WARGAME WEDNESDAY: Elements of Wargaming: History

Wednesday , 22, November 2017 7 Comments

I recently enjoyed listening to a talk by Scott Berkun, where he talked about how the use and revitalization of historically proven concepts are the building blocks of “new” ideas, and that got me thinking about Wargames and their generally poor reflection of tactics while on the tabletop.

In so many historical scenes that are played out in Wargames, unit-level tactics were generally the deciding factor because technology and command-level tactics–often force organization too–were extremely similar. Sure, you have your instances of trickery and clever command-level flash that won battles, like Napoleon’s ploy of taking the drummers from his troops to move around behind the enemy to cause a panicked presentation of their rear to his troops’ assault, or Hannibal planning his front line’s collapse at the battle of Cannae; these highlights are amazing because of their standout against the norm. Even computer games like the Total War series try to model unit-level tactics but it is a difficulty to manage just as on the tabletop where positioning your minis or tokens so as to make them less vulnerable to templates occupies long, pedantic minutes.

The difficulty many Wargames face on this level comes from the attempt to hybridize the player’s management between the macro of command-level decisions and the micro of unit-level decisions, simultaneously being drawn to consider the decision-making of the army commander, the nation’s high command, and the leadership of squads. In an excellent and enlightening discussion with a reader of this column, Neal Durando, who has some novel ideas and reinventions of classical Wargame design, the idea that narrowing the scope of the player to one of these perspectives came up in various ways.

Ultimately, the issue is informational: Without the fog of war being modeled, a good bit of the actual value of a Wargame is lost. If a player is making all the decisions at every level of the army with perfect information, a computer will beat a person every time just as has now happened with Go—yet in true war, we are a long way from pure calculation winning the day. Wargaming is not meant to be a pure intellectual exercise like solving an equation, but a hybrid activity of mind and intuition. That’s why every system I have ever seen uses a form of randomization to summarize the vagaries, usually dice.

Obviously, nobody would want to serve in an army where the high command micromanaged every action—especially actions like where you got to stand on a battlefield. I like the summary in General Colin Powell’s Principles of Leadership, Lesson 16: “The commander in the field is always right and the rear echelon is wrong, unless proved otherwise.” But I’m sure there are plenty of folks reading right now who bristle at the idea of adding more randomness to a game that’s supposed to be fiercely competitive: Everyone playing Wargames, I imagine, rolls their eyes at being asked if they like playing Risk.

I would posit that there is good and bad randomness, but that is far weaker an argument than this: There has been no account of war where the information or the calculations of or given to the commander has been perfect. Having the element of the unknown, the intuitive grasp of the situation, the decisive gamble, the breath-catching dice roll, is a critical element to the decision-making and the allure of Wargaming because of the realism of such a historically-salient and aware community.

What are some historical techniques that are impossible in extant Wargames from that era? What command and unit decisions are removed from the equation that you might enjoy seeing implemented in the next generation? Do you think more historicity in a Wargame is better, or more abstraction?

– Paul A.

  • Janus says:

    At times I wonder if some styles of wargame would benefit from having a GM of sorts, or perhaps a referee would be a more accurate term in this case.

    In such a situation, you could feasibly remove the models entirely from the table and represent the fog of war by marking down their locations and movements on a chess-like grid – the true location, movement and identification of each unit would thus be only known to the player owning them and the GM/referee (to prevent cheating of course) until such a time as they are discovered by opposing units. This would also leave the door open to players feeding their opponents disinformation and setting traps.

    It’s an idea I’ve toyed around with a bit but I haven’t fully thought it out as of yet.

    In a way, it’s kind of like reverse engineering what video games do onto the tabletop.

    • Jon Mollison says:

      The solution to perfect knowledge that I’m most keen on trying is the concept of matchbox space. Basically, every space on the map is represented by a box, and chits can be moved freely just as on a traditional hex map. The kicker here is that the player can simply leave a box untouched following initial set-up, and the opposing player won’t know how many chits are in the box until he commits his own forces. Adding in a number of dummy counters can add an additional level of fog-of-war as well. You might see your opponent move ten chits from one box to another, but you won’t know if those are ten armies or two armies and two dummies until you move your own units into that box.

      It’s an elegant solution that negates the need for a GM.

    • Terry Sanders says:

      Some other posts on this blog go into the old Prussian war games, which did have a GM–an old warhorse telling the young bucks what had actually happened. Apparently D&D owes something to 19th century combat simulators.

  • Loyd Jenkins says:

    The old wargame Panzerblitz had some variant rules titled Blind Panzerblitz. Two boards, one for each player, a referee that made the moves on the board, and rules for how much you could see based on range.

    It made for much more fun acne an incredibly intense experience.

  • Loyd Jenkins says:

    A acne? Grrr game.

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