Spring has arrived meaning those long, dark winter days are behind us and outdoor chores demand my attention. Spring is traditionally a slower gaming time in the RockyMountainNavy home as we all are more busy and “spring fever” sets in.
In the past few months there has been something of a renaissance of wargames on Kickstarter. Since early February I tracked at least eight wargame(ish) titles that I was VERY tempted to pull the trigger on and purchase. Add to that a further seven boardgames and it is very easy to see that the first quarter of Kickstarter in 2021 could be very costly for me—as in nearly $900 in pledges assuming lowest levels of support and not factoring in any shipping! Alas, I ended up only backing one wargame/boardgame (Root: The Marauder Expansion from Leder Games) and even then I went in at a lesser level.
As I write this post, I am tracking 26 items on my Preorder & Kickstarter Roll GeekList. With a bit of some luck, I might see three games deliver this week and another two within 30 days:
Supercharged (Jim Dietz) – Kickstarter. From an update on March 16 – “Bad news/not controllable: The games are still being processed on the West Coast–this is due to a backlog of shipping arrivals and also a shortage of labor at the docks (whether this is underemployment or people out currently due to COVID, I was not told). I am supposed to have an updated ETA by the end of this week..”
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.
Over on Rex Brynen’s excellent PAXSIMS website, he posted a link to BEAR RISING, a Matrix game looking at the Baltic in the post-INF Treaty era. As a wargaming professional, I appreciate that Matrix games can be used to explore policy issues and generate greater insight into the issue. Matrix games are a part of wargaming, but apparently some out there want to distance themselves from that connection. Taking a look at BEAR RISING you find this:
What are matrix games? Matrix games are different to normal Wargames. In most of those games you will probably compare lists of statistics and peer at complicated books of rules containing someone else’s idea about what things are important, before making a decision, checking that it is covered by the rules and rolling dice to see if you succeed. It can take a long time, look really complicated and can be very difficult to explain to a newcomer. Instead, in a matrix game you simply use words to describe why something should happen, the Facilitator or the players (or both) decide how likely it is, and you might roll a dice to see if it happens (but equally, in the face of a compelling argument, you might not need to). If you can say “This happens, for the following reasons…” you can play a Matrix Game. The games themselves are not intended to be fiercely competitive, with obvious winner and losers. Instead they operate with the players working to generate a credible narrative. It is from examination of this narrative after the game that the player gain insights to the situation being portrayed. The player roles have objectives that will place them in conflict with other players, but it is perfectly possible for all of the players to achieve at last some of their objectives by the end of the game.
Let’s take a few of these sentences apart:
“In most of those games you will probably compare lists of statistics and peer at complicated books of rules containing someone else’s ideas about what things are important before making a decision, checking that it is covered by the rules and rolling dice to see if you succeed.” I guess you have only played wargames like Advanced Squad Leader, right? You totally have missed out on many “light” wargames like Brave Little Belgium or uncountable others? I hope you are consistent in your views and have the same disdain for heavy Eurogames out there and especially for anything designed by Phil Eklund, right?
“Instead, in a matrix game you simply use words to describe why something should happen, the Facilitator or the players (or both) decide how likely it is, and you might roll a dice to see if it happens (but equally, in the face of a compelling argument, you might not need to).” But you just disparaged rolling dice above….
“The games themselves are not intended to be fiercely competitive, with obvious winner and losers.” Ah…another bias. Wargames “must” be “fiercely competitive.” Let’s not talk anything about the learning that can come from exploring the situation; it’s war and war is automatically evil! To that I say si vis pacem, para bellum.*
“Instead they operate with the players working to generate a credible narrative. It is from examination of this narrative after the game that the player gain insights to the situation being portrayed.” I would argue that some of the best wargames, like the new Tank Duel (GMT Games, 2019) or Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid (GMT Games, 2018) generate a “credible” narrative during the game and don’t need a scribe to explain it to the players afterwards.
“The player roles have objectives that will place them in conflict with other players, but it is perfectly possible for all of the players to achieve at last some of their objectives by the end of the game.” Is this not the hallmark of a good game design? A good design will see all players work towards their objective, with the end result being a measure of how well they achieved those objectives. The objectives themselves do not have to the same (for example, who controls the most territory) but can be different like in Nights of Fire: Battle of Budapest (Mighty Boards, 2019) where the Revolutionaries try to save civilians while the Soviets try to control the city. Or maybe the designers of BEAR RISING are not familiar with a GMT Games COIN game like Colonial Twilight (see Grant from The Players Aid comments about terror) or the asymmetric Root from Leder Games?
I will repeat what I said before; Matrix games are useful to explore policy issues and generate insight. But they are one tool in the vast kit available to designers. To maximize that insight, I prefer designers and players to have open minds and to avoid/remove as much bias as possible. In the case of the BEAR RISING designers, they show me that they have deep biases that make me doubt the assumptions their game is built on.
* “If you want peace, prepare for war.” In my case I strongly advocate studying warfare to understand – and avoid – military disasters of the past.