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.)