One striking similarity I have observed across wargames is that they are organized around dice and a puzzle-esque amalgam of differing pieces, units, or types or applications of the same. Despite the Occam’s Razor of presumption that they evolved from a common ancestor or copied one another in a large part, I am of the opinion that this is more a reflection on the effort to simplify a common goal, that is to say to reflect the realities of war, than it is a mere blind man’s aping of what has been successful in the past. These two functions, rolling and role-ing if you will, serve very nicely to accent the realities of combat and army organization as well as the vagaries of soldiers’ experiences in the field and all the small things which affect the execution of a commander’s plan by the troops.
Most wargames use dice to assist the strategic and tactical aspects of the design. Those who play wargames habitually are savvy, knowing numbers both set (units’ stats and strengths, bonuses here and there for asymmetric situations) and in motion (statistics, dice, likelihoods). Rulers, grids, different weapons of war and gear, terrain, unit statistics, all of these are static numbers in a wargame, tools to be manipulated and planned for and against. Dice are the age-old and familiar way of adding chance, unanticipated luck for commanders to deal with as their forces perform the actions they are given. Some wargames, I’ll use chess as an example, are arranged without fortune’s hand muddling the mix, so that there are no numbers in motion to consider or account for. The design is perfectly symmetric as well, with exact duplication of the forces between white and black. The use of dice can be used to make a balanced system that is more nuanced, such as modeling the difference between elite and seasoned and green troops by adding modifiers to the die roll; same equipment, but experience leads to tremendous differences in performance. Dice are not used in these games to reflect ‘randomness’ but rather the range of, or likelihood of, an action’s success. Even a veteran tank crew does not always put its first round exactly right where it wants it, nor does each member of a unit of swordsmen succeed in killing a their opposite number at the first blow struck, not even the most hardened troops attacking a line of peasant rebels. Another way to view this is that there are additional factors that might be occurring: Was your charge accompanied by a nigh-inexplicable failure of the dice? Perhaps like Napoleon at Waterloo, a small terrain element unknown to you hindered your troops. Did the conscript manage to slay the spartan in single combat? Perhaps the dice modeled an arrogance on the part of the elite warrior. Placing the dice-concept in terms of real-world affect can help the overall system design be understood. In most wargames, there is at least a token attempt at modeling that the soldiers are not machines, but fallible and possessed of differing amounts of courage and skill, and like soldiers in truth they are capable of tremendous valor or comic failure at different times and in different measure.
Just as dice are a common way designers respect the nature of a wargame, many systems include either historical or historically-analogous roles for the armies to organize around. This serves several functions: retaining the real-world link that sets wargames apart from other tabletops, giving inexperienced and new players a leg up and direction during the complex pre-game planning time, and a way of balancing the sides for more engaging gameplay and tournament opportunities. It should be mentioned that your average wargamer has more than a passing interest in the setting or theme of their games, be it high fantasy, middle-ages, futuristic or set in the clarity of World War II or Napoleonic era. One remark by an enthusiast I spoke to recently lumped praise on both system and his opponent for the great success of utilizing tactics that mirrored those used in the historical era of the game. In the real world, no unit is considered in a vacuum: No General commands individual soldiers or tanks, but companies, squads, and the like; an airplane or tank is not typically roving around on its own, but in a group of its peers be they others like it or complimentary support. Games tend to model this in two ways at once: Point values for a unit or squad, with options for extra features including additional members, such as a tank squad costing a base number of points with the option to include up to two additional tanks for so many points, in addition to whatever modifications or extra equipment or veterancy which might be purchased for these points. Putting a points value on everything allows armies with different equipment to assemble roughly equivalent forces, while using an organizational chart to limit the options allows for a character to appear for an army and assists in assembling strategies.
Let’s look at a historical example: In the World War II-based wargame Flames of War, valid lists for facing off must come from the same period of the conflict (early, mid, or late war) and match in points value but that is not all; a player must assemble their company from a historically-based organizational chart. A Panzerkompanie might have a supporting few units of infantry and a few pieces of artillery, but it will be mostly tanks for the points value of the army; an armored rifle company may have an attached tank platoon, but will be mostly infantry and their APCs. The options exist to sculpt these companies with support, but you generally must choose your organizational core and the strategies narrow somewhat. It isn’t just not a valid option to have nothing but air support and artillery to bomb your opponent in a real competition, though you might for fun or to test something, it goes against the general spirit of the wargame.
These games’ apparent pigeonholing and simplicity can hide a great deal of depth for both real world application and streamlining of the play experience and it should be noted that the commander’s perspective taken when one plays a wargame is incomplete; All the fussy particularizing done by gamers and the strictness of systems and the scrounging for a way to improve the odds reveals the spirit of wargames as a serious one, where the same desires for Fortune’s aid and inspiration sought in the great Greek stories of warriors is played out by these detached players. While we’ve talked about the roles of troops, the commander also sits in a role, and an uncomfortable one: The one who is responsible for the results. It is only implied, but it adds a layer of keen desire for that personal reflection to be a good one.