Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Remembering World War II -- Playing a Game to Better Understand the Terror of War

On September 1, 1939 the German army invaded Poland, an action which signaled the official beginning of the Second World War. A little more than a week before this invasion, on August 23rd 1939, the Soviet Union and the Nazis signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact -- also known as the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. In addition to articulating an agreement of non-agression, the Pact included terms for the territorial and political rearrangement of the countries of Eastern Europe. To quote the relevant articles:

Article I. In the event of a territorial and political rearrangement in the areas belonging to the Baltic States (Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), the northern boundary of Lithuania shall represent the boundary of the spheres of influence of Germany and U.S.S.R. In this connection the interest of Lithuania in the Vilna area is recognized by each party.

Article II. In the event of a territorial and political rearrangement of the areas belonging to the Polish state, the spheres of influence of Germany and the U.S.S.R. shall be bounded approximately by the line of the rivers Narev, Vistula and San.

The question of whether the interests of both parties make desirable the maintenance of an independent Polish States and how such a state should be bounded can only be definitely determined in the course of further political developments.

In any event both Governments will resolve this question by means of a friendly agreement.

Article III. With regard to Southeastern Europe attention is called by the Soviet side to its interest in Bessarabia. The German side declares its complete political disinteredness in these areas.

This agreement enabled the Nazis to invade Poland without fear of a Soviet reaction, so long as they kept to the pre-determined territorial rearrangements. The document's legacy extends beyond providing the Nazis the confidence to begin an attack against Poland, it created the basis for geographical lines and political struggles that would endure throughout the Cold War.

When one thinks of the Second World War, one often focuses on the struggles of the "Great Powers" engaged in the global conflict. There is a great abundance of historical resources available about the Battle of Stalingrad, The Battle of the Bulge, and the invasion at Normandy. What is often overlooked when remembering the Second World War are the struggles of weaker forces battling for independence from the larger powers. We don't often read about the Lithuanian June Uprising or the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. When it comes to games about the era, these events are almost completely overlooked. It is easy to find wargames covering The Battle of the Bulge. In fact, it is a joke that every wargame designer must at some time design a "Bulge Game" -- a fact that led Steve Jackson to design One Page Bulge. There are some excellent wargames covering the Battle of Stalingrad and the battles between the Nazis and Soviets on the Eastern Front. But even games that simulate battles on the smallest level, games like Squad Leader, often overlook these important struggles.

Thankfully, Jason Morningstar has written a game that powerfully captures the spirit of freedom and the tragic costs of war exemplified in these battles for liberation. Morningstar's Grey Ranks is a game that simulates the 63 days of the Warsaw Uprising -- in particular the actions of child soldiers. As Morningstar puts it:

In this game, you will assume the role of a young Polish partisan before, during, and after the disastrous 1944 Uprising against the Germans. Together with your friends, you'll create the story of a group of teens who fight to free their city, one of the countless Grey Ranks "crews" that take up arms. Your characters -- child soldiers -- will have all the faults and enthusiasms of youth. Across sixty days of armed rebellion, they will grow up fast -- or die.

The game uses a chapter structure which enforces an adherence to the real events of the uprising and which forces players to make increasingly difficult decisions. The game also includes several quotes from Hans Frank, the man who was the Governor General of occupied Poland. Grey Ranks is a narrative driven game system that creates powerful stories and focuses on an often overlooked part of the Second World War. Though the game focuses on the struggles of child soldiers during the 1944 Uprising, one can see how its system might be expanded to look at other similar struggles as well.

For a look at Lithuania's struggles, I recommend Darius Udrys' Road to Freedom (embedded below). His film covers more than the Second World War, but the multimedia presentation is worth the viewing.

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