RockyMountainNavy, 15 August 2022
Although I started wargaming in the 1980s at the arguable height of both the Cold War and tabletop wargaming, in my early years I was focused on tactical wargames and actually had very few of the larger World War III titles. In fact, for many years my only operational-level of war “Cold War Turns Hot” titles were Bruce Maxwell’s NATO: The Next War in Europe (Victory Games, 1983) and Superpowers at War in Strategy & Tactics Nr. 100 in 1985. One game that was not in my collection, then or even now, is Jim Dunnigan’s Fulda Gap: The First Battle of the Next War (SPI, 1977) 1. In an article for the journal War & Society, Professor Adam Seipp claims that the wargame Fulda Gap was used to advance the goals of the anti-nuclear movement in West Germany during the early to mid 1980s. The story of SPI’s Fulda Gap and the West German anti-nuclear movement reveal how assumptions in wargame design take on a life beyond the simple mechanics of pushing cardboard counters across a hex map and rolling a few dice. It also simultaneously demonstrates the lure—and maybe pitfalls—of using a wargame to study history while raising issues of how we treat weapons of mass destruction in wargames and subsequently how one interprets that history.
(click images to enlarge)
Another Fulda Gap History
The journal article that caught my attention is “Fulda Gap: A board game, West German society, and a battle that never happened, 1975-85” by Adam R. Seipp, Professor of History at Texas A&M. The article appears in the June 2022 issue of War & Society, DOI: 10.1080/07292473.2022.2087401. The abstract tells us:
“This article explores the reception of the American-made board game Fulda Gap: The First Battle of the Next War in the Federal Republic of Germany in the early 1980s. The German peace movement used the game, which depicted conventional, chemical, and nuclear war on German territory, as a potent symbol of what they believed to be American and NATO disregard for German lives and sovereignty. The controversy over the game reflected the changing character of German-American relations during the ‘Second Cold War’ and increasing concerns among Germans about the possible consequences of superpower conflict in Central Europe.” (Seipp, Abstract)
Wargame in a Political Movement
Professor Seipp explains how, “We can see the dynamics of Cold War anxiety about the Fulda gap in an unlikely place: An American board game that became a totemic symbol of the Peace Movement (Friedenbewegung) in the Federal Republic of German in the early 1980s.” Although hypothetical, Fulda Gap, like many “future history” wargames, used real locations and plausible orders of battle. To grognards, the design of Fulda Gap is very much what one would of expect in a wargame from Jim Dunnigan, then or now. As Seipp describes it:
“The rules for Fulda Gap show Dunnigan’s deep immersion in the operations and weaponry of the opposing sides. He familiarised himself with the doctrine of Active Defense, citing FM [Field Manual] 100-5 in the rule book and offering advice to the NATO player to ‘counterattack and surround the enemy whenever possible’. Soviet doctrine is less well-developed, with the note that ‘the Soviets have other tactical doctrines which, as far as we know (and we’re not sure) they will use or be forced to use because of the level of training and experience’.” (Seipp, p. 8)
Seipp—a historian not wargamer—takes Dunnigan to task not on the rules of Fulda Gap, but on the attitude of the writing:
“The tone of the rulebook is jaunty and conversational, stressing that the game is ‘meant to be enjoyable’ and that is should not be an exercise in legalism. It is not surprising that German readers, when confronted with such a blasé description of the outbreak of war on their soil, might react negatively.” (Seipp, p. 8)
Siepp argues that of all the design decisions in Fulda Gap the assumption that chemical and nuclear weapons would be used was the most alarming:
“The most controversial aspect of the game to later observers is the use of chemical and nuclear weapons. The rules assume that the Warsaw Pact would use chemical weapons as part of the assault, and the rules include advice on when to deploy them most effectively. (‘The use of chemical warfare should be timed to coincide with the point in the game when the maximum number of Untried NATO units are being engaged’.) The rule book suggests that both players should consider using short-range nuclear weapons. For the Warsaw Pact player, these weapons are best employed ‘while chemical warfare is in play; their combined effects can be devastating on the NATO line’. The NATO player can use nuclear weapons to blunt the offensive before it is too late. Dunnigan did concede that ‘the rules do not deal with the larger issues of nuclear war, notably the danger that the use of tactical nuclear weapons might spark a total nuclear holocaust (which is something neither side presumably wants)’.” (Seipp, pp. 9-10)
ed note: another perspective missed by Seipp here is that civilian populations are absent from virtually any games at the time; there are very few pre-1985 wargames that address local non-combatants at all
In the early 1980s, Seipp tell us West German society was becoming more aware of the dangers of war in Central Europe. Political activists played on this rising fear, and in particular the fear of nuclear conflict in the Fulda Gap. It was into this growing anti-nuclear atmosphere that SPI brought Fulda Gap to the Nuremberg Toy Fair in 1982 only to face protests at the fair and criticism in the press.(Seipp, pp. 10-12) It was also during this time a German author approached residents of Fulda Gap with the game and asked them to play while he recorded their reactions. One example:
“Regarding the rules for the employment of short-range nuclear missiles, he wrote, ‘What happens to the population of this country (Land)—not a word about it in the rules. One of the many points where the game and reality are identical. You can forget about the population. They have been forgotten’.” (Seipp, p. 14)
Seipp relates how a German documentary of the day described the games popularity in the US military; “Length of play: 5-7 hours. Cost: $12. In the PX shops at Downs Barracks in Fulda, Fulda Gap has been sold out for weeks.” (Seipp, p. 13)
Professor Seipp goes on to say:
“Fulda Gap became the perfect foil for German critics of the US military. It provided tangible proof of the militarisation of German space and the deadly peril of this site to superpower confrontation. Here, in board game form, was evidence of how little German lives meant to the Federal Republic’s NATO allies. At the same time, its obvious popularity among American personnel in Germany suggested that many soldiers enjoyed seeing their experience in Germany represented on the board. Americans and Germans saw the game, and what it represented, in profoundly different ways.” (Seipp, p. 12)
I wanna believe…but…
You might think at this point I am going to gush effusive praise on this article. Why not? I really want to believe that wargames have a deep impact on society and Professor Seipp tells a good story. However, I actually have a few problems with this article. Hidden behind the overt wargames-influence-society veneer this article actually demonstrates the lure—and maybe pitfalls—of using a wargame to study history while raising issues of how we treat weapons of mass destruction in contemporary wargame designs and subsequently how one interprets that history.
“I play wargames to learn about history…”
One refrain that I often hear from wargamers is that they play wargames to learn about history. Professor Seipp points out that wargames not only explain history but the games themselves are history. In this sense a wargame is little different than a book or a film from the period in question. Seipp takes a slightly different approach by using the social reaction to a wargame as his research material. Specifically, Seipp focuses on the West German public’s reaction to Fulda Gap:
“The Federal Republic of Germany grew up in the shadow of a war gone by and another war that might yet come. Germans could imagine war in the physical space of the Fulda Gap, and many came to resent the idea that Americans could, by playing Fulda Gap, turn their anxiety and likely wartime fate into a source of entertainment.” (Seipp, p. 18)
The famous wargame designer Jim Dunnigan describes wargames as, “a paper time-machine.” (Dunnigan, James F., Wargames Handbook: How to Play and Design Commercial and Professional Wargames, Third Edition, Lincoln: Writers Press Club, 2000, p. 1). While I agree with Dunnigan and others that wargames often do an admirable job of placing players in the military situation of the day, I would also argue they are less effective at recreating the political or social situation of the time. This may not be the case in game designs like Versailles 1919 or Churchill that are designed as political games, but for many “classic hex & counter” wargames this is most likely the reality in the design. Reading Seipp shows us that it may be the political assumptions behind a wargame design that are actually the most problematic.
Within the wargaming community, there has been a bit of a renaissance of Cold War wargaming in the past several years. What SPI referred to as “Future History” is now “Alternate History.” In 2021 Compass Games published an updated version of Bruce Maxwell’s 1983 NATO under the title NATO: The Cold War Goes Hot, Designer Signature Edition. I also have in my personal wargame collection Less Than 60 Miles by Fabrizio Vianello from Thin Red Line Games (2019) that focuses on the Fulda Gap. These titles, and many others, seem to be responding to a market desire for “Cold War alternate history” wargames. Seipp points out by using Fulda Gap from 1977 that one question many of these more recently designed games often seem to either ignore or treat in a somewhat blasé manner is the question of nuclear weapons. While many may extol newer games as pushing the “state of the art” in wargame design, in some ways underlying design issues of the 45-year old Fulda Gap have not been overcome. Now, I’ll freely admit that commercial wargames may not be the best place to analyze the politics of nuclear war. This has been known since the 1960s when in a postgame critique of a 1963 elite wargame, MIT wargaming pioneer Lincoln Bloomfield remarked, “If you want thermonuclear war to break out in a game, get some high-school students in and you get thermonuclear war.” (Pauly, Reid B.C., “Would U.S. Leaders Push the Button? Wargames and the Sources of Nuclear Restraint,” International Security, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Fall 2018), p. 157).
Interpreting a Wargame as History
I disagree with Professor Seipp’s assertions that Jim Dunnigan’s design approach in Fulda Gap trivializes nuclear war. I don’t have the Designer’s Notes that Seipp references in front of me but I suspect, given Dunnigan talked about “enjoyable” and then pivoted to “an exercise in legalism,” that Dunnigan was trying to knock back rules lawyers who couldn’t decipher game mechanisms in that “jaunty and conversational” style of writing that Seipp sees as evidence of the designer’s indifference to nuclear war. I do not believe Dunnigan’s quest for “enjoyable” was meant to downplay nuclear weapons but rather was an appeal for grognards not to get wrapped up in how to play the game.
I also have issues with Professor Seipp’s interpretation of sales of Fulda Gap in a PX as an indicator of how popular the game was. As Armchair Dragoons Regimental Commander Brant can attest (for he lived in West Germany during the time in question) the supply chain to any PX is difficult. Was Fulda Gap sold out for weeks because they sold the five copies on hand? Some internet sleuthing reveals that SPI maybe printed only 10,000 copies of the game; at best 20,000 if it really was a big seller2. While Seipp cites a claim that Fulda Gap was, “one of the bestsellers on the American toy market,” (Seipp, p. 14) a look at the SPI bestsellers lists for 1975 into 1976 show that Fulda Gap was a Top 10 seller at SPI for just eight months (May-December 1977). Just how many copies of a then five-year old wargame (not a mass market boardgame, a wargame) would the stock buyer for a PX in Germany take a risk on? Without some other metric of sales or demand I am leery to accept this claim by Seipp at face value. Wargaming has ALWAYS been a niche hobby, even in the Golden Era of the late 1970’s to mid-1980’s.
While I view Seipp’s arguments that Fulda Gap was used by the anti-nuclear movement as credible, his claims of American (and NATO allies) indifference is harder to believe. In email exchanges with Brant, he related to me conversations with his father who was both stationed in West Germany and an active wargame player during the times Seipp discusses. From that one American’s perspective, the claims of Seipp about the wargame Fulda Gap are very surprising because they are the first ever heard by him. Brant’s father has no recollection of any discussions with Americans or West Germans about the wargame Fulda Gap being used by the anti-nuclear movement. Does that mean Seipp is overreaching? There certainly is evidence that the German pubic was gripped with an anti-nuclear angst during this time, but the role the wargame Fulda Gap played is only documented by Seipp. For an explanation of the larger angst, even cited by Seipp in his article, see “German angst? Debating Cold War anxieties in West Germany, 1945–90” by Benjamin Ziemann in Manchester Scholarship Online which claims:
“During the 1950s, intensive debates over the potential supply of nuclear weapons systems to the Bundeswehr, the newly founded West German army, agitated the public in the Federal Republic. During the conflicts over the NATO dual-track solution since 1979, a similar set of anxieties was widely articulated and internationally registered as a specific German angst. In both cases, peace protesters, politicians and Bundeswehr officers shared the perception that nuclear war would very likely entail the self-destruction of the German nation. This notion of a ‘nuclear war in front of the apartment door’ was a crucial feature of the Cold War as an imaginary war in the Federal Republic. (Ziemann, Abstract)”
While Seipp’s Fulda Gap article presents a fairly well-documented and somewhat compelling argument that Fulda Gap and the West German anti-nuclear movement were closely related, at the end of the day I have to question several of the inferences drawn based on his interpretation of the evidence. While I strongly welcome and applaud Professor Seipp for using a wargame as a focus point for this discussion, I also point to the classic danger of “reading too much into the evidence.” This is a point made in “Wargaming for International Relations research” by Erik Lin-Greenberg, Reid B.C. Pauly, and Jacquelyn G. Schneider in European Journal of International Relations 2022, Vol. 28 (1) 83-109, DOI: 10.1177/1354066121064090. As the abstract describes:
“Political scientists are increasingly integrating wargames into their research. Either by fielding original games or by leveraging archival wargame materials, researchers can study rare events or topics where evidence is difficult to observe. However, scholars have little guidance on how to apply this novel methodological approach to political science research. This article evaluates how political scientists can use wargames as a method of scholarly inquiry and sets out to establish a research agenda for wargaming in International Relations. We first differentiate wargames from other methodological approaches and highlight their ecological validity. We then chart out how researchers can build and run their own games or draw from archival wargames for theory development and testing. In doing so, we explain how researchers can navigate issues of recruitment, bias, validity, and generalizability when using wargames for research, and identify ways to evaluate the potential benefits and pitfalls of wargames as a tool of inquiry. We argue that wargames offer unique opportunities for political scientists to study decision-making processes both in and beyond the International Relations subfield.”
As scholars like Seipp move forward and use archival wargame materials as historical evidence, how that evidence is interpreted will become more important. As always, the need for researchers to find a complete picture and to judge evidence sans bias and without generalization will be most critical.
Regardless of how wargame designers and players look at our hobby, Professor Seipp rightly points out the reactions of non-players is powerful and important. I can see how the “message” of a game can be lost on wargame designers who are often focused on building game mechanisms to recreate history or to create a plausible future. Here I think boardgame designers can be more attentive to the “message” of their game. Look no further than This Guilty of Land: The Politics of Slavery in America by Amabel Holland from Hollandspiele for an example of a game designed from the beginning with a very overt message. Recall also the controversy that erupted over the GMT Games aborted efforts to publish Scramble for Africa 3. If wargames offer any difference from “historical boardgames” (whatever that is), it might be an ability for a wargame to project forward in time, whereas many “message” boardgames tend to be a retrospective. The notable exception are some science fiction boardgames; but, alas, I fear too many popular sci-fi boardgames are heavy on game mechanisms and thin on theme with any “message” being diluted by a consumer demand for playability (or in the case of anything $tar Wars simple fan service). The story of Fulda Gap and how it became a symbol for the West German peace movement should be a warning to grognards that we need to think not only about the mechanisms of the wargames we play, but the message we send in either the design or play of any title.
Beyond our little niche, I also hope scholars and researchers can find a way to use archival wargame materials to advance our understanding of history, but do so with a full recognition of any bias designers, players, or the researchers themselves might have.
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