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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.


  1. John G. Wood
    August 23, 2018 @ 12:00 pm

    I passed this on to my son, because he plays a lot of Hearts of Iron with the Kaiserreich mod so that he can play a syndicalist nation. As expected he was interested, and when he got to the line “this game has a number to keep track of class consciousness”, he laughed and said “now I want to rush out and get Victoria II!”

    If nothing else, you’ve certainly got another viewer for your Let’s Play…


  2. Douglas Muir
    August 24, 2018 @ 11:09 am

    The line from the original Kriegspiel to Avalon Hill and the 1960s miniatures that spun off D&D may not be as direct as all that — I’d say this bit needs more work. You can sew some particular pieces together, sure. One biographer of D&D painstakingly went from Chainmail to Tractics (which is now completely forgotten) and then back even a step or two farther, to miniatures systems that nobody has played for fifty years. But once you get back past WWII it starts to get very disconnected. Wells, for instance, seems to have designed his game in a vacuum, with no direct knowledge of what the Germans may have been up to.

    Anyway. The medium of video games strongly encourages (though it does not require) the sort of supercentralized, god-king decision-maker model you’re talking about. But board games didn’t and don’t. You mention the original Civilization. Did you ever play it? Because the core engine of that game wasn’t the tech tree, and it wasn’t military expansion or resource competition either. It was the trading phase, where you haggled with six other players to take your random hand of miscellaneous cards and turn it into a standardized and highly profitable set of commodities. The key gameplay element was elegantly simple: sets of cards increased their value exponentially. So three cards of a particular commodity (gold, ivory, wheat, salt) were worth nine times more than one. If you could get get seven or eight of them and corner the market, boom: you were rich and could buy your way up the tech tree. Trade badly and you’d end up with a weak low-value hand and you’d only be able to buy cheap crap techs that nobody else wanted. This was an explicitly capitalist model, but it was also one that required a huge amount of face-to-face interactIon: diplomacy, cajoling, dealing, begging, threats.
    (There was a complex subsystem involving screw cards and disasters, so players who were too overtly greedy invited nemesis.) And you had to play this part of the game.

    For a more extreme example, consider classic Diplomacy. You control the fate of your empire! But your empire consists of just three units, and the ruleset is one step above checkers in complexity. No resources, no tech tree, nothing. And to accomplish anything — let alone to win — you have to interact vigorously with the other players; the game is designed that way. If you try to play Diplomacy like a 4X video game, you will die very quickly.

    (And yet, in its relentlessly zero-sum nature, Diplomacy looks and feels more like a Kriegspiel dans le sens general than most Avalon Hill games ever did. Go figure.)

    For a more recent example: Settlers of Catan. Explicitly colonialist (is that island really empty?) and capitalist. Yet you can’t ignore the other players; you must cooperate with them at least to trade cards, and the game encourages other forms of deal making (“I’ll let you use my wheat port if you’ll agree not to hit me with the Robber.”) Video games, as a medium just aren’t as well suited to this sort of thing.. (Or at least, not yet.) Most 4X games do include a diplomacy engine but it’s pretty much never at the center of the game; alliances in the Civ games, for instance, tend to be opportunistic and temporary until you’re strong enough that you can backstab your erstwhile chum. The diplomatic AI tends to feel like an afterthought, and strong players can often just blitz the whole world without much caring about diplomacy beyond the occasional tech exchange.

    Incidentally, this has had a complex effect on boardgaming. Most obviously, I think it has driven the rise of cooperative board games in the last 15 years or so — without Civilization, you’d have no Pandemic. (And man, could you do a Marxist analysis of Pandemic: Legacy. I mean, this is a game about public health where, if you’re doing too well, your funding gets cut.) I think there are some other, more subtle effects, but this comment is probably already long enough.

    Doug M.


    • Ben Knaak
      August 24, 2018 @ 3:00 pm

      I will readily admit to being far more familiar with strategy video games than I am with strategy board games, or indeed board games in general. Most of the time I spent playing board games more complex than, say, Trivial Pursuit, occurred years ago in college. Much of what inspired this portion of the post was reading Jon Peterson’s analysis of the wargaming roots of D&D in particular.

      My primary interest here involves games as historiographical representation, and wargaming marked the first time in which games as we know them made an attempt to be truly representational of reality as opposed to something more abstract like chess. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the modern alternate history genre first made its appearance in the post-Napoleonic years as well – it’s something of a “gamey” genre. But the history of gaming is an enormously broad subject, about which there is much I will freely admit that I don’t know.

      Board games and tabletop games have, of course, developed in ways that have diverged substantially from computer and video games. Indeed, video games are in many respects much more limited, and one of the many ways this manifests is, as you have said, the relative lack of social play. This comes from both the lack of physical presence of other players and the comparative inflexibility of software compared to, uh…boardware. Modding a video game, even a game with scripting as simple as the Clausewitz engine allows, is nowhere near as easy as a GM making a judgment call or a party setting “house” rules.

      With the exception of Hearts of Iron IV, whose streamlined nature makes it more suited for multiplayer than singleplayer, the primary focus of computer grand strategy is an atomistic single-player command experience. To be fair, much of my experience playing Paradox as a multiplayer game has involved a lot of negotiation and haggling via Discord. But much of this occurs in spite of the game’s mechanics rather than being integrated into them.


  3. hotmail
    August 26, 2018 @ 11:33 am

    I never think that the story of game history is interesting like this. Nice video.


  4. Przemek
    September 4, 2018 @ 2:11 pm

    This was a fascinating read. Thank you.


  5. Andy
    April 30, 2021 @ 2:09 pm

    To be fair, much of my experience playing Paradox as a multiplayer game has involved a lot of negotiation and haggling via Discord.


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