LTAW’s Last Minute Christmas Gift Guide

Because you know you missed someone!

It’s a feeling that’s all too common. It’s Christmas Eve, and you’ve suddenly realized that you’ve forgotten to buy something for the ardent wargamer on your list. What will you do!? Head to Steam of course and send them a wargame digitally. Here are some of (but not all of) our favourite wargame picks this year. You can’t go wrong grabbing any of them for yourself or loved ones.

We have no affiliation or links and won’t earn a cent from this. We just like these games in particular and want to amplify them. Happy gaming!

Unity of Command 2/ Unity of Command 2: Blitzkrieg (Jack)

I very much like Unity of Command 2 and its recent expansion, Blitzkrieg. In terms of operational level command in a WW2 game, it’s hard to beat these. UoC had a bit of a problem with being more “puzzle-y” than wargame-y, but UoC2 has solved that issue. There are lots of ways to successfully complete your objectives in this turn-based bad boy, coupled with a solid logistics system that will beat the hell out of you/ your opponent if you’re not careful.

I’m also fond of the persistent units in UoC2, your veteran units will gain experience through multiple scenarios and you can upgrade them with various specialist “steps”, or reinforce them with things get bloody. And they will! Every mission has a timetable you have to meet, and you will have to spill some of your own blood to complete objectives on time. Tick Tock, capture Warsaw please.

Partisans: 1941 (Jack)

This one was something of a sleeper hit for wargamers this year. Something normally out of our element, as it is a stealth-based real-time tactics game, but it’s probably the most fun you’ll have being a guerrilla in WW2.

You’ve got a squad of partisans (duh) that you can order around on missions during the start of Barbarossa, sabotaging tanks, poisoning supplies, all sorts of very partisan-y things, and boy is it fun to do. Your partisans all specialize in different areas, meaning you can pull off some interesting combos to take down a patrol silently or, when required, go loud and shoot down a whole square of Nazis at once. The controls are a bit finicky at points, but the experience makes up for that handily.

Crusader Kings 3 (Jack)

Technically, yes, CK3 is more of a grand strategy game, I know. BUT it does have a lot of very strong wargame elements when it comes to the composition of armies, placement of forces, and logistics to support your men. Warring isn’t easy in CK3, which is why it’s good to be good at the politicking side of it as well.

Your character will be the ruler of a house, fully realized as an independent player on the map, and all other landed rulers are modeled as well. So, schmooze up to some friends and have them help you in your wars… or just assassinate people in the line of succession until you take their lands. There’s a lot of options here! It’s great! Buy it!

Total War: Warhammer 2 (Jack)

Total Warhammer 2 is a very fun (and relatively light) wargame, packaged with a nice strategy game layer. Send your fantasy beastmen against the cities of the treacherous elves, throw skeletons at alligator men, and call down a meteor against the enemy dwarves. It’s like getting to be a kid again and smashing your toys against each other in imagined epic fantasy battles, but realized on your PC. Or, you know, if you play the Warhammer tabletop game, it’s pretty cool too, I guess.

Total Warhammer 2 did not come out this year, but it’s had consistent updates and new DLCs pretty regularly since its release. Couple that with the fact that it integrates with Total Warhammer 1 and presumably will with Total Warhammer 3, if Total War interests you, it’s a good time to pick it up. 

John Tiller Games (Joe)

So John Tiller Software is kind of an eternal presence in the world of digital wargaming. They’ve been making games with (virtually) the same tools for decades now. There are games to cover the Napoleonic Wars, The two World Wars, and a lot of other conflicts that are less common, like the Spanish Civil War.

Their recent collaboration with Wargames Design Studio has breathed some life into the old games, with new releases coming along with a fancier engine and some classics getting a remake. There’s really no better time to check JTS/WDS out.

My most recent playthrough was Sheldt ‘44 which covers the campaigns through the low countries, but I’ve also sunk a lot of time into Japan ‘45 and Japan ‘46 two games that cover the planned invasion of Kyushu and the Kanto region as part of Operation Downfall.

Once you get a handle on the system’s controls, you’ll be blazing through the games and enjoying a deep, but relaxed, operational level campaign. These games are also great for those interested in Orders of Battle and maps, as both are exceptionally researched and well presented within the games.

Cauldrons of War: Barbarossa (Joe)

This one came out of nowhere for me. An indie strategic game of the Eastern Front of WWII, Cauldrons forces players to make crucial decisions about how their armies will interact with conquered areas as they advance. This means confronting the horrors of war head on.

The gameplay is straightforward and abstract. Players assign armies and corps to different fronts and then give them broad orders. The actual conduct of battles is fed back to players through a text ticker. It might take a while to get used to, but it is quite the unique experience.

Strategic command: WWI (Joe)

This has become my new favourite “comfy” wargame. The Strategic Command series offers a high level strategic view of both WWI and WWII but I’ve found Strategic Command WWI to be my favourite. Players control an entire alliance and attempt to win the war through research, diplomacy, production, and the actual control of units. 

Once players have gotten the hang of the system, which shouldn’t take very long, they’ll be digging trenches in the west and launching cavalry charges in the east in no time. The ease with which this game operates has made it a favourite for me after long work days. I can settle in and play a few months worth of turns without my brain frying, all while still getting a convincing recreation of the First World War.

Armoured Commander II (Joe)

Armoured Commander definitely flew under the radar for a lot of people, but I’m hoping more will check it out. A unique experience, Armoured Commander II puts players in command of a tank squadron in WWII. More of an RPG than a strategy experience, there’s real tension in deciding how your tank will operate, how to upgrade your crew members, and how to tackle each day. 

Armoured Commander II doesn’t pull any punches either. A solid hit will knock your tank out and might even kill some crew members. Having to replace a lost driver hurts after you’ve spent several missions with him and leveled him up. There’s a certain narrative flair to Armoured Commander II that you don’t really get with some higher level games. 

The simplistic graphics shouldn’t put anyone off, as they mean there are dozens of tanks, campaigns, and other support units to engage with. There’s a lot of content in a small package here for quite a cheap price.

Operation Citadel (Joe)

Another indie entry, Operation Citadel is reminiscent of the classic Panzer General games. The base package includes campaigns from all across WWII but the main draw is the included modding tools.

While there is a lot of fun to be had fighting gigantic campaigns using the built in maps of Asia and Europe, as well as individual missions all over the place, the integrated tools let your imagination run wild.

I’m currently in the process of trying to build a squad level mod for Operation Citadel set in the Pacific Theatre, and it’s coming together remarkably well considering my less-than-stellar game design knowledge. Check it out, there’s a lot of content and if you’re crafty, the sky’s the limit.

JACK’s BONUS NON-WARGAME RECOMMENDATION

Hades

Hades is super, very, extremely good. It’s a roguelike game where you play Hades’ son, Zagreus, who for reasons not stated initially, really wants to get the hell out of… Hell. You will fail, and fail often, but luckily, since our star Zag is a god of the Underworld, he just pops right back out at the bottom of the river Styx to make another climb out. The combat has a lot of options in it, with 6 different weapons to choose from, all of which have a bunch of different modes you can run with. Not to mention on your many, many runs, there are several Olympian gods who will grant you boons to aid you with your escape. The way that these mix into the gameplay feels very satisfying, and those of you with strategy-focused brains can think of some pretty clever combinations to make a run go well.

The story is one of the best I’ve seen in any game from the past 10 years (and was robbed at the Game Awards, to be frank), with stellar writing, music, and voice acting making you feel strongly for all the characters you run into. It’s a great story about family, love, betrayal, and determination that knows how to balance between a drama and a comedy. Do yourself a favor and play Hades.

Happy Holidays Everyone!

Translating the Russo-Japanese War

A while ago I was gifted a copy of Horiba Wataru’s The Russo-Japanese War by the wonderful Ayako of Big Cat Games. I had really enjoyed Mr. Horiba’s last rules-light wargame Pacific Go and was eager to see what he had done with The Russo-Japanese War, an important conflict and one that receives far less attention than it deserves.

Since the game was so far only available in Japan, I decided to sit down and try my hand at translation. I figured it would be a good exercise for me (oh it was!) and would allow more people to play this wonderful little game. Below is PDF file of version 1.0 of my translation. Please feel free to download and give it a read. Make sure to grab the game when you get a chance!

If you spot any errors or have any questions leave a post!

Joe

DEFCON – The Scariest Wargame

Tick, Tock. Dozens of fighter squadrons dogfight in three-way fights, some thousands of feet in the air above a border town. Tick, Tock. A wolfpack of submarines has popped up in the middle of a carrier group and is violently hunting the vulnerable ships down, sending each one to the bottom of the sea. Tick. A notification appears: DEFCON 1. Tock. Hundreds of nuclear-equipped missiles are launched at the major air bases, fleets, radar stations, nuclear silos, and cities of the world. Tick. Some are intercepted by air-defense systems, but there are so many missiles and so few still-operational defenses that it’s almost pointless. Tock. An explosion of white consumes a huge area. A notification appears: 17.3 million dead. That was just one missile. There are dozens more on their way.

DEFCON provides nothing more but the most abstract look at the horrors of nuclear war, but it’s the most intense and terrifying wargame devised. You will lose millions upon millions of people every playthrough. Your carefully devised military setup will in the end be destroyed by overwhelming numbers, and at that point, you can only pray that the cities being targeted have air defense shelters. After all, you just need to lose less people to win. Every hit you take is points deducted at the end of the game, but I can never shake that dreadful feeling when I see that a city has been reduced to a series of craters, with only a few survivors managing to stumble from the wreckage.

Compounding this dread is that DEFCON can be played in real-time, so you can watch a missile appear on the horizon, dodge all intercepting attacks, and slowly descend into a metropolis over the course of 10 minutes. The waiting makes it worse. Tick, Tock.

Do not go near DEFCON if nuclear war freaks you out, because this game will make you lose your mind. It is without a doubt, the most terrifying wargame ever, but will hopefully remain purely hypothetical. Tick. Tock.

-Jack

The First World War and Horror in Videogames

“Then there staggered into our midst French soldiers, blinded, coughing, chests heaving, faces an ugly purple color, lips speechless with agony, and behind them in the gas soaked trenches, we learned that they had left hundreds of dead and dying comrades.”[1]


There is something especially terrifying about the First World War as a lived experience that ensures it crops up again and again as a horror setting. It’s easy to see why. The First World War, especially on the Western Front, has become the popular definition of madness, incompetence, and wanton violence of modern war. There’s good reason for this association, even though it was not the first nor the last war to have these terrible characteristics in spades as the previous decade’s wars can attest. The First World War effectively undid the notion of war as something glorious or worthwhile that had been growing in the time with European tension.

In gaming, we tend to see WWI handled in one of a few ways. The futility of the conflict is generally highlighted, even if the narrative might present the war as a pseudo-Second World War, like Battlefield 1. That persistent futility might be highlighted alongside the sorrow of a war that lacked the recognizable morality of the Second World War, like Valiant Hearts. Other games, more traditional wargames generally, focus on the logistics and politics of the war, because at least there player input can matter along the Western Front. But occasionally a game comes along that dives headfirst into the literal ‘horror’ of the Western Front. It’s easy to see why the Western Front presents such a cohesive background to a horror game, especially horror games that play at Lovecraftian feelings of human futility. Trench warfare, outside of some special circumstances, reduced the impact of personal initiative to virtually nothing. There was little an individual could do during an offensive to personally impact their own or their comrades’ chance for survival. Similarly, the everyday living conditions brought forth the worst combination of monotony and terror imaginable. Front trench living was endless discomfort, terrible food, the noise of shelling, the smell of decay and necessarily lapsed hygiene. Add to this industrialized warfare, new terrible weapons, and the inability of either side (for a good chunk of time anyways) to make any progress, and it becomes clear that the First World War is as close to a literal Hell on earth as any mass amount of humans had been subjected to in a long time.[2]

Exploring the Cathedral is a chilling, and depressing experience

First World War Horror

Now let’s talk about a couple specifics shall we? A game that clearly demonstrates the ‘First World War as madness’ motif is the excellent Eternal Darkness. A launch title for the Nintendo Gamecube in 2002, Eternal Darkness tells the centuries long story of a family’s attempt to stave off an invasion by Lovecraftian elder gods. As such, the story progresses across hundreds of years and contains one level set in a field hospital in a cathedral during the Battle of the Somme. The player character, a wounded soldier, must creep around the ancient church to figure out why his wounded comrades are disappearing from their beds. Long story short, it turns out the eldritch being living beneath the church used its immense power to scramble the brains of world leaders to ensure a war occurred over his home, thereby supplying him with the necessary violence and bodies to sate his undying hunger. Grim stuff, but it plays into the idea of pulling reason out of the madness of the First World War. It can’t have been for nothing, so it was ancient aliens. The story itself does a good job of highlighting the endless violence of the war and the pointlessness of its continuation through the constant shelling and overwhelming number of wounded and dead bodies you have to walk by. I always found the use of an external force to create the madness of modern warfare a telling sign of the popular revulsion people have felt in the face of the Western Front’s butchery. In Eternal Darkness, you are just one small pawn in a broad chess game. Very familiar.

Combat is brutal and loud in Conscript

A new game coming out in 2021, Conscript, places players in the trenches at Verdun in an homage to classic survival horror games like Resident Evil and Alone in the Dark. Here players traverse an increasingly dead section of trench solving puzzles and dealing with a slipping grasp on reality. It’s a dour little gaming experience (only a demo so far) but highlights again the descent into madness that is so easily placed alongside First World War stories. The monotony of trench life allows for a slower paced game in which the player character must collect keys, salvage weapons to defend themselves from barely human German soldiers, and creep past the physical horrors of rotting comrades, bloated horses, and deadly gas. Conscript highlights all the visual aspects of an extended period on the front lines and keeps players uneasy, as they should be.

A lost soul of the Thirty Years’ War

Other Wars and Horror

There are games that set themselves against the horrors of other wars, of course. Amnesia: The Dark Descent makes several references to ghost stories surrounding atrocities committed during the Thirty Year’s War, and the terrible Vietnam shooter Shellshock Nam ’67 throws every horrible Vietnam movie cliché it can at the wall. With most of these settings, and the First World War for that matter, the common thread seems to be the breakdown of the understood normalcy of war. The Thirty Years war brought unprecedented horror to the German countryside, and I don’t need to go into detail here about what the American Vietnam War did to the popular perception of war in the United States. In Amnesia, the souls of long dead traitor soldiers who were lost in the Prussian woods ended up as the disfigured creatures seen above. The long memory of war can easily play into horror stories because of the former’s connection to all that is negative in humankind. In Shellshock, the violence of boobytraps, civilian casualties, and the blurred lines between insurgent and innocent takes the player down along a fairly straight path of horror, culminating in the fight against a cult leader-like NVA commander. What this says about American perceptions of Vietnam, I’ll save for another article.

[1] Gerard J. Fitzgerald, “Chemical Warfare and Medical Response During World War I” Am J Public Health 98.4 (April 2008), 611-625.


[2] I don’t mean to undermine the absolutely hellish circumstances that surrounded most conflicts in the 19th century and earlier. WWI stands out in the scale of this horror that it visited upon societies that were generally not subjected to this sort of extended violence. This fact comes out in the overwhelming writing that flowed from the pens of veterans of all nations after the war’s conclusion. A fact that stimulated the creation of narrative war horror.


Combat Mission’s Mission: Inclusivity

Back in September, the devs behind Combat Mission put out a request for diverse voice actors for their games, citing the Derby House Principles and a wish to make the soldiers in their new game reflective of the service members in the British military. The UK’s Ministry of Defense actually uses Combat Mission in an official capacity, and the addition of these voice actors is viewed as a way to further “promote diversity and drive change” in the industry. This is certainly a positive decision, there’s no way anyone could be upset about that!

…is what I’d say if there weren’t people upset about that. Wargamers mad that women, LGBT, and non-white people exist have been complaining that games that have shown almost exclusively white straight men in the past are “kowtowing to PC culture”. The UK Armed Forces Biannual Diversity Statistics survey for 2018 showed that over 10% of the military was female, and around 8% were non-white service members. This is certainly much whiter than the US military (which is only 57% white, and really should be even more diverse in games), but with numbers around 10% for both women and non-white service members, NOT seeing someone who isn’t a white man should be more striking than seeing someone who is in those groups. This is especially the case since all military positions are open to women in the UK, and the UK recruits from many of its former colonies, which are largely non-white. 

So really, the question boils down to this: why are people mad that video game characters look different from them? It’s an important question to ask, especially since the wargaming field itself is largely older, straight, white men. Many others who have shown interest in wargaming can be and have been turned off by a community that doesn’t represent them, and repeatedly has shown to be hostile to outsiders. It’s very easy to see when booting up a multiplayer wargame or visiting the subreddit for a wargame that bigotry in many different shades exists pervasively in the field. I don’t want to attempt the fool’s errand of appealing to bigots’ sense of decency, but i do want to point out that newcomers are the lifeblood of every hobby, and by letting wargaming become more diverse, we’re more likely to have new players, friends, and game developers from different walks of life join us in the hobby. Bigotry should have no place in our community, so big kudos to the people at Battlefront and Slitherine for spearheading this initiative.

– Jack

Do you know of other wargame studios promoting diversity and inclusivity? Let us know!

Fixing the ‘Sushi-Jalapeno War’ (For Some Reason)

A look at rules, narrative, and a time capsule of 1994

By Joe Fonseca. Originally Published on ‘OveractiveAcademic’ in 2019

The Box Art that Started it All

Sushi-Jalapeno War: What is this and why am I here?

Last January I undertook a strange assignment for wargamer.com, playing and writing a ‘Weird Wargames’ feature on Xeno Games’ 1994 release, Sushi-Jalapeno War. What started as a playthrough of a crazy game with crazy rules and crazy background would become something of a personal quest for myself and a friend.

I had found Sushi-Jalapeno War the year beforeon a dusty shelf at the back of a Calgary hobby shop. It stopped me in my tracks with its garish box art, offensive title, and undeniably cheap price tag. I was still just dabbling in board wargames and I had really no idea what was good or bad at the time. I had a hunch about Sushi-Jalapeno War though. I mean, look at it.

Bringing it home and checking online brought me few answers. The little discussion I could find revolved around its unplayability and a few requests from collectors looking for it. I was convinced that I had something ‘interesting’ at least. And that was it. The blindingly 90’s GI JOE-style box sat on my office shelf earning its keep as a conversation piece for my colleagues or any students that wandered in for office hours. I knew I’d have to play it someday, but as someone just getting started wargaming with card and paper, I knew better than to stumble blindly into that minefield as my first attempt.

By winter 2018 I had been writing for wargamer.com for a few months and was on the prowl for a new feature topic. Then, like the rumblings of some Jumanji demon, Sushi-Jalapeno War called to me. I decided, or was compelled to decide, that it was finally time to crack the rulebook and figure out how to play.

The game map. Notice the separate Pacific Coast Conference, Unified South American Union, and the Independent Texas

Turns out, it is actually unplayable. The rulebook before me was filled with so many internal contradictions, references to rules that were never explained, reference charts with competing values for the same things, and spelling and grammatical errors that made what rules that were there difficult to parse. The only thing that remained coherent was the timeline at the back describing the narrative for the game. I’ll return to that in a moment.

The mind-bending rules didn’t stop me of course. My friend and willing victim took the dive with me and, as planned, we set up Sushi-Jalapeno War at 2:00am on New Years Day. We’re party animals, I know. But we had a good time adding and changing rules on the fly to be able to push pieces around the table for a couple hours. It was, of course, the best wargame we’d played all year. I wrote the wargamer.com piece, I’m pretty sure people liked it, and I shelved Sushi-Jalapeno War, thinking it would sit there forever.

Except of course I couldn’t put it away forever…the beating of that infernal Jumanji demon returned…to us both.

The fictive start of the Sushi-Jalapeno War was November 19, 2019. Funnily enough, we managed to play the game in the year it was actually set, totally by accident. But then we got to thinking. What if we played it again, say in 323 days? Well then, we’d be the only people in the world, we wagered, to fight the Sushi-Jalapeno War on the day that the Sushi-Jalapeno War erupted. It’s kind of like watching Back to the Future on October 21, 2015, only somehow nerdier.

The miniatures are interesting. They appear to be extras from the game Fortress America.

So, we decided that’s what we would do, though we’d make sure there was actually a game to play this time.

The New and Improved Rules (Now actually playable!

So here we are. I’ve written, and my friend has edited, proofread, and fixed, a total rewrite of the Sushi-Jalapeno War rulebook from the ground up. It tries to keep the spirit of the original rules, where I could figure out what they were. This includes fleshing out the Electronic Warfare step, consolidates the Nuclear Attacks into one readable chart, clearing up the Command Point and cost issues, and generally creating a playable and completable game within the designated 2 hours. I can’t say it’s perfect, because it isn’t, but it represents what I feel is the best attempt at playing Sushi-Jalapeno War as the designer intended.

Here’s the Boardgamegeek.com link to the Sushi-Jalapeno Wars page where the new rules are available:

Board Game Geek Link

The Game’s Ridiculous (and historically interesting) Narrative

Sushi-Jalapeno War’s wonky premise is literally the only thing keeping it around. Even with our fixed rules, it’s a fairly standard 90’s area control wargame with variable action points. You push miniatures around a map, roll dice, add modifiers, and blow things up with tactical nukes.

It’s setting says more about the time in which it was written than anything, and acts as a sort of time capsule for bad 90’s jokes, racist characterizations, and worries about the future. This is all contained in the ‘Brief History Outline’ section at the end of the rulebook. I thought It’d be fun to point out some of the more interesting stops in the timeline to talk about. Remember, this was released in 1994, in America.

The event cards are… special. They try to continue the jokey nature of the game and are…definitely a product of their time. Definitely.
  • 7-20-2005: South American Union Forms consisting of every nation is South and Central America
    • While obviously quite the feat, Brazil, as a regional economic powerhouse, was promoting the idea of a united South America throughout the 1990s. This would develop after 2004 into the intergovernmental regional organization, the Union of South American Nations.
  • 10-27-2014: Wall Street Crashes leading to the collapse of the US Government.
    • Another Wall Street Crash in the 2000s seems to be a popular trope in the 1990s, but luckily for us the 2008 Financial Crisis didn’t lead to a collapsed and separated USA.
  • 8-5-2015: California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Hawaii, and Alaska form the Pacific Coast Conference after a year of internal instability and strife in the USA.
    • This leads to several Event Cards in the game to reference the 20 million lawyers of the PCC suing different game factions or pushing for UN involvement in the war. Har Har.
  • 8-7-2015: Texas secedes from the Union and forms its own republic.
    • I mean, of course.
  • 9-6-2015: Quebec secedes from Canada, prompting a showdown between Canada and France’s Foreign Legion
    • Canadians who were around then can tell you all about the Quebec separation referendum of 1995 and what it meant for the integrity of Canada. With a vote of 50.58% to stay and 49.42% to leave, it remained a contentious issue for Quebec and Canadian politics for some time. Though the separation issue has died down for many in the 2010s, it was a key talking point when the game was released.
    • France’s ability or desire to defend a free Quebec here is probably only to set up a conflict for a future game and probably only marginally traced to French President Charles de Gaulle’s 1967 speech in Montreal where he exclaimed, “Vive le Quebec Libre!” (Long Live Free Quebec) which served to embolden those seeking separatism and to harm French-Canada relations for some time.
  • 1-1-2017: New US Government is established and order is restored
    • Well we need the fourth player in the game to be a still powerful US.
  • 4-5-2019: Mexico claims the Pacific Ocean seizing numerous Japanese Fishing Boats
    • Sigh
  • 11-15-2019: After months of Negotiations Fail, Mexico executes hundreds of Japanese Fishermen
    • Sigh
  • 11-19-2019: Japan, along with their ally the SAU, declare war on Mexico
    • This touches off the conflict of the game (in which Mexico as a state plays no part, I must mention) and points to the growing economic ties between Japan and South America during the 1980s and Japan’s still monumental growth as an economic power. While Japan’s financial crisis of the ‘Lost Decade’ was already being felt by 1994, it makes some sense that a game designed during the early 1990s would still hold onto the idea of Japan as a rising economic power that seemed unable to be stopped.
  • 11-19-2019: The US and Texas invade Mexico on the pretext of saving Mexico from Japanese Imperialism
    • Yikes.

There you have it, the complete and utterly ridiculous time capsule of Sushi-Jalapeno War’s narrative. I expect several shlocky novellas and at least one Tabletop RPG to be developed now. Get to it everyone.

Really it was meant to be ridiculous, but the way the timeline develops does shed some light onto some of the more fascinating issues of the early 1990s. Should we be displeased at what is frankly an insensitive and racist depiction of South American, Mexican, and Japanese peoples made for a jokey wargame in 1994? We can be, but probably shouldn’t be. It is enough to recognize that it is beyond rediuclous now and that the proposed sequels should proably not get the green light (little danger there.) The game is probably best preserved as a historical artifact. I know it’ll be sitting on a shelf in my office from now on, continuing to earn its keep as a conversation starter, a lesson in material history, and a window into the wacky world of 1994.

To all those who have a copy, dig it up, try out our new rules, and join that special group of those who played ­Sushi-Jalapeno War on the day it actually happened. If the original designer of Sushi-Jalapeno War is out there (I’ve tried looking for you!) Please let me know how close I came with my revision. I know publishing games can be…difficult…for designers who are beholden to a publisher.

Thanks for reading,

Joe

Way of Defector: Exploring North Korea’s Defectors through Gaming

By Joe Fonseca. Originally posted on ‘Overactive Academic’ in 2018

Though the humanitarian aid worker tried their best, bribing the public security officer and eventually securing my release, their efforts were for naught. Two days later, unable to shake off the intensified searches put on by the police, I collapsed somewhere on the road outside Changchun, starvation and exhaustion overtaking me.

So ended my first attempt to escape from North Korea. An experience that, despite the simple mechanics and presentation of Way of Defector, allowed me to really reflect upon the danger some North Koreans face for a slim chance at bettering their lot in life. It also made me think about the way this indie game, produced by the small South Korean studio Dev Arc, portrays North Korean Defector stories and the uses such a simple game can have in an academic setting.

Set up like a board game, Way of Defector allows players to choose, “various scenarios based on true stories to create your own defection story.”[1] The game progress in turns of four phases, wherein the player can make decisions for their character about how they spend the day. This can include resting to eat and regain health, working illegally to earn money, or inquiring after the whereabouts of brokers who can help secure you passage to the South. The success or failure of each of these attempts is resolved by throwing dice, which are modified by the player character’s skills, the amount of time dedicated to the task, and any potential helpful items, (heavy work pants, for example, make physical work easier). Throughout the game, during any action, random events may occur. These take the form of small narratives, the outcome of which the player can influence through their choices. As this game simulates the most common escape path through Northern China, the player character is also pursued by Chinese public service agents, who wander about the map in periods of calm, or else ruthlessly track defectors while executing a ‘crackdown’. Meeting one (or more) at a location requires every action to be done with extra care, represented by opposed dice rolls, to see whether the player character can outwit or outrun the authorities.

The mechanics of play are simple enough for those without gaming experience to quickly pick up the basics after tool tips and pop ups explain character stats and potential actions. This leaves the player able, in my own experience at least, to become more engrossed in the emerging narrative of the escapee. The way this story forms is based in part on the character you choose and on the actions you decide to take.

Several characters are available, each with their own starting location and a specific ability that affects the game. When players begin, only the first character, Kim Young-sung, is available, with more unlocked as the player makes progress. These characters are fictional, but based on developer conducted interviews, according to a developer’s answers on Steam’s discussion board, “It is based on real defectors. We did interviews with defectors cause we’re Korean. But this game don’t have specific storyline. You’ll make your story within various random events.”[2] This is perfectly reasonable given the potential danger and added restrictions of using an actual individual’s lived experience. This decision allows players to feel less confined by any individual’s real life choices and instead allows them to experience their own journey, however brief it may be. Yet it is worth considering the accuracy and authenticity of the experience offered.

Though the physical appearance of the game may not engross players the way a high profile and highly graphical game may, the simple construction and minimalistic mechanics allows players the ability to lose themselves in their imaginations. It is impossible, of course, to fully experience what a North Korean defector would through playing this game; I did not die from exhaustion after a two-day pursuit near Changchun, nor is my leg broken or my stomach empty. Yet as a way of developing empathy in players, Way of Defector succeeds.

I played cautiously, avoiding those who offered shelter or information, believing it could be a trap. I stayed in the countryside, avoiding patrols to the detriment of my health. And at the back of my mind through all this was the understanding that the greatest danger that could befall me was being sent home. After a forty-minute session, I had ended my first attempt in failure, but the game had succeeded in making me try to approach a situation from the perspective of a fugitive, and in so doing humanized the too-often maligned people of North Korea, who are, by and large, mere victims of the unforgiving wiles of history and modern power politics.

As a learning tool, Way of Defector’s position as a mixture of biographical account and narrative fiction allows it to serve as a launchpad for discussing the dangers facing North Korean defectors and the issues surrounding North Korean Defector texts, depending on the class level.

Debates about the accuracy of defector texts and their use as political tools in South Korea bear mentioning. In one of the most high-profile cases, Shin Dong-Hyuk’s admission of mistakes in his immensely popular narrative Escape from Camp 14 cast doubt upon the veracity of these survivor stories as a whole. Not only did foreign observers question the truth of his story, the mistakes was quickly pounced upon by North Korea in an attempt to discredit defector stories wholesale.[3]  Around the same time, the harrowing story of Yeonmi Park was damaged by the conflicting interviews she gave. Mary Ann Jolley, writing for The Diplomat, laid out these inconsistencies, but included Park’s own response, that the language barrier and mistaken childhood memories contributed to errors.[4]

While these revisions engendered suspicion, North Korea’s possession of family members, fears of reprisal, shame and psychological blocks, are all factors in hindering the veracity of these narratives. Added to this, the history of defector narratives, including immediate post-war defectors being utilized by South Korea as propaganda tools, and the skepticism that can come from the modern celebrity lifestyle of some defectors makes dismissal easy.[5] Yet accepting and using cross-referenced defector narratives remains one of the best ways to obtain information from North Korea, as maintained by North Korean Specialist Bradley K. Martin.[6] Finally, the argument remains that inconsistencies matter less than the creation of the narrative itself. John Cussen of Edinboro University argues that these works form the core of a new genre of North Korean literature, that they are necessary counterpoints to North Korean centric fiction, and that, “the experts are wrong to disdain the memoirs… because the border between fiction and nonfiction is not the imporous, thread-narrow, determinate line that they imagine.”[7] Way of Defector plays into potential discussions of all of these topics, and makes a case of the utility of games as a not just a story telling tool, but as a way of engaging with historical and current events.

In a high school history or social studies classroom, Way of Defector can serve alongside lecture as an excellent introduction to the struggles of the North Korean people, as it possesses such a low skill barrier and cheap cost. Students can attempt to complete a single run through, documenting their troubles and successes, and reflect upon the hardships faced or the specific struggles that were heretofore unknown, like the role of churches or the dread of being told you will not be paid for your labour because your secret origin was discovered. For better or worse, the game does not hit upon the more vicious dangers North Koreans may experience in China, including sexual slavery and human trafficking, though the end game loss conditions are accompanied by paintings of a firing squad or your collapsed body.

In first or second year university courses, I can envision this game being used along with others to discuss the impact and value of propaganda in interactive media, examinations of North Korea in media, especially if the instructor decides to contrast North Korean representations in the West and South Korea, or to discuss the arguments that surround the validity of North Korean defector stories. In any case, the length of the average game (30-60 minutes) and the easy of entry, both financially and in relation to game skill knowledge, makes this an interesting candidate for classrooms as well as personal exploration.

What do you think about these kinds of touchy subjects in video games? How about their use in the classroom? Please let me know what you think about this kind of article, if you’d like to see more, if I’m completely off base, of if there are other historical video games that you think I should take a look at. All the best,

Joe

References

[1] “Way of Defector on Steam.” Steampowered.com. http://store.steampowered.com/app/658660/Way_of_Defector/ (Retrieved December 15 2017).

[2] Beautifullcastle[developer]. “Game length?” Way of Defector General Discussion. http://steamcommunity.com/app/658660/discussions/0/1500126447404387168/ (Retrieved December 15 2017).

[3] Shoichet, Catherine and Madison Park. “North Korea slams defector over inaccuracies in story.” CNN World. January 20, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/20/asia/north-korea-responds-after-defector-changes-story/index.html (Retrieved December 15 2017).

[4] Jolley, Mary Ann. “The Strange Tale of Yeonmi Park: A high-profile North Korean defector has harrowing stories to tell. But are they true?” The Diplomat. December 10, 2014. https://thediplomat.com/2014/12/the-strange-tale-of-yeonmi-park/ (Retrieved December 15 2017).

[5] Martin, Bradley K. “The problem with North Korea’s celebrity defectors.” Global Post. January 22, 2015. https://www.pri.org/stories/2015-01-22/problem-north-korea-s-celebrity-defectors (Retrieved December 15 2017).

[6] Martin, “The problem with North Korea’s celebrity defectors.”

[7] Cussin, John. “On the Call to Dismiss North Korean Defector’s Memoirs and on Their Dark American Alternative.” Korean Studies. 40. (January 1, 2016), 148.