The Regiment over at the Armchair Dragoons in their Mentioned in Dispatches podcast recently discussed, “Is Wargaming Dead? Or only mostly dead?” (Season 5, Episode 9). It’s a good discussion so I recommend you take the time to listen. At the end Brant asked for community discussion and feedback. As I wasn’t a guest I’m going to use this chance to give you another of my two-cents.
Wargames as Narratives
One part of the podcast I really enjoyed was the discussion of why different games are appealing. One guest offered that some games are more appealing because they are supported by a good story, or narrative. Players often enjoy these games as they build their own narrative story through play.
I started thinking about the connection between narrative and wargames and find it interesting. Listening again to the podcast, I think the guest are discussing how some games are more popular because they build a narrative that the players can immerse themselves in. The example used in the podcast is Battletech. In a game of Battletech, players command giant mechs marching across a future battlefield. In many ways, it is a very personal skirmish game of individual combatants. Battletech is also supported by a very rich canon of background that not only adds color to battles, but often times also helps explain why a confrontation may be occurring. The background often is used to justify certain victory conditions or rules. Players that read and ‘buy into’ the narrative of the Battletech universe are most likely to derive greater enjoyment when playing.
Not all wargames have this same rich background. Indeed, in the realm of historical conflict simulations, the background is often real history. How can wargame narratives help gamers to enjoy a game more?
Very broadly speaking, I think wargames get shortchanged in terms of narrative. Wargames have always told a story. The problem is not that the story is not there, the problem is connecting the story to the player.
Sometimes that story is historical; more often it is alternate history. But before I discuss alternate history, I want to explore how a good wargame narrative can educate, entertain, or inform.
To explore this topic I’m going to first consider two types of wargaming narratives, the Session Report or After Action Report (AAR) and the Story. I’ll then look at the (supposedly) new world of Fictional Intelligence (FICINT) before coming back to alternate history.
Session Reports and AARs – Dramatic?
I have a love/hate relationship with session and after action reports (AAR). All too often I find people use them to clinically report what happens in the war game; i.e. they focus on how the game mechanics play out. This method acts to educate the reader as to how the game operates or how enjoyable it is. To me, that format of a session report or AAR is not a true narrative. I want the game to tell me a story. Finding good examples of such wargame narratives is challenging, but few exist. Here is the one of the best wargame narratives I have ever come across:
Striker in Action: a Firefight
It’s the sort of ticket that you hate: a jerkwater tech 8 world where there hasn’t been a serious fight for forty years, a banana republic without enough money for a standing army, and now a real shooting war. And you’re in the middle of it, as a mercenary cadre for the militia that’s supposed to track down and drive out the other side’s mercenary strikers. It’s the sort of ticket that could get you killed.
You hired on because you were short of cash, needed a job, and know your business. So now you find yourself the commander of a platoon of militia in a sweep through woods tracking down a report of an enemy border incursion. Another platoon is off on your left, but too far away in the dense foliage to be much help in a firefight. In the event of serious trouble, your company’s reserve platoon will back you up; then again, in the event of serious trouble you doubt that your platoon will survive long.
There are forty-one men in your platoon, including yourself and your platoon sergeant. None of them, other than yourself, has ever heard a shot fired in anger, but two of the three squad leaders and your platoon sergeant have been in a long time and seem to know their jobs well. You deploy the platoon in a skirmish line to sweep through the woods on a two squad frontage. You keep them fairly close together, so that verbal orders can be passed down the line and men won’t straggle off. You put the two squad leaders at either end of the line and you walk a couple of meters behind the center. You leave your platoon sergeant with your least reliable squad as a small reserve force about fifty meters behind the line.
Suddenly there’s automatic weapons fire off on the right, the area covered by your first squad. You call the squad leader on your helmet radio to find out what he’s run into.
“Tiger One, this is Tiger Leader. What’s your status, over?” (Tigers: a good example of wishful thinking, you think to yourself.)
“Tiger Leader, this is Tiger One. We’re catching some small caliber autofire from up ahead in the trees. I’ve got some men down here and a couple took off, but I think we’re keeping their heads down, over.”
“OK, Tiger One, hold on. I’m on my way. Tiger Leader to all Tigers. Code X-ray. Acknowledge, over.” You give a codeword you worked out with the squad leaders before moving out, meaning stop the advance and hold in place.
“Tiger Leader, this is Tiger Two. Wilco, over.” That’s second squad on the left flank.
“Tiger Leader, this is Tiger Four. Wilco, over.” That’s your platoon sergeant with the third squad in reserve.
Once the acknowledgements come in and you’re sure there’s been no screw-up, you begin making your way through the undergrowth toward the sound of gunfire. On the way, you make a brief situation report to the company commander on the company radio net.
“Ringleader, this is Tiger Leader. I have a couple hostiles on my right and I’m taking automatic weapons fire. Some casualties already. I’m going to sort things out over there now, over.”
“Roger, Tiger Leader. Do you need help, over?” Help? Probably, but what can Company do right now?
“Negative, Ringleader, but stay on the line. Out.” If you could see anything you could call for fire support from the company mortars that are set up about half a klick to the rear, but by the time you radioed them the fire coordinates, they put rounds near the target, and you adjusted the fire to where you wanted it, you could be commanding an ex-platoon. Or you could have the second squad pivot to the right in line and try to hit the ambush party in flank, but it would take time to explain to these militia men what you wanted them to do, what axis to move out on, what to do once they got where you wanted them, what to expect, probably when to breathe. That takes time, and all of a sudden time is what you don’t have.
Three men from first squad break through the undergrowth, heading for the rear. You yell at them to stop, but they vanish into the undergrowth almost as soon as you see them. You could follow them, stop them, and get them turned around with a quick pep talk, but you’ll probably do more good over on the line with your first squad leader.
“Tiger Four, this is Tiger Leader. Code Olympic. I say again, code Olympic.
Acknowledge, over.” This is the code word to your platoon sergeant to bring the reserve squad up on line. By now you’re thinking ahead, and the reserve squad’s firepower might be handy a little closer to the action, especially if it starts to spread.
Finally you get to first squad, just as the firing dies down. There are just four men remaining out of the thirteen in the squad: the squad leader and three of his troopers. Two men are down with minor wounds and the rest have become separated during the confusion of the firefight. There’s no sign of the hostile troops, and the first squad is visibly shaken. The enemy has withdrawn into the dense woods, and you’re left with the job of putting your platoon back into some sort of order.
You take the first squad in tow and head toward the original center of the platoon’s skirmish line. On the way, you find four of the missing men; after they stopped running, they just sat down and waited for someone to come along and tell them what to do. It figures. There’s no sign of the other three who ran off; they don’t answer a radio hail. Later they will no doubt claim they never heard you.
When you link up with your platoon sergeant and third squad, you give your NCOs a quick briefing on the new platoon formation. First squad goes into reserve with the platoon sergeant, third squad takes the right, second squad stays where it is. When everyone’s on line, you move out.
The above action took place in a Striker game, and serves to illuminate the essential nature of the Striker system and how it differs from previous miniatures rules. When attempting to understand these differences, it will help to keep in mind that Striker, as a part of Traveller, has been designed to be, to some extent, a roleplaying game. Miniatures players may initially have difficulties coming to grips with the basic assumptions of Striker, perhaps more so than a role-playing gamer would.
The essential difference is that Striker addresses the problems of battlefield command and control more directly and emphatically than any other rules yet published; actions which would be commonplace in many other miniatures games simply cannot be done in Striker due to the constraints of the command and initiative rules.
Consider, for example, the short action described above. A platoon is moving through dense woods, two squads in line and one in reserve. The righthand squad blunders into an ambush, takes casualties, returns fire, and about two-thirds of the survivors (inexperienced militia) run away. So far, most miniatures rules will produce similar results. It is in the player’s reaction to this that Striker departs from the rest. With most rules systems, the player would begin to move the rest of his platoon in order to bring fire to bear on the ambushers. Assuming that they could reach the area in two turns, they would begin firing at the enemy in the third turn. A brief firefight would ensue, ending with the withdrawal of the ambushers. On about the fifth turn, the platoon would again be moving out, gradually taking up a new formation to compensate for the losses it had sustained. The emphasis is on the actions of the platoon.
In Striker, by contrast, the emphasis is on the actions of the platoon commander. The intent of the rules is to put the player in the role of a small unit commander and force him to think about what he would be doing with his time if he were actually present on the battlefield. Here is the action again from the platoon commander’s viewpoint, described in game terms and broken into 30-second Striker turns :
On turn 1, the enemy fired upon first squad. On turn 2, as first squad halted to return fire (an action within the abilities of the squad leader), the platoon commander gave a brief order to the remainder of the platoon to stop the advance; the chatter back and forth, with acknowledgements, took all his time in that turn. On turn 3 the officer began making his way toward the site of the firefight, receiving a situation report from first squad’s leader on the way. On turn 4, he was encountered by routing militiamen, and was forced to decide whether to rally them, bring up his reserves, call for support from the company mortars, or keep moving; he decided to move the reserves into the line, again a simple, previously agreed upon code. On turn 5 he reached the right flank squad, in time to find the ambushers gone. On turn 6 he personally led the remnants of first squad back toward the center of the line. On turn 7 he encountered the stragglers and, still moving, attached them to his retinue. He arrived back in his original position, followed by first squad, on turn 9, finding both his platoon sergeant and the second squad leader there. He held a short orders briefing to explain the new order of advance to the three NCOs, an unforeseen situation for which no ready-made code word existed, explaining to each of them their positions in the new line, their new objective, speed of the advance, and a place to rally in case of disaster. The briefing took four minutes in all, or 8 turns. Then, on turn 18, the squads moved to their new positions and on turn 19 the advance resumed. Total elapsed time, a little under ten minutes, or 19 turns instead of 5.Striker, Book 1, Basic Rules, GDW, 1981
Wargame: The Story
Wargame narratives can also be used to entertain. This is not easy and takes more than a bit of effort. A prime example of wargame-turned-narrative is “The Dance of the Vampires.” The popular version of this story is found as chapter 20 of Tom Clancy’s novel Red Storm Rising. The chapter is the high point of the first act in the book and features a regimental-size Soviet Backfire bomber raid against a US-French carrier battle group.
There is a second version of the story – a very wargame one. Dance of the Vampires: A Cold War Harpoon Scenario was written by Larry Bond and tells the story of the wargame behind Clancy’s chapter. As Mr. Bond explains:
Tom and I decided that the best way to explore the possibilities was by using Harpoon to game out an attack. This is not how “Dance of the Vampires” was written. We already knew how the chapter had to end. What we were seeking was a better understanding of what factors drove each side’s thinking. When all those untried systems were pitted against each other, how would they interact?Dance of the Vampires: A Cold War Harpoon Scenario (2nd Ed), p. 2
When one reads the scenario book Dance of the Vampires, it is easy to see how Clancy and Bond got to the chapter “Dance of the Vampires” in Red Storm Rising. When both are considered, it’s readily apparent how a good wargame narrative can contribute to the making of a good entertaining story.
While “Dance of the Vampires” is a great story based on a wargame, it is far from the only one. One of the most successful examples may be the Battletech series of novels. However, I have long preferred the narratives found in Captain’s Log, the house magazine of Amarillo Design Bureau supporting their Star Fleet Universe. What I consider one of the best examples of a story based on a wargame was found in the predecessor to Captain’s Log, the old Nexus magazine. The first “story” written in Nexus, “Behind the Glory of Heroes,” was published in 1983 and reprinted in Captain’s Log #13 in 1993. Here is the story of Petty Officer Kelly Wright, working E-Scan aboard a Federation Base Station that is attacked by Romulan warships.
It was a long time before the approaching warships uncloaked and became visible. Immediately three pairs of warp engines were captured by her E-Scan; one pair quite large and the other two only slightly smaller. Very quickly a fourth pair, much smaller pair, was picked up. Her computer estimated the three larger emissions were cruiser class engines and the fourth pair, the smallest ones, were destroyer-type engines. Very quickly the computer, in communication with the scanning network of the station, confirmed the approach of a KR Cruiser, two War Eagles, and a Klingon-type frigate, probably the KR5 that had been seen in this sector some weeks ago. She fed her information to gunnery.
Her professional detachment was shaken a bit when she picked up torpedoes heating in their tubes. But soon the starships would get here and drive them off. All they had to do was hang on a few minutes. It would be a tough fight, no doubt, but she was confident. When the base’s phaser warning light came blinked on her console, she shut her equipment off. The emissions of the phasers would blind her, and E-Scan wasn’t needed any more. Sensors One and Two would govern the weapons fire.
She sat back and felt the floor hum with the shots. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched the warning light, poised to turn her equipment back on the moment the light went off.
She never actually felt the blow. She simply found herself on the floor stupidly thinking she should have strapped herself in as they do on the ships. The air was acrid with burning plastic and a putrid-sweet smell she didn’t recognize. She vaguely heard screams in the distance and a muffled bleating of something, but her ears felt as if something was pressuring them. Her eyes began to sting and water.“Behind the Glory of Heroes,” Captain’s Log #13, p. 4
Like all the stories in Captain’s Log, the narrative is playable in one of the Star Fleet Universe games. Indeed, the editors of Captain’s Log would only publish stories that “followed” the rules of the universe (i.e. replicable without breaking game mechanics).
Another feature of Captain’s Log that I really enjoyed was the narrative found in “The Academy.”
One of the most popular features of Captain’s Log is the Academy, a fictitious future classroom where cadets from Star Fleet Academy (with names suspiciously like those of the SFB staff and playtesters) sharpen their tactical skills in classroom debates and simulator exercises.“The Academy,” Captain’s Log #13, p. 39
I hold Captain’s Log as a prime example of how the experiences of a wargame can be told through creative fiction. It’s sad that we don’t see more of this, but that may be because telling a story in hard. Sometimes, it takes professionals.
While wargame narratives can educate and entertain, it also can be used to inform. Here is where the professional wargamer side of me steps forward. In many ways, I consider a some wargame narratives to actually be what some have taken to calling FICINT – Fictional Intelligence.
‘FICINT’ (Fictional Intelligence), also known as ‘useful fiction’, is an analytic tool that melds narrative and nonfiction. Its attributes are particularly attuned to aiding in visualizing new technology and trends – key issues at play in geopolitical change emergent great power competition. But it is not mere storytelling. There are rules to using this tool successfully, however.Abstract, “Thinking the Unthinkable With Useful Fiction,” Cole & Singer, 2020
This quote comes from a recent journal article written by August Cole and Peter W. Singer, authors of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War (HMH, 2015). In a recent journal article for Queens University in Canada, Cole, an author by profession, and Singer, part of a think tank, explain how in Ghost Fleet they wanted to, “bring to the surface…the issues of a world to come, in which there was not just a resurgence of great power rivalry and a risk of war, but also a future in which traditional US military advantages through new technologies such as space-based communications or fifth generation jest might give way to new vulnerabilities, such as supply chain security and weaponized satellites….Doubling down, we went the route of a new kind of novel with research endnotes.”
Unfortunately, Cole & Singer tend to denigrate the usefulness of wargames in ‘useful fiction’. They don’t like wargames because, as they put write, it violates their “rule of the real” which are:
- “…it must be set in the real world.”
- “…also reflect the real world.”
- “…should reflect who realistically might be there and how real people would act under those circumstances.”
- “…what Clausewitz called ‘fog’ and ‘friction’ should also be ever-present.”
Cole and Singer go on to discuss one further point:
The rule of the real also means there is no ‘vaporware’ in FICINT. Unlike in science fiction or frankly in many military wargames and program plans, any technology or system in the story must already exist or be in development.“Thinking The Unthinkable With Useful Fiction,” Cole & Singer
Here I disagree. The narrative from a wargame can follow Cole & Singer’s “Rule of the Real”…if the right wargame is played. The best wargames for FICINT are obviously ones that project into the near future. A recent example of how the narrative of a wargame can be ‘useful fiction’ is found at the US Army’s Mad Scientist Laboratory in an article titled, “281. Would You Like to Play a Game? Wargaming as a Learning Experience and Key Assumptions Check.”
I recently came across an article in War on the Rocks by Dr. James Lacey, entitled “How Does the Next Great Power Conflict Play Out? Lessons From a Wargame.”1 The piece was written a year ago, and details his work at the Marine Corps War College where he had his students simulate a broad global conflict involving the United States dealing with simultaneous outbreaks of conflict in Europe, the Korean Peninsula, and the Taiwan Strait. To run the event, Dr. Lacey used the commercially available Next War series of games published by GMT Games, which simulate a near-future conflict in these areas. The game system is complex, but in Dr. Lacey’s words, offers a reasonable approximation of near future conflict at the operational level of war. Dr. Lacey’s article, and an earlier piece he wrote on wargaming,2 offer a compelling argument for the utility of gaming as a classroom learning tool, allowing students to analyze critical problems and test their solutions, and most importantly, discuss what they learned with a rigorous after-action report (AAR) discussion.“How Does the Next Great Power Conflict Play Out? Lessons From a Wargame.”
Along the way, and to help the process, he wrote…a narrative which starts as this:
The war began in the fall, with a Russian invasion of all three Baltic States and Poland. Belarus sided with Russia, and contributed to the attack. The Russians had some very early success in the Baltic States, but were a bit bloodied in the process. It took Russia about five days to occupy the Baltic States before it was able to turn its full attention on Poland. NATO was relatively well-prepared for the conflict, and had significant air power ready and available on D-day. Most importantly, thanks to solid indications and warning, the United States Army had a strong presence in Poland prior to the conflict. In addition to the standard Europe-based forces of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, and a Europe-based US rotational HBCT — in this case, the 2nd BCT of the 3rd Infantry Division — the entire 82nd Airborne Division and the 1st BCT of the 101st Air Assault Division were on hand in the crisis period.
Here is an example where a wargamer took the experience of play, carefully recorded it, and then studied it. The game created a version of ‘useful fiction’ that can be used to educate, entertain, and inform. It is very ‘useful fiction’.
The Alternate History Wargame Story
Historical wargames can create another narrative, an alternate history story. Indeed, one could argue that historical conflict simulations are a form of alternate history where the historical outcome in a game is just one of an infinite number of possibilities.
Too often that becomes the problem; players will protest a game that doesn’t deliver the historical outcome. This is unfortunate because a good designer will give us a wargame where the historical outcome is possible but not guaranteed. That doesn’t mean the historical outcome need be the ‘norm’ for the very outcome that history tells us to expect may have been the outlier event. If I play a wargame and the historical outcome is preordained, I have no interest in exploring further. But if it instead gives me the tools to explore….
Take for instance Cataclysm: A Second World War (Scott Muldoon, GMT Games, 2018). The game is explicitly NOT a recreation of the Second World War. Rather, the game puts the players in the midst of the conditions leading up to the war and lets them figure it out.
At the end of the day, I personally find reading alternate history narratives boring. They are often boring for the same reasons I find the entire alternate history genre tiring; the stories often revolve around an issue that was not central to the change depicted. More importantly, I don’t particularly enjoy alternate history wargame narratives because I want to play a wargame and actively create the narrative, not sit and read it passively.
Wargames Are Narratives
Wargames can create many narratives. Be it to educate, entertain, inform, or just look at how history may have taken a different course, wargames can be used to tell a story. The trick is to tell a good story for those are few and far between.
I’ll personally admit that I write poor AARs. A few times I have tried to tell the AAR with a story. To be honest, I find them fun to write. Here is one of my more recent ones, the “Saga of Lt T in Undaunted: North Africa.” That said, they are far from polished. All too often they lack a focus of purpose. Maybe now after this discussion I will do better?