How War Works: A BoardgamingLife Review of Playford Games’ Moral Conflict Series

by Paul Comben

This slideshow requires JavaScript.



In the increasingly fractious relationship between Adolf Hitler and his senior commanders, it was the Fuhrer’s repeated complaint that his generals knew nothing about the economic aspects of warfare. They retorted, often just between themselves until the war was safely over, that the Austrian corporal knew nothing about proper operational planning. In March 1945, Hitler launched an offensive to secure the Hungarian oilfields with forces Guderian was clamouring to have on the Oder front.  Alongside the Fuhrer’s refusal to countenance giving up a yard of ground to free up forces, his clinging on to “fortresses” which existed in name only, and his obsession with waving his “mission” in the face of inexorable realities, this offensive by the 6th SS Panzer Army is often presented as yet another of Hitler’s meanderings into the realms of grotesque fantasy. Adolf Hitler, Politiker, NSDAP, D - Lagebesprechung im Hauptquartier des Heeresgruppe S¬∏ And yet, there was a fundamental truth in what he said to Guderian as the general complained about what he regarded as the misuse of forces – “If you want tanks to fight”, Hitler said,  “what did the general expect to move them with if Germany had no more oilfields?”  Of course, any historian can point to the mass of contradictions in Hitler’s late war strategy.  In one breath, he would round on what he readily saw as his generals’ lack of economic vision, but when Albert Speer produced his gloomy predictions as to what time remained to the regime after the loss of the coalfields and industries of Silesia and the Ruhr, Hitler himself resorted to blind assurance in order to bypass the economic wreck that was coming his way. We may put all this down just to the swirling madness of one man and his wicked dictatorship, which, quite apart from economic disputes, had by 1945 piled up a list of excesses and transgressions which stagger the senses – but in truth, along all sorts of martial passages, things get considerably more complicated than that when we come to adding in and analysing the actions of history’s “good guys” when at war.  Take Abraham Lincoln, who in order to win the struggle for the unity of the still young America, suspended habeas corpus, declared his willingness to accept a victory that might come with not a slave freed, but then said, late in the war: “I should be condemned in time and in eternity if I return to bondage those black warriors who have fought so bravely for the Union.”  Add to this William Tecumseh Sherman’s riposte to John Bell Hood’s complaint regarding the shelling of women and children during the siege of Atlanta, that “War is hell…you cannot refine it” and we see those certain occasions when the dreadfulness of conflict forces those who aspire to perceive “the better angels of our nature,” brought, sometimes not too unwillingly, into the same infernal machinations as any unapologetic dictator. Undoubtedly people might say, that, whatever the extremes the likes of a Lincoln or a Sherman were forced to, those are nothing compared to the hate driven murders of the Nazis – and they would be right. But the point is, if you are on the receiving end of a bullet, an incendiary device, or even atomic annihilation, it will prompt hurt and distress among those deemed to be on the wrong side just as surely as those who live and fight and serve under another banner – in short, doing bad things to serve the cause of good is a path fraught with dangers. Strategic_bombing_of_japan Think of the 1939-45 conflict: are all our assurances maintained when even Winston Churchill came to wonder, late in the war, what service was being done to the Allied cause by Arthur Harris’ call to his bomber crews to “burn out the enemies’ black heart”?  Just how many dedicated Nazis died in those firestorms is uncertain; but what is beyond doubt is that hundreds of thousands of old men and women, infants and adolescents, the utterly innocent and the infirm, were burnt to death in what was seen by some at least as an essential part of wiping the Hitlerite regime from the face of the earth.  And only a few years earlier, Churchill had allied the British Empire with Stalin’s Russia because, well, how does it go? – “the enemy of my enemy is my friend…” Stalin already had the death of millions on his hands, and it would have to be said that the relationship between Churchill and Stalin was rarely that comfortable – Churchill sometimes left meetings with Stalin in near apoplectic rage; and yet, when the war ended, the British leader commended Stalin warmly, and spoke of the end of that region he called “The Dark Valley” – recently taken by Ted Raicer as the title of his well received treatment of the war on the Eastern Front. Part of that Dark Valley’s sum of woe was the brutal treatment of the Slav peoples by Nazi forces – no Geneva Convention here, just massacre after massacre, driven by an utter disregard for these Slavs as people. But alongside the inhumanity and the deprivation, there was also the Nazi form of economics to consider – “We need a bigger workforce, so let us impress slave workers from these conquered lands”; “We need food, and so we will take food from here even if the people about us starve; “We can only now win this war by the use of wonder bombs, planes, rockets, tanks…but where are the resources to build these things? They are in the lands we were forced out of…or are available in but little supply…so do we build a few of these wonder planes and tanks, or stay within what we must properly call our means…until we can conquer again?” It was much the same with Japan, in that, like Germany,  war had to be quick and conquests had to be of a kind that would harness new resources…or else what was gained could not be held. Japan was a “one big hit” power – lacking the industry, the oil, and the other mineral resources, to wage a protracted war. Many of those resources were in the hands of the European empires – but handy dots on a map of faraway regions were only going to matter if the oil and the rubber could make the long journey to where the weapons could actually be made. As for that aspiring power off the coast of Asia, morally, Imperial Japan had its beliefs, its order, its discipline, an absolute code of honour, but all of it pertained only to what was regarded as Japanese in the most baneful and insular sense – it made many of the nation’s leaders dismissive of the well-being of others, and utterly contemptuous of the fighting qualities of anything not driven by the code of Bushido. fat-man-model And in the end, to prevail against this fanatical regime, America resorted to the first use of the most terrible weapon ever made by man – whilst, by a quirk or some odd flickering of light, Hitler refused to sanction the use of nerve gas even as the fronts were collapsing all about him. And there were to be yet other contradictions emanating from the Nazis in the latter part of the war – in February 1943, just after the disaster of Stalingrad, Goebbels staged a mass rally for Total War in Berlin – a rally in which he called for war waged on an unimaginable scale, employing fanaticism and resources the world had never before seen; and yet, in his diaries, as the war progressed, he confided to the their pages that Germany’s maltreatment of the Russian peoples had been an unmitigated disaster which had driven the initially welcoming Slavic peoples straight back into the arms of Stalin and the Bolsheviks.

The Games

A long introduction, admittedly; but then, in my own way, I have just described the essence of the Moral Conflict series of games. There have been a number of new WW2 European Theatre games arriving recently, and all have commendable aspects. But none of them have the scope of the Moral Conflict series, which takes you beyond the manoeuvring of units and abstractions of economics and morale, to present the life essence of the last world war in a design concept which, to be frank, has moments which touch upon a genuine presentation of genius and complete originality. Furthermore, if we are caring enough about our hobby to regard the best of its labours as a true creative art, in Moral Conflict there is an art and a tradition which harkens back to the earliest beginnings of game playing about the advent of civic life. Indeed, these are games which use pieces that the ancients would have felt comfortable with – wood and glass set out on a board; and the games themselves themed in their play to be instructive as to the trials and vicissitudes of life. Moral Conflict 1939 Why are there three games on the same subject – Moral Conflict 1939/1940/1941? In short, these portray the Second World War at different levels of complexity; and with the aspiration of offering a playing time commensurate with the complexity level of the title you have in front of you. The most involved of the games, Moral Conflict 1941,  possessing, amongst much else, the most intricate turn structure, begins with western Europe already fallen and Japan already moving into SE Asia; by contrast, Moral Conflict 1939 strips out certain layers of economic decision making as well as weaponry, and has less facets to its game turn. The 1940 game is something of an intermediate title, with plenty of economic and moral conduct aspects, but not that final tier of decision making bells, whistles and levers that go with the high end 1941title. 1940 Part of the difference in the three games can be readily seen in the maps – all of which are maps of the world, but divided into progressively fewer areas as you descend the complexity scale. In terms of the components as a whole, these are games of the highest physical quality. Original artwork abounds from the box illustrations to the pages of the manuals. Undoubtedly, the cover illustrations have attracted a certain amount of curiosity as they are so different from the games we have all grown used to. The 1941 cover illustration shows the world reduced to a likeness in puddles traced over by the tracks of tanks moving over muddy ground; the 1940 cover shows an imagined capitulation of German forces at the gates of Moscow; and that of the 1939 game is a study in incongruous imagery, as period dressed German youths and an older, panzerfaust-armed man, make their way out of a backdrop of stunning German scenery in which a convoy of military vehicles is burning.  These are bold and sincere art images, and immediately introduce these games as something different from the usual fare – to my eye, being of a certain age, they smack of high quality vinyl album covers. The rules and the player guides are highly finished pieces of work – and it is important to note that the rules themselves, which in each game are presented in both a beginner’s and an advanced book, are written in a discursive, narrative style – not the case by case, point by point, format of many other rule sets. How one receives this is largely a matter of personal taste – some people like their rules to be in a strict format, which encourages belief that any issue can be quickly located. Other people, like me, find great masses of formal text unpleasantly daunting and off-putting. What I will say is that the issue of finding things is easily solvable by downloading the rules to a tablet device (all rules are available on the Playford site) and then using a search to find what you are looking for. I found the rules as presented to be pretty tight, and the reading experience was helped by encountering many new approaches to presenting the permutations and themes of the historical situation. I would strongly recommend having the various player aids to hand when moving through the relevant rules sections – there were areas, especially in the more complex economic regulations, when I needed to have the charts in front of me to link the described method to the actual application. Also included in the 1940 and 1939 games is a substantial guide to the Moral Conflict experience. This looks at the interrelation of societies, wealth, technology and armed forces in the waging of war, and is an engaging and useful read. I should also point out that the games are grounded in the religious beliefs of their creator, Dave Stennett. I would encourage people to engage with this aspect as a point of quality and interest in the designer’s approach – just as, with any work in a creative field, we appreciate matters better if at least we know where their architect was coming from.  But I must stress that all aspects of these designs are replete with a logical approach to what requires precise method in application (such as the challenges in producing new weapons technologies) and the theological side of the designs most readily manifests itself in the desire to produce games which teach us something different about historical realities. map Back to the components – the boards are all mounted and of an attractive, “clean” design. These world boards were probably one of the reasons why Alex Berry, in his video reviews of the 1941 and 1940 games, likened them to “Axis and Allies on steroids.”  To be honest, as far as I can see, these designs have nothing to do with A&A at all – they are an entirely different concept, as you will understand the moment you look at the challenges these games present you with. What is worth taking from Alex’s films, however, is that he really liked the games, and clearly found them worth the time and effort to learn and then play. Something that Alex did also mention is that the MC maps contain far more information than anything in A&A. Until the intended expansions arrive, the most important features on the maps are the symbols denoting key climatic aspects and the presence of natural resources. As the seasons progress in the course of a year at war, regions can become more hostile (or less so) which then provide their own benefits and/or challenges in the movement, supply and fighting ability of the forces deployed there. Of prime interest, however, is going to be those areas which are particularly rich in resources. Something which one hopes players will notice is how strategies can be naturally and realistically led/prompted by the structure of the game. It will not be a matter of simply grabbing the site of the resource in question – if you cannot exploit it because the communications, the diplomacy, the science, or the plain brute force are not present, the only benefit you will have is denying such facility to your foes. Two other issues are worth highlighting with the maps: the food icons are not used as yet, and the same is true of certain resources such as diamonds. The other issue is more relevant to the designs as they are right now – with all three games, there are a few overly busy areas where one could do with an off-map enlargement of some kind to cut down on crowding. This is especially true in Central/Northern Europe, and in the initial Japanese areas. If the expansions could include such extra space “mats”, or if they might be provided via other means, it would be a great help. SONY DSC The pieces you use for the game can be broadly defined as falling into three main categories – the armed forces of each nation/power, which are in different shaped wooden pieces of various hues; the natural resources and a few of the game markers, which are in diverse shapes and hues of glass; and those mainly plastic pieces which further refine the nature of forces (e.g. strategic bombers as opposed to “plain” fighting airpower, denoted by a plastic ring around the piece  in question; and the multiplier plastic disks which help to cut down on area crowding somewhat). There were a couple of problems with the 1941 armed forces pieces – the shading of the more advanced German and Soviet units was a bit too close to the more basic types, and the different kinds of naval units for all powers (defined by shape – being convoys, carriers, battleship task forces and submarines) were a bit too similar. None of this was that serious, and was easily remedied by an unobtrusive mark here or there – although in my case, I used some acrylic paint to heighten the shade differences on the affected German and Soviet units. If you have never seen these games, also note that there are no symbols or numerical values presented on these units. Their characteristics are designated on their respective forces’ charts, which does help keep the games’ aesthetics clean. As for those charts, these are of extraordinarily high quality – laminated and readily useable with the wipe-erase pens the game supplies. Many of these charts are linked to the tracing of individual power’s war economies, and as these improve or deteriorate, the necessary adjustments to what you can produce are noted on these tracks. Part of the ease of use of these tracks, which are power/nation specific, is that they are already largely tabulated so that any change in the war/social economy can be readily reflected in a new range of values to work with in actual game play. In short, the key values you will be working with are Population Points, Industrial Points and Technology Level. And where the game really starts to amaze in both colour and detail is when we see the sort of power/nation-refined factors which work alongside these totals especially in the more advanced games. There are too many of these factors to list here, but two which can be mentioned for the purposes of illustration are industrial standardization and the mobilization of women for the war effort.  Returning for a moment to actual events, in stark contrast to the willingness of the British to get women into the factories and on the farms from the outset, Hitler was incredibly reluctant to put a women anywhere near a spanner – among the arguments he used was that he “did not want the women of the Reich spoiled” as they were first and foremost to be the mothers of the next generation.  And in terms of standardization, the Nazis never got near the output levels of either the USA or the USSR. Part of the reason for that was the predilection in the Reich for producing too many different and overly complicated versions of the same weapon type – too many different tanks, aircraft etc. Indeed, even with weapons like the very effective German assault rifle, Hitler did not like the look of it as it had that massed produced appearance and did not portray the hallmarks of traditional German engineering. Battle board Speaking of weapons and fighting, combat is conducted on a well presented, sturdy battle board. Each kind of unit has its attack and defence values, and in general, combat is simply a matter of rolling dice and seeing if the right totals are achieved. It is simple, though amenable to thoughtful tactics; but with so much else about the game requiring thought and careful process, you really do not want the turn sequence bogging down in an overly complex combat routine. Rounding off the list of components are the dice – different types for the three different designs, but all present in generous numbers, so no looking around other games to augment the their compliment.

 And the Moral Is…

So where does the Moral Conflict bit fit in? In short, each power is assigned an initial moral status rating, which may change somewhat as play progresses. As you might suspect, Britain and the USA have rather high moral ratings, whilst Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia are close to the moral pits. Tehran_Conference,_1943 For what is essentially one of the designs’ simpler mechanics, there is so much which flows from these status ratings – who you can ally with; how certain military strategies can be conducted; what happens to your economic development; what weapons you can develop. Things are, however, kept within realistic parameters. You cannot drag Britain into the dirt, and neither can you elevate the Third Reich into some all-embracing Utopia.  But some change will almost inevitably happen, because that is the nature of waging war, killing people, and what the designs cater for. Producing the war-winning weapons will often adversely affect your status; and even as one of the good guys, if you feel compelled to act outside the normal rules, again, your status will be affected. If you want to relate this to the events of the actual war, a good example would be the planned Allied move into Norway in 1940 as an invader – pre-empted by the Germans in actual fact, which made them the invader and the British and French, purely by chance, the thwarted defenders of Norwegian freedom. Another historical case would be the Royal Navy sinking of French warships based in North Africa after the fall of France – something not a few in France have ever really forgotten or forgiven. SONY DSC As the game progresses, you will certainly feel the impact of your moral status right across the board. And the subtle thing is, each level of status has its own plusses and minuses. High status will help you gain certain allies, and the use of resources can be more efficient in the longer term. But in the amoral depths, you will show no compunction about developing the really nasty weapons, and stripping the assets out of whatever lands you occupy. On the other hand, your industrial production is going to be affected by sabotage, resistance in the rear areas of your front lines will be sapping your strength, and blind doctrine may well rob your generals of the ability to use plain commonsense.

So How Does It All Play Out?

Imagine you are commanding the forces of the Third Reich at the start of a game of MC 1941. You have substantial forces (and note, until expansions arrive, all nations’ forces are equal in base ability – the sheer amount of force is of importance here) and you are ready to do what…? Invade Russia? If you do, and you do not win quickly, that hate you carry along with you will make enemies behind your lines as well as in front. You might descend like a cloud of locusts on Russia’s lands, and pick them clean – but then, all that reluctant slave labour is going to hurt you every chance it gets, and even if you think that some retreat somewhere might help matters, well, tough, because where the German soldier stands he stays – and the more so when he is starving and surrounded.

Map and Units

So you look at the map, and you wonder about getting an alliance with Turkey – handily near those very necessary oilfields of the Caucasus and the Middle East. But then, your moral status is so low no one really trusts you. You can try to make Turkey more amenable (better modifiers) with some material gifts of the right sort…but you are not made of money; and let us be blunt, in the real world, your Fuhrer described trying to get Franco into the war as worse than having several teeth pulled without anaesthetic, so why bother with Turkey? St%C3%B6wer_U-Boot_Truppentransporter But what about throttling Britain? Build up that U boat fleet. Yes, that is feasible, providing you can keep ahead in the relevant technological race. Historically, as we all know, that race was lost by the middle of 1943. Perhaps you will do better?   But Russia – Russia is all alone; it may ally with you, or it may ally with Britain, or it may remain aloof from the Fascists and the Capitalists. Early in each turn you will conduct diplomacy, and perhaps you will get the right signals from Moscow, that they are looking south or east…not west. And then there is that real joker in the pack – Japan. If Japan goes after Russia and leaves the USA well alone, what then? “A day that shall live in infamy” – now written about when the USA turned on Japan before Japan turned back to the Pacific. Japan One thing you can be certain of: if this war goes on, these present forces of yours, with their present aptitude, just will not cut it. You need to develop those extra assets which will cripple an enemy attack before it can be fully unleashed, which brings you back to the technology again, and the need for more resources, because you are already sucking near all of Europe dry…so it comes back to Russia once more. Perhaps they will trade? Perhaps they will do a deal? But you are the Third Reich, and nobody really trusts you…

In Conclusion

These are brilliant and beautiful games, which deserve far more attention from the hobby. I think I have said more than enough to make that point, so in conclusion I am just going to highlight one further game mechanism, which for me at least, tells the story of what these games are about in terms of design originality. In that game of MC 1941 we were previously about to start, imagine it is now summer 1944. You never got that Russian oil, or anyone else’s. So what happens? We have all seen games with an oil well or two…or three, printed on the map. Get one of those and you get another tank unit – lose that well, and bye bye tank unit. But in MC 1941 you do not lose units – you economise; you limit operations; and that is all to the good, as with your no retreats obsession, you hardly want your panzers using up fuel going backwards, do you now? Movement rates are reduced, and combat strengths are affected for your forces. And you think then of the history once more, of the 2nd Panzer Division out of fuel when in sight of the Meuse in December 1944; and then you recall those words of Hitler to Guderian as the “Spring Awakening” offensive was preparing by Lake Balaton – “You want tanks, you tell me how to move them without fuel.”

One comment

  1. I found your review intriguing, so I picked up Moral Conflict ’40 and I have to say I found it almost completely unplayable. The rules are far from “highly finished pieces of work” and are in fact a complete mess – loads of holes, things poorly-explained or unexplained. You run into them immediately: Germany has a limited supply of gold at the outset and no resource spots to produce more, and needs gold to trade with Sweden or the Balkans or the Soviets for oil and ore. The rules say that gold “can be collected in phase 6 on the industrial core, instead of producing PCs.” Nowhere is how this is done this explained. The rules for neutral nations PCs are incomprehensible. The rules for air units, and when they can respond to battles, are contradictory. Reference cards disagree with the rules about rates and costs. Setup carts are unclear. This is basic stuff. I’ve played enough of these games that usually I can figure out what the designer meant even if that’s not what he said, but this is so incomplete I was just left scratching my head. It’s really a disaster.

    Like you, I found the whole Moral angle intriguing. But bad and incomplete rules and players aids made the game basically unplayable for me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s