War, What is it Good For? Learning from Wargaming
“To a wargamer,” writes Greg Costikyan in the just published collection Tabletop: Analog Game Design, “wargames are not abstract, time-wasting pastimes, like other games, but representative of the real. . . . You can learn something from wargames; indeed, in some ways you can learn more from wargames than from reading history” (180). I take the theatrical curl of the lip at “abstract, time-wasting pastimes” to be spoken in character, but that aside, what can we learn from wargames? Which is to say, what can wargames teach, or do, that other game design traditions—including serious games, independent games, and art games—cannot? Is brute simulationism—some sort of interactive history textbook, presumably—really the answer?
My investment in this question goes deep, since as an academic and a good left/progressive at that I often find myself wondering about—and occasionally asked to outright explain—my passion for these martial pastimes. A wargamer, especially one who follows military history and current military affairs, looks suspiciously like a closet warmonger, complete with Mission Accomplished banners furled in back behind the winter coats. (It goes the other way too: announcing “I’m an English professor” isn’t exactly a conversation-starter when the person sitting next to you is dressed in ACUPAT fatigues.) I’ve written about some of the appeal and interest of these games before on Play the Past, but the other week I had an opportunity to see how wargaming is presented amid the formal trappings of Powerpoints and plenaries. Connections is an annual conference designed to fit the niche at the intersection of professional and recreational wargaming, with active duty military personnel, hobbyists, academics, designers, industry representatives, and policy wonks all rubbing shoulders. I’d never been to one of its meetings before, but as an academic I’m no stranger to conferences—I have literally hundreds of keepsake badges adorning my office. So, on a sticky August morning I hied me down to the Washington, DC campus of National Defense University at Fort McNair, just across the river from National Airport. There I found lots of people talking about what wargames can and can’t do, but very few talking about “representing the real.”
But more about that in a moment. Wargaming, as I suggested or at least implied above, is a distinct game design tradition. Indeed, the Connections conference advertised itself as being held on the 200th anniversary of the “invention” of wargaming. What can this mean, with games like Chess and Go dating back to antiquity? In the early 1800s, the Prussian staff officer Georg von Reisswitz formally introduced his Kriegsspiel, a game played by laying metal bars across maps to mark troop dispositions (derived from a set his father had made up) to his fellow officers. “This is not a game! This is training for war!” one general is said to have exclaimed. (The authoritative account of the origins and development of Kriegsspiel is to be found in Peter Perla’s excellent The Art of Wargaming.)
The game used dice to resolve random events like combat within a spectrum of probabilistic outcomes, and featured formal rules and procedures. It was quickly adopted and became the foundation for the German use of wargaming (Kriegsspiel) which persisted through World War II (these are the very “sand table exercises” of which Friedrich Kittler gnomically writes in his preface to Grammaphone, Film, Typewriter). By the end of the 19th century, the game had evolved two major variants, so-called “rigid” and “free” Kriegsspiel. The latter attempted to replace the elaborate rules and calculations of the von Reisswitz game with a human umpire who made decisions about combat, intelligence, and other aspects of the battlefield.
This design fork between rigid and free Kriegsspiel was to find itself echoed in the 20th century’s evolution of tabletop RPGs from historical miniatures wargaming, as chronicled by fellow Play the Past contributor Rob MacDougall. Likewise, the same basic schism governs wargame design today. While the hobbyist fascination with recreating Gettysburg and Waterloo with rules and charts and hexes and counters persists in the best tradition of rigid Kriegsspiel, professional wargames are often, by contrast, collaborative and team-based, with a premium on verbal interaction and problem solving. They are umpired. Players do not have complete information about the scenario, and scenarios can be abruptly modified by “injects,” developments introduced in mid-play by the game master. Most of the action seems to involve sitting around a table and talking (sometimes colloquially referred to as BOGSAT, “Bunch of Guys [and Girls] Sitting Around a Table” by those in the know). Such games, which are staged not only by the Pentagon but also by corporate consulting firms like Booz Allen Hamilton, can be about response to a global pandemic or an interruption in the supply chain for a manufacturing process as well as military operations and contingencies. Wargaming, increasingly, is a term as likely to be encountered in a business leadership seminar as inside a Beltway think tank.
And indeed, at Connections, the emphasis was consistently placed on expanding wargame design methodology to new subject spaces and domains. NDU President Vice Admiral Ann E. Rondau who opened the conference asked, “What happens when Yemen runs out of water? How do you game that?” Indeed, over and over again, wargaming was presented as a tool not for learning or simulating history, but for teaching critical decision-making; on this there was near complete consensus.
The combination of mathematical descriptions of events (specifically the strain of quantitative modeling known as operations research) coupled with a heavy emphasis on the behavioralist tradition in political and social science was the chief epistemological axis in play at Connections, while games topics under discussion ranged from terrorism and counter-insurgency to the global energy crisis. Neither Jane McGonigal’s World Without Oil nor Mary Flanagan’s POX would have been greatly out of place there. The gathering at NDU stands in marked contrast to Costikyan’s insistence on hawkish simulationism as the hallmark of wargame design versus other game design traditions. The Connections presenters focused not on a given game’s predictive value, but on its potential as a vehicle for its participants, either through role-playing or the arbitrary rule-based constraints of the game world, to critically examine their own assumptions and decision-making processes. The best games, concluded one speaker (Roger Mason, who designs game for law enforcement and emergency responders), were those that could be learned in under ten minutes and played in under two hours, and which sought to engage participants through a combination of competitive play, social interaction, and suspense or uncertainty regarding the eventual outcome.
Nor can we simply ascribe the disconnect between the Connections crowd and Costikyan to a schism between the world of professional game research and the hobbyist community of which the latter was speaking. One internet discussion group which I frequent was recently the site of vociferous debate over how history is modeled in various game designs about the Napoleonic era. The epitome of the simulationist tradition, a venerable game system known as La Bataille which dates back to the 1970s and whose hex-grids have overlain many a grognard’s table, was challenged for its obsession with the minutiae of battlefield phenomena such as formations, the dispositions of individual battalions and gun batteries, and even the accuracy of the uniform depictions which grace its distinctive unit counters. By contrast, the more desirable and historically rewarding games, it was suggested, were those that aspired to a gestalt view, manifested (in the words of Charles Vasey) in a “belief that the individual actions of sub-units (a Brownian motion of battalions) can be swept up into much larger outcomes without the need to determine the individual actions individually.” Most of the more successful Napoleonic game designs of the last twenty years or so hew to the latter model (dubbed “dynamicist” on the forum) as opposed to the La Bataille drill-book formula. This discussion is not unrepresentative of hobbyist trends in general, where an obsession with rivet-counting (as it is sometimes called) is far less fashionable than shorter, quick-playing games which seek to model an overall commander’s decision-making amid the chaos and uncertainty of the battlefield. Richard Borg’s very popular Command and Colors series of designs is emblematic of this trend, as is the emergence of the CDG (Card-Driven Game) school, epitomized by cross-over games like Hannibal and Twilight Struggle.
By any measure, wargaming is in an interesting place right now. On the one hand there is a documentable design tradition that goes back at least decades (to Charles S. Roberts and the founding of Avalon Hill in the early 1950s) or centuries (to von Reisswitz), or, if you like, even further back than that, to the clay figurines discovered in Egyptian tombs. But as wargaming seeks to expand the purview of its design space beyond only martial topics and themes, its relationship to other areas of game design becomes more nebulous. What does a “war” game about the water supply in Yemen or influenza teach us that a newsgame on the same subject might miss? If wargaming is indeed applicable to any contemporary situation that seeks to examine decision-making amid an atmosphere of crisis, uncertainty, and conflict or competition, then it seems important to be able to discriminate its capabilities vis-à-vis other game design movements.
Jim Dunnigan, who founded the legendary SPI in 1969 (where he was also Costikyan’s first boss) gives us some starting points in his own contribution to the new Tabletop anthology, in which he lays out primitives that–while forged amid hex and counter belligerence–are applicable to any game design situation. These include such variables as scale, environment, “intensity,” basic and special aspects to be modeled, and unknowns (“fog of war”); the primitives also include game design objectives, which might be analytical or exploratory or pedagogical; interface and physical systems; basic research; the sequence of play; resolution of conflict (“combat”) and adjudication of victory; and so on. These underlying precepts, which have been honed through hundreds of hobbyist designs, might be used to recapitulate the Battle of Kursk, but they might also be used to teach wilderness navigation, as in Dunnigan’s own Outdoor Survival, or to model the tensions and dynamics behind the 1999 WTO protests, as in Brian Train’s Battle of Seattle.
It’s worth noting that Dunnigan cultivated an extremely strong internal design culture at SPI, with core sets of rules and procedures codified and underlying games on a wide variety of topics at varying levels of complexity. The sheer output of SPI—dozens of games a year at its heyday—makes it an important study in the leveraging of a centralized game design process.
If Dunnigan gives us methodological primitives, Rex Brynen, Professor of Political Science at McGill and proprietor of the excellent PaxSims blog, offers additional essential insight. In his own coverage of Connections, Brynen suggests that “[W]argaming is much more policy- and planning- oriented than most other gaming. It also has much more rigorous traditions of design, validation, adjudication, instrumentation/reporting, and analysis.” This seems fundamentally right to me, and an excellent start. Wargame design, if not “realistic” in a mimetically simple or brute simulationist sense, does have a responsibility to “storyboard” its products, that is map a game’s findings to known or historically plausible outcomes. This storyboarding injects an element of ground truth into the design process that is very different from the obligations of, say, a Eurostyle game, which, regardless of theme (trading, settling, railroading, etc.) is not meshing its mechanics with any external measures of validation, at least not beyond those of the marketplace.
Likewise, as Brynen notes, wargames have also developed precedents and formats for the dissemination of game sessions and their outcomes, in the form of after action reports and debriefings. These might assume greater or lesser degrees of formality in their presentation, but conflict and resolution is, as any narratologist will tell you, the essence of story-telling, and so just as the competition and contest inherent in warfare lends itself to game situations, so too does war (and games about war) make for compelling narrative experience. (So, storyboarding and storytelling: maybe that’s why I keep getting drawn back into my bellicose little cardboard worlds. I am, after all, an English professor, and that makes me something like a professional connoisseur of stories, wherever we may find them.)
Finally, let’s remember that wargaming was the first real laboratory for independent games in the commercial marketplace. Charles S. Roberts at Avalon Hill had no desire to compete with Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley. Today outfits like GMT and Victory Point Games are able to survive, even thrive, on thin market margins because they produce and print games either on subscription or on demand. This means that designers can work on marginal topics without any immediate economic peril.
Likewise, Philip Sabin, who uses wargames in his military history courses as King’s College, London is able to turn each student into his or her own independent game designer, partly as a result of the dissemination of the design tradition to which I refer above (from which students can borrow and steal ideas) and partly because of the DIY access to basic tools and physical systems, be they cardboard and glue or computer platforms such as VASSAL and Cyberboard.
So what can we learn from wargames? Where Costikyan sees realism and historical fidelity and validity in simulation, I see a contemporary player and design community (both hobbyist and professional) that values attention to process in the procedural or quantitative representation of complex, often literally contested phenomena. Where Costikyan sees a focus on outcomes, I see a focus on the in-game experience, and the after the fact analysis and discussion of what happened and why.
Perhaps most importantly I see a game design tradition with a remarkable amount of open source material (collected in magazines, some books (like SPI’s 1983 Wargame Design), and today on the internet) that engages with its own practice and craft, one which is the scene of often sharp disagreements and ongoing critical self-reflection. Designer’s notes are commonplace in wargame rulebooks, rare in computer game manuals and Eurostyle rulebooks. The impulse that’s at work here seems fundamentally pedagogical to me, and perhaps that’s also why I respond to it so deeply.
Wargaming must do a better job of outreach to neighboring design communities, and to vetting and evaluating its own contributions. There is, at present, no peer-reviewed journal to serve the professional wargame design community; the closest is a SAGE publication, Simulation and Gaming. Connections, as a well-established conference (its been meeting for almost twenty years now) would do well to make deeper inroads into both the serious games movement and academic ludology—there was precious little awareness in the discussions I heard of the outpouring of game scholarship in the last fifteen years or so. Blogs like Play the Past and PaxSims should recognize their kindred interests and audiences. Most of all, though, we need to engage wargaming as a living tradition of game design, one has responded to changes in the games industry and the world around it, one that is no longer simply about hexes and zones of control, and one that has preserved a space for critical, independent game design addressing a broad spectrum of contemporary issues and topics. War, it turns out, is good for lots of things—just so long as no one is actually fighting one.