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Kay: What I learned from playing Advanced Squad Leader

Advanced Squad Leader brings the Second World War alive. (SEAN JACQUEMAIN PHOTO)

Every board-gamer brings a different set of appetites to the table, which is why there are so many different games. The sort of person who loves, say, an empathy-driven social-emulator game such as Dixit is unlikely to go in for a hardcore war game such as my own personal favourite, a tactical-level Second World War wargame called Advanced Squad Leader. A beer-and-pretzel college-dorm strategy gamer who enjoys swindling and ego-jousting his roommates is always going to prefer a game like Monopoly or Chinatown over a co-operative game such as Pandemic or Eldritch Horror. A serious-minded, highly analytical intellectual usually will prefer the tightly controlled 8 x 8 arena of chess to the comic crash-and-burn mayhem of Galaxy Trucker. Tabletop gaming is not really one hobby. It is a thousand hobbies, each with its own rich and growing subculture.

So what is it about Advanced Squad Leader that appeals to me? I am not just playing a game when I play: I am telling a story of a particular battle that played out during the Second World War. In a perfect world, I would not have to play boardgames to produce stories through the manipulation of little cardboard counters and tokens. I would be able to do it the way Leo Tolstoy and Marcel Proust did it – scribbling away in a notebook. I have tried that, and it does not work for me. I am not a fiction writer. I try to create characters and breathe life into them. They stare back at me from the page, shrugging, shuffling around listlessly. They have no inner momentum or urgency to their actions, and so I find myself paralyzed, not being able to pick from the infinity of possible actions and thoughts that I may ascribe to them.

When I play a board game – especially a richly detailed one such as Advanced Squad Leader, the motivation is clear. It is written in the “victory conditions” for each game scenario I play, which are based on actual historical records of Second World War battles. I have to take a bridge, destroy a bunker, clear a town. When the game is done, it is full of all sorts of little details that would have been impossible for me to conjure out of thin air. Yet within the context of a rules-bound game, you can create a sort of action-movie screenplay by accident.

When people ask me why I never watch TV or movies, I tell them it is because board gaming takes up all my free time. That is not the whole truth. It is also the case that the experience of passively watching video bores me. After experiencing the thrill of midwifing a story right then and there on a tabletop, I refuse to go back to a form of entertainment that requires me to sit back and watch someone else’s fully formed story pop out of a box.

Realistic war games such as Advanced Squad Leader also bring history alive by putting players in the shoes of the generals and forcing them to act out the strategic choices faced by both sides. As a Jew whose ancestors were slaughtered by the Nazis, I know something about the crimes against humanity perpetrated by Hitler and his minions. I will admit that it has felt strange to take the German side in a war game but even that sense of unease has its educational side. Notwithstanding the monstrous nature of the Nazi regime, the young men who took up arms for the regime were flesh-and-blood human beings whose manner of warfare shaped the history of Europe. They, and their ways, deserve study for their own sake.

I also am cognizant of the great privilege I experience, living in a peaceful country such as Canada, where I can experience the simulation of war as an intellectual pursuit. When I play Advanced Squad Leader, I am mindful of this. No matter who wins or loses a scenario, there always are plenty of dead on both sides. It shocks me to push myself back from the board and think that hundreds of men actually did die to capture or defend some meaningless piece of real estate. Playing Advanced Squad Leader has, in this way, turned me into something of a pacifist.

It was not just the Nazis who regarded life as cheap. I have played 1945-era Advanced Squad Leader scenarios in which I have “commanded” some of the Red Army troops who served Stalin’s totalitarian U.S.S.R. and brutalized the citizenry of Berlin. In another scenario, set in October 1937, two years before the Second World War even started, I commanded elements of the Japanese Expeditionary Army that descended upon the Chinese 88th Division holed up in Shanghai’s Zhabei district, and massacred them down to a man.

While Nazism was a uniquely malignant force in world affairs, a close study of the period shows that evil came into full bloom in many countries, and under the banner of many movements. And so the only way to immerse oneself in any kind of military re-enactment is to compartmentalize the tactics from the underlying causes they served. Again, this is not for everyone. But that is why there is Jenga.

Excerpted from Your Move: What Board Games Teach Us About Life by Jonathan Kay and Joan Moriarity, published by Sutherland House.

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