Archive for Representation

On Debord’s Kriegsspiel and Board Wargames

From watercoolergames, Wolves Evolve, and VirtualPolitik comes the astonishing news that the estate of Guy Debord has issued a cease and desist to Alex Galloway for his Radical Software Group’s recent implementation of Debord’s Game of War (Kriegsspiel).

As woeful and bizarre as I find that news, the ensuing discussion in the blogs and comments has manifested some terminological confusion over the use of the word Kriegsspiel (the title Galloway employs for Debord’s Le Jeu de la Guerre, A Game of War).

Kriegsspiel, of course, is German for (literally) “war game.” In 1824, the Prussian staff officer Georg von Reisswitz formally introduced the game (versions of which had been kicking around in his family for years) to his fellow officers. (“This is not a game! This is training for war!” one general is said to have exclaimed.) It was quickly adopted, and became the foundation for the German use of wargaming which persisted through World War II (these are the “sand table exercises” of which Friedrich Kittler writes in his cryptic preface to Grammaphone, Film, Typewriter). Some, however, have interpreted the tradition of the German Kriegsspiel and Debord’s apparent use of the same title as evidence that Debord’s game is itself a derivative work, and that Galloway’s implementation of it is simply another instance of the game’s progression since the early 19th century.

Unfortunately, this is factually incorrect. The von Reisswitz Kriegsspiel was played by laying metal bars across maps to mark troop dispositions. By the middle of the 19th century, it had evolved two major variants, so-called “rigid” and “free” Kriegsspiel. The latter attempted to replace the elaborate rules and calculations of the game with a human umpire who makes decisions about combat, intelligence, and other aspects of the battlefield. Kriegsspiel is thus the title of a loose family of military map exercise games, which emerged and evolved throughout the 19th century. (The authoritative account of the origins and development of Kriegsspiel as I have been recounting them here is to be found in Peter Perla’s excellent The Art of Wargaming [Naval Institute Press, 1990].)

Debord’s game bears only the vaguest generic resemblance to the tradition of Prussian Kriegsspiel. The Kriegsspiel was played on actual military topographical maps, often of terrain that was anticipated as the scene of future conflict (for example, the Schlieffen plan was subject to extensive rehearsal as a Kriegsspiel, using contemporary maps of the Ardennes). Debord’s game, by contrast, is played on a gridded board that depicts two abstract nations or territories, more or less symmetrical in terms of geographic features.

metzsegment.jpg eclectics5_lrg.jpg

Above is a small section of the so-called “Meckel map,” the 1:7500 map set that became canonical for play of early Kriegsspiel, alongside of the 2007 Atlas Press print edition of Debord’s game.

Debord’s game actually bears a much closer resemblance to the tradition of commercial board wargaming I write about here on ZOI. I have no idea (or way of knowing) whether Debord was familiar with these games himself, but there are family resemblances worth pointing out. In 1958, Charles S. Roberts founded the Avalon Hill Game Company to publish his military game products, the first of which was called Tactics II. It is a generic conflict game between two abstract combatants, red and blue. Alongside of games on specific historical battles and campaigns (like Gettysburg, which came out the same year) Roberts and others in the emerging hobby published occasional abstract conflict games which sought to model the essence of warfare. Here, for example, is portion of the board for Tactics II, which shows a “mountain pass” (also a key terrain feature in Debord’s game):


There are some important differences, however, between Roberts’ designs and Debord’s. Roberts introduced the use of the Combat Results Table, basically a Monte Carlo table with a distributed set of outcomes based on odds ratios of the combatants. To resolve an engagement, players tote up the odds of the forces involved, add modifiers or column shifts for terrain and the like, then roll a die and consult the table to determine the outcome. In Debord’s game, by contrast, combat is deterministic. One calculates the total number of offensive and defensive points that can be brought to bear on a contested grid square, and based on those numbers the defending unit either retreats, is eliminated, or holds its ground. Nothing is left to chance.

Debord’s game also no doubt owes something to the tradition of chess variants that were popular throughout the 20th century, including the “Kriegsspiel” variant that John von Neumann famously enjoyed, in which play proceeds in a double blind manner (neither player is aware of the location and position of his opponent’s forces). Or else consider a 1933 Soviet military variant by A.S. Yurgelevich: “The game is played on a board of 128 squares, obtained by adding to all four sides of a regular eight by eight board a strip of two by eight (or eight by two) squares. Players have each twenty-four pieces: a headquarter, a bomber, a tank, two guns, two cavalry, two machine-guns, and fifteen soldiers.”


(Thanks to Peter Bogdasarian for this reference.)

A final note. Alex Galloway, in his writing about Debord’s Game of War, makes much of the “rhizomatic” nature of the all-important lines of communication that govern each side’s ability to move and fight their pieces:

[A] sympathetic reading of Debord would be to say that the lines of communication in the game are Debord’s antidote to the specter of the nostalgic algorithm. They are the symptomatic key into Debord’s own algorithmic figuration of the new information society growing up all around him. In short, Kriegspiel is something like “Chess with networks.”

Perhaps. But it’s worth noting, that while absent from games like Chess and Go, such lines of communication had been a standard feature of commercial board wargames in Roberts’ tradition since at least the 1968 (fateful year) publication of James Dunnigan’s 1914, a strategic level game on the First World War. As typically expressed, the mechanic requires units to be “in supply” or else suffer grievous consequences. Being in supply means being able to trace a line of contiguous hexes, free from enemy units or their “zones of control” to a friendly map edge or supply depot. In practice, this sometimes required excessively “gamey” tactics, as players would trace elaborate looping lines of supply, skirting enemy units to eventually corkscrew around back to their own rear areas. Debord’s lines of communication are much less forgiving, their hard geometries undeniably evoking something of the grid or the matrix that feels very contemporary (Gibson’s “lines of light” in the non-space of cyberspace).

It would be fascinating to know what, if any, contact Debord has with board wargames from companies like Avalon Hill and SPI. We know, says Galloway, that he played political strategy games like Djambi. Board wargames enjoyed similar public popularity during the time when Debord was developing his Game of War, and it is not inconceivable that he would have encountered them.

Others can comment with more authority than I on the ultimate legal merit or lack thereof of the cease and desist. I can say that Debord’s game, while not much in the tradition of classic Prussian Kriegsspiel, does bear some resemblance to other commercial wargame designs then popular in the marketplace. All games, it seems to me, emerge from a thick tissue of tradition and ideas, and it would be a shame indeed if Debord’s work was denied this revival of interest over tired matters of originality and “infringement.”

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Napoleon’s Triumph on Pre-Order

Napoleon’s Triumph, Bowen Simmons’ follow-up to his unique Bonaparte at Marengo, is now available for pre-order. As previously discussed on ZOI, Simmons’ designs are distinguished by their graphical fidelity to “the look,” the distinctive visual aesthetic characteristic of battle maps and military cartography.

Napoleon's Triumph (photograph by Bowen Simmons)
Photograph by Bowen Simmons. 

The Austerlitz game (pictured above), which is about twice the size with twice as many pieces as its predecessor, promises to remain faithful to the core elements of the previous design, while also introducing hidden units, leaders (note the battle flags above), and corps-level formations.

Bonaparte at Marengo has come into criticism in some quarters for typically bearing scant resemblance to the actual battle, either at the tactical or the operational level. In the case of Austerlitz, the game will need to convey some sense of the shambles that was the Austrian/Russian command hierarchy, without straitjacketing the Allied player (the tension between the desire to preserve some evidence of historical fidelity without making the game run on rails is ubiquitous in wargame design). The game will also need to account for the literal fog of war that covered the battlefield at the beginning of the day and screened the initial troop movements on both sides, dispositions that sealed the fate of the respective armies.

Napoleon’s Triumph is due to ship on August 15; I am looking forward to playing it.

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Remediation: Playing Games in Second Life

Second Life has become a venue for board games. Part of a genre of so-called “*ingo” games (sort of souped up Bingo, fast playing and very addictive), the latest, Zingo, is typical of the lot: “you comprehend it instantly, can play it reasonably well right away, and soon discover layers of strategy.” Game play involves transactions of Linden dollars, and thus becomes part of Second Life’s economy, to such an extent that according to one write-up the games have “dramatically changed the landscape.”

Of interest to me here is the recursion and overt remediation: Zingo is apparently derived (ripped) from the 1994 board game Take It Easy!.

[Thanks to Mike Siggins on Perfidious Albion for this.]

Zingo in Second Life      Take It Easy

Zingo in Second Life and Take It Easy! in real life.

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ASL Boards on Google 3D

Someone’s been using Google 3D to do some cool basic renderings of the ASL geomorphic map boards.

ASL Board 3 Made with Google 3D

Update 2/25: Here’s another.

Another Google 3-D ASL rendering

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But There Could Have Been: Possible Worlds Theory and ASL

So the rubble was still settling in the aftermath of some hard-fought actions in the streets of Stalingrad when my adolescent self, lo these many years ago, turned to the fine print at the back of the original Squad Leader rules booklet and read the following in the Designer’s Notes: “Any knowledgeable wargamer will see at a glance that the terrain of SQUAD LEADER has been abstracted to better capture the ‘feel’ of infantry combat. . . . The Dzerhezinsky Tractor Works alone was an immense complex that could not be accurately portrayed by 8 of our city mapboards! Indeed the Germans didn’t succeed in breaking into the Tractor Works until . . . 200! German tanks had assaulted the outer defenses.” Though I had been playing hex and counter wargames for several years and probably instinctively understood that realism was a problematic word applied to dice and cardboard and CRTs, this was the first time I had seen the concept of “abstraction” so unabashedly articulated. Suddenly my team of crack assault engineers storming into the Tractor Works under cover of smoke and HMG fire didn’t seem like such an achievement—the “factory” was only a piddling little cluster of hexes. I played SL and the rest of the series happily for many years afterwards, but that discrepancy always nagged at me. Maybe, I thought, I could get 8 or 10 more city boards and 200 tank counters and make it right?

Of course Red Barricades, the first module in the historical ASL (HASL) series proceeded to do exactly that not too many years later. Historical ASL—even the name is telling—exposes some interesting tensions in the game system. Most ASL scenarios are played on generic or so-called geomorphic map boards, whose layouts depict a “typical” village, forest, piece of a city, etc. Despite the fact that the historical basis of the geomorphic scenarios was usually carefully established, the geomorphic map boards themselves—literally the foundation of play—were always a conspicuous abstraction. HASL was, in effect, the game system’s clearest acknowledgement of this phenomenon, substituting depictions of actual terrain (the Red Barricades maps were derived from aerial reconnaissance photographs taken by the Luftwaffle).

ASL Geomorphic Board, Urban Terrain The Red Barricades Map Stalingrad, Luftwaffle Reconaissance Photograph

Urban terrain depicted with an ASL geomorphic board (left), Red Barricades (center), and actual aerial photograph of Stalingrad during the fighting.

One of the more brutal and bitter fights that occurred during the combat in Stalingrad in late 1942 concerned a Soviet stronghold that had come to be known as “the commissar’s house.” The ASL system features two scenarios that recreate this particular action, one using the geomorphic boards and one played on the Red Barricades map. Both are ultimately abstractions—the “historical” map includes stone walls whose 60-degree angles follow the outlines of the hex-grid, for example. But some interesting observations can still follow. In particular, I’m interested in whether wargame scenario design can be fruitfully mated with an area of analytical philosophy known as possible worlds theory. Possible worlds theory has in turn spawned applications in domains like narratology. Surely it is relevant to the design of interactive simulations, electronic or otherwise. In particular, I’m interested in thinking about possible worlds theory in relation to immersion or suspension of disbelief. When we play a geomorphic ASL scenario called “Counterstroke at Stonne,” we know that board 3 isn’t meant to be the small French village of Stonne, not exactly . . . but it could have been, and at a certain point we’re willing to suspend disbelief. Using a desert board, by contrast, would certainly be enough to break the illusion as would a major geographical feature like a river. But what about the chateau that’s depicted on one of the geomorphic boards used in the scenario, which, the story goes, is there because the designer read about a “chateau d’ eau”—a water tower. Whoops. A glitch, but one that has no real impact on the integrity of the scenario—after all, there could have been a chateau just outside the rural French village of Stonne, right? Had the false chateau appeared in a treatment of the battle based on actually terrain (like Red Barricades did for Stalingrad) it would have been regarded as a far more serious matter. But given that all such maps are still ultimately abstractions, how then can we account for the difference? Can possible worlds theory help here?

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“The Look”

Like John Keegan, I have never been in a battle.[1] All of the warfare I have “seen” has come to me through the audio/visual channels of global media. Not owning a time machine I’ve certainly never seen any battles of the Napoleonic era, one of my favorite periods to game—I’ve “seen” only representations and abstractions of them. Representations and abstractions in history books, novels, paintings and other illustrations, re-enactments, movies, and of course, games. I am also willing to venture that I am not unique in this regard. So when someone says such and such a game (or painting or paragraph) captures the essence of Napoleonic warfare, what they must really mean is that it comports well with other, already familiar and established representations and abstractions of the actual events.

Take maps. The maps in a book such as Esposito and Elting’s West Point A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars are masterpieces of abstraction. This is not to imply that they are faulty or prima facie misleading, only that they work through artificial yet collectively agreed upon conventions for capturing the chaos of lived experience through a set of formalized, explanatory depictions (see Mark Monmonier’s classic How to Lie with Maps). Games are likewise abstractions. Not two-dimensional like maps, but three- and four-dimensional, the fourth dimension being time. Visually wargames borrow many of their conventions from battle maps and military cartography. Yet in many wargame systems, once the first die is thrown and the temporal dimension is set in motion—once the abstraction has become interactive—any resemblance to a military battle map tends to degrade rather quickly. The battle doesn’t end up looking very Napoleonic, which is to say it doesn’t end up looking much like other representations of Napoleonic warfare.

From Esposito and Elting, Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars

Battle map from Esposito and Elting.

All of this is game designer Bowen Simmons’ explicit point of departure in Bonaparte at Marengo (BaM), the first in what will apparently be a series of games combining mechanics from blocks, area movement, traditional wargames, and even chess. Simmons sets out in search of what he terms “the Look”: the distinctive appearance and visual flavor of linear warfare promulgated by 19th century battle maps, especially in their use of blue and red rectangles to track troop positions. “The Look” survives today in popular military history books like those published by Osprey.

The physical position occupied by a game player, looking down at the units spread out on a map on a table, affords a kind of omniscience that would be the envy of any historical commander. This is particularly acute in games that depict small unit engagements, where a player directing his platoons has a battlefield perspective no squad leader squatting in a foxhole could ever hope to attain. But the effect is dissipated somewhat at higher scales, where the affordances governing a player’s literal experience can largely mirror that of his historical counterpart. Nicholas Palmer, in The Best of Board Wargaming (Hippocrene 1980) suggests that a wargame becomes more realistic the further it is abstracted from the actual events of the battlefield:

Remover yourself even further, to general or C-and-C status, and the environment of your room becomes more and more suitable: a strategic [2] game gives you a map, knowledge of your forces and their capabilities relative to the enemy, instructions on overall objectives, and peace and quiet to analyse the situation—just as the strategic planner has in real life, at least by comparison with the front line leaders. (43)

Part of the significance of Simmons’s work in BaM was thus to realize that his game was not depicting the battle of Marengo, but that it was depicting depictions of the battle of Marengo, namely the maps and symbolic conventions military cartographers used to create a visual record of the events. His game does not recreate the reality of the lived experience of the battlefield (impossible, by definition), but the stylized experience of its representations:

Bonaparte at Marengo (Simmons Games)

A game of BaM in progress.

The game’s visual conventions are thus a clever bit of bait and switch that replaces the traditional design conundrum of the player’s Olympian perspective with a graphic experience that most players will find familiar and appealing from the historical literature they have already spent many pleasurable hours poring over. That this is done self-consciously, with reference to a tradition that dates back to the original Kriegspiel (the 19th century Prussian staff officer wargame, played by laying wooden bars across a map), only makes the outcome more satisfying. This is seen in other games too, such as Lee-Brimmicombe Wood’s The Burning Blue (GMT Games), about the Battle of Britain, which attempts to model the experience of RAF air controllers at their plotting tables:

Mockup of Battle of Britain-era RAF Plotting Table

The Burning Blue (GMT Games)

Mock-up of an RAF air controller’s table, and game in progress of The Burning Blue; note the time clock on the wall in the room, sectors keyed to squadron sortie rates, replicated in the upper left-hand corner of the game map.

“The Look,” as articulated by Simmons is interesting to me in the context of game studies partly because of the way it addresses itself to the player’s experience of the game as an artifact in the world. The game space is a “magic circle,” yes, but it manifests an explicitly articulated relationship to the stylized representational spaces occupied by the player’s historical counterparts. Games are situated within material histories as well as formal conventions.

[1] The reference is to the opening line of John Keegan’s classic of military history The Face of Battle (1976).

[2] “Strategic” here is used in the specific sense of a high-level wargame; see the definitions in Anatomy of a Wargame.

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