Is it okay to enjoy wargames?
I’ve had this question rattling around in the back of my mind for the best part of a year now. I enjoy playing wargames. Anything from the complexity of the hex-and-counter simulation of Stalingrad ’42, to the abstract duel of Twilight Struggle. The same question keeps coming back to me though – should I really be enjoying something based on a conflict which saw hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people die?
Is it morally reprehensible? Does it make me a bad person?
Or is it actually okay?
A bit of background
When we talk about war games in the modern context, I’m not talking about abstract games like Chess, Go, or Shogi. I’m talking about tabletop games which simulate conflict in some way. Although we think of wargames as a relatively recent invention, this sort of game has been around since the late 18th Century. Most of the early examples came from Prussia, and in the early 20th Century a certain H G Wells (yes, the same H G Wells who wrote The War of the Worlds) even published wargame rules in a book titled Little Wars.
A lot of the early examples were made as educational simulations for the military, but games weren’t mass-produced until the 1950s. That’s when Charles S Roberts founded Avalon Hill and started producing board game wargames. Boxes which contain everything you need to play games like the one which started it all, Gettysburg. Even if you haven’t played an Avalon Hill game, if you’ve been in the board game scene for any length of time, it’s likely you’ve heard of them. The ripples that Avalon Hill games made can still be felt today, thanks to perennial titles like Diplomacy and Advanced Squad Leader.
Ordinary people like me and you have been simulating war on our tables for the last seventy years. Are we monsters?
The voice of experience
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not an expert in this field. I know what I enjoy, but I’ve never studied game design, I haven’t studied history formally for the best part of 30 years, and I’m not a student of philosophy. With my level of ignorance already established, I reached out to a couple of wargame designers, people who have both a vested interest in wargames, and a lot of experience in the area.
Volko Ruhnke had a hand in many of the COIN games that GMT Games published, including two of my favourite games of all time – Cuba Libre (review here) and Fire in the Lake.
David Thompson can list games like War Chest, Pavlov’s House, and the Undaunted series on his CV.
I asked each of them the same questions, and here’s the short version of their answers.
Me: Do you think it’s morally wrong to enjoy a wargame based on real events?
Volko: No, no more so than enjoying a book, article, movie, play, or any other medium of examination of real events, war included. But I would be interested to hear why someone would separate games from those media in regard to morality.
David: My answer to the question is “no,” but with a caveat. It’s all about the word “enjoy” and what aspect of the game you’re enjoying. For me, I play historical wargames to help explore the situation. I study the maps, the units involved, the reason for the conflict, and use the game as a way to help that exploration. The study is what I enjoy, and playing the game (either solitaire or multiplayer) helps that exploration, and thus provides that enjoyment by extension.
However, each person has different limits to that enjoyment. For me, I don’t like designing (or playing!) games that put the player in the role of performing immoral or unethical actions. For example, in my game “Soldiers in Postmen’s Uniforms,” I don’t allow a player to take on the role of the Danzig city police and German attackers because of the atrocities they commit during the game itself.
Me: Do you have a personal cut-off period for when soon is too soon? So for example, wars in the middle-east, Ukraine, etc. Is there a length of time you feel it’s okay to tackle them, after the end of the conflict?
Volko: No, I don’t. I designed the boardgame Labyrinth in 2009, when its setting, the “global war on terror”, was still very much on, and with an uncertain end. The design remains highly popular today, so apparently it is bringing enjoyment to people. And it has spawned to expansions that examine where things went in the real world from the time of the original game’s printing.
I would return to my comparison above to ask, should there be a cut-off period for writing or film-making to tackle wars in the Middle East, Ukraine, etc.? And, if not, why should game designers uniquely muzzle themselves?
Imagine a cut-off period in topics examined by professional wargaming for the US Department of Defense or the British MoD. Would that not be absurd?
David: Yes, absolutely. For me, I don’t work on games about conflicts where there are living combatants. So WW2 is my cut-off (there are still some WW2 survivors of course, but not for any of the games I’ve designed). I’ve been approached about designing games set in more modern periods, and it’s not something I’m comfortable with. But if I did consider it, I wouldn’t feel comfortable working on the game without the consent of the living combatants.
Me: Is there anything you outright do or do not put into your games, because you have strong personal feelings about them?
Volko: I try (with uncertain success) to include the perspectives and intentions of all the major actors in the affair. That is easier said than done, and we could talk about the importance, challenges, and strategies for doing so at some length.
David: I would just point back to my answer for the initial question. It’s not so much something I do, as something I don’t do. I don’t allow players to take on the role of directly committing immoral or unethical actions in the context of the game itself. This can be a bit of tightrope act – the critical element for me is the context of the game itself.
Me: What would you say to anyone telling me, you, or anyone else that they’re a bad person for enjoying a wargame?
Volko: I would ask them to say more about why they think so, and with regard to what games. Individual player motivations, representations in individual game designs, and individual life situations of those who may level ethical critique of wargaming are all decisive to this issue.
David: I think it’s fine for a person to have that opinion. I don’t necessarily agree with it (see above), but I do understand why someone might feel that way. And to be honest, there have been instances of gamers (not just wargamers) who enjoy elements of games that make me feel uncomfortable (fascination with Nazi Germany, colonization, slavery, etc). And for that reason, I can see why people, in general, might think it’s odd to enjoy a wargame. My only request would be that the person tries to expand their viewpoint and perspective, to try to better understand why gamers might enjoy wargames.
David and Volko are both very successful designers, but even they don’t agree on all aspects. In saying that, it’s important to realise that these are very concise answers, and there’s a huge amount of nuance at play. I’ll be speaking to each of them in more detail soon to go into it all more, as I find it fascinating.
The one thing they absolutely agree on is that it’s perfectly acceptable to play a wargame and have fun with it. So let’s have a look at the things which turn them from the glorification of bloodshed to something we can enjoy in good conscience.
Games as an educational tool
When I was at school, history didn’t do anything for me. I liked science and geography. As I’ve grown older, my interest in what came before me has grown, and modern wargames have been a fantastic teacher.
When I started playing these games, I was surprised by the level of depth in the history and background of each of them. Most board games, even those based on a very specific setting, might only have a couple of paragraphs of background. Open a wargame, and you’re in for a very different experience.
The COIN games take an approach of only very lightly covering the scenario in the rulebook, but the playbooks have some great examples and expansions on those themes. I love the way the game delivers the history piecemeal, with each card representing a real-world event from the time. When I first drew the ‘Sinatra’ card in Cuba Libre, it led me to Google, and in turn a rabbit hole of reading about his meeting with the heads of the crime syndicate in Cuba in 1946.
While I was playing Salerno ’43 I spent a lot of time reading the rulebook. Mostly to learn how to play, but also because I found the level of depth that Mark Simonitch had gone into absolutely insane. In the design notes towards the end of the book he has an explanation for why one particular road isn’t on the map of Northern Italy he used:
Why no Amalfi Coast Road?
I left out the coastal road that runs between the towns of Amalfi and Sorrento because some playertesters were using it to supply a multi-division force along the road to rush up the west coast. This famous scenic road which runs along cliffs and through tunnels would never have been used to supply even a single regiment—it was far too vulnerable to sabotage and demolition.
When I reviewed By Stealth and Sea, by DVG, I was honestly taken aback by the level of detail Nicola and David (the designers) had gone to. If you don’t know the game, you play as Italian submariners who ride torpedoes into bays, in an attempt to take down allied ships. Each of the crew members on the torpedoes has a name and a photograph. These aren’t just made-up names and faces, these are the actual human beings who took part in these terrifying missions. Once again, I learned so much about a portion of history I never knew existed, and I couldn’t help but feel a strong emotional connection to each of them, despite them being a part of the Axis. This leads us nicely to my next consideration.
Levels of abstraction
In my limited exposure to the genre of wargames I’ve noticed that the scale of the games can vary greatly. Using a similar size board on my table, I can be controlling huge numbers of soldiers across the entire country of India in Gandhi (review here), or individual, named soldiers in Lanzerath Ridge. I found the difference in scale interesting and found that the different levels of abstraction in wargames have well-known scales.
If you have a look at the BGG category for Wargame, the games tend to get split into one of three sub-categories:
- Tactical – these games are at the sort of scale I talked about before in Lanzerath Ridge, or the Undaunted series. Identifiable individual soldiers or units moving around a map that might only be a few miles across.
- Operational – moving the operational level is the equivalent of ‘zooming out’ on the battlefield. Our counters representing individual soldiers become battalions, brigades, or divisions. Those of you more experienced than me might disagree, but to my mind, this is the sort of scale we’re talking about with Simonitch’s ‘4x series of games.
- Strategic – at the strategic level we’re looking at entire continents at a time, or even the entire world. I don’t have much in the way of experience here unless you’re counting games like Twilight Struggle.
So the scale is a thing. But how does it tie back to the original topic of this article, and why it matters when it comes to enjoying wargames, or not
Some people can feel very uncomfortable when it comes to taking named people into a battle, knowing they may die, and knowing that that person may well have gone into combat and died. Even while writing that, there’s a small something inside me that’s flinching.
Taking a step back from the on-the-ground bloodshed isn’t a case of denying it, or negating the fact that it ever happened. It just makes it more comfortable for some people to enjoy when it’s in the form of entertainment. And it’s understandable. We play games to have fun, most of the time, and if someone adds something to your game which makes you feel uneasy, or straight-up upset, is that something you want? There is definitely a time and a place to bring those things to the fore, but we’re talking about an elective activity, a way to spend your free time.
This is all a round-the-houses way of me trying to say if you feel happier playing a game at the operational level, rather than the tactical, go for it. It doesn’t mean you’re denying the fact it ever happened.
I want to apologise for the way this article may feel like it’s leading you down a dead end sometimes. It’s been as much an opportunity for internal reflection and resolution as it has been for creating something for other people to read. Right off the bat, I asked ‘Is it okay to enjoy wargames?’, and the answer I’ve come up with is an ambiguous ‘it depends’.
Each of us has our own moral compass, with its North set by our upbringing, education and personal opinions. If the idea of war is so abhorrent to you that you wouldn’t even watch a film or TV series about it, then a wargame isn’t going to be for you. But that doesn’t mean the same applies to everybody else. Enjoying a wargame doesn’t mean you’re glorifying and making light of the sacrifice made by thousands of people, or the atrocities carried out in the name of genocidal maniacs. Quite the opposite.
When I play these games it provides me with entertainment, but also a sense of reverence, humility and appreciation. It’s keeping history alive, and making sure these things aren’t forgotten or twisted by works of fiction, or the minds of people who would seek to obscure them in the fog of time. Thanks to All Bridges Burning (review here) I know about the Finnish Civil War, and the power struggle between the Red and White, with Germany and Russia playing their parts. By Stealth and Sea (review here) taught me about the Italian men who set out on near-suicidal missions with unreliable equipment, all in the name of someone else’s fight. There’s even a free downloadable PDF companion book for the latter. Both are fantastic games, and eye-opening glimpses into a past I didn’t know existed.
Enjoy your wargames for the same reasons you enjoy a good book or film set during a war.
Feedback and disclaimer
Thanks for getting this far. Just a quick note to say that this entire article is based on my opinion, and in some places, the opinions of others. If you have any feedback, questions, or concerns, please just leave a comment, come and find me on Discord, or drop me an email using adam at punchboard dot co dot uk.
I also want to say a huge thank you to both Volko and David for their valuable input, and for taking the time to talk to me.
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