One reason I value wargames is to stay sharp: Wargames require a lot of mental energy and processing power to play competitively. Even casually, there are a large number of variables and connections to make, moves to foresee and plan for, calculation of odds and unlocking possibilities. It’s exciting in the same way as rock climbing: When the game is taken seriously, there’s a sense of danger and aloof caution that enters your awareness. Whether it is a sense of good stewardship that you feel rewarded for marshaling your forces well, or a drive to push to the extreme limit of your capabilities and continually explore the bounds of the possible, or simply the desire to crush your enemies and see them driven before you, the game is full of complex interactions which can be leveraged and opportunities can be found, made, and missed all in equal measure. This is in no small part because the games are inherently designed to utilize, teach, and reward combined arms tactics.
For those of you who are not familiar with the lingo, combined arms refers to a combination of different arms of a military’s arsenal, such as air assets, artillery, armored units, infantry, and the like. Simple combat might be visualized like the classic board game of Risk, with one force smashing into another with no disparate phases or elements to consider, such as an all-infantry attack against an infantry-only position. Supporting arms actions involve using one then following up with another for the knockout, such as using an infantry attack to break up a defensive formation by a feigned retreat, then smashing the pursuers with cavalry after their defensive form has been lost in the chase. Combined arms is using multiple arms in tandem with the goal being that if your opponents reacts to one optimally, they will make themselves vulnerable to the other. Different combined arms tactics have been used for as long as history has recorded great generals, with the recognizable Legions of Rome organized as units of heavy infantry with skirmishers, archers, artillery, and cavalry all attached to the legion. This manner of force organization was lost for a time before being revived with the idea of the ‘corps’ of soldiers in the Napoleonic era, though instances in between can be observed, like the Spanish Tercios of the Hapsburg era. These are only a few examples; different styles of combat can compliment one another and strengthen the tactical situation just as they can hinder and weaken it, and the execution of a proper combined arms or even supporting arms strategy requires experience and a solid grasp of the capabilities of the troops, both yours and your opponents. When you are going through the process of learning and trying to apply this, your mind will be assaulted by doubt and indecision. There are so many angles to choose from, which is right or even good? The novitiate’s paralysis and the strengths and lessons which can be learned from pushing past that to success is enormously beneficial in all seasons of life, a reminder that indecision is also a decision.
Complicated interactions are yet another distinct level of separation between wargames and less serious tabletops. The comprehension of each unit’s capacities and relative relevance in the game—that is, how its numbers stack up against its peers and asymmetric opposition as opposed to the simplicity of two being twice as good as one—as well as how to utilize the capacities to achieve the objective set out in the game, in the face of several different threats and with the different allies you might put beside it, these are where the rubber hits the road and the game starts to benefit the conscious mind. The same eagerness which infected a childhood me long-ago when writing up lists and considering options and assembling an army to combat my friends can easily become a paradigm in which complex interactions can be viewed. An engine with all its parts, but also the fuels and fluids, the heat buildup, its interaction with the frame when put under operational stresses; putting together a team from within a large department of a company to accomplish a plan to sell to a specific client you’ve worked with before. Countless applications of this sort of mindset and thinking can be expanded by the willful, interested mind. Tanks and artillery, magicians and knights, teleporting aliens and titanic battle engines of the future can transpose themselves onto the fabric of your thinking for sorting out problems as you drive towards an objective; wargaming’s delicious depth can become a lens you flip down over your eyes to see things from another point of view.
This manner of understanding can lend an unforeseen depth to the perennially popular and often-quoted book of teachings by Sun Tzu, The Art of War:
It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”
In the time of this teacher, knowledge itself was considered proprietary and his teachings were meant to apply as much to daily life as combat hence the timeless love for his book. Just as the battlefield has for time out of mind been viewed as a way of producing serious and sober men of action and resolve, so too can wargames be used to a lesser degree to temper the spirit to discipline and to a habit of accurate analysis, formation of plans, and also the execution thereof. Additionally we can see the laser focus Sun Tzu brings to mind: Victory is the point. I find it extremely easy to get sidetracked dealing with the details and processing and bog myself down instead of keeping the fundamental objective in view. Wargames remind me greatly of this, where the victor might only need to hold a control point for one turn to take the prize. The focused execution on the objective is another way I am bettered by wargames, a refreshing escape to contemplate what my objectives are in relation to my efforts.
Nowadays, combined arms and the ideas of military corps such as the marine corps are not foreign to hear. Applying them is a different matter, as any wargamer could tell you. The concepts are different from the arts, in the game as in true war. The complex interactions of a tabletop are excellent mental training for the world around you with its plenitude of factors set in a friendly competition that is of small meaning in the grander scheme. What better way to practice?