The Goonhammer Round Table: Historical Portrayals in Wargaming

Since we’re diving into the Second World War this month, the Goonhammer Historicals crew decided that it was high time we had a bit of a chat about some of the more troubling elements in historical wargaming. Portraying real history and real people on the tabletop is a very different experience to portraying ogres and genetically engineered space soldiers, and it throws up a lot of questions that deserve serious consideration.

What is it about historical wargaming that appeals to you?

Lupe: Historical wargaming has appealed to me from a young age, partly because I grew up in a household that loved history and archaeology. As a young kid I was dragged to a lot of rainy burial mounds in Scandinavia and though at the time I wasn’t thrilled, in retrospect it definitely got me interested in the past. As I became nerdy, historicals became an obvious way of linking those interests together. I love diving into a historical period, researching it, reading about it and the lives of the people in it, and furthering my understanding of how people lived, and died, in different times and places.

Serotonin: I always enjoyed historical stories and my history lessons as a child at school. Like Lupe I was also dragged around stately homes and historical sites as a character building exercise, so it’s clearly rubbed off. I started gaming with fantasy and sci fi themes and clearly it was easy to spot the historical references in the fluff of games like WFB and early 40k, so I thought why not go straight to the source? Ironically the first historical games I played were the now out of print Warhammer Historical games. The attraction of historicals for me is manifold. The sources of inspiration are endless. This is a positive and negative. Literally anything can be a source of inspiration and that burning, niggling thought about starting a new army or gaming project can be ignited by a book, TV show or even something in the locality like a ruin or battlefield site. It can get expensive. On the other hand with the varying scales and increasing availability of plastics, historicals are much cheaper than some of the big brand hobby games. I really enjoy researching uniforms and army composition and more than once my research has come up trumps in answering a trivia question.

Thundercloud: Historical gaming is something that appeals to me because of the sweep of history, and the research element. It helps that it’s generally a lot cheaper than Fantasy or Sci Fi games and there is a far greater breadth of rules sets. My first wargaming excursion was Space Marine 2nd Edition (which is Epic) but I also played 1/32 scale WW2 skirmish, which was actually really easy to get into because the models were so cheap. Toy soldiers inherited from older members of the family gave me an ample supply and the models were forgiving of my youthful enamel paint jobs, using the paints that I’d originally got to paint 1/72 scale planes and tanks. Historicals reminds me of that youth, but also my inevitable slide into being a bearded grog who complains that models have the wrong webbing for June of 1944.

Zuul the Cat: My first foray into wargaming was actually Warhammer Fantasy Battles. I didn’t get into historicals until I was in college getting a Bachelors in History when my friend stopped playing Warhammer 40,000 and started playing Bolt Action. Like many folks who start historicals, I was drawn in by my friend giving me a box of something – in my case, Soviet Infantry for Bolt Action. What appeals to me most about historical wargaming is that it’s a fun crossroads of two passions of mine: History and Wargaming. I love researching eras and basing my gaming forces off of real world historical battles and units. Because of that, I currently play a wide range of historical eras: Viking, Ancients, Second World War, Middle Ages, Colonial and the American West.

Ilor: I avoided historical miniatures games for a long time because I’m a huge history buff as it is, and I just knew that once I got started it would be an obsessive rabbit hole for me. I was not wrong. I first got into historicals with the American Civil War, and it didn’t take long before I had branched out to other eras. For me, the thing about military history that I find so fascinating is just the sheer chaos of it. How battles will turn on just the most ridiculous little events, and how minor limitations or mishaps take on monumental (and usually disastrous) proportions once the shooting starts. It’s what von Clausewitz famously called “friction” and it’s why I’m such a huge fan of games by the Too Fat Lardies; you’re never truly in control, and need to make the best of a bad situation – just like the people on the field during those fateful conflicts.

Mugginns: I love doing the research. I’ve always been a huge history buff, starting right around the 125th anniversary of the Civil War when movies like Glory and Gettysburg came out and mini-series like North and South and The Blue and the Gray were on TV. PBS Ken Burns’ Civil War and Civil War Journal on History Channel were huge in making me an ACW buff. I’ve read tons of books, been to most of the battlefields, and watched all the documentaries.

I played 40k and Fantasy for years but never really found a crowd for Historical games. When I discovered Bolt Action it was like a light switch; I built and painted a half dozen armies, doing all the research and sometimes buying books in foreign languages. I think that’s really the best part about it – sourcing minis and figuring out what things were really like for those soldiers. Putting all the effort into the Slovak Fast Division project I did really paid off – everyone says it looks great and learning about this little-known army feels like you’re unearthing secret history.

After playing Bolt Action and then grabbing some SAGA stuff I finally found TFL and when Sharp Practice came out it was a revelation for me. I could play ACW, French and Indian War, Napoleonic stuff, etc. and not have to build and paint a thousand models. I now have models for almost every black powder era and I’m slowly going through everything.

Kenji: Probably due to my background as a Lit. Phd who focused a lot on history, and being a huge nerd with amazing dad energy, I found historicals a really interesting, weird playground. However, I’m actually fairly new to them in general as far as gaming goes, and have found myself lured into them more and more because of their breadth, variety, and cost; being experimental and trying a historical game seems a lot less of a financial mistake than other games. I also have an odd penchant for getting into things that no one else in my local area enjoys at all, so historicals also seemed to fit that bill for some reason. More realistically, I just like the idea of painting the models and love the lavish detail and research that goes into the painting of models, if not always the writing of rules. I have a big background as a board gamer before being a miniature gamer, and my history of wargames from the likes of GMT fueled my interest in painting and looking at historical models. Also, historicals just sort of look amazing on a table, with huge ranks of soldiers being shuffled about.

What historical portrayals do you consider potentially problematic?

Lupe: I think it’s really important to consider what’s problematic in context. Ultimately, how people perceive the past and the people in the past changes all the time, and that makes stuff challenging. What I find problematic, as a white British man, isn’t going to be the same as everyone else. And that’s… tricky. Because ultimately, I’m a product of colonialism and white privilege and everything else, and while I can try to be aware of that and factor that in, it’s not always easy. I would say anything that glorifies or celebrates awful people and groups, especially if they still have direct influence on the present… that’s what’s really problematic. Portraying the Germans in WW2 isn’t an issue in and of itself, but portraying them in a way that buys into their propaganda and the mythologising around them that occurred at the time and after is. Portraying them in a way that celebrates them, and the awful awful things they did … that’s problematic. Ultimately, games are also supposed to be fun, so stuff that’s just miserable is also problematic for me in this context. You shouldn’t portray genocide in wargame, even if it’s historically authentic or done well, because I don’t think that can be done well in the context of playing a game for fun.

Zuul the Cat: I completely agree that context is important. What may be perfectly acceptable to me, a white, male American, may not be acceptable to an opponent of mine or an observer of a game. I actually play Germans in Bolt Action and the historian in me has to base them off actual historical units. My force primarily goes up against a friend’s Soviet army and it’s nearly impossible to find a German unit on the Eastern Front that didn’t commit some kind of war crime. One of the ways I counter these issues is by educating people who ask about my army.

Mugginns: I think sometimes games can encourage problematic stuff (mostly older games) – like glorifying colonial powers in Africa, making the SS noble warriors, or giving colonial troops in WW2 vicious and savage rules. I think more recent rulesets have done a much better job at fixing issues like this.

I have come to embrace modern time period games. I can certainly understand if someone didn’t want to play them – no problem, we don’t have to play it – but it’s a conflict just like the others and the uniforms, vehicles, weapons, and tactics are very interesting. I think you can avoid some issues with it by not having suicide bombers, executing prisoners, or IEDs. There’s obviously a lot more that someone could find objectionable but those are some of the things that are pretty gross.

There are some time periods I’d like to figure out how to play without being awful – i.e. it’d be a two sided fight without stereotypes – like Native Americans fighting back against the US government taking their land – be it in Florida before the ACW, or out west during and after the ACW.

Zuul the Cat: My friend and I actually want to do a whole campaign based on Red Cloud’s War/Bozeman War/Powder River War. I wrote a paper on the subject in college and I’ve always really enjoyed reading about it. It’s a great opportunity to model numerous native tribes.

Ilor: I don’t find modern stuff as problematic as a lot of people do, but I often approach wargaming from an educational standpoint. What I find most problematic about historical wargaming are those portrayals of peoples, units, or nationalities in ways that are reductionist, stereotypical, or derogatory. “All Italians are cowards” in WW2 games, or “Native forces are savages” in the French and Indian War. Hell, even the “Asiatic Hordes” portrayal of the Soviets in WW2 is problematic, because it is directly inherited from German propaganda rather than any real facts based in reality.

Zuul the Cat: Or the one that just gets me riled up like no other, that the French are cowards. Have you ever even picked up any history book!?

Kenji: I agree with a lot of the stuff others have said, and I think my biggest issue that historicals, for the most part, seem to be written (unsurprisingly) by white (old?) Americans and Europeans, particularly those who tended to side against the Soviets. I think this leads to a lot of mythologizing and fudging of information, and a lot of it also goes into being pocket historians who based their views of history off of already faulty work. As pointed out, making rules about Italians giving up, or Germans being super organized, Americans being… American, I guess. Much of this history is blatantly false or based on stereotypes, and a greater majority of it comes from learning history from movies than it does from actual accounts of what happened. The Shut Up and Sit Down review of Undaunted: Normandy really encapsulates this well by discussing the obsession of wargaming to focus on Normandy, D-Day, and the US, and also on the weird way certain parts of history are expanded to forget others.

However, I’m going to discuss something a little different, and that’s the depiction of Japan in most wargames. (I also want to make the caveat if it isn’t known that “Kenji” is my nickname and I’m not Japanese, or even Asian.) A lot of wargames talk about Japanese troops as almost inherently fanatical and fatalistic, with lots of rules about suiciding and other unsavory ideas. However, these games also ignore the extreme level of atrocity enacted by Imperial Japan upon much of their empire, or even the toll placed upon the average Japanese citizen. There is a lot of discussion about Germany and how many Germans were or weren’t complicit, and in Japan, this was an even harder topic to consider. Most Japanese had little actual knowledge of the outside world, and Showa era governance was brutal and repressive, but it was also not unpopular in most cases; the Showa era brought Japan to the greatest heights it had ever seen to that point, and made Japan an international juggernaut faster than almost any other power.

The issue I’ve seen with Japanese portrayals in WWII games is that they are usually shown as being “almost savage”, or like a “step above” savages, when the Japanese Empire was perhaps one of the largest industrial and military forces in the war, let alone the world, at the time. Many people know Japan controlled Korea and parts of China (notoriously Manchuria), but few tend to realize Japan also controlled Vietnam, Thailand, and even Indonesia. The Japanese army in Bolt Action, for example, have special rules for “Banzai charges” and “Death Before Dishonor”, painting the Empire that brutally colonized much of Asia and brought China and Russia to heel at various points as functionally religious fanatics, suicide charging gunlines because they apparently had no supplies. This is only true if your Wargame is, well, American centric, as it would be the case in some combats leading to their surrender, but does not accurately represent the Japanese military.

More problematically, this also ignores the brutal colonial crimes and war crimes Japan visited upon the people they controlled, and unlike the way games ignore the Holocaust (which seems to be because it wasn’t “in combat”), much of Japan’s atrocities were enacted during combat. (Some even call Japan’s actions in the Second Sino-Japanese war, not even counting what they did AFTER the war, the “Asian Holocaust”). But because Japan, perhaps more than any other WWII “bad guy”, were brought heavily to heel by the United States, they tend to exist in a very weird space in war games that paint them as goofy, Captain America Punching Tojo-esque delusional warriors. As some others have mentioned, it almost makes me wonder if this is how modern war games would depict Afghani or Iraqi soldiers against the US. Anyway, for anyone wanting some idea of what Showa Japan was like, I highly recommend Shigeru Mizuki’s Showa: A History of Japan, a multi-volume manga written by a guy who survived the Showa period and, while critical of it, is also brutally honest about what it was like to live in it. This is just a taste, too, but it makes a good starting point, especially if your knowledge of WWII Japan is “Pearl Harbor happened and then we war crimed them, twice”.

Thundercloud: You could write whole books about the crappy portrayals and lionising of Nazis in gaming. The Nazis got lucky with applying combined arms warfare better than their opposition in the early war, and having a much larger and more modern army than some of their opponents (Poland, Belgium, Holland, Greece), but this is used to justify a lot of ‘Waffen SS supermen’ crap, when this is a deliberate creation of SS members after the war that also portrays the military wing of the Nazi Party as an apolitical organisation of heroes standing against the Red menace. Much of the ‘truisms’ portrayed in wargaming the Eastern front, from the Asiatic Russian hordes who don’t value human life (therefore it’s ok to kill them in huge numbers, and prisoners, and civilians) to the elite and noble SS fighting for a doomed if flawed cause with individual heroism (which is very familiar to anyone reading American Civil war discourse even now). This is called historical negationism, where people deny things happened, like the Holocaust, or that slavery was bad or WWI sucked for the people involved, all of which have happened. Historical revisionism is different, and normally involves examining more sources, rather than just taking the prevailing narrative as true. This normally gives more balanced views, and is why historical revisionism is demonised by people who don’t want to question whether colonialism was a good thing, or whether the treatment of the Irish by the British (brutality, market driven famine, land theft) was in any way wrong. This is now being enforced by some governments, and a ban on ‘victim narratives’ by the UK government would mean teachers having to both sides historical events like Slavery, the Irish Famine, the British Empire, etc etc.

This was encouraged because after WWII the Russians were the new enemy who needed to be demonised, as opposed to a key ally responsible for 90% of Nazi military casualties and the dismemberment of the Nazi war machine. Nazis after WWII literally founded an organisation, HIAG, to portray the SS as apolitical, elite, innocent of war crimes and an ‘army of Europe’. The organisation opposed de-Nazification in West Germany, and published numerous books through their publishing house which were heavy on aryan heroism and light on the murdering civilians parts. Similarly the ‘clean’ Wermacht is trotted out again and again, along with an emphasis on the war crimes of the allies and a ‘good people on both sides’ talking point. If you’ve dealt with someone saying that the Waffen SS, the military wing of the Nazi party, is an apolitical organisation, then it’s possible they’ve been reading Nazi propaganda, or more likely someone’s uncritical regurgitation of it in a wargaming rules set.

Similarly the notion of European culture, which posits that Spanish people and Swedish people are culturally exactly the same because they’re white, is another right wing trope that ties in with the army of Europe idea peddled for HIAG.

The SS rule of cool infects and displaces a historical portrayal of Germany, to the point where you can get rules for individual SS divisions in Flames of War, or plastic SS from Warlord Games (along with 4 other plastic German infantry kits to cover every period, when there is no coverage of any of the allies in plastic for the first two/three years of WW2 with the exception of the Desert Rats).

Germans are the Space Marines of WW2 (fascist and mythologised) but a complete absence of BEF, Home Guard, French, Poles etc in plastic pushes people into playing the late war period if they want to play an allied nation, or just playing Germans.

Is historical wargaming as a whole problematic?

Serotonin: History is full of problematic themes sadly, but does that make historical wargaming itself problematic? There’s definitely players around who have an unhealthy fascination with some of the more problematic forces and eras. Then again having played a 40k game against an opponent with naked women in compromising positions emblazoned on their Rhinos, and endless SS themed Space Marine armies on social media, it’s how players tackle the subject that’s pertinent. Somehow the Land Raider emblazoned in Iron Crosses and swastikas feels much worse than someone fielding a platoon of Wehrmacht and a Pz4.

Also the definition of what is problematic mostly seems to extend to depictions of Nazism in wargaming. We tend to give a bye to those armies of antiquity who we are further removed from by the centuries. For me it comes down to intent and scenario.

Lupe: Yes, I think that’s fair. Ultimately, our culture always enshrines violence and warfare in our shared experiences and entertainment. Historical wargaming, and wargaming more broadly, isn’t particularly different to Call of Duty, or Saving Private Ryan. They can be done with different levels of sensitivity, and they can be problematic or not depending on how they’re handled.

I do think it’s important to remember that problematic elements depend on who and where you are. American Civil War stuff can be… tricky. But much less so in the UK than the US.

Thundercloud: I agree with this. It’s much easier to approach a conflict neutrally where it isn’t ‘and then my ancestors committed a genocide’ or something sufficiently distanced from us in time like the Chariot era, where no one has national pride affecting their biases (not to disregard the Cyrus the Great stans out there).

Zuul the Cat: I think that ultimately the problematic stuff stems from wargamers and not necessarily wargaming companies (with a few companies obviously leaning into mind-boggling decisions). My friend loves the movie Zulu and watched it as a kid. He recently bought into the Battle of Isandlwana force and is currently painting them all up. It’s a historical battle in which the Zulus crushed the 1st British Invasion force. I don’t see anything wrong with gaming around this era, even if it is from the colonial era. However, if a gamer were to take these models and turn them into, say, a Belgian Congo themed force, I would have a serious issue with that.

Ilor: I don’t think historical gaming as a whole is problematic, but you do need to be sensitive to the underlying causes for the conflicts you are gaming in the first place. No conflict is “value neutral,” and every war represents some level of aggression and/or oppression. The key is to focus on the tactics and strategies of the period. You don’t want to be completely divorced from history – no ACW game should fail to point out that the Confederacy are the bad guys – but so long as everyone understands the context in which the conflict takes place I think representing the clashes between armed forces is OK. Indeed, I think it can be educational.

Mugginns: I don’t think it’s problematic. I think we’re entering an age where lots of the people making games and playing games a lot are more open to inclusivity and keeping stereotypes and awful behavior at the door. The internet has made gamers more aware that gamers aren’t all just like them, and ideas are a lot easier to exchange.

To be honest, I’m the first to try to help people understand why a certain element of their rules or scenario aren’t the best idea because of x,y or z problematic issues, but I do get tired of the overall idea that historical games are problematic or icky. I have friends who say they won’t play historical games because it’s something that really happened, or it was adjacent to something bad, but will watch Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, or play Call of Duty.

Kenji: No, of course not. I don’t think an entire genre of game is problematic. I think there are problematic elements involved in how people MAKE the games, or market or attract players to the games, but the games themselves are, for better or worse, attempting to recreate history on the table. In a lot of ways, this then falls to players and how they wish to take part in that recreation, which gives a lot more agency to the players being the problematic element than the games, or at least, should give designers some pause to think “will my players cosplay the Wehrmacht while playing this”. And, as Muggins mentioned Call of Duty, I think what Call of Duty is doing regarding historical revisionism on behalf of American war crimes is miles, if not lightyears, ahead of any problems historical games can produce.

How would you handle problematic elements sensitively? Can they be handled sensitively?

Serotonin: I know of players who won’t field German forces in WW2 games. I personally don’t have an issue with them as long as the forces are accurately portrayed and not used as a canvas to draw swastikas everywhere. Saying that, I wouldn’t feel comfortable theming my force as an SS battalion and I would have to be absolutely sure of my opponent’s motivation if they turned up and put one on the table.

At one point I started collecting some colonial forces to game the British in Sudan in the late 19th century Mahdist uprising. I was mainly attracted by the cool uniforms and the fantastic miniatures available but as I did more reading I realised I couldn’t see any fun in it. A horrible period of history that covered no one in glory. Anyone want to buy some Perry’s?

Ilor: I’ll field German forces of pretty much any type, but I draw a line at putting swastikas on my models. I just don’t do it. All of my current German minis are Afrika Korps, and for anyone unfamiliar with it the symbol for the Afrika Korps as a whole is a swastika over a palm tree. As a result, none of my DAK models have Afrika Korps symbols on them. I’m OK with the Balkenkreuz or an Iron Cross, but swastikas are a bridge too far. I realize that this may be splitting hairs, but the difference between “symbol of the German military” versus “symbol of an ideology of hate” feels sufficiently distinct to me.

Kenji: Friends, I believe that, contrary to rumors, Germans did actually exist in World War II. For that reason, it feels only required to include them in the game, despite their seemingly mythical nature. Jokes aside, I think handling problematic material and events comes down to intent. I don’t think I’d want to play a “free the Jews” mission in a wargame, because that just sounds incredibly uncomfortable, but I think not playing Germans, or pretending they didn’t exist or weren’t Nazis, is just not something that sounds reasonable. I agree with almost everyone here: Germans exist. You can play as Germans. You can even like to play them based on rules! But you don’t have to paint them with swastikas and SS symbols and shit all over them.

Similarly, there’s also perhaps a need for historical gamers to learn that also applies to Japan. Maybe don’t cover your army in the Rising Sun Flag, or, perhaps (while funny) embarrassingly use the Modern Japanese flag instead of the Rising Sun Flag, or the OTHER Japanese flag, which is the Rising Sun Flag but on a 2:3 ratio to differentiate it from the Imperial Rising Sun flag. Basically maybe just don’t use the Japanese flag if you can avoid it except on like a banner. And maybe, just to the guy in my local area who might read this someday, DON’T FUCKING WEAR THE IMPERIAL RISING SUN FLAG AS A HEADBAND WHILE YOU PLAY BOLT ACTION WITH PEOPLE, IDK. cough. Anyway!

Lupe: it does strike me that I see way more, uh, “merch” for Imperial Japan than I do for Nazi Germany, and maybe that’s a pretty awful Eurocentric view. Even big companies sell dice bags and so on with the Rising Sun on them.

Kenji: Ilor mentioned above that they view historical games as educational, and I agree. That means also that when we are educating or being educated, we need to be mindful; we can’t always avoid unfortunate things and uncomfortable circumstances, but we can approach them with care and knowledge; remember, the Nazi larpers in your local meta don’t want you to talk about accurate history and politics because it makes them uncomfortable that people might find out they really like Nazis, not because you are breaking the “bro code” for not allowing them to goose step around because it’s “just a game”.

Serotonin: I solved the Afrika Korps issue by doing it in 10mm. No one can see the swastikas then. Contrary to some players’ paint schemes, most German armour in WW2 had no swastikas on them. I get suspicious when I see people fielding AFVs with Swastika flags draped across the chassis, as aerial ID markers. I’m sure it did happen, but not every tank. That just looks like you are labouring a point.

Zuul the Cat: As mentioned before, I actually do play Second World War Germans. I have an early & mid war force that I themed around the Großdeutschland panzergrenadier division on the Western Front & Eastern Front. These guys committed war crimes on both the eastern and western fronts. Nothing on my units expressly identifies them as that unit, but for thematic purposes and playing historical battles, that’s who I based them on. I feel pretty okay about fielding this army because I love to point out that they were pretty much wiped out in 1942 on the Eastern Front, then reformed and wiped out again. Much like Ilor, I also do not use any swastikas on my forces, even if they’re historically accurate.

Lupe: I’m immediately suspicious of anyone who turns up with swastikas on minis. Not just because it’s uncomfortable, unpleasant and wayyyy too close to the surface in 2020, but because the chances of you having an army with swastikas all over it that isn’t historically nonsensical is very very limited. Almost always, it’s someone who has inappropriately used them anyway, because what they wanted is, surprise surprise, an army covered in swastikas. I also will not put them on my models. I just don’t see it’s necessary and is a current and significant symbol of hate. I recognise that’s not true in all cultures, but this is the specific context where that’s true.

Thundercloud: If someone turns up with swastikas all over everything they’re ‘virtue’ signalling to own the libs and I imagine by the same line of thinking, Jewish and gay people, trade unionists, socialists and anyone with a disability. If challenged they’ll probably cry about ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘heritage not hate;’ Hitler literally cried ‘freedom of speech’ when he got called out on things, prior to being able to put anyone criticising him in concentration camps.

This isn’t a joke, as Nazis putting Nazi symbols in things to spread their influence is a tactic that they use to take over spaces, and as they did in the 1920s, they particularly target young single white men doing slightly antisocial hobbies. They’ve been doing this in video games and comics, and they’re increasingly trying to do this in wargaming.

Zuul the Cat: I think misrepresentation of historical cultures can be problematic and is something that should be approached with care. One of the ways that gaming companies, because after all these are games, can approach this is by trying to be as accurate as possible with physical representations of real people that have existed and by not playing into stereotypes.

Lupe: Also by trying to have teams that are diverse and representative. If you’re doing, say, a game inspired by pre-Columbian cultures, maybe have some representatives of those cultures (as best as you are able) feeding into that. Ahem. Definitely a random example.

Zuul the Cat: I would love to see some more representation of pre-Columbian cultures in wargaming. Or even just some more diverse options for colonial era gaming that isn’t just a generic “Indian” as portrayed in film.

Kenji: I would love to see a lot of pre-Columbian games as well. Any time I hear of one I immediately just check out once they start raving about “Quetzalcoatl’s Magic” or something about sacrificing and eating people for magical powers in the rulesets. It is frankly a shame that the only “early” historical games are Rome, Europe, and sort of Japan to my knowledge, without any real African or North/South American games. And don’t even get me started on China. How is there NOT a Three Kingdoms miniature game, a genre/period that is perhaps one of the most popular in the entire world?

Thundercloud: I’m actually putting together a Jet Age conversion for Aeronautica at the moment and I’m pondering how to approach writing the background. How do you approach a conflict in an unbiased manner when both sides committed horrible atrocities and pretend that they didn’t, and one of the most common air sorties to base missions on is bombing/napalming a village of civilians? Would you say the war started in 1950, or in 1945 with the American interventions into the Chinese civil war and their bombing campaign in mainland China? Does that turn into revisionism? How do you watch for historical negationism, which I mentioned earlier in discussing the SS and which sources from both sides of the conflict are ripe with as no one admits they did anything wrong.

Mugginns: My favorite time period is the American Civil War by far. I’ve studied it for decades as an amateur historian. To say there are issues with it would be an understatement. Our country is in an environment right now where talking about the ACW can be tough.

There are ways I think you can play it without encouraging awful behavior. We know that most of the Confederate troops during the war were well supplied; the ragged rebel myth is part of the Lost Cause mythology and so I paint my Confederates as well uniformed and supplied. Scenarios we play don’t encourage the ‘damn yankee’ behavior – I tend not to run historical scenarios, mostly because I want to make one up that is devoid of any opinion or thought.

I do sometimes use the well-recognized Confederate battle flag when a unit involved might have had one. The second or third national flag has the battle flag in the top corner. If someone looked uncomfortable or mentioned it I’d be happy to change it to a regular unit flag that didn’t have that symbol.

There are also disclaimers some rules writers put in their rules in the introduction that I think work pretty well. Mentioning that we’re playing a game that takes place in history, but we’re not using the same historical thought or jargon can be really important. There is a ruleset called American Uncivil War that places itself in the 1940s-1960s hokey camp Civil War film environment, but at the beginning they discuss how while they’re setting the game in that era we don’t need to use the language or stereotypes from there, just some of the campy stories.

Lupe: Authorial context is absolutely essential, and I’d like to see more writers tackle this stuff head on. Unfortunately, I see far more authors either blindly ignore it, or actually write stuff that is overtly uncomfortable and discriminatory in the name of “flavour” or “authenticity”. The introduction to the Black Powder rulebook springs to mind here as being a big ball of yikes.

Do you have any absolute red lines – is there anything you would never portray in a wargame?

Serotonin: I feel uncomfortable about gaming modern warfare. Scenarios and conflicts in living memory feel difficult to me. I don’t feel aggrieved to see other gamers play them but it’s not for me. It’s too close and it’s all too murky politically and ethically for me.

Zuul the Cat: Do not, and I cannot ever stress this enough, show up in an SS uniform to a gaming table.

Serotonin: Someone did this to an airsoft event I attended many years ago. They went home very sore.

Kenji: I might have ranted about it up above but someone in a local Bolt Action group brings a Rising Sun headband and puts it on when he plays and yells KAMIKAZE in a very White way when he loses.

Lupe: Yikes. Also, SS themed dice bags and order tokens… that’s a bad sign.

Zuul the Cat: Holy shit, yes. Do not theme out your army bag with SS symbols even if it’s an SS army, what the hell is wrong with you?

Lupe: In short, portray problematic forces in the right circumstances, but don’t, uh, buy merch?

Ilor: And maybe don’t support sellers who peddle such merch.

Zuul the Cat: Transport your army the same way war criminals should be remembered: in unmarked, unadorned boxes that don’t stand out in any way.

Ilor: The gamification of war crimes is problematic, and often serves as a red-line for me. While “cattle raids” and “sack a village” are staples of wargaming in a number of ancient time periods, these represent the deliberate targeting of civilian populations. This is the very definition of a war crime, and while in the context of Roman legions burning Briton villages it might be far enough removed from modern sensibilities, more modern representations of this kind of thing should be avoided at all costs. I’m sure there are some very interesting tactical challenges you could game out in, say, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – but you shouldn’t.

Lupe: That’s an interesting take, and I don’t know if I 100% agree, simply because I think trying to separate war from the “civilian” impacts sanitises history in a way I’m not completely comfortable with, especially given that the distinction between professional soldiers and civilians is a pretty modern phenomenon. I agree that portraying brutality and war crimes is often not interesting or relevant but I don’t know if this is a red line for me in terms of appropriateness. It is if you’re portraying it even when it’s not interesting or relevant. It’s a very different experience if you have Romans fighting Britons and burning villages because very explicitly the people who live there are the people they’re fighting. When that’s not the case, that’s harder.

I also think in some ways it comes down to whether it’s actually a fight. Romans trying to burn a village and Britons fighting them over it is different in my eyes to something like, for instance, the Battle of Berlin, where Soviet troops mostly steamrollered militias and Hitler Youth.

Ilor: I agree it can be a tricky issue, and we certainly don’t want to gloss over or sanitize these aspects of history. But I’m talking specifically about the gamification of these kinds of activities. You can have a perfectly reasonable and interesting “delaying action” without making your scoring system depend on how many prisoners your Japanese manage to behead or bayonet before the scenario’s time limit elapses.

Lupe: Absolutely agree, but that’s why the example of villages being burned or whatever is an odd one to me – these are things without direct human casualties (presumably). There’s an economic impact on people, but that’s true for all warfare more or less – the people living in Braine-l’Alleud presumably weren’t doing great after the Battle of Waterloo, but that’s not seen as an issue. I’m not suggesting we have exciting scenarios around how many people can you execute or whatever, but to eliminate everything that would now be considered a war crime feels… an imposition on history. Judging people by a context they didn’t have.

Zuul the Cat: I think it depends on what is being portrayed. If someone is playing a game of Mongols vs any one of the people they fought, it’s less problematic than someone playing a modern historical game even though the Mongols have committed atrocities on a monumental scale. The lasting legacy and impact of what you’re gaming around would matter, I think. I agree with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – it’s certainly a subject that shouldn’t be portrayed on a gaming table.

Ilor: I think we’re all largely on the same page here: Playing the Little Bighorn is OK; playing Wounded Knee is not.

Lupe: Seems about right. And moreover, portraying the exact same thing that happened 1000 years ago is very different than if it happened 100 years ago, and every different than if it happened 10 years ago. Context, and historial proximity matters.

That said… what about the Nazis? Because that’s very proximal, and very popular, and very problematic in almost any presentation.

Zuul the Cat: I actually have a Waffen-SS army that’s themed around the fall of the Third Reich. I based these guys off the 33rd Waffen-SS division, the French SS unit. However, there are no swastikas on my force and I absolutely refuse to field any of the last levy stuff. I know people don’t mind doing so, but modeling children in that nightmare world just isn’t for me. Also, I again try to educate any opponents or folks that ask about my army about the unit and the Waffen-SS in general and what absolute shitbag murderers they were.

Serotonin: As I reflect on this discussion, I think Lupe’s comment above, ‘what about the Nazis’ is pretty much central to this entire discussion. That’s the first thing on most gamers minds when historical wargaming is discussed in this context. Nazis ruin everything.

Lupe: Fucking Nazis. Goddamn I hate Nazis.

Ilor: Same.

Kenji: Hello fellow teens may I bring you the Imperial Japanese, who are basically Nazis but from Japan? Because almost all of their combat that didn’t focus on islands in the Pacific were basically them committing warcrimes against basically everybody else. It is Not A Pretty Picture. I would feel very uncomfortable playing almost any combat involving the Imperial Japanese that wasn’t limited to a battlefield somewhere, because otherwise these would literally be missions like “level this village until literally nothing moves, and you get points for the amount of civilians you can kill at once”, or something equally awful. Fuck Nazis, but also Fuck Imperial Japan, but not in a racist way, which is like a totally different problem when it comes to this discussion.

Thundercloud: I’ve got some Japanese still on sprue I need to get rid of before my wife finds them, because she’s from the part of China where some horrific Japanese war crimes were taking place.

I actually would field a last levy German force because it’s a lot more realistic than the SS assault rifle uber forces that you normally see in Bolt Action and which are completely ahistorical. I’d never do an SS force.

What I wouldn’t do is Iraq or Afghanistan, because it’s going to be very hard to do a game for an English speaking audience that isn’t basically fantasy shooter game, the tabletop version (though I think the bad guys in the totally apolitical fantasy shooter game are Hispanic people now for some reason I can’t quite put my finger on) and they just won’t accept anything more morally complex than a GI JOE episode when a more realistic portrayal is too close to too many people’s pain right now.

Mugginns: I think it’s been explained pretty well but I’d have a tough time fielding SS units, or one of the well known war crime units from another country. I don’t really have a problem with civilian stuff like burning a house or rooting out spies as long as you’re not straight-up just blasting away at non-combatants, mostly because I believe Sherman’s March and other campaigns like that were instrumental in limiting other suffering and death.

I try not to include any IED stuff in modern scenarios because I know people who have been injured by them and it’s just not something I want to see in a game.

Kenji: I think that’s totally fair. I would say it would be ahistorical to play an Afghani or Iraqi War based game and not include them, but then I also think it’s important to remember these games should be fun, and perhaps the immediacy is an issue to impeding that. As mentioned above, the things the Romans did to many of their enemies would absolutely be war crimes today, and were war crimes then, but because we’re so far removed from it, it is hard to “feel” that the same way we might as a game whose subject matter is, technically, still happening.

Is there anything positive you can see in portraying problematic subjects in wargames?

Serotonin: Education? Demythicalising (is that a word)

Ilor: I think “demythicalising” (and even if it wasn’t a word before, it is now!) is spot on. I’m perfectly happy to play a scenario that involves late-war SS forces if they are portrayed accurately – as thoroughly inferior forces scraping the bottom of the barrel. I’m all about any sort of scenario that tackles the over-inflated reputation of the German “big cat” tanks head-on – roll to see if your vaunted Tiger breaks down on the way to the battlefield, or if your gas-guzzling Panther is immobile because it’s out of fuel.

Lupe: Not to state the obvious but if I play Chain of Command with Soviets on one side and Nazis on the other one of the big benefits is it’s an awesome game and I’ll have fun. The problematic elements aren’t essential to that, but they’re also hard to avoid.

Zuul the Cat: Education, education, education. I think it’s a great opportunity to teach yourself about historical events, but also to teach observers who are passing by about what you’re playing & the modern historical education about the era.

Thundercloud: Education, but you’ve got to be super careful about it with some things because so much of the history we grew up with is ‘and then the white people won, and everything was much better’ especially in colonial conflicts. Looking at history, you’ve got to get a variety of sources and challenge their biases. What to do when everyone is pretty biased is the tricky bit.

Mugginns: As said above I think you could portray some history that is closer to the mark – you don’t want to get into the ‘revisionist’ fights but portraying the elements and knocking down the myths could be hard but useful.

Kenji: Absolutely educating people. Board games have started handling this better than miniature gaming, and I think it’s important that these types of games can become a vector of informing people. In the same way that 40k started out with some serious satirical bent to it, these sorts of historical games based on real events can, and should, be a way to grapple with these topics in a way that no other medium can. Seriously, I implore people to try games like This Guilty Land, Comancheria, or the 2E of Pax Pamir to see how you can portray problematic people, times, events, and ideas, while still creating an experience out of it. I’d love to see a miniature game grapple with these ideas and challenge stereotypical notions of the myths of war. In fact, I think a game needs to do it at some point, as these sorts of experimental, uncomfortable experiences can help push games beyond just being toys to push around tables.