I was fortunate to recently acquire a copy of Paddy Griffith’s Wargaming Operation Sealion: The Game That Launched Academic Wargaming from John Curry at the History of Wargaming Project (2021). The book is based on notes and previous works of Paddy Griffith and edited by John Curry. While the Sealion game is very interesting (and will be the subject of a later post), there is a single page at the beginning of the book that editor John Curry inserted on “Reflections of Wargames in General and Operation Sealion in Particular” (p. 12). This short chapter was written by Paddy Griffith just after the subject game and is based on notes found in Mr. Griffith’s boxes. The “Reflections of Wargames” are certainly worthy of thought in 2022, perhaps even more so than they were when first penned in 1974.
The British Wargaming Giant
Paddy Griffith is a monster name in professional wargaming that unfortunately doesn’t get the recognition he deserves in America. Mr. Griffith was a freelance military historian and a prolific author on military history and tactics, writing more than a few title for Opsrey Publishing. More relevant to wargaming, he was a wargame designer for the UK Ministry of Defence and a leader in the hobby wargaming community in the UK. He was a lecturer and then senior lecturer at RMA Sandhurst from 1973–89 where he led academic wargaming. In 1974 he directed the Operation Sealion game covered in the book. In 1981 he published Forward into Battle: Fighting Tactics from Waterloo to Vietnam where he wrote about the “empty battlefield” and how increased fire-power led to increasingly disaggregated military formations. American professional wargamers like Dr. Peter Perla recall this influential book from back in those days.
Reflections on Wargames
Following Paddy Griffith’s Operation Sealion game in 1974, Mr. Griffith wrote his thoughts on wargaming. I found this short section very thought-provoking. Mr. Griffith declared;
Wargames fall into the following broad categories, and each requires a different approach:
1. Wargames for Fun – ranging from board games and chess to complex historical reconstructions with or without toy soldiers. Generally on a limited budget.
2. Wargames for Teaching – ranging from simulation machines for aeroplanes etc, through historical wargames designed to teach history to players, to staff exercises to teach staff skills.
3. Wargames for Historical Research – as yet perhaps the least fully developed branch of wargaming. It can help students of a particular battle or campaign to see some factors which must have been involved, even though they may not have been included in written accounts.
4. Wargames for Prediction – to analyses a particular weapon system or strategic plan in the context of a hypothetical future. This type of game is both the least satisfactory and the one which the most money is usually spent. The results should never be relied upon.p. 12
Wargames for Fun
For me, Wargames for Fun is THE reason I play wargames and I hope it is the same for you! This category of wargames describes for me what the hobby wargame payers should focus on—the FUN of wargaming. I fully recognize that everyones defintion of fun may differ. I can have just as much “fun” playing a complex simulation-like wargame such as Harpoon 5 (Admiralty Trilogy Games, 2020) as I do a rules-lite game wargame like Pocket Ogre (SJ Games, 2019). Maybe you don’t but far be it from me to judge you because of that…
…which is a problem I see too much of today. Too often I see comments about “you aren’t playing that right” or “you’re stupid to play that game.” Just remember: GAME. ARE. FOR. FUN.
I ruefully laugh at Paddy’s mention of toy soldiers. Given that I feel that the British “wargame experience” grew out of H.G. Wells’ Little Wars and Fred T. Janes’ Naval Wargame. the association of “toy soldiers” with wargames seems inevitable. In the US, it was Charles Roberts and cardboard chits that helped define the wargaming genre. In a hobby that tries to posture itself as serious at time (see the later categories) it’s actually good to recall that games and toys were (still are) related—as a good “fun” pass time should be!
I would argue that given today’s hobby gaming prices one need something a bit more than a limited budget, but in the grander scheme of things like government spending Mr. Griffith is quite correct.
Wargames for Fun is certainly the primary domain of the hobby gaming industry (and the niche wargame hobby within it). While I many times play games with my boys to (hopefully) teach them something of history, the reality is the most fun games we play are often not remembered not for what they teach, but for the joy (and tears?) they bring to us. One can argue all they want if Mike Bertucelli’s Tank Duel: Enemy in the Crosshairs (GMT Games, 2019) is a “realistic” depiction of tank warfare but they will never be able to argue that the one time I had lined up the perfect shot and could not miss only to draw one of the (very few) cards that automatically misses was maybe the most fun moment of wargaming in the RockyMountainNavy house in the last several years. I also see the driver for “fun” being a reason alternative game mechanisms beyond the classic hex-and-counter-and-Combat Results Table (CRT) are used in more and more wargaming. None of that is bad—it’s fun!
Wargames for Teaching
Does “…simulation machines for aeroplanes” makes Miscrosoft Flight Simulator a wargame? Hmm. What does Harold Buchanan have to say about that?
Seriously, here Mr. Griffith steps into the age-old argument over the difference between a “conflict simulation” and a “war game.” Mr. Griffith puts the two together when used for teaching. I personally use wargames to teach myself history.
When I first started playing wargames over 40 years ago, I often accepted the point of view presented in a wargame uncritically. Decades later, I have a better understanding of the bias many games are built upon. Bias in wargames can range from sources to historical viewpoint to even what mechanisms are used to present the game. While a wargame can (often) be used to explore the history of a conflict, that game is often presents a biased viewpoint.
Take for instance nearly any wargame covering the Battle of Midway. Many wargames go out of their way to introduce game mechanisms that allow players to recreate the “Miracle at Midway” where five minutes of unimpeded dive bombing changed the war. I contend the historical outcome was actually an outlying event. All the wargames that work so hard at recreating the “Miracle at Midway” do so by biasing the outcome away from the more likely outcome towards the less likely outcome. This bias often covers up, if not removes entirely, useful historical lessons of why or how event transpired and in turn lessens the usefulness of Wargames for Teaching. I also observe that the more a wargame simply teaches history the less fun the game is. This is where I think the work “simulation” gets confused with “wargame.” I am of the school of thinking that says a wargame is focused around decisions and not simply a physical recreation of past.
To be honest, these days, the recognition of bias in wargames is probably the most important element a wargame teaches me vice the “actual” history of an event.
Wargames for Historical Research
When I play a historical wargame I usually have two learning objectives: 1) To understand the historical event (i.e. Wargames for Teaching) and 2) To explore the “what-if” situations that may have led to alternative outcomes (Wargames for Historical Research). Personally I often have difficulty distinguishing between the two as they are so closely intertwined in my wargaming objectives.
As much as I dislike some of the alternate history genre of writing, when it comes to Wargames for Historical Research I think it offers a useful frame of reference. When using Wargames for Historical Research, I often find it most useful to think of a wargame as an alternate history. The wargame presented in front of me is built on many sources and interpretations, each influenced by different quality data or a bias in interpretation as well as presentation and often is constrained by a set of assumptions. As much as a wargame might offer alternate outcomes, the range of potential outcomes is often constrained by the data/bias/assumptions going into the model and game mechanisms. This is not to say that alternate outcomes exposed by the play of the model (Wargames for Historical Research) are invalid, but to interpret those results one must understand what is behind it. I usually find that Wargames for Teaching often exposes biases to me while Wargames for Historical Research often exposes problems with the data underlying the model and lays bare the assumptions behind modeling that historical event.
An example I will point to here is almost any Battle of Gettysburg wargame. As Kent Masterson Brown explained in his book, Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command that neither General commanding at Gettysburg had good maps (i.e. “data”). The ability for a wargamer to look at the mapboard is well beyond what the general’s at Gettysburg possessed and can lead decisions based on knowledge that neither General possessed. Likewise, as Cory M. Pfarr explains in Longstreet at Gettysburg: A Critical Reassessment, many assumptions concerning the leadership of Robert E. Lee or other Confederate generals and a historical bias to explain so many factors of behavior are shaded by the “Lost Cause” mythology. This bias of assumptions i repeated uncritically by many books—and wargames. These assumptions often simplify historical contexts to the point of making them dangerous (useless?) for deriving any sort of useful historical analysis.
Playing a Wargame for Historical Research is an experience fraught with danger and not understanding the data/bias/assumptions only delivers misunderstanding of the “outcome.”
Wargames for Prediction
Clearly the realm “professional wargaming” tries to make a living at. I’m reminded of the words of Volko Runke that warns that all games are models. and some models are better than others. I think Paddy Griffith would agree as evidenced by his admonishment that, “results never be relied upon.” It’s also worth it to remember a quote by author P.W. Singer regarding intelligence, where (to paraphrase him) the most useful intelligence doesn’t predict the future, it enables us to avoid the future.
I’ve attended a few of the CONNECTIONS conferences over the years and the “usefulness” of wargaming is a topic that often is discussed with little real outcome. As I stated above, I think the best wargames are games of decisions. I disagree that a wargame can “predict” the future, but I do think a wargame is a useful tool for exploring how one might deal with a potential future. Mitchell Land’s Next War series of games from GMT Games are not a prediction of a future conflict, but they do represent a potential future. Like every wargame, each title has data/bias/assumption/presentation that work together to depict that potential future. The “lesson” a “prediction” wargame gives to players is not “who will win” but insight into how one “might win.” The useful predictions from these wargames are how decisions affect the future, not how the future will be. Exposing those decision now might enable one to avoid disaster later, or at the very least be prepared in some fashion to deal with the situation once it arises.
My Own Reflection
Of Paddy Griffith’s four broad categories I play wargames for Fun and Analysis, though in a more pedestrian, amateur historian way that as a “researcher.” While I certainly think wargames can Teach, I feel they are not the most suited for that goal. Finally, though the wanna-be professional side of me really wants to use Wargames for Prediction, my current reality is I don’t get to do enough nor do I have the time (i.e. job) that allows me to make dig deeper into that area.
What say you?