Friday, August 7, 2009

A Mind is Like a Parachute

“A mind is like a parachute. If it doesn't open, you're fucked!” -- Don Williams, Jr

Occasionally I get an email or comment from someone telling me that I take wargaming way too seriously. It’s just a hobby after all. Maybe they’re right. Nevertheless, as one of those people who is easily bored, I find that what isn’t taken seriously is frequently rather dull.

Take Facebook for example. I’ve got about 50 friends there, and I check in most days to see what folks are up to. It seems a good way to stay in touch with people I’d otherwise never speak with. In fact, thanks to Facebook, I’m once again in contact with my sister, whom I hadn’t spoken to in 20 years prior. But still, browsing the conversations my mind often casts itself to the scene in Impromptu where Franz Liszt is on stage mocking his patrons, complaining that their “conversation is not witty.” Why does anyone think I care if they have a hangnail, or if they’re about to go home from work?

The novelty of the thing wears off quickly; rapidly settling into the mundane as the deeply ingrained narcissistic tendencies we all share rear their head for all to see and approve with a friendly thumb’s up. Not that I’m any better; take this blog for instance. The irony doesn’t escape me. But most of the time I exert a fair amount of effort suppressing my Asperger’s like tendency to lack empathy for people’s obsession with the least interesting things in their life.

Yeah, that’s an analogy. Wargaming is exactly the same. The novelty wore off a long time ago, now we’ve settled down to the mundane as those narcissists I mentioned above, eager to put the “designer” tag next to their name on BGG, lift systems from their favorite game designs and cobble together new titles to the acclaim of those who don't really know any better anyway.

So yeah… I take wargames seriously.

We often think of someone who is not receptive to new ideas as having a closed mind. I’m not certain we have a word or phrase for a mind that’s not open to ideas at all, but we should invent one. I spend a fair amount of my time casting about for new ideas and new ways of conceptualizing things. It’s why I’m often found reading books on physics, or French post modernism, or just lying on my back on the floor staring at the ceiling.

Like most people, I have a job. Like a somewhat lesser number of them, I like my job. Like even fewer, I consider it a profession. Saying that it’s also a practice and intellectual pursuit reduces the number still further. Almost everything I do in life I do to enhance my performance at the work that I do. I suspect now, most folks would start considering that abnormal. But I would guess that there are several others here who will read this blog entry and know exactly what I’m talking about. We’re obsessed. Our wives, if we’re lucky enough to have one, know it, and some of them even tolerate it. We are defined by what we do, and without it, we are nothing.

Wargaming (professionally) is part of what I do, and yes, I take it very seriously. As a result, I’m very critical of the commercial end of it (see my latest installment of Groping for the New Paradigm in the latest ATO). I fully admit that my own early contributions do not live up to my own standards. Yet, they were part of the process of finding those standards. Such is life.

So when someone tells me to lighten up and not to take wargames so seriously, I may smile and nod, but inside I’m conceiving of a mind without a parachute. Sure, it’s a hobby. Sure, there’s no harm in some good clean fun. The point of this pile of words is simply to say that if you think I take it too seriously, I’m not really talking to you. Enjoy yourself.

Oh, and if someone finds what I’m saying incites anger or fury, then we’ll need to figure out that word or phrase I mentioned earlier. It’s also fairly likely that having that parachute would be of little help. After all, one still needs to know how to open it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Groping for the New Paradigm Revisited

It’s been a few years now since I sat down and wrote the original Groping for the New Paradigm articles. Since then a lot has happened. Four years of editing Fire & Movement have elapsed, and I’ve had the interesting experience of seeing quite a number of new games cross my desk, much more so than when I was just writing the occasional review or making an occasional impulse purchase. So has that experience altered my opinion in any way?

Sadly, not really. I’ve seen a few things that were very innovative and/or holistic in approach, make no mistake. But by and large, the hobby remains the same. Since taking over F&M, I’ve played more games in the last few years than I’ve probably played prior to that time combined. What’s more, I’ve been particular about which games I would play or review, since, as editor, I pretty much had my pick. Despite looking specifically for innovative and holistic design approaches, and even instructing F&M reviewers to point it out in the games that they reviewed, we really haven’t seen many.

In this article what I would like to do is to couch discussion of what I’ve seen in the last few years in terms of some of the feedback that the original articles received, clarify a few points, and perhaps make a few new ones.

Assessing the Feedback

To be frank, I don’t usually go looking for feedback on published work. To me it feels, well, narcissistic. What’s more, reading comments posted anonymously in public forums can be quite depressing as the veil of civility is often replaced by, what seems to be, a sort of feeding frenzy for people afflicted with anger management issues. Nevertheless, I read through a lot of it at the urging of the good folks at ATO and It was nice to see that there were many who gave the pieces a chance, sad to see that many did not. In the beginning I tried to participate in the discussions. However, once it stopped being about the content of the articles and started being about me personally, I decided to drop out. By the time published the series, I had pretty much lost interest in commenting on them, despite some fairly demanding requests from participants that I do so.

To my surprise, I got much positive feedback through email. To my greater surprise, much of that positive feedback came from game designers and publishers. Joseph Miranda, Dan Verssen, Grant Dalgliesh, and Thomas Cundiff, to name a few, all were very receptive to the critiques and supportive of the effort and ideas. In public forums, however, much of the feedback was quite scathing. Richard Berg, perhaps, provided some of the most negative commentary, calling me, among other things, “uninformed,” which is probably the politest thing I can quote.

Some feedback was downright nasty. One writer claimed that my character was questionable because I recommended reading Thomas Sowell’s Citizen’s Guide to Economics. Apparently Mr. Sowell once wrote an Op Ed piece that mentioned something about Nazis that this writer disagreed with. Now I’ve never read the piece he was referring to, nor, prior to his mentioning it, had ever heard of it. Yet somehow, perhaps through some mysterious process of osmosis, my character was affected by it. Well I’m no expert on such matters, but what I can tell you is that if you’d like to learn something about how basic economics works, it’s a good book. But if you are not capable of reading works by people whose political positions you don’t happen to share, I can’t help you (and frankly neither can anyone else).

Another reader took the interesting and admirable step of creating a list of games that he and others thought were innovative in direct response to the articles. This list was housed at With some enthusiasm I went and looked at the list, hoping that I had indeed missed things. To my disappointment, the vast majority of the games listed were well over ten years old, some well over twenty, and a few closing in on antique status. The few games listed that were more recent I had indeed already seen. Each had some innovative features, only one was any sort of radical departure. In fact I thought the list did more to prove my point than anything else. But ultimately the list was based upon the mistaken premise that what I was complaining about was lack of innovation rather than flawed design processes.

Just What Did I Mean By That?

An interesting phenomenon one sees when reading commentary on published articles is that if someone disagrees with a piece they will inevitably add that it was poorly written, while the opposite is stated if they agree with it. It’s a curious occurrence, even a bit amusing. What was common with the Paradigm pieces was that folks who generally found merit to them understood that they were discussing a design approach, while folks who disagreed seemed to think that I was criticizing hexes and CRTs, or just complaining about lack of innovation for innovation’s sake. Well written or not, it’s clear that if one feels one’s ox is being gored, one reads into the pieces what one wants.

Hexes and CRTS were most certainly not the point of the series. That my solution to the wargame industry is to design games on modern conflict was also not the point, nor was mere lack of innovation. Criticizing the substance of something on the grounds of items unrelated to its point seems silly. But there is always the possibility that it was indeed poorly written and that some folks just couldn’t fathom it. One criticism did cite that the writing was academic in style, which I certainly realize can be difficult to sift through. Another stated that the articles were bad because of their title, which apparently had sexual connotations. I was unaware of those connotations. I grope for the snooze button on my alarm clock every morning, and Kuhn is probably the least sexual material I’ve ever read. Writing and reading are such treacherous activities, and when we’re mad we often grope for anything we can find to justify our anger. It’s the paradigm of the thing.

So, for clarity’s sake, I’ll reiterate the general point of Groping for the New Paradigm here. The point of the first article was to criticize the fact that many designers took hexes and CRTs as given. More broadly stated, the basic model of move—as regulated by hexes—and shoot—as represented by some seemingly quantitative assessment of firepower, applied to some seemingly thought-out probability matrix—was simply assumed to be part of a game design from its outset, even before the game’s topic was considered. I think that approach has stifled creativity in particular and the industry in general, and led to an endless parade of mediocrity. That is not to say that these techniques should be abandoned, far from it. They are tools in the tool box, to be used when it is appropriate to use them, but they are not what define a wargame.

Interestingly, the first article seemed to generate the most ferocity. The take-away for me was that some folks really are passionate about their games at a deeply emotional level. I’m still uncertain what to make of that. It is, however, fairly clear that this level of emotion seems to be coupled with some very trivial concerns. I recently witnessed a debate on consimworld in which ASL players heatedly discussed whether new ASL counters should be printed on white card-stock or the traditional gray. Don’t get me wrong, I happen to love ASL, but this debate went on for well over a dozen posts. On the other hand, one must look long and hard for designer’s notes that explain where the quantitative aspects of any particular game design (e.g. the combat factors) come from or how they are derived. One must look even harder for complaints about their absence.

From my point of view this contrast is a real paradox. I find it difficult to reconcile such a high level of passion for this hobby with so little concern for how these products are constructed. The last time I recall reading a good explanation for how the quantitative aspects of a game design were put together, the author was Frank Chadwick.

The second installment in the series was probably the best received. It introduced the notion of what I call the holistic design approach. The idea here is that a game design must start with its topic, define what specific issues it is trying to address, and select appropriate mechanisms for modeling it. It was set up to specifically follow up on the first piece, showing that the Hex/CRT paradigm should not be the starting point of any design, and discussing, instead, what should be.

It is this point that makes adequate design notes so important. If one is to assess whether any particular game is a success, it helps to know what the intentions were. These intentions are not always apparent from the game itself; often it seems apparent that the only intention was to just design a game (and grab all that accompanying fame and fortune).

Some examples of designers putting little effort into the topic include such things as smoothbore muskets accurate out to 400 yards, fifteen square miles of African scrub able to contain only a battalion of infantry or vehicles, 7000 square mile scatter area for delivery of nuclear munitions on missiles, cannon unable to unlimber and fire within a two-hour time span, highly mobile modern combat units lined up shoulder to shoulder to invade North Korea in the finest tradition of eighteenth century European warfare, and the list goes on. Had any of these issues been corrected in the games, the designs would either have been completely unaffected, or would have needed a complete reevaluation. Either one is grounds for making the change and doing it right. If it doesn’t affect the game, why not do it right? If it does affect the game design, then the design is based upon an erroneous assumption. In that case it might as well be about orcs and sorcerers (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Problems are not limited to designers, as some developers also put very little attention into the mechanics of games. Examples include three-inch high counter stacks, rules dispersed ad hoc onto play aides, or rulebooks seemingly constructed at random.

All of these examples come from games that have been published within the last few years, and few of these issues garnered much concern among game players. It’s hard to make headway when neither designers nor players care about it. However, the fact that many people were receptive to the ideas presented in the second piece gives reason to be hopeful.

Unfortunately, part three was probably the least effective of the series. Most folks seemed to think that I was proposing that wargaming could only be “saved” if it focused more on modern topics. Although I think that modern topics are important with respect to generating interest among potential new hobbyists, that is certainly not what I was trying to get across. What part three was trying to do was to take a topic, which happened to be one I was particularly interested in, and show how defining the topic and the purpose of the game at the outset leads to more appropriate choices of component design. Nevertheless, most readers seemed to find the article disappointing.

Does This Really Matter?

There was one piece of feedback that I found most disturbing. Its gist was that I should “get over it,” that the hobby was dead, would remain dead, and that only a handful of old folks played anyway and they should be left alone to do what they enjoy with what manufacturers that were left. Had this feedback only come from one person I wouldn’t be mentioning it here. Unfortunately, it came from several.

Reflecting upon this particular piece of feedback yielded little in the way of response. Somehow I doubt that there is anything I could say that would change the mind of someone who thinks the hobby should be left alone to rest in peace. Nevertheless, I’ll try to make a case for why what we do and how we do it matters.

I do conflict modeling for a living. Not wargames, but actual mathematical modeling of conflict, kinetic and political. I use several techniques to do this, and each is chosen, modified, combined, or invented to fit the topic and generate the results needed. A side effect of my work is that I travel to a lot of conferences where I meet other people who do the same or similar kind of work. They come from government, private industry, the military, you name it. And one thing that most of them pay attention to in some form or another is what goes on in the commercial simulation industry. Mostly they look at computer software, but many pay close attention to what’s happening in the board-game industry as well.

Every year the Air Force puts on the Connections conference, now known as the Defense Modeling & Simulation Conference. This year (2008) I’ve been asked to participate on a panel dedicated to commercial wargaming. Additionally I’ll be giving a presentation on initiation of conflict and deterrence and how to wargame it. People attend this conference from industry (e.g. Raytheon, Northrup Grumman, etc.), military (Naval War College, Air Force Research Lab, etc.), and various other sectors. Just about all of them have a particular interest in wargames, and they’re paying attention.

Last December (2007) Joseph Miranda and I attended the Military Operations Research Society conference. While there we spent several hours one evening entertaining an instructor from the CIA. He was evaluating board wargames to be used as teaching tools in the classroom after hearing that Joseph and I were presenting on wargaming the current situation in Baghdad. Speaking of which, after the presentation we got about a dozen mathematicians, officers, and foreign military representatives to sit around a table and play a game of Battle for Baghdad, a board wargame.

The truth is that the military, policy think-tanks, and various other entities are all on the look out for new ways to model conflict, especially modern, asymmetric conflict and the political environment in which it takes place. Board wargaming is just one of the places that they are looking.

But moving away from the professional end of things, let’s address it from another angle. I recently posed the question in an F&M editorial whether a fun game was all that mattered. Unfortunately not a lot of responses came in, but there were a few. The gist of those that did was that fun, indeed, was the main issue, while historical accuracy came in second. What struck me as interesting was that in each of the responses the preference was always ordinal. The idea that one could demand both a fun came and one that was accurate at the same time did not appear in any response. What’s even more interesting was that the idea of the fun being predicated on the historical accuracy itself was completely absent. This missing relationship seemed odd indeed given that we’re talking about historical board war games that often require several hours just to read the rules, let alone play.

I think that if we as hobbyists ask ourselves just why it is we play these games, to have fun may be a common answer, but if that were all there was to it we’d just play Monopoly instead. We also must, by default, be interested in military issues, historical or otherwise. To be willing to put up with twenty or more pages of rules, I’d say very interested. If we are very interested, and willing to put in the hours that it takes to learn and play these games, doesn’t it also make sense that we be concerned that our investment in internalizing all the nuances of any given design be rewarded by the assurance that the experience we are gaining from the process has some foundation in reality? That whatever the military issue we are concerning ourselves with by learning to play a game on the subject is, in fact, as accurate and useful a representation as possible; that its perspectives and parameters be well defined and its assumptions accurate and justifiable?

And finally, designers, do you want to intellectually explore a topic and represent it from a useful perspective that efficiently and elegantly models the topic, or do you just want to design a game? To quote John Boyd, do you want to be someone or do you want to do something? To put it in the Jon Compton vernacular, are you an artist or an ass?

Is wargaming dead? It’s as dead as its practitioners allow it to be.

Good Vs. Innovative

Although the commentary that thought my purpose was to complain about lack of innovation was a bit off the mark, much of that same commentary seemed to think that I was conflating innovative with good. Make no mistake, there have been several games recently published that were good and yet contained no innovation whatsoever.

A holistically designed game need contain no innovation, it need only use mechanisms, existing or new, that express the point of the design effectively. The problem is that there are many aspects to conflict that can and should be explored for which we have few or no existing mechanisms.

Modern conflict is rife with examples. Today our armed forces are faced with asymmetric threats, non-state actors, cyberwarfare, and are constrained by political considerations more than ever. Insurgency, occupation, and military operations other than war (MOOTWA) occupy the minds of military planners in addition to traditional force on force considerations.

But these sorts of considerations are hardly limited to modern conflict. Fourth generation warfare, as it’s now fashionably called, has been around a long, long time, going back all the way to Belisarius and further. Yet as a factor in wargames, it is either ignored, or relegated to a subsystem that usually underestimates its effectiveness by a wide margin. Many games have tried to tackle insurgency operations, with varying degrees of success. I think one of the best is Joseph Miranda’s Holy War: Afghanistan, while one of the most disappointing is VG’s Central America. The difference between the two games lies in both innovation and lack of it, but more importantly in the use of existing and appropriate mechanisms to model insurgency. But to model insurgency as a feature, there simply aren’t very many mechanisms in our tool box to do so. Thus, any game that aspires to be exclusively about insurgency would by default have to be innovative.

Yet a game does not need innovation to be good. A recent game that was outstanding yet contained a minimum of actual innovation is GMT’s Europe Engulfed. In this instance the designer knew what he was about from the outset, and put together a game covering the entire European Theater of World War II in a playable, digestible, highly enlightening, and exceptionally entertaining package. The perspective is consistent, and the mechanisms appropriate. What’s more, he playtested the hell out of it before he even considered submitting it for publication. The result is what, in my opinion, was one of the best games published that year.

Other games that fall into the excellent but not necessarily innovative category include MMP’s A Victory Lost, and Compass Games’ Bitter End. Each of these utilizes hexes and CRTs, but employed them as means to an end, rather than just an excuse to publish another game.

But what about games that invented major systems to model specific aspects of conflict? Unfortunately there have not been very many of these. One example that does come to mind though is Bowen Simmons’ Bonaparte at Marengo. In this design, Simmons had two specific goals: he wanted to capture the look and feel of the appearance of the maps of the nineteenth century, as well as the depiction of armies on maps in that period and he wanted to design a system that captured the essence of the campaign in a simple and elegant manner. By starting with these concepts rather than taking hexes and CRTs as given, he created a unique and rewarding game that not only tells us something about the battle, but about the era itself.

Another game that fits the bill is Silent War from Compass Games. Brien Miller wanted to capture the operational aspects of the US submarine war in the Pacific during the Second World War in a solitaire game, and he succeeded marvelously. The system is a complete departure from the standard wargame fair, and uses innovative systems to model the relevant aspects of the conflict.

Other designers that deserve mention for their willingness to venture into new realms include Mark Herman, most noted for designing the first card-driven game, he remains, in my opinion, the only designer to do it well. However, my favorite design of Herman’s is one where he is actually credited as developer, Next War. Joseph Miranda also gets a nod in being one of the few designers who recognizes the role that Politics plays in conflict.

The Sum of All Beers (and Pretzels)

Last year saw the publication of well over a hundred board wargames. The years preceding saw a comparable number released. Many of these titles crossed my desk at Fire & Movement. I wish I could say that I thought things were changing, but I don’t think that they are. In fact, the crop of games in 2006 and 2007, compared to 2005, may have gotten a bit poorer overall by the criteria I’ve defined. I’m currently mulling over the list of games published in 2007 for the International Gamers Awards, and frankly I’m hard pressed to pick one that I think deserves the award.

Most publishers seem just as capable of publishing dreck as they are gold. I can only think of two established publishers and one newcomer that seem to maintain a high level of quality consistently. And yes, I’m going to remain coy about whom they are, but all three have been mentioned in this article.

I also must admit that I found this piece difficult to write. One of my editorial policies at F&M has been that reviewers review what comes in the box. My firm belief, and one I’ve taken more than a little flak for, is that the designer had his say when he put the game in the box. I had mine when I wrote the original Paradigm articles. Yet I’ve felt that, while reading through the various commentaries both positive and negative, more than a few folks simply weren’t getting it. Then again, more than a few folks have really liked games that I thought were dismal junk, some of which even won awards. C’est la vie.