Book review? The blogger who has steadfastly refused to review any board game over the last three years now does book reviews? Well, yes (kinda, I’m not sure if this post qualifies as a review). But bear with me, not only is Do You Want Total War? (Darren Kilfara, Dunbar Press), as the sub-title of the book says, „A Book About History“, but our young protagonist Sean Lansbury is also an avid boardgamer: Every week, he spends one evening playing Totaler Krieg! (Alan Emrich/Steve Kosakowski, Decision Games), going through permutations of World War II over and over again. Let’s have a look at the characters and the themes the book explores – especially in regard to playing historical (war)games. I’ll also discuss a bit what that means for myself.
Warning: There are spoilers for the plot of „Do You Want Total War?“ ahead.
Characters: Mostly History Dorks?
Well, not quite. But the protagonist Sean is almost monomaniacally interested in history, and therefore parses his more important social relationships that way. Sean’s playing of Totaler Krieg! allows him to dwell on dramatic moments and endlessly ponder counterfactuals (many a time, we just follow his thoughts on one of those for several pages), and exclusively focus on warfare, politics, and diplomacy, on history as made by Great Men®. Sean claims that „real“ history consists exclusively of these – only events, no structure, and certainly no social and cultural factors (or, at least, he contends that they are so boring that nobody would willingly spend their time on them). Sean prides himself on his not falling for the flights of fancy common in his niche of game-educated armchair historians, but he is to a certain extent willing to buy myths if they fit his view (for example, those peddled by Guderian (and other German generals) about their superior craft and apolitical independence). Over the course of the book, Sean interacts mainly with four other people in the pursuit of history:
Dennis is Sean’s wargaming buddy – an engineer, single, in his thirties, and with questionable hygiene, or, in short: the stereotypical gaming geek. He comes over to play Totaler Krieg at Sean’s house once a week, but he is not interested in history beyond the game. To him, gaming is a fun hobby (and knowing some history makes him more interested), but nothing more.
On the other end of the spectrum, Sean’s father is a professor of history at college. His approach to history is an academic one. The books about the social and intellectual history of the 19th century which he writes have little popular appeal, and it is a mystery to Sean why his father chooses to engage with these – to Sean – irrelevant topics. Conversely, Sean’s father likes his son’s interest in history, but finds his approach flippant and unfruitful.
Sean must, however, change his narrow focus to do well on his AP European History class, which, as he bemoans, covers topics like the arts, agriculture, and even feminism. Sean’s belligerent attitude to the class is mellowed by his teacher, Mr. Prendergast, who does not diverge from the curriculum, but encourages Sean to follow his passion for military and diplomatic history (while still broadening his horizons).
Finally, and most importantly, Rebecca is in Sean’s AP European History class, they start studying together and then dating – but while Rebecca first finds their shared love for history endearing, she gets upset with his monologues and monofocality. That he is insensitive towards her approach to history (schooled in his stating-interpretation-as-fact confrontationalism by the online forum exchanges which he likes to read) does not help either, nor does Rebecca’s shock when he shows her his game of Totaler Krieg (she first thinks he is „some kind of neo-Nazi“).
Beyond that, Sean does keep his life as a history geek mostly to himself. His other friends (and even his girlfriend before Rebecca) are barely aware that he is interested in history, and he’d rather bite his tongue off than mentioning his gaming to them.
Themes: Gaming and History
That brings us to the first theme in the book: Sean’s life is thoroughly compartmentalized. On Thursday evenings, he plays Totaler Krieg! with Dennis. At school and with his friends, he does his best not to stand out – so, no talking about history and playing poker instead of Totaler Krieg!. Opening up about his hobby, Sean thinks, would make him the object of a mix of ridicule (games are for children, as the common wisdom has it, and if not, for hopeless dorks) and suspicion (surely someone so interested in war, especially World War II, is probably some militarist or even a Nazi sympathizer). The stigma attached to games will be familiar to many readers of this blog – I myself don’t go around advertising myself as a board gamer (let alone one playing some historical conflict games) either. In the end, Sean manages to bridge some of the gaps – his father gives gaming with Sean a chance, and one of his friends not interested in history turns out to at least be intrigued by the games, and introduces him to a few others who are as well.
Speaking of gaps: Within the broad stream of historical discourse in the book, there are several distinct currents. They flow independently of one another, and, at times, they crash. We need not concern ourselves much with the commonly known ones – the academic research one, as personified by Sean’s father, and the high school one, personified for teaching by Mr. Prendergast, and for learning by Rebecca. Academic history is well-established and well-defined, and most people have at least had the student experience of high school history. What really concerns us here is the armchair history of wargamers – Sean’s history. One the one hand, it is rather impressive how much time many wargamers voluntarily spend on the pursuit of history – be that by playing games, reading books, or discussing on forums. The length with which history is pursued by them is unfortunately often not quite coupled with an appropriate breadth: Certain topics rule supreme (warfare plus some political and diplomatic history). Within them, there is another distinction elevating some conflicts (especially World War II, as in the book, to a lesser degree the American Civil War and the Napoleonic Wars) to ubiquitous coverage. And even then, not everything is created equal: Of all participants in the conflict, most (digital) ink is spilled over the forces of the United States (at least understandable given that the US are home to the largest wargame community and how predominant American views are in cultural adaptions of anything), and, especially, Nazi Germany. This infatuation with the generals and soldiers, tanks and planes of the Nazis often repels outsiders – just like Rebecca is shocked to find Sean putting himself in the position of the German leadership in a game. The book makes it clear that there is a difference between playing a game with Nazis and being one, between knowing a lot about their armed forces and endorsing the mission for which they were sent on a rampage through Europe. And yet, the focus on the Nazis bears odd fruits (which are pointed out in detail throughout the book): The German forces in games often are covered in much more detail and with much more familiarity than those of others (say, individually named units („2nd Panzer Army“ for the Germans, generic ones for others). Note also the liberal use of German words in wargame discourse – e.g., „panzer“ where „tank“ or „armor“ could be used. This goes hand in hand with the game often implicitly taking a German perspective – games on the Battle of France are named Victory in the West (David James Ritchie, GMT Games), games on the 1944 Soviet summer offensive are named Destruction of Army Group Center (Jim Dunnigan, SPI). And often, the self-serving myths which the German generals peddled after the war – that their craft was far superior to that of the Soviets, who only overcame them with sheer numbers, and that were apolitical, independent and stood up to Hitler, are accepted as facts in the wargaming community. Sean’s development over the course of the book from admiring Heinz Guderian to seeing him in a more nuanced (and much more negative) light shows us, however, that wargamers don’t have to be beholden to these views. I think that the wargaming community as a whole has progressed a lot over the years, and there is much less obsession with the Nazis and their army now.
In addition to these two matters of substance, there is one of tone: Sean’s cocksure arrogance about his interpretations of history and his tendency to see historical discussion as an argument to be won are typical for 16-year-olds, but also for many of the forum discussions on history and wargaming. Of course, there are counter-examples, where people get together in order to collaboratively further their understanding, but how many forum threads have you seen in which no one who participated seems to have learned a single thing, let alone conceded a single point?
Unfortunately, I don’t remember who recommended the book to me – I know it was somebody on Twitter after I had published my post on the history of the concept of “total war”. If you read this, thanks for the recommendation! It’s been a thoroughly thought-provoking and enjoyable read. The author is knowledgeable and fond of the wargaming community. I’m happy he wrote a book that shows how rich the historical thoughts produced by playing these games can be, and also, that he did not shy away from engaging with the less-than-perfect tendencies of the hobby.
As promised, I’ll give you some more personal thoughts here as well. I’m way beyond my high school years, but I do see myself back then reflected in some aspect’s of Sean’s: Deeply interested in history (although not nearly as monofocal as he), a bit cocky about that in history class, and also dividing life and friendships along a line between the geeky and the presumably normal. At least the one game of Friedrich (Richard Sivél, Histogame) I played with my then-girlfriend (and another friend) did not immediately lead to estrangement.
After high school, I got a B.A. and M.A. in history and started a board game blog. I’ve never been as committed to one game as Sean is to Totaler Krieg! (even though he opens up to playing other things as well by the end of the book), but I don’t play particularly many games either, preferring to get out of a game what I can before moving on. One of those attempts is my ongoing after-action report of a game of Unconditional Surrender! (Salvatore Vasta, GMT Games). I attempt to avoid the pitfalls so easily available for this kind of writing: Many such AARs deal exclusively with military/operational and possibly political/strategic matters from a high-level perspective, because that is what the games are made of. And, quite often, they are begun from an Axis perspective, as it is the Axis that drives the action in the early years of the war (this perspective sometimes shifts later). I purposely set out to budge from this formula – while the Twitter thread focuses on the operational and strategic developments, the accompanying blog posts are supposed to give it a human touch and make sure we don’t forget that the events we are gaming were much more than armies moved and defenses shattered. I want to give a voice to those who often don’t have one when we talk about the war – the common people, the civilians, the women, those from small countries or from the side not driving the action on the battlefields. Am I succeeding? You tell me.
Totaler Krieg! (Alan Emrich/Steve Kosakowski, Decision Games)
Victory in the West (David James Ritchie, GMT Games)
Destruction of Army Group Center (Jim Dunnigan, SPI)
Friedrich (Richard Sivél, Histogame)
Unconditional Surrender! (Salvatore Vasta, GMT Games)
Kilfara, Darren: Do You Want Total War? A Novel About History, Dunbar Press 2013.
For the emergence and persistence of myths surrounding the German army in World War II (including an excellent chapter on wargames), see Smelser, Ronald/Davies II, Edward J.: The Myth of the Eastern Front. The Nazi-Soviet War in American Popular Culture, Cambridge University Press, New York, NY et al. 2008.