War games: the presentation of war in 20th century board games by Hannah Wills

We are fortunate in the John Johnson Collection to have an intern from the History of Art Faculty. Hannah has been working on the iconographic indexing of the newly-acquired Ballam Collection of games (which will be the subject of a post in the New Year).  She has been particularly intrigued by games created in times of war. She writes: 

‘Dennis Wheatley’s Thrilling New Game Invasion: Attack and Defence by Land, Sea and Air’. This is taken from the front of a box of a board game made in the 1930s, part of the Ballam Collection of board games from the John Johnson Collection that I have been involved in looking at as part of my internship this term. When looking through the games, I noticed a variety of themes, but found the presentation of war one of the most interesting. At first I wondered why people should want to play games that simulated the progression of large-scale war, not only after the atrocities of the ‘War to end all wars’, but particularly in the face of further impending conflict, during the 1930s. Why exactly were such games produced? Let’s take a closer look at two examples from the collection, Invasion, c.1935, and G.H.Q., c.1930s.

Both of these games feature a map, with pieces to be moved like units across the board, with die to govern the distance travelled by pieces each turn. There is no iconography as such present on the boards themselves; players are invited to manoeuvre pieces across the board without any reference to actual fighting. What seems to be offered to the player is the chance to simulate the decision making of military strategists who govern battle from afar. And what does the use of a dice suggest? Obviously it is necessary to input an element of chance into the game to add excitement, but by extension this seems to imply the belief that warfare itself is governed by chance – an interesting notion.

When comparing G.H.Q. and Invasion, it is also interesting to note the different attitudes of the makers towards the inclusion of real places upon the map. Invasion is set in an imaginary continent, although quite clearly a parody of Europe, with countries such as ‘Angleland’, ‘Franken’ and ‘Ruslavia’. Town names are equally satirical, with the ‘Anglelish’(?!) coastal towns labelled ‘Dolittle’ and ‘Waitansea’. Is there an element of irony here? Since the names of the countries and places quite clearly point to England, France, Russia and Germany, it seems implausible to argue that the maker avoided place names in order to anonymise the coming war. It could be that the intention was to put a light-hearted and humorous spin on otherwise perturbing contemporary events.

G.H.Q., by contrast, presents the player with an actual map of Europe, roamed by counters topped with British, Nazi or French flags. It is important to note that the outcome of the war at this point would have yet been unknown. Does this game, and Invasion also, showcase contemporary anxieties about the very real prospect of an enemy invasion and potential defeat? This certainly chimes with the use of die to dictate the outcome of the game; war perhaps seemed an uncertain business, governed more by chance than skill, in which victory could quite easily go either way.

Rules of 1930s game G.H.Q.
Ballam Collection: Games 1930s (4.1)

On the other hand, could games such as these be considered propaganda or morale boosting tools? The level of skill required, Invasion includes rules for a simple or full game, implies that both adults and older children alike could have played. It might have been that the makers sought to alleviate anxiety, or at least reassure; presenting the complex and ambivalent concept of war reduced to the relative simplicity of a game of chance and skill might constitute an attempt at making war seem a more acceptable and untroubled occurrence. Such games might also have fostered a sense of national pride; just as one aims not to lose in a competitive board game, the player is encouraged to fully get behind and support their own country, rather than remaining apathetic. Of course this raises an interesting problem; in a game of G.H.Q., how is it chosen who will control the Nazi flagged counters? And is it the combined aim of everyone else to ensure his defeat?

Whilst such board games at first seem arresting, one might go as far as to say in poor taste, it can be noted that war games are still present even today. Perhaps the best-known modern example is Risk, a world domination game first released in 1957, that has endured through ever more inventive incarnations, such as Star Wars, Napoleon and even the Chronicles of Narnia. However, to find games that base themselves around current conflicts, it is perhaps best to turn to modern video games. The more recent games in the Medal of Honor series (EA Games) feature modern-day warfare against terrorism in the Middle-East, perhaps not too dissimilar to the way in which Invasion and G.H.Q. concern themselves with the conflicts of their own epoch, albeit based around actual first-hand combat rather than distanced strategizing over a map.

This raises an interesting question, what is being done to preserve digital ephemera? Video games have just as much a reason to be catalogued as well as board games; both are items enjoyed only for a short time. Moreover, such video games as discussed here attest the enduring appeal of games that concern themselves with current warfare – a topic that seems far from suited to play and leisure.