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  • Essays
  • Serious War Games - Controversial or Not

Serious War Games - Controversial or Not

O Updated
Serious War Games - Controversial or Not
There Will Be Games

War games are often seen as controversial. Replaying the atrocities that occurred during a large-scale conflict seems completely inappropriate. Condensing the huge amount of suffering, death and destruction into a game of pushing tiles around a board and rolling dice or playing cards seems perverse. So in this article, I try to put everything into a bit more context and tease out the pros and cons of war games and how controversial they really are when compared to some of the other games in our vast hobby.

War is Wrong

I think many of us will have had this moment in our childhood where we pointed a stick at another child and shouted "bang" - or maybe another child did it to us - or maybe two other children did it to each other. Either way, an adult probably will have told the children off for pretending to have guns. Society doesn't approve of guns and other weapons and rightly so, especially when they're in the hands of children.

The same is often true when it comes to civilians owning and using guns, but it will hugely depend on which country you live in and what your local laws dictate. Clay pigeon shooting is a popular hobby, but is not really accepted in wider society as something to be proud of. Even if you are part of a gun hunting club or live in a country where owning and using guns is every person's right, the fact that there is a large population who is against guns won't have escaped you. So, whichever way you look at it, the topic of weapons is controversial at least to some degree.

When it comes to war, opinions will be even further crystalized. Some wars seem justified, while others have a clear whiff of imperialism about them. Now, don't ask me to take a stand for or against war or try and tell you when I think military intervention was justified and when it was not. That's not what this article is about and I have nowhere near enough knowledge on the subject to make any kind of qualified statement.

However, wars did take place and more are being fought as we speak. War isn't going to go away any time soon.

War Games

I reckon everyone reading this article will have been taught in school about at least one war. Some of us will have wanted to learn more about what went on. Finding out about the motivations and goals and how these changed during a conflict can be fascinating. Reading books or watching films is great. Actually playing through a conflict yourself can be even more useful.

Of course, war games can't properly convey the suffering, death and huge amount of destruction that took place. Removing troop counters from the board is not the same as seeing soldiers die right next to you. It doesn't convey what it would have felt like to receive a telegram or letter reporting the death of a loved one. Making tactical decisions from the comfort of your living room table pales into insignificance when compared with what impact that same decision would have had on the real-life battlefield and the people following orders.

Still, some war games try to give you a sense of what went on.

For example, the cards in Undaunted: Normandy each have the name of a soldier on them. The names were generated from those common at the time and don't refer to any actual soldiers. However, it still adds a sense of being in command of real people.

Undaunted: Normandy cards with namesUndaunted: Normandy cards with names

The calendar in March on the Drina, which acts as the round counter, shows the time period and describes in a few paragraphs what happened in the real war. Reading a few sentences about pivotal moments in the conflict makes you want to find out more.

The cards in the Cold War game Twilight Struggle briefly describe actual events from the time. You start to remember what you learned in school about the Iron Curtain and the all-present threat of global nuclear war.

Educational War Games

That doesn't mean that the war games I just mentioned are or even try to be educational. Wanting to learn more about what happened in real life is up to the players. Even so, I reckon when you play any of the games, you will probably learn one or two things along the way.

There also are war games that try to give you at least some insight into what went on. They aren't educational as such, but have additional booklets that describe what happened or refer you to books or other sources about the conflict.

Pax Pamir: Second Edition is a prime example. The rulebook puts the game into its historic context. There are also references to books that will give you a much deeper understanding of what went on.

Taking a different approach to conveying the horrors of war is This War of Mine. I've not played the game myself, but you're taking on the role of a civilian trying to survive from day to day in a wartorn country. The board game is based on a computer game with the same name. It deals with terrible experiences and forces the player to make impossible decisions. The age rating of 18+ is very appropriate. It's not a game for a light games night.

So, there is certainly potential for war games to help players learn something and bring the real-life events of the conflict they portray closer to the people around the table. War games don't have to be just about pushing cubes or tokens. They don't have to remove you from what went on. They can actually give you a deeper understanding of history.

Controversial Non-War Games

Now, there is something else that I find much more interesting than the controversy around war games alone. Some people happily vilify war games and want to see them burn in hell, while happily playing games where you trade in the Mediterranean or pretend to be a Chinese Emperor's advisor, just because it seems cool. They play these games as a bit of fun and hate it when others point out serious issues with them. They don't want to worry about "politics" or have anyone question their biases. At the same time, they call war games awful, horrific or even perverse. It seems like a double standard to me.

I don't want anyone reading this article to think that I'm defending all war games. I certainly am not, just as I'm not defending all of the other games in our hobby. Some war games are awful, just as some non-war games are awful. All types of games can blatantly ignore the atrocities that took place and the human suffering that was inflicted by others. All types of games can appropriate cultures and be racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic and everything else that you can imagine.

 We Can Play is fun with two playersWe Can Play is fun with two players

However, I think there are also games, whether they're war or non-war games, that try and teach us something important. They can remind us of some of the most terrible historic events. They can help us understand ourselves and, more importantly, each other.

Games don't always have to be about fun. Learning through play can be enjoyable, because it gives us new insights or a deeper understanding. When we play games created by people who are not like us, we expose ourselves to new and different ideas. We learn about feelings, thoughts, concepts and other things that we've not come across before.

Serious Games

I think we need more games that try and tackle sensitive, but important topics. These games need to make a sincere attempt to treat these topics with respect. They don't need to be dry and boring games. There does need to be something that makes us want to play these games, after all. I don't know how it would work, but games talking about war, death, struggle, oppression and other uncomfortable themes and concepts are important.

Many games create emotional reactions, good and bad. Whether you're frustrated because you lost again or overjoyed because you pulled off the most impossible combo, these are real emotions that were created while you played a game. Some games can make us feel really uncomfortable, but we're never in any real, physical danger. Of course, I understand that, depending on your mental state, not every game will be suitable for everyone. However, I do think it's time that our hobby started to tackle more difficult subjects. There is so much we all could learn.

What About You?

Now, I would really love to find out how you feel about this. What is your initial reaction to war games? Have you ever thought about what it is you do in the games you play? Do you think a game is just a game? Are there any games you played that really made you want to find out more about something? As always, please share your thoughts in the comments below. It would be amazing to get as many of you to share with us your thoughts.

There Will Be Games
Oliver Kinne
Oliver Kinne (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Oliver Kinne aims to publish two new articles every week on his blog, Tabletop Games Blog, and also release both in podcast form. He reviews board games and writes about tabletop games related topics.

Oliver is also the co-host of the Tabletop Inquisition podcast, which releases a new episode every three to four weeks and tackles different issues facing board games, the people who play them and maybe their industry.

Articles by Oliver Kinne

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Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #339667 13 Jun 2023 12:54
It has been a long time since I played war games on a regular basis, but that is merely a result of having more demands on my time and living a long distance away from my war-gaming friends. Because of the subject matter and the time commitment, I have never heard of someone playing a war game and complaining about the subject matter. If people who object to war games have a complaint about war games, I encourage them to not play war games and also not harass war gamers.

In college, I minored in sociology. To complete my minor, I took a 400 level (senior) class in War and Peace. While reading the syllabus, the professor commented that the history of mankind was the history of warfare, and that we could only deduce the existence of peace from the brief intervals between the wars. There were only three students enrolled in the class, and one of them was an exchange student from Africa. He expressed dismay that this class was not going to teach him how to bring peace to his country, and withdrew from the class.

I find the idea of objecting to the subject matter of a game to be a mildly interesting exercise. Would this same person object to a movie about a war? Understandably so, if the movie glorified war and overlooked the atrocities. But what if the movie is a documentary about a war? What about a lecture in a history class about a war? What about a veteran talking about an experience that he had during a war? There is an old saying that it is easier to put on shoes than to carpet the world, and anybody who is easily triggered should definitely put on some shoes. The world is not going to suddenly become a soft and gentle place where they will be safe all the time.

I'm an accountant. I dislike playing most games that simulate economic activity, because it bores me. I do tend to like playing games with violent subject matter, including war, superheroes, horror, etc, even though I don't own a gun and I haven't been in a fistfight since college. I definitely have not murdered anybody and firmly disapprove of serial killers, even though I own multiple games about fictional serial killers.

So what do I like about these games with violent themes? The same thing that I like about movies and tv shows and books with violent themes: action. Things happen, sometimes quickly and dramatically, and they are not about dry things like exchanging money for products. I want games that offer the semblance of an exciting narrative, games that are fun to talk about afterwards. The economic simulation games tend to have low player interaction and minimal conversation, and after-game discussions tend to be brief and dull, immediately followed by WhatAreWeGoingToPlayNext?
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #339669 13 Jun 2023 13:51
I'm trying to think of a war game that allows for, or even acknowledges, the POSSIBILITY of atrocities or injury to civilians, much less makes it part of the game. Stuff like deliberately attacking hospitals to erode an enemies ability to recover, targeting power generation structures to hinder evacuation efforts and draw forces from the line, or even utilizing prisoners as bullet sponges, all stuff we hear about in the current Ukraine conflict.

Wargames, in my experience, try to simulate the ACT of war on the tactical or strategic level, usually stripping away the civilian or post-engagement aspect entirely as they attempt to model the actual outcome or a hypothetical one.

I kinda disagree with the entire preface to this article, a persons individual views on personally owned weapons does not seem to correlate AT ALL with playing war games, as the global popularity of direct conflict video game shooters can attest.

If anything, the rather higher level of intellectual capacity you need for the average war game is the only thing holding them back from even more popularity across all cultures. Reduce the complexity down and the war game gains more acceptance...see Chess, Checkers, connect 4, tic-tac-toe, etc. The fundamental aspects of a war game; area control, economy of force, combined arms, flanking maneuvers, logistics, tactical victory but strategic defeat and vice versa, all these things manifest in LEGIONS of recreational activites far divorced from stogey old men smoking cigars 'round a sand table re-enacting some Napoleonic era conflict on the Iberian pennisula.

Just replace the gun or sword with a basketball and there you go.
Msample's Avatar
Msample replied the topic: #339677 13 Jun 2023 17:04
I think some of the COIN games have events that degrade influence/control in areas to reflect collateral damage from military ops in those areas.
n815e's Avatar
n815e replied the topic: #339687 14 Jun 2023 11:15
Games are largely based on activities that are focused on conflict and competition.

Nearly every game is themed around negative behavior, exploitation, pain, gaining at someone else’s loss, putting people out of work, creating destructive industries, etc.

It’s silly to point to one theme and say it’s bad but all the others are fine.
n815e's Avatar
n815e replied the topic: #339688 14 Jun 2023 11:20

I'm trying to think of a war game that allows for, or even acknowledges, the POSSIBILITY of atrocities or injury to civilians, much less makes it part of the game.

I’ve played several games that include having to keep troops in regions to “suppress partisans” or that have “strategic bombing”.

It’s code.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #339689 14 Jun 2023 13:43

n815e wrote:

I'm trying to think of a war game that allows for, or even acknowledges, the POSSIBILITY of atrocities or injury to civilians, much less makes it part of the game.

I’ve played several games that include having to keep troops in regions to “suppress partisans” or that have “strategic bombing”.

It’s code.

Thats a good point, I'm thinking of Fortress America (as I often do) with their partisan cards.

Though by the laws of war an enemy combatant NOT in uniform, which is how I would define the type of Red Dawn-esque "partisan" or many of the 'combatants' taken in the War on Terror, is in a very grey legal zone where they often lack the protections afforded uniformed combatants AND the protections extended to non-resisting civilians. So they are kinda criminals and subject to military or civilian law in that fashion (for example, the guy who launches a hypersonic cruise missile into the side of an aircraft carrier during a battle, killing 5000 sailors and marines, is usually not held personally accountable should he survive the war, but someone who smuggles a bomb into a stockyard while dressed as a dock worker certainly would be charged as a murderer or saboteur. So in a war game what are they really considered? Enemy Forces?

But yes, the COIN games, with their focus on insurgency and irregular/asymmetric conflict, would be a good example to start with. Now that I'm thinking harder, I feel like there are some strategic/diplomacy level games that have an abstracted "you've been bad" meter that kinda covers covert ops/atrocities/war crimes.