Boardgame media has recently frequently returned to the issue of what topics games should properly take on or should not and how best to do so. The question strikes historical and conflict simulations squarely, so, for CoI, designer and SD HistCon Advisory Board member Volko Ruhnke approached seven prominent designers for their take on the prompt below.
Historical boardgames often tackle difficult, unpleasant, or unconventional topics like war, slavery, the economics and social structure of exploitive colonial economics, human rights abuses, terrorism, piracy, dirty politics, and medieval social systems, as a few examples.
As a game designer facing the paradoxical linkage between unpleasant issues and fun gameplay, what sorts of topics would you find most difficult? How do you decide whether to tackle a difficult topic? And when you do, what do you abstract out and what do you include in the game?
Impact of Personal Experience
Designers Sebastian Bae, Mark Herman, and Amabel Holland each draw on their personal life experiences to help them identify what might be sensitive topics in our current age—even when gaming the past—and whether and how to represent such topics in their games.
Should war be fun? Should war be clean and neat? These are the questions I routinely ask myself as a professional wargame designer in the defense community.
Most of the games I design serve specific analytical and educational purposes—aimed at informing and impacting wider analysis and policy and strategic decisions. This can result in a focused and sterile approach in representing the complexities of conflict. Destroying a target—whether an enemy ship or an entrenched battalion within a city—becomes a question of combat result tables informed by salvo equations and the proficiency of capabilities to complete a targeting solution. The battlefield becomes a flat, empty space, cleanly demarcated by hexes and terrain features.
This always deeply troubles me, both as a designer and analyst. A part of me understands why I make the abstractions, simplifications, and exclusions in my games: playability, research focus, administrative constraints, and a dozen different valid and practical reasons. …
Yet another part of me understands why the knot in my stomach exists, as I push counters across the map, casually removing pieces representing thousands of lives or marking a space where a city used to be. This is not new to the wargaming industry and arguably a core tension within it. The most popular genre of the commercial wargaming community, World War II, largely ignores the repugnant and ugly elements of the conflict, ranging from the concentration camps to the systemic abuses of Operation Barbarossa.
However, on a personal level, this unique brand of sanitizing conflicts remains a challenge for me—more so as the conflicts my games explore are future-oriented, saddled with the grim specter of possibility. The game is no longer an ahistorical counterfactual exercise, but a question of, “What would you do tomorrow?”
Stepping away from my role as a professional game designer, I have experimented with designing a game about the Iraq War for years. I have sketched concepts and planned how the mechanics would interact with one another … again and again, each time abandoning the effort and picking up a new design idea a few months later.
Each attempt is marred by the fact the war remains too close, too raw, too intimate for me. I still wrestle with my own agency as an enlisted Marine deployed to Ramadi. The Iraq War—with all its individual valor and horrible missteps—remains entangled with my own story, and I remain unable or unwilling to complete a game design about it.
How do I convey the split-second decision in determining whether the boy is throwing a grenade or a rock at my convoy? I still remember his face. I didn’t shoot, but what if I did? Does that simply move the popular support meter down a step? Maybe two steps? Do I roll a die and conduct a morale check?
As game designers, we must always inflict some level of intellectual violence to the topic of our study—for our games can never truly capture the innumerable nuances and complex contours. Tragically, we most often leave the ugly, unpleasant, yet profoundly necessary elements on the cutting room floor. However, as designers and wargamers, we must always ask ourselves, “When does simplification and abstraction go too far?”
I don’t know the answer, and I’m not sure there will ever be a clear-cut formula. I just know that I cannot design a game about the Iraq War that excludes the realities and consequences of civilian casualties, war crimes, and torture. Ultimately, the games we design and play should always endeavor to do the subject matter justice, to be respectful— and sometimes, that means tackling the ugliest elements of our history and proclivities.
Sebastian Bae designs games at the Center for Naval Analyses, teaches game design at Georgetown University, and left the US Marine Corps as a Sergeant. The opinions and views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect CNA, its sponsors, or the US government.
Political Hostages. I just finished reading a news article on the negotiations between the United States and Russia on exchanging three incarcerated Americans for one or more convicted Russian prisoners in American hands. I was fortunate to have made a US government-sponsored visit to Moscow during the short period when Putin was not Russia’s President. Prior to that visit, I received no fewer than six counterterrorism/counter-espionage briefings on what to do and what not to do while out of the country.
The point of these briefings was to make me smart on how not to get killed, kidnapped, or arrested, as the Russians and other countries with weak judicial systems were—and remain—aggressive in obtaining “hostages” that they could trade for their citizens or for sanctions relief.
This last aspect distinguishes political hostages from the usual prisoner exchanges. A political hostage is used to alter policy. This is a knotty issue that I have dealt with in two of my past designs, Peloponnesian War and Pericles.
In 425 BCE, Athens captured a group of Spartan citizens in the Battle of Sphacteria. Athens ended Sparta’s yearly invasions of Attica by threatening to execute these political hostages. Sparta’s top-priority “ask” in the peace treaty they signed in 421 BCE was their citizens’ return. Interestingly, the Spartans reneged on the main Athenian “ask”, return of the city of Amphipolis. Athenian leader Nicias’s desire to maintain the peace overrode good judgment. Consequently, Athens returned the hostages to Sparta without receiving Amphipolis’s return, undermining Athens’s future leverage and, ultimately, the peace.
In both designs, Peloponnesian War and Pericles, if your opponent is holding your hostages, you are prohibited from directly attacking your enemy’s home city. In Pericles, you can use hostages to bring your enemy to discuss peace. It is not automatic, but hostage-taking can force the discussion.
Any game design needs to handle the inclusion of political hostages in an unemotional manner. The distinction between prisoner exchange and political hostage remains a knotty issue that we live with today, as Russia may predicate the return of the “prisoners” it holds on a lifting of US sanctions. My intent is always to educate and increase the depth of the simulation that underlies what is hopefully an entertaining experience.
I am now dealing with this issue in an upcoming Ukraine 2022 wargame. My intent is to create a view of 21st-century warfare that needs to include public opinion, international dependencies, atrocities, damage to nuclear plants, and hostages. My goal is to illustrate the horror that war among dense civilian environments entails. I suspect that these factors will somewhat diminish the entertainment value, while increasing awareness. That is a fine line that I must walk anytime I deal with sensitive topics such as political hostages.
Mark Herman is among the world’s most prolific historical game designers and writers, founder of Victory Games, and inventor of the card-driven game genre.
The first question I ask, and the one I ask the most frequently throughout the process, is why am I telling this story? And I ask this question for a couple of reasons. First, a game design on a difficult subject is one that’s going to be mentally and emotionally exhausting for me. I’m going to have to immerse myself in a period or topic that’s going to make me angry and depressed. That takes a toll on a person. So there better be something compelling me to do this game, something that’s worth that self-inflicted pain and suffering. Something I don’t want to express, but need to.
Another reason I ask this question is to figure out if my voice is useful or needed. That is, maybe I really feel “the story” needs to be told, but am I specifically the one who should be telling it? One thing I was very careful with in designing This Guilty Land was not making a game “about” slavery, or the lived experience of the enslaved. Because that’s not a place where my voice is useful or needed. What the game is actually about is the political debate over slavery, and I think the game has something to say about the poisonousness of compromise and centrism. There, I felt like my voice could be useful. There, I felt like I had a right to tell that particular story.
So, to do a game on a difficult subject, I need to feel like I’m bringing something to the table. I need to feel like I’m not speaking over or for other marginalized voices. I need to feel like I have something to say, and also that I’m capable of saying it. Like, one of my long-gestating projects is a game about the tobacco industry in the 20th century, and its use of disinformation to avoid responsibility for millions of deaths. And I feel like my voice is useful there – my anger about that is very personal, as like many people I have lost family to smoking-related lung cancer. I feel like I have something to say about the topic, something that’s meaningful in an age where disinformation – corporate or otherwise – is employed frequently and continues to have a body count.
The question is, am I capable of expressing it? I think so, but I’m not sure. There’s something admirable about when an artist’s reach exceeds their grasp, but not for something like this. When you’re dealing with tricky, raw subjects, you absolutely don’t want something that swings for the fences and misses. If you take on something difficult and uncomfortable, you need to do so with care and thoughtfulness. There is a responsibility not to misspeak or misrepresent. To do it right.
I worry about these things, and ask these questions, throughout the process. I grapple with it constantly, and it is an agony. And I think that’s as it should be? If someone isn’t twisting themselves up in knots about it, I don’t know if I’d trust them. There are pitfalls that blinkered confidence won’t let you see. You need doubt – persistent doubt just always eating you up from the inside. It’s a vital part of the process.
Amabel Holland is co-founder of Hollandspiele and a prolific designer of historical and other boardgames.
The Danger of Whitewashing
Designers Jason Matthews and Akar Bharadvaj each consider how what you keep out, not only what you put in, can lead the hobby astray.
Since Georg von Reisswitz invented Kriegspiel in the early 19th century, we’ve been asking the same question in different forms, “Can we learn something from playing a game about it?” The answer to this question is essential to responding to the issue posed by Conflicts of Interest. Because the danger of tackling difficult, political and socially sensitive topics is that a game – as a form of entertainment – will trivialize the subject matter and demean the human suffering that the game abstracts.
I look at game design as a form of storytelling. A good game, at least in the historical corner of the hobby, should also have a narrative arc that says something about its subject matter. So, my first rule of thumb about sensitive subjects is to have something important to say.