germany conducted the war against the Jewish and Slavic people the Nazis had identified as „racial“ enemies of Germany. Civilians were used for slave labor or purposely left to starve. The prisoners of war shared the same fate. And, most cruelly, millions of Jews, Romani, people with disabilities, Slavs, and political opponents of the regime were executed by SS and Wehrmacht units in the field or sent to the concentration camps used as facilities of industrialized mass murder.
Besides that, World War II saw innovations in every field: Of course, the way war was waged changed. Tanks, hitherto only used to support the infantry, became the main weapon of land offenses. The aircraft carrier replaced the battleship as the decisive capital ship to gain command of the seas. Fighting in and from the air became a branch of warfare in itself, and air superiority turned almost into a prerequisite for land or naval superiority.
In addition, technology changed the face of war: Early computers were used to decrypt enemy messages. Radar eased the coordination of air defenses. Ballistic missiles could ravage enemy positions from afar with no danger to their operators. And finally, the nuclear bomb brought destruction of an unprecedented scale and transformed the strategic situation of the post-war era.

Cover USE.jpg

The box cover of Unconditional Surrender! features an uncommon design choice: Instead of soldiers heroically charging or commanders looking into the distance conveying strategic vision, we see a few infantrymen cautiously moving through a destroyed city. The small figures seem lost in the midst of rubble and ruins. Instead of trivializing or glorifying war, we get a glimpse into its destruction. Image ©GMT Games.

All warring nations sought to mobilize their economies and societies for the war – coming more or less close to the idea of total war. Ironically, even though the concept is commonly most closely associated with Nazi Germany (partially due to Goebbels‘ famous Total War speech after the defeat at Stalingrad), Germany was one of the latest and most reluctant countries to prioritize the war effort over the consumption of the population. The mobilization of society encompassed not only production, but also finances (after all, the war effort had to be paid for somehow): Most countries raised their taxes considerably, making it a patriotic duty for their wealthier citizens to contribute to the war. This laid the foundation for the big government of the Cold War era and its major spending on education, infrastructure, armaments, and welfare. Most importantly, however, the people of the warring nations were mobilized for the armed forces, public service related to the war effort, and armaments production – including those traditionally left out of warmaking, like women, or, in the United States, African-Americans. As they contributed to their nation’s grand challenge, they also demanded their full due as equal citizens in the post-war era (notwithstanding efforts to reduce them to their previous station once the war was over).

The Delicate Balance of Alternative History

Games about history are generators of alternative historical narratives. And, just like speculative fiction or scholarly writing about alternative history, they need to walk a very fine line: On the one hand, it is tempting to bend to the normative power of the factual and assume the historical outcome was the only one imaginable and possible. That deprives alternative history of its power to explore the, well, alternatives in history, its processual character, and its open-endedness. On the other hand, a game can construct a wide open sandbox whose only rule is „anything goes“. That obscures the path dependence of reality and denies players the experience of the causal relationships of history. So, how does Unconditional Surrender approach this balance?
Unconditional Surrender has both strictly determined and wide open parts. How many and which military forces a country controls is determined by the game, just as well as when reinforcements enter. There is no way the French will start with a concentrated tank force instead of their tanks being scattered among the regular armies, just as there is no way the United States will have land forces available before 1942. (There are optional rules to tweak that a little, but the principle stands.) The availability of military forces is one of the main balancing factors in the game: Germany can be sure to enjoy a qualitative (and often quantitative) superiority in the early war before the Soviets improve their way of making war and the Western Allies call up more soldiers. Later, however, the tide will turn inevitably against the Axis.


Detail of the map showing the turn track. Reinforcement units and markers are placed here at the beginning of the game and enter in the respective months. In the early years, Germany (grey) receives many new armies and markers, but later the Soviets (red) and Americans (green) will eclipse them. Image from the Vassal module of Unconditional Surrender!, ©GMT Games.

Another (mostly) fixed factor is the base economic productivity. It is based on two factors, factory count in the home area of a country plus extra factories. The factories in the home area do not change much for most nations (except for the Soviet Union, which can expect to fight a protracted war on home soil and have important industrial centers occupied). And the extra factories just rise in a linear fashion in line with the slow but steady war mobilization. But don’t you think your eventual output is fixed: Whoever gains the upper hand in strategic warfare will diminish their enemies‘ productive capabilities, and there are plenty of ways to gain an advantage in this field: Incite partisan insurgencies against the occupying Nazis. Seize a strategically important harbor from which to harry enemy shipping. Bomb the enemy production sites. And so on. In the beginning and in the end, production might not matter so much: During the former, the German army can win quick victories with a relatively small force, and during the latter, Allied superiority is overwhelming anyway. But in the middle, when the war is raging on multiple fronts at once, every production point counts. (Not coincidentally, the years 1941 to 1944 tend to be the strategically most interesting in Unconditional Surrender!).
Is 1939 and 1940 in the game boring then? – No, not at all. And that’s due to an area in which Unconditional Surrender! adopts a intriguingly open approach: Diplomacy. Only the cores of the camps are fixed: Germany heads the Axis, the Soviet Union the Soviet bloc (which might consist of no other countries ever during the war), and Britain and France form the Western Allies, later to be joined by the United States. Eventually, the Axis will have to be at war with both the Soviets and the Western Allies. Any other country can be influenced. Italy in the camp of the Western Allies? Not easy to pull off, but possible. The Axis wants Spain to take the Rock of Gibraltar? Just convince them to join your camp. More security for the Soviet southern flank? Maybe Turkey will throw her lot in with Moscow.
That brings us the the last area in which Unconditional Surrender! is wide open: Strategy. Of course there are constraints. The weaker your forces and the stronger those of the enemy in a particular theater or dimension, the harder it is to succeed. Poland will have trouble holding out against Germany, and the Kriegsmarine is almost never in a position to control the waters against the Royal Navy. And terrain and weather can stifle the most promising offenses. Again, you expected that – it is harder to advance through the snow-covered Alps in winter than through the open Ukrainian plains in summer. But except for that, you are mostly free which path to pursue. As the Axis drives the action in the early game, the choices mostly fall on them during that time: The historical path can work, but so can an early attack on the Soviet Union, only after which the German forces turn around and strike in the West. Even wilder schemes like an invasion of the British islands or an all-out colonial war against Britain in North Africa and the Middle East are viable – but they are appropriately difficult to pull off successfully.

Sea Lion.jpg

German forces have landed in the United Kingdom and taken most of England. The Royal Navy, however, is still operating from bases in Plymouth and Scotland and has cut the supply lines of the German armies in Manchester and between Birmingham and Cardiff. Image from the Vassal module of Unconditional Surrender!, ©GMT Games.

Taken together, the open elements give you the feeling of being in command while the closed ones limit the outcomes enough to align your play somewhat with the outcomes in the history books – close enough that they frequently evoke associations with real historical events. It helps that Unconditional Surrender!, while adopting a generally zoomed-out macro view, features many of the smaller factors of the war as markers to be played every once in a while – ranging from airdrops to the ULTRA decryption project. Any game of Unconditional Surrender! will be ripe with these historical associations, but let me tell you just one very striking example: After having defeated the Soviet forces in the center of the front soundly in early summer 1942, I let the Axis armies strike in the south, aiming for Stalingrad. Of course I was aware how that had turned out in history, but the advance seemed conservative enough (and the Soviets, having been beaten time and again in 1941 and 1942, weak enough to at least not counter-attack decisively). So, what happened? You guessed it: The overextended Axis lines were cut by Soviet forces, all Axis armies south of Stalingrad had to pull back quickly, and one German army was surrounded and annihilated. The game had not forced me to make the same mistake as the German commanders of World War II, but it provided the decision space in which I could develop and execute the same faulty plan. It was a sobering lesson about what we think we learn from history.

Unconditional Surrender

So, how does the game end? Can Axis forces triumph if they just march through Moscow and/or London? – No. Notwithstanding how well the Axis perform, the Allies will hold, and eventually, inevitably, turn the tide. The question is just if Germany will be conquered in time for them to claim (game) victory or if the Axis does better than historically. But even if the Axis holds out in game terms, their empire will be at an end, barely so defending what they held before the war. The Allies may have been too slow, but that does not mean there is a negotiated settlement or anything else but an unconditional surrender – it will just come a bit after the game has ended.
And that brings us round to the beginning: World War II was different from other wars. Germany conducted it as a war of racial annihilation, ready to stand against most of the world for that aim. That brought together a coalition of unlikely Allies, which, despite all their differences, persisted until the Axis was brought down. One way to ensure that no major member of the Allies would cut a separate deal with Germany was to commit everyone to accept nothing but an unconditional surrender. Say about the Allies what you want – their conduct in the war was not perfect either (while a far cry from the atrocities of the Axis, especially on the Eastern Front), they also pursued their own security interests, and the post-war order they built had flaws – but they managed to hold a disparate coalition together and defeat Nazi tyranny, a goal to which they all committed. Unconditional Surrender! gets that.

Endgame Germany

The end is near for Nazi Germany. The Soviets have taken Berlin and are advancing in the east and south. The Western Allies are still conducting a major bombing campaign against the German production centers and have reached the Rhine. An unconditional surrender is in the offing. Image from the Vassal module of Unconditional Surrender!, ©GMT Games.

World War II Fought Anew

You’ll have noticed it: I find Unconditional Surrender! an excellent game to evoke history. Therefore, I will do a long-term project of an after-action report (AAR) of it on Twitter and my blog. Here’s how that will work:
I’ll update almost-live on Twitter. You also will have the opportunity to vote on important strategic decisions. I’ll use the the hashtag #USEAAR so you can find the thread and new tweets easily (and of course I encourage you to follow me to get all these updates).

As you have already decided in a preliminary Twitter poll, I’ll accompany these Twitter updates with a historical narrative. I’ll create an alternative history in documents and fragments – letters, newspaper articles, orders, diary entries, etc.
My goal is to avoid telling the easy story. Therefore, I’ll apply the following guidelines to the narrative:

  • History – not only made from above. Sure, generals and presidents make for interesting historical actors, but so do ordinary people.
  • History – not only made by soldiers. The sailor in the merchant navy crossing a u-boat-ridden Atlantic, the peasant whose horses were commandeered, the retiree in the occupied city: They all have stories to tell.
  • History – not only made by those who drive the action. As World War II goes, the Allies will be mostly reacting to the attacking Axis armies on their rampage through Europe until 1941/1942. Still, I want to give the Polish, French, or Soviets a voice.
  • History – not only made by the great powers. Most of what you read about World War II is devoted to the countries with the most powerful armies and most productive economies. I want to add the perspective of the people from the smaller nations as well.

Some technicalities on the scenario and rules:
I’ll play the entire campaign, starting September 1, 1939. As Unconditional Surrender! takes a long time (50 hours estimated for the full campaign), I’ll solo it, playing all three sides. I will also use Vassal as a platform for that – no way I can leave a game set up on my living room table for what is likely to be half a year or so (if only for the reason that I couldn’t use said table to play other games in the meantime).
The current version of the rules will be employed. As I have learned to play the game by the first-edition ruleset, forgive me if I err at times. I’ll also use some of the optional rules once published in C3i magazine (via BoardGameGeek):

  • Western-Soviet Competition. If the Allies win the game, an individual winning faction will be determined on the basis of liberated Allied capitals, conquered Axis capitals, and conquered German cities. I’d like the Allies to keep the post-war order in mind.
  • Air Resupply. Low Supply can be provided to a unit with No Supply by a friendly air unit within five hexes of range. More options for supply in dire situations, especially from one side of the Channel to the other.
  • Area Seized Conflict. When Area Seized is drawn from the diplomacy cup, the country activates and the Soviets have to conquer it to seize the area. Nothing is free in life, especially not real estate. If you want Lithuania, fight for it.

Lastly, one note on rules: This game and the AAR are supposed to be an interactive narrative experience, so I might be a bit creative with the rules at times. Say, the counter of the German 7th army invades Norway – then I might exchange that for the counter of the German Army of Norway. Or, if the narrative lends itself to it, I might create a special event marker. As Unconditional Surrender!‘s designer Sal Vasta always says: Unconditional Surrender! is easy to mod – and eventually the goal of the game is to have a good time with it. I hope to see many of you on my blog and Twitter for this project – looking forward to your comments!

Further Reading

There are myriads of books and articles about World War II. A good place to start in the most condensed fashion is Weinberg, Gerhard L.: World War II, in: Chickering, Roger/Showalter, Dennis, van de Ven, Hans (eds.): The Cambridge History of War. Volume IV. War and the Modern World, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge/New York City, NY 2012, pp. 378—410.
If you want a comprehensive, well-written account by one of the major players (who also won a Nobel Prize in literature for it), go for Churchill, Winston S.: The Second World War, Cassel, London 1948—1953 (six volumes). The work is in the public domain in several countries and parts of it can be found here.
As this is part of a series on German history, I would be amiss not to point out the work of the German Military History Research Office. By now, all of the volumes except for the last two dealing with the German collapse in 1945 are translated into English: Germany and the Second World War, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1990—2014.


17 thoughts on “World War II (Century of German History, #6)

    1. cliosboardgames Post author

      Thanks for reading! And yes, Vassal is amazing for games like this. Although I have read excellent AARs by people who left the game set up on a table for over a month – including sentences like “my cat walked all over the faction card so I have no idea what the current German willpower is but 29 seems about right so yeah, let’s go with that”. The AAR in question can be found here: – it’s a wild read (Italy joins the Soviet faction in September 1939!).
      I have even read an AAR of a game which was played by three people for several months – they met once per week (Sunday afternoon, I think) and played Unconditional Surrender! for a few hours. I admire the stamina 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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    1. cliosboardgames Post author

      Sal, the honor is all mine! Thank you so much for stepping by! I meant to send you a link via your BoardGameGeek profile, but apparently you stole a march on me 🙂
      And you should totally get a Twitter account. Board game/war game Twitter is full of interesting people with interesting projects. Let me know when you join!
      P.S.: The obvious for last: Thank you for designing this excellent game!


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