Playing Nazis? Ethics, Historical Accuracy, and Personal Comfort in Games with Loaded Topics

Earlier this year, I’ve written a post about my most anticipated games to be released this year. Among them was Weimar: The Fight for Democracy (Matthias Cramer, Compass Games), which deals with the interwar Weimar Republic that was toppled by the Nazis. My fellow blogger Dave (check out his blog!) had asked me a year ago how I felt about the Nazis being a playable side in such a game – as this one does not feature them as such, but The Weimar Republic: Political Struggle in Germany, 1919—1933 (Gunnar Holmbäck, GMT Games) does. I’ve been coming back to that question, as it touches on some important matters: Most importantly, one of ethics, which will form the main part of this post. However, there are also questions of historical accuracy, and of personal comfort, with which we will deal in turn. While this post is focused on the two Weimar games, it’ll also take the wider matter into account.

The Games in Question

Both games explore the political struggle between the end of World War I and the Nazis‘ takeover. They feature the struggle of parliamentary speeches and election campaigns as well as that of riots and uprisings in the streets. Both games have four factions. One is the Communist faction (in both games). Another called the Nationalists in Cramer’s and the Radical Conservatives in Holmbäck’s game. Despite the different names, they seem identical, representing the right-wing, monarchist, and often anti-semitic opponents of liberal democracy. In Cramer’s game, the remaining two factions are the Social Democrats and the Conservatives – the two pillars on which the „Weimar Coalition“, which supported liberal democracy, rested. Holmbäck merges those two into one faction which is aptly called the Coalition. The fourth faction in his game are the Nazis. As the Nazis are not a player faction in Cramer’s game, it represents them abstractly via a track. If this track fills up, the Nazis take power. Those who helped them (by filling up the track) receive a victory point penalty. Whichever player faction is still in the victory point lead achieves a „minor victory“.
One important caveat: Both games are unpublished. Therefore, my knowledge of them is not based on actual gameplay or a final ruleset. They are still subject to change. And, of course, all images from the games shown here represent playtest art, not the finished product.

Playtest image from Cramer’s Weimar: The squabbling parties have filled up the NSDAP (Nazi) track (bottom center), and now parliament is full of Nazis (top right). The Nazis win. ©Matthias Cramer.

Doing Unethical Things in Games

First, for the general question: Is the consumption of media with unethical content unethical in itself? – No, of course not. We can read books about cheating spouses and watch movies about stock market fraud as a way to engage with these real-life phenomena.
Then, are games different because their consumers perform an active role in them? – I think that all forms of media require their creators to be responsible for how they present their creations. They should avoid to glorify, romanticize, or normalize unethical behavior. However, as a lot of what makes the experience of a game is created by the players rather than the designer, games benefit from a thorough contextualization. This is especially true for lesser-known subjects.
There are many games which let their players do unethical things, beginning with the classics: Chess features the emotionless sacrifice of one’s soldiers to improve position on the battlefield. Monopoly is a craze of unhinged gentrification to maximize profits from rent. The same is true for more recent examples:

As said before, contextualization matters. So, which contexts do these games provide?

  • Star Wars: Rebellion is set in a fantasy world. No player has ever met someone who personally felt the loss of Alderaan.
  • Colt Express relates to a period in history long gone and with little influence on our lives today. That creates distance similar to the one from a fantasy setting, and the game can therefore employ a light-hearted, cartoonish approach. For events whose shadows still hang over us – say, slavery in the American South, which is roughly contemporary to train robbery depicted in Colt Express, that would be inappropriate.
  • Power Grid does not contextualize the choices it offers to the players outside of the short-term economic considerations. Power plants are bought only with regards to their energy output and fuel availability. As the game does not aspire to be a simulation, there are also no designer’s notes to give the players some ideas of the real-world matters behind it. However, energy policy is an oft-discussed issue in contemporary politics, and I assume that most players do not need much contextualization to discuss the matter – but the game also does nothing to give them more insights. In any case, although I labelled „building an empire based on fossil fuels“ as unethical behavior above, it’s not entirely easy like that – what if without your pollution-heavy power plants people would live in utter poverty?

That brings us back to the Nazis in the Weimar Republic. Unlike Power Grid, there is no debate on the ethics: Helping the Nazi Party take power in Germany and thereby laying the foundations for the end of German democracy, the discrimination against and persecution (including the mass murder) of millions on people on the basis of their race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or political views, and the mass killing, destruction, and rape of World War II, is obviously unethical, and the shadows of their crimes still hang over us. A cartoonish treatment would be grossly inappropriate. The Nazis were no fantasy villains either. So, the only path left is a sober, serious treatment which gives the necessary context to its somewhat obscure subject. From what we can see now, both games do so. It’s possibly easier to trip up with Holmbäck’s approach of including the Nazis as a playable power, but I am confident that the subject is treated with the necessary care in both games.

Chasing the Specter of Historical Accuracy

First of all: There is no single one accurate, objective treatment of history. While factual statements can be ascertained, proven wrong, or held as unconfirmed, even if everything is factually correct, the selection and presentation of these facts is a work of interpretation. That‘s true for games as well as novels, movies, or scholarly books on a given subject. And so, the two Weimar games also offer different interpretations of the role of the Nazis in the Weimar Republic:
Cramer has stated elsewhere that the Nazis were not a major force for most of the covered period as they only gained strength from the global economic crisis erupting in 1929 on. There had been no major streetfighting between 1923 (the year of the Beer Hall Putsch) and 1930 (when the effects of the stock market crash began to be felt). Even before 1923, the Nazis were nothing but a little fringe group whose only attempt at a coup (the aforementioned Beer Hall Putsch), grandly designed as a march from Munich on Berlin, was stopped after a few hundred meters by the Bavarian police. Cramer therefore contends it’d be too focused on the eventual end of the Weimar Republic to make the Nazis an important part of the game before its late phase.
Holmbäck, on the other hand, stresses he outcome more: As the Nazis turned out to be the eventual victors, his game reasons, they must have been relevant over the entire time, even though they might not have looked like much for the first ten years. So far, there is not enough information on the game to see what the fringe years of 1924—1929 would look like for the Nazi faction in the game. In game terms: Are they still committed to a coup and just lack the strength to attempt one? Have they shifted to a parliamentary strategy and just fail to attract any substantial support at the polls?

Before 1930, the Nazis were a fringe movement, as evidenced by their paltry showings at the polls. The share given for the two elections in 1924 is that of the National Socialist Freedom Movement, an alliance between members of the (outlawed) Nazi Party and the ethno-nationalist Völkisch movement.

Feeling Personal Discomfort in Games

First of all: If you don’t want to play a particular game, that is fine. Nobody should have to play anything with which they feel uncomfortable.
Some games, however, are less likely to touch on personal sensitivities than others. Who feels so strongly about tiling in the Portuguese style that they would skip on Azul (Michael Kiesling, Kosmos)? – But there are many who’ve lost a loved one in the War on Terror and who for whom Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-? (Volko Ruhnke, GMT Games) might hit too close to home.
Depending on individual circumstances, that discomfort might lead to players wanting to avoid the entire game or particular factions. If it is the latter, designers can take that into consideration to broaden the player base for their game – which is a good thing! Cramer has done so by not making anyone (or, from a creepier perspective, giving anyone the chance to) play the Nazis and instead abstracting them into a track. Holmbäck has chosen to include the option that any faction can be played by a bot, thus also allowing for different player counts (which is how Labyrinth avoided forcing a player to be the Jihadists).

Not everyone is comfortable taking the role of the Nazis. Thus, Holmbäck’s Weimar game allows for each faction to be handled by a bot. Playtest player mat for the NSDAP player, ©GMT Games.

Dealing with Difficult Subjects in Games

To sum it up: Games can portray unethical behavior, but – like other media – that comes with a responsibility. While there is no objective historical accuracy as such, both games discussed offer a plausible interpretation, of which Holmbäck’s feels more teleological. Finally, everyone Everybody can feel uncomfortable playing a game for any personal and political reason (and then, of course, doesn’t have to play it). Acting it out as the Nazis would be a huge point of discomfort for many players. As that might make them forgo the interesting games about the failure (or success! It’s a game, so different outcomes are possible) of the Weimar Republic, I am happy that the two designers each found a way to avoid that and keep their games open for these players.

Games Referenced

Weimar: The Fight for Democracy (Matthias Cramer, Compass Games)
The Weimar Republic: Political Struggle in Germany, 1919—1933 (Gunnar Holmbäck, GMT Games)
Star Wars: Rebellion (Corey Konieczka, Fantasy Flight Games)
Colt Express (Christophe Raimbault, Ludonaute)
Power Grid (Friedemann Friese, 2F-Spiele)
Azul (Michael Kiesling, Kosmos)
Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-? (Volko Ruhnke, GMT Games)

11 thoughts on “Playing Nazis? Ethics, Historical Accuracy, and Personal Comfort in Games with Loaded Topics

  1. The Boardgames Chronicle

    Very wise article, touching on the important subject. I really like comparison to movies and books containing unethical behaviors. And indeed, difficult topics require a subtle approach – you probably seen one of my last posts about conflict in Norther Ireland (https://theboardgameschronicle.com/2021/02/06/the-troubles/). It really stirred various comments – especially as far as the topic is concerned. And this is much more fresh than WWII (although probably not so vivid).

    Still, I think painful past cannot be forgotten. Talking about it – in appropriate way, even via boardgames – should be memento for everybody.

    Liked by 3 people

    Reply
    1. cliosboardgames Post author

      Thanks! The Troubles are a prime example for a conflict with which people might be uncomfortable because it still hangs over them (as the tension between the Good Friday Agreement and Brexit reminds us so often these days). Do you know if there is a bot option for the factions (I would guess so – six factions is hard to fill anyway!)?
      And yes, engaging with the past is crucial lest we forget. Board games can be an excellent way to do that.

      Liked by 2 people

      Reply
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