Abstracting Death: Thoughts About Board Games and War

It’s Memorial Day here in the states, and in true American fashion that means the consumption of a lot of beer and red meat. Hopefully, though, it also still functions as a day of reflection. Yesterday I was showing the game Labyrinth: The War on Terror to a friend and it struck me as odd that I’d be excited about a game in which one player takes the role of radical Muslim terrorists on Memorial Day weekend. The entire concept of that game might be repulsive, or at least unsettling, to someone who has lost a loved on in the war on terror. Nevertheless, perhaps in part because I am fortunate enough to not be personally affected by the war, I get enjoyment from the game as a mental, competitive exercise.

Looking through the history of board games, there’s a lot of war. Due to the competitive nature of games generally, this is probably to be expected. But let’s recount. The earliest games seem to fall into two categories–strategic games like Go and Chess, and gambling games with a strong luck element. From what I understand, games like The Royal Game of Ur and Senet fall into the latter category, although they seem to incorporate racing of some sort. Backgammon would fall into this gambling/race category. Craps is an example of a newer gambling/luck/lots game.

(Random aside: I used to work at a restaurant called La Morra, named after the Italian town of La Morra in Piedmonte, which shares a name with, but is not named after, an old, probably Roman, game called Morra which is like rock-paper-scissors crossed with liar’s dice. According to the wikipedia page for this game this might have been what was played played by the soldiers who “cast lots” to divide up Jesus’ clothing after they stripped him for the crucifixion.

There’s a lot more “casting lots” in the pre-Roman old testament, and more rigorous wikipedia skimming tells me that scholars aren’t quite sure what that entailed, but it might have been as simple as grabbing a rock out of a bag to a ritual involving jewels reflecting light off of the high priest’s breastplate. As far as randomization methods go, using flashes of light off of an object that unpredictably moves in subtle ways is kind of–and I know this is a stretch–similar to how we now generate random numbers with hardware that detects things like particles from atomic decay or thermal noise.) 

Strategic games are what I’m going to be talking about here, and when you look at Go and Chess, it doesn’t take long to see militaristic parallels. Chess has militaristic-looking pieces, capturing/killing of opponent pieces, and strategic positioning and maneuvering over a geographic area. Go, while more abstract with its homogeneous pieces, is entirely about out-positioning your opponent and controlling areas of the board. From my vague understanding of the history of these games, they were seen as an aid to sharpen the minds of military folk and the kind of powerful people who decide wars and such. Of course, sharpening the mind for military use isn’t mutually exclusive to general sharpening. Thinking more strategically, thoughtfully, and pragmatically is generally beneficial.

Take a giant leap forward to the 20th century and we see the creation of popular simulationist war games. These were, and are, used in the military to train soldiers in strategy, tactics, and military history, but they’re also played regularly by hobbyists.

I’m certainly no expert on war games, but I wonder if the designers in this genre ever feel conflicted on an ethical level when they’re making decisions to abandon a level of simulation in order to make the game more fun or accessible. Because if a game is far on the simulation side of the continuum, one could justify it academically by saying that it’s a unique way to contemplate history. The more it shifts away from simulation and more towards game, the less….respectful(?) it seems to get. I mean, when you play a war game and have fun, you’re gaining a psychic profit from a horrific event. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I mean, the land my apartment sits on was probably, at some point, stolen from a native or otherwise the plunder of war, but I don’t think I need to sell or not enjoy my home.

But I think if I were designing a war game, particularly one about a war close to the present day, I’d feel a lot of pressure to not make it too game-y or enjoyable, I suppose. It seems counterintuitive to the entire point, but it also seems right, at least on an emotional level.

Going back to the point about games being a way to study history. I wonder if historians ever feel any guilt about gaining enjoyment from studying, frequently, the evils of humanity. I mean, I don’t think historians are all going “wow that’s cool!” when reading about war crimes. But if they enjoy their discipline I’m sure they find many horrific things fascinating and captivating.

What we call “euro games”, as the story goes, became popular in Germany in the post-WWII world because the national culture was very violence-averse and these new types of games were a more peaceful alternative to the Risks of the world. So instead of trying to conquer your opponents or otherwise eliminate them from the game, in a euro game you’re trying to build the best farm, or create the French countryside the best, or settle some vague land most efficiently. No one gets eliminated, there’s no violence against your opponents, and all of the conflict is, at most, very indirect.

Of course, more than a few euro games have a colonialist theme and tiptoe around the violence inherent in that setting. Is that less respectful than a simulationist war game where the player controlling the Taliban can place IEDs and commit suicide bombings?

The other day I happened across an article in the Washington Post from a couple of years ago that was talking about the COIN series of games. The author describes a scene from a game of A Distant Plain:

Jeff Gringer, known to us as the Taliban, stands and thrusts a hooked finger in my direction while declaring he’s going to “pop those Coalition troops in Helmand.” The Taliban is using a car bomb to ambush my men. I rock back in my chair, resigned to my fate.

Robert Leonhard, pulling the strings for the Warlords, is in real life a national security analyst at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and a retired Army lieutenant colonel. He has been sitting in mostly quiet concentration but finally speaks up: “I hate to hear you say that, Jeff. My oldest is in Helmand province.” He pauses, moving his glasses from his nose to the top of his graying high-and-tight. “I think. He can’t tell me exactly where he is.”

I don’t know how I’d be able to respond to that if I were at the table. Is it a sign that the game has gone too far, pushed itself into material too raw to be in the realm of entertainment? Or is using the game as a way to study the conflict valuable, and maybe in some way therapeutic?

I can’t empathize with the way many Americans view the wars of the past. I find the scale of it impossible to comprehend. You know those videos that try to contextualize how small earth is compared to the vastness of space? How you kind of understand it in one sense but find it completely impossible to know on a gut level? That’s how I feel when I read that over 120 million people died as a result of war in the 20th century alone. It’s impossible. Of course I should be thankful that I’m privileged enough to not need to deal with these things. I just get to sit in my air conditioned apartment and type about cardboard games.

But I don’t get the near-jingoism that I see here a lot. I also don’t feel like I’m in a position to criticize it very much, although I can think of many criticisms. Memorial Day and Veterans Day are bi-annual occasions for me to revisit the words of Augustine:

But, say they, the wise man will wage just wars. As if he would not all the rather lament the necessity of just wars, if he remembers that he is a man; for if they were not just he would not wage them, and would therefore be delivered from all wars. For it is the wrongdoing of the opposing party which compels the wise man to wage just wars; and this wrong-doing, even though it gave rise to no war, would still be matter of grief to man because it is man’s wrong-doing. Let every one, then, who thinks with pain on all these great evils, so horrible, so ruthless, acknowledge that this is misery. And if any one either endures or thinks of them without mental pain, this is a more miserable plight still, for he thinks himself happy because he has lost human feeling.

In Twilight Struggle the entire Vietnam war is reduced to a single card. It gets played, it shifts some political influence in southeast Asia, and then it’s gone. This is one of the most remarkable aspects of the game, because by reducing the entire conflict down to a single data point it mirrors the cold-war Realpolitik way of thinking about international relations. It mechanically simulates an anti-Kantian thought process where armies and people are used only as a means, not an end. It’s absolutely brilliant.

But it’s also pushing you to think about global conflicts in what many people would say is a very immoral way. Go may teach you to think more rationally and pragmatically, but I don’t want some people pursuing the ends they want pragmatically and effectively. Euro games may teach you to economize resources more effectively, but I don’t want some resources in reality economized effectively.

Looking back I suppose the answers to all of my rhetorical question in this article are pretty obvious. War games aren’t immoral–at least all of the ones I’ve played are very respectful and take a historical approach. No one’s going to turn evil from playing a board game. But we’re privileged enough to spend our time playing and thinking about games, so I think we can afford to reflect on some uncomfortable parts of our hobby, even if the ethical “solutions” seem obvious. But that’s not the point. The point is that reflecting on the evils of the world in a somber way is beneficial to the individual and the community. The point is that, in some sense, we’re able to sit here and read about board games because many people died ugly, violent deaths in stupid conflicts because we, as people, are so frequently horrible and nasty and violent.

There are many memorials in Washington D.C. for the many wars we’ve been involved in, but I think the Vietnam memorial is the most haunting. It’s a large black wall engraved with the names of every single U.S. soldier that died in the war. You walk downwards to reach it, so that the ambient sounds seems to slightly mute as you approach. The immensity of all of those names is shocking. It’s overwhelming. You continue to look because to look away and give yourself some sensory relief feels wrong. But as you look on the glossy black stone with all of those names, you also see the reflection of yourself.

It’s Memorial Day. Let’s reflect.


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2 thoughts on “Abstracting Death: Thoughts About Board Games and War”

  1. I liked this article and your reflections relating to Memorial Day.

    War-games cross the spectrum from very abstract to simulated reality. I remember playing Milton-Bradley classics like Battle Cry! and Hit the Beach!, which covered the civil war and Pacific theater, respectively. As I got older, Avalon Hill’s Panzer Blitz and Squad Leader piled on realistic effects (fog of war, LOS, morale and weapons malfunctions), while keeping the graphics of cardboard chits ultra-simplified. I can’t say I ever enjoyed wiping out a unit of German soldiers on the board (especially because they had been one of our closest NATO allies from before I was born), anymore than I wept for a unit of American airborne troops that had perished in melee combat. What I did enjoy was the experience of command, and learning (often from mistakes) about the kinds of decisions leaders must be ready to make when engaging an enemy force.

    Later, as I completed my own FLEX (field leadership exercise) and performed many unit-based event sims, the “reality” of how many of our platoon would have been KIA or incapacitated as a result of our actions was sobering in its own way, but didn’t detract from the overall sense of accomplishment or “fun” in completing a difficult task. There was an interesting article in Ars Technica recently regarding how gaming in general is used to train our troops and operators in skills that will be employed on the battlefield or elsewhere.


    Although not directly about combat, the gaming system devised by these intelligence officers provides a useful tool in fostering the kind of teamwork-based skills and executive functioning that operatives will call upon in theater, especially because their effectiveness is so relationship-based. Failure to work together in this scenario has significant in-game consequences, and hopefully breeds lessons that persist long after the game is over.

    Certainly there’s the potential for a more somber atmosphere as one considers limited options and realizes that there may not be a single “good” choice that will lead to a desirable outcome. That’s life. But in its own way, it’s still fun.

  2. After I had moved to D.C. for an internship (in 1998! :-o), on my first visit to the Mall, I stumbled across the VVM entirely by accident, and caught my breath. It is an astounding piece of architecture. But that night, I was hit much more heavily by this realization: in a war that cost 4 million lives, only “our” 58,318 are individualized, the ones that matter.

    In an effort to become the most humane memorial, it may have become the worst.

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