This post is intended to lay out my criteria for a properly designed wargame.
As first step it's necessary to define what I mean by "wargame". I'll begin with what I do not intend.
By "wargame" I do not mean passive entertainment, competitive interactive entertainment, or a training exercise.
By "wargame" I mean a product that illuminates some aspect of military history.
Practically speaking I'm limiting myself to software and will not discuss manual simulations. This is an arbritary decision that does not reflect on the validity of boardgames, minatures, or other manual exercises.
In fact, I don't mean to denigrate entertainment, passive or competitive, or training exercises. Ideally a good wargame will not be dry, uninteresting, or unplayable. Ideally a wargame will be entertaining. Ideally a good wargame will not be without useful lessons to teach. Ideally a properly designed wargame will make a good training exercise. But, these are not its primary purposes. They are secondary.
The primary goal is to illuminate history.
In the effort to achieve that the primary objective will be to understand the decisions made by the top commanders on each side in a conflict.
So the acid test an historical wargame must pass is that if the players standing in for the top level commanders make the same decisions as the historical commanders do they get the same results.
On one level this criteria seems simple and obvious.
Since it's not my idea I'm not going to go so far. Original ideas that seem obvious in retrospect are often much less so beforehand. I know the criteria was one applied by Stephen Newberg of Simulations Canada back in the day. Not going to delve into a history of wargames and whether they mostly do or do not meet this criteria. One of Jim Dunigan's many writings is likely best for that.
It could be argued that even historical wargames can have goals other than accurately reproducing the effect of command decisions. True, but seriousily any work that purports to reproduce history that fails this test, fails period in my mind.
A key point is that this criteria only requires that a game allows historical decisions with historical results.
This does not preclude a game being "gameable" or allowing (or even being conducive) to completely ahistorical decisions.
So it is just one criteria to be met, necessary but not sufficient.
Even a simple map exercise with no explicit modeling of unit movement or unit conflict and without any modeling of Command and Control issues could be considered to meet it.
Sadly the adding of game systems and details in attempts to produce more accurate simulations is what is most likely to cause a wargame to fail to meet this criteria.
A prime example of this is the practise of adding a random element to combat resolutions. Admittedly very useful in making a game actually interesting, deterring rules lawyers, and creating the uncertainty commanders faced in reality it also tends to cloud reproducablility. Including the the historical reproduciablity of our acid test.
An important implementation criteria follows from this. Wargames that include random elements must preserve the random sequences that are input into outcomes. Most computer games lack this feature, but take my word for it, it is doable if the code is designed up front to allow it.
This is less of a problem with boardgames as players may simply chose the die rolls that most closely correspond to an historical result. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that even boardgames can be designed without requiring rolls of the dice. An existance proof being Simulations Canada's "Lee at the Crossroads".
The Acid Test that a historical wargame should produce historical results given historical inputs is a bare minimum requirement. It's just a reality check.
There are valid objectives for an historical wargame other than reproducing the set of decisions commanders faced. Two come immediately to mind.
The most obvious alternative objective is simply to present the historical facts. In this case the goal is a kind of multi-media interactive history book.
Any of you who've read history have likely struggled to find places mentioned in the text on inconveniently placed, inadequate or plain not present maps. You've likely struggled keeping track of all the units in a campaign or battle and their condition at some given time. Likely the the biographical details of some individual mentioned have temporarily escaped you.
Those of you familiar with traditional board wargames of the type that dominated the 1970s with their hexagon grids, likely bought games that you never actually played but rather spent hours with poring over the map, maybe moving counters and attempting to understand the meaning of the rules. You also probably read history books on the same topics as those games. I don't doubt you found the games illuminating in ways the books weren't.
Software historical wargames have the potential to be used in this way too. For much of the 1990s and 2000s this potential has gone unrealized. I guess this has been for two reasons. One is that programming sophisticated software has become expensive and to meet those expenses games have been aimed mainly at mass audiences not particularily interested in historical accuracy. A second reason is that graphics hardware has not yet quite reached the point where it can display a map that is as good as a printed one. There is some hope for the future on both these fronts.
Where software has more than just future potential is in cross indexing and allowing easy access to information and in presenting that data in multi-media formats. It also allows stricter enforcement and realization of Point of View (POV) but more on that later.
You can imagine a strict decision orientated game implemented much like a text adventure with a series of questions and a menu of answers leading to some minimally specifed but clear outcome. There need be no maps and no comprehensive listing of units. In fact from memory at least one such game has been done on the Battle of Somme in the First World War.
I think most of us can agree we want more from the games we play. At minimum a good historical wargame should have a good map and an units listing (OB) with units down to the size one level below that which a player would expect to give orders to. Some detail as to name, nature, strength and condition is also something we're accustomed to having. Doubtless there are good reasons for these expectations. So theoretical minimums aside I believe any good historical wargame should contain this information. For POV reasons players may not at all times be able to see that map or those units and the details regarding them. (A shout out here to the elegant hiding of unit information in the Columbia Games system.)
Additionally, although it's not particularily to my personal taste, I think it's valid for players to want additional detail. Many people are engaged by a first person sense of being part of history. Not many of us likely enjoy cold rain trickling down our backs, or sun burned faces from an unfiltered bright sun we can not come out of. Many of us feel no need to experience wet muddy feet, maybe blistered feet. Thrist, hunger, the chills or fevers of illness, or the ache of an overworked and underrested body we all can likely get by without. Stealing food from peasants who'll as a result either go hungry or maybe starve, so one can eat oneself is likely a life experience we're willing to skip. Watching friends and comrades die gruesome deaths or just fall by the wayside is unlikely to be fun. Neither are fatigue, stress and prolonged fear likely to be enjoyable. All these experiences if they could be simulated would likely add to the accuracy of an historical simulation. I don't expect much demand for them. I don't feel any desire to inflict them.
On the other hand jaunty or stirring marching tunes can be fun. The call of the bugle invigorating. The sound of marching feet and the squeak and rattle of moving equipment can be evocative. Cannons should boom and blech fire and smoke. Musket fire should rattle. It is human to want to see the faces of both our comrades and our enemies. Skies whether blue or cloudy can be a constant remainder of weather conditions, signalling thirsty heat or cold damp without having to inflict them on a player.
Many players especially those with an interest in minatures will want to see details of equipment and uniforms. As taste dictates they may prefer their uniforms perfect and shiny, or worn and dirty.
Details of buildings, fields, trees, and other objects not strictly germane to the historical military simulation can lend a sense of place.
All of these secondary historical details, "the chrome", will help engage many potential players. Even for those with an analytical bent a little sugar to wash down the medecine of dry calculation can be nice. Chrome if handled right can be a useful part of the historical presentation a game makes. In fact if it contributes to understanding of the world view in which and the psychological state in which decisions were made it can even be argued that it fulfills part of the goal of explaining the decisions historical figures made. Battles are often described by the participants as being loud and confusing, both frightening and exhilerating. Not a state likely to be reproduced by study in the calm of ones home.
In practise I believe it very easy to get the chrome wrong, and even easier to allot it more resouces than more important parts of a game. A sense of "being there" and understanding the stresses a decision maker experienced strike me as both hard to create and likely to result in a sort of pernicious illusion even if the effort in some sense succeeds.
In the final analysis the criteria I believe should be followed is to include as much chrome as is possible, as long as it does not take resources from the core simulation, and as long as it adds does not detract from accuracy. I suspect this criteria will result in much less chrome than many would like.
A second valid objective for an historical wargame is what I'm going to call Historical Interpolation.
Much of history is unknown. Most of the rest is uncertain.
There is a lot of historical narrative out there. Much more than any human can hope to absorb in their lifetime.
This fact tends to obscure the fact that narratives are necessarily focused and necessarily leave out much that is not germane to the story being told.
Physical survivals even when subjected to the painstaking methods of inquiry that make up archaeology are supplementary, but also limited.
There is no magic historical fact machine. No way of going to any time and any place and seeing what was happening.
Models, particularily software models, of which historical computer wargames are a sub-set, but also board wargames, in requiring a consistent level of detail that is complete and quantitative in nature reveal gaps in the historical record far more relentlessly than narratives do.
Narratives are like unburdened youngsters that can nimbly jump from one stepping stone of known historical fact to another one in crossing a stream. Models tend to be more like heavily laden carts that need a bridge without holes in its deck to get across a wide river.
Models promise more but have stricter requirements.
This can be a feature.
The potential benefit is twofold. First as stated above wargames reveal gaps in the historical record far more emphatically than traditional narratives do. But, secondly, they also can be very useful in determining what those gaps might contain.
Wargames are models and as such necessarily have a structure that must be both self-consistent and accurately explain the known facts. In generating hypothetical "facts" to fill the gaps in what is actually known those hypotheticals can be tested against that structure. If a speculative fact is not consistent with your existing model's structure either the proposed fact or the model is wrong. If your model already explains a comprehensive set of known facts it's likely your hypothesis that's in error.
Models tend to be powerful, but neither complete nor perfect. As such they're prone to being abused. The developer of a model necessarily has a better handle on its complexity than a later user. A model's developer should have a better understanding of its limitations and the decisions made in its design than the people they give it to to use. That being the case a model developer has a moral obligation to make those limitations and decisions clear to the model's end users.
This criteria, that the workings of a model and thus its limitations be clear to the end user, the player, is probably one of the hardest for a wargame to meet. It's not made easier by the contradictory goals of strictly limiting POV and simulating the Fog of War that a command orientated wargame will have. More about that later.
Nevertheless, wargames can be a powerful seive of hypothetical facts. They can be an extremely useful tool in speculating about history that we can't directly know.
But if we're going to ask players to use wargames to evaluate historical fact we have to be clear about how those games do that evaluation. The average player may not wish to delve into the details of a games design, but if they wish to follow up on why certain things happen the way they do they should be able to do so.
In addition to the few criteria that immediatately derive from the goals of an historical computer wargame there are many secondary ones.
Some of these are goals intended to make the game more interesting or useful, some are essentially high level implementation details derived from a goal.
Some important, if secondary, criteria are playability, social playability, re-playability for analysis purposes, multiple modes of play, and evaluation code. By evaluation code I mean what are often called victory conditions, that is code that let's players compare their performance to that of their opponent(s) and that of the historical figures they've been pretending to be. Also a game should not be boring. To that end a degree of uncertainty or variation in intermediate outcomes is desirable. Also good pacing is required. The game should not drag, but neither should events outstrip the ability of the players to easily track them. Which brings us to another criteria a good game should meet, it should have differing levels of difficulty so that a player can easily find a match to their current level of skill and knowledge.
Playability is a grab bag term that includes all the things that make a game easy to play.
Wargaming isn't always a solitary activity. Nor should it be.
Ideally, a game will be playable both solitare and against one or more human opponents.
From an implementation difficulty point of view, being playable over networks, local or the internet, is the major criteria to be met. This is not a trivial criteria to meet and not one that can be just tacked on to a game as an afterthought.
It's also desirable that players be able to share their experiences with a game in non-real time. Ideally they should be able to take snapshots, or save games to share with friends. Perhaps some degree of modding where players build custom scenarios that extend those provided in the base game is a feature to be implemented. Not strictly necessary it can help greatly in building community.
If a player is playing a game to better understand history, then they will not be finished with it once defeat, draw, or victory has occurred. They will want to review how those outcomes occurred. This means they will want to be able to walk through the game they've played in a controlled manner, almost certainly with more information available than they had during the first time around. They may wish to go back and re-start the game at some arbritary point. Although easy to state these criteria require rigorous up-front attention to implementation to actually achieve.
Another meaning of replayability is that a game is interesting or fun to play more than once. The best games can be played over and over and still retain their freshness.
The desirablility of multiple levels of detail and challenge has already been mentioned.
A similar, but different requirement, that is qualiative rather than one of degree, arises from a game usually having multiple objectives. It being very difficult for one game design to serve multiple masters in this fashion, one answer is to, in effect, provide multiple game designs in one package. In such an implementation the player will be able to chose one of multiple modes, one say with strictly limited information and very limited control that reproduces the problems the historical commanders faced, and another say with perfect information and perfect control that is ahistorical from a command perspective but very useful in exploring the facts in an after action manner.
Obviousily an effort to meet such a criteria will require significantly more resources in programmer time and effort, and in testing. Further it runs the danger of design incoherence, of being neither fish nor fowl.
Just the same success in meeting the criteria will produce a powerful tool for historical understanding.
Although the software should be, of course, a tool for the player to use as they wish one can imagine them using it in the following fashion. Their first playthrough of the game is quick and rather superficial, they likely just try to reproduce historical events in a loose fashion. This first pass familiarizes the player with both the games mechanics and the game designer's take on the historical topic. Some players may be applying their version of our "Acid Test" and will give up on a game that can't approximate history. Others may be unfamilar with the history and attempting to educate themselves. The second playthrough will be the real game. In this pass the player dials up the challenge and detail levels to the max they think they can handle, and they chose a strictly limited POV in order to recreate the historical challenges as much as possible. It is unlikely they'll be completely sure of what is happening during the balance of the game, even at the game's end although the result of the game might be clear, many of the details won't be and neither will it likely be clear exactly how that result came about. An after action assessment must be done. A third pass through the game reproducing the second game the player played but with perfect information in an easily accessibile form is desirable to facilate that assessment. Ideally the player will view the game they played much as if they were reviewing an interactive movie. They will be able to pause, to reverse action to any desired point, and to fast forward. Unlike a movie they will have the power to chose the framing and viewpoints in the individual scenes. Maybe they will be able to take snapshots of those scenes to share with friends.
In the game designer's ideal world the player and his friends will decide to "rinse and repeat".
Evaluation is determining who won and by how much. It is also comparing a player's accomplishment in the game against the historical outcome.
It comes at the end of play and is often implemented via Victory Conditions that are assigned Victory Points. The Victory Points for each player are totaled and compared. Often if the historical struggle was unbalanced one player will be given a Victory Point handicap in compensation.
Since this seems like a fairly simple process, comes at the end the game, and needs to be tweaked towards the end of a game's development during play testing anyways, the design of this feature of a game is often left to the end of development. Often it seems to become an afterthought.
Veteran gamers will all have had the experience of applying their own criteria for success when they're familiar with the history a game simulates.
Most gamers will have encountered games in which it's not only easy to game the Victory Conditions but almost required. This often takes the form of points for "owning" geographical locations by having a unit present no matter how small that unit is, or how isolated. Some of us will have experienced the fustration of routing our opponent only to procure a mediocre haul of VPs because we didn't scatter units over a variety of locations not actually relevant in the game as it developed.
The basic criteria that evaluation, the victory conditions, give useful feedback to players on how they've done can be hard to meet. Like testing in general it is something that needs to be considered from the beginning of games development even though it only actually occurs towards its end.
One useful "smoke test" of victory conditions falls out of our primary "acid test" criteria. A game should reproduce historical results. Having done so the victory conditions applied should reflect the consensus regarding the struggles historical outcome. This consensus will invariably be clouded by the demands of propaganda and the varied interests of those making the assessment. However that may be the designer should remember that tactical and operational success are not measured simply on their own but within a strategic and political context. In some contexts defeat on the battlefield amounts to strategic victory if the tactical loser only needs to remain in existance until an invader's will to fight is exhausted. Some of you may remember the Vietnam War. Conversely apparent success may not be sufficient to the strategic needs of the apparent winner. Neither the Spanish nor the Russians were initially able to oppose let alone beat Napoleon's Armies. In neither case was Napoleon's apparent success on the battlefield adequate to force political surrender. Political success may not have been possible. Forced to occupy large nations insufficently prosperous to allow looting to pay for that occupation and unable to completely disperse in the face of inferior but still existing enemy forces Napoleon's superior strength and ability were not superior enough. In both these cases, and in many others, a knowledge of the political situation off the battlefield is necessary in setting the victory conditions.
The flip side to this is that an innovative victory condition system can make historical situations that might appear "ungameable" due to extreme unbalance actually interesting.
As well as being important in their own right as an aide to player's in evaluating a games outcome, victory conditions can be a valuable tool in shaping a player's POV. Ideally good victory conditions will reproduce in players the same motivations that drove the historical commanders.
The victory conditions for historical commanders determined to avoid losses, but not eager for either glory or to destroy their enemy, should be different from those for situations in which commanders sought overwhelming success at whatever price. In the first case the VPs a player gets will decline sharply in the face of losses, but they will not get a lot of compensation for either inflicting losses or taking objectives. In the second case the player may not get lose many VPs for their own losses, but they will have to either inflict heavy losses or take ambitious objectives to succeed. It is something that will require case by case innovation, and careful thought, up front thought as the entire game must be conducive to producing good victory conditions.
Just as a game should be as attractive as possible, and have as much "chrome" as possible, without detracting from its main purpose as an historically accurate simulation, so should a game be as dramatic as possible. A game that is not engaging and enjoyable will not be played and will serve no purpose whatsoever.
Two qualities add drama. Tension produced by uncertainty and pacing produced by the correct timing of events.
As Hollywood reminds us every time they make a movie in an historical setting, "based on real events", the demands of creating drama tend to conflict with acheiving historical accuracy.
Tension requires apprehension about an important outcome. Ideally a series of events of increasing tension will build to a climax near the end in which the emotional tension is almost unbearable. Sometimes history is good enough to approxiamate this structure, often it is not.
The issue of the uncertainty required to generate apprehension is a key one.
The most common device to achieve this in board wargames, and in the many computer wargames based on them, is the rolling of dice.
Wandering around the floor of a wargaming convention you can almost conceive of the hobby as being a giant game of craps with a lot of themed bling.
The poster child for the historical wargame that undermines itself through the careless use of randomness is "One Die Throw Eastern Front". This is the wargame in which the details of the German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 are lovingly reproduced, the mechanics carefully devised to reproduce the events of that summer, and the outcome of the game depends entirely on a random roll of the dice that determines when winter arrives and therefore whether the final assault on Moscow succeeds or not.
This example raises some interesting questions.
It can be argued, I don't buy the argument but it can be argued, that however disappointing this dependence of the games result on an event outside of the players control that it is historical. To restate the argument it is that the outcome of Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union did actually depend on upon the weather and the decisions Hitler, Stalin and their generals made, and the struggles of their people and soldiery were just the chips laid down to make that bet.
Granting that argument I still believe any game designer who creates such a game has failed.
To be specific they've failed not only in creating a genuinely playable game, they've failed in correctly identifying the decisions that were important in creating the historical outcome.
If it is a fact that once Hitler launched his forces against the Soviet Union that the outcome of the campaign hung entirely on what the weather was going to be in December than it is the game designer's obligation to backtrack from that point. Backtrack to some point where the participants could have made some decisions that would have changed that fact.
Some would argue that like in the 1980's movie "Wargame" the only way Hitler could have won was to have not played. This is the idea that a cardinal rule of warfare is to never march on Moscow.
To me this seems unlikely, simplistic, and in any case not fruitful for our purposes.
As it happens this is a field that has been plowed before.
Among the contra-factual possiblities that have been suggested are an earlier start to the campaign, better logistics both motorized and with regards to rail use, better preparation for winter conditions, a halting of the first year's offensive on a logistically more sustainable line, fuller mobilization of the German people and economy to better account for the greater extent of the Eastern campaign in both space and duration, diplomatic efforts designed to have Japan tie down the Siberian units that intervened before Moscow, and a concentration on attacking the political and logistical hub of Moscow that avoided diversions to either destroy enemy forces or take economic objectives in the Ukraine.
I'm sure an industrious and imaginative game designer could add to this list.
In any event most of these contra-factual possiblities could be simulated by changes in the starting circumstances and by altering the victory conditions to compensate. Just how much this conflict is viewed from the Nazi point of view in the West is revealed by the list above. It's entirely possible that Stalin and the Red Army could have been better or worse prepared for the campaign and this too could incorporated into a game. Note that is entirely unnecessary for the opposing player to know what the intial starting conditions for their opponent is. It is, in fact, desirable they don't so as to create the uncertainty the historical POVs felt. An uncertainty that fortumately also adds to the drama of the game.
Ideally these contra-factuals will also lead to games in which most of both sides decisions have real consequences and therefore are both informative and dramatic.
Having managed to ensure the events players encounter during a game are interesting the game designer must also ration them out to the players over time in such a fashion that the players are never bored but also never completely overwhelmed. This is pacing.
I wish had good advice on how to achieve this. I don't. All I can advise is that it not be neglected.
As has been implicit above there are necessary trade-offs in game design. A strict maintenance of Point of View might best reproduce the historical experience, but it doesn't help in understanding it or how well the game reproduces it. Neither will strict POV necessarily produce a game that is easy to play or engaging.
I believe the criteria of multiple modes and variable levels of detail and challenge touch can be employed in such a fashion as to make such trade-offs without either compromising the primary goal of a game that accurately reproduces history or the very desirable secondary goal that the game be playable.
Here is a proposal for such a system. It generates some criteria of its own.
First let's consider breaking the continuium between map exercise and a strictly mantained Command Point of View into a manageable set of descrete levels. Here's one such possible set:
As you can see it would be easy to add detail and graduations to the above list. It is a starting point though.
Also it's worth noting that although the above was designed as a list of increasing historical accuracy in practice the goals of one level are rarely acheived before the introduction of elements from later levels. In particular some sort of uncertainty, usually through random "die rolls", is usually introduced before any restriction of intelligence and of orders giving. Granted that this makes practical sense it's still out of order from the point of view of increasing accuracy of Command POV.
Levels one and two above are essentially theoretical as games. We might practise such exercises by ourselves when reading the history of a campaign or as professionals during a staff exercise, but they're not really games.
Level three is what many simplier and earlier manual wargames were like. Limited intelligence comes easily to computer wargames so they're most often at least partly at level four.
Here we're not at all interested in level three, we want some level of Command POV. We want do a better job of it than most current computer wargames. To that end it's worth breaking down exactly what Command Point of View consists of.
Command Point of View can be broken down into four factors:
As ever stricter Command POV increases the difficulties a player faces it makes sense to conflate it with the levels of difficulty a game should have to appropriately challenge players.
One such possible scheme listed from hardest to easiest follows below:
Sadly this still begs many questions. In a modern game (which I don't intend to be doing any of mind) the POV restrictions could change during a game due to game developments such as EW assets and information warfare making themselves felt. In real life commanders wouldn't just ignore the odd order they would interpret them according to their personalities and training. Even restricting ourselves to a particular period like the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars we find that Nelson's perspective on the deck of his Man O'War the Victory might be different from that of Wellington's during the Salamanca campaign. The tactical issues Bonaparte faced at Lodi were different from the strategic ones Napoleon faced in planning the Russian campaign. Still the above is detailed enough that some specific criteria fall out of it regards LOS, orders giving and the receiving of reports. That is useful.
The primary baseline criteria for an historical wargame is that it reproduce history.
This is the "Acid Test", the reality check, that a game must always be able to pass. For effective enforcement it requires a game have a deterministic and transparent mode of play. If you can't see what is happening or confine events to what happened historically you cannot apply this necessary test.
Passing the "Acid Test"'s reality check does not a game make. Player's expect a certain level of information about units, the terrain and how they all interact. They expect this packaged with a certain level of "playbility".
"Playability" is a grab bag of features that add up to something very important. It includes a certain level of "chrome", the lack of jarring elements, ease of use, and appropiate levels of challenge.
For the many players who wish to use wargames as aides to historical analysis features to aid such analysis should be included. They should include the full replayablity of games.
An important part of historical warfare is that commanders were limited in the information they had and in the orders they could give. They also didn't have historical knowledge that many player's will possess. An accurate historical wargame will try to reproduce these challenges. Such efforts will necessarily conflict with efforts to make the game playable and useful for analysis. Different game modes for different purposes will be required as will be different levels of challenge probably incorporating varying levels of POV. As players replay games they will increase their skill and be able to get more out them.
Last, but not least, playability requires that games not be too long. I believe that this is a tremendous weakness of the traditional wargame. They just plain take too long. "Euro" games have become very popular in recent years. A primary reason for this is that they can be dependably played in reasonable amounts of time, twenty minutes to three hours. The wargames of the future should contrive to somehow meet the the same criteria, while still passing the acid test of being historically accurate.
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