Designer roundtable: Gaming the unpleasant

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.

The prompt: 

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.

Sebastian Bae.

Sebastian Bae.

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.

Mark Herman

Mark Herman.

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.

Amabel Holland.

Amabel Holland.

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.

Jason Matthews.

Jason Matthews.

Games that routinely illustrate the danger of failing to have something to say include those with a colonialism theme. For many Euro designs in particular, colonialism is a convenient context for an incremental empire-building contest. But the designs expressly avoid trying to say anything about their context. In fact, they rather notoriously gloss over the unpleasantries of colonialism and, instead, often present a historical narrative that we can describe as a whitewashing of history. So, any designer venturing into an area like this really needs to think hard about what they are trying to say with the design.

My second rule of thumb is that the truth is the best defense when tackling sensitive subjects. If you are honest about human suffering, honest about the less-than-righteous motivations that most nation states are pursuing, a game on a sensitive topic will garner a lot less criticism.

It seems odd today, but when Ananda [Gupta] and I started work on Twilight Struggle, the Cold War was still a little sensitive in European public opinion. I had very prominent European publishers tell me “It’s a good game, but Europeans will never play it.” Well, one of the things that allowed Twilight Struggle to succeed not just in France, Italy, and Germany, but also in Poland, Hungary, and Russia, is that we tried to tell the full truth. Twilight Struggle is not a moral lesson on the inevitable victory of the West over “the Evil Empire”. It is a game that regards both the Soviet and US justifications of their Cold War policies with a jaundiced eye. Afghanistan and Vietnam are events that work the same way. And an effort to look at the perspective of all protagonists in a game is very important to telling the full story.

Finally, time is our friend on these issues. Just as the great history of an event is rarely written immediately after its conclusion, the same is true of historical game design. Historical game designers also benefit from the reduced emotion, and clarity that comes from viewing events with a little distance.

After Christian Leonhard and I designed 1960: Making of the President, several companies approached us to design a game featuring the 2016 election. We begged off, and that was the right decision. America is living through an incredibly politically-charged time. If you are trying to relay a political story via a game, it is important that your audience can actually “hear” the story you are telling. If you are trying to convey a historical lesson too near the actual event, people’s emotions get in the way of receiving it. So I think, just about now, we are ready for a 2000 election game – when the problems of hanging chads and butterfly ballots seem quaint elements of a hazily remembered past.

All of that said, I firmly believe that games can teach us important insights about history that are harder to come by in more passive forms of learning. It is easy to sit in a history class and have a teacher express that the system of alliances in Europe helped start World War I. The meaning of that is never quite so clearly expressed than it is during a game of Diplomacy.

And given that belief, it seems even more important that game designers tackle sensitive topics. The understanding of the American public of their own history is embarrassingly low. Their understanding of the most sensitive episodes of that history is still lower. Yet their need for that understanding has probably never been higher. No one in game design can pretend to fill the educational gap, but I firmly believe that we can contribute to narrowing it a bit.

Jason Matthews is co-designer of one of the world’s top boardgames, Twilight Struggle, as well as many other political and historical games.


Personally, I am less concerned with a game’s subject matter itself than in how the game handles it. I believe that boardgames, as much as any other art form, are capable of saying much about the human condition even when they challenge mainstream norms. That said, the more transgressive a game, the more difficult it is to create.

Akar Bharadvaj.

Akar Bharadvaj.

For that reason, my choice about whether to design a game is less about difficulty in the sense of discomfort, and more about difficulty in the sense of how challenging a game is to design. So, my primary factor in deciding whether to tackle a subject matter in a game is personal knowledge and design skills relevant to the topic.

Games require the following elements to handle difficult questions well:

• Historical detail. Granting a game the veneer of a historical topic without delving into the full details and implications (good or bad) of the history risks turning the game into what boardgame reviewer Jason Perez refers to as “historical tourism”. I am comfortable with games delving into difficult topics if they have enough respect for the history to put in the effort, and if their goal is to teach players about the subject matter.

• Full agency and consequences. Historical games need to portray the victims of history realistically, as real human beings with agency and decision-making ability, even when historical circumstance limited this agency. No group of people in history has ever willingly accepted oppression without some degree of resistance, so no game about such a subject should go without portraying this response.

• A careful understanding of the game’s target audience and their expectations. Marketing a challenging game to a wider audience that is not expecting it can drum up controversy. I am more comfortable with a troubling historical theme in a GMT game published for a niche audience than I am in a mass-market family-weight game. Designers can delve deeper into history when they expect players to understand and engage with the subject matter, rather than searching for a few hours of light escapism.

Without considering these factors, making a boardgame on a difficult subject risks portraying history as bloodless and worthy of uncritical nostalgia. Learning history is the best way to avoid repeating it, but, conversely, learning bad history can lead to making the same mistakes over and over. Political problems in recent years have vividly demonstrated the risk of worshiping the past and wanting to return to it, without considering that the past was horrible for some people.

I chose to design a boardgame, Tyranny of Blood, about a difficult topic: the Indian caste system under British colonialism. I wanted to tell the story of this hierarchy, in all its ugliness, through times of stricture and (relative) flux. I thought this story was important enough to tell, even if doing so was difficult.

Game design is an artform of abstracting complex concepts, but I could not abstract out elements key to the story.

• I needed to portray the Shudra and Dalit struggle for equity and human rights, to include the frequent labor resistance and mass conversions that are too often whitewashed.
• I needed to show the beautiful temples and palaces all across India—as well as the labor that created them.
• I needed some players to have the agency to be oppressive, to reflect that the supporters of unequal systems are not faceless villains, but people just as human as the players.
• I needed the game to be an emotional experience, both for the laborers who lost their autonomy and for the people who agreed to use that inequality to maintain their own power.

Without these details, the game might have become reductive and oversimplified “historical tourism”, instead of an educational, empathy-building experience.

Conversely, I abstracted out the factors that were a sideshow to the main story. For instance, all British actions—changing trade good prices, military recruitment, and Christian evangelism—are random and largely divorced from player decisions. The British motivations are opaque, inconsistent, and even sometimes nonsensical to the players, much as they were to most Indians at the time. Britain is an unstoppable force that the Indians need to deal with, rather than one they have to spend all game fighting against. Interestingly, these things I abstracted out of my design are the core of most boardgames about colonialism.

I’ve received compliments for the original theme of Tyranny of Blood, but, in reality, it is not the first game about the Indian caste system. Every economic game about India, from Jaipur to John Company to Rajas of the Ganges, is implicitly about caste and labor. Each game just chooses to portray some aspects of it more abstractly than others. Any game that lets players trade Indian textiles, spices, or tea is a game about social hierarchy and labor struggle, even if it is hidden.

That is not a criticism of those games. They choose to focus on a different set of concepts. Every game requires some level of abstraction.

In Tyranny of Blood, I wanted to focus less on the fancy goods in the colonial market than on the systems that got those goods there. I wanted to show empire, not through its luxuries or its crimes, but as a system with which people interacted opportunistically. I didn’t want to make a worker placement game; I wanted players to be the workers being placed.

Akar Bharadvaj won the Zenobia Award 1st Place in 2021 for Tyranny of Blood (forthcoming). In his day job, he designs professional wargames at the Institute for Defense Analyses.

Responsibility of the Players

Designers Cole Wehrle and Brian Train point out that game makers are not alone in all this—the players as well determine the impact of representation in games.


To a degree, each game I’ve designed grapples directly with some difficult subject. Perhaps nowhere is that more true that with John Company. The game charts the rise of the British East India Company and its incorporation within the larger framework of the British Empire in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The game covers many aspects of this story, including the rampant looting of Indian wealth, the suppression of rebellions, and the pervasive corruption that informed nearly every element of the British involvement in India.

The game takes itself and its players very seriously. It draws on about a decade of research into both primary materials and contemporary scholarship. For all of that, the game can often be quite silly. In fact, of my games, it is probably the most likely to excite its players. There’s no shortage of hackneyed English accents and play-acting. I’ve often seen players yowl in delight as a risky gambit pays off or gasp at an unexpected turn-of-fate.

It’s tempting to read these responses as implicitly condoning the actions of their historical counterparts. Should players really be having so much fun playing in history? A part of me wants to slap them on the wrist or shake them by the collar. The game couldn’t make any clearer: the British East India Company was a horrible, venal institution that corrupted everything it touched. Don’t they care about the implications of their actions within the game? In point of fact, their immersion is an indication that they do care, and the extent of their care is demonstrated by the degree to which they have let themselves slide into the world of the game.

Theorists of games love to isolate these immersive experiences as a way of protecting players from the implications of their experiences within a game. Perhaps the best example of this effort can be found in the development of what is called the “magic circle”.

Cole Wehrle.

Cole Wehrle.

Loosely adapted from the late-1930s work on play of the Dutch writer Johan Huizinga, the idea gained currency in the early 2000s, when Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen began applying it explicitly to games. The concept is simple and powerful: the act of playing a game creates an exceptional social space that is subject to its own rules. On the face of it, this is a wonderful idea. There is something magical about the experience of play that separates it from ordinary life. Most everyone I’ve met who plays games regularly has gotten lost in the rhythm of a game or has felt transported by a game’s setting.

It is tempting to apply the idea forcefully. After all, societies erect huge stadiums to separate athletic games from the ordinary life around them. These games feature plenty of costumes and funny behaviors that would be nonsensical in any other context. However, these strict divisions are the exception, not the rule. In practice, the magic circle is porous. Players may be entering an exceptional space when they sit down to play a game, but they are still themselves and are therefore still situated in the social, historical, and cultural framework that exists outside of the game.

This is a sobering truth for anyone designing games. A game’s design certainly informs play, but the people sitting around the table matter too. Whatever meanings or truths a game reveals are negotiated with its players. This is true, of course, for any form of expression, but, games grant their players a heightened agency within the work. Players are collaborators who both author and experience their creation as it comes into being.

For this reason, the choice of a game’s theme has moral implications. It is one thing to attend a performance of Othello and to witness someone playing the role of Iago. But, it is another thing entirely to ask a player to improvise their own lines and blocking—to author Iago while playing him.

Yet, this kind of emergent play-acting is precisely what a game demands and what makes the format so powerful. Historical games ask players to imagine themselves in a particular role and to attempt to align their sympathies with their counterparts. This can be tremendously uncomfortable. No one wants to play a Nazi sympathizer or a robber baron. But these roles, like that of Iago, are the great dynamos of our best stories and illuminate the broader historical forces which have shaped our present moment.

Here, it’s worth remembering that players are not merely playing a role for themselves. They are also witnessing an exclusive performance of the game’s drama, usually limited by the number of chairs around the table. When I see players laugh at some disastrous roll in John Company, they might be ruefully laughing as rivals within the game’s drama or enjoying the irony as if they were watching the performance in a music hall, cheering as Punch wallops Judy or at the crocodile as its gobbles everyone up. They are, in that moment, enjoying the benefits of a kind of split consciousness where they get to observe their game even as they help create it.

That door swings both ways. Not all of history is farce, and not every winning move in John Company will have the players cheering. Sometimes, the optimal move will turn a player’s stomach. Though it may have been strategically sound to block a relief package for a famine in India, players will often pause to wonder if they had the correct moral priorities.

Good. Many people living at that time wondered the same question. These are the sorts of moments where the game becomes so much more than its rulebook or its components. For a moment, the players conjured something very real into their homes and hopefully felt the weight of the past in a new and different way. If they are lucky, it will haunt them for at least a little while longer.

Cole Wehrle is a prolific boardgame designer, including of the phenomenally popular Root, and co-founder of Wehrlegig Games.


CoI’s first question seems to assume that there is a paradox between unpleasant issues and fun gameplay that is unresolvable. I do not agree that this is so, because there are games that present well in both aspects. Take, for example, games on plagues; there are about a dozen that I can find on BoardGameGeek (BGG) without looking too hard that focus on the Black Death alone. James Vaughan’s Plague Inc., a game where you are in competition with other players to design and alter diseases to spread across the world and collapse civilization, has nearly 6,000 registered owners on BGG. I would further note that this is a boardgame version of a computer game that has over 85 million players. And even more remarkably, it is something I got my wife to play with me during the COVID pandemic lockdown … though Scrabble is her usual game! We had fun with it, in a gallows-humor way, as was the intention.

Of course, there are also games on unpleasant issues that are not fun to play, because they are badly designed, or because they are bad jokes, or because the designer had some point to make and could not resist walloping players over the head with it. Examples here include some games on mental illness, or junk like Pain Doctors: the Game of Recreational Surgery. (I personally regard Brenda Romero’s design Train, in contrast, as an art object – a very poignant one, but something not primarily designed as a game.)

However, CoI’s prompt relates primarily to my own published work and design choices. Almost all of my ludography would fall in the category of serious games (though I allow myself little bits of levity inside them sometimes). And some of my designs do encompass very unpleasant events, for example, various modern civil wars and colonial or post-colonial insurgencies that saw incidents and practices of great and unapologetic cruelty.

A while ago, someone asked me about A Distant Plain, “How do you respond to someone who asks [in an emotional state and a leading way] how you can play a wargame in which lots of Americans and Afghan troops and civilians got killed? … Where does one draw the boundaries of what is OK to play a game on (i.e., some World War II title) versus not to play (i.e., A Distant Plain)?”

Brian Train.

Brian Train.

I don’t think anyone ever directly confronted me on this topic in those words. Certainly, I have come across people who have said they would not play A Distant Plain because of their personal experiences there or the experiences of family members. I have encountered others who held the opinion that designing a game, any game, on a contemporary war was at best an exercise in trivialization, and at worst something in the service of an external agenda.

We can and some do level the same questions and reactions against books, films, TV shows, indeed any creative endeavor about contemporary conflicts. But it seems that games come in for a special helping of abuse because of our cultural tenet that anything called a “game” is inherently trivial and superficial. I’ve seen very little movement on this point in the 45 years that I’ve been playing wargames, just as I have seen very little willingness to move past the simple-minded notion that representation equals endorsement.

There is a story about how someone once cornered Redmond Simonsen (of SPI fame) at a party, and hearing that Simonsen designed wargames, accused him of being a warmonger. Apparently his retort was something like, “I make numerical models of real-life things and processes. If I spent my time doing research and making mathematical models of cancerous growths, would you call me a cancermonger?”

The question about where to draw the line of what is okay and what is not okay to play (and by extension, design about) is THE perennial query about the morality of the hobby of civilian wargaming itself. And it’s one which will never stop being asked or answered.

I think any line someone decides to draw about what they will and will not consume is obviously a personal choice, and we should respect it like any personal choice. I also think that it says more about the consumer than anyone else, and it’s up to them, not the designer (or the author, or the film director), to be able to state where they drew that line and why … if and when anyone ever asks.

But the reverse is also true; designers can choose what they will or will not produce. And it’s incumbent on them just as much to be able to explain themselves: what influenced the work and why they felt led to create it.

I believe that I design games first as a way for me to explore “real-life things and processes” through research and modeling methods, and then to share my perceptions and understanding in game form while showing my work. It’s part of how I try to make personal sense of the world and its past. And I think I would be doing it even if the game publishing industry did not exist and there were no one to share it with.

I feel compelled to complete research of enough quality and breadth to help me determine what factors and forces were present in the conflict that materially influenced its outcome (or progress to date, in the case of a conflict that isn’t finished yet), how they could be integrated into a workable game design in such a way that they are roughly proportionate in effect, and how I could “show my work” to this end.

Sometimes, such design requires reflection of some cruel and unpleasant practices. For example, in Colonial Twilight, I felt the need to acknowledge the widespread use of torture and forced resettlement of the non-white population of Algeria because these were material factors in the French conduct of the war. And if I were to design a game on the Nigerian Civil War or the more recent civil conflicts in the Sudan or Yemen, I would feel the need to reflect the use of deliberately induced famine as a weapon, as I did in my game Somalia Interventions (1994).

I do not believe it is possible to create a completely objective, all-encompassing, and neutral wargame, any more than it is possible to create such a novel or film. This is the limitation inherent in the creative process and in the decisions the creator must make during that process. But I think it is possible to create something that is simultaneously aware of this limitation and which nevertheless presents itself as informed about its subject matter, considered in its portrayal, and ultimately helpful in promoting knowledge and understanding of a conflict. Just how the player will receive and interpret this creative work is something beyond the designer’s control and responsibility.

Brian Train is a prolific designer of commercial boardgames, including groundbreaking designs on modern internal wars.

3 Replies to “Designer roundtable: Gaming the unpleasant”

  1. Curious to know just how these game designers were selected and by whom? There so many others, like myself, Paul Rohrbaugh and so many others equally talented and published to express their opinions. Is this a special, elte, club? I for one have three games on Ukraine.

    1. Hello Perry
      Congrats on the three games on the Ukraine. Volko Ruhnke (moderator) and I selected the Designer group based on resume, relevance and their history of positive voice in the hobby. And yes, there are many we can choose from. SDHist is an organization dedicated to discussing these tough issues and improving accessibility in historical gaming.

      These discussions actually developed in the Conflicts of Interest Discord site and you and your friends are welcome to join us for a positive discussion of issues we face as designers. From contributions there, we may ask you to join a future roundtable.

      As for elite club, I would never join a club that would have me as a member.


      Harold Buchanan
      SDHist Chairman

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