Monday, April 3, 2017

Wargaming With The Big Boys And Girls

Sometimes this image, from a recent Canada/US military exercise, is how I would like to wargame, stomping around on a big map in my combat boots, pointing at things, with player aids and counters carefully prepared by dutiful underlings.  

This last week on The Strategy Bridge, an online journal for military, government and think-tank types, there has been a good discussion on wargaming from a professional perspective.

Of course, for some of us, wargaming is a subset of military history that looks backwards rather than forwards.  We focus on past conflicts, and ask ourselves if the games are faithful models of the past (assuming that we can know the past), or, in the words of the old Avalon Hill box titles, if we can do better than Alexander or Rommel did. 

However, for those of us in the hobby that want to look forwards, who are interested in wargaming the near future, we will know that wargaming as a hobby has often intersected with military training.  Mark Herman, for example, was one of a stable of games designers who cut their teeth with Jim Dunnigan and SPI imagining future wars with the USSR and other likely opponents before the fall of the Berlin Wall becalmed SPI and ultimately bankrupted it.  Herman, I think on the Guns, Dice and Butter podcast, talked about how he was picked up by the Pentagon for the work he had done with SPI.  More recently Brian Train and Volko Ruhnke have attracted attention from the military community, who see their contemporary titles as useful training aids.

So, depending on where you are in our hobby, the stuff in the Bridge series may not be earthshaking news, but it is interesting to hear professionals talk about the same issues of simulation, probability and uncertainty that we also think about.

Rex Brynen , asks how wargames can help planners calculate the likely actions of actors who may be unpredictable (think Donald Trump) or who want to be seen as unpredictable (think Nixon vs Vietnam).

Krisjand Rothweiler talks about various types of wargames, including matrix and seminar games, to imagine solutions or strategies to problems such as geopolitical rivalries over territories and resources, or terrorism.

Tom McDermott writes about the importance of capturing the psychology of the opponent in a wargame, in the spirit of Clausewitz's use of the metaphor of a duel with a thinking, feeling opponent rather than a dispassionate, predictable adversary.

Mark Jones writes about using wargaming in a predictive manner, assuming that you can get the probabilities write.  He starts with an anecdote about US troops preparing for Desert Storm, using a boardgame by Frank Chadwick's (sadly now defunct) Games Design Workshop to prepare for their war.  Jones notes that predictions of allied casualties for Desert Storm were wildly off, and asks how wargames designers can and should address uncertainty in their models.

Finally, Benjamin Jensen writes about how military leaders since Moltke the Elder have used wargames to learn about their craft and to prepare for the future.  Jensen ends with the promise of a series of games being published online by The Strategy Bridge over the year to come, a project I shall be watching with interest.

Obviously the types of games and the mindsets described in this article may be vastly different than the typical club game  fought in a few hours, where Vikings and Saxons, or Tigers and T34s, are pitted against each other in a purely tactical context.  However, if I could go to a weekend event where there was a game, perhaps lasting half a day or a day, run according to some of the principles described in these articles, for example, any of the matrix games described here on the Paxsims website,  I would be all over that.

Blessings to your imaginings!



  1. Interesting post, Michael. I went and has a look at that article on predictability and uncertainty in wargames as models for military conflict. Thought provoking. I am reminded of the old comment that in wargames the taken over the long run, tend overall to the statistical expectations. But in war games, there is no 'long run', and I suspect that there isn't in war, neither.

    On the matter of the casualties in Desert Storm, what is US casualties that were underestimated -- or was it something else that might have led to a better estimate? It seems to me that not only outcomes uncertain, but maybe so are inputs.

    1. Thank you Ion. I am not sure exactly why the US overestimated their casualties in Desert Storm, but I suspect that their estimates exaggerated the fighting power and morale of the Iraqi army. Saddam had basically tethered his army to the desert and let it be pummelled from the air by weeks, and so the bulk of his conscript army was ready to surrender the first chance they got. It may have been among the world's top ten land armies in terms of size, but it was a hollow shell. Now it's a good thing for generals and war planners not to make estimates lightly and overoptimistically, as the British did in the leadup to the Somme. Perhaps there was no way of knowing how the Iraqis would perform until the invasion started, and it was pbly best that they overestimated. But your point about inputs is a good one, in that an adversary can be very much an unknown quantity until the shooting starts. Take the North Koreans - theirs is also a conscript army, perhaps underfed and undersupplied, perhaps with substandard training. How well would they fight? Would they desert the regime en masse at the first opportunity, or would they fight tenaciously because of patriotism and ideology? Where do you obtain the inputs to assess these factors? From NORK defectors? Perhaps, but are they trustworthy and typical of their peers, or are they saying what they want the US and the ROK to hear? For these reasons, I think you would want some unpredictability in a next war North Korea game.

  2. Interesting stuff and funny timing since I am off to the National Army Museum tonight. As part of their one-year Wargames exibit (yes your read that right!) they have a lecture by a prof. from the Swedish Defense University talking about gaming as an educational tool.

    1. Thank you Thomas. When I come visit you, this will be on my must-see list.

    2. We have that and the Royal Armouries and the Royal Castle within 20 minutes walking distance. I think we'll be able to keep you entertained for a day or two.

    3. It's a deal. I just need to work out the date.

  3. Interesting stuff Mike, I'll take a look for sure to the articles tonight. Thanks for pointing this out, if you don't mind I'll also disseminate in my blog and the Lardies Yahoo Group.

    1. Thanks for pushing this out there a bit further, Benito. Glad you found it food for thought.

  4. Oh Padre, where to begin... but yes, that was an excellent week.

    Dunnigan did say that any wargame that could not reproduce the historical result it was based on was a failure, and rightly so. But he and SPI were also the only ones (for a long time) doing wargames on history that hadn't happened yet, or happened to have just happened, or be happening at the time (Year of the Rat, Sinai, Arabian Nightmare... this last was probably the first wargame to be designed and developed over the Internet).

    So you look at the past for some inspiration, which is where the nuttily high estimates of US casualties in the First Gulf War came from, but you have to look to the future too. This is where people can fall into the "wargames predict the future" trap: they don't and can't, at least not to a degree that would not be disowned by a skittish sponsor later. Their value is in generating a range of results, and even more valuable are the discussions subsequent to those resutls. This is why ideally professional wargames are run in strings or series, not as one-offs (the really big ones are often set up as culminations of smaller games).

    Finally, matrix games. You may or may not be aware that before these were used by professional militaries (this is a very, very recent development), they were used by miniatures gamers! Look at Bob Cordery's blog for some history on how the Wargames Developments crowd would use matrix games to set up battles in their miniatures campaigns. See

    There's nothing stopping you from running one of these on your own, you know!
    Like most such exercises, they do well or poorly depending on the facilitator and the spirit of the individual players to join in and not "metagame" the whole thing.

    1. Brian, it is an honour and a delight that you would grace my humble blog. In my earlier answer to the good Archduke above, I think I was working through the point you make about the difficulty of predicting the future. In modelling a war with North Korea, will there be any precedents that would inform our design? Will the Norks fold like the Iraqis in GS1 or will their terrain advantages, their nationalism and indoctrination lead them to perform more like the North Vietnamese? Who can say? Any war planners who are trying to game that war as a prelude to the real thing should be working on a number of models, with, as you say, lots of discussions along the way.
      Thank you for the reminder about Bob Cordery, he is one of the unsung gems in the hobby and is worthy of attention for many reasons. I will also check out your link when I am at home - the DND network is very skittish of URLs and WWW names with `game`in them.
      I do occasionally think of running such a what if game, but I think I need to see some examples first. I am close enough to Ottawa and Montreal to participate in some of Rex B`s Paxsims events.
      In your own development work, have you ever tried to look at a future war vice a current or past one?

    2. Shucks Michael, you'll have me blushing....

      I will be at the Cangames event in Ottawa in May (19-21), Rex will be running two zombie apocalypse games and we will be sitting down together to play Colonial Twilight, my 2p COIN system game on Algeria. I thought you lived in Toronto, which is kind of far.

      Future wars: I haven't done as much here as I would like to. Besides the contemporary stuff (A Distant Plain, BCT Command Kandahar, Kandahar, Ukrainian Crisis) I have done Third Lebanon War which is about a near-futre IDF incursion into South Lebanon to stamp out Hezbollah, again. (It was published by Decision Games in mutilated form as "Next War in Lebanon", so you can get the original game from me for free print-and-play off my website.) That design was finished just before the Syrian Civil War broke out, which is an exterior factor I didn't take into account at the time, but it does not strongly affect the play of the basic game.

      My next near-future project will be on urban warfare, something I have been interested in working on for a long time. I have to get disentangled from some other projects first, but I think it's something I have to look at.

    3. Brian, as someone who is currently readning the Larteguy books, please tell me more about the Algeria game.

    4. Hi Thomas:

      The BGG entry is here and there are some interesting threads where we talk about supplementary sources, including the Larteguy books.

      But these links on my blog will tell you, or lead you to, absolutely everything you want to know about the design, including links to a very long (3-part) interview about the game on the Players Aid blog, and the five posts about it on InsideGMT:

      You can also download the rules directly from GMT here:

      (though I hope you ordered your P500 copy there too!)

    5. I have now ordered a boardgame I had no idea I needed before I read this blog post. I blame you, Padre!

    6. You always needed it, Thomas... you just didn't realize it! Enjoy it, at a healthy discount too.

    7. True dat! And pretty close to publication too.

    8. Thomas, you need more games that don't have zombies in them. I am getting on the Colonial Twilight bandwagon as well.
      Brian, I do live near Toronto (Barrie) but am thinking hard about coming to Ottawa for CanGames. I have always wanted to come. It would be a thrill to meet you and to play in Rex's zombie game (Thomas, come too - zeds!). Fun fact, I knew Rex B in my undergrad, though I doubt he remembers me. Another fun fact, I have BCT Kandahar on my pile of games to play, I didn't know it was one of your designs.

    9. Well I hope to see you Michael... I will be swinging up to Ottawa for CanGames after visiting the US Army War College in Carlisle to do some Colonial-Twilight related stuff, as I did last spring.
      Funner fact: Rex and I met in the early 80s, when I was in high school and he was doing a History BA at the University of Victoria.
      We would play these great big micro-armour games in the University classrooms on Sunday, under the arrangements of their wargaming club.
      Rex had the biggest collection but he had mostly Soviet stuff, so we played a lot of Russians vs. Chinese.
      I lost touch with Rex after he left Victoria but we met again 30 years later, at the annual Connections conference on professional wargaming.
      BCT Kandahar: Joe Miranda and I worked on that one together. The basic Staff Card part of it is his, other aspects and the map and counters are my work.

  5. A very interesting post, with some good links for further reading. Thanks Mike, I really enjoyed this.

    I'm currently reading Shattered Sword (Parshall and Tully, 2005). It describes the Battle of Midway, but from the Japanese perspective. One telling aspect was the debacle of the Japanese Navy wargames, conducted during the planning stages of the operation. Yamamoto saw the wargames as a result of planning, not as part of the planning phase - he wrote his plan, then used the wargames to confirm the validity of his idea. He dismissed anything which came out of the wargaming that didn't fit in with his idea, such as the conclusion that his carriers would be highly vulnerable.

    Wargaming is a very useful planning tool, and I'm a strong advocate of it (in my own very modest circle). I believe it shouldn't be just a tool for the brigade staffs, but that tactical commanders down to section level can use it for the same purpose. If not during actual combat as a planning tool, then certainly as a training tool. It would be a more realistic way of testing a young section commander's plan than the current method, which is to enact the whole attack with blanks and end up firing at your 'enemy' from a range of ten feet. If the plan is rubbish, that doesn't come out in a section attack.

    I will print and keep this article to hand for my future clashes with Colonel Blimp characters!

  6. Interesting melding of hobby and profession, Michael. You have provided plenty of links for me to dive into at my leisure. Regarding the GDW wargame used for Desert Storm, was the name of the game mentioned? Before the conflict began in earnest, I recall estimates of high expected casualties too. So, it was not just the hobby-side of wargaming that missed introducing some very influential parameters into the model.

    1. Phase Line Smash.


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