When I was a teenager, my favorite board game was the World War Two strategy game Axis & Allies. It taught me basic principles of adversarial strategy including Lanchester's laws, how to wield the law of large numbers and "chaos favors the underdog". But my favorite thing about the game is what it taught me about morality.
The game is balanced and rewards aggression. If you don't send everything you have to the front lines as fast as you can enemy forces will march through your homeland and those of your teammates. The game is long. If you lose your defeat will be protracted. It will suck. Axis & Allies is a desperate struggle for survival.
In Axis and Allies it's common to leave a single infantry unit on the front lines knowing they'll become casualties so you can destroy your enemy's more expensive tanks after the inevitable counterattack. Whether your enemy accepts prisoners of war or just shoots surrendering soldiers is irrelevant to this calculus.
Soldiers are fungible. Territory is fungible. Entire continents can be sacrificed and regained. Just holding off the enemy forces requires every trick available.
Axis & Allies supports a mechanic called "strategic bombing". Strategic bombing is a euphemism for bombing civilians. Strategic bombing is usually the wrong thing to do. Not because burning women and children alive is unethical. Strategic bombing is wrong because it does slightly less damage to an enemy's capacity for war than bombing their soldiers directly.
When I think about ethics I ask myself "If I was a 19-year-old in 1945 would I have refused to pilot a B-29 just because I was ordered to commit a war crime?"
I'm pretty sure the answer is no.
I'm not saying that bombing civilians is ever morally defensible. Or even that it was strategically effective. Just that, given my knowledge of history and my knowledge of my own personality I'm pretty sure that bombing civilians is what I would have done if I had been born in 1926 and assigned to the Air Force operating a B-29. I might've ended up on the Manhattan Project instead.
One-Sided Offensive Nuclear War
When discussing the ethics of nuclear weapons, it's easy to get drawn into calculations of how many Japanese lives they did(n't) save. Such perspective is a historical anachronism. When I'm playing Axis & Allies I throw all of my resources at the enemy as fast as I can. I don't ask "is it ethical to detonate nuclear bombs on starving civilians who never voted for their fascist government"? I ask "is nuking women and children cheaper than firebombing them"?
We added many homebrew rules, including rules for nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are not in vanilla Axis & Allies. ↩︎