Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Waffen SS in Tactical Wargames

The depiction of Waffen SS soldiers has been at times a controversial subject in the history of tactical wargaming. The controversy has stemmed not from the sensible dilemma of how best to portray their training, doctrine and actual abilities in combat - these problems are applied to all military forces that designers seek to depict in tactical wargames - but rather from the problem of how to reconcile their record of warcrimes with their military achievements. As most tactical wargames depict fighting at the sharp end, and most war crimes, even those committed by combat units, occurred away from the front line, that element of controversy, at least, ceases to be relevant to the tactical game designer.

Other Problems
In an age of increased sensitivity to issues of racism, equality, and hatred, and an increased ability for mere symbols to acquire power, exception has been taken in some quarters by the granting of special symbols or abilities to Waffen SS troops. Such uneasiness has even extended to German Army units.

For example, M. Evan Brooks, in two PC game reviews, stated online that:

(I-95 CD) Strategic Simulations, Inc.; Rick Martinez; 1998; ***
A detailed armor simulation of World War II, it only covered campaigns on the Russian Front. Infantry/combined arms operations still came up short, but the more objectionable aspect of the design was allowing the player to be a member of certain questionable divisions -- while Grossdeutschland was not a Waffen SS division, there is sufficient historical evidence to question its participation in war crimes. (emphasis added)

(A/C/Ap) Strategic Simulations, Inc.; Roger Damon; 1985; ***
A tactical simulation of armored warfare on the Eastern Front during World War II, it was marred by historical inaccuracy. Reconnaissance by fire was overemphasized, and opportunity fire was hit-and-miss. It lacked the panache and élan to yield an enduring game experience. Also, I found it somewhat disturbing that the game identified so closely with the "Grossdeutschland" Panzer Grenadier Division. Historically, that Division was not formed until 1944, and since game scenarios occurred in 1942, it would seem obvious that the reference is to the "Grossdeutschland" Panzer Division; while not a criminal organization like the Waffen SS, "Grossdeutschland" was not adverse to being escorted by Einsatzkommando extermination groups. The close identification with a "tainted" unit left me with an uncomfortable feeling. (emphasis added)
Similar comments have been made in most online forums for games ranging from Combat Mission to Advanced Squad Leader.

Cross of Iron - Special Rules
Of all the tactical games yet published, perhaps the Squad Leader/Advanced Squad Leader series has gone to the greatest length to impart on the Waffen SS unique capabilities. In general, SL/ASL has exceeded other game systems with its national characteristic rules.

Cross of Iron (Avalon Hill, 1979), the first sequel to Squad Leader, the successful squad-level game published by Avalon Hill in 1977, treated Waffen SS troops with an entire rules section. The Designer's Notes read:

The German SS units were elite formations by virtue of their superior training, and morale. They were not the supermen the German propaganda would have the world believe. On the Eastern Front, however, the Death's Head insignia meant just that for any SS trooper unfortunate enough to fall into Russian hands. Surrender was akin to suicide. As the war progressed and the front drew ever closer to Germany, the SS was composed more and more of desperate men.

From left to right; the original counters in Cross of Iron - a first line squad above a red berserk counter; the "casual" posed squad counters supplied in G.I.: Anvil of Victory; the blue SS from Beyond Valor; the return of the black SS in A Bridge Too Far; and the "purple" SS from Kampgruppe Peiper.

SS troops were depicted in COI by white on black counters, and were given special characteristics, applying only in Eastern Front scenarios. This included a lessened subjection to Desperation Morale penalties (i.e. a penalty on broken units attempting to rally if subjected to enemy fire in the preceding turn), a higher morale rating when broken (indicating that they were quick to rally, the only troops in the Squad Leader system so treated to that point in time), ability to use flamethrowers and demo charges, an exemption from being taken prisoner by Russian units, and a rule that all SS units were subject to the special Berserk rules of the Russians (which made a unit immune to morale checks and required it to charge the nearest enemy unit to engage it in close combat).

Whether or not the rules are particularly accurate, Squad Leader tended to exaggerate national characteristics to give a distinct "flavour" and in that regard, the SS rules were no more or less accurate than those recognizing all Americans as automatically proficient with captured weapons, or later rules that saw British troops treated as "cool under fire."

G.I.: Anvil of Victory
The final game in the original Squad Leader series released in 1983 replaced many of the original counters of the first two games to reflect updates to the rules. The SS counters were rendered in white and black once again, though the Berserk counters were deleted (Berserk status had been extended to all units of all nationalities in Crescendo of Doom (Avalon Hill, 1980), the third entry in the series, though Russian and SS units remained more likely to go Berserk than those of other nationalities.) No changes in capabilities were made.

Advanced Squad Leader
Four rulebooks later, the living game system was consolidated into one "Advanced" rulebook, and, controversially, the unit and system counters were replaced en masse. To those that were paying attention, the SS were replaced with blue counters, though the distinctive SS runes were added to the upper corner.

Capabilities in the new game system were similar to the original; broken-side morale was higher than normal (a capability now extended in the Advanced game to some other nationalities, most notably the Americans); SS units still did not surrender to Russian units, were permitted to carry out the new "Massacre" function - the rejection of an enemy surrender - and could not become Disrupted (a severe type of morale loss) when opposing Russians.

ASL should have been the final incarnation of the SS counters, but the Historical ASL module A Bridge Too Far (MMP, 1999) depicting the fighting at the Arnhem Bridge in September 1944 reintroduced SS units in black, "as a throwback to the old Squad Leader series." Some SS units had been included in Kampfgruppe Peiper, another HASL Module released in two parts, with counters (mis)printed in an odd shade of purple rather than the standard German blue. These additional releases also included German units with values other than the standard 6-5-8 firepower/range/morale, reflecting a more greater recognition that SS units in reality varied greatly in composition, training and equipment.

What Does It All Mean
As someone who went out and bought Cross of Iron in the autumn of 1984 at the age of 15 with hard-earned allowance money, the white on black counters always seemed stark and dramatic, highlighting the reputation that the Waffen SS had for no quarter on the battlefield. The stark contrast, the colour of death, all spoke to the fact that these characters were bad-asses. It was visceral.

Allied troops in the field felt the same way. One could ask the Canadians in Normandy whose unarmed friends were murdered shortly after D-Day, or the Americans after the Baugnez crossroads massacre near Malmedy in the Battle of the Bulge. One soldier in The Royal Winnipeg Rifles was reported as saying that after word of the murders by the 12th SS Division in the early days of the Normandy fighting, the Canadians weren't taking prisoners. "Any SS man we see, we just give him the works, now."

Canadian soldiers of Le Régiment de la Chaudière with an SS prisoner a little the worse for wear, Normandy, 1944. Public Archives of Canada Photo.

Allied troops genuinely believed the SS were badasses too and expected, and often gave, no quarter. The sight of those "evil" black counters is a subtle reminder of that - a history lesson achieved at a glance.

Master Gamers
Not to compare a game to what anyone goes through in battle, but even the over-confidence of a smug, arrogant gamer pulling out a set of black counters kind of matches that smug, arrogant over-confidence the Master Race had when they made their insane attempt to take over the world. I experienced a bit of that myself in 1984, and 1985, playing COI with guys who loved the black counters, who called their intramural volleyball team "Ball Waffe" and drew runes on their school textbooks. It made the games entertaining because you wanted to do nothing more than show them that a black counter didn't impart any special powers or ascendancy over the rules any more than runes or blood group tattoos had granted ascendancy over the realities of 25-pounder or 155mm HE, a company of Shermans, and a battalion of determined men set on doing them bodily harm. I suspect my buddies were equally keen to show me that regimental cap badges and archaic names like The Sherwood Foresters or Fife and Forfar Yeomanry or The Calgary Highlanders didn't make one's troops bulletproof either. The victories - whomever won them - were sweeter given the level of friendly rivalry that those little black counters inflamed.

Other Games
Up Front, billed as the "Squad Leader Card Game", not surprisingly, given its relationship to the board game, had special rules for SS troops, though these were minor. Rule 39.6 gives an SS player two discards if he has taken one, or no, actions during his turn. I'm not aware of other games that impart some special abilities on the SS, other than a reflection of the status of their first 10 or divisions in receiving an increased scale of weapons and equipment by higher attack factors in operational level games, or greater mobility reflected by additional movement factors in those same games.

My Final Word
If there is an argument that the black counters somehow "glorifies" the SS, I personally think it rings false, and loudly. In the end, it is a matter for personal interpretation. If one chooses to get offended by a game piece, that is their decision. There are many "legitimate" reasons to see the SS given a dramatic representation on the gaming table.

My Question To You
Have I missed any? Which tactical games out there depict the SS with special rules?

1 comment:

  1. This post originally appeared at The comments there read:
    Egbert - 06 Apr 08 22:19
    I equated the black counters with the black uniforms as depicted in the movies and an ease to identify the special rules which applied, similar to the ease of identifying berzerk units.

    Michael Dorosh - 06 Apr 08 22:35
    Interesting; in all the hysteria that crops up in the discussion almost 30 years later over the black SS counters, I think the original rationale may have been lost. Black as a simple memory device. Imagine that. Makes sense to me...

    Rindis - 07 Apr 08 12:54
    It was also somewhat standard in those days to use white-on-black for SS in AH games. They appear so in The Russian Campaign (where it's important as the Germans always get to replace SS units, and have a greater 'anti-partisan' range), and Fortress Europa (where I don't think it made any special difference). These are strategic, but I think it's best to look at the overall company printing history here.

    Michael Dorosh - 07 Apr 08 16:20
    Interesting; same comment came up in the ASL forum - notably Anzio which has white on black SS counters.

    Rgirish - 08 Apr 08 13:46
    Whatever the reason, the black counters are a nice attraction. Anyone put off by a games inclusion of SS units probably shouldn't be playing WWII games, in my opinion. After all, it's just a game.

    Stalins Organ - 14 Apr 08 18:36
    One scenario in Advanced Tactics allows SS, and gives them black backgrounds if the unit has enough SS sub-units in it.

    But the black uniform was abandoned before the war wasn't it? And black was the uniform colour of panzer troops - both SS and Whermacht

    Chaim628 - 17 Apr 08 02:40
    Black was the uniform of the Algemeine SS, the Waffen-SS had feldgrau as a base and wore camo as early as 1940. Indeed panzer units wore officially black but also camo as the war progressed. StuG units wore grey. The shoulder strap colors were the same as in the Wehrmacht, that was pink for the panzers...

    Michael Dorosh - 17 Apr 08 06:49
    Uniform colours were far more complicated; assault artillery could wear black or field grey depending on the time of the war; waffenfarbe for officers varied at times from white for all branches, to branch-of-service underlaid with black, to plain branch-of-service, again depending on time of war, unit, etc. Camouflage was worn in the Army from before the war on the zeltbahn (shelterquarter), etc. The black AFV uniform was not a "symbol" of tank troops so much as it was worn by others, including signallers, medics, engineers, assault artillery, etc., until the introduction of the field grey version in 1940.

    Michael Dorosh - 11 May 08 06:28
    And this "just" in from Redmond A. Simonsen - in MOVES No. 7, Feb-Mar 1973 in an article entitled "Physical Systems Design in Conflict Simulations":

    Another slightly annoying request I get from a small, but vocal, group is to color the counters in strictly accurate uniform colors (and a corollary to this, the demand from the "closet Nazis" to make all SS counters white on black). I don't accede to these demands for several reasons: Some are practical ones, such as the research involved, ink matching, the fact that the uniform colors of two opposing armies might be virtually identical, and the fact that in tactical games with several scenarios, it's impossible to cover all the combinations. Other reasons are doctrinal: I believe that gratuitous color or decoration hurts a game and that same-side counters should only be picked out in different colors when its necessary for play or an aid to sorting. In general, I partially agree with the sentiment behind relating counter color to uniform color and I do try to give you counters that have a nationalistic look...I just don't want to carry it to an absurd extreme. Oh, by the way, I did give you the white on black SS counters this year (in Breakout & Pursuit) but that was only to make it easier to identify Kampfgruppen and their parent units.