War does not determine who is right but who is left. In many wargames we do not bother about the consequences of success or failure, but it is precisely that vital question and the degree thereof that sponsors the dedication and pleasure of the experience. In wargames we typically balance the experience to begin from an even footing, and often have mirrored objectives and starting positions to further emphasize that the better commander ought win.
Reality is very different. I propose to you that many scenarios and campaigns are designed superficially as far as objectives are concerned. Once more, specific battles such as Waterloo are often better than the more flexible systems, which strikes me as odd. Why is a more flexible and generic system worse at dealing with objectives and context?
A typical system looks like this: Campaign battle 1 is an even footing, vanilla affair, then the winner gets to go on offense, getting favorable footing or an advantage in the next battle. This process continues down the victory/defeat matrix with relatively few options for interesting objective play. Other important factors like ammunition and medical supplies, food, petrol, scouting, and the like are rarely considered—in a campaign setting! How many battles were determined by availability of simple material? What about a nation’s exhaustion from prolonged or brutal war and the lack of manpower? Slaughters were generally accepted in antiquity, and thus annihilation was the expected outcome either in culture or as a whole.
Pyrrhus was an ambitious Greek, and when he decided to aid Tarentum ca. 280 BC he fought a war in which he won battles but lost in the end. He was fighting in Roman territory and could not replenish his specialized and highly-trained forces easily. Ultimately, it was the raiding of his camp at the tail end of the battle of Asculum by Roman-allied tribes that produced his famous declaration: “Another such victory, and we shall be undone.” While on a tabletop, Pyrrhus would have received a minor victory over his foe, in a campaign scenario he was undone, his goal of forcing a Roman surrender or deal was put beyond his grasp. In tactical defeat, the Romans managed to completely remove campaign victory from the table.
Another good example of a victorious campaign that had disastrous consequences was the Soviet victory in World War Two. They were victorious, but lost an estimated 18-31 million people, about a third of all civilian deaths and almost half of all military casualties in the entire war. Their country’s population dropped by about 15 percent, and that is without taking into account the estimated 20 million babies not born due to the disruption of life during the war! These losses made it impossible for the nation to capitalize on its wartime gains, receding vulnerably back into a prickly, defensive mindset of hair-trigger threats that was the Cold War.
There are several wargames which do reflect individual factions’ special conditions in the larger world: the Necron faction in Warhammer 40,000’s tabletop game had (and may still have, they got a new rule book since my last game) a special rule where if their core troops were depleted below a certain point the army withdrew entirely—an instant loss based on campaign goals that dramatically affected how you and your enemies played out the conflict. Trade offs like this, where a side or faction gets both a benefit and a vulnerability or extra concern, are the heart of campaign interests and ultimately, the reason we approach individual battles in the real world. The US forces strategic success of cutting off Axis oil supplies is a great example; a wargame might easily give Axis tanks a slight edge, but also a campaign vulnerability. Generically, you might spend some requisition on a supply depot or command tent to give your forces bonuses, but they must be placed onto the battle map as a target of opportunity for your opponent to take advantage of. We could go even further, with each faction having specific lists of options built in for these trade offs, or even to reflect a faction’s general mentality in a conflict like an aggressor needing to occupy and pacify completely versus a defender needing to not lose as much as possible. One scenario I touch on in this past article.
Are you happy with having to move your troops up to capture a flag or zone, or the carnage of total annihilation as the primary objectives?
Do you think future wargames would benefit from more robust objective design, or is it better to focus on soldiery and their options?
Do you know of any wargames which have a wide selection of scenarios or objectives beyond business as usual that you can recommend?
Comment below, we love to hear your input.