Thoughts on commercial wargames in RAND report “Will to Fight”

IMG_0056Will to Fight: Analyzing, Modeling, and Simulating the Will to Fight of Military Units. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

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)

  1. Commercial tabletop games using hexagon maps or model terrain, counters, or figures
  2. Commercial simulation, or computer games from platoon level to the battalion level
  3. US military tabletop games typically using hexagon maps and counters
  4. 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:

  1. Will to fight (not) relevant to combat outcomes + will to fight (not) relevant to victory conditions + game or simulation type – US military simulation
  2. 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.

#IndependenceDay 2018 #Wargame – Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection (GMT Games, 2nd Edition, 2017)

For the second year in a row I got Harold Buchanan’s (@HBuchanan2 on Twitter) Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection (GMT Games, 2nd Edition, 2017) to the gaming table on the Fourth of July. I played the medium-length scenario “British Return to New York” that covers four years – 1776 thru 1779.

This year I committed to playing solo with Bots. I felt I was ready to tackle the automated opponents thanks to the great work of Ben Harsh and his Harsh Rules series of videos. Part 5 in his Liberty or Death-series covered the solo play system:

Like the historical situation, the war in 1776 focused on the New England colonies. Massachusetts was a hotbed of activity with the Patriots Rallying forces while the Indians led Scouting with British troops to Skirmish against the Rebels.

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The war in 1776

1777 was a short campaign season (Winter Quarters came out early) and as a result many British troops were not in cities. In order to stay in play the British would have to spend resources. As @HBuchanan2 pointed out on Twitter, it was going to be expensive to keep the British troops outside of cities. But stay they did (OK, I was not strictly following the Bot…still learning, alright!).

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The 1777 campaign season ends early – British troops winter outside cities…paid for in dear resources

Early in 1778 the French played the Treaty of Alliance and entered the war. With the arrival of Rochambeau the French fleet – and blockades – started. By the end of 1778 the Northern Colonies were firmly in Patriot control. Like history, the British were going to have to look South (the “Southern Strategy”) to try and put down this insurrection.

(I misplayed blockades a bit…should have paid attention to the Howe special leader abilities. Relearning, ugh!)

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End of 1778 – Patriots control New England colonies

Sure enough in 1779 the British shifted their effort to the South by landing in Savannah. Indian Raids, led by Cornplanter, struck the frontier of New York and Pennsylvania sapping away Patriot support. Luckily for the British, just as the French were preparing to land Spanish troops in Florida (Don Bernardo Takes Pensacola was the next card to play) the season ended when the final Winter Quarters came out.

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1779 scenario end

The end game scoring was very close, thanks in part to the Indian raids that reduced support in Pennsylvania and New York. Final rankings:

  1. French +4
  2. Patriots +3
  3. Indians -1
  4. British -4

I had a very fun time with this play of Liberty or Death. Mechanically it took me a little while to get back into the game but thanks to the Harsh Rules videos it was easier than before. I did not play flawlessly; I missed some of the nuances on the Non-Player Cards and misapplied (or outright missed) some rules. None of that detracts from the overall game experience. Liberty or Death teaches so much about the American War of Independence that I always have to make an effort NOT to look up every card during play and read the historical background!

Volko Runke (@Volko26 on Twitter), the master-designer of the COIN-series, says all games are models. Every time I play Liberty or Death this model teaches me more about the American Revolution. It helps me appreciate what our Founding Fathers went thru over 200 years ago.

God Bless America.

Featured image courtesy GMT Games, LLC.

#SciFiFriday – #Triplanetary (@SJGames) Third Edition @kickstarter

I first played Triplanetary: The Classic Game of Space Combat back in the early 1980’s. One of my friends had the GDW version and we (kinda) liked it, but all that vector movement seemed like so much work. Worse, moving in space using vectors made it impossible to do all those fancy X-Wing maneuvers like in Star Wars.

When a new Third Edition was Kickstarted by Steve Jackson Games, I jumped in. The game was promised for an August delivery; I got my copy in June! You can see more about the game at the SJGames.com website which also has some neat older, and newer, materials.

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Courtesy SJGames.com

My first out-of-the-box impressions are positive:

  • Classic Feel – The counters are retro but it reinforces the “classic” game feeling.
  • White Maps? – I first thought it silly that space would be a white map but it has to be to plot your vectors!
  • Game Mechanics – The rulebook is 16 pages, inclusive of rules and scenarios. The core mechanic (vector movement) is dead simple with an uncomplicated combat system included.
  • Model Enough – As game designer Volko Runke (@Volk26) says, all games are models. This model of space movement (vector movement) is a 2D representation of a 3D problem presented on a map that is NOT to scale. That said, the basics of moving in space are here. Want to see what a flip and burn is? How about a gravity slingshot? Watch your fuel supply! It’s all here!

I am looking forward to playing this one with the RockyMountainNavy Boys, especially Youngest RMN who has an interest in aerospace engineering. As much as he likes the (legitimately awesome) Kerbal Space Program, and as much as Kerbal shows about space engineering, I think Triplanetary will deliver another level of learning and discovery. That is because it is a boardgame, where the model is manipulated by the user and not hidden in a black box like in a computer game. What I saw as “useless work” back in the early 80’s I now see as a very useful model that is fun to play AND enlightening.

Featured image courtesy SJGames.com