This week I leaned hard into learning Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #1 (Multi-Man Publishing, 2004+). Kind of amazing (embarrassing?) that after playing wargames for 42 years I finally played Advanced Squad Leader for the first time. I found some good points and some bad. I’m working up a post that you should see in a few weeks!
I was very busy at work this week so my evening reading fell off. That said, I had way too much fun reading Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, the magazine that Fifth Corps was included in. There were more than a few articles that triggered nostalgic thoughts and others that were plain interesting, especially when read with 40 years of hindsight added in. Hmm…I sense a “Rocky Reads for Wargames” column is almost writing itself….
Mrs. RMN and I gave RockyMountainNavy T an airbrush for his birthday and both he and his brother have been learning how to use it. I may even have to get in on the fun as I have way too many 1/144th scale aircraft that I need to complete!
RockyMountainNavy Jr. has been bitten by the Gundam bug, specifically the SD Gunpla variant. He picked up a few kits for assembly during Spring Break and already has added several others. We even got the young girl we tutor into building a few Petit’gguy bears….
As I was waiting for the new titles to arrive I used a random number generator to select a game from my collection to play. Thus, Mississippi Banzai (XTR Corp, 1990) landed on the gaming table. This “alternate history” game envisions a Stalingrad-like offensive around St Louis in a 1948 as Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany face off in a conquered United States. More thoughts forthcoming soon.
My Kickstarter copy of Supercharged by Jim Dietz is on the mail. I’m looking forward to getting it in ouse this week and not-so-secretly hope the RockyMountainNavy Boys and myself get it to the table in a renewed weekend Game Night.
A recent episode of the Ludology Podcast talked about complexity in games (Ludology 238 – Unraveling Complexity). Wargames got some special attention from Emma, Gil, and Scott. Frankly speaking, while their conversation about complexity was good, their treatment of wargames was far from flattering. I want to respond to them, but instead of just complaining about them like they expect an aged Grognard to do I want to take a broad look at wargames as viewed through the lens of complexity the Ludology gang provides.
The Ludological Six Types of Complexity
Ludology 238 discussed six types of game complexity:
I want to look at each of these, but from the perspective of a board wargamer. However, before I start I will warn you that I am going to treat wargames here in very broad and general terms. Wargames come in many varieties and flavors and as a result have a wide range of complexities. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to focus mostly on the classic perception of a board wargame (since that is what the Ludological gang indirectly does); a game using hex & counters, a Combat Results Table (CRT), and six-sided dice.
Spatial Complexity is the arrangement of game components in space. Some examples given in the podcast are tile-laying or movement of pawns like in Star Wars: X-Wing (Fantasy Flight Games, 2012+). It also is the arrangement of the components and how accessible they are in play as well as any strategy that requires visualization of the game environment.
Generally speaking, I contend that wargames have less spatial complexity than many boardgames. I attribute this lesser-complexity to the common use of hexes. Take for example the very first edition of Ogre (Steve Jackson Games, 1977+). Here the hexes:
Form the game board
The mapboard in Ogre is great example of how wargames use hexes to simplify complexity. Even the use of area or point-to-point systems generally provide the same advantages as hexes. Some of the more unique wargames out there actually ‘break the rules’ and use a very different spatial orientation to challenge the players to look at the subject differently. The best example I can think of here is Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s Wing Leader series (GMT Games, 2015+) with its side-view of the battle airspace.
Another kind of spatial complexity in wargames comes from stacking. When counters stack, the information below the top unit becomes hidden. Most wargames have some sort of rule for stacking but when more than one counter is allowed in a space some degree of spatial complexity is inevitable; even if it is only hiding the map below.
If there is a genre of wargaming suffers from spatial complexity it is most likely those games associated with 3D movement like some air combat or submarine games. I will note that wargames that dig into 3D spatial complexity also often invest in tools to help ease the same. Look no further than flight stands for minis or tilt blocks.
Bottom Line – Wargames by their nature often strive to simplify spatial complexity.
Arithmetical Complexity is basically the amount of math required in the game. Ludology seems to focus on point scoring or tracking points. To me, arithmetical complexity in wargames most often comes from the dice and those classic combat odds. But even so the math is often quite simple.
The use of dice in wargames adds an unavoidable form of complexity often through the use of the d6. Although many role-playing games went with the d20 (which is an easy way of expressing percentage success/failure in 5% increments) many wargames use the ubiquitous d6. Figuring the ‘odds’ of a particular roll on a d6 or 2d6 is not as intuitively obvious as a d20.
I personally find it interesting to look at those ‘special dice’ from the Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars RPG system that use different multi-sided dice with unique symbology. At the end of the day there is math behind those dice and the range of results possible; it just gets hidden behind the symbols. Wargames with special dice, like the Commands & Colors family of games, are actually not that different.
Given the relatively small range of results on 2d6 (11 possible outcomes) it is inevitable that Die Roll Modifiers are used. However, a good designer will realize that the classic 2d6 is very sensitive to shifts so the DRMs are often kept small. Any math required here is the most basic of adding / subtracting small numbers.
The classic odds-based Combat Results Table may be seen as a source of arithmetical complexity. Yes, a bit of ‘higher’ math is required – if you consider division and rounding ‘more advanced.’ For myself, I think I figured out how add, subtract, divide, and round numbers playing wargames before I really understood those concepts in school!
Many wargames also include Victory Point tracks or other mechanisms to help keep track of scoring. Certainly there are a few math-heavy games like Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games/Amarillo Design Bureau, 1979+) aka ‘accounting in space’ but even then the Energy Allocation Forms are basically a fill-in-the-blank sheet and little math beyond addition or subtraction is needed. Honestly, the plot sheets in SFB are NOT arithmetical complexity but component complexity (which comes later).
Bottom Line – Wargames use arithmetical complexity in core mechanics but also often rely on mechanical or component design to simplify dealing with that complexity.
Dr. Scott Rogers addressed Zone Complexity in Ludology 209 and I talked about my views on it here. Rogers’ Six Zones of Play are best though of as distance from player to game and is shown this way:
Let’s take a look at each of these in order with a wargame-eye.
Dominant Hand – In wargames, the dominant hand is most often used to move components. This is the physical interaction with the Main Board (Zone 4).
Non -Dominant Hand – I don’t know about you but unlike the illustration above I usually roll dice with my dominant hand. The non-dominant hand is often not a major factor in wargames with the most common exception being wargames that include cards where the non-dominant hand can be used to hold them. Depending on the game, wargamers may use their non-dominant hand to bring player aids or rule books from Zone 5 or 6 closer.
Tableau – Again, not a very common wargame zone unless we are talking about plotting moves or mechanically very different games like Tank Duel: Enemy in the Crosshairs (GMT Games, 2019) which does away with the board (Zone 4) and instead uses tank tableaus in front of individual players.
Main Board – Wargames almost universally use some sort of map to portray the area of the battle. This makes Zone 4 the primary zone for wargames.
Side Board – Often used in wargames through player aids to arrange reinforcements or maybe handle a subsystem. In the recently published Iron Curtain: Central Europe 1945-1989 (Multi-Man Publishing, 2020) each side has a Player Display for tracking air units and special reinforcements. Sometimes, space permitting, the sideboard is part of the Main Board such as when the tables or tracks are put on the map.
Rulebooks – Wargames, being analog models of potentially complex interactions, often need the Rulebook close at hand. A more recent innovation has been to also produce Player Books with extensive Examples of Play to facilitate learning.
Bottom Line – Wargames focus on Zone 4 and work their way outward from their. Wargames also have long recognized that in order to overcome perceptions of complexity, good Zone 5 aids are required. This same need has now extended into Zone 6 with the publication of Play Books or the like.
Planning Complexity is the amount of ‘thinking’ that is required to play a game. It is an attempt to measure the amount of strategy needed to play. To me, when I am asked how ‘complex’ a game is the degree of strategy needed is what I actually think about. This is different than mechanical complexity; a very mechanically simple game may require much deep thinking (planning) as much as the opposite applies too. For example, look at Table Battles (Hollandspiele, 2017). Mechanically, the game really is nothing more than rolling dice and placing them on cards. But if you roll and place those dice without thinking about it, YOU WILL FAIL. That’s because Table Battles is actually a very deep game of moves and forced countermoves.
With regard to planning complexity, wargames and many strategy boardgames have much in common. Wargames, by their very nature, rely on planning because a good wargame at heart is a game system that challenges the players to develop and implement a strategy to achieve victory.
Bottom Line – If you’re not playing a wargame with a plan then why are you playing a wargame?
At this point in their podcast the Ludology gang took the obligatory swipe at wargaming. When discussing rules complexity they started out by naming Advanced Squad Leader (Avalon Hill, Multi-Man Publishing, 1985) as an example of rules complexity (quickly followed by The Campaign for North Africa and the infamous Pasta Rule). Here I doth protests for Gil himself admits he never played ASL and is only passing along the common perception. He does redeem himself (slightly) by explaining that he has been told that, with some effort, ASL can be easily understood if one plays regularly. Even so, Gil and the gang eventually go so far as to dismiss ASL as a ‘simulation’ meaning that, of course, simulations require more rules that ‘just games.’
[Sigh] Where do I start?
I’ll contend that here the Ludology gang confuses Rules/Mechanics Complexity with their later category Component Complexity. The fact that ASL (or even my beloved Star Fleet Battles) requires rulebooks in binders is NOT an automatic mark of rules complexity. I think the Ludology gang would better served us all by focusing this part of their discussion on just Mechanical Complexity. Yes, some wargames can be quite complex, especially with many rule interactions, but just as often (maybe more often?) wargames use a simple core mechanic or set of mechanisms that make learning, and playing easy. To me, complexity in ANY game comes from rules EXCEPTIONS or too much ‘chrome’.
Mechanical complexity is how hard it is to operate the game system. Like every other niche of the hobby gaming genre, I’ll admit that there are certainly wargames that are way too mechanically complex for what they are doing. In some ways the Ludology team is correct that when games veer towards simulation they can get very complex very quickly. My poster child wargame example here is Birds of Prey (Ad Astra Games, 2008) and the nomograph used for movement.
Bottom Line: Wargames run the full gamut of Rules/Mechanism Complexity no differently than any other segment of the hobby gaming market. Indeed, ‘simple’ boardgames are under appreciated (if not outright disrespected) by large segments of the hobby boardgaming community (which I term ‘Vassalizing’ – see later).
Component Complexity focused on the ‘usefulness’ of components. This complexity can range from functionality to aesthetics. Here is where I think the classic design approach to wargames again has its advantages. I already discussed how hexes simplify movement or range determination. Counters often use symbology (the most famous being NATO symbology) to help identify units. In wargames, perhaps to a greater degree than in other segments of the hobby boardgame market, many game execution and adjudication systems are reduced to tables.
That said, wargames are not without component complexity. Wargame designers and publishers are notorious for having poorly arranged player aids (just where is that table?). Those small 1/2″ counters are a great example of component complexity because they are often hard to read and hard to handle (how many Grognards own tweezers for counters?). As an aging Grognard I appreciate publishers like Canvas Temple Publishing or Academy Games that make bigger counters for their games.
Rulebook size can also be a form of component complexity. Wargames with binder-sized games are complex to read and assimilate, but they often strive to overcome this complexity with a useful arrangement (and those that don’t get rightfully lambasted). Look at the discussion in the hobby boardgame world over the rule books (both of them) for Root (Leder Games, 2018). The first rule book, Root: Learning to Play, is written in a very boardgames-like conversational style. In many ways this narrative approach is similar to Play Books that GMT Games often add these days. The second rule book, The Law of Root, is numbered and generally arranged similar to the classic SPI rules layout. Frankly, the SPI approach is more appropriate to referencing rules than it is to learning.
Unlike the trope that wargames rules are bloated and complex (which the Ludology gang leans into) I would point you to nearly any title published by Tom and Mary Russell at Hollandspiele. Tom and Mary know how to make a tightly written set of rules. I swear, they do more in eight-pages than many games do in dozens. C3i Magazine Nr. 32 even helped them present the rules on a single double-sided, full-page card.
Bottom Line: Component Complexity in wargames is often assumed because of the classic reliance on hex & counter and a long history of using certain symbology as a short-hand language.
So here’s my challenge to Gil, Emma, and Steve: Rather than just passing along “what I heard from friends,” why don’t you try to play ASL Starter Kit #1? When doing so, look at the game (not simulation) in terms of your six types of complexity and give us an honest evaluation. Tell us, just how spatially complex the small hex maps are. How much arithmetical complexity is there in both executing actions as well as tracking points? How do you rate the need for planning in ASLSK#1 versus a heavy Eurogame like Food Chain Magnate or even Power Grid? How does ASLSK#1 employ the different zones; and when it does so do they facilitate or hinder game play? In terms of mechanical complexity, just how complex are the game mechanisms and do you see any abstraction in what you have already termed a ‘simulation’? Finally, how complex are the components to manipulate and how are they are conveying useful game information? Love it or hate it, this aged Grognard would be very happy to listen to your comments and engage in a conversation with you.
Yeah, as that aged Grognard I’m biased (somewhere the Ludology folks took a swipe at Grognards in this episode too) but I also try to be fair. The Ludology Six Types of Complexity is a useful tool for looking at ALL games. Wargames, like all games, can be complex but they are not automatically so like the Ludology gang projects.
Goodbye #advancedsquadleader Won 2 Australian tournaments, played 100s of games but had a damascene moment designing scenarios when I realised ASL had actually taught me little about WWII and nor could it. Play the rules, not the period. All game, no history.
I was added to the thread for my thoughts. Sorta hard to condense it into one short tweet but I tried:
Mountain Navy @Mountain_Navy ·
Thinking about what a #wargame means to me. Went to the tomes of Dunnigan, Perla, & Sabin as well as Zones of Control book for thoughts. My Answer: A wargame is an interactive model to explore conflict; it doesn’t define it. I use wargames for fun (to game) & inspire learning.
Complexity as Realism…or Not?
First, a disclaimer. I am not an active Advanced Squad Leader player. I played long ago but my ASL-like game was actually Star Fleet Battles (SFB). Like ASL, SFB is also accused of being overly complex. But when I was reading through Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming (Edited by Pat Harrigan & Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, MIT Press, 2016) I was drawn to Chapter 10, “Design for Effect: The “Common Language” of Advanced Squad Leader” by J.R. Tracy. Tracy starts out by stating:
Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) (1985) holds a unique place in the wargaming hobby. Nearly thirty years old, it is still going strong, with a large, ardent fan base and a smaller, but no less ardent body of detractors. More a game system than a game, ASL is both respected and reviled as representing the best and worst aspects of wargaming. ASL itself is considered a benchmark of complexity and comprehensiveness, while its player possess a devotion bordering on fanaticism. Though its roots are firmly in the “design-for-effect” philosophy, it is viewed by many as the paragon of realism with respect to tactical World War II combat. This is born of a misguided equation of complexity and verisimilitude – ASL is at its heart more game than simulation, but it is a richly rewarding game, offering dramatic, cinematic narrative as well as competitive experience. (p. 113)
Mr. Tracy goes on to point out that Squad Leader designer John Hill was, “striving for an impressionistic depiction of combat…based on his interpretation of eyewitness accounts and recollections” (p. 113). He goes on to say, “For Hill, ‘Realism is in the stress and snap decisions of small unit combat’….” (p. 113).
“Realism is in the stress and snap decisions….” More than anything else that line captures for me why I play wargames. For the longest time I was caught up in that ASL-like versimiltude of equating complexity with realism. My favorite games were the likes of Harpoon, the Fighting Wings Series, or Panzer. Those games all bordered more on simulation than games.
Or so I thought.
Wargames as Insight
Years later I have acquired a more nuanced approach to gaming. These days I recognize that all games are models – and models are often imperfect. I now approach games more in line with the thinking of designer Mark Herman who tell us, “As a designer, I always strive to develop game systems that allow the players to compete in a plausible historical narrative that allows for the suspension of disbelief and offers insight into a period’s dynamics.” (ZoC, p. 133)
My undergraduate degree is in History and I always have viewed myself as an amateur historian. Starting in my youth, I used wargames to help me explore history. Robert M. Citrino, in his Zones of Control contribution “Lessons from the Hexagon: Wargames and the Military Historian,” gives us three ways wargames augment the study of history:
Wargames are a visual and tactile representation of the real-life event.
Wargames help illustrate the various levels of war: tactical, operational, and strategic.
Wargames are the ultimate “Jomini-Clausewitz conundrum.”
Wargames are Jominian at their core; they quantify, order, and prescribe military activity.
Wargames incorporate a Clausewitz artifact – the die as a randomizer
I find Citrino’s conclusion most powerful:
Beyond the informational content or fun quotient, however, wargames offer the operational military historian a means to interpret past events, to unpack the calculations that go into planning a campaign and then to analyze the reasons for success or failure. Wargames allow for compelling analysis of time, space, and force dilemmas; they clearly delineate the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war; and they allow the player to appreciate the truths inherent in both Jomini and Clausewitz, rather than choosing one and rejecting the other. In the end, war itself is a violent, bloody, and unpredictable game, with time-honored Jominian principles serving as the “rules” and Clausewitzian Zufall interfering as the randomizer. (ZoC, p. 445)
Games, Not Simulations
Remember when I said that I loved all those more “simulation games?” I didn’t really understand why I thought this, but Robert MacDougall and Lisa Faden in “Simulation Literacy: The Case for Wargames in the History Classroom” (Zones of Control, Chapter 37) helped me understand maybe why I feel this way.
MacDougall and Faden make the case that simulations are often used to model social phenomenon. “They try to distinguish between dependent and independent variables, to make generalizations that will be applicable in many places and times, and ultimately, to uncover the laws of human behavior” (ZoC, p. 450). Games, however, are different, especially with respect to decisions:
Game designer Sid Meier once defined a game as “a series of interesting decisions.” In a historical simulation game, the players take on the roles of those who made interesting decisions. The rules of the game define the structure that constrained those decisions. “Play can be defined as the tension between the rules of the game and the freedom to act within those rules,” writes Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011, 18). Play, in other words, explores the boundaries of agency and structure – and the “ability to make interesting decisions” is about as succinct a definition of historical agency as we are likely to find.
Wargames make for interesting decisions. When I started wargaming, I thought for th elongest time that complexity led to more intereting decisions. These days, I find that it is often the simplest games, with less decisions, that are the most fun. Games like Enemies of Rome (Worthington Publishing), 878 Vikings (Academy Games), or Command & Colors Tricorne: The American Revolution (Compass Games) will never be held up as detailed models of conflict, but each is fun and offer up interesting decision spaces. They do teach, at least in broad strokes of history, and that is part of what makes them interesting too. But in the end, I play most wargames these days for fun.
Will to Fight is a 2018 RAND Corporation study undertaken on behalf of the US Army G3/5/7 “to explain the will to fight at the unit level and develop a model designed to support assessment of partner forces and analysis of adversary forces” (iii). Within the report, the authors offer a model of Tactical-Operational Will to Fight. Of particular interest to me, as both a hobbyist and part-time professional wargamer, is the report’s use of commercial wargames. Reading these sorts of studies is always interesting because I get to see how others, often outsiders, view the wargaming hobby. In the case of Will to Fight, the view is definitely mixed with some good for the hobby…and some continued (negative?) stereotyping.
Here is how the authors describe war games (note the use of two words):
War games and simulations are approximations of combat intended to help people think about the nature of war, to help people understand complex military problems without actually fighting, to reduce uncertainty in decision making, and to forecast and analyze notional combat outcomes. War games are played between people, usually across a table, and usually across a flat two-dimensional map. Some war games use three-dimensional terrain and figures to represent soldiers and vehicles. (p. 113)
The study defines simulations as, “computer representations of combat” (p. 113). The footnote to this section makes mention of other types of games, specifically matrix games and card games.
On the positive side, the study makes the point that commercial tabletop games and computer simulations are “generally more effective at representing will to fight, but focus varies” (p. 126). This conclusion is based in great part on a nonrandom sample of 62 commercial products and military games and simulations drawn from a pool of 75 products (p. 126). The study broke this sample into four categories (p. 127-130)
Commercial tabletop games using hexagon maps or model terrain, counters, or figures
Commercial simulation, or computer games from platoon level to the battalion level
US military tabletop games typically using hexagon maps and counters
US military simulation from the squad level to the corps level
As much as I want to commend the authors for taking the time to actually learn about commercial wargames, I also feel they missed an opportunity to experience many great wargames that are out there. By narrowly defining commercial wargames as only “hex map” (hex & counter) or “tabletop” (miniatures) they actually exclude many great games that could help their research. Further, the study group actually reveals a bias against many of these games with comments like this footnote talking about Advanced Squad Leader:
Some commercial game players would argue that rules are always fixed. For example, many hard-core players of the game Advanced Squad Leader would never consider bending a rule to speed game play or to account for an unusual situation. Official military tabletop gaming tends to allow for greater flexibility to account for the messy realities of combat to ensure the purpose of the games not lost at the expense of hidebound conformity (footnote 4, p. 113)
There are other little examples, like the seemingly off-hand comments such as, “Complex commercial tabletop war games like Lock ‘n Load Tactical Modern Core Rules 4.1” (p. 130) that show a belief that commercial tabletop wargames are by nature complex. As an long time grognard, I understand I have a different definition of complexity but have to wonder just how much of the study typing is based on “wall-o-text” reading versus actually playing a game.
Looking a bit closer at the commercial tabletop war games chosen for study shows a mix of old and new games and a variety of designers and publishers. Taking games typed as “Hex map” only from Table 3.5 War Games and Simulations Assessed and Coded (p. 128-129) we find:
This is the point where I am supposed to say that there are better, more representative games out there that could be used for this study. I personally missed my favorite Conflict of Heroes series or Panzer / MBT. I am sure there are many games that could of been used. I can only wonder if this “nonrandom sample” is actually someones game collection (and if it is, it’s a great collection…just not mine!).
All that said, the study reports that commercial games are better than military games at depicting will to fight. The authors define this advantage using a near-formula expression:
Will to fight (not) relevant to combat outcomes + will to fight (not) relevant to victory conditions + game or simulation type – US military simulation
Culture affects will to fight (yes) + training affects will to fight (yes) + veterancy affects will to fight (yes) + cohesion affects will to fight (yes + game or simulation type – commercial (p. 130)
I found it disheartening to read the contention that “none of the military war games or simulations…gave priority to will to fight as the most or even one of the most important factors in war” (p. 133). Indeed, military war games and simulations are, in the words of National Defense analyst Michael Peck in 2003, “firepower-fetish attrition models that award victory to whoever has the biggest guns, rather than giving equal weight to soft factors such as morale, fatigue, and cohesion” (p. 133).
So it looks like military war games need to take their cue from the commercial sector. The strongest accolades are given to a tabletop (miniatures) game, GHQ’s WWII Micro Squad rules:
…GHQ’s WWII Micro Squad, place will to fight at the center of the game. GHQ created a cohesion system that rolls together leadership, morale, and other aspects of will to fight. This meta-cohesion system applies at each tactical fight, and it clearly influences the outcome of the game. WWII Micro Squad and a handful of other tabletop games represent the kind of aggressive adoption of will-to-fight modeling that might help make military simulation more realistic (p. 130)
Wargame designers may benefit from the Will-to-Fight Model (p. xx) presented in this study. It certainly provides a different way of looking at those factors that affect a soldier on the battlefield.
My own reaction to the study is mixed; I like the model but shake my head ruefully at the games selected for study. If nothing else, maybe Will to Fight will give another generation of wargame designers and publishers a chance to assist the military and create a better war fighting force. I can only wonder what designers and publishers like Mark Herman or Uwe Eickert or Volko Ruhnke, or even small start-up companies like Covert Intervention Games think as all in the past or presently support government or military gaming.