July 17, 2024

Guest Editorial: Wargaming the Bad Guys

Chris Israel Barker, 5 April 2021

Wargaming at the hobby level1 has had an issue, both real and perceived, regarding the bad guys. Are players actually identifying with, self-associating, or at least sympathetic to the Nazis, Confederates, etc? As the accusations come and go since at least the 1970s2 and as people interested in the hobby clearly state in the 2020s that a major blocking point to enter the hobby is that they don’t want to play or be seen to play the bad guys3, nothing has changed.

In the same way as we struggle with terminology, consim instead of wargame, counterfactual instead of “what if?“ to strive for acceptance and legitimacy, how do we address the problem of someone has to be the bad guy? Recent suggestions have included teaching that there is no absolute history, including ‘both sides’ history lessons in game manuals, and automating the bad guy role as part of the game mechanics so no one has to play as the bad guy.

The idea of no absolute history/both sides history lessons has issues.

  • The bad guys believed they were in the right
  • The bad action may well be part of the standards of warfare of the time and place
  • The victory conditions of the game may include atrocities by present day standards
  • The political & social motivations for the conflict are often too complex to be included as a summary in a game manual

As these issues tend to be inter-related, this article does not follow them in order.

Belief in the justness of one’s own cause is a basic aspect of human nature. This isn’t idolizing any possible warrior ethos, nor is it a matter of justifying any part of history, merely a basic explanation that no group of humans expends blood and treasure to fight another group without the basic belief that there is legitimate reason to do so. This applies to even the most distasteful cases of human conflict.

How then to abstract the actions required for potentially horrible way to win from the player themselves?

Certainly it is possible to include motive in a game model in any number of ways. The difficulty is that all game models assume the player has goals whether or not the game mechanics are specifically about victory conditions. To phrase it most simply, a player plays to win, however winning is defined. How then to abstract the actions required for potentially horrible way to win from the player themselves? From the start of commercial wargaming, the advertising has featured the appeal of “now you are the general” as if to say the player themselves takes on the role of the particular leader of one side of a conflict. At times rules allowed for one side to be automated for solo or multi player games. While enabling solo play has always been a point of appeal, this is still problematic.

If the bad guy is abstracted into game mechanics, players will play to the rules, AKA game the system, a long-standing winning strategy of wargaming. Classic examples of this are forcing unrealistic combinations to achieve a 3:1 ratio on the CRT, or ZOC conditions which don’t represent reality in the slightest. Game mechanics are just that. They are design choices which balance playability vs some form of accuracy. Few games can capture the cultural/political aspects, and also the tactical battle aspects within the same design. Designers who go too far afield from existing design formulas risk alienating both publishers and consumers. Additionally as long as a game system allows for players to game the system, they will. To automate the socially unacceptable removes human agency; it reduces the impact and learning potential of playing the bad guy. It just isn’t possible that an automated system will be able to check a human player’s strategy as much as a human player will.

While most published wargames cover the period of Western history where laws of war are not too dissimilar to the present, current standards of etiquette and concepts of laws of war certainly have not always applied and in different cultures, what was ‘right’ and ‘honorable’ differed drastically from those same standards in the west. Total war no longer considered acceptable yet has been the standard for most of human history and can certainly be found in recent times. Wargames often ignore the presence of non-combatants within the field of conflict. This may be mostly due to the focus on tactical games and the difficultly to model non-combatants in strategic games. However the idea of separating combatants and non-combatants isn’t universal now, in the past, or across cultures.

The concept and actions of total war historically include actions which are highly repugnant by current standards. Some readers may be familiar with the Warring States era of Japanese history and may have heard the name Oda Nobunaga from video games or Japanese cartoons and comics. Some wargamers may have played commercial games covering the battle of Nagashino where the Oda forces fought the Takeda forces. Some may know him as the first of the great three warlords involved in the process of unifying the nation. As a military leader he basically invented the concept of an organized defense industry, innovated tactics which weren’t developed until decades later in the West, and as a result changed the face of Japanese warfare.

The reason Oda Nobunaga is relevant to this discussion is that his military campaigns included not only battles against other warlords, but also against armed religious groups who refused Oda’s national peace and at times attacked the capital city of Kyoto. One particular case, the Siege of Mount Hiei, was resolved by Oda’s forces setting fire to an entire mountain and killing an estimated 20,000, including non-combatants like the wives and children of the Tendai warrior monks. This is very clearly unacceptable by current standards (and wasn’t exactly popular in 1571 either) but in terms of wargaming, can this be modeled? The Oda goal is national unification, stability, and peace. Other forces opposed to him seek to maintain independence and influence by various means. In terms of modeling this conflict, who are the bad guys? Any operational, strategic, or tactical simulation will have to directly address the brutal methods used by all sides as that was the standard of the time and place.

badGuysTo take a look at a more recent conflict, an anecdotal check of five different games on the Yom Kippur War4 (three boxed, two in magazines) was interesting in that none of them explicitly stated that Syria’s goal of the conflict was ethnic cleansing of Israel. The two magazine games had extensive articles covering the types of armament and overall troop movements, etc. as expected. One of them had an overall timeline of Cold War events and did mention that Syria’s strategic goal differed from Egypt in that Syria’s preferred end game was the complete destruction of the Jewish state5. An investigation of games modeling the conflicts of the stages of dissolution of Yugoslavia would be interesting to see if ethnic cleansing was explicit in the designers notes or history summary as well. These two conflicts are mentioned because they’re both relatively contemporary and in the aftermath of WWII, these sorts of things weren’t supposed to happen ever again.

It is currently fashionable to say that history can’t be absolute, to focus on the various sides of any conflict, and acknowledge the “rightness” of each. Far be it from me to challenge professional historians, but as this is about wargames, that means someone has to play the a side they may not be comfortable with and acknowledge their goals of pursuing war. Note that the idea of “no absolute history” opens up the jar of spiders of “no absolute ethics” but that is beyond the scope of this article. That said, nation states engaging in historical revisionism or disinformation campaigns for the purpose of war is hardly new, yet can we wargame any of the kinetic or non-kinetic aspects of the Cold War without actually engaging with these actions?

Considering all these issues, is it reasonable to expect those new to wargaming, or those who might be interested in getting into wargaming to learn enough history before picking up their first game? Perhaps not. Nor is it really the responsibility of game publishers to include enough of a history text with every game to cover the potential moral issues and sensitivities of the player. Aside from the fact that it would double the cost of every game, clearly lots of people shy away from history books that take hundreds of pages to explain one particular battle. If wargamers complain that 30 pages of rules is too much, will they read a dense history text before play? That said, do we already have enough WW II/US Civil War games which are known to alienate people with an interest in wargaming? Absolutely. Yet still since these tend to be the high-selling genres, publishers can not be blamed for satisfying market demand. Is there then a market for wargames which don’t include Nazis or Confederates? While that’s part of the issue, perhaps it isn’t the core issue.

Part of the core issue may be confusing player with character, assuming that wargaming is role play and that players of wargames are assuming the identity of the side they are playing. If so it is perfectly natural that newcomers just might not want to play the side fighting for slavery or the like. While we rarely see the “Now YOU are the general” marketing any more, we have seen that in its time; it almost encouraged role play rather than the decision-making aspect of wargaming.  Various sources have explained the problems with the early Avalon Hill opponents wanted section of The General magazine where some players or groups submitted ads that were increasingly distasteful even against the sensibilities of the 1960s & 1970s6. Past and present day images of wargamers who enthusiastically cosplay period uniforms while gaming doesn’t help either. Yes, that’s actually a thing some people do.

It may be possible that games sold as low-complexity or introductory games make clear that wargames do not require role play, and that we as wargamers don’t take on the identities involved in a conflict. A player certainly has to keep a side’s actions and goals in mind but that doesn’t mean assuming the identity of that side. Perhaps there is a space for introductory wargames that don’t just rehash the American Civil War or WWII or don’t have to be historical at all. There are those of us who are enthusiastic wargamers who did not get into the hobby with historical games. The early 1980s market included lots of science fiction, fantasy, ahistorical and sometimes just plain silly, fun wargames which seemed to draw in players who weren’t interested in history. This may be something which could be done again.

Another positive effort currently underway is the Zenobia Awards which seeks to encourage new and different perspectives of wargame design. It is entirely possible that we really have enough of the same wargames on the same battles that have been published over and over since the 1960s. Perhaps something different is needed to keep the hobby alive and growing.

The above two suggestions aside, wargaming isn’t for everyone, in the sense that there are people who just won’t ever enjoy the hobby. For those who are curious, who have an interest in the idea of wargaming but aren’t comfortable with all of it, your personal red lines are OK. Not every game is for everyone in the hobby. For those who might want to gatekeep on this, consider this a humble request to step aside and make space for those of us who might not share the same idea.


Thanks to Chris for allowing us to present his guest column here at Armchair Dragoons.

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  1. Most of this article assumes that “wargame” means a simulation of a conflict that actually happened. This is of course not true at all.
  2. See Fire & Movement #3 p20-23 but only if you have a very strong stomach. The title and contents of the article are definitely offensive. We can’t just say “times were different in 1976” the level of vitriol and racist language weren’t acceptable then either. This is presented in a historical context not as any form of agreement with the cited article.
  3. There have been many online discussions about this, one Twitter thread by Katie’s Game Corner included hundreds of responses where people clearly stated they were uncomfortable playing the side that represents a position which is against current morals.
  4. A check of BoardGameGeek shows over 20 different published wargames on this particular conflict.
  5. Additionally, Fire & Movement #2 July-August 1976 devoted 20 pages of coverage to SPI’s Modern Battles Quad including the two main battles of the Yom Kippur war including designers notes for both games. Here again, the political goals of the war were not covered. Let me be very clear, this is not to find fault with F&M (nor any of the game publishers), this is only a statement of fact.
  6. Playing At The World p6-9, etc and various online discussions

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10 thoughts on “Guest Editorial: Wargaming the Bad Guys

  1. My gut reaction is the classical solution in search of a problem… or being uncharitable an article not worth the price of the paper… but being a virtual column the latter comment could be to harsh…

    The whole column has serious flaws, and fails to persuade this reader than such a problem really exist. There are two main issues here, both involving mistaking assumptions for demonstrated facts.

    History is quite treaded on here, just to fit the theory… Syria’s goals in the Yom Kippur War are still debated. Even authoritative sources as Rabinovitch admit we lack a clear understanding. One thing that wargames clearly show is that if the goal was wiping out Israel from the map the force committed and the planning were clearly inadequate. Means and action suggest a more limited goal of taking back the Golan Heights, and this appears what the Egyptians assumed the Syrians were doing…

    Twitter posts and online discussions cursorily referenced do not equate to a real majority. I have still to encounter someone who told me he is not playing wargames because he does not want to play the bad guys. ‘Funnily’ enough my cursory experienced with opponents is that some are wedded to play the bad guys. Does this equate to them being members of the NDSAP or the Klan? Well it depends. Some probably would have… some not, and their preference is due to a long list of factors. An opponent once said he wanted to be the Germans in a 19 44 scenario of AH Third Reich because he wanted to prove he could repel Overlord… and the person in question was certainly neither a nazist or racist. Once I even happily played the Germans in the defense of the Oder line and Berlin because… I like a good beating. Another opponent is on the record of saying I liked playing the faction that historical lost because he cannot do worse…

    In addition a skewered popular military history had transformed the Germans (from Moltke’s times onward) in a sort of super army, so people often play them based on the assumptions they are better. Said that I have met people who refuse to play games where World War Two Germans are losing… but well these people also have very specific game tastes and probably they will never buy one of my designs… (sardonic comment…)

    The other glaring issue is the fact that war by default involves breaking morals and committing heinous acts. Strategic bombing is a clear cut example, and it was the realm of the ‘good guys’. In my personal experience I found the idea of ‘gaming war’ (for whatever purpose) a much stronger off-putting factor than playing a specific side. I have also found, and I am one of them, people that are put off by certain approach. The poster child of this are probably the supplements of the quite popular Flames of War rules, where SS and NKVD are basically transformed into heroes… but this has more to do with their style, (and bad tastes) because the same approach is used for every army, service, and branch… yet, it is trivializing a real issue and could be off putting. Me… I find their rules quite off putting for other reasons in the first place and their writing style is just another issue. But I have seen plenty of designers who can be much better in describing the ‘bad guys’ and able to put them in a relevant historical context.

    I am also sufficiently ‘experienced’ to have seen the ‘You are the general’ blurbs… but for me they always indicated you are the chap in charge and your decision making counts rather than an invite on roleplaying, and that was the gist of the blurb.

    As for the remedies… well I am afraid the problem is not here, so it does not require any solution… and certainly it does not scream for something as dubious as the ‘Zenobia Awards’ that other people had even suggested to be a problem in itself…

    As far ‘It is entirely possible that we really have enough of the same wargames on the same battles that have been published over and over since the 1960s. Perhaps something different is needed to keep the hobby alive and growing.’ Well from what I see the hobby is indeed alive. As for growing or shrinking, I am afraid that very few of us actually know. That in spite to the countless online flame wars on the subject!

      1. while good guys are somewhat difficult to define, some ‘bad guys’ easily pop out… but again it is slightly irrelevant. The gist of the post is that a problem of wargaming is that you can play morally questionable actors. Of course saying that this stop people from playing wargames is again slightly irrelevant because no one forces you to play a WW2 game… but I am afraid the ‘guest columnist’ has a very superficial understanding of the panoply of wargame we have at our disposal…

      2. Thanks for that Arrigo. It’s an interesting question; maybe in our heart of hearts we know that war shouldn’t really be a game? This was hilariously shown by recent calls for fantasy races should be banned because they were indicative of racial stereotypes! Personally murderous Nazis versus murderous Communists is not very elevating. But, Empire building, human sacrificing Aztecs versus Spanish invaders????

      3. well, years ago I invited a friend to a wargames show. The friend in question was a girl and was studying Peace and Conflict in my same department (war studies KCL). She asked detail on the show including the purpose, I said to ‘have fun’ and she said war is not her idea to have fun. One would have said I hit the standard answer and I should have realized I was in little outcast niche… but I tend to be undeterred… and tried other times with other friends with similar background (one LSE development PhD, one LSE development MA, two KCL War Studies)… and I was successful. All three ended up enjoying the experience. Another friends was unable to come to salute with me but she said ‘it should be super cool’.

        And no one of the ladies in question had issues in playing the bad guys. Worth to note that they all realized zit was a game and there was no real ‘role playing’ involved. My personal experience not just with these 5 ‘test cases’ is that is not the ‘bad guys’ thing that put off people, but the idea of gaming war in itself. There are people that just object to the idea, not to the sides. I respect their approach, but I expect them to respect my hobby too.

        A completely different issue is what conflict could/should be gamed and personal preferences, but this is a whole different can of worms…

        ‘But, Empire building, human sacrificing Aztecs versus Spanish invaders????’ Should be fun… as long you do not end being the sacrifice…

      4. You are very brave inviting so many newcomers to our hobby! I always think it’s funny to think what “ horniest” think of our hobby choice!
        Best of luck with the invites!

  2. I don’t really have anything insightful to say on the topic.

    However, I for one, when I was a wargamer (and even now as I’m starting to slowly get back into it), I don’t have any problem playing “the bad guys.”

    I see wargames as an intellectual exercise.

    I play the Germans (and even the SS troops) in Squad Leader or in Combat Commander and it doesn’t bother me.

    I can play as the terrorist side in Labyrinth or in Colonial Twilight, and even play cards that will do horrible things, because again, it’s an intellectual exercise of tactics, strategy, “what-if” and just trying to see what would succeed and what would fail.

    I do understand why others have a problem with it, but I don’t, really.

    I know there are some games I’ve heard about that may take it to the extreme and would make me uncomfortable, but I’ve never been exposed to them to see whether they would cross that threshold for me or not.

    That being said, I often joked that me playing the Germans in Squad Leader meant that they never won, which is always a good thing.

    A very thoughtful post. Thank you for this!

    1. Of course, today these pairings are the gout du jour! On wonder what James Longstreet would have said… or even what Ulysses Simpson Grant. It does indeed cast some lights on the ‘very thoughtful post’ nature… (I found it actually crap as I clearly stated in my first reply…)

      snarky comments aside… the good vs bad is always difficult in wargaming. Let’s look at the Italian Independence Wars… or seeing them from the other side the Savoy-Austrian Wars. Who is the bad guy? Okay I am Italian… so now I should say the Austrians… but well… at the time my family was on the other side and one of my ancestors even got decorated for its performance at Solferino by Kaiser Franz! Also you can find both sides claiming the other were bad… and both in this case both have good arguments… I remember once we had a small tour around Palmanova with Kevin Zucker and some Italian (and another US) wargamers after one of his Napoleonic tours. Ended up all the ancestor of the ‘Italians’ had fought for the Empire, and we were all proud of it.

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