Why do people like to play wargames, or war themed games? Why do people like to play games about killing people, destroying things? Why do we let children play with toy guns, toy swords? Michelle doesn't allow me to have any toy guns in the house, not even when I made my home-made version of Ca$h 'n Gun$. I had thought about buying RM2 toy guns from the nearby shop, but Michelle said I can use my finger as a gun and toy guns are not necessary. Who am I to argue with the boss.
And yet there many wargames and war themed boardgames (and toy guns and toy swords too). There are many people who like these boardgames. Why this fascination about war? Are we glorifying war? Sun Tzu's Art of War is worshipped by some in the business world. There are many people interested about historical battles. There are people re-enacting battles, like battles during the American Civil War. There are war movies. There are lots of computer games about warfare. Are humans just naturally violent and competitive?
I must admit I myself have an interest in warfare and historical battles. Not exactly a die-hard fan that can tell the difference between a Panzer and a Tiger, but at least I know these are German tanks during World War II. Before I became a true boardgame hobbyist, I played boardgames now and then, and at the time I thought Axis & Allies (about World War II) and Samurai Swords (about Sengoku Jidai or warring period in feudal Japan) were the best boardgames around. I thought the best and most challenging boardgames were all about warfare. I bought Advanced Third Reich, a hex and counter wargame (i.e. a true wargame by the common definition in the boardgame hobby), and to my surprise it was much more complex than Axis & Allies, and it was totally beyond me. I made two or three attempts to read the rulebook, but never succeeded. I haven't even started reading the scenario book. So, my copy of Advanced Third Reich is now yellowing, and even some pieces have been damaged by my daughter Shee Yun (this incident triggered me to move all boardgames to the upper shelves), and it is still unplayed. At that moment I thought these wargames were the pinnacle of boardgaming. To some die-hard fans of wargames (known as grognards), they probably are.
People who play war games (I'm using the term loosely here to mean any games with a war theme) will explain that they are not violent people, that they are pacifists; and I believe this is true. Some people say they play war games out of interest in history. Some people say when they play war games it is in memory of the people who had gone before us, who had sacrificed their lives for others. Some people have other reasons for this interest in war games.
I like war games for the intellectual challenge. When a nation or a people is at war, it is the most desperate situation for them. They exhaust all means of defeating their enemies. Desperation brings out the genious in people, in new technology (like computing and radar during World War II), in new tactics. Desperation also brings out the worst in people, in the ruthlessness and immorality of means to defeat one's enemies. The ends justify the means. To me, playing a game (not necessarily a war game) allows me to explore all means (well, at least within the rules) of defeating your opponent(s). It's a game, so it's OK to be nasty and ruthless and pitiless and evil as long as you are still following the rules. It's an avenue for doing something you probably wouldn't do in real life, or probably would not have the opportunity to do in real life (like directing a war effort). So, there is fun in a role-playing sense, pushing infantry across the board, driving tanks over your enemies' dead bodies, bombing Tokyo with your fleet of bombers, and also killing William Wallace (the Scottish independence war hero depicted in the Oscar-winning movie Braveheart), sacking Constantinople, burning Rome, assasinating a daimyo (Japanese feudal lord) with a ninja, etc.
Having a war theme is not necessary for creating competition and intellectual challenge. In fact there are many challenging and very good Eurogames that are not about war. Well, almost all Eurogames are not about war. War themed games are not popular in Germany, the birth place of Eurogames. However, a war theme does add a unique flavour to a game. There is this excitement, and anxiousness or nervousness, and tension. We're talking about life and death here. What can be more serious? Also war games can give a primitive kind of satisfaction, of being able to crush your opposition by brute force. I guess there is still a bit of cro-magnon man in us civilised modern humans. And of course if you win by clever maneuvers and good planning, it satisfies the part of you which is the intelligent and civilised modern human.
I have learnt a lot of history from war games. It would be lame to justify playing war games by saying that it teaches history. People don't play boardgames to learn history. Those who say so are just giving an excuse. Learning some history is just a fun "side-effect". I learnt from playing Hammer of the Scots that a lot of details in the movie Braveheart are plainly wrong. Fabrication. The movie is based on a true story, based on history, but they didn't tell you how much was made up. Fiction. Thankfully I learnt this after I have watched the movie, because it is one of my favourite movies. If I were a historian watching the movie, I'd probably cringe and cry insolence. I learnt about World War II in the Pacific arena through Axis & Allies: Pacific and Pacific Victory (and maybe Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal too later). I have read about this period through a Japanese comic series Zipang (by Kaiji Kawaguchi 川口开治, translated as 次元舰队 in Chinese). It is very interesting to me how these two different games portray the same period of history in their own ways. Sometimes I wonder what my grandparents were doing during that time.
War games is just one type of boardgame. I don't play only war games, and I am happy that there are many other themes and many interesting mechanisms in boardgames. But war games will always be one type of boardgame that I enjoy. I don't see myself getting into hex and counter wargames, or miniature / tabletop wargames like Warhammer or DBA (I don't even remember the full name, but it is also a game with beautifully sculpted and painted miniatures). But I'll probably keep buying new releases in the Axis & Allies series. I just won't expect my wife to be playing these with me. She had nightmares about ashigaru spearmen chasing her after we played Samurai Swords.
Final food for thought: Chess is a war game too.