22 January 2012

Schmidtennistan-Files part 1: Discovery of a Nation

A discovery by my father gets my attention to a long-term game my grandfather and a friend of his played as kids. In this series I'll explain what it was and how it went, as far as I can tell by the files I have here.

My father gave me a folder, coming from a box from my grandfather, who passed away in 2001. The box had contained some serious things, such as my grandfathers WWII-dog-tags, his P.O.W. dog-tag from an English POW-camp (which, according to the red-cross observations I found on line, was one of the nicer camps to have been to), and something that only looks serious at first glance: The state file of a country called Schmidtennistan. My father said something along the lines of "this is like the stuff you do", referring to my role-playing groups and design-attempts. Little did he know that this folder contained what I now regard as my heritage as a 3rd generation gamer. Let me go backwards:

My father was a fanatical board-gamer up until his late 20s. He and a buddy of his, when not buying old cars to destroy in illegal crash-course activities in a local quarry, once made their own room-sized version of Monopoly in a basement, complete with intersections and lots of additional streets. As I have heard, they never finished a game with it, usually giving up after a week or two of playing but the point is, they made their own larger version of a game already taking way too long but adding the element of choice of movement, something which Monopoly probably direly needs. Be that however it may be, I'd generally thought this to be what gaming-heritage I had. I was wrong by a generation.

My grandfather was born in 1925 in a conservative family and thus fully grew up in Nazi-Germany. Leaving all ramifications this has about his socialization aside, it meant he was playing games as a kid that were rather unfashionable in my fathers youth in the 1960s: War games. The predecessor of tabletop-strategy games such as Warhammer, which I myself played in my teens, were games played with toy soldiers and often quite elaborate made-up rules regarding movement, combat, casualties and even rules of engagement. The files I my father gave me show that, not only did my grandfather and a friend of his play war games against each other in between age circa 12 and 16, but they (at least my grandfather who was very meticulous about keeping it all on file) also developed a long term story around it, making up their own countries and keeping diplomatic relations. This includes things like lists of prices for food as prescribed by government edict, diplomatic mail threatening fictional allies, speeches written to convince the parliament of the necessity to declare war on the other and even proposals on how to finance an upgrade of fleets in reaction to the other nation building more warships. The general tone of the whole thing is so much like the documents of Nazi-Germany I know from history lessons at school that it is quite clear that my grandfather must have read a lot of official correspondence as a kid.

What I find most endearing about the whole thing how dead-serious my grandfather wrote all of this down, quite like I would have done it myself, even more so with internal letters from one ministry to another WITHIN his own country. Then come the army-lists, which are great to read as it goes into detail about what toy-soldiers my grandfather owned (my father recalls having played with the same toys as a kid) up to listings like "Firing Soldier, standing up: 10. Firing soldier, kneeling down: 10". The only thing missing is intelligence-reports about the enemies strength...

I'll try to analyze this folder like an actual historical document and make some sense out of the bits I can read. Luckily, my grandfather used a typewriter for most documents, even designing different signatures for the different generals forming the Junta governing Schmidtennistan. The folder is separated into different ministries, as one would expect, some of them empty of any paper, some filled with letters, propositions and lists. I'll go through them in this series, sighting them one by one and then in the end try to develop a time-line of this lengthy conflict of two nations. Are you ready for the teeter-tottering between brotherhood and mortal enmity between of

Schmidtennistan vs. Dreessenistan

To explain here: Schmidt was the last name of my grandfather, Dreessen that of his best friend during childhood. I think it's quite clear, how these state names came to be. Apparently, the two friends wrote each other diplomatic letters and sometimes fought it out on the battlefield with their toy soldiers (those of my grandfather listed in the appropriate section of his state-file) according to rules the two of them had set.

Having glance over the files of the ministry of interior and the ministry of military and all these sections of the folder, reading some of the speeches and communiques going around in Schmidtennistan between 1937 and 1940, it's quite obvious that the relationship between both countries was rather difficult. There are speeches condemning the evils of the treacherous Dreessenistani troops. There are letters of goodwill sent to the Dreessenistani embassy, remarking how peace will benefit both nations indefinitely. There are contracts of mutual protection against mysterious other nations that are mentioned just once. Well but most of the time it's about war, after all the two nations were background for a series of battles fought out by toy soldiers an so the two of them considered each other "Erbfeinde", a term that Germany and France used for each other around the time too...

This is the first part of what I project to become a three-part-series about the war-game/role-playing-game/strategy-game my grandfather played as a child. As we only know one side of the story, I'll likely be somewhat partial in all of this but shall try to keep an open mind as a historian analyzing the terrible conflict of these two nations.

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