Barbarossa Developer Notes #8: The Dark Side

Ethics and Morals

In days of yore battles were fought by men chosen for the task in places specially selected to be well clear of everybody except the combatants. Slings were slung, spears were lunged and swords were clanged against shields with the only people getting hurt being those involved. It was a neat, contained, affair that allowed matters to be decided by force of arms alone.

It wasn’t civilised. Whenever men decide to kill each other it is always going to be shades of ugliness and horror. But, and it’s a big BUT, innocent bystanders didn’t get harmed. The violence was constrained to the field of battle.

That’s not the case nowadays. In any given conflict the single biggest casualty count will be that of civilians. If you bothered to research and chart the ratio of military personnel killed vs. Civilians over time then you’d likely end up with a graph that looked like the Stairway to Heaven. It’d be Heaven only because of the ascending nature of the graph. Other metaphors may be more appropriate but they couldn’t avoid the unpleasant fact of ever increasing civilian casualties in proportion to military ones.

The reasons for this aren’t hard to fathom. Battles today aren’t fought on a wide, flat, field over yonder hill, far from the town. They are conducted inside the town with no consideration given to it’s population cowering in the basements. The lethality and reach of artillery has far surpassed that of the longbow and enabled the point of conflict to spread, amoeba like, over vast distances. Air power has brought the ability to directly target civilian centres and further smear the conflict zone into areas previously presumed safe.


The advent of smart weapons has only accentuated the trend. Once you have the ability to target this building in amongst a street full of them you are more likely to do so. Hope you flattened the right building. Smart weapons are only smart in a targeting sense. They don’t have the ability to check every room in the building for sleeping families before leveling it in an explosive cloud of concrete and plaster dust.

That group of people milling around the courtyard in the high angle, black and white, satellite image that is being peered at by operators on the other side of the world? Are they militants or a wedding party? There is an AGM-114 Hellfire toting Predator drone doing it’s best to look like a nonchalant eagle waiting on the decision.

We could keep talking about all manner of other modern day horrors that have become an integral part of armed conflict. We could, but we won’t. It’s enough to acknowledge that a Dark Side of war exists and that it is a significant part of modern day conflict. We aren’t here to judge or take a moral or ethical stance, simply to accept the fact that it is, sadly, what it is.

Was it a factor in Operation Barbarossa? How could it not be? This was the single biggest conflict in the history of the world. The Guinness Book of Records doesn’t deal in this area but it is yet to be beaten. Over twenty seven million people died. The biggest casualty count was civilian.

It was an existential war. Both sides were playing for their very survival. Negotiated peace settlements were never an option. Destroy or be destroyed. No quarter given.


You could fill pages with a list of atrocities carried out by both sides. The Dark Side of the war had a particular sinister tinge to it in Barbarossa. Two ruthless dictators throwing millions of fighting men at each other in a struggle for their countries, their beliefs and their own lives. The lady selling peace, happiness and roses was doomed to close from a lack of customers given the stakes and personalities involved.

Yes, there was a Dark Side. It was a significant factor in the War in Russia. But does it belong in our model of Operational Command?

In most war games the answer is a definitive no. It’s a touchy, very political area that is best steered clear of. There are people still alive who have personal experience of the events. Besides, who wants to be confronted by the uglier aspects of a knock down, fight to the death, that was Barbarossa?

They are all good arguments. There appears to be little upside in dealing with the Dark Side.

The game isn’t interested in politics. It’s agnostic. It’s also not the role of the game designer to take a stance, one way or another, on all the bad things that happened. It’s a game, not a recreation of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century.

The core focus is of Operational Command. Juggling the balls, trying not to drop them. The Dark Side of war has become a necessary, and important, element of this. It can’t be anything else. If we are going to fight wars in amongst civilians there will be a multitude of decisions, big and small, that revolve around this aspect.

It’s an important part of Operational Command. A grey area that, if omitted, would be leaving a sizable void. If we are going to a lot of trouble to model all the other elements involved why leave this out?

Including the Dark Side requires walking a fine line. There are, as it turns out, quite a few fine lines involved in the design of this game but this is the most delicate of them all. Just as well my ballet shoes still fit. Which they would if they came in size 14 (Euro size 47). Good luck with that.

An essential requirement would be to keep any mention of the Dark Side as generic as possible. There is no need for specific details that might confront a Player. The literature, and media, of the conflict is sufficiently broad and well established that the Player will automatically fill in the details themselves. All we need to do is provide a broad picture outline of generic events that touched on the ugly side of the war. Along with this comes the aforementioned need to remove any hint of political statement.

There should also be the option to switch this part of the game off. In fact it is OFF by default. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea and that’s fair enough. But for those after a more nuanced command experience, it’s there.

In the time period portrayed by the game it is largely a German Player experience. It’s woven into the game mechanics of relations, decisions and partisans. There are some tough decisions to be made. Scope is provided for the Player to take the line of least resistance or to assume the high morale ground.

Why would anyone not chose the best, most ethical, course of action? Why indeed? Do psychopaths play war games? Who knows? It’s a reasonable assumption that, if they did, they would be an insignificant minority.

The reason why a Player may chose to take the easy way out is that the high moral ground requires a commensurate cost in Political Points. Recall the German Player’s position in the hierarchy. A number of his superiors, including the man at the top, were strongly pushing an ideological position that wouldn’t sit well with anybody other than those with short circuits in their neural networks.

Yes, you can oppose and protest the Dark Side but as you are going against the wishes of your superiors it will come at a cost in Political Points and relationships. To add some spice to the mix at the end of the game the Player is scored in a range of intangible areas. One of these is his likelihood of having to answer to the war crimes tribunal.

Of course the International Criminal Court will not be dispatching it’s minions to knock on his door in the wee small hours if he clocks in a dubiously low score. It’s a piece of game chrome, nothing more.

With the focus on Operational Command the real juice of the game is in the decisions it requires of you. The tougher, more challenging that those decisions are the better the game is at generating that experience.

Deciding on fuel allocations between theatres is a decision of import. It is a straight strategic judgement call that involves winners and losers as well as a realignment of relations that will affect your ability to prosecute the war going forward.

Deciding what line to take when confronted by atrocities committed by some of the more unsavoury forces present, perhaps not under your direct command, is a matter of a different dimension. It has relationship ramifications but there is no direct on-the-map impact. It taps into another part of your brain – the part that determines what is right and wrong. The war crimes score serves to bring this into sharper focus. You are dealing with a moral decision.

These aren’t decisions that can be easily tossed to one side. They make you think. The Political Points you will have to expend to hold a righteous line could be better spent elsewhere. It is unlikely that you’ve got a reservoir of spare PP’s to burn. Game wise it’s a cut and dried decision to go with flow. Sweep it under the carpet. Move on.

But there’s that voice niggling away at the back of your head. It’s doesn’t feel right. Nobody wants to do the wrong thing. Nobody wants to front a War Crimes Tribunal. Yet are you willing to burn a few bridges and a lot of Political Points when you badly need them to lobby for additional Divisions to be transferred from the West?

Welcome to Twentieth Century Operational Command.


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6 Responses to Barbarossa Developer Notes #8: The Dark Side

  1. BodyBag says:

    Very exited for the new role-playing elements in DC: Barbarossa.
    Playing DC: Warsaw and DC: CB can sometimes be a long and dry experience, so these new elements are very welcome, and could enhance both realism and sheer entertainment value in the new game.

    It will be interesting to check one’s own moral compas, although only in a game.
    Will you as player assist the Einsatzgruppen like the Wehrmacht did, or refuse and loose PP?


  2. Cameron Harris says:

    Hi BodyBag,

    Yes, there’s a decision in there about exactly that. Do you offer your support, deliberately choose to turn a blind eye or refuse to cooperate?

    You don’t lose PP from refusing to cooperate but it’s a more expensive option (PP wise) to exercise as you’re going against the express wishes of your superiors. There are also ramifications with your relationships with various characters depending on which way you jump.

    If you take the line of least resistance and opt to provide active support your war crimes score will ratchet up. If you fail to win the game you’ll have to answer for your actions and the Tribunal will pass judgement upon you.

    Keep in mind that all of the above will only be present if you toggle the ‘Geneva Convention’ option OFF.


  3. BodyBag says:

    Hi Cameron

    Is there any military upside by refusing to cooperate (apart for the morale one)?

    A lot of trains were used to transport Jews to deathcamps all through the war,- could these ressources be freed up to transporting supplies instead?

  4. Cameron Harris says:

    Hi BodyBag,

    No. We’ve tried hard to avoid all such delicate topics.


  5. BodyBag says:

    Hi Cameron

    I will be playing 3 different Wehrmacht-cmdr’s with different goals:

    1: A total Nazi who will do anything to please Hitler and take his objectives.
    2: Old school officer, apolitical, but won’t oppose Hitler, drives for Moscow.
    3: Officer with high morale, who conducts the war after his own head.

    A mix between 1 and 2 is prob. closest to reality,- only one higher officer ever complained to Hitler over the “schweinerei” that was going on behind front-lines.

    If you play with mostly historical settings, is it even possible to win as German player?

  6. Cameron Harris says:

    Hi BodyBag,

    Yes, it’s possible, but it’s a tough road.

    A lot depends on your opponents ability or AI level.


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