#Wargame Wednesday – Geoff Engelstein (@gengelstein) talks counterfactuals & design notes

I am subscribed to Geoff Engelstein’s email newsletter, GameTek, which discusses “The Math and Science of Gaming.” GameTek #8 is “What if…?” and talks about counterfactuals. As wargamers, counterfactuals are arguably the foundation of our hobby. Even Geoff takes note of it:

Exploring “What If” is one of the interesting aspects of simulation games. What if the Germans moved their forces from Calais to Normandy before D-Day? What if Stonewall Jackson had survived to be with the Confederate army at Gettysburg? What if the Warsaw Pact had attacked Western Europe?

GameTek #8

Geoff goes on to talk about designers who try to “tune” their game designs around the historical result:

When creating a model for a historical event, the most important thing, of course, is to make sure that what happened historically is a possible outcome from the game. If it is impossible to recreate the historical result, the game will be criticized (rightfully, in my opinion).

However, how likely does the historical result need to be?

I haven’t done a scientific survey – I’m not sure anyone has – but anecdotally I think almost all designers tune their models so that the most likely outcome is the historical outcome. You can think of the historical results of a game as creating a bell curve. The peak of this curve could coincide with the historical outcome.

GameTek #8

I was very happy to see Geoff acknowledge that the historical result is not always the “norm” but may have been the extreme:

As I mentioned, I’ve been working on a new design, and I’m facing this issue head on. It’s going to be a solitaire-only design, but the more I research and learn about the actual event, the more I am convinced that the historical result was all the way at the tail end of the bell curve. Pretty much everything went right. It’s hard to point to any areas where things could have gone significantly better. Perhaps some of that is due to the nature of the historical record, which only wants to highlight the positive. But even so, I still think that’s the case.

GameTek #8

Geoff is discussing here a very important issue for wargame designers—balancing player expectations against historical facts. When playing a wargame, I often know how the battle historically turned out but I want to see what I could do different. To be honest, if I play a wargame and the historical result is most often the “normal” outcome I am more likely to never to pick up that game again as I start to view it as too “rigid” an interpretation of the history. I start to view the design, no matter how “realistic” or well researched, as simulation instead of game—and I want to play wargames not do another simulation run.

Geoff has a good solution for his game, which many a designer should pay attention to:

I am currently leaning towards making the historical result, in game terms, correspond to a very strong victory – something for players to strive for.

However, I need to make sure that this is clear through the design notes. The details of this event are not that well known, so many players will be learning about it for the first time. If I take this route, the history the players experience in the game most likely will not match up with what occurred. I feel a sense of responsibility to make sure the players are properly able to contextualize their in-game experience, and the history surrounding it.

GameTek #8

Geoff’s approach probably only applies when the players are expected to learn something about history from the game. This, of course, is an area that wargames excel at. All of which reinforces that every wargame needs some sort of design notes. I grew up wargaming in the 1980’s and 90’s and design notes were standard—today less so. Geoff hits the nail on the head; design notes are ESSENTIAL, “to make sure the players are properly able to contextualize their in-game experience, and the history surrounding it.”

I recently wrote an article for the Armchair Dragoons about The Hunt for Red October (TSR, 1988). One of the points I tried to make but didn’t quite deliver on is the notion that without design notes, The Hunt for Red October had no message. That’s not strictly true—I acknowledge in the article that The Hunt for Red October has much to say but, without design notes, I had to fill in the blanks. To crib off Geoff, without design notes I found it difficult to contextualize my in-game experience. Given that The Hunt for Red October was aimed at the mass market, being able to contextualize The Battle of the Atlantic in a hypothetical World War III might be beyond the goals of the design.

But it doesn’t have to be.