It started innocently enough. A friend of mine, Aaron, said something like, “You like going down rabbit holes, you should check out this podcast I found called Hardcore History. The host is Dan Carlin and he really likes digging deep into a subject.” He went on to explain how he was in the middle of listening to a five-part series on Genghis Khan titled with a nod to Star Trek, The Wrath of the Khans. A long discussion about the subject ensued and I downloaded the first episode that night. Then the second episode and the third. I began taking a portable Bluetooth speaker in my car so I could listen on the way to work. I was hooked.
I have always been one to wander down the path of something that piques my interest. For better or worse, I’ve done it all my life. I will discover something that intrigues me, then I will follow it wherever it takes me. In music, it’s learning about the influences that inspired the artist or the community of a particular music style. In the 90’s, I went on a Alt-Country journey that started with Uncle Tupelo and went all the way back to Gram Parsons. This rabbit hole led down side paths and further than expected, through artists like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, which then took me way back to Lefty Frizzel and Jimmy Rodgers. I’ve done the same with Soul and Jazz. Those genres are similar in that within that style of music exists communities of musicians that contribute to each others’ recordings. I love reading liner notes, then looking up the musicians to find out what else they’ve recorded and picking it up. Repeat. This could be why I have a wall of CD’s and Records. The rabbit hole is ultimately what my annual Thanksgiving and Groundhog projects have become. An invitation to wander down whatever tunnel grabs my fancy.
In many ways, board games share the same qualities. You can explore mechanic’s, theme’s, and designers. You can quite easily get lost, working your way through a certain designer’s catalog, or playing certain style’s of games. One can start with a game like Lords of Waterdeep and end up delving deep into the catalog of euro-style games. The next thing you know, you’re playing Fields of Arle by yourself on a Saturday morning. Oh, and you end up with shelves full of games.
By the time I was done with Wrath of the Khans, Aaron had moved on to Blueprint for Armageddon, Dan Carlin’s series on World War I. Aaron seemed really enthusiastic about the episodes, so I went straight down that hole as well. By this point, I was carrying my portable speaker around with me at home, trying to catch up. Lot’s of conversations ensued about what we’d learned and how flabbergasted we were by what little we knew about World War I.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise to me that I was so engrossed in this series. Since childhood, I’ve been interested in history and the history of warfare. I wrote papers on General George S. Patton and German Field Marshall, Erwin Rommel. I shared my Mother’s interest in the Civil War. We lived very close to Wilson’s Creek, site of the first major battle West of the Mississippi and I remember going there quite often for events, reenactments, etc. For my birthday this year, my wife took me to the Missouri Civil War Museum in St. Louis.
Growing up as a gamer, I was also intrigued by war games but rarely played any. Of course there was Risk, but Axis and Allies has been on my wish list since it was first republished in the mid-80’s. By that point, I was pretty heavy into D&D and finding gamers interested in 5 hours of war gaming was even harder than finding people who wanted to pretend they were Elves and slay dragons. As such, war gaming laid dormant and the game or two I had in my collection, sat on shelves collecting dust. When I got back into gaming, I found Richard Borg’s Memoir ’44. More importantly, I found the online version of Memoir ’44, so I could play solo. Memoir ’44 is a game set during World War II and part of a series of games designed by Richard Borg that incorporates his Command and Colors system, a streamlined rule set that combines strategic card play, dice management, and tactical movement of your miniatures. Each scenario is based on a real battle or conflict and the setup includes a synopsis of what happened and the battle’s relevance to the overall war. The context allowed me to learn, as well as set the tone for the game, giving me perspective on what the people involved went through. While not a new concept to the grognards, it was new and exciting for me. I played that game like crazy for a time, then it slowly faded as I went down other gaming paths.
Aaron and Dan Carlin are both to blame, really. They reinvigorated my interest in history and war games. Listening to Blueprint for Armageddon drove a lot of inner thought about war and the daily mental struggle soldiers went through. The brutality and horrible conditions through which they lived and died is something that I just cannot fathom. Games simulate an experience, activity, or idea, and I started exploring war games again. Maybe as a way to understand, or maybe just out of a renewed curiosity. There are not a lot of games about World War I available, and certainly not ones that are very accessible. I found Paths of Glory and read through the rules, quickly conceding to the complexity of the game. I purchased They Shall Not Pass, from Avalanche Press, which is about the 1916 battle of Verdun and the first in their line of Playbooks, games that contain a section in the rule book that details the history of the game subject. I read through the history section and the rules. Although the rules weren’t as dense, they were no less complex than Paths of Glory. Those games would have to wait until I had a bit more experience under my belt. I bought my first Axis and Allies game, Axis and Allies: World War I 1914. I didn’t stop there. I started playing Memoir ’44 again, dusting off all the expansions I’d been collecting. I picked up more of the Command and colors system, including Battle Cry (Civil War) and Command and Colors: Napoleonics. I bought 1775: Rebellion, published by Academy Games. Basically, I went down the rabbit hole. Again.
Hardcore History is not titled as such without reason. Dan Carlin manages to balance the reality and brutality of the subject without glorifying or exploiting the violence for the sake of its shock value, something that is a rarity today. The suffering and savagery of the material is almost unnerving at times. It also made me think a lot about why I wanted to play these games. I am never one to shy away from sensitive topics, but I have thought about whether it is o.k. to have fun playing a game where your pieces represent people who died in conflict? Why is it different if it’s Elves and Orcs, but feels a bit wrong when it’s so steeped in reality? After all, the seeds of Dungeons and Dragons came from war gaming. The intent is still the same. One side tries to destroy the other.
Dan Carlin mentioned early on in his series on Genghis Khan, that the further back in history an event is, the easier it is to forget about the impact of the destruction; to overlook the suffering caused by some of those figures in history we consider great. In a sense, time has washed the blood from their hands. For me, I think games have helped me pull the story back closer to home, helping me grasp the gravity of the situation through a tangible representation of the events.
As I type this, The Plastic Soldier Company (PSC Games) is shipping out copies of The Great War to their Kickstarter backers. The Great War is based on World War I and is the latest in the Commands and Colors series. After spending five months reading and listening to audio books, replaying Hardcore Histories’ Blueprint for Armageddon (three times), and watching several documentary series’, I’m excited to play the game and see how it tells the story of the war and represents warfare in World War I. I will be posting an in-depth look at the game and hopefully an interview with Will Townshend from PSC games. I am curious to see how much farther down this rabbit hole goes…