Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Groping for the New Paradigm, Part III: Process of Design

Most of us involved in the hobby of wargaming for any extended period of time have developed a context of meaning that the hobby gives to our lives. Whether generated in defense of the hobby or arrived at through reflection, it’s something each of us has likely done.

Because the entire point of these articles is to spur new ideas and to see growth in the industry beyond the confines of those we already have, a brief discussion of the meaning of what we do, and why it’s necessary to define it, is appropriate.

The Meaning of Wargaming: A Personal Perspective

One of the oldest debates in our industry has been about the morality of wargaming. In its simplest form, we play games about the death and destruction of peoples and cultures. Taken on its face, it’s easy to see how such a simple definition of the hobby can raise the eyebrows, if not the hackles, of ordinary citizens.

But beyond that simplistic overview, there are deeper shades of moral grayness that reside within the hobby’s participants themselves. A soon to be published card-game about the War on Terror from Decision Games recently spurred some heated, if not vitriolic, discussion among hobbyists about the morality of publishing such a game, given the nearness of the subject matter to most of our lives. But such moral concerns within our own ranks are nothing new.

In my personal experience at GameFix magazine, when we released Greenline: Chechnya several letters came to our office questioning the morality of publishing such a game while the event was still occurring. The same thing happened at 3W when they released the original Arabian Nightmare in S&T. Other publishers can surely tell similar stories.

The issue of morality is valid to our purpose as a hobby in the sense that it is important that we understand why we do what we do, and have ready answers to such challenges when presented from outside our ranks.

I don’t pretend to offer a universal answer to this question, because each of us has developed our own moral compass, such that we must satisfy ourselves before we can satisfy others. But, I can express my own perspective.

Personally, the question of wargaming comes down to how you define entertainment. If we watch a production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and enjoy it, does that mean we are anti-Semitic? Or watch and enjoy the latest action film mean we revel in the death and misery of others? To the majority of people the answer is clearly no, but there will always be a group that screams an unequivocal yes.

The sad part about those who say yes is that, in some cases, they’re correct. As a society we can take solace that in most cases they are not.
Wargaming is no different. Much as I might read a book on a subject dealing with conflict that provides some edification, which in turn, provides entertainment, so it is with wargaming. By competitively playing a wargame, I’m gaining interactive insight into some form of conflict, which, in turn, broadens my understanding of the human condition. The thing to be gleaned from the process of wargaming is the greater depth of comprehension of the nature of conflict. The application of that comprehension is the contribution I make to society in the form of political decisions, voting, discussion, and debate in the public forum.

Taken in that context, the question to me is no longer one of moral ambiguity, but rather one of a moral imperative. The new paradigm of which I speak is one in which we, as members of an industry, produce products that entertain within the context of providing a tool with which we, as members of society, can broaden our understanding of the nature of the world in which we live.

Such a definition of meaning comes with its own challenges. It entails that the subject be approached with a certain sensitivity to its purpose. I do not believe that that sensitivity can be meaningfully defined. Each game designer (and game player) must reach his own conclusion. Awareness of it, though, must reside firmly in the designer’s mind, because it can never serve our purpose to trivialize conflict in such a way that it alienates the hobby further from the rest of society.

Some Definitions

Wargaming cannot be described simply as an activity. To play a wargame, let alone play it well, is to engage in a process that occupies numerous mental faculties, including observation, integration, decision making, and action. This process was defined by Col. John Boyd, by his now famous OODA Loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act, Loop). That these processes are part of the experience of wargaming make the activity qua hobby something well beyond the simple process of reading a book or watching a documentary about the particular subject.

Before I go into specifics about an approach to a specific topic, I’d like to define some terms and philosophies I hold regarding the matter.

First and foremost, as outlined in part one, I’ve never been comfortable with the definition of simulation in our hobby. That discomfort stems largely from my belief that a wargame not competitively played or competitively playable is of little value. To take that a step further, it’s not enough that I can play the game; but that others are willing to play it with me, and do so at a level that is challenging enough to give the experience some contextual meaning.

In that sense, the real value to be had from the experience of wargaming—the real insight to be gleaned—comes from the competitive play of the game. Thus, a wargame must function as game qua game. A simulation does not have this requirement. Much as we can derive an equation through a regression process that defines a curve, we can derive a system that represents an historical event. Such a system could accurately be called a simulation, but not a game. The primary object of a game must be the play thereof. Lose sight of that object, and the effort is wasted.

Second, now that parts one and two are published, I’d like to define what I mean by Groping for the New Paradigm. First, without wanting to appear too pedantic, a pair of word definitions (courtesy of

par·a·digm (pr-dm, -dm) n. A set of assumptions, concepts, values, and practices that constitutes a way of viewing reality for the community that shares them, especially in an intellectual discipline.

grope (grp) v. To reach about uncertainly; feel one's way.

When I came up with the title of this piece, the reality was that I had no idea what the next model for wargame design would be. I still don’t. But I firmly believe it needs to be discovered. My intention was, and is, to define and expose the malaise that enshrouds our industry, and to point out some fertile fields of imagination in which better game designers than I can find a new muse. Thus….

Defining the Conflict

Lt. General Matthew B. Ridgeway recognized as early as the Korean War, that the advent of nuclear weapons had changed the future of warfare. In his book, The Korean War, he goes on to describe his recognition at the time of his taking over command of Western Forces in the Korean Peninsula, that there were limitations imposed on his actions there as commanding general that did not apply as recently as the previous decade. These limitations, he posited, would define the rules of engagement for future military conflict from that point forward.

Unfortunately, the US military establishment took its time recognizing the ramifications of General Ridgeway’s observation. While its strategic thinkers considered the next total war conflict with the Warsaw pact, the actual utilization of forces entailed more regional and limited engagement.

This failure precipitated the oft cited quagmire of Vietnam, in which the ultimate fruition of the disconnect between national policy and military planning became apparent, at the cost of 58,000 American lives.

I cut my wargaming teeth in the late 1970’s. My initial interest in high school in such games as Richtofen’s War and Panzer Blitz, gave way later to more topical games, such as The Next War and NATO. Had it not been for the games that dealt with the immediate reality of world in which I lived at the time, I doubt I would have stayed in the hobby beyond high school.

Looking back on those times, the paradigm for these games seemed readily apparent. Of overriding societal concern was fear of a Warsaw Pact invasion, rooted in our belief that the USSR firmly intended to export Leninist Marxism to the rest of the world. And given the economic trends of the time, such as the application of Keynesian Economic theory to fiscal and social policy, which was largely adopted my many elected western governments, there seemed good reason to fear.

But even as intelligence began to appear that indicated an invasion of the West was not a serious part of Soviet planning, the military establishment continued planning and preparation for a conflict that was becoming increasingly unlikely.

Not being privy to this intelligence, the wargaming community continued developing NATO/Warsaw Pact games as well.

With the collapse of the USSR and the destruction of the Berlin Wall, it became readily apparent to anyone who cared to look, that the potential for a NATO/Warsaw Pact style total war conflict had faded into oblivion.

All the while, American forces were deployed in smaller, regional conflicts that weren’t reflected in the conventional planning of the military or the hobby. Prior to the 1992 Gulf War, at least three wargames were published modeling the upcoming conflict. How many of them predicted a 100-hour war? How many even allowed for the possibility? Given the systems employed in each of those games, was it even possible for such a short conflict to be modeled?

Why? Because while the world changed, designers failed to take notice. Twelve years later do we as yet have a game system that accurately models the doctrine of maneuver warfare employed by the US Marine Corps during the first Gulf War?

Today’s reality seems starkly different in contrast. The Third World War that we all feared would consume us in nuclear hellfire has arrived at last, and in a form no one in the mainstream predicted. Rather than the sweeping armored engagements on the plains of Europe, we find ourselves engaged in an asymmetric conflict that spans our entire globe, where the contenders never meet in the same place and are often difficult to define, and the battles are fought in isolated areas ranging from Manhattan Island to the caves of Tora Bora.

Meanwhile the most recent wargames held by our military posit an unnamed Asian force invading a small island off its coast, and a western military response that escalates into a full-scale confrontation that Mathew Ridgeway exposed in the 1950’s as unlikely to ever actually occur.

Over the past few years our hobby has released a handful of products that deal with regional conflicts or potential conflicts. But these games fail to address the larger, strategic issue, and as such, seem out of context. September 11, 2001, defined the stakes of the current global conflict in stark detail. The new paradigm of conflict for our time lies before us. Do we have any games in our lexicon that can predict, or even begin to model the new strategic reality?

The new doctrine of preemption in the War on Terror should offer fertile grounds for exploring the ramifications of such a policy, yet no games exist with which to do so. Surely the industry that produced The Next War, or Gulf War is up to the task of exploring the new reality in which the next generation of wargamers must live.

In the next few sections I’d like to demonstrate some ways we can approach this conflict.


The global conflict that is the war on terror is not fought on a battlefield that consists of forests, mountains, and swamps. Rather, it’s characterized by small conflict regions scattered across the globe. The more intense conflict zones occur in globally disconnected zones with little infrastructure. Nevertheless, short, sharp actions also occur in the form of terrorist attacks in metropolitan centers as well.

Yet, trying to visualize the battespace in those terms when trying to develop an environment in which to have a game is of small use. Physical geography has little impact on the strategic struggle, thus a playing surface that represents a world map of some sort may not be an appropriate choice. Further, it’s not terrain that makes fighting terrorism difficult, it’s the disconnected nature of the environment, i.e. the lack of infrastructure.

Thus, a playing surface that might more accurately reflect the nature of the conflict would be an abstracted representation of power centers in both the connected and disconnected regions of the world.

To better explain what I mean by this, a more thorough explanation of the battlespace in which this conflict takes place is necessary.

In my view, the War on Terror cannot be understood without seeing it in the context of globalization. The gap that lies between wealth and poverty today grows most greatly between globalized and non-globalized nations. Nations that have chosen a high degree of isolation have not become the hiding places for organized terror groups only by coincidence. The relationship there is a strong one.

So, just as we managed economic issues in the strategic games of the past, we must manage them in the games of the future as well. Thus, the conflict between what we perceive to be terror and civilization, is really a conflict between connection and disconnection; integration and isolation.

Certainly this is a simplification, or what we would more commonly call an abstraction, but it’s a relatively sound one upon which to model a game about the War on Terror. Using that abstraction as my basis, it is clear that the play environment must be abstracted into some grouping of regions. These regions must then be rated in some fashion that represents their level of infrastructure. Geographic elements are not significant in this context, and therefore should be excluded.

Control of these regions is determined through some system of economic connectedness. That level of connectedness can be affected by deliberate action (military intervention or terrorist attack), random event (elections), or increased levels of internal chaos (economic instability, revolution, coups).

During the course of play, players take actions that affect the connectedness of these regions to one another. In doing so, the broader context of the struggle begins to take shape. One in which we see that the War on Terror is more than the simple pursuit of isolated actors with suicidal tendencies by Western military power. Instead we can begin to understand the struggle for what it really is: nothing less than a clash of visions for the future of whole peoples. A crucible in which the more progress that is made by one, the stronger the reaction by the other.


From the Western perspective, it’s easy to oversimplify the nature of the actors in this war. We like to couch things in terms of the good guys and the bad guys, the Axis and the Allies, etc. But in the War on Terror, the reality is that the successful prosecution of this war entails much more than the mere hunting down of card carrying Al Qaeda members and shooting them. These people were not created in a vacuum, and it is the environment that creates them that must be the target of any real war on terror.

Given that, how can these actors be represented in a game? What and/or who do the various sides in the game represent?

Once again, the answer must be an abstraction. In my concept of a game of the War on Terror, each side does not necessarily represent a specific government, but instead would represent a particular interest. In a two-player game, the interests could be simplified into those of world integration and world isolation.

But a more interesting game would be a multi-player one, where individual interests of specific countries or groups of countries (e.g. the EU) are tempered by their association with and promotion of connectivity or disconnectivity of other nations or groups of nations. Thusly can players be put in the situation of balancing the needs and desires of their own nation, with that of the larger community of nations.

The Definition of Victory

What, exactly, constitutes victory in the War on Terror? It’s easy to simply say the eradication of terrorism. But any genuine level of reflection on the matter reveals that it’s just not that simple; especially if you view it in the context of what I’ve outlined above.

The extremes of full international connectivity or disconnectivity may not be realistic victory conditions. But if not, what are?

Presumably it’s a state in which one interest is no longer able to effectively disturb the other. To determine that would require a range of political and economic assumptions that are frankly beyond the scope of this article.

But that brings up another important point about the victory conditions in the war on terror: the victory conditions are necessarily a political and economic victory, not a military one. Because the very nature of the struggle is political and economic, the game cannot help but represent a particular political or economic point of view. To my mind, that can only make it that much more interesting.

The Perilous Enterprise of Design

The preceding description is meant to illustrate an approach among any number of approaches to a particular topic among any number of topics. What I want to show is that designers do not need to use old mediums as a starting point for designing games on new topics. Instead, they can begin with observation and integration of the particular idiosyncrasies of the topic to be investigated, and then develop completely unique systems with which to game.

The real difficulty in defining a new paradigm within which to design games is how to benchmark the accuracy (or inaccuracy) of the model. Without the twenty-twenty hindsight of history, it’s impossible to be certain of the underlying assumptions. The only thing we can be certain of is that the world changes, and as designers we must constantly strive to observe and integrate those changes into our thinking. Such integration begets the creativity of design with which we, as players, can evaluate the insights it provides.

Although I do not count myself a particularly good designer, as a one-time publisher I do believe I inspired and promoted the design of some fine games. The intention of this series was to do so again.

Modern conflict has always been my particular interest in wargaming. And I believe that wargaming has a role to play in helping us understand it, but in order to do so it must be topical and relevant; by which I mean of interest and competitively playable for ordinary people.

The designers that rise to the challenge and design a game on the War on Terror will find themselves in a storm of controversy. The necessity of the interplay of politics and economics will always find as many detractors as supporters. Nevertheless, I hope more than one designer tackles the problem.

If nothing else, it’ll get us thinking again.

Conclusion (of Sorts)

I believe that giving ourselves a new lease on life entails that we develop products that have relevance to a modern audience. Recognizing the essential elements of insight into conflict, both modern and historic, that wargames can provide to that audience is essential. Competitive play, accessible rules, and vibrant presentation are important elements.

That the hobby of wargaming will remain controversial to many is a reality we must accept. But in the face of that reality, we cannot shy away from tackling current issues, or delving into realms controversial. As hobbyists, most of us have twenty, thirty, or more years of experience re-fighting the battles of the past. Surely we have something to offer the future.

In the bigger picture, if all we are about are tanks, guns, and airplanes, then our hobby truly is a lost cause, and the oft-debated moral argument of “playing at war” is valid. If we cannot see beyond the “sexiness” of panzers and stukas, we truly are a hobby of children playing with more sophisticated forms of GI Joe.

But if we mean what we say when we describe the intellectual stimulation that the hobby provides; when we say that participation in the hobby brings us better understanding and insight into the human condition, then we owe it to ourselves and to our society to produce and play games that can really help us define and understand the struggles that we currently face.

If we cannot or will not step up to that challenge, then what good are we?

More Recommended Reading (and Viewing)

The Pentagon's New Map: War and Peace in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas P.M. Barnett,

Destruction And Creation by John R. Boyd,

The Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy, by Daniel Yergin

The Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy, PBS Documentary (available on DVD).

Interview with Hernando De Soto, from The Commanding Heights: (Note: I pick this particular interview as important because Mr. De Soto stresses the issue of lack of property rights in third world countries as a basis for the failure of capitalism to work there. Thus he makes valid connections between that failure, and the rise of alternative and/or extremist positions within those societies, i.e. a root cause of the creation of terrorists).

Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Groping for the New Paradigm, Part II: Through a Glass and Darkly

One striking statistic that every wargame publisher eventually becomes aware of should it conduct a customer survey is that the largest portion of military wargame consumers play their games solitaire much of the time, if not exclusively. This characteristic begs several questions. Perhaps the most important among them is whether or not the games are played solitaire because of a lack of opponents, or because of something else? Unfortunately, I’m unaware of any empirical research that has occurred attempting to answer that question, but I can take a few anecdotal guesses.

The most obvious, and perhaps most often assumed answer is lack of opponents, but it doesn’t hold up well under a certain type of scrutiny. With the preponderance of Play by (E)Mail (PBM or PBEM) tools available these days, even the most rural denizen of our hobby should be able to play wargames against an opponent. Further, there are many opponent services available through user groups and the like on the Internet. Granted, many people still don’t have computers or Internet access, but I think if they really wanted to find an opponent, they could by putting up a notice at a local hobby store. The answer lies elsewhere.

The players themselves in various wargame forums have offered another solution to this mystery. Many say that they do not view the products as games at all, but rather tools with which they can further analyze and garner greater understanding of the historical situation. This act is done through reading and analysis of the rules and components, and play, if you will, of the game in a non-competitive way to examine how the situation unfolds on the map.

Given that so many wargame customers play their games this way, it is critical that we as designers and publishers pay close attention to this issue. If the second of the possible explanations offered above is true, we have to ask ourselves if designing games at all is what we should be doing. The people playing solitaire aren't really playing a game, they’re futzing around with an interactive illustration. With that being the case, why have a game system at all? We could all save ourselves a lot of trouble by simply producing a map and some counters, along with a few guidelines on how to push the pieces around.

Then again, if the first explanation, lack of opponents is true after all, we have another set of problems to think about. If we cast that explanation for this behavior under a different light, we may just reveal something interesting, not about the customers, but about designers and publishers. People who are using the games as interactive illustrations frankly don’t bare a lot of consideration. We design games. And as game designers, we need to concern ourselves with the people that actually play them. If there is a paucity of opponents out there, we have to ask ourselves the question why. And the simple answer is obvious: there aren’t enough players. And we get more players by designing games that play. Because we have produced games over and over again with the same system, and made that system increasingly complex or arbitrary (or both) depending upon the designer’s personal bent, we’ve lost all the players.

Therefore it behooves us to examine wargame design itself more closely. It’s important that we ask ourselves some hard questions about our craft, examine what we’ve done, and think about what we should be doing instead.

The Question of Scale

Once a topic for a game design is chosen, the first process a designer must go through is choosing the appropriate scale. Wargames generally come in three different scales: strategic, operational, and tactical. By strategic, we’re talking about an entire war or theater of war. Operational typically deals with a particular battle, while tactical gets down to specific troops and weapon types over a limited battlefield. There are sub categories as well, e.g. skirmish (one piece equals one man) or grand tactical (one piece equals a larger formation, such as a platoon).

When it comes to scale, there is one thing every publisher knows. Historically, strategic and tactical games have always done better in terms of sales than operational. The most famous of the games in the lexicon tend to bare this out: Squad Leader, Third Reich, World in Flames, Panzer Blitz, all are either tactical or strategic in scale. On its face, the reason is simple: general interest in the topic among consumers. It is much easier to find people with an interest in World War Two, or in man-to-man combat during World War Two than it is to find people interested in the invasion of Sicily. A game that focuses on a particular battle obviously limits itself to those interested in that battle. Figuring that out is not rocket science.

Paradoxically, the bulk of the titles that are published are operational. One reason for this seeming paradox is that there are simply more topics to tackle. The logic is that at some point no one is going to be interested in another strategic World War Two game, but there will always be some interest in coverage of some battle that hasn’t previously been done before. Personally I think this logic is specious.

Examined from another perspective, given the hex/counter/ZOC/et al paradigm, operational games are simpler to design. It’s only a matter of choosing the map scale, sorting out the order of battle, applying factors, adding whatever randomized movement rules that are the “innovative” flavor of the moment, and play-testing it out. This formula has been used again and again, to the detriment of the hobby overall.

As a player, I’ve frequently found myself faced with the dilemma of either playing a lot of games poorly, or playing a few well. This choice is hardly unique to me and, as our time becomes scarcer with age and responsibility, becomes a choice that we eventually are forced to make. As other realities begin vying for my money, playing few games well becomes the obvious choice. And I can tell you it won’t be anything operational.

Some publishers recognized this and limited their output to games on a particular scale, or even to just a single game or game system. Australian Design Group is a prime example. Although they have published a couple other titles, almost their entire output has been dedicated to support and expansion of the World in Flames game. And as a result of this dedication, that game has a tremendous following among wargamers many of whom play World in Flames exclusively. Australian Design Group in turn has gone through six iterations of the game, and published many expansions and updates along the way. Similar trends and methods can be seen with other games as well, such as Third Reich, or the evolution of Squad Leader into ASL as two of the most obvious examples.

Going outside of the military wargame industry, there are many more examples of the flagship method of publication. Three of the most obvious are Games Workshop and their Warhammer series of miniatures games, TSR (now Wizards of the Coast) and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, and Wizards of the Coast with Magic: the Gathering.

As designers, only the most egotistical among us design games without consideration for sales. In business, the “art for art’s sake” concept doesn’t cut it. Thus, when we begin the design process, choice of topic and scale should weigh heavily upon us. As publishers, it is not incumbent upon us to insure that every possible topic has a game published on it. There is no mandate, or even clear rational for trying to accomplish that. Thus, considerations for longevity of a product must begin by carefully considering a game’s topic and scale.

Perspective: Just Who is the Player?

I once read a favorable game review in which the reviewer stated that he felt the game in question was excellent because no matter what strategies he or his opponent employed, the game always closely mirrored the historical event itself in its outcome. At the time it seemed an odd criteria for evaluating the success of a game design. Later, the reviewer’s assertion was reinforced by the written comments of a well-known designer (in a Games forum back in the days of GEnie) who stated that he accounted his designs successful based upon how closely they mirrored the historical event they were based upon.

Such a criteria is curious indeed, and it exemplifies a quite specific failing of modern wargame design, that of perspective. If a game is designed with historical parallel as a criterion, then the perspective of the player is obscured. By player perspective, I mean the position in which we put the player, e.g. division commander, squad leader, president, etc.

When a game is being designed, what position we are putting the player in should be clearly defined. And once that definition is made, the design itself needs to be relevant primarily to that perspective. Thus, it is inappropriate to make political considerations a factor in games where the player stands in the shoes of a company commander, likewise it is inappropriate to ask a player in the role of a theater commander to deal with entrenchments. Consistency of perspective will dictate design relevancy (and irrelevancy).

Where perspective is clearly defined, a game where flow of play along historical lines is a primary criterion must fail, assuming, of course, that the topic is worthy of a game to begin with and isn’t an exercise in futility. Where the historical outcome is desired, the design can’t help but force historical decisions on the player that were made by their real-life counterparts, but that the player wouldn’t necessarily make. In so doing, perspective is violated for the sake of history, and in turn we’re no longer designing a game, we’re creating an activity.

In most of the games available today, the perspective of the player is not merely obscured, but is altogether non-existent. In many modern wargames, players are asked to deal with everything from digging entrenchments, to maneuvering forces, to managing production of durable goods. In so doing, the player is asked to fill the shoes of sergeant, division commander, political leader, and sanitation clerk. To coin a phrase, that’s no way to run a war, and certainly isn’t any way to design a game.

When a decision is made about player perspective, a game design must remain true to that decision. It has to present the player with choices that are relevant to his position, and not burden him with things that his real-life counterpart would never face. It also should not put powers into the player’s hands that are beyond the scope if his position. As a division commander, the player must put up with the decisions of his superiors, good or bad, and should not be bogged down with where to allot this turn’s spare jeep parts.

A solid adherence to this design criterion will in itself reduce much of the inappropriate complexity of today’s wargames. It also contributes to a more holistic approach to design itself when combined with the other concepts mentioned above about scale. The very nature of game design itself dictates that much of the realism of warfare will be abstracted, but if we adhere to the dictates of perspective and scale, the design will become more elegant in nature, and, more importantly, truer to its subject matter.

Situational Relevancy and the Historical Straightjacket

When we design an historical board wargame, it’s important to have something to say about the subject. Even a mass-produced game like Axis and Allies represents the Second World War from a particular point of view. It’s the point of view that makes a game interesting, and once it’s determined, the design should try to accommodate it.

In a nutshell, what this means is that a designer should know his topic well enough to have an opinion about it, and perhaps some original or at least unique perspectives he wants to bring to the subject. It’s not enough just to have done more research than the other fellow who’s designed a game on the same topic earlier. So what if the OOB is more accurate? So what if the map has the gristmill on the correct side of the river? If that’s all a designer has to offer, all he’s really done is create an addendum.

How many games have been published on the Guadalcanal campaign? I don’t know, and I’m not going to look it up, but off the top of my head I can think of four. I’ve played all four of them too, and unfortunately none has anything more interesting to offer than another. I won’t list the four that I’ve thought of, but the first one published back in the 60’s is the only one I’d bother playing if you asked me. Why? Because none that have been published since then have added anything profoundly more interesting to the topic than the original.

With respect to game design, I think this point may be the most important. When a game designer goes to the trouble of designing a game on a particular subject, we players assume that there is a certain passion for the topic that possessed the designer. As players, we are consumers, and therefore that must be a primary consideration in the decision to design a consumer product such as a game.(!) Any magazine publisher will tell you that the vast majority of their mail comes as a response to an opinion expressed somewhere in the pages of the magazine. As consumers of historical games, we study not just to learn the dry facts of who shot whom, but also to experience new perspectives and entertain new ideas.

So if a would-be designer plans to design a board game on Guadalcanal, he needs to have something more to show than an updated OOB and the latest offering from the Who Moves First Mechanic of the Month Club.

The Myth of Complexity qua Realism

We’ve all most likely gone to the local game store and bought a brand new offering from our favorite publisher, opened the box, and removed a 120 page thesis masquerading as a rule book. Those of us who have had the intestinal fortitude to read these tomes have often discovered that the mechanics of the game itself are often quite simple. So why must we deal with such expansive rulebooks?

Ostensibly, the answer is added realism. In reality, it’s lack of creativity.

To further analyze this problem, we have to apply some definitions. There are really two types of rules to be found in a rulebook; one type is necessary, the other represents a design flaw.

The first type of rule is that which explains to us how the game is played. This is a system rule. The second type is one that explains a specific rule exception, which coincidentally is called an exception rule.

System rules are typically very straight forward, and give us the information we need to play the game. These rules would include such things as the Sequence of Play, definitions of what the numbers or symbols mean on the playing pieces, how movement or combat is conducted, etc. System rules explain to us the game design.

Exception rules are much more insidious. From time to time an exception rule is actually called out with a bold Exception printed at the beginning of a paragraph. However, these are usually only the minority of exception rules you will find in the 120-page document mentioned earlier. Any rule that must explain behavior of an individual unit, card, or playing piece that is in itself an exception to all like units, cards, or playing pieces is also and exception rule. Aha! These are insidious design exceptions. More correctly stated, they are design flaws.

This topic gets us back to the notion that these are games. Therefore, a successful game designer gets his point across in the context of a game; the designer’s point being the key issue under examination. Thus, the system is where the design sweat must go, because it is the system that needs to show us what the designer wants to get across. Remember the historical straightjacket? If the point is in the details and not in the game, everyone’s time (and money) is wasted.

Using Warfare Theory as Design Guideline

Some years ago when I was fully immersed in the daily machinations of publishing a magazine with a game in it, a customer called me and asked what advice I could give to help him become a war game designer. My first thought was to tell him to light all his money on fire and get it over with, but I succumbed to the earnestness of the request.

I asked him if he had ever read Sun Tzu. He said that he hadn’t, so I told him that the best advice I could give him was to get himself a copy of the Art of War, and to read it as many times as it took to understand all the points therein. I said that if he can do that, he’d understand the considerations involved with the management of conflict, and therefore have great insight into the sorts of things a good game about warfare should model.

I have no idea if he followed my advice, and I don’t think I ever heard from the fellow again. It’s possible he took my answer as a brush-off, and, given my experience with the sensitivity of some wargamers, now harbors some sort of deep-seated hatred for me. Nevertheless, if he called me again today and asked me the same question, I’d give the same answer.

Those of us that have ever actually taken the time to study warfare theory recognize that the sorts of things that concern battlefield commanders have little to do with comparative statistical analysis of armor piercing munitions and ablative armor. Warfare is largely a psychological affair in which understanding your enemy and her relative capabilities and motives are as great a factor as firepower.

Also, ask yourself this question: Would you rather have better relative technology or better doctrine? If you answered technology, I’d say you have some reading to do. If you said doctrine, then it’s likely that you, like me, are disappointed by today’s wargames.

To my mind, Sun Tzu’s Art of War is probably the best wargame design primer around. Wargame designers would do well to spend some time with this classic. It’ll teach you everything you need to know.

The Next Steps

Trying to chart a path that gives us some new directions in game design is probably something akin to walking backwards in a minefield wearing a blindfold. I can already hear someone out there saying, “Okay Compton, if you’re so damn smart, you design it!”

Part of the process that went in to writing this article was not just a dissatisfaction with current wargames, but also a dissatisfaction in my own designs as well. Giving thought to my own design shortcomings had much to do with the synthesis of generating these criticisms and methods.

Although I would like to claim credit for originating all of this thinking, the truth is, much of the above has already been described in the writing’s of Peter Perla and others. That their work has either been forgotten or ignored is unfortunate. But anyone considering wargame design today would do well to revisit those texts.

The art of wargame design is a craft. And like any craft, in order for it to have real longevity, it must be infused from time to time with new ideas and must occasionally strike out in completely new directions.

Let us hope that designers realize that vision, and that publishers take the chance on making that vision reality. The future of wargaming depends upon it.

Next: Groping for the New Paradigm, Part Three: Process of Design, in which the synthesis of a new design for modeling modern warfare at the strategic/political level is examined.

Recommended Reading:

The Art of Wargaming by Peter Perla
The Complete Wargames Handbook by James F. Dunnigan
Wargame Design, SPI Staff Study No. 2
The Art of War by Sun Tsu
How to Make War by James F. Dunnigan
Chance and Chaos by David Ruelle (This is not a wargame text, but rather a discussion of the concept of chance and its relationship to chaos theory and classical determinism.)
Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell (Also not a wargame text, but anyone that wants to design (or frankly understand) a strategic level conflict had better understand economics.)