Fluss und See: A Look at Weimar
Even as a prototype, Matthias Cramer’s Weimar is a sprawling work. Taking cues from Mark Herman’s Churchill and covering the entire span of the short-lived Weimar Republic, how could it not be? This is history that shaped everything about the following century. Few have bothered to learn anything about it.
Before we begin, it should be noted that I’ve played Weimar all of once. Normally my policy is three plays before I’ll write anything, even for previews. With only eleven days left on its crowdfunding clock, its six-hour playtime and four-player complement mean that won’t be possible. These thoughts are only halfway formulated. It’s entirely possible I’ll get something wrong. Still, I want to tell you about it.
There are two official histories about the formation of the Deutsche Republik.
The first is the story of a nation pushed too far. After four years of tilling millions into the soil, it became apparent that the Central Powers were losing the Great War. Adding oil to the fire, the influenza pandemic of 1918 left millions more dead. Germany’s Supreme Command sued for peace. Across the country, armed forces and civilians alike anticipated an end to hostilities. Instead, Naval Command ordered the High Seas Fleet to engage the British Grand Fleet in a climactic battle. Outgunned, under repair, and with about one in fifteen sailors already taken ill, the result was a local mutiny as crews refused the order, which sparked general mutiny in Kiel, which spurred a wave of revolution that crashed over the entire country. The Kaiser abdicated. Inspired by the Russian Revolution — which Germany had aided to keep Russia off their eastern flank — soldiers and laborers began establishing councils. Wary of the Soviet model, and hoping to placate the country’s middle class and establishment, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) instead organized a parliamentary system. Before the Entente Powers could convene at Versailles to carve up the world and assign blame, the new Republic was born.
The second is the story of a nation shoved over the cliff on the eve of victory. In this telling, there was nothing preventing Germany from winning the war. On the contrary, the Entente was on the cusp of collapse, the trenches were holding strong, and even the British admiralty admitted in their memoirs that their dreadnoughts were days away from running short of shells. So what had happened? It was the Jews. The socialists. The bureaucrats. The kaiser’s advisors. The civilians, if necessary. Whatever best served the story. Germany had never lost in the field, so the tale went. While it held the front, it was stabbed in the back.
Matthias Cramer’s Weimar is about many things. Among them, it’s about the struggle to compose one’s history. It’s so much about that, in fact, that whichever version of history passes into national myth may well determine who survives the next decade.
Let’s step back for a moment.
Much like Mark Herman’s Churchill, Weimar is a game about talk and action, and about how one informs the other — although which is doing the informing and which is being informed is left up to the player. Herman’s game spanned multiple conferences between the United States, United Kingdom, and USSR as they ostensibly strove to defeat Nazi Germany, but really strove to shape the tone of global politics in the post-war world. It was a dense, knotty game, with a wargamer’s sensibilities, indexed rulebook and twenty-five scoring criteria and all. It was also fiercely perceptive. Herman sliced through the national myths of the 20th century with about as much care as one would reserve for a pat of rancid butter.
Cramer goes in a different direction, although only in terms of how Weimar feels to play. At a superficial level, it’s so directly influenced by Churchill that it could have qualified as a further volume in a series. Churchill was a bifurcated design, asking players to consider both war and conversation. Negotiators came together to jockey for control of important topics, and then enacted those topics to drive armies into German and Japanese territory. Economic support, new theaters of engagement, support deployments, the development of The Bomb — everything was on the table. Weimar provides a similar delineation. There’s the Reichstag, where four political parties yell at each other as they attempt to pass legislation. And there’s the Street, where their policemen and strikers and armed militias beat each other’s teeth out. War is politics by any other means, politics is war by any other means, and so forth.
Here’s how Randy Newman put it: “I’m looking at the river but I’m thinking of the sea.” Everything in Weimar is river and sea at once. The topics up for debate are proof of that. There are the big-ticket items like the economy, war reparations, the media, national security. Each of these is dissected in turn, proving that Cramer’s scalpel is no less red-hot than Herman’s. Economic prosperity may be desirable for the majority party, but it’s hardly useful for the far-left socialist party trying to prove that the Republic’s compromise can’t last. None of your politicians can actually influence how much Germany is being forced to repay, but some well-timed grousing sure plays well to the crowd. National security? Most of the time, that means using the military to crush socialist councils in their ghettos. Unless, of course, the issue somehow falls into socialist hands. Then the police get a budget cut. The ramifications of such a turnabout could impact the game for hours.
And then there are the “smaller” issues. Whether a non-player minor party will swap allegiances. Whether you’ll ease hyperinflation or keep the Republic on a crash course. What sort of history you’ll write. Yes, even the dolchstoßlegende — the “stab-in-the-back myth” — comes up for debate. It’s one of those issues most parties would rather not touch at all. If they win it outright, their position is weakened in the streets, perhaps due to some accidental signalling that they were complicit in Germany’s defeat. But that’s better than letting the nationalist party carry the issue. When that happens, suddenly those black-suited thugs are all over the place. Even in the Reichstag.
To be clear, these nationalists are not the Nazis of the NSDAP. Weimar contains Nazis, but it wisely refuses to let its players be party to its ascent. Instead, the NSDAP operates with all the hucksterism of a devil at the crossroads, offering swings of power in exchange for the possibility of ultimate defeat. Even the game’s far-right party, angry nationalists who embroider their hankies with skulls, will be purged should the NSDAP seize power. This isn’t to excuse their bullshit; it’s to put the horrors of the Nazi regime into perspective. It’s also an interesting commentary on hindsight in wargaming. It’s never wise to vote for the Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party, but surely there’s some difference between voting them into power in 1933 versus 1945.
Okay, so Weimar doesn’t try to solve one of historical wargaming’s trickiest problems. But it does tackle its history with aplomb. In particular, the card system is full of cutting edges. At the outset of each round, every party selects an agenda. These determine which issues are up for debate. When the Social Democratic Party chooses to collaborate with its political opponents, topics will include the media and foreign affairs, not to mention letting their player draw and then discard an extra card so as to more carefully tailor their approach. Choosing opposition, on the other hand, turns their attention inward, toward party politics and shunting blame elsewhere whenever a crisis roll happens.
There are also agendas that add cards to your party’s deck of cards. This bears explanation. If you’ve ever played a card-driven wargame before, you likely know all too well how a rough draw can result in a dud of a turn. Here Cramer does try to solve a long-running conundrum. His solution is that everybody receives a hand of five cards. Three come from your personal deck of events. These will be advantageous no matter what, giving you opportunities to expand your bases in the street, press flesh in parliament, clash with opposing units, attempt to block rival actions, and so forth. Over multiple rounds, certain agendas cycle new cards into your pool. For example, the SPD might decide to double down on defending democracy. This adds five new cards to their deck — in addition to shuffling any discards back in — and gives them access to loyal units who can’t be suborned like the police and military. Another time, maybe they’ll cozy up to the socialists, dividing them further from their sister Center Party. Meanwhile, your last two cards come from a general “timeline” deck. These events tend to affect everybody at the table: elections, pandemics, architectural fads, soldiers returning from war, those sorts of things. Between these two inputs, everybody receives a range of cards. It’s a solid solution, granting some leverage over your destiny without betraying what makes CDGs so compelling. You’re leading a party with coherent goals and swimming upstream against the currents of historical accident.
Without this extra measure of control, it’s hard to see Weimar succeeding. This is an inherently chaotic game, with a brittleness at its core that’s both deliberate and difficult to handle without breaking. Keeping the Republic afloat is hard enough, and two of the game’s four parties hope to scuttle the raft. There’s a sturm und drang to the whole thing. The water never comes to a rest. One conflict precipitates the next, a single card (usually a timeline card) will spoil your plans, and somebody always seems a spit away from winning.
Part of this is the game’s liberal deployment of dice. Many actions and reactions require a roll. There are plenty of ways to add dice or rare +1 modifiers, but they’re often susceptible to disruption, never mind that, naturally, there’s no amount of hedging that will account for every possibility. In our game, the socialist party seemed allergic to rolling anything but 6s, causing working-class councils and uprisings to sprout in every corner of the country. The SPD and Zentrum parties were quick to respond with police crackdowns. Even the nationalists got involved, to a lesser and more self-interested degree. The result was a period of national unity. Unless, of course, you happened to be a socialist. Like everything else in Weimar, this was soon dashed against the rocks as allegiances and lines of power reformed yet again.
Such turbulence is certainly dramatic, even appropriate, although a part of me worries that it might lend a distorted impression. The Weimar Republic didn’t last long, and it had its share of challenges. How’s that for an incontestable statement? Here’s one that might prove more surprising: in addition to everything else, the Weimar Republic was a vibrant democracy. Yes, it collapsed in the 1930s. Yes, its first few years were marked by the forcible repression of anarchist communes in Bavaria and labor armies in the Ruhr, failed putsches by nationalists and Nazis, occupation and reparations and hyperinflation. Challenges. But also people who were willing to rise to those challenges, often inspired by the young Republic’s dedication to individual freedoms. Although its golden age lasted only five years before it was snuffed out by the Great Depression and the rise of the NSDAP — a mere flicker by history’s standards — the Weimar Republic’s survival was worth the fighting for.
By never letting up, Cramer’s Weimar shows the Weimar Republic at its most tumultuous. But it doesn’t often show why anybody would bother to stand against that tumult. Despite being divided into three periods, one gets the impression that there were only two: postwar suffering and prewar corruption. Where are the nightclubs, the cabarets, the architectural experimentation, the New Objectivity? Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus appears on a card. So does Josef von Sternberg’s Der blaue Engel. Like so many event cards, they’re gone in a blink. Unlike those depicting misery and assassination, they don’t weave dominant threads into the game’s overall texture.
It’s a small complaint, to be sure. Naught more than a quibble. Weimar is a board game. Nobody wants to pause six hours of power plays, street violence, and impassioned speeches for forty minutes of cabaret and jazz. It isn’t as though the involved political parties rested, even if the Golden Twenties represented relative quietude for the Republic.
And when you get right down to it, Weimar illustrates something more timely. Across its six hours and countless struggles, Cramer demonstrates how polarized situations tend to grow more charged with every response. When the streets riot with political rivals, it becomes easier to take up the cudgel. Where the NSDAP once earned a hard pass, they become uncomfortable bedfellows. What seemed impossible or unthinkable a few crises ago becomes commonplace. This is how democracy dies. Not with a bang, but a thousand cuts and “proportionate” responses.
That’s what Weimar does best. It rearranges every priority until everything looks like an existential threat. It transforms neighbors into villains. It demonstrates how history is rewritten one black lie at a time. It pulls itself apart until you can see moonlight through the wound. It looks at the river but thinks of the sea.
A prototype copy was provided.