Operational Design in Wargaming Chapter 1 Part1 - Revolutions in Wargame Affairs

Disclaimer:  The following are my own views and ideas about wargaming garnered from nearly forty years in the hobby combined with a non-zero amount of experience in planning and conducting military operations.  This series of articles is my attempt to process my own attitudes and opinions about the hobby in such a way as to distill out my own personal goals in developing my games.  It is a hobby "dear-diary" kind of thing much like this entire blog.  Any enjoyment you receive from reading this is well intended, any enlightenment is purely coincidental.

I own too many rule sets.  I know that is not a profound statement, as I am sure many of you could claim a larger collection.  I do however, believe it is an excellent jumping off point for this project as it points to crux of the problem:  We all want something different from our games.  There is the unique balance of simulation, game play, command level, technology, morale, movement, basing, and 'realism' which appeals to each of us as collectors and players.  The result is not just an abundance of rule systems, but also the proliferation of house rules to 'fix' what we think the designer got wrong.  Historical wargamers in particular have an obsessive need modify the rules rather than play them as written.

The topic of house rules could dominate pages of discussion on its own.  It does point to a fundamental question in rules design:  How do you connect the writer's intent with the desired audience?   In a recent episode of the Meeple and Miniatures podcast they discussed the fallout from Neil's blog review of Tabletop Wargames.  Essentially the debate over the quality its contents hinged on the question of rules success.  Are the most financially successful rules the best written or are they successful because they are tied to a gaming system?  (That is to say rule sets written to sell a specific line of miniatures and/or support competitive play between strangers.)

I know where I come down on this debate as my go-to commercial games are currently:

  • Chain of Command
  • Command and Colors
  • Impetus
  • Lion Rampant
  • Regimental Fire and Fury
  • Spearhead

None of these rule sets are produced by a figures manufacturer, and I play command and colors as a strictly miniatures based affair rather than a board game.  They all seemed to be linked by a need to simplify the core rule sets to make a playable game.  That has not always been the case for me as I once tended towards very complex, time consuming games.  So what has changed?

One of my military history courses emphasized the concept of Revolutions in Military Affairs (RMAs). These RMAs each represent periods in history were new military strategies, doctrines, methodologies and/or technologies resulted in fundamental shifts in the conduct of war.  This included advances in communication, transportation, logistical functions and military organization rather than the usual focus on innovations in weapons technology.  The idea is quite prevalent in modern military theory and is the driving force in modernization plans for many Western military forces.

Jon and I's recent foray's into the European conflicts of the late 19th century reminded me of this as one of the key turning points presented in my course was the influence of local mobilization centers and the railroads that resulted in the dominance if the Prussian military.  The overall effect of the Needle Gun vs the Chassepot rifle was treated as a evolutionary development rather than a Revolutionary one.  In looking at the wargame's rules I have for the time period, I see that many place the technological changes in the forefront.  They tend to model the differences in mobilization system as a morale or qualitative bonus for the Prussians, but the logistical advantage is often left out as it would lead to uneven games.  So how do you right a set of rules to reflect the ground truth?  How do you design scenarios that are both realistic and entertaining to game?

Taking a page from that study, I am decided to go through my gaming history and extract my own personal Revolutions in Wargaming Affairs (RWA).  These are the game rules or innovative mechanics that fundamentally changed my approach to wargaming.  Your list will probably be different, just as you will probably be able to point to earlier examples of some of these applications.  Feel free to point them out in the comments. If you haven't noticed yet, I consider all of the aspects of this hobby to be deeply personal and thus highly subjective.   Here we go:

Background:  I began gaming in the early 1980's with modern microarmor when the older kids in the neighborhood were playing Engage and Destroy.  This was a 1:1 model game with GHQ and CinC models liberally interspersed with small slips of white paper with tank names written on them.  Our games were played on a 5'x8' table tennis board covered in goat-hair moss and foam mountains carved with WD-40 and matches.  The rules required the use of a table level periscope to check sight lines and had highly detailed charts for everything.  From there my group moved on to RPGs and a mixture of SciFi and Fantasy miniatures games.  I remember a period throughout Junior High that was dominated by Battletech and FASA's Starfleet Combat Simulator.  I continued to play a mix of WWII microarmor games (Tank Charts and home brew stuff) and started getting into ACW  (JRIII and Fire and Fury)  1988 saw the shift to GW Fanboy-ism with a lot of Rogue Trader and WHFB 3rd edition.  Essentially I enjoyed lots of rules dense, competitive games that focused on mastery of rules mechanics over the actual conduct of the game.  Then came the first game changer:

Game:  Necromunda (Games Workshop 1995)
Scale:  28mm SciFi Skirmish Game
RWA:  Streamlined Small Unit Action & functional 

Right from the top I think the best endorsement for these rules is that GW saw fit to re-release them this month, virtually unchanged, in their Shadow Wars: Armageddon boxed set.  Necromunda is a futurist gang war game where you control a small (6-10) figure force of miniatures on a terrain dense industrial-theme board.  The rules added ideas like suppression and limited resources to the existing WH40k rules, which made the action seem more engaging.  The rules alone meant that  I stopped playing 40k and simply adapted the rule for my existing 40k armies.

The campaign rules, however, had the biggest impact.  The abstract 'territory' rules allowed you to build a support structure for you gangs without the need to physically model them in a map and try to figure out boarders or strategic movement. More importantly, the idea that your forces gained skill and equipment changed the way people played.  Gone were the end of games fought to the last man, or throwing your best troops into the meat grinder to get the short term win. Instead players protected their resources and tried to outmaneuver their opponents.  We had a mindset that our resources needed to be preserved because they would be needed later.  Models got names and backstories.  Losses actually stung because they meant a greater challenge for next time.  The hunger for campaign play led to my next RMA:

Game:  The Long War (Richard ?, 1996)
Scale:  28mm Fantasy Grand Tactical Campaign
RWA: Moderated campaign play for a 15 players.

The Long War was a locally produced campaign system that was adapted for use with WHFB 4th edition.  Players at the local game store signed up and registered their armies.  A map was produced that included your kingdom with its territories and the surrounding continent.  Players mustered an army for each territory from a restricted list and received an allocation of gold to spend on special troops and limited magical items.  Each turn we would submit our rosters to include army composition, new expenditures and planned movement.  The game master would then publish a roster of the battles generated and we would have 2-3 weeks to arrange those battles and report the results.  Horribly outnumbered armies would have the option to fight a delaying action, or a balancing scenario might be randomly generated.  "Monster Hordes" would be discovered that would have an independent army for a player to face.  At the end of the turn, results would be published and we would go on to the next turn.  

This system was fantastic.  The limiting of special units and magic items actually created a system to restrict the normal power creep that was affecting out games.  Players protected their best units and let the muster forces deal with the initial battle.  Magic items that would otherwise be ignored became important as players went with cheap items to maximize their list.  (Also they could be captured when a hero was lost)  Real world alliances were forged, and on table betrayals unleashed.  Friendships were forged or forever sundered.  The only downside was that the campaign would peter out as losing players slowly lost interest in the game and dropped out.  We did two iterations that never made it base six turns.  The games, however made it worthwhile.  Once again, long term planning resulted in a fundamental shift in gaming approach.  This game would be the end of my interest in WHFB as regular one-off games no longer held my interest.  

Next time:  The return to historicals and some RWA's from the end of the 90's.   


  1. Having never been drawn to the fantasy or sci-fi genre of gaming activities, I know many enjoy them. I could see the two systems you highlight being applicable to historical settings too. Perhaps, I am a snob with respect to choosing and sticking to historical games and settings. Perhaps, I require historical context to set the stage for "my" fantasy. In the end, most gaming boils down to fixing a point along the fantasy sliding scale, right?

    With that, I look forward to your next step in this dialogue towards historicals. Your top commercial picks mirror many of my own and your list prompts me to begin thinking which commercial rulesets I consider "revolutionary" rather than "evolutionary." This could be a fun exercise and an interesting journey.

    This will be a very interesting series as we gain insight into your tastes and preferences.

    1. Thanks. My start was in historicals and my group pulled me in the direction of SciFi and Fantasy over time. I think the most telling part of my preferences is that I tended to favor "human" armies with a historical bent. My WHFB Empire army was all based on Landsknecht forces and I tended to avoid fantastical models.

      The greatest failing in Fantasy/SciFi games I have found is that they lend themselves to power gaming. Once your group heads down that track there is no end to the escalation. That is probably why I am loath to use point values.

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you. I am glad you can derive some entertainment.

  3. Most interesting, Jake! It is notable that I have never played any of the games on your go to list. That may or may not say something about what we are each looking for from our games!

    1. That is essentially the thesis for this series. You left an earlier comment about simulation vs game play that get to the heart of it. I think you and I are looking for different things to simulate in our rules. Of course that is what keeps rules designers in business!


Post a Comment