Wargame Wednesday: Incorporating Tradition in Wargames

Wednesday , 9, January 2019 Leave a comment
I have been following China’s naval ambitions and aggressive sphere-of-influence expansion with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is a return to normalcy as they are a neighborhood powerhouse with which our foreign policy elites are still coming to grips and considers it a strange thing indeed, but on the other, I laugh at the hubris as China’s history is an endless poem of self-defeat then domination by outsiders. A resurgence, only to repeat the cycle again.
Meanwhile, in the USA, we have had a series of nautical incidents which may be a symptom of the abandonment of naval traditions. Performing the tasks required in war and battle, whether the simple act of casting off from a pier or coordinating multiple fleets across hundreds of miles of enemy water, leads to more than theoretical best practices and training-level discoveries as these processes are eventually intertwined with tradition, sometimes in an inexplicable way. What China is doing by the rapid expansion of their fleet without a strong naval tradition is creating a paper dragon to float upon the water. Great Britain, the once-undisputed ruler of the seas on whose empire the sun never set, faced difficulties when it tried to expand the fleet aggressively, its green officers making costly mistakes such as the loss with all hands of four battleships in the Scilly naval disaster of 1707. Now, of course, poor support and disuse has set into the whole of its navy, and its tradition is all but spent. China has no such potent tradition to draw upon, and I shudder to think what will happen if its fleets engage any world power on such tenuous, textbook-only grounds. I am not alone.

Traditions matter, more even than the ships, troops, or equipment. Traditions translate into the wisdom to select and appropriately use the tools our intelligence allows us. We’ve all seen the videos of soldiers giving a chimp an AK-47, then fleeing in terror as it proceeds to bang off rounds willy-nilly. Technology is a force multiplier for tradition and manpower, not a magic wand The chimp would never have killed them, but their own panic (not to mention poor choices) certainly increased their danger.

In Wargaming and game design, I rarely see military traditions considered on the whole, but embedded in unit design. In some cases, this factor is weighed very little. I am certainly open to

Tau Fire Warrior

opinions as this is an observer’s topic, not a fighter’s, but I believe this makes our games worse at teaching the history and factors which led up to the conflicts we study. I will cite Warhammer 40,000’s Tau army as one that seems to reflect a strong tradition, with the “Mont’ka” targeting and disruption via precise commando-style strikes or the “Kauyon” army lists which attempt to trick and funnel their opponents into kill zones of massed fire. I believe this is because of the thinner lore of the Tau, and their introduction as essentially a lore piece in that space-marine-centric system.

Consider this: With the decline in baseball’s popularity and physical sport in general in the States, grenade-throwing competency has been soured. That’s an essential tool in house-to-house clearing and even many SWAT or police actions! Sure, I’d still expect a US trooper to have competency, but perhaps not the dependability a commander might desire. When traditions are neglected, it is the dependability which drops and thus it affects planners the most by introducing variance to common scenarios.
I propose that instead of army books that go on at length defining units, we introduce command-level resources that can be “bought” just like units from a pool. Say we’re looking at American GIs in a WWII-era wargame. In general they have X stats, but with veteran or elite they come with one or two points that go into a Tradition pool. You buy things out of that pool that apply to the whole army: Close Combat attacks for infantry might receive a benefit, or your infantry might be more practiced at digging in and hunkering down, or night fighting, or at engaging at longer ranges. Perhaps they are armed to the teeth, with soldiers carrying personal weapons and dirty tricks while their commanders look the other way or encourage them further. Not only would this speed up the finicky design and balance testing, but it would also increase the ambiguity of optimum play. It is noteworthy to me how much better static wargames which focus on one battle or campaign represent this unity between an army’s roots and its effectiveness as a unit instead of the natural devolution to “hero” style units and specialized commanders that more or less have superpowers on the tabletop! Still, as a lover of the theoretical and the near-infinite customization of Wargame systems, I muse on the formation of a system in which you can make any battle you can think up happen. I think a set of rules for forming your own factions, special units, and campaigns ought to come standard in the “universal” Wargames, but ah, how I digress!
I’d like to leave you to consider these comments concerning the Chinese navy by Steve Green at  Instapundit, a news roundup I enjoy:
“Building the ships and planes is one thing. Training up the crews and aviators, perfecting doctrine, and instilling institutional knowledge and esprit de corps take longer.”
“Naval traditions are expensive to come by — in treasure and blood. But once earned, those traditions can last centuries.”
How strong a factor do you believe military traditions are in a conflict’s prosecution, and how do you see them reflecting in the forces (not units) a side can select or is delegated by the rules? Does your favorite game have a mechanic or system which reflects one side’s tradition well, or poorly? Leave a comment below and talk with us.
Zach Wood

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