Just Playing Along

What an antisemitic, Nazi-era board game has to teach us about the nature of complicity.

Eric Thurm
October 7, 2019
Gameplay pieces from one of the remaining copies of Juden Raus. Photos via the Wiener Holocaust Library.

Adapted from the chapter “Playing Along with Complicity” in Board Games (NYU Press, 2019).

FOR THE FIRST TIME, my Brooklyn basement was packed full of Jews hungry for Shabbat dinner. Ten or so people had come over to eat falafel out of plastic dishes, drink kiddush wine from a glass I’d borrowed from my parents, and wear yarmulkes I’d bought at a nearby Judaica store. But they’d also come over on that misty, brisk night in February to play Juden Raus, a Nazi Germany-era game about forcibly removing Jewish families from their homes in order to deport them to Palestine.

After saying the necessary blessings and digging into the food, a few of us moved over to a coffee table in a corner of the basement where I’d set up the makeshift Juden Raus board, printed out on a large piece of poster paper. Our version of the rules had been loosely translated from the original German by a friend and read off my phone. We used pieces from other games, since I didn’t have the original wooden pieces depicting German police officers, and I definitely didn’t have the wooden hat pieces that represented the Jewish families we’d be deporting, each one marked with a face sporting a grossly antisemitic scowl.

Still, I was excited: I’d been looking forward to playing Juden Raus. I spent weeks casually mentioning my plans to “play a Nazi board game” in conversation; most of the time, I could sense the other person starting to sprint away. Thankfully, I had enough friends who were morbidly curious (or at least willing to humor me) to set up a Shabbat-dinner session of Juden Raus. This admittedly bizarre experience was also the culmination of a years-long desire to play, ever since I discovered the game’s existence. 

One fateful night, hopped up on, among other things, Catan and cheap beer, I had stumbled upon a Wikipedia page titled “Nazi Board Games.” Shocked, scintillated, and stoned in equal measure, I eagerly read up on the history of these games—specifically, on the history of Juden Raus. Here’s what I learned: The game was created by Günther & Co., a game manufacturer based in the German toy hub of Dresden, as a way of cashing in on the popularity of the Nazi government’s antisemitic policies. It was most likely published in 1936, a year after the passage of the Nuremberg Laws and just two years before Kristallnacht. That night, I assumed that Juden Raus was officially sanctioned—and possibly produced by—the Nazis. It was easy to imagine Aryan children eagerly playing the game while sitting around the dinner table, shrieking in delight at the prospect of exiling the Jews. In fact, looking back, I distinctly remember reading that Joseph Goebbels himself endorsed the game and had a hand in planning what were essentially interactive toys for Hitler Youth.

This was, it turned out, not at all correct. The page for “Nazi Board Games,” or at least the version of it I looked at that night, merely cited Goebbels’s principles of propaganda in relation to the existence of the game, rather than crediting him directly—and, in fact, Juden Raus was, to put it lightly, not a hit with the regime: in 1938, Das Schwarze Korps, the official newspaper of the SS, published an anonymous editorial criticizing Juden Raus for trivializing and profiting off the gravely important work the SS was doing to “fend off the Jewish rabble of murderers.”

The rest of Juden Raus’s history is otherwise shrouded in mystery, up to and including how well the game actually sold. While Juden Raus is commonly cited as having sold about a million copies, other sources suggest that in fact it sold very poorly in the face of official opposition, and that the high initial estimates were the result of bluffing on the part of the distributor. There’s some debate over the exact identity of the manufacturer, the background of the distributor, and even the year the game was published (There’s a chance it might have been 1938). One rumor about the game suggested Juden Raus might never have actually made it to market and that the two known copies in existence were just prototypes for the never-completed final product.

Back when I first read the Wikipedia page, I didn’t know any of this information. But the mere existence of a game about rounding up and deporting Jewish people was horrifying enough to capture my imagination—the image of that Aryan family having a pleasant evening at the dining room table was simply too powerful to ignore. Apparently, the thought held a certain undeniable attraction for other people as well: by the time I learned about it, Juden Raus had become something of a minor legend in the board game community, commonly referred to as “history’s most infamous board game.”

As horrifying as Juden Raus was, it didn’t seem to me all that different from games that served to impart current American ideology to children. The communicative force of board games comes from forcing the players to act out life in the system modeled by the game. A board game is, effectively, a set of rules you’re asked to interact with over and over in the hope of attaining some kind of fulfillment.

All games, and tabletop games in particular, actively train you to think from within those rules. If you don’t think the way the game wants you to think at least a little bit, you’re not really playing it at all.  And over the course of play sessions, those rules will have shaped not only the way you think, but also the way you act, if only for a few brief moments, even if that game is Juden Raus.

IT IS PRECISELY THIS DISTURBING FEATURE of gameplay that is at the heart of American game designer Brenda Romero’s Train. This game was designed for her series The Mechanic Is the Message, a group of games exploring the use of mechanics (the rules and structures that make up the game) as a way to arouse serious emotional response. The stated subject of Train is “complicity.” Romero sets out to interrogate what people will and won’t do in the process of playing a game and obeying the rules—what another person might call “following orders.”

Imagine that you are playing a game of Train. You will be asked to complete a simple challenge: fitting yellow pawns depicting people into a train car, then moving the car along a track sitting on top of the pane of glass. You’ll read the rules off a page inserted into an actual typewriter near the board. These rules are, however, intentionally incomplete, so you and the rest of your group will be forced to agree on how to proceed, filling in gaps and acting as partial designers of the game you’ll be playing. In any given session of Train, you have consciously committed to what you understand play to be and, eventually, to the consequences of that play.

There are several clues to the real subject of the game, including a key on the typewriter emblazoned with the SS’s logo and breaks in the glass, intended to evoke Kristallnacht, but if you have not noticed these components throughout the game, you will eventually flip over a card that reveals that the train you are packing has, in fact, gone to Auschwitz. Your game of Train for all intents and purposes ends when you discover this information, and the endgame takes the form of your reaction. Many of the people who have played Train cried at the end. Some became angry at Romero for tricking them into having a gameplay experience in which they felt they had contributed to an atrocity. Several committed to undermining the narrative of the game in some way, usually by hiding the pawns underneath the train car or trying to take them out of the play space. The haphazard and experimental nature of the end of Train may lead one to ask whether it is even a game at all, a question that, no matter how you answer it, doesn’t matter nearly as much as what Train suggests about what games can be.

Romero was inspired to begin her The Mechanic Is the Message series when her young daughter came home from school and attempted to explain what she’d learned about the Middle Passage, in terms that suggested she thought that, in Romero’s words, “some black people went on a cruise.” Using an impromptu setup to represent the horrible conditions of slave ships, Romero had her daughter paint pieces to create several families, then separated many of them between “land” and the boat, where gameplay took place. Eventually, they had to decide whether to throw people off the boat or risk mass starvation and illness. Romero had successfully imparted the spark of horror and understanding to her daughter—she had begun to grasp the scope of what had happened and what it might be like to experience a similar ordeal.

The New World, as the game became known, was the first in the series. Other installments track the history of Romero’s Irish ancestors, the economics of illegal immigration and food’s importance in Mexican culture, and the Trail of Tears (this last one has 50,000 pieces).  In playing these games, we are forced to confront the idea of our own complicity. When this idea is taken to its natural conclusion, it’s hard to avoid the thought that everyone is, more or less, complicit in everything. That’s the nature of living at the crossroads created by all of the different systems that shape our experience. We call for better conditions for workers while buying things on Amazon because it’s convenient. We criticize studios and record labels for promoting art made by monstrous people, while secretly watching Woody Allen movies or listening to Kanye. We know that gig workers are being exploited by tech companies but continue to take Ubers and Lyfts precisely because they’re so cheap and easy. Or, at least, I do. (Not you, though. You have definitely never compromised with the world, not once.) As much as we would like to think we would refuse to sign the contract that Train asks us to formalize, for most of us, it’s already happened.

Being a better person, being a better player, and whatever it looks like to navigate the tension between the two requires acknowledging that you are already playing from within a system and figuring out what it would look like to engage in the equivalent of hiding the pieces under the train. Systems, whether they’re explicitly presented in the form of games or not, dictate and shape our lives, like water being held in an awkwardly shaped vase. Maintaining a sense of frustration and anger at the shape forced on your existence, and that of countless others, is of the utmost necessity for a politically productive life. This uncomfortable awareness was what I intended to replicate with my rainy-day Juden Raus session.

JUDEN RAUS is, ultimately, a pretty simple game. The board depicts a walled German city (likely Berlin) crisscrossed by roads and spaces representing the homes of Jewish families. The player pieces, designed to resemble German police officers, move through the city, collecting a “hat” piece (with a grotesque caricature of a Jew) each time they land on one of the homes. (This component of the game is based on Fang den Hut, a German game whose title translates as “capture the hat,” in turn derived from the same Indian folk game that eventually became Parcheesi.) Players must then return to their “collection point,” where they can drop off the Jew piece and head back into the city. The first player to bring six Jews to their designated “collection point” wins the game. The text on the board roughly translates to “Display skill in the game, so that you collect many Jews!”; “When you drive out six Jews, you will be the winner without question!”; and “Off to Palestine!” It’s quite the exodus.

Going into the session, I’d expected to be able to get started with the game pretty quickly, since the rules seemed so simple. I was wrong—there were questions about whether or not the Jewish families replenished in their spaces each time a player kidnapped one of them, whether you could have two families at once in your possession, and when, if ever, players had the opportunity to choose which direction they moved in rather than simply heading toward the center of town, which operated as the drop-off point and main hub for the game. These were gaps in the rules that needed to be filled, creating an ad hoc contract over the course of play, like the one in Train. Even if the game we played was not the textbook version of Juden Raus played by little Aryan children in the 1930s, it didn’t matter; we’d agreed on what it was we were doing and consciously chose to follow those rules to their logical, grim conclusion.

Most of my other expectations for the Juden Raus session were upended. I had anticipated that one or more of my friends would become visibly upset while we were playing—though all of us had had our fair share of experiences with unpleasant play (and all of us were effectively desensitized to violence after long lives of 21st-century media consumption), being asked to explicitly participate in the literal Holocaust might, perhaps, be a pill a bit too bitter to swallow. And indeed, even I, the organizer of the session and the person who wanted to play Juden Raus in the first place, was a bit overcome at the beginning of the game as I picked up my first token, repurposed to represent a Jewish family I’d dragged from their home and brought back to a government collection point. It was the first time I’d responded so viscerally to a tabletop game in years. I’d blocked out some time at the end of the games for us to discuss what it was like to play and possibly to work through our shared discomfort together. But more than anything, it turned out that playing Juden Raus was boring.

In theory, we should have been horrified by rolling dice to participate in organized violence against Jews. But no amount of thematic excitement or revulsion can make up for the fact that the players aren’t actually being asked to do much of anything besides rolling dice. At the beginning of the game, we cut the tension with nervous laughter, partly as a way of relieving anxiety but also as a way of protecting ourselves from the effects of the game. But by the time a rhythm set in, we were totally inured to the thing we’d been trying to navigate in the first place.

Eventually, Juden Raus was overtaken by other things—tableside conversation about our lives, our work, who we were dating—just like an ordinary board game session around an ordinary dining room table. Rather than disgusted, I just felt numb. About an hour later, struggling to finish a couple of bottles of red wine and discussing our gameplay experience, someone suggested that Juden Raus was probably a failure as an attempt at propaganda: it wasn’t an interesting enough game to capture our attention, so it probably wouldn’t have been as captivating for children who could just as easily have been indoctrinated into Nazi ideology by their parents, schools, and the news. Juden Raus, on this reading, was more of a curiosity than anything else. 

This understanding of the game certainly lines up with most people’s experience playing didactic, educational games—they tend to be intolerably boring and often inspire instinctive, aggressive resistance from young players. These games frequently fail at communicating the message they’re designed to convey or are reduced to operating under the radar. But, tipsy, reflexively contrarian (and interested in defending my expertise and understanding of how the game worked), I claimed that it might have actually been the opposite. The boring miasma of  the game makes it easier to accept what you’re doing as ordinary, since there’s nothing less pressing or morally compelling than being bored. Wasn’t it possible, I suggested, that families playing Juden Raus were actually led to think of deporting Jews as precisely a mundane activity, undeserving of scrutiny and officially sanctioned so that it eventually becomes an accepted part of life? By the end of the second game, one of my friends cheered each time she successfully brought a family back to the collection point.

SO IS JUDEN RAUS just a historical curio with little to say about how people are politically influenced, or does the very fact of the game’s badness as a game make it more effective as propaganda? The “real” answer, as with most such arguments, is almost certainly a combination of both things, depending on the specific circumstances of play. But Juden Raus is only the most highly concentrated game to invite players to become friendly with atrocity; if that game is boring with a background theme of deporting Jewish families, Catan is fun with a background theme of colonialism. While I would never choose to play Juden Raus the way we choose to play Catan, that’s at least in part because Juden Raus isn’t fun, and my lack of desire to play it is akin to my lack of desire to play Candyland. But what if it was fun?

Taken seriously in a burgeoning games market, this potential feels both intoxicating and slightly alarming. It’s easy to imagine a modern board game that teaches children to seek out black and brown families before handing them over to border patrol. Many people in the world already live as if they were in such a game and take pride in their gruesome victories. This game would be treated by many people as an odd, slightly discomforting object, but it would be just the tip of a far more dangerous iceberg. America’s closet Nazis are not hurting for games, but mass-producing ones that are as explicit as Juden Raus, and as comfortably stored in the home, has the feel of a shift in the boundaries around the player’s life; this is the version of the world this person has chosen to live in, and, like proudly displaying a Confederate flag, casual play is a gesture indicating that it would be nearly impossible for us to occupy the same space.

Except, of course, we are living in the same world, a world that consists of and includes all of these systems operating at once, stacked on top of and next to and inside each other. Juden Raus, Train, even Life are all slices of the world. In each case, play models a small version of complicity, of the kinds of things we broadly acquiesce to every time we go out the front door. 

Eric Thurm is a writer and event producer in Brooklyn, New York.