Paleocons vs. Neocons in Board War Gaming
Mark Wegierski reports on the curious world of conflict simulations
There are in America, Canada, and most Western countries today, a large number of what could be called “geek subgenres.” Apart from a more general interest in some of these areas by a larger proportion of the population, they are also followed by dedicated fan communities. These would include science fiction (such as Star Trek and Star Wars); fantasy (which was pioneered by J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings); role-playing games (such as Dungeons and Dragons); comic-books; and multifarious types of gaming, including historical board games (also called war games, strategy games, or conflict simulations). Historical board games could be seen as a more reality-based alternative in relation to most forms of gaming and fan identifications today.
Having attended the same high school — University of Toronto Schools (UTS), a rather unique “model” school affiliated with the University of Toronto — in Toronto, Ontario, Canada as David Frum in the mid to late 1970s, I knew him to be a fairly avid war game player. Among the games popular at that time was Invasion: America, a war game portraying a hypothetical future invasion of the United States and Canada by three hostile powers — the “European Socialist Coalition”, the “South American Union” and the “Pan-Asiatic League.” Another very popular game was Sinai, a depiction of the major Arab-Israeli Wars of 1956, 1967, and 1973. There was also a game called Oil War, which portrayed a “near-future” attempt by the United States to seize control of virtually the entire oil supplies of the Middle East (in the wake of a new OPEC embargo) — by the launching of a simultaneous attack against Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the smaller Gulf countries. The play of the game usually resulted in easy American victories, as the swarms of “nifty-looking” counters representing air force and naval aviation units — supported by airborne infantry and amphibiously-landing Marines — blasted away the curiously weak Arab and Iranian armies. There was no inkling that massive guerilla resistance to the American assault might occur. The Soviets were also conspicuously absent.
While there certainly was an element of gamers who enjoyed playing Nazi Germany in World War II East Front games a bit too much, there were also many young neocons who were drawn to the hobby. As a young, traditionalist-leaning student, I was repelled by what could be perceived, in its most pointed form — the “Nazi worship” elements of the hobby — but the main concerns of the young neocons also were, to some extent, remote to me. However, I appreciated their willingness at that time to confront Soviet imperialism.
Looking back at a shared interest in war games by persons of varying outlooks (most of which would be conventionally considered as being “on the Right”) I must say a number of contrasts have emerged today. Under the Bush Administration, David Frum was briefly one of the most important persons in the United States, who, it could be sharply said, was “playing war games for real.” It could be asked, however, if his interest in the hobby ever actually imparted a genuine historical sense to him — or of any sense of the real suffering entailed by war. Perhaps it is subliminally just a feeling of pushing colorful cardboard counters around on a finely designed map, in search of “the perfect offensive.”
Persons of “paleo” persuasions usually have their understandings of war leavened by a more careful study of history and culture. They understand, for example, that the program of a “global democratic revolution” cannot be considered as any kind of “conservatism”; and that the defense of America’s heartland “base” is actually more important than imperial engagements half a world away. So an adolescent interest in war gaming can lead one along various paths.
The interest in historical board war games can, nevertheless, be seen as among the most “conservative” of the “geek subgenres” mentioned above. Indeed one can highlight the contrast between historical board war games vs. role-playing games and electronic shoot’em-ups. Historical war gamers and players of Dungeons and Dragons are often considered as “mortal enemies” in the broader gaming hobby.
Historical board games have been commercially marketed in the U.S. since the late 1950s. Codified rules for playing with historical miniatures (i.e., so-called “toy soldiers”) are one of the origins of historical board gaming. Abstract military board games such as RISK, Tactics II, and Diplomacy are also close cousins. Diplomacy was one of the favorite pastimes of some university students, especially those studying political science.
Avalon Hill pioneered the genre in the late 1950s, with its 1958 game on the battle of Gettysburg. The company moved through decades of varying success, bringing out such titles as PanzerBlitz (World War II tactical armored combat), Third Reich (strategic WWII), and the Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) system of tactical WWII combat. The firm has been acquired in the late-1990s by toys and games giant Hasbro, resulting in the abandonment of nearly all of its game lines, deemed far too complex for the current-day audience
War gaming’s Golden Age was the mid to late 1970s, the heyday of its second major company, SPI (Simulations Publications, Inc.). It has been argued that historical board games were heavily undermined by the Dungeons and Dragons company, TSR, which took over SPI in the early 1980s, and let historical games languish, in favor of building up the fantasy role-playing games (RPG’s) market. Mostly arcade-style electronic games, as well as collectible card games (CCG’s) (now called trading card games – or TCG’s) (such as Magic: The Gathering — and, most spectacularly, Pokémon — both controlled by Wizards of the Coast) challenged what remained of board war gaming in the late 1980s and the 1990s. TSR was itself taken over by WOTC, which in turn has been bought out by Hasbro.
Today, board wargaming (as well as playing games of the wargame type in electronic format), might be seen as a more reality-grounded alternative to currently prevalent gaming genres. Fantasy RPG’s (especially of the newer, darker variety — such as those in X-Files-type settings), might tend to encourage an excess of florid and disorienting imaginings in some people. The mostly arcade-style electronic games (typically, the so-called First Person Shooters such as DOOM) are centered around grotesquely individualized, very graphic killing, and are in most cases entirely history-less. While there are of course more abstract, electronic, arcade-type games (typified by the 1980s PAC-MAN and TETRIS) addictive videoplaying conditioning is certainly present in most of them. In CCG’s, one finds, apart from the commonly-seen occult aspects, a combination of collecting and gambling impulses. (Mainly because of the way the cards have been marketed, with only a few “strong” cards randomly included in larger packets which are purchased unseen, like in a sort of lottery.)
The facts of the concreteness — of the historical situation, the game-board, as well as the counters representing military units — may help a person playing such a game avoid falling into the overwrought fantasizing sometimes found in RPG’s, and the sometimes addictive aspects of FPS’s and CCG’s.
Even when playing ahistorical board wargames (such as those based on near-future, alternative-history, or sci-fi situations, or those set in Tolkien-style fantasy worlds), or when playing strategy games electronically, there might be a certain residual concreteness, a distinct tempering of what is in other cases the often lurid “virtual reality” of the game. This concreteness is also present in historical miniatures, but the financial costs of these elaborately-painted historical “figures” are clearly much greater, particularly if one wants to play out such great battles as Waterloo. One should mention, also, the rather lurid subgenre of miniatures gaming represented by the Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000 A.D. systems; as well as the existence of other fantasy and sci-fi miniatures systems.
Chatham Hill Games produces a number of small, simple, inexpensive games, suitable for children (not all of which are strictly wargames), based on American history. Gamewright Games produces a series of mostly young children’s games, most of which are not military-related. The main Internet portals for wargaming are www.grognard.com and www.consimworld.com. There are also a lot of wargames featured at www.boardgamegeek.com .
The major printed historical gaming magazine (which includes a game with each issue) is Strategy & Tactics (published by Decision Games, which has acquired what remained of the old SPI). They have also launched spin-off magazines on World War II and Modern game topics.
In December 2001, the other major gaming magazine, COMMAND, and its parent company, XTR, declared bankruptcy, after having produced fifty-four issues packed with military history (with one or two games in each issue) and several games outside of the magazine. A new magazine with a game in it is Against The Odds.
Some other extant boardgame companies include GMT, Multi-Man Publishing (MMP), Avalanche Press, Clash of Arms, Columbia Games, Critical Hit/Moments in History, L2 Design Group, and Eagle Games. There have also arisen companies that produce, through desk-top publishing, games on sometimes-obscure topics, such as Schutze, Microgame Design Group, and Victory Point Games. One should also mention the family-oriented boardgames imported from Germany (the so-called “Eurogames”) such as the very popular Settlers of Catan. These games, which typically have very high-quality components, are also less explicitly military. In Europe, there are also, among other enterprises, Azure Wish, Phalanx Games, and the French gaming magazine Vae Victis. The Australian Design Group (ADG) is known for its massive World War II games.
While they, too, can sometimes be very obsessive, historical boardgames could be seen as more grounded in reality and in somewhat useful knowledge (about military history, strategy, and real geography), than role-playing games and most electronic-based games. It could be argued that most board wargames can usually harness some fairly commonly-occurring “armchair general” desires to relatively positive ends. In some cases, however, the impact of the “wargame mentality” may be less salutary.
Mark Wegierski is a film buff and science fiction aficionado. He lives in Toronto