Set up a scenario out on the table, and you have a scenario. Replay it a few times and it becomes familiar as you grow to understand that scenario. Tweak it, and you begin to understand the pieces which are present. Take control of the pieces and learn to use them after identifying them… Now you have a dangerous commander. This is my explanation for why Wargames are so often referred to in the plural: Wargaming, Wargames, never Wargame for an actual event.
Wargames are an in-motion education, and even the most veteran Wargamer can continue learning more and more pieces and how to use them. This is one of its appeals as a hobby that will not dull its shine over the years; systems might grow uncomfortable, but the practice will not. Speaking of practice, Wargaming highlights that concept with an orange highlighter and in the margins writes “does not exist, actually.”
Practice is just an excuse for not giving every situation your all when others are not looking at you. Wargaming has at its heart the competitive desire to always treat every scenario and match as a bulldogged-but-sportsmanlike investment; you must want to win. Wargames are not practice, they are drills. I am splitting several hairs here, but the subtlety is critical to grasping the focus of today’s examination.
Drills are running over scenarios you might get into. In basketball, you drill free-throws. If you ‘practice’ them, not taking them seriously, you will miss those free points in games. How many games could have been decided purely by the points missed in free-throws? Too many. Professional basketball frustrates me, because college kids typically shoot a better free-throw percentage with school as an excellent excuse to blow off the simple drills. In Wargaming, every scenario and game is a drill, every squad built or every army list written can be viewed as a drill with the objective to be as effective in a match as possible.
How do I learn to use light cavalry? Write up a list that relies on their swift maneuverability and run it in a drill. How does an urban environment affect mass-infantry armies? Write up a list and run it in a drill. Which of these two units does better at defending my troops against enemy air elements? If you’ve got a partner willing to practice with you, you can even run shorter drills and maximize your time early on when learning a new system. That’s my preferred method of teaching and learning new Wargame systems.
Drilling, or experiential and directed learning—like memorizing math tables—is an excellent way to learn. With Wargaming, we have the ability to exactly duplicate conditions of victory, terrain, and the like, replicating scenarios for learning as cleanly as a free-throw. This is no different than how athletes and sports teams approach their contests, hosting scrimmages and using qualifying meets or records to weed out the good from those still developing.
Even non-realistic Wargames make use of scenarios, whether science fictional like a Star Wars game or fantasy with knights and magicians and chimeras. Sometimes they’re simple preset permutations of ordinary scenarios, sometimes they’re more elaborate and flavorful, like a classic D-Day invasion scenario or a Lord of the Rings battle between the Nazgul and the Fellowship. There can be some appeal to onlookers and showmanship to them, but overall their focus remains the same: Drills. One of my favorites that I ran into a few years ago was an impossible scenario: A recreation of the Spartans’ stand at the Hot Gates. It was a tournament-style competition done in a casual environment, with the objective of scoring the most points before defeat. It’s an interesting scenario, with the idea of making your forces count and selling them as dearly as possible under a constant assault.
Drills are more than entertainment, and a little thought will guide you to seeing how they are used in a great deal of life; sports, math class, and the military are easy examples of its application but it can go much deeper. Some excellent people have termed this sort of reverse engineering ‘gamification’ and it poses both as a new wave of potential improvement to all manner of educational practices as well as a threat in forms like Sesame Credit in China. Still, for those of us who do not have control of large institutions, I commend you to the practice of engaging with Wargaming’s elements to improve your life in unrelated areas.