Archive for Wargames

Living Rules

Remember the scene in The Matrix where they’re slotting cartridges into Neo’s head and he sits up and says “I know Kung Fu”? That’s every wargamer’s dream, except they’d want to sit up and say “I know ASL.” You get a new game, you pull off the shrinkwrapping, you unfold the map and fondle the components, but then there are the rules, oh man, the rules. Wargamers spend a lot of time with rules. Rule books often run 32 or 48 pages; anything 16 pages or less is considered “short.” Not surprisingly, wargamers have a different relationship to rules than most gamers. Reading rules it not “fun,” not exactly, but it’s part of the hobby and not without intrinsic interest and even art.

Games often have learning scenarios or programmed instruction sequences so players can gradually absorb a complex rules set, playing the game and layering on a new rules section every time. Some gamers set up a game and learn by pushing the pieces around, others like to give the rules a complete read through first. (There’s an ethnographic gold mine here for anyone interested in procedural learning.) Many games borrow and re-use similar concepts, and part of the interest of the hobby is viewing the rules as a window onto how designers are thinking about their subject and where they’re choosing to innovate. Yet many rule sets are ambiguous, poorly written, or otherwise open to interpretation and variants. Given their scope and complexity, wargame rules almost invariably have errata. In the old days, you would get the errata by sending a SASE to the publisher or maybe through one of the hobby’s house organs or zines if you had a subscription or were lucky enough to catch the right issue. Nowadays, of course, errata is available over the internet, and this distribution platform has changed the way rules are developed. Game companies have evolved the practice of “living rules,” where the ability to use the Web to electronically distribute rules means that a rules set is not necessarily fixed and inviolate once a game is published. Some gamers consider this a mixed blessing, partly because the rules can change under your feet, but also because the availability of living rules can sometimes become a crutch for shoddy playtesting.

Living rules turns out to be any interesting bit of phrasing, given the conventional wisdom that game rules are absolute and inviolate. Certainly this holds true for traditional games like Chess or Scrabble, but even contemporary Euro games tend to have very stable rules sets. One notable exception concerns the scoring of farmers in the popular tile laying game Carcassone, but even there you have variants rather than a living, evolving rules set. Wargames, by contrast, offer a game genre where rules sets are often malleable, based on player feedback, the deisnger’s changing intentions, new historical research, or all of these. Rules are therefore social texts, at least sometimes determined by the experience of a player community. (I would hasten to distinguish this from games played as part of folk traditions, where rules and variants are passed down orally.)

In the comments below, E Holmes says:

games are not static objects but are living, evolving structures that begin and end with human experience and involvement

With this I agree absolutely, but I have to depart from him on the next point:

Games are a human experience and reflect human experience; they do not operate on formal laws existing in any external ‘reality’.

In fact I think what’s unique about games is precisely that they operate on formal laws that arbitrarily impinge on our own reality. This of course is the well known concept of the “magic circle,” after Huizinga. Wargming underscores the extent to which the magic circle is a social construct, the product of a particular community of experts and enthusiasts. But to deny the formal ontology of games seems to me to deny the possibility of game play itself as anything other the unstructured make-believe play of a child. Or Calvinball. Agreeing that games (and their rules) are living, evolving artifacts seems to me to restore a useful social and material dimension to game studies, but it does not follow that we have to deny the formal ontology of game play.

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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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ASL A.2 Errors: “All results stand once play has progressed past the point of commission.”

Jesper Juul, in Half-Real (MIT 2005) writes about rules: “Game rules are designed to be easy to learn, to work without requiring any ingenuity from the players, but they also provide challenges that require ingenuity to overcome” (55). He continues:

Rules are designed to be above discussion in the sense that a specific rule should be sufficiently clear so that players can agree about how to use it. Rules describe what players can and cannot do, and what should happen in response to player actions. Rules should be implementable without any ingenuity. (55-6)

According to Juul, “Easy to learn but difficult to master” is the paradox at the heart of good game rules. But games with procedurally complex rules are not necessarily flawed or bad games. Advanced Squad Leader (ASL), originally published by the Avalon Hill Game Company, is undoubtedly the most procedurally complex wargame ever designed, and quite likely by extension the most procedurally complex boardgame ever designed. It is not easy to learn, nor master. The game (more properly, game system, you acquire it as a series of modules) focuses on Word War II small unit combat, with counters representing infantry squads and individual leaders, vehicles, and heavy weapons. Here is not the place to go into detail about ASL itself, which in theory allows a player to recreate any small unit action from any theater or phase of the war (see the Wikipedia entry linked above). What I want to focus on is the role of player error in the play of the game. Given the size, scope, and complexity of ASL’s rules—its procedures and their interactions—human error in the application of the rules is inevitable. This situation is anticipated in the rules manual itself (some 200 pages long), with the second rules case of the game stating the following:

A.2 ERRORS: All results stand once play has progressed past the point of commission. In other words, if an error is discovered after play has passed that point, the game cannot be backed up to correct the error, even if such an error is in violation of a rule. For example, assume an attack is resolved without application of a proper DRM [dice roll modifier], and a subsequent attack is resolved, or another unit moved, or play proceeds to another phase before a player remembers he was entitled to a DRM in the previous attack, thus changing the result. His failure to apply that DRM at the time of commission has cost him his right to claim that DRM. Or perhaps a player moves a unit before remembering that he wanted other units to attempt rally in the RPh or fire or entrench in the PFPh. Once the phase for execution of a particular action has passed, the player has lost any claim to that capability.

Thus the game builds the provision for error into its own formal system, so that error is accommodated within the formal structure of game play. The issue with ASL is not that the rules are badly written—the rules manual (pictured below) is for the most part a model of technical clarity—but that the number of rules, and their interactions and permutations is so vast that it is unreasonable to think human players, even experts, will always implement all of them correctly. (Early examples of play published in Avalon Hill’s own house magazine, The General, contained flagrant errors.) On the one hand then, a game of ASL’s formal scope and complexity represents a kind of limit case for Juul’s discussion of rules. (The number of interactions is so complex that ASL players has evolved an axion, COWTRA, “concentrate on what the rules allow.”) Yet ASL also provokes other kinds of questions, including what kind of pleasure one gains from playing such a procedure-heavy game.

The ASL Rulebook

An ASL game scenario is a kind of world building. In Juul’s terms, it is both incomplete and (occasionally) incoherent. The game system is capable not only of accommodating movement and firing, but a vast array of other actions. A building struck by an artillery shell may “rubble,” in turn collapsing other buildings around it. Underbrush may be set on fire. Squads may generate heroes, who can become wounded, but nonetheless survive to scrounge an abandoned machine gun which might then malfunction only to be repaired and then lost when the wounded hero is captured (he may then escape). A tank can throw a tread as it crashes through a wall, rotating its turret to fire at a target glimpsed for a moment through a narrow village street. These extraordinary permutations of rules interactions generate what players routinely refer to as “narrative.” (ASL is often described by its fans as representing not real world small unit combat, but World War II as it was refought in Hollywood film.)

Here is some of what ASL has to teach us about complex game rules:

  • Games with procedurally complex rules, rules that are not easy to master, can succeed as games;
  • Mastery of complex rules builds identity and community: interpretation of ambiguous rules, identification of errata, creating house rules and variants, and helping other players learn the rules are all activities routinely undertaken by ASL players (there is are multiple active player communities online);
  • In ASL, the proper application and execution of rules functions as a surrogate for real world military tactics; the designers explicitly tell players that how well they know the rules and can take advantage of them is a reflection of how well they are leading their men (“In essence, the player’s knowledge of the system and methodical applications of its benefits as opportunities present themselves become an added skill factor better representing the abilities of an experienced battlefield commander” [A57]).
  • Thus, mastery of a complex rules system is rewarded, not only through more successful game play, but as a explicit surrogate to the game’s fiction;
  • Complex rules are conducive to that elusive quality gamers call “narrative”; the perception or experience of narrative often seems to arise from unlikely outcomes or combinations and permutations of rules interactions (such as those described above);
  • Finally, rules can safely accommodate and contain the conditions for their own suspension.

I will be writing more about ASL in future posts, including its capacity for “narrative” and possible worlds theory.

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Why Wargames?

Why should the contemporary academic ludologist, especially one interested in video games, bother with board wargames? I would argue for at least the following reasons:

  • Several thousand titles have been published. Collectively these represent a distinct commercial and design genre for the board game hobby, one which enjoyed considerable popularity and market penetration. For example, Avalon Hill’s Squad Leader (1977), earnestly glossed as “the game of infantry combat in World War II,” sold 200,000 copies. In obvious ways, such games are essential context for the current crop of military- and conflict-themed computer games, as well as ongoing debates about violence, militarism, and gaming ethics.
  • The sheer size, scale, and scope of many wargames places the genre at the formal, physical, and ergonomic limits of board gaming. These extremes can serve to test or challenge certain assumptions about game theory, usually tested by way of simpler rules systems.
  • Board wargames function as paper computers. The abstraction of combat, movement, supply, and other basic military considerations into a numerically expressed spectrum of outcomes, randomized by die rolls within the parameters of a situation, makes the genre a rich source for anyone interested in the formal and procedural representation of dynamic, often ambiguous, literally contested experience. Because wargames are embodied in cardboard and charts rather than algorithms and code, they are by their nature “open source.” That is, the quantitative model underpinning the game system is materially exposed for inspection and analysis.
  • Finally, while most often understood in terms related to either gaming or simulation, board wargames can also function as powerful narrative agents. Players routinely discuss a game’s capacity for “narrative,” meaning whether the discrete die rolls and events allow them to suspend disbelief and create a believable storyworld that accords with their sense of historical plausibility. “Game fiction,” as the term has been defined by Jason Rhody, is therefore a salient feature of board wargames (a “genre of game that draws upon and uses narrative strategies to create, maintain, and lead the user through a fictional environment”).

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Anatomy of a Wargame

Some readers will not be familiar with the genre of board wargaming. Below is a large-scale example of the type, a game entitled Europa, actually a composite of a series of games originally published in the 1980s, laid out for play at Origins 2006. It depicts all of WWII in Europe, the Mid-East, and the Soviet Union. Each hex represents 16 miles, each game turn represents two weeks, and units (the individual counter tokens) are typically divisions.

Europa, a

Photo credit: Michael Dye. Used with permission.

Things to notice:

  • Wargames have to manifest some degree of historical specificity to be differentiated from popular but generic conflict games like Stratego or Risk. The popular Axis and Allies franchise (Hasbro) or more recently Memoir ’44 (Days of Wonder) represent about the minimum history acceptable in this regard. Unlike many Euro games, where the nominal historical subject is nothing but a thematic skin for the underlying game engine, board wargames try to capture some salient aspect of the events they depict, be it a particular strategic dilemma, operational opportunity or challenge, or battlefield dynamic.
  • The game map depicts a large portion of Asia and continental Europe. A hexagonal grid is superimposed over the map, to regulate the placement and movement of the pieces. The predominant terrain type in each hex is graphically indicated.
  • The playing pieces, many hundreds of them, represent either individual military units or “markers” which serve to indicate the state and condition of individual units—for example, a unit which is disorganized by combat might be covered by a marker to indicate its status.
  • Wargames come in different scales, generally referred to as strategic, operational, or tactical. A strategic game such as Europa offers the big picture of an entire conflict or theater. Turns typically represent weeks, months, or even years (one recent release covers the entire 30-year Peloponnesian War with seasonal turns.) An operational level game depicts a specific set of operations or campaign, such as the D-Day landings in Normandy. Turns typically cover days or possibly half-days. Tactical level games focus on an individual battle, such as Waterloo or Gettysburg. Turns may depict a half or hour of the actual fighting. Some games are even smaller in focus, recreating individual skirmishes and firefights—the struggle for some anonymous hilltop in the Ardennes, for example. Advanced Squad Leader is the epitome of the form.
  • Dice are typically used to resolve combat and other ambiguities of the battlefield. Six-sided and ten-sided dice are the most common. Most wargames offer a balance between chance and skill. (See Bowen Simmons’s essay in the sidebar.)
  • Also visible are various charts and tables related to the play of the game. A Combat Results Table, or CRT, is a standard feature of most wargames. Here is a simple CRT, where the various outcomes—such as Attacker Retreats, Defenders Retreats, Exchange, Attacker Eliminated, or Defender Eliminated—are a function of the odds. A die is then rolled, with luck allowing for unlikely outcomes (an attack of 3:1 odds failing, for example). Odds or the die roll can be modified by terrain and other factors.
  • A Classic Combat Results Table, or

  • Most wargames are played in turns, each turn consisting of various phases or steps which must be executed in sequence. The simplest turn structures are known as “igo-ugo,” meaning the players alternate actives roles (like in Chess–first one goes, then the other goes), but there are many more subtle or “interactive” ways of structuring the turn sequence. For example, the defender’s units may be given opportunities to move or engage as a reaction in the midst of an attacking player’s turn.
  • Unlike Chess or many other boardgames, a player is usually free to move as many pieces as he or she likes during their player turn (though other kinds of constraints, such as whether a unit is in command or not, may prevent this). So while a Chess player agonizes over which piece to select, a wargame player is often moving dozens of units at a time. This makes playing a wargame “feel” very different from many other boardgames, which focus on selection of a single optimal move.
  • A game will have “victory conditions,” which each player is attempting to fulfill. The most common kinds of victory conditions are based on achieving geographical objectives or inflicting casualties on the enemy. Some wargames, which portray an inherently unbalanced situation (the German invasion of France in 1940, for example) measure victory by whether or not a player outperforms their historical counterpart, even if they “lose” in terms of the actual situation.

A final point. Hovering over the maps, the players occupy an implicit position in relation to the game world. They enjoy a kind of omniscience that would be the envy of any historical commander, their perspectives perhaps only beginning to be equaled by today’s real-time intelligence with the aid of GPS, battlefield LANs, and 21st century command and control systems. The player’s relationship to the game is (to me) one of the most interesting aspects of board wargames, and I intend to explore it at length here in Zone of Influence. For now, suffice to say that “fog of war,” chaos, and friction are de facto qualities of any military situation, and they have been expressed, with varying degrees of verisimilitude, in existing game mechanisms.

Napoleon at Waterloo, a classic game originally published by SPI in 1979 (and the source of the CRT above), is available in its entirety for inspection and download here.

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A Zone of Influence (ZOI) is a lesser-used cousin of a common hex and counter board wargaming mechanic known as a Zone of Control. Typically a unit in another’s ZOI has its movement hindered or impaired, whereas the stronger ZOC might prohibit movement altogether, and/or mandate combat. This is a classic ZOI or ZOC diagram:
Zone of Influence

This blog is a zone or space where I think I might be able to exert some influence on game studies. Hopefully people will slow down and take time to read and engage in conversation, if not combat. The blog is also a space where I can combine my interest in boardgames (especially board wargames) as a hobbyist and enthusiast with my academic interests in games, simulation, and technologies of representation.

I intend to try my best to find some interesting and original things to say about board wargames, which were a commercial game publishing genre of considerable popularity and market share throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, and which continue to mark the material and ergonomic extremes of board games as physical and formal systems. (Board wargames are notorious for the length and complexity of their rulebooks, with 32 pages or more not uncommon; a typical game will have dozens or hundreds of unit counters [tokens] in play at once, maps covering a playing area of up to a dozen square feet, and can take multiple gaming sessions, each of many hours, to finish to completion.) Board wargames are also of interest to me as cardboard computers; they are instruments for modeling, prediction, and prognostication, but by their nature they are open source with the algorithms laid bare in numerically expressed outcomes on charts and tables. The only “black box” is the designer’s intentions. Frequently a collector will have multiple games on the same subject, the idea being to examine how well each models the relevant history. (As Greg Costikyan has pointed out, the term “game designer” was first used in conjunction with board wargames.)

Abstract games with martial themes date to antiquity, so in the same way that Jesper Juul asks why play games with computers rather than devices like microwave ovens, one might also ask why play games about war as opposed to games about cooking. I’d much rather be in a kitchen than in a battle, but warfare and gameplay have a long, deep, intertwined history with one another, much as the world’s militaries have a deep and intertwined history with computers and computing.

While I think ludology can learn things by paying attention to board wargames, I also want to look at the games on their own terms—critically—for their mechanisms and material affordances, in ways it’s sometimes hard to do on the various fan sites that I frequent. But I hope some friends from those sites will find their way here, and that there can be some productive dialogue between hobbyists and academics. Finally, board wargames will by no means be the only subject I take up here; Zone of Influence will also be a platform for discussing many other aspects of game studies and new media.

A quick word about politics: given that wargames deal with military history and military themes, one might assume they are played by milititary fetishists and hawkish militarists, a particularly noxious constituency given the current world situation. My own politics are liberal/progressive, as are those of a number of people I’ve encountered in the hobby. The two largest constituencies in board wargames seem to be active duty or retired military personnel, and computer/IT workers. The attraction of the hobby to the former group is obvious but the latter is not surprising either, for reasons I will explore. There is also a sizeable contingent of educators in the hobby (Jim Dunnigan, patriarch of the venerable SPI, has pronounced wargaming the hobby for the over-educated, and Avalon Hill often traded on this image in their ad copy). Anyway, please, no assumptions about my personal politics, or that I harbor any illusions about the reality of warfare, emphatically not a game for far too many in this world.

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