Black Counter Graphics for SS: History and Controversy

Yeah, it took me a while, but I finally got the BLACK SS scenario book and countersheet for the Panzergrenadier series. Those friendly folks at Avalanche Press had long resisted making black counters for the SS in that game but finally folded. For those that don't play that series, SS counters had been distinguished by a camouflage pattern. When I was playtesting ADVANCED SQUAD LEADER RULES and BEYOND VALOR with Don Chappell and the Camp Pendleton Conflict Simulation Club back in 1984, I recall some debate on whether the SS counters in that game should be black or not. As published, the BEYOND VALOR counter set distinguishes SS by both the factors on the counters and a little SS symbol in an upper corner. I'll get into the controversy in a bit.

What was the first game that had black SS counters? There may be another game that had them earlier, but the one that immediately springs to mind is ANZIO by Avalon Hill. I'm pretty sure the 1969 edition had black SS counters. The next one I remember to get them was BREAKOUT AND PURSUIT by SPI in 1972. That's pretty significant because none of the earlier games in their divisional series had black SS--SS units were the same color as the other German units. Then it seemed to catch on. I don't remember what year it was, but GDW's version of the old Conflict game OVERLORD had black SS. In 1976, I got STRATEGY AND TACTICS Issue #57 with the game PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN in it--there were black SS pieces in there. That same year the Avalon Hill version of RUSSIAN CAMPAIGN came out with black SS counters. SPI's WAR IN THE EAST 2nd Edition (1976) had them. SPI's HIGHWAY TO THE REICH (1976) had them. It just became a staple for operational-level games.

For tactical games, it seemed to take a bit longer. Avalon Hill's PANZER LEADER had distinct SS tank platoons, but they were the same color as all the other German pieces. You just knew which ones were SS by the factors for that particular weapons system compared to the regular army counterparts. But when Avalon Hill published CROSS OF IRON, the first expansion "gamette" for their popular SQUAD LEADER tactical wargame, there were black SS squads and leaders. Oooohhhh. When ASL and BEYOND VALOR came out, a lot people wondered why there weren't those black SS squads like they remembered from the "good old days" of CROSS OF IRON. To add insult to injury, when the KAMPFGRUPPE PEIPER I Historical ASL module on the Battle of Stoumont got published, the German additional forces provided in the game didn't color-match the ones in BEYOND VALOR. They were actually slightly purple! "Purple SS," the grognards grumbled. "What's next? Commie Pink NKVD?"

ASL Third Party Products were not slow to pick up on this. I remember getting black SS counters from Heat Of Battle in three separate scenario packs (NO QUARTER NO GLORY, THE FURHER'S FIREMEN, and NEITHER FEAR NOR HOPE) for the game. Multi-Man Publishing decided to come up with black SS counters in the sixth Historical ASL module, A BRIDGE TOO FAR. Not only were the squads, leaders, crews, and half-squads black, but so were their weapons, to include the vehicles and guns. Reaction to this were mixed, according to Mark Pitcavage;

"In one respect, ABTF is controversial: it includes a complete (squads, support weapons, guns and vehicles, although certain units were missing and appeared in ASL Journal #2) SS order of battle featuring black counters with white lettering. For the uninitiated, it may take some explaining as to why this was controversial. When SS units first appeared in the original Squad Leader series of games, they were featured with black counters with white lettering. However, when Beyond Valor introduced the SS to Advanced Squad Leader, SS units were now treated just like every other German unit--they appeared on blue counters with only a small "SS" symbol to indicate that they were SS units. This did not sit well with some ASLers, a few of whom may have been over-fond of the SS, who called out for white-on-black ASL counters for the SS. The decision pleased some, who finally had their "official" black SS counters, but it dismayed many other ASLers, who could not help but observe that of all the combat forces of World War II, only the SS had been given their own set of counters with their own unique color scheme. These detractors argued, with some merit, that this glorified the Waffen SS. Others complained simply that all these extra counters needlessly added to the price of A Bridge Too Far."

Black SS counters have crept into tactical games but they are perhaps not as ubiquitous as in the operational games. Lock 'N Load's BAND OF HEROES has them. But PANZERBLITZ: HILL OF DEATH does not. Neither does COMBAT COMMANDER: EUROPE nor any flavor of CONFLICT OF HEROES.

Why the controversy? Well, as we see in Pitcavage's description of A BRIDGE TO FAR, some felt it was strange to single out the SS for this kind of treatment. If the SS get this kind of color treatment, why not the U.S. Airborne? The Rangers? The Marines? For the Soviets, why not the NKVD? For the Germans, why not the Luftwaffe ground divisions? The airborne units?

For the advocates, Black SS counters connote the black service dress uniforms members of this organization wore. If you like your counters to reflect uniforms (and we've seen a lot of that in a number of other wargames), this seems to make sense. Others like the black color as the embodiment of evil. Well, I thought the same thing when I first started playing Avalon Hill Game Company's THE RISE AND DECLINE OF THE THIRD REICH--all the German pieces were black.

Of course, if the game has special rules governing how SS units operate in the system, graphically discriminating them in such a recognizable way also seems to make sense. Now, understand that--as a Marine--I hope for equal graphical treatment for Marines in ASL, in such cases. Not sure I want Marine squads to reflect "dress blue" uniforms, but the unique Marine camouflage worn in the later years of the Pacific War would be enough, I'd think! ;-)

Avalanche Press has perhaps taken the "moral high ground" even with its issuance of Black SS counters, as they have created distinctive graphical treatment of any number of unique formations, to include the Slovaks and the Austrians within the German Army, to say nothing of the German Luftwaffe units and mountain troops. The NKVD and Guards formations enjoy the same graphical distinctiveness on the Soviet side. Best of all, the earlier camouflage SS were graphically distinguished enough so the discerning can take their pick of what portrayal they would like!

What is your take on black SS counters in tactical and operation games? Is it a "must" for you? If the Nazi political reliables/murderers are not portrayed in such color schemes, does this cause you to pass on such a game? If the SS are rendered in such a graphical way, do you think other specialized formations deserve equal treatment? Why/why not? If so, which formations? And why?

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Comment by brian s. b. on November 9, 2010 at 12:54am
just got a copy of '69 anzio-it's got black ss- very nice white lettering
Comment by Eric Walters on November 5, 2010 at 7:19pm
One of my favorite memories was playing Don Petros in a very early version of A BRIDGE TOO FAR back in Vista, California, around 1985 or so. He'd hand-drawn his own Arnhem map (which looks much like the the ABTF map these days) but he also had his own SS counters he'd made, done in autumn SS camouflage. I thought that was appropriate. I like counters that reflect the field uniforms, more than the dress ones--at least when you are talking about 20th century games!
Comment by Daniel Schulz on November 5, 2010 at 4:48pm
I remember being disappointed that Beyond Valor's ss were the grey color. I wanted black, and was very happy when HOB came out with them. Its hard to argue that the distinct color doesn't glorify them, tho.
Comment by Brian Lazewski on November 5, 2010 at 5:40am
I liked the camo colors for the Panzer Grenadier game better than the new black SS. It's just a way to bring their company more cashflow which may be a good idea. In Russian Campaign the black SS had a function so ease of spotting them was nice. ASL using the standard German colors was a wise venture I think.
Comment by brian s. b. on November 4, 2010 at 2:05am
i don't have a problem with thembut i agree that other "special" forces of other nations should be acknowledged. but my dad was a green beret so i'm inclined to the idea. one has to remember there were entire SS division's so on a strategic scale it's appropriate. let's also be honest-nazi imagery is striking-any graphic designer would tell you and game companies have exploitated the fact to make "eyecatching" imagery to boost interest and sales. but it has a historical basis and i do not agree with censorship and "white washing" of history.
Comment by Chris Gammon on November 4, 2010 at 12:38am
I was pleased when the SS were the standard color of all other German units in ASL. I thought the treatment with symbols (including the Marine symbol, a treatment the other service branches didn't receive) was very nice. However, I find it attractive in Battle of the Bulge '81 where the colors vary by service branch. ASL requires some secrecy in stacking, whereas most games don't.

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