Playing the Nazis


In the new number of the Journal of Analog Game Studies, Giame Alonge writes on the history and recurrent appeal of Nazi roles and symbology in board wargaming.

Giame Alonge is a Professor of Film Studies at the University of Turin, and a lifelong wargamer. He wrote a review of the anthology Zones of Control anthology (Harrigan and Kirschenbaum, eds.), and he and I had a correspondence about the blind spots of wargames about modern and contemporary warfare mentioned in “Chess, Go and Vietnam”, the chapter on insurgency games that Volko Ruhnke and I co-wrote for the anthology.  I’m pleased to see that our discussion has helped inspire him to write this piece.

In it he also invokes Susan Sontag’s excellent essay “Fascinating Fascism”, a connection I’ve often thought about but have never seen someone else mention in connection with wargames. Sontag wrote the essay in 1974, when wargaming was still on its way up but still wrestling with its closet-Nazi problem. I rather doubt Sontag would ever have heard about wargaming at the time but if she had, she would regard it as one more example.

As Alonge points out,  Sontag said, “for fantasy to have depth, it must have detail”. This certainly underlines what I and others have written about that pointless degree of historical intricacy in OOB research , pointless because it misses the point precisely and entirely… that is, the Benno Effect.

About brtrain
This blog is mostly devoted to posts, work and resources on "serious" conflict simulation games.

6 Responses to Playing the Nazis

  1. Reminded of a friend who denied her son toy guns, but gave up when he began to make his own out of breakfast toast. OOB detail something I find myself restoring to your own games Brian. In part because I feel engagement is diminished by the abstract, pastel counters. With Strike For Berlin for instance, pleasure came from taking out nascent Nazis among the ranks of the Freikorps early in their careers.

    • brtrain says:

      I put in OOB detail when I feel it’s appropriate, and most of my historical games do have it.
      I don’t think it is always worth the effort.
      For example, my games on the Finnish Civil War and Red Horde 1920/ Strike for Berlin didn’t have this for some forces because even where numbers and nomenclature might have existed, they were either armed mobs or conglomerations of tiny units with transitory existence.
      I could have invented numbers, but that wouldn’t have helped anyone.
      However, people should feel free to write designations on counters if they like!

  2. JR says:

    I read the referenced article. I tried to carefully evaluate the author’s intent based on their writing. I came to the conclusion that it is a “semi-sensationalist intent supported by a few corner-case tropes and wrapped in a thin veneer of scholarly style”.

    Having grown up in the era in which the author writes, I can assure you that I never encountered the fringe crowd that ran around in helmets; “bad boy” bikers and protesting students may have done that in those days. The thought that the referenced images were an attempt to appeal to the darker sides of white male human beings is an old and tired trope, nothing more. The attempts to write about the USA back in those days based solely on research that would truly slant one’s impression would be like me trying to write about Italy by only referencing the writings of Mussolini and his Fascists.

    I get the basic point of the article: people can go too far with something. Sadly, presenting this article as a single line does not make for “lines of press copy” as they might have said back in the 1960s and 1970s when newspapers still existed.

    If there were people attending wargame conventions that displayed a morbid fascination with the horrible sides of war, I would think someone like Brian, a wargame designer with many published designs over many many years and regular attendee of these conventions, would have mentioned it to us by now.

    So Brian, based on this article, do you feel that your game design work somehow contributes to the socio-political problems that the article’s author is trying to dredge up?

    • brtrain says:

      I didn’t think the piece was sensationalist.
      The author may have been playing wargames for much of his life, but he is European and as far as I know was never exposed to the early years of American wargaming, still less the early years of wargaming conventions.
      Still, it is true that in those early years there was a low-key closet Nazi problem.
      This is documented in the actual ads in back issues of The General, scans of which are available, accounts of warring game clubs with Nazi-derived names, and articles written in contemporary or near-contemporary gaming magazines (the writer references Stephen Patrick writing in 1972).
      Whether you met anyone personally who exhibited these traits doesn’t matter here; I’m sure you didn’t – in any event most wargamers don’t go to conventions so I think it might have been more of a “club” phenomenon (but tell me, did you ever encounter the uniformed “Spartan International” characters who stood around in white shirts, black pants and special badges to make sure people were playing properly?).
      Anyway, I prefer to think that this was more due to youthful immaturity and emotional underdevelopment than anything really ominous.
      It did subside as people grew up, or seemed to, but then again I think there is something there still.
      Again nothing threatening or ominous but it contributes to the sort of things the writer points out like the selection of a Totenkopf soldier for the cover of the first volume of Squad Leader (1977), and other things he does not point out but we still acknowledge like the perennial discussion over the white-on-black colour scheme for SS units (first used in Anzio, 1969 but which has appeared intermittently ever since, undiscouraged by my use of the hot pink colour scheme for them in Winter Thunder.).
      There is also the famous Rodger MacGowan anecdote of how he was told to use an image of a German soldier for the cover of Up Front (1983), because Don Greenwood told him “Germans sell”, so he gave them an image of an SS trooper he found in an old book of Third Reich paintings, and the company loved it… one of the better examples of “malicious compliance with regulations” I’ve encountered. (see

      In any event, the writer’s point was only partly about the use of Nazi/ Nazi-derived art and symbology in wargames; his other and frankly more interesting point concerned the parts of warfare that are omitted from the games, especially games on modern warfare, and how that sanitizes and reinforces psychic distance from the whole enterprise.
      I have written on this simple point again and again and won’t expand on it here.

      But, to your final question.
      If there is anyone “attending wargame conventions that displayed a morbid fascination with the horrible sides of war”, that group would likely include me!
      Does my design work contribute to socio-political problems?
      I don’t think the author is trying to “dredge” anything up:
      – in the first part he is pointing to a phenomenon that was small but undeniably there – I would say we have some problems with resurgent authoritarianism now, but they aren’t choosing to appear in white-on-black counter colour schemes, and he does not make that connection anyway;
      – in the second, he is writing about the ludic vacuum in which most of these games are played, which is counter to both reality (the reality of grasping the entire experience of war, not the superficial reality of numbering battalions correctly) and to the changing way military history is written and interpreted.
      I’ve been to my share of conventions and, like you, I have never met anyone stomping around under a Stahlhelm.
      However, I have come to the conclusion that while most wargamers are massive history nerds they are not necessarily interested in all of that history, nor are they any more likely to be interested in current events than non-gamers.
      That is a socio-political problem – again, one concerning a much larger slice of the population than wargamers.
      It’s also one that Alonge did not identify, but I do.
      And I think I would be making far too much of myself if I claimed that my design work did anything to help that problem… as I’ve written before elsewhere, what I do is my attempt to make sense of the world around me to ME, and to share that with other people.

      I hope all this is helpful, somehow.

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