In their crudest form, world politics—and especially great-power affairs—may seem like a game. It’s no surprise, then, that they served as inspiration for the classic military board games of the 20th century, which have made a resurgence during the pandemic, with new users finding escapism in the strategic tabletop games of the past. But games that may appeal to the current and future foreign-policy set expand far beyond Risk and Axis & Allies.
Many (web)pages of Foreign Policy have been devoted to these new games, which range from cheeky and wonkish to meditative and mournful—some even seeking to address historical trauma. Over the past few years, we’ve covered a board game used to train future U.S. defense strategists, a late 2020 release named Sex With Stalin, and many a game in between.
The most enticing, at least at first glance, may be Sex With Stalin, but as the author Nate Christiansen wrote last November, the video game is disappointingly dull despite its basis in the “truly depraved” idea of time-traveling to seduce the Soviet ruler. Of course, the idea of the figurehead of a repressive regime that criminalized homosexuality being central to a game with sex in its title is ripe for satire. But Sex With Stalin itself, whose gameplay is likened to a PowerPoint presentation, fails to tap into its transgressive potential. Instead, it features uninspired monologues by Stalin and ultimately, Christiansen wrote, is “so edgy it lacks any point.”
If Sex With Stalin is all style and no substance, then Hedgemony is quite the opposite. Hedgemony—spelled with a “d” because it forces its players to “adopt hedging strategies that trade off between different priorities,” according to one of the game’s designers—is a board game rooted in the nitty-gritty of great-power politics. The Blue team (the United States, the European Union, and NATO) faces off against the Red team (China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea) by creating a defense policy that takes into account, among other things, military means and defense budgets. If it sounds complicated, there’s a reason for that—the game wasn’t designed for the public. Rather, it was used by the Pentagon to help write the 2018 National Defense Strategy, the journalist Michael Peck explains. The paper wargame-meets-Dungeons & Dragons then made its way as a teaching tool to public policy graduate schools and military staff colleges across the United States.
Likewise, a wargame simulation run by the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, “A Deadly Game: East China Sea Crisis 2030,” was designed to aid statecraft. The simulation, which ran last July, followed the role of Washington in a Sino-Japanese conflict, which changed based on the vote of public participants through Zoom. The game showed that supporting Japan in such a conflict would risk war between the United States and China, but declaring a winner wasn’t exactly the point. Rather, the simulation’s value lay in its narrative and its insight into the reason events played out in the order they did and why players made certain decisions along the way.
Of course, not all such strategy games were created with an eye for the future. The board game Gandhi, which came out in 2020, depicts India in 1947, the year British rule ended. The four major factions in the game are the British Raj, the Indian National Congress, the Muslim League, and the Revolutionaries (a collection of groups that support a violent uprising). It presents a largely nonviolent independence movement, and the players must constantly weigh the benefits of violence versus peaceful protest. Still, it’s a “wargame at heart”—though one, Peck wrote in a another piece, that “offers a glimpse of how nonviolence might triumph.”
While Gandhi may offer some lessons for today, other historical games were built for the express purpose of engaging with the past to address collective trauma. Indeed, the common theme that binds a wave of new Polish virtual reality games is criticism of Russian and Soviet-era repression, the journalist Tomasz Grzywaczewski wrote in late 2019. “I think history should be told in a way that young people can understand it,” said one of the developers of Siberian Run, a game in which an Eastern European fugitive seeks to avoid capture in in the Siberian taiga during World War II. In that sense, as the developer put it, video games can be a “modern storytelling tool similar to books or movies.”
The creator of another survival game, Gulag, was motivated by the desire to bring to light the crimes of the Soviet Union during World War II—crimes that he believes are too often forgotten vis-à-vis German atrocities. Gulag, which is based on the experiences of its creator’s ancestors and a book by a Polish Army lieutenant who claimed to have escaped from a Siberian gulag, is a “tribute to the victims,” the creator said, and “[shouts] loudly to the world about their fate.” Another tribute is an adventure game built around historical sources and dedicated to the Kursk submarine disaster, where more than 100 people died in a Russian nuclear-powered submarine during naval exercises in the Barents Sea in 2000 after the explosion of an internal torpedo. At the time, Moscow was criticized for its response to the event. And when a Polish video game developer released Kursk in late 2018, it brought controversy and attention from mainstream Russian media—serving, Grzywaczewski wrote, as “proof of concept that it is possible to raise awareness of important political and social topics using a medium that is popular among younger audiences.”
All of these games are fairly niche, but there’s one that, if still obscure, already has a devoted following in the foreign-policy community. Even former President John F. Kennedy and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger enjoyed it. Last October, the editor David Klion described the board game Diplomacy as “ideally suited for the kind of nerd who has a deep interest in international relations, geopolitics, or really politics of any kind”—or, affectionately, as the game that ruins friendships. Invented by a Harvard University undergraduate in the 1950s, Diplomacy, which can now be played online, is a strategy game with only two types of game pieces—armies and fleets—where states compete for spheres of influence and players rely on casual manipulation. It’s a game that “encourages its players to imagine themselves as grand negotiators redrawing borders with international peers at a summit, not as rulers charged with upholding any set of religious, national, or democratic values,” wrote Klion, who played it as a teenager with Michael Ellis, a fellow Diplomacy devotee who would go on to become an influential member of the Trump administration.
Whatever these games and simulations are doing to train current and future members of the Blob, they are certainly cultivating an interest in—and mythology around—the mechanisms of foreign policy, state building, and national narrative. Games may be for fun, much needed more than a year into the pandemic, but they’re also products of a time and place—and ones whose effects may linger long after they’re shelved.