Operational Design in Wargaming Chapter 2 - Simulation?

One of the underlying themes in my selection of revolutionary games is how they handle simulation.  Traditionally the thinking has always been simulation = complexity, and thus serious wargames were dense tomes of rules, charts and diagrams (pictures if you're lucky.).  Large scale games took hours (or days) to play, and often could not be completed to a satisfactory resolution.  There was much beard pulling and heated arguments ensued from our personal interpretation of events and historical examples.

Thus the common complaint I hear about most new rule systems is that they are just games, and not proper wargames.  On the flip side I have seen 'simulation' used a pejorative to describe any complex game rule.

I think the problem rests in what we are trying to simulate.  Some aspects of warfare are easier to represent, and therefore get undue attention.  Similarly, a reliance on anecdotal history (the types of things that make good stories for ancient history books)  leads to rules that may tend towards extreme examples of history.

Some specific problems I have noted are:

  • Technology bias

Probably the biggest stumbling block I see is the over-reliance on modeling technological innovation.  Modern and WWII games are probably the worst offenders, as they often contain rules for differentiating between not only different models of vehicles, but individual variants of the same model of vehicle.  Every incremental change in armor thickness, gun millimeter or number of MGs requires a substantive representation.  Idealized rates of fire, weapon penetrative capacity and reliability are made the norm.  Often I feel that the tactics used by a force are sidelined in favor of focusing on the technology they utilized.  I.e. a soldier is a soldier, the only difference is the weapon in his hand.  This has some place in skirmish levels games, but here are few questions that don't get considered:

  • How many of the vehicles are fielded with a full crew?
  • Is the unit operating at full strength?
  • How much experience does the crew have with the upgraded equipment?  (Did they get an extensive New Equipment Training (NET) program or just plopped into the vehicle.)
  • Has the supply train caught up with the parts, equipment, and expertise to support it?

"I love you, I hate you, I hate that I love you....." - My relationship with the Bradley

To give an example of this for the real world, look at the M2 Bradley IFV.  It is a case study in compromise and conflicting design ideologies.  The original version could swim and came equipped with six port firing weapons for all around fire.  The upgraded versions lack these additional capabilities, does that make them worse?  Is the M2 innately superior to other IFVs?  I would argue no.  What is has is years of trained crews and inter-operability with common platforms.  The crews train hard and get experienced with it.  Mechanics know how to fix it, and repair reports are available to keep it in action.

One of the worst offenders for me in this aspect is the modern naval combat game Harpoon.  I tried playing that game several times in the 80's to no success.  The shear volume of details being tracked, and rolls to make caused the game to grind to a halt.  It made for an incredibly fun and engaging computer game, precisely because those details were automated.

One game that I think gets effectively treats the abstraction of technology is Impetus.  Units get a combat value and impetus bonus that attempts a holistic view of their protection, weapons and organization.  It understands that, at the level of the conflict it is representing, these individual difference become less distinct.

  • The limitations of logistics

What do these figures even do?

"Gentlemen, the officer who doesn't know his communications and supply as well as his tactics is totally useless."
- Gen. George S. Patton, USA

"Bitter experience in war has taught the maxim that the art of war is the art of the logistically feasible."
- ADM Hyman Rickover, USN

This problem is closely related to the technology bias. Many rules give short shrift to the role of logistics or model it in a very perfunctory way.  This is a byproduct of our "one-off" view of games where two armies spontaneously form on the field, fight, and then vanish back into the pages of history.  There is no tomorrow, there are no limits.   This causes problems in game design as it denies the critical advantages some armies enjoy.  One anecdotal story from Ernst Von Bock's Panzer Leader was that Rommel decided the American's were destined to win after seeing the mountains of supplies he captured after the battle of Kasserine Pass.  Napoleon split his forces into three columns on the move to provide speed, but also to make it easier to subsist on local assets.
They are like some kind of weaponless truck?  Wait, they haul troops and pull cannons right?

I have not yet found a ruleset that does this adequately for me.  The "out of ammo" status from Regimental Fire and Fury seems too random to reflect actual limitations for example.  I have used some modifications in Spearhead and Modern Spearhead; ranging from requiring units to consolidate for 1 hour on an objective before they can continue, to detailed sets using fuel and ammo markers to reflect the status of supply.  I think this is an area that is still best served in video games rather than the tabletop as it can slow things down. (It does provide a good excuse to collect fuel and cargo trucks however.)

  • Survivor Bias

This is the grand-daddy of simulation problems I have found in rule sets.  Rule sets have to allow for a unit that performed valiantly in one engagement  to do so in all engagements.  There is that one story about that one unit that did something cool once, so the rules need to reflect that!  Many designers create additional rules or mechanisms that reflect events from the anecdotal record that may not be indicative of the norm.  I am guilty of this my self.  I have read a story from a battle and expected that event to be modeled precisely in the rules.

Here is a suggestion:  What if the unit just rolled a "6" that day?  Rather than try to fudge the rules to fit a specific event or anecdote let's abstract it in one of two ways:  A programmed event  (at this point in the scenario, this inject will occur) or just accept that any critical success (or failure) within the rules provided could have produced a similar result and thus the possibility of the outcome is possible but not guaranteed.  I will cut this off here, as it blends into another entry I am working on: "What does a die roll mean?"

So where does this take me?  I think all games are to some extent simulations.  The problem is that they can focus on two many aspects to simulate adequately.  Conversely, the player may want to simulate something the designer did not intend.  This is where generic systems struggle.  They try to be all things to all players and thus get too complex, and please no one.  For our part as players, we tend to view our personal opinions as the norm, and thus expect all rules to cater to our specific set of bias.

This series has forced me to actually articulate in my own mind what I am looking for in my games.  I tend to gravitate towards games that force difficult decisions at the command level, but avoid getting bogged down in the technical details.  I find that I tend to generate house rules in regards to things that affect the my knowledge of the table, environmental factors and communication.  (I like weather rules, command limitations, random activation, and spotting rules)  I prefer historical scenarios as they force me to fight with what I have, rather than an idealized system between matched opponents.  I like complex victory conditions.

I am learning to just abstract other aspects of the game and accept limits to make the game playable.  I don't need Impetus to accurately model medieval knights facing off with Egyptian chariots because that just never happened.  I don't want to worry about a battalion forming square in time or what ammunition is loaded in a particular cannon.  I should just accept the fact that those are the invisible factors I can use to 'visualize' the results of the roll of the dice.

So where to next?


  1. So much good stuff in this post. This will take time to digest...

    1. I'm glad you can get something out of it. I am finding the process is helping me enjoy games more.

  2. I think that one can to worse than to consider the late Brigadier Peter Young's statement about his approach to designing wargames, as stated in "Charge!", paraphrased from memory as "Does the end result look and feel like an 18th century Battle? Are proper tactics rewarded and faulty plans punished?", these being more important to him than internal consistency of the individual rules procedures. Some gamers need to "see" all the little cogs in the machine for the game to feel right, others are more content with the "black box": approach, where you see the inputs and out puts, but not that much detail about what happens "inside the box". I have been in both places, but for the past 20 years, am more the black box type now... or so I *think* :-)

    1. I think it is all part of the evolution of the process. At first you want to control every little thing, over time you realize that it is not adding anything to the process. Sounds dangerously like growing older....


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