What most gamers know about German history fits into a spasm of madness between 1933 and 1945. Though it goes too far to call this decade-plus a fluke (Nazism and the revanchism it embraced had a strong cultural and historical background, not unique to Germany), the horrible excesses and crimes of the period are not a great place to look for portrayals of the German character. For a long time, wargames perpetuated the myth of the German super soldier (especially SS units) and many games set in World War II gave Germany production bonuses to capture the idea of Nazi efficiency (another long exploded myth about the war; German economy and industry was a corrupt and chaotic mess most of the time.)
But this idea of amazing German production capacity in the war, its rapid industrialization in the late 19th century and Germany’s quick recovery from the devastation of WW2 has given strategy game developers something to work with, a national characteristic that casts Germany as a super producer. Efficient, disciplined, with a strong work ethic.
Or, as Rise of Nations dubs it, The Power of Industry. In that game, Germany is given a huge resource advantage – extra goods when they complete building, cheaper and more easily available industrial bonus structures (smelter, lumber mill, granary) and a small bonus to resource gathering per city that, over the course of a game, will have Germany churning out their superior infantry and tanks. And they get to build aircraft faster, too. Germany is an assembly line nation, even for those ancient and medieval periods when Germans were known mostly for resisting Roman rule and then resisting religious rule from Rome. Where we see ancient traits carried forward for Egypt and Greece, modern Germany imposes its reputation on the heroes of Teutoberger Wald and the Holy Roman Emperors that had a nation, but not a country.
Like many so-called national powers, this is a trait that has to go to some nation if you insist on distinguishing races and factions by the powers they have in a game. Someone has to be the ant, working hard and making things faster or accumulating resources faster than anyone else. Since Germany’s Golden Ages (Unification to World War I and the post-war recovery) are both based strongly on turning non-productive areas of a nation into modern factories, this is a trait that comfortably carries through many nation based game systems.
In Civilization 4, both German leaders have important traits for economic and industrial management (Frederick’s Organized trait keeps the cost of expansion down with faster factory construction and Bismarck’s Industrious trait means faster wonders and faster forge construction; those hammers add up.) In Age of Empires 3, the German settler wagon is a stronger and more efficient resource gatherer. In Empires: Dawn of the Modern World, buildings go up faster and food and wood are collected more quickly. While you can sometimes find these sorts of bonuses present to other nations as well, few of them are as consistently portrayed as economic/industrial juggernauts.
Germany is, therefore, the quintessentially modern European nation, which makes sense given its relatively late and quickly stable unification. And the modern Germany we know, as I said at the top, is Nazi Germany. If there is an option to move your in-game Germany into modernity, you will have a special tank. The Panzer has become as synonymous with German military history as the legionnaire is to Roman. One is just another tank, and the other is just another swordsman, but the way they were used and their central role in expanding an empire (if shortlived in the German case) makes it difficult to think of the Nazi German Army as anything less than a vast superstructure to support their armored divisions.
Wargames have a lot of fun with trying to represent German tank abilities. There is always the math of armor and penetration and speed. Then you have the limited numbers of the really awesome Tigers, though one of those in Combat Mission was enough to ruin your day assuming it didn’t break down.
The tank has become emblematic of the whole blitzkrieg strategy, even though that strategy also relied on air power and fast moving infantry, not to mention all that legendary German efficiency in keeping the supply lines stable. It’s not that German tanks were necessarily the best tanks, nor that their tankmen were necessarily the best at that. The tank is the default German weapon because the German Army of that period is given a lot of credit for “discovering” the tank’s potential. (We can do back and forth over how smart Guderian really was; well someone can, I know just enough to know that I don’t know enough.)
And it’s here, in the modern industrial Germany, that we lose sight of how there was a time that France was the militaristic bully of Europe that needed to be contained and Germany the fractured romantic nation of Schiller and Goethe and Beethoven. As it should be clear to readers by now, I don’t believe that any of this national culture stuff is real or innate, but game designers who want to differentiate their nations will fall into common understandings of who a people are. We have decided that the Germans are modern builders with great tanks – that is the Germany that players know and that designers can easily translate.
Next up, a decidedly not modern nation (in game terms), the founders of democracy, the Greeks.