On Board Wargames

This is a poorly organized free association about the purpose of playing wargames, or more specifically, historical conflict simulations. I wrote it after repeatedly witnessing—and at least one time being the victim of—attacks by wargamers on other wargamers who were trying to objectively discuss the merits of simulating uncomfortable historical events in conflict simulations. Despite being poorly written, out of date, and not really knowing what I was thinking way back in 2004, there are one or two points of value that merit keeping this page around until I write a proper essay. If anything on this page is of interest to you, then you will probably be interested in reading Philip Sabin's book, Simulating War, which discusses the motivation of those who use simulation gaming as a vehicle for studying conflict as well as the design techniques that go into producing games that serve as useful simulations.

Hex grid Board wargames are notorious for their complexity, embodied in lengthy rules. Not only does the sheer number of rules make many wargames difficult to learn, but also the unclear writing style used by many publishers exacerbates the situation. Even a simple game like Paths of Glory was riddled with ambiguities, oversights, and structural problems after three revisions.

In the golden age of wargaming, companies released material too quickly to craft well-edited rules. Today, most publishers are part-time businesses run by people who love the hobby enough to keep it alive, but work day jobs to pay the bills. They just don't have the time to produce close to flawless rules[1]. Furthermore, as has always been the case, playtesters tend to be grognards who are less likely to notice rule wording and organization problems that would trip up new players.

This is where players pitch in to make it easier for other players to overcome the shortfalls of game releases. Over time, the Web page hierarchy under this section will house corrections, clarifications, and enhancements to rules of assorted games.

Why do people play board wargames?

Wargamers[2] are often misunderstood by non-wargamers (and even by fellow wargamers), because most people regard games as somehow different from books and movies, even though games, books, and movies can all be sources of education, entertainment, and emotion. Wargamers are not warmongers. Wargames come in many flavors. Ancient games like Chess and Go are, at heart, war games—emphasizing maneuver, control of territory, and capture or destruction of the enemy. Some wargames—like Star Fleet Battles, which takes place in a variant Star Trek universe—have no basis in reality.

Playing games is a form of competition. Competition is a form of conflict. Therefore, it is natural that war is a theme for many games, including ostensibly abstract games like Chess and Go. Many wargames, however, are just as much historical studies and simulations as they are games. People play wargames for the competition, for the social interaction, to learn about history, to supplement through simulation what they read in books, and even because they like looking at the pretty maps.[3]

Wargames not only give you insight into history and strategy, but also they teach you about resource management, logistics, risk assessment, and situation analysis. Until so-called Eurogames or German games became popular in the mid-90's, wargames were the principal games that provided these added dimensions. The lessons learned through game play apply to real life, as Major League Baseball pitcher Curt Schilling—President of Multi-Man Publishing and avid ASL player—has attested. Ultimately, people play wargames for education and entertainment, but that does not mean they think war is fun.

[1] To be fair, publishers such as GMT, MMP, and L2 Design Group produce quality products. Nonetheless, rules presentation and editing remains their weakest element. To compensate, GMT and MMP's The Gamers make available for download living rules sets for many of their games so that you can benefit immediately from ongoing improvements. Still, publishers sometimes do not keep living rules up to date with the latest edition of a game, fail to incorporate errata into living rules (opting to provide a separate errata file), and do not publish counter errata that is fixed in their house organ magazine(s). The workflow associated with releasing what amount to bug fixes in wargames falls short of open source software.

[2] For the purpose of this discussion, I do not consider first-person shooter console games to be wargames.

[3] My primary interest in wargaming is as a tool for understanding historical conflicts, supplementing reading. Therefore, I tend to be more interested in the simulation model than in the game as a game. It's an important distinction because many people are offended by the thought you may play the Germans in a simulation of the invasion of Normandy, yet would not think twice about your reading of a book or watching of a movie on the subject. Their thinking is that playing a game demeans the suffering endured by the people affected by the real event. If the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan isn't in poor taste, why would a tactical simulation of the landing on Omaha Beach be in poor taste, considering that each provides you with a different level of understanding of what transpired on June 6, 1944? It's fine, and even healthy, to feel so uncomfortable simulating certain conflicts that you refuse to do so on account of the strong emotions they trigger. It is, however, unfair to condemn people only because they choose to simulate a conflict, read or write a book about a conflict, or watch or make a movie about a conflict. And just because someone is willing to play a wargame, read a book, or watch a movie, does not mean that person does not experience strong emotions from doing so.

Still, many people—even some wargamers—do not see conflict simulation as a form of study. I believe that is the root of the recurring debates about the ethics of wargaming. Computational simulations of hurricanes that kill hundreds of people and computational simulations of deadly car crashes are no different from simulations of conflicts. They all help you understand the simulated phenomenon and explore how different outcomes may result under varying conditions so that you may cope with the real situation more effectively. If you view them purely as a form of entertainment, then the simulation of events that lead to many deaths will seem tasteless.

Also, the temporal proximity of an event affects the perceptions of many critics. TV producers can incorporate current conflicts into their shows without an uproar from their viewers. Yet, if a wargame publisher produces a simulation of a current event, they are condemned by many wargamers as being insensitive. If we were more willing to study current events through simulation (more so the events leading to conflicts, geopolitical interactions, and similar strategic factors rather than tactical combat), we would be better equipped to identify effective and ineffective decision-making by our elected officials. Speculations based on gut feeling are no substitute for informed opinions derived from comprehensive study. Simulation is an aid to study, but not a substitute. The results of a simulation—given that they can deviate significantly from reality—are often less important than understanding the processes modeled by the simulation. If you can discern why a simulation produces aberrant results, then you gain a deeper understanding of the simulated matter even if the simulation is useless as a predictive tool. In general, conflict simulations are poor predictive tools, even when their constituent models are accurate. That is because you cannot predict the human decisions and reactions that drive the real processes. As a result, they make good contingency planning tools (e.g., under a particular set of circumstances a particular result is likely to arise that we should prepare to handle). This characteristic is also true of weather simulation. For example, it is never 100% certain that a snow storm will materialize as predicted, but local municipalities still prepare for the contingency and have snow removal equipment ready to go. A hurricane may not follow a predicted path or hit land with the strength predicted, but evacuations will still be planned.