Commanding more in Less Than 60 Miles (trlgames.com, 2019) – or – the #OODA #wargame

The goal is to collapse an adversary’s system into confusion and disorder causing him to over and under react to an activity that appears simultaneously menacing as well as ambiguous, chaotic, or misleading.

John R. Boyd, “Patterns of Conflict

When I was CONNECTIONS 2019 I stopped by a table sponsored by the Army Command & General Staff College. Amongst the games present was Less Than 60 Miles: C3 Module 1 – Fulda Gap (Thin Red Line Games, 2019) designed by Fabrizio Vianello (BGG member Hanbarca) and published in Trezzano, Italy. The ACGSC folks were gushing about the game, throwing terms like “realistic” and insightful” about freely. I recently acquired the game via trade and dug into it the past two weeks. I am now ready to declare that Less Than 60 Miles may be one of the best “professional wargames” in my collection.

A “professional wargame?”

First off, what exactly do I mean when I say “professional wargaming?” In my working life I dabble in defense wargaming. This is why I try to attend the CONNECTIONS wargaming conference every year. I also recall Jim Dunnigan’s description of a wargame found in his Wargames Handbook:

A wargame is an attempt to get a jump on the future by obtaining a better understanding of the past. A wargame is a combination of ‘game,’ history and science. It is a paper time-machine. (Wargames Handbook, Third Edition, 1)

Dunnigan goes on to state:

The object of any wargame (historical or otherwise) is to enable the player to recreate a specific event and, more importantly, to be able to explore what might have been if the player decides to do things differently.

To be a wargame, in our sense of the word, the game must be realistic. And in some cases, they are extremely realistic, realistic to the point where some wargames are actually used for professional purposes (primarily the military, but also business and teaching). (Wargames Handbook, 3e, 1)

In many cases, realism in professional wargaming is a double-edged sword. Realism can often lead to an unplayable design. A perennial question at CONNECTIONS is “how realistic should my wargame be?” Philip Sabin, in his book Simulating War, describes this as accuracy vs. simplicity:

Perhaps the most pervasive trade-off affecting all human attempts to understand the worlds in which we live is that between accurately capturing the almost infinite complexities of reality and keeping our models simple enough to be grasped by ordinary minds and used as a practical guide for action. (Simulating War, 2)

Sabin continues:

Wargames are particularly severely affected by this trade-off between accuracy and simplicity, for two principle reasons. First…wargames have the virtue of combining most other modelling approaches into one, the downside of this eclecticism is that the complexity of each component approach is even further constrained if the overall complexity of the entire wargame model is not to exceed tolerable limits. Second, whereas some modelling techniques need only be understood properly by experts, with their conclusions being at least to some extent ‘taken on trust’ by lesser mortals, wargames are by their very nature participatory devices in which users need to have a certain understanding of the mechanics in order to benefit from the model at all. (Simulating War, 2)

A recent RAND study titled Next-Generation Wargaming for the U.S. Marine Corps points out how commercial wargames are addressing the accuracy vs. simplicity problem:

Closely related to this trend is a focus on increasing the playability of games while maintaining high levels of detail and dynamic gameplay. In the past, one of the key dilemmas of manual-style games was the inverse relationship between complexity and playability. As the level of detail increases in a game, rules typically grow increasingly complex, ultimately reducing playability. Many games from the “golden age” of the 1970s hobby gaming required hours merely to read the rules–a trend taken to parody in Campaign for North Africa (1979). Such games were highly accurate, but required players to learn complicated rules that included many exceptions. These were difficult to track even for experienced players. In response, designers began to experiment with different presentations of game rules to make play more intuitive….Commercial developers argue this will help manual games achieve higher levels of complexity while simultaneously enhancing playability. (Next-Generation Wargaming for the U.S. Marine Corps, 23-24)

IMG_0341
Found at CONNECTIONS 2019

OODA in a Wargame

The Less Than 60 Miles (LT60M) model is a different  look at the (potential) European battlefields of the 1980’s. Instead of focusing on the equipment (like so many wargames often do) the rules present a look at the battlefield through the lens of John Boyd, retired US Air Force officer and the father of the OODA LoopHere is how LT60M first describes itself:

Less Than 60 Miles is a Regiment / Battalion simulation of a hypothetical conflict between North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Warsaw Pact (WP) in 1985. The map covers the central part of West and East Germany, including the whole US V Corps Area of Responsibility and its surrounding areas. Players take the role of US V Corps Commander for NATO, and Soviet Central Front Commander for Warsaw Pact. (Rules of Play, 1. Introduction)

After this very vanilla overview, the differences are then called out:

Rules are centered on the problems of Command, Control & Communications (C3), and will force the players to fight against three equally dangerous foes: the enemy, their own plans and time.

Players will find that even simple actions could be quite challenging and need to be planned and correctly executed. Players will also find that their own troops may move and act quickly while following the initial plan, but reacting to contingencies or unexpected events could be painfully slow and might seal the fate of the entire campaign if poorly managed.

Another key element, not explicitly in the rules but interconnecting them, is the OODA cycle (Observe-Orient-Decide, Act) theorized by John Boyd in “Patterns of Conflict” and used as basis for the “AirLand Battle” doctrine adopted by US Armed Forces during the last years of the Cold War.

In the end, being able to get “inside” the enemy’s OODA cycle, short-circuiting the opponent’s thinking processes, will produce opportunities for the opponents to react inappropriately.

In the Designer’s Notes to LT60M, Mr. Vianello expands on his approach:

As probably any other Grognard, I’ve been reading a devastating number of books about military campaigns and operations.

In almost all of them, I’ve found descriptions of apparently simple plans turning into a disaster due to poor planning, wrong orders or bad execution. Even when planning, orders and execution goes smooth as silk, the plan is sometimes outmaneuvered or outsmarted by the enemy.

….

In most operational and strategic wargames, replicating this kind of events is very difficult. Players have almost complete control, and units react instantly to new directives. During years, several solutions have been developed (random events, variable initiative, command points and similar), but the basic problems remained:

  • The typical time frame of a game turn is tailored to allow execution of almost any desired action within a single phase, thus leaving the enemy no possibility to react.
  • The distance covered in a single turn by a unit could be considerable, thus forcing players to adopt a continuous line of units and zones of control as the only solution to avoid being bypassed or encircled during the enemy’s movement phase.
  • Any decided course of action has no inertia and can be rapidly modified should the need arise. You don’t need a real plan, and you’re not taking anyone really by surprise unless the rules decide so.

Less Than 60 Miles tries to convey a realistic approach to the above problems by giving the correct importance and impact to four basic elements: Time, Posture, Orders and Command Chain.

In the end, the interaction between these four elements will force players to confront the underlying concept: the OODA Cycle.…By using the four elements above better and faster than the opponent, the player will get inside the OODA Loop of the enemy, undermining its capability to react in an appropriate and timely manner to the unfolding events. (Scenarios & Designer’s Notes, Designer’s Notes, 21)

Here is how Mr. Vianello describes using those elements to challenge players of LT60M:

TIME

“Probably the most important factor in war is Time. Every action needs to be executed within a certain time frame and become useless or even dangerous if carried out later.”

“…most actions cannot be completed during a single game turn. A dug-in mechanized battalion that successfully defended a town will not be able to instantly launch a counterattack against the attacker, except when using specific tactics like NATO’s Active Defense. It will need to change to an attack formation, leaving itself vulnerable to enemy reactions for the time needed to change its posture.”

POSTURE

“Posture defines the current tactical formation of a unit and has a heavy impact on its movement and combat capabilities.”

“A unit’s Posture is the result of the last orders received and limits the tactical choices available. No unit can do everything at its best at the same time.”

“Changing a Unit’s Posture will require time, and during the transition the unit will be more vulnerable to enemy actions.”

ORDERS

“Ordering large formations to move out or attack is a complicated business, usually more complicated than expected. Even the over-celebrated 90 degrees turn of Patton’s III Army at the Ardennes took 72 hours.”

“In Less Than 60 Miles, most orders will require more time than desired to be carried out. Players will be forced to prepare and execute a real plan, as changing the course of action once things started moving could be problematic.”

CHAIN OF COMMAND

“In order to issue and execute orders in a timely manner, you will need a Command Chain starting from a higher-level Headquarters and going down to the units executing the order.”

“Command Chain is not a abstract concept you’ll worry about only occasionally. Each side will have to balance the advantage of having Headquarters near the Forward Edge of the Battle Area and directly influencing the battle, with the disadvantage of making them targets for enemy air, missile and artillery strikes.”

Yesterday is today…and tomorrow?

Design-wise, LT60M finds success by drawing from tried and proven designs of the past wrapped in a game system that emphasizes OODA. Mr. Vianello tells us, “In order to handle attrition, Less Than 60 Miles refines one of the most interesting and innovating concepts of SPI’s “Central Front” series: Friction Points, here renamed Attrition Points” (Designer’s Notes, 23). The combat system is, as Fabrizio puts it, “inspired by NATO: Division Commander, in my opinion one of the most realistic portraits of modern mechanized warfare” (Designer’s Notes, 25).

38F6CE41-3892-44BF-9982-3975F2A7E7FC_4_5005_c

Lest you think that OODA is best in a wargame of the past, US Marine Corps officer Ian T. Brown, in his book A New Conception of War: John Boyd, the U.S. Marines, and Maneuver Warfare, points out that Boyd’s OODA Loop is highly relevant today. He observes that, “[Boyd] viewed both blitzkrieg and counterinsurgency through the same lens, aimed at the same objective–the adversary’s mind–and implemented with the same tenets of orientation, tempo, ambiguity, deception, and asymmetric application of strength against weakness.” (p. 192) Although LT60M is set in the 1980s, the design is both relevant and easily portable to the modern wargaming battlefield.

Looking at the larger picture, the OODA Loop is not only useful as a basis for the design of LT60M, but for professional wargaming as a whole. Matt Caffrey in his book On Wargaming includes the OODA Loop as one of the three theories or models that explain why wargames writ large work. Caffrey writes:

In time, Boyd realized the F-86’s more-experienced pilots, bubble canopy, and hydraulically boosted controls allowed its pilots to observe, orient, decide, and act (OODA) faster than their adversaries. That, not top speed, made all the difference. In time he realized that staying a move ahead of your adversaries was at least as important at the operational and strategic levels of war also. This lead to the gradual development of his “Discourse on Winning and Losing” (a presentation available on-line). This final theoretical work goes as much beyond his ‘OODA Loop” as Einstein’s general theory of relativity goes beyond E = mc2. 

A fundamental reason why wargames “work” is that the side that makes more-effective use of them (all other things being equal) complete OODA loops more quickly than an adversary that does not use wargaming effectively or at all.

….

The synthetic experience derived from all types of wargames can create virtual veterans far faster than actual combat creates real ones–and at a fraction of the cost in lives, time, and treasure. (On Wargaming, 285-286)

Not a perfect game but once you Observe, Orient, Decide, & Act….

In order to accomplish all the above LT60M can turn fiddly. Units will be stacked with markers for posture and time and maybe more. The map hexes are sized a bit small and the many colors can be confusing (each hex has a Terrain Type and may have Terrain Features). But if you work your way through the fiddling you find a ‘game’ that really makes you think. For some ‘casual’ wargamers the challenges of Time, Posture, Orders, and Command Chain may not be exciting enough and the rules too fiddly. But for a professional wargamer, using the OODA Loop to frame a game design creates insights into the modern battlefield like few other designs deliver.

Less Than 60 Miles is not a perfect game, but it does a very good job of creating a playable version of the 1980s battlefield framed though the lens of the John Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict. I would very much like to see this design pulled forward into today, particularly in a Baltic scenario. I hope the game finds an audience not only with professional gamers, but with ‘casual’ wargamers as well.


Annotated Bibliography

(Unless otherwise noted, annotations are shamelessly stolen from Matt Caffrey in his book On Wargaming)

Brown, Ian T. A New Conception of War: John Boyd, the U.S. Marines, and Maneuver Warfare. Quantico, VA: Marine Corps University Press, 2018. (Download for free online)

Caffrey Jr, Matthew B. On Wargaming: How Wargames Have Shaped History and How They May Shape the Future (Newport Paper; no. 43). Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 2019. (Download for free online)

Dunnigan, James. Wargames Handbook, Third Edition: How to Play and Design Commercial and Professional Wargames. Bloomington, IN: Writer’s Club Press, 2000. (Easy to read, all-around guide to wargame history, design, and application.)

Sabin, Phillip. Simulating War: Studying Conflict through Simulation Games. London: Continuum, 2012; repr London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. (Though the book’s focus is designing and developing wargames as a way to understand a given conflict deeply, it is also the best contemporary book on wargame design.)

Shlapak, David A.; Michael W. Johnson. Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016. (Download for free online)

Wong, Yuna Huh; Sebastian Joon Bae, Elizabeth M. Bartels, Benjamin Smith. Next-Generation Wargaming for the U.S. Marine Corps. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2019. (Download for free online)

 

Mind the gap – the #wargame paper time-machine of Tokyo Express (Victory Games, 1988)

JAMES F. DUNNIGAN, ONE OF THE FATHERS OF WARGAMING, is credited with stating that wargames are a “paper time-machine” (1). This is great, but there is actually alot missing here. Let’s look at the full quote which opens Chapter 1 of Dunnigan’s seminal work, The Complete Wargames Handbook:

What is a Wargame?

A wargame is an attempt to get a jump on the future by obtaining a better understanding of the past. A wargame is a combination of “game,” history and science. It is a paper time-machine.

The Complete Wargames Handbook, 3rd Ed, 1.

This week as part of my 2019 CSR Awards Challenge I replayed Tokyo Express (Victory Games, 1988). At the same time, I took delivery of a new book, Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898 – 1945 by Trent Hone (2). Put together, the game and book got me thinking about wargames and what we learn from them.

Much has been written about the role wargames played in educating the US Navy before World War II. Hone tells us how war gaming “encouraged experimentation with new tactical approaches and improved the ability to assess them.” He goes on to state:

The primary purpose of the games, or “war problems,” was to further the education of officers. They gave practice at applying the principles of war, encouraged critical thinking, and provided practical training in the art of command.

Learning War, 98.

I can see that. I definitely agree that wargames are excellent at applying the principles of war, making me think critically, and in a loose fashion exercise command. But it’s not perfect. In his chapter “Heuristics at Guadalcanal”, Hone discusses the Battle of Tassafaronga. One passage in particular jumped out at me:

Prior to the battle Rear Admiral Kincaid had assessed the lessons from earlier engagements and developed an aggressive plan incorporating them. He instructed his destroyers to press ahead and attack them from close range with torpedoes; the lead destroyer would use an SG radar to develop a clear picture of the action and guide the others to the launch point. Cruisers would remain distant, far from the threat of Japanese torpedoes; they would use radar-assisted gunfire as their primary weapon. Like Lee, Kincaid refused to employ Scott’s linear formation.

But Kincaid was wrong about Japanese torpedoes. He expected them to be similar to the Navy’s own. Since ten thousand yards was beyond their effective range but was also the maximum range of radar-directed cruiser gunfire at the time, Kincaid instructed the cruisers to engage from that range. He expected in that way to stay out of “torpedo water” while inflicting maximum damage to the enemy.

Learning War, 203-204.

As we know, the battle did not turn out well for the US Navy. As Hone writes, “Wright’s cruisers opened fire moments after Cole released his torpedoes. Tanaka’s destroyers had already seen Wright’s ships and were setting up their own torpedo attack” (3). James D. Hornfischer, in his book Neptune’s Inferno, called the Japanese attack, “one of the most lethal torpedo salvos of the war” (4). Minneapolis and Pensacola were hit; New Orleans’ bow was blown off. Northhampton was sunk (5).

Norman Friedman, in his book Winning a Future War: War Gaming and Victory in the Pacific War (Washington DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2017) writes in his concluding chapter “Games versus Reality in the Pacific,” that wargaming for the US Navy before World War II had three possible functions:

  • To explore possible wartime situations in ways full-scale exercises could not
  • To teach students how to fight
  • To understand or even predict the behavior of foreign powers (6).

Friedman points out that for the first function military judgement based on experience could often foresee outcomes but not when entirely new technology was involved. This ties closely with the third factor because it required players simulate alien ways of thinking (7).

Just how does this get recreated in a wargame? The problem is that we wargamers often “know” that Kincaid’s initial deployment and battle plan at Tassafaronga is “flawed” because, unlike Kincaid, we know about the Japanese Long Lance torpedo. Therefore, wargamers can consciously (and more often unconsciously) act to avoid the danger. This is what designer Tetsuya Nakamura terms “the hindsight gap:”

The hindsight gap arises because people living through real history do not know the results of their actions, but a player in a tabletop simulation game is aware of these results. For example, the French army believed that tank forces could not pass through the Ardennes Forest, but German Panzer forces did exactly this in 1940. In another instance, the Imperial Japanese Navy was ambushed by the US Navy at Midway in 1942 because they believed there were no US aircraft carriers there. But in a tabletop simulation game, we already know that there are hidden US aircraft carriers at Midway, so players will never fall victim to such a surprise attack.

Tetsuya Nakamura, “The Fundamental Gap Between Tabletop Simulation Games and the “Truth.” Published in Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming, Edited by Pat Harrigan & Matthew G. Kirschenbaum (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016). 43.

In many ways Tokyo Express is an excellent combination of game, history, and science. What really sets it apart is how the Enemy AI overcomes some of the hindsight gap. Unlike a game such as Command at Sea (Admiralty Trilogy Group) with its scenarios that try to faithfully recreate the battle, the Enemy AI in Tokyo Express can operate in “unexpected” ways. Be it the arrival of unexpected forces or enemy operations in ways that are plausible but not historically exact, the Enemy AI in Tokyo Express can teach a player that has the benefit of the hindsight gap. The science of the Enemy AI in Tokyo Express gets us past the hindsight gap. In turn, Tokyo Express gives us a better understanding of the past making it a better game for getting a jump on the future.


Endnotes

  1. Dunnigan, James F. The Complete Wargames Handbook (3rd Ed. Lincoln, NE: Writers Club Press, 2000), 1.
  2. Hone, Trent. Learning War: The Evolution of Fighting Doctrine in the U.S. Navy, 1898–1945 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018). The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), Admiral John Richardson, recommended Learning War to new Admirals, Retired Flag Officers, members of his staff, and other naval officers. It reflects the strong emphasis he is placing on command in 2018 and it is now part of the CNO’s reading list. ( There is also another notable wargaming book on the list. See Philip Sabin’s Simulating War: Simulating Conflict through Simulation Games (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014)).
  3. ibid, 204.
  4. Hornfischer, James D. Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal (New York: Bantam Books, 2011), 390.
  5. Hone, 204.
  6. Friedman, 161.
  7. ibid.

Feature image Battle Display from Tokyo Express.

#BookLook – Wargames Handbook, Third Edition, by James F. Dunnigan, 2000

When studying the history of the wargame hobby, one inevitably will run into the name James F. Dunnigan. His first published game was Jutland (Avalon Hill, 1967). His company, Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) was THE wargame company of the 1970’s and 80’s. He started Strategy & Tactics magazine which continues to publish to this day. He is, in many ways, a father to the wargame hobby.

Although I am a longtime hobby grognard, I also have some links to professional wargaming in the Department of Defense. In the lead-up to CONNECTIONS 2018 this year I decided to study up a bit. In particular, I wanted to focus on the definition of a wargame. What better place to look than at a book written by James Dunnigan, the Wargames Handbook, Third Edition: How to Play and Design Commercial and Professional Wargames (Writers Club Press, 2000).

I was surprised at my reaction after reading this book. A giant of the hobby, who I had set up on a pedestal, does not deserve to be there.

The Wargames Handbook is a real mixed bag and I actually find it hard to categorize. It is part professional design guide, part memoir, part contemporary history, and part…useless. The copy I have in hand is the Third Edition published in 2000. The first edition appeared in 1980 with a second edition in 1993 before it went out of print in 1998.

The Wargames Handbook consists of nine chapters with End Note and Appendix. After reading the book I see the content as broadly divided into three categories:

  • Designing Wargames
  • History of Wargames
  • Computer Wargames

Of these three categories, the one of least interest to me was computer wargames. Dunnigan comes across as more than a bit bitter at the rise of computer gaming, and computer wargames in particular. He goes to great pains using figures and statistics to show the impact of computer wargames. For a tabletop, manual wargaming like myself his “contemporary history” accounts come across more as whines. The worst part has to be the multi-page GENIE replay of a computer wargame. If Dunnigan had a point here, it was lost in a wall of uninteresting computer printout.

The history of wargames parts are interesting but have since been done in much more detail elsewhere. Other histories also show a bit less bias and are more comprehensive than that presented here. It looks like Dunnigan wrote what he knew best, that is, his personal experiences and survey results. Granted, that experience is vast and in the golden age of wargames (1970’s and 80’s) he was right in the middle of the hobby, but he was not the only one.

The professional portion of the book is the designing wargames parts. As one Goodreads reviewer put it, “it’s heavy on what to do, but kind of light on how to do it.”

It would seem like Chapter 1 – What is a Wargame? would be a good place to find a definition of a wargame. Alas, this chapter is mostly devoted to a description of his wargame The Drive on Metz. Actually, the chapter is not just a description of the game, it is game play laid side-by-side with history. The closest Dunnigan gets to defining a wargame is the first three paragraphs. However, he fails to give us any sort of concise definition:

  • “A wargame is an attempt to get a jump on the future by obtaining a better understanding of the past.”
  • “A wargame is a combination of “game,” history and science.”
  • “Basically, it’s glorified chess.”
  • “If you’ve never encountered a wargame before, it’s easiest to just think of it as chess with a more complicated playing board and amore complex way of moving your pieces and taking your opponents.”
  • “A wargame usually combines a map, playing pieces representing historical personages or military units and s set of rules telling you what you can or cannot do  with them.”
  • “To be a wargame, in our sense of the word, the game must be realistic.”

Chapter 2 – How to Play is the heart of the wargame design advice. That is, if one wants to design a classic hex-&-counter wargame. Also contained in this chapter (indeed, the bulk of the chapter) is a listing of The Technical Terms Used in Wargaming. Alas, “wargame” or a variant does not appear in this listing!

Chapter 3 – Why Play the Games (and how to get the most out of it) is mostly a survey of historical periods and opportunities for wargaming. To me, the most interesting sections were the last two. In Fantasy & Science Fiction Games, Dunnigan points out that,

Unlike historical games, fantasy and science fiction have fewer restraints on what they can get away with. The designers as was as the users are eager to try anything. I find many innovative ideas concerning game mechanics can be found first presented in fantasy and science fiction games. These ideas can then be applied to historical subjects (p. 142)

As a longtime naval grognard, I found the last section, Special Problems of Air and Naval Games, to be more than mildly interesting. I was a bit surprised that Dunnigan sounds like he gave up on designing air and naval games because, as he puts it, they “can be most interesting and illuminating when conducted on the individual…level” (p. 145). Dunnigan capitulates designing aerial and naval games to exclusively the realm of computers. I think the truth is a bit deeper here, and maybe hits a little to close for Mr. Dunnigans ego.

IMG_0309Within my game collection I have five James Dunnigan-designed games. The one aerial game, Foxbat & Phantom (SPI, 1973) is not highly rated. Setting Jutland aside the other naval game I have, Sixth Fleet (SPI, 1975) plays like a land combat game at sea; i.e. totally unrealistic. Given the many wonderful air and naval games across the years, I have to wonder if Mr. Dunnigan was too fixated on hex-&-counter that he was unable to find the design spark to make a great air or naval game.

Chapter 4 – Designing Manual Games is more design advice, though again through the lens of The Drive on Metz game. In this chapter Dunnigan presents the complete rules of the game – as though reading a set of rules is enough to teach you how to write one of your own! I wonder how many game designers would agree with the opening sentence where Dunnigan states, “Game design is very much like writing a book, term paper or any other work of nonfiction. In many respects it’s actually easier” (p. 146).

I’m going to skip comment on chapters five thru seven (covering computer wargames and the history of wargames) and chapter nine (Wargames at War) because I already commented in general above. I do want to look closer at Chapter 8 – Who Plays the Games because I am disappointed at the blatant biases Dunnigan shows here.

In Chapter 8 – Who Plays the Games, Dunnigan starts out with a pithy comment, “Wargaming is the hobby of the over educated” (p. 300). He goes on to use market research and surveys from his time at SPI and Strategy & Tactics to study the wargamer demographic. Not surprisingly, he finds that the demographic is older (and getting older) and overwhelmingly male. He whines at how RPGs stole wargamers away and in doing so raises his nose in elitism over young gamers:

When role playing games (RPGs) became available, the social networking of students worked against wargames. The kids who played wargames were generally the brightest, if not always at the head of their class. RPGs are easier to get into and much larger numbers of students were able to participate. Many of the wargames became gamesters, the one participant in in an RPG who has to keep track of a lot of things simultaneously. Wargamers have a lot of skill and experience at that. Moreover, the average age of getting into wargames was twelve or thirteen years old. Wargames are, intellectually, an adult exercise and younger kids can’t really hack it. (p. 301)

Dunnigan goes on to discuss complexity in wargames, and in doing so doubles-down on the elitist gamer image:

“Wargames have always been arcane, but now publisher are putting out “simple” games that are only regarded as such by the more experienced players. If a game that is simple in absolute terms is published, the experienced gamers who comprise the majority of the buyers, turn their nose up at it” (p. 303).

This elitist attitude was first apparent in the Introduction where Dunnigan discusses “mushware.” As he writes:

Mushware is my term (borrowed from a programmer who worked for me years ago) for what people do with complex procedures in their brain, without the benefit of a computer. Mushware was also the reason why the market for manual was never that large. Only a small portion of the population come equipped to handle mushware. The ones who were exposed to manual wargames became, whether they wanted to or not, wargame designers. The mushware gamers couldn’t avoid understanding how the games worked, and in excruciating detail….We’ll never get back to the 70s, but with wargames established as a permanent part of the commercial gaming landscape, we can expect an unending stream of new and innovative ideas. Especially from those equipped with mushware. (p. xix-xxi)

My feeling after reading this book, and especially chapter eight and the discussion of mushware, is not inspiration but sadness. I am a bit sad that one of the giants of the hobby is not the great inspiration I had always envisioned. Instead, I now see Jim Dunnigan as a wargame designer that possessed a narrow ability to design historical land warfare wargames using classic hex-&-counter mechanics. I also see him as viewing himself as a member of an exclusive group – a group that is unwilling to share a hobby with RPG and computer wargames and collectible card games. Interestingly, I don’t recall reading anything about Magic: The Gathering in this book – amazing given how MTG was responsible for RPG and boardgame near-extinction in the 1990s. 

Fortunately, Dunnigan’s elitist attitude runs counter to the predominate mood of the boardgame hobby today. Indeed, in the very year the third edition of the Wargames Handbook was published, a “simple” wargame entered the hobby. Battle Cry (Avalon Hill, 2000) is regarded as the first of the Command and Colors System that in many ways revolutionized the wargame hobby with a “simple” wargame that broke many of the hex-&-counter design rules that SPI (and Dunnigan) clung to. I don’t find it surprising that the RockyMountainNavy game collection includes four Command and Colors games; nearly as many games as Jim Dunnigan designs owned.

This past weekend, the RockyMountainNavy Boys and I visited The Games Tavern in Chantilly, Virginia. We went in to look at tank models because the youngest RMN Boy likes to build armor. The weekend gaming was in full swing:

We were approached by many people who offered game and model advice and comment. We were invited to look at demos and displays and personal collections. My youngest was the center of attention because, I can tell, the hobby wants to bring young blood in, not keep it out. The incredible number of games – even wargames –  being published these days from designers that maybe had no wargame background proves that using mushware to design games is as useful as believing that midichlorians are part of the Force.

I recognize the Wargames Handbook is a snapshot in time as seen by the author. I am very glad that we have come far as a hobby in the intervening years.

Featured image courtesy goodreads.com