#Wargame Wednesday – Geoff Engelstein (@gengelstein) talks counterfactuals & design notes

I am subscribed to Geoff Engelstein’s email newsletter, GameTek, which discusses “The Math and Science of Gaming.” GameTek #8 is “What if…?” and talks about counterfactuals. As wargamers, counterfactuals are arguably the foundation of our hobby. Even Geoff takes note of it:

Exploring “What If” is one of the interesting aspects of simulation games. What if the Germans moved their forces from Calais to Normandy before D-Day? What if Stonewall Jackson had survived to be with the Confederate army at Gettysburg? What if the Warsaw Pact had attacked Western Europe?

GameTek #8

Geoff goes on to talk about designers who try to “tune” their game designs around the historical result:

When creating a model for a historical event, the most important thing, of course, is to make sure that what happened historically is a possible outcome from the game. If it is impossible to recreate the historical result, the game will be criticized (rightfully, in my opinion).

However, how likely does the historical result need to be?

I haven’t done a scientific survey – I’m not sure anyone has – but anecdotally I think almost all designers tune their models so that the most likely outcome is the historical outcome. You can think of the historical results of a game as creating a bell curve. The peak of this curve could coincide with the historical outcome.

GameTek #8

I was very happy to see Geoff acknowledge that the historical result is not always the “norm” but may have been the extreme:

As I mentioned, I’ve been working on a new design, and I’m facing this issue head on. It’s going to be a solitaire-only design, but the more I research and learn about the actual event, the more I am convinced that the historical result was all the way at the tail end of the bell curve. Pretty much everything went right. It’s hard to point to any areas where things could have gone significantly better. Perhaps some of that is due to the nature of the historical record, which only wants to highlight the positive. But even so, I still think that’s the case.

GameTek #8

Geoff is discussing here a very important issue for wargame designers—balancing player expectations against historical facts. When playing a wargame, I often know how the battle historically turned out but I want to see what I could do different. To be honest, if I play a wargame and the historical result is most often the “normal” outcome I am more likely to never to pick up that game again as I start to view it as too “rigid” an interpretation of the history. I start to view the design, no matter how “realistic” or well researched, as simulation instead of game—and I want to play wargames not do another simulation run.

Geoff has a good solution for his game, which many a designer should pay attention to:

I am currently leaning towards making the historical result, in game terms, correspond to a very strong victory – something for players to strive for.

However, I need to make sure that this is clear through the design notes. The details of this event are not that well known, so many players will be learning about it for the first time. If I take this route, the history the players experience in the game most likely will not match up with what occurred. I feel a sense of responsibility to make sure the players are properly able to contextualize their in-game experience, and the history surrounding it.

GameTek #8

Geoff’s approach probably only applies when the players are expected to learn something about history from the game. This, of course, is an area that wargames excel at. All of which reinforces that every wargame needs some sort of design notes. I grew up wargaming in the 1980’s and 90’s and design notes were standard—today less so. Geoff hits the nail on the head; design notes are ESSENTIAL, “to make sure the players are properly able to contextualize their in-game experience, and the history surrounding it.”

I recently wrote an article for the Armchair Dragoons about The Hunt for Red October (TSR, 1988). One of the points I tried to make but didn’t quite deliver on is the notion that without design notes, The Hunt for Red October had no message. That’s not strictly true—I acknowledge in the article that The Hunt for Red October has much to say but, without design notes, I had to fill in the blanks. To crib off Geoff, without design notes I found it difficult to contextualize my in-game experience. Given that The Hunt for Red October was aimed at the mass market, being able to contextualize The Battle of the Atlantic in a hypothetical World War III might be beyond the goals of the design.

But it doesn’t have to be.

5 thoughts on “#Wargame Wednesday – Geoff Engelstein (@gengelstein) talks counterfactuals & design notes

  1. Dungeons and Dragon’s inventor E.Gary Gygax hated this rule, but players of D&D reveled in having a die-roll that killed with a single hit, allowing for frequent David and Goliath moments to replay in our stories and memories forever. . The chance for this was 1 in 200 , but when one considers the number of attack rolls about every other game included one such perfect hit. But only rarely was this result critical to the outcome of the night’s gaming.
    Every so often in real Warfare, a charge by a small group routed a larger group. Somewhat more often a very small group of defenders frustrated much more numerous attackers. I can understand
    how the 101st held out in Bastogne. I WILL NEVER UNDERSTAND, how the 7th Armored held an entire Army out of St Vith for the better part of a week. Thus to me, the historical course of the Battle of the Bulge is a wargaming outlier.
    The confederate Victory at Chancellerville is possible under the rules of wargames that simulate the battle, but the historical result seems to hinge on the Union Commander first having a failure of nerve and ordering a premature retreat and then being temporarily disabled for at least a game turn. While Lee gets a lot of credit for his his audacity and quick reactions to union moves, his degree of sucess is very much an outlier

  2. James Dunnigan once said that the most basic test of your wargame design was whether the historical result was possible. It did not have the be the usual, expected or even most likely result; but if your game did not allow it, the design had failed (at least, as something claiming to be an historically-based game).

    Actual battles and campaigns were never objectively balanced contests – they shouldn’t be; why would any general want to have a fair fight, when his job or survival was on the line? Wargames need to acknowledge the asymmetries that existed, and tune or tweak them so that players have some fun and interest in events along the way. Tuning victory conditions and relating them to the historical outcome, or making the game a race against time, are the least of these; it’s also good to toss in optional rules or aspects that you can change, to give an extra challenge or advantage to one side or the other to show the underpinnings of one side’s victory or defeat. I did all these things in Summer Lightning, a game on the Poland 1939 campaign – not an objectively balanced campaign for sure! But I like to think I made it interesting.

    1. Thanks Brian for reminding us about Dunnigan. In some ways a straight-up fair fight is interesting in that, by removing many variables, the contest truly becomes one between equal commanders. At the same time, I like being the underdog with all the odds stacked against you and somehow pulling off a victory. Even being the Goliath in a battle is enjoyable as the fight may become not so much winning, but making sure you don’t lose. The important part to me is that one can learn from any of the three scenarios.

  3. Great post. I touched upon this subject in my manual for Command: Modern Operations:

    “To return to the Vietnam analogy, the performance of similar, and frequently the exact same aircraft and weapons varied widely by conflict. There was Vietnam, the Indo-Pakistan, and Arab-Israeli Wars in the same time period.

    Attempting to model any one of these conflicts with one hundred percent razor-sharp accuracy would make any of the others less effective. One would be faced with either an ahistorically strong Egyptian/Syrian Air Force or an ahistorically weak North Vietnamese one if a strict model intended for one was used for the other.

    In addition, real events can only happen once, while the simulator can be run many times. The real result may have been a one-in-a-hundred “outlier”, while the most common one may have been quite different.”

    We don’t know how many times David Tyree misses the giant pass, or how many times the Patriots cornerback who botched the interception on the previous play actually makes the catch. We do know that he caught it, and one of the greatest upsets in sports history happened.

    1. Some of the best “learning” I did in wargames was discovering just how much the historical result was the outlier event. Grows ones respect for those that were there that pulled off the “less likely” or even “very unlikely” result.

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