Family fun for future Führers

Sunday, 26 August 2007 — 11:51pm | Board games

If Settlers of Catan is any indication, Germany sure has a grand tradition of designing tabletop amusements. Last week, German board games made headlines when a British auction house put several Nazi-era propaganda games on the block. On Friday, the BBC followed it up with a story about some of the British wartime equivalents, which included stimulating titles like “Decorate Goering” and “Hang Your Washing on the Siegfried Line.”

Regrettably, the mainstream press saw fit to stop at the level of goals, objectives and the roleplay element, and did not appear to find the game mechanics themselves to be newsworthy. This is understandable, given that the representational level of “Bomb London for 100 points” is probably of more interest to historians than the question of how exactly one goes about conducting such a blitz.

My philosophy with respect to the vast and undefinable realm of “board games” (including some diversions that involve no boards at all, which I would refer to as “hobby games” if I were so rash as to claim that they were no more than hobbies) parallels my attitude towards video games: the game mechanics are often as important to the “meaning” of the game experience as the “story” that exists from without.

To draw on an example from the more abstract end of the board game spectrum: when a detective testified that interviewing disgraced former astronaut Lisa Nowak was “like a chess game,” he didn’t mean he felt like a plodding monarch commanding an imposing army on a battlefield opposite a symmetrically positioned opponent. The “story” that a chess game represents lies in the strategy and tactics that arise from the rules that govern how the pieces move: “chess” connotes a semantic field chock full of concepts like stalemate, entrapment and genius.

Then again, that’s only one interpretation. It’s always possible to turn things around and look at them Through the Looking-Glass, as Alice did, and enter a world where chess really is about knights and bishops traipsing about the countryside and endangering pawns on a quest for promotion (along with the occasional Humpty Dumpty).

In the case of games of war, conquest or economic supremacy—and I think that encompasses the lion’s share of the popular non-abstract board games that don’t involve trivia questions—there is a very clear narrative that arises from the setting and object of the game. Players are quite actively encouraged to identify as characters in the game world. No matter how it is you go about moving the pieces in Bomber über England, or how interchangeable the mechanics are with variant boards set in other countries, the fact that the game is about bombing British cities says to the player, “You are the Luftwaffe.” Bring glory to the Fatherland. That’s the story.

The existence of Nazi propaganda games shouldn’t turn any sufficiently educated heads. It should be no surprise to anyone that themed board games have some kind of social or political function in any age, be it the Second World War or the present day. But I think the role of the game mechanics in defining that function is often less obvious.

If you look at Diplomacy, a game that (on the standard map) is about upsetting the balance of power in pre-WWI Europe, the elements that distinguish the way the game plays out—the backroom deals and backstabs—necessarily arise from the two key principles of the overall design: 1) all moves are simultaneous, and 2) all armies are equal. There is nothing in the rules that insists you negotiate or break agreements in order to escape the deadlock: it just happens because there is no plausible alternative. If there is a message here, it is that diplomacy works or fails as a method of international engagement depending on how you assess the other actors, who inevitably keep their intentions and agreements concealed.

Similarly, if there is a social message to Settlers of Catan beyond the idea that virgin lands bearing resources are out there waiting to be exploited, it is this: in a situation where you can’t invade or destroy rival settlements that are in your way, trade is the solution to economic scarcity, and ultimately the path to victory. Again, there is nothing in the rules that say you must trade, let alone do it effectively. It just implicitly becomes a strategic necessity.

This isn’t to say that the mechanics are always going to be relevant to what the game is doing, or that they even serve an interesting purpose in any significant capacity. Removing Hitler from a game about throwing darts at Hitler leaves you with nothing more than a game of darts. And I’m sure that decorating Goering would be a ball no matter how it is you went about determining whose turn it is, or what kind of decorations you may affix, and where.

As I discussed when I wrote that rather lengthy piece about Connect Four back in May, I personally derive more enjoyment from strategic elements than the activity of roleplaying. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a spot of incisive political commentary for its own sake, independent of how fun it is to actually play the game.

Case in point: I have, before me, a rather splendid birthday gift entitled The Game of France, 1940: German Blitzkrieg in the West.

This isn’t a rare piece of Nazi memorabilia, of course, but a relatively obscure Avalon Hill title published in 1972. I haven’t the foggiest idea how to play it, but it sure is fun to read the appropriately sardonic companion booklets.

The “Designer’s Notes and Campaign Analysis” supplement begins thus:

A game is not like a book. A game can talk back. For this reason we give the game’s designer a chance to talk back also. What he had in mind, and what the game says to some people may not always be the same. And, finally, there is the problem of figuring out just what the game is supposed to be saying. That’s what we’re going to try to do here.

First, it is necessary to explain some general background on why France, 1940 was designed. The subject has always been a popular one. The campaign was, after all, the first real test of the “blitzkrieg”. But it was a rather one-sided test. The Germans smashed the Allied armies so decisively that they did not have to face a large “western” army again for three years. Most people assume that, because of the magnitude of the German victory, the Allied armies in 1940 didn’t stand much of a chance. That’s a fairly correct assumption. And that was the main reason why it took so long for a game on this period to appear.

And so on.

There are also instructions for playing the game in a historically accurate manner (“The ‘Idiot’s Game’: Re-creating History with the ‘Dyle Plan'”).

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