Perspective in Wargames: Who Exactly Are You?
When you’re “playing” the game, who are you “playing”? ~
Derek Croxton, 07 May 2016
You are Napoleon. You have a chance to remake the map of Europe with your Grande Armée. You are Robert E. Lee, trying to fend off the Union until foreign aid arrives. You are Patton, dashing through France with your Third Army.
These statements are typical of the sort of advertising used to sell wargames, and are indicative of why gamers play: they like assuming the role of an historical figure and get a vicarious thrill out of making the same sort of decisions, only trying to make better ones. Gaming is thus a form of role-playing, and a lot of the pleasure hinges on what historical figure one plays. Some people would never play the Union in Civil War games, others refuse to play the Confederacy: they are identifying with the historical actors in more than an intellectual sense. There are, of course, games that are entirely or almost entirely abstract, such as chess, which are also fun to play. While they provide the same sort of intellectual challenges, however, they do not provide the same kind of fulfillment as a chance to remake history.
The fun of gaming, then, is in part based on accepting historical limitations. There is always a desire to transcend these limitations – to have Napoleon win at Waterloo, for example – but certain restrictions have to be accepted. If one wants to be Napoleon, one has to accept the fact that France’s navy will probably not be a match for Britain’s and that one will be fighting a whole coalition of forces, just as one will benefit from having a nation in arms and well-disciplined, loyal, and courageous soldiers. History consists of a virtually infinite number of forces, of which an individual – the player – can only control a very few. This is precisely what drives a game: deciding how to act within the constraints of the historical situation. This article investigates the problems of trying to put players in historical roles: first of identifying proper historical figures to simulate, and second of creating the possibilities and limitations that those figures historically faced. I contend that a game is usually more fun and more realistic where a designer has given thought to these issues.
The problem of perspective is especially acute at the tactical level. The smoke, noise, and confusion of battlefields are legendary; friction and fog of war are as important as planning, and psychology sometimes dominates doctrine in deciding the victor. These sorts of problems are very difficult to simulate. ASL, probably the greatest tactical system ever, does not even make much of an attempt. The concept of morale and broken units was and remains a brilliant innovation, but it only covers a small part of the problems experienced by a leader. Though it purports to deal with “the ultimate stress situation” in which decisions “could be warped by the unpredictable dictates of fate,” in fact players have absolute vision of the battlefield and total control of any squads not actually shot at, and broken, by the enemy. I once debated with a friend for an hour on the lack of reluctant sergeants, botched communications, and inaccurate maps that one might actually have to deal with. His initial reaction was disbelief: of course there are no reluctant sergeants, you are the sergeant. This is what the name of the game would lead you to believe – you are, after all, playing Squad Leader – but in fact you are more like a company leader (if you were a squad leader, they should give you only one squad).
Up Front is a challenging reaction to the all-knowing, all-seeing player of Squad Leader. Like its predecessor, Up Front emphasizes the element of chance in battle, but now the players themselves are much more personally limited than before. The game’s title provides a clue why: unlike the Squad Leader player, who is somewhere off map, the Up Front player is in the front line with the individual squad. Intelligence is so limited that he does not even know what kind of terrain is in front of him; snipers hit out of nowhere, soldiers may be stuck for many turns without being able to move, and the most powerful group is often impotent for lack of fire cards. Courtney Allen may not be right when he claims that Up Front “is a more accurate simulation with much more inherent realism than its larger scale predecessor,” but he has certainly framed the debate in a way that makes this claim plausible. Something of an overreaction to the excesses of Squad Leader, Up Front nevertheless gives a useful alternate view of the player’s role in which he can neither see everything, nor force his men to do anything that he wants. The success of this view may be demonstrated by the extent to which it has influenced Squad Leader, through the addition of such things as increased concealment and the use of random snipers. Up Front also uses another, more implicit technique in the way a player’s perspective shifts. Presumably a player starts off as the sergeant of his squad, but if the sergeant dies, the player continues to run things. This can be justified by having the player shift perspectives to that of the assistant squad leader. The player’s perspective has changed, but the game retains its feel because the player is still only simulating one person at a time. The use of shifting perspective is an important game-design technique for getting around many otherwise insurmountable problems, and will come up more later.
Pre-World War II tactical games have had more success simulating command limitations, in part because their larger scale makes them easier to simulate. Napoleonic and Civil War games have long included leaders who sometimes do not obey orders (although active disobedience is still beyond the reach of the relatively simple mechanisms of boardgames). No doubt history books have had an influence on this; while World War II abounds with the actions of the Eighth Division or the Thirtieth Corps, units in the histories of Waterloo or Gettysburg are more identified with their leaders. The role of the individual is to some extent a key theme in pre-modern warfare, and is probably more prominent the further back in history that one looks. Who, after all, is not aware that Longstreet’s failure to attack Little Round Top according to Lee’s orders cost the Confederates victory at Gettysburg? What game on the Second Punic War is not called Hannibal? Individuals also tend to be accented in pre-modern warfare because they led armies which took on their particular characteristics. In this day of interchangeable parts and Tables of Organization and Equipment, there is less of an opportunity for the individual to stamp his personality on the units under his control. In some ways limited intelligence is also easier to simulate at this level, for units can be shoved off onto a leader’s display card, out of sight of the opposing player.
Operational games are generally easier to simulate than tactical ones because most of the extreme problems of seeing the battlefield and communicating with units are less severe. Operational commanders nevertheless have to face considerable limitations, and games on this level have brought about some of the most clever innnovations. World War II games introduced the concept of the double blind simulation in such games as Eighth Army, The Normandy Campaign, and Operation Market-Garden. Although this genre has been less popular in recent years, it was very successful when it first came out. Each player has his own map (which necessitates a relatively small battle area) and keeps track of his own units, but only knows which hexes his opponents control, not what is in them. Like Up Front, these games circumscribe the players’ actions too much, by giving them practically no knowledge of the enemy. Keith Poulter, editor of the defunct Wargamer, was particularly enamoured of double blind games. The system he introduced in Clash of Steel, an East Front game, demonstrates that it is possible to have reconnaissance rules in a double blind game.
Another innovation at the operational level has been the use of blocks to represent units. These blocks, when tilted upright, conceal their value to the opponent without interfering with the vision of the owner. Blocks also lend themselves to easy command limitations through the use of the group move, in which only the units at a single location may be moved. With these two innovations, blocks have been successfully applied to many different historical situations in Napoleon, Rommel in the Desert, Quebec, and 1812. Napoleon also introduced the innovation of shifting the players’ perspectives during the course of play. Starting on an operational level map, play moves to the battleboard to resolve combat. The battleboard gives an extremely subtle and successful impression of the Napoleonic battlefield. The idea of changing perspective during play in this manner has been tried in other games, but without the same success as Napoleon.
Probably the biggest trend in wargaming has been the wildly successful card-driven game. In these games, you don’t know exactly what your opponent is capable of doing, or even what you might be capable of doing on the following turn. In this sense, they are reminiscent of Up Front. The first card-driven game, We the People, was also the most restrictive. It is common for the British player to go through whole turns without being able to move any of his generals because he simply lacks the cards. Most games since then have been less restrictive, with the more sluggish generals being able to move at the tradeoff of investing more “resources” (high cards) in them that could have been used elsewhere.
Strategic games bring on an entirely different set of problems from operational and strategic ones. Command, control, and limited intelligence are all problems of minimal significance. The exact strength of opposing units is less relevant; in strategic games they are often all of the same or very similar strength anyway. There are also fewer possibilities for friction in the command structure at this high a level. More important in this type of game are “upper” limitations — that is, limitations imposed by superiors. “Superiors” in this sense can mean something as simple as “superior officers,” but the question is often much more complicated than that, especially when a player’s “superior” is the political situation in the nation at large. Often the political situation is pushed to the side or completely ignored – no doubt because it is so hard to simulate – but some games have extremely shrewd ways of handling politics. Australian Design Group’s Days of Decision, for example, is based around the concept of “political will.” Each state has a certain number (usually from 6 to 9) representing its will, which can change during the game; a player has to roll this number or less in order to take his desired action. The exact identity of the player is ambiguous in this case, but presumably he represents the faction in favor of a more aggressive foreign policy in his government. The strong limitation on his ability to pursue his ends makes it possible to have the player be something other than an individual – especially considering that most games on this level put no limits on the political capabilities of a player whatsoever. Aulic Council’s Hannibal game has another innovatory system which limits players by the wills of the governments. Each turn the players must roll to determine what their Senates will let them do; without approval, the Carthaginians, for example, cannot reinforce Hannibal, and the Romans cannot invade Africa. This rule is a simple but elegant model of how to force players to work within the boundaries laid out by their political superiors — boundaries without which the war makes no sense.
Game designers have long realized the need for upper limitations, mainly because some situations are impossible to simulate unless one side is forced to make a manifestly bad move. Joseph Miranda has referred to these as “stupidity rules,” and they are the game designer’s bane. On a basic level are such conditions as forcing a player to hold a certain line, as one would want to do in a game simulating the Battle of Moscow in the winter of 1941. An even more difficult problem is forcing a player to attack, for it introduces a whole new net of variables which do not come into play in defense. One simple and successful case occurs in the World War I simulation Guns of August, in which the French, because of their doctrine of the total offensive, are required to attack the Germans on the first turn. Ty Bomba provided a radically different approach in his End of the Iron Dream on the collapse of the Third Reich. The “Führer-mandated offensives” which one would expect to be such a nuisance are not really “mandated” at all; instead, a German player willing to suffer certain penalties can take it on himself to declare a “mandated” offensive, in exchange for which he gets an attack bonus. This is a clever way around the problem of forcing the player to attack more than he otherwise would, but it is quite artificial, since neither the advantage gained nor the penalty suffered in the attacks is the same as that incurred in the real war.
Hitler is a classic example of a leader who forced his subordinates to do stupid things. Slightly different is the case of the Roman people, whose rejection of Fabius’ delaying strategy during the Second Punic War led them to elect a leader who would take the battle to Hannibal. The result was Cannae, possibly the worst defeat any country has ever suffered. On a tactical level, how does a game designer force the Roman commander to act in a manner which will allow the re-creation of the historical result, especially if he is to leave him any freedom of choice at all? At a strategic level, how does the game designer force the Roman player to attack Hannibal rather than hide in a city? Cannae, the only tactical game of that battle of which I am aware, totally ignores the problem of forcing the Roman player to act historically. Most strategic games have taken this path as well; a good example is Aulic Council’s Hannibal game, in which the Roman player is not likely to leave the cities of Italy until he has a great superiority over Hannibal. The Strategy & Tactics Hannibal game is the first I have seen which makes an effort specifically to force the Romans to attack Hannibal when they do not want to, and its method is clever. The random event table to be rolled on is chosen according to the current strategic situation. If Hannibal is in Italy, and if the Carthaginians have more victories than the Romans, a random event could force the Romans to move to Hannibal and attack him in the upcoming turn. While simple, this solution is actually quite subtle. By taking account of the strategic situation in its determination of Roman attack, the game builds corporate morale nicely into the military situation without adding undue complexity.
Perspective Through the Centuries
Up to this point, we have been dealing exclusively with the military problems of perspective: how well a commander can see the battlefield, control his troops, and how his actions are influenced by his superiors. As the scale increases, however, one reaches the point where fighting is secondary, and the question is why one is fighting in the first place. This is the level of national morale, the point at which one must ask about victory conditions and their relation to the battlefield. Most strategic games have certain key cities as their ultimate object; Third Reich, 1776, and World in Flames are examples of this traditional sort of thinking about objectives. Unfortunately, these games tend to make victory a matter of counting cities at the end of the game; the fact that a country is losing badly has no effect on its will to fight. World in Flames, for example, has rules for a nation surrendering, but it is all-or-nothing: England is not weakened by submarine warfare, nor Germany by strategic bombing; Italy continues to fight with all her available strength until the last of the three conditions for defeating her is fulfilled. No country save France can have a peace forced on her short of absolute defeat.
This is particularly curious in a game which is innovative in so many respects, including the very unique U.S. entry rules. Unlike in most World War II games, in which the U.S. enters on a certain turn regardless of circumstances, in World in Flames the actions of the players affect the will of the United States to enter the conflict. Even more interesting is the effect, in Days of Decision, of the election of a Republican president in 1936: U.S. actions are seriously circumscribed, but the U.S. player, who is clearly not Franklin Roosevelt but some abstract force in favor of interventionism, continues in the game. Such ideas imply the role of non-military factors in a country’s will to fight, but they are not applied in the play of World in Flames.
Other games, however, have already taken this step. There is no “morale” as such in 1776, but the ability of the Continental player to recruit line troops and militia is based on control of territory, which presumably reflects the morale of American resistance. In 1809, victory hinges on “Vienna morale,” a track which shifts according to successes in the field. War to End Wars takes national morale a step further, for, in addition to victory depending on the breaking of the enemy’s morale, current morale has an actual effect on his combat performance. The Hannibal game from Strategy & Tactics has already been praised for its subtle application of corporate morale. Besides requiring the Roman player to attack, random events can (under the right military conditions) force one side to sue for peace. Avalon Hill’s Hannibal game also makes an effort at politics beyond the battlefield. Allies rally to the side with political control of a province, but losing a battle can result in the loss of political control, and, potentially, the game. Closer to home, Victory Games’ Vietnam examines a classic situation of a country’s failing will to fight robbing them of victory in the field. The game handles this problem by limiting the United States’ commitment level by its national morale. Since commitment only increases while morale remains the same, the American player must pace his involvement throughout the war lest he outstretch his resources early on. This is actually an awkward solution, since the American player has complete knowledge of public tolerance for the war and the costs of committing various forces, information that Johnson and Nixon would have loved to know; but in a game on a subject like Vietnam, it is much better than nothing.
Games such as these are groping toward a better understanding of the limitations placed on even the supreme commander of an army, especially limitations imposed by a political situation generally outside the scope of the game. The problem is complicated when the players do not represent so cohesive a force as an army or a nation. As games handle situations which rely less and less on institutions, the role of the individual in history shrinks, and thus the role of the player is increasingly abstracted. This makes it more difficult for the designer to create a niche in which the player can take historically reasonable actions while being circumscribed by real limitations. A good example is guerilla warfare, a form of combat which has frustrated generals no less than game designers precisely because they were unable to answer the basic question of who they were fighting. It is thus not surprising that games such as The Twilight War, Tito, and South Africa do not succeed very well in coming to grips with this problem, nor that designers have tended to shy away from games of this type. On the other hand, games on these subjects are invariably innovatory – traditional game mechanics simply do not cover the situation – and can have very interesting mechanisms, such as the taxation system in South Africa.
GMT’s popular COIN series provides an unusually subtle approach to the political aspects of insurgencies at the expense of a highly abstracted military system. COIN is also noted for making apparently bilateral situations multilateral. We tend to think of the Vietnam War as a conflict between Americans and North Vietnamese, but the COIN game Fire in the Lake has four players, representing America, the South Vietnamese government, the North Vietnamese government, and the Viet Cong. Applied to the American Revolution, this system creates players for the French and the Indians as well as the Americans and British. This is logical as far as independent actors go, but somewhat problematic in game terms because of the decidedly smaller role played by the French and Indian powers.
More explicitly political games represent another shift toward the abstraction of the player’s role, and therefore the difficulty of accurate simulation. Two examples are Kingmaker and Republic of Rome, in both of which players represent factions rather than individuals or institutions. Both games work fairly well until the player asks what holds his faction together. The answer, of course, is that he does; there is no ideological or dynastic bond, simply a gaming expedient. This is particularly troublesome in Kingmaker, where the historical actors were generally the royal heirs themselves, and not shifting, manipulative factions. Even in these games, though, there are always some stable institutions which help frame the action; the governments of England and Rome, though experiencing some changes, remain fairly constant boundaries in which individuals may act over the course of Kingmaker and Republic of Rome. Historical periods which are more chaotic, or simply longer and therefore more varied, do not provide even this modicum of security. Whatever the difficulties of a player representing a faction, for instance, these are far greater when he must represent a cultural group without the bond of single government.
In a game like Britannia, players represent many different ill-defined groups united, again, only by the fact that they belong to a single player. Individual groups appear on the board and eventually get wiped out completely; the player stays in the game only because the designer has spread his forces’ arrivals over the course of the game. This is not unreasonable, since the forces are spread out such that there is only a limited amount of co-operation between a player’s different races; the player can therefore be seen as representing one group at a time. In other games, players change sides during the course of play. In The Pelopennesian War, the solitaire player alternates between Athens and Sparta, while in Lieber Bayerisch Sterben, a German game of the1703 revolt in Bavaria, the players bid each turn for which side they play. Russian Civil War takes this trend a step further: players control part of all four factions, and may attack their own pieces. It is a curious solution which, more than most games, forces the observer to question what, exactly, a player is supposed to represent. While unorthodox, however, this solution may better represent the chaos of the actual situation by dividing player loyalties than a traditional method. By contrast, Barbarian, Kingdom, and Empire, a game which also covers a long period of history during which groups rise and fall, is more traditional in that the player’s perspective is always concentrated on one group at a time. The difference comes in the unique ability of a player to drop his current position and start another one, or even to drop out altogether without serious harm to the game. A player thus has the freedom to change his perspective virtually at will, an almost unique situation in gaming. Interestingly, both this game and Britannia follow the lead of Civilization in having a particular racial, linguistic, or cultural group always being unified in a single government. This expediency helps provide some of the stability and unity lacking in the historical situation, but it does so only at the cost of smoothing over important historical realities and damaging the game’s value as a simulation.
Game designers have shown themselves to be extremely clever at coming up with subtle ways to handle the difficult questions of player perspective. The problem is that many designers do not seem to consider these questions at all, indeed even to realize that they exist. Even when they do take account of them, they often fudge the players’ roles because a more sophisticated handling would add unwanted complexity to their games. It is true that increased realism is bought to a certain extent at the cost of increased complexity. Yet, even where this is true, one need not consider it a great disadvantage. Games which locate the player in a more defined role are often more interesting than those in which the player is an abstract entity with no defined historical identity; witness the great success of Up Front, a very popular but none too simple game. There is a certain amount of role playing involved in any wargame, and giving the players an opportunity to role play historical characters or institutions can stimulate their interest and make them much more willing to learn complex rules. Rather than seeming difficult, these rules will only seem more interesting and natural, and will actually be preferred over a more simplistic set. After all, if players were only interested in games for the competitiveness or mental challenge they provide, they would all be playing chess.