GrogHeads Reviews Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming

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The new “big book of wargaming” goes under the GrogHeads microscope ~

Brant Guillory, 15 May 2016

Zones of Control is the book that wargaming has been waiting for.  Seriously.  And that’s a pretty grandiose statement, but the truth is, it’s a long-needed book from a hard-to-ignore-and-harder-to-impugn publisher that tries to comprehensively examine the breadth and depth of wargaming under one cover.  ZOC-CoverWhere previous ‘seminal’ works of wargaming – Simulating War or  The Art of Wargaming or The Complete Wargames Handbook – were concerned with specific facets of wargaming (academic explorations, professional uses, or hobbyists, for example), Zones of Control brings them all into one giant melting pot, and then sprinkles in the occasional dose of aesthetics, role-playing, and digital design.


Interestingly, Zones of Control is able to swing such a wide arc precisely by avoiding the overly-pedantic and never-solved argument about “what is a wargame?”  It is conspicuously absent throughout the book, and there isn’t even a cursory attempt at it.  Avoiding that discussion allows the editors a wide range of latitude to include discussions of Twilight Struggle, Tunnels & Trolls, and battlefield re-enactors.  And truthfully, the book is much richer for it.

It is that very breadth that can make Zones of Control a challenge to review, however.  To what are we comparing it?  It’s scope alone puts the book in its own category among the wargaming literature.  There’s no comparable volume in the pop music world, whose attempts at a broad-scope literary volume end up more an inventory of artists than an exploration of types of music.  One might compare this book to something like a collected academic volume like the Communication Technology Update, but with technology and its markets moving as they do, that textbook is updated every 2 years. The collected essays of Zones of Control are almost “the greatest hits” of a year or two of erudite magazine articles from a flagship wargaming analysis journal, if such a thing ever existed.  Spread over 5 years of quarterly issues, rather than collected into a consolidated volume, the essays of Zones of Control might have have become the catalyzing agent around which a comprehensive cross-domain association of wargaming might have coalesced – a worthy literary companion to the Connections wargaming conference.  But to deconstruct the book and instead attempt to feature the writers over the span of several years would have cost the critical momentum needed to even publish the book at all.  Instead, we’re forced to hope that someone picks up the baton and starts a recurring publication as a companion to this volume.  But that’s putting the cart at least a mile or two before the horse that Kirschenbaum & Harrigan have saddled for us.

The Names on the Cover

The editors – Matthew Kirschenbaum and Pat Harrigan – are both long-time wargamers and frequently found online discussing their favorite hobby.  They’ve also both ‘played the academic publishing game’ and understand how to pull together a scholarly volume of essays and sell it to an academic publisher (in this case, MIT Press).  Kirschenbaum is a faculty member at the University of Maryland who has previously been profiled for his attempts at preservation of older computer games and his history of word processing, as well as speaking at Connections in the past.  Harrigan has multiple books under his belt examining the creation of narratives through different media.  The authors of the individual pieces seem to have been drawn from their particular expertise in a specific field, such as Ruhnke & Train talking about asymmetric warfare, or Antley talking about Twilight Struggle.  At least a few of them seem to be “essays from really smart friends of the editors” but it’s honestly hard to tell the difference without already knowing who some of the writers are.

Brian Train's rules for Guerrilla Checkers are included.

Brian Train’s rules for Guerrilla Checkers are included.

Inside the book

The book is organized into nine big sections, each with a longer essay to lead off, and a variety of shorter perspectives to follow.  Unlike many ‘purely academic’ books, there are plenty of illustrations, which should help the ASL mafia understand what’s being discussed (I kid! I kid!). Within the first 48 hours I had devoured all of Part I: Paper Wars, as well as a dozen or so chapters from the other sections.  The beauty of this book is that virtually every chapter is an easy one-sitting read, a bite-sized parcel of single-minded analysis on a specific facet of this giant tangled ball of twine that we call “wargaming”.  The longer ‘lead’ chapters are a bit more intellectual investment on the part of the reader, but their length is necessary for the depths they delve.

For someone who has dabbled across the entire spectrum of wargaming – working with defense agencies, publishing my own hobby games, reviewing and reporting as a journalist, authoring academic papers on gaming – this book is a godsend, as virtually every chapter holds something of interest to me.  Chapters as diverse at Matt Caffrey discussing lessons learned from recently-declassified US military wargames on the Persian Gulf region, to MacDougall & Faden discussing wargaming in the classroom, to Prados discussing Third Reich all hold marvelous insights into the world of wargaming.  There are very few chapters I’ve found that don’t have something to take away (see below).

I’ve enjoyed reading the stories behind some of the design choices made by creators like Tiller and Herman, and the thought-provoking insights of gamers like JR Tracy.  Michael Peck’s chapter on selling wargames is much more conceptual approach than a retail one, but still a necessary discussion for a hobby and profession that’s been consistently described as “graying” and concerned with bringing in new blood.

That said, for a dyed-in-the-wool hex-and-counter-über-alles Consimworld curmudgeon with a perpetually dour outlook and an inability to count to seven without arguing, this book is going to be full of bones to pick.  Chapters that discuss the early history of role-playing games on equal footing with Tactics II are likely to be underwhelming for such folks (even though I found them fascinating), as are the explorations of how religion was integrated into a 4X computer game.  Likewise collected AARs from a  professional wargamer whose recollections might easily have been summed with a single page that simply says “a lot of military folks don’t know what wargaming is, but they’re happy to slap that label on whatever they’re doing” may not have much appeal to the casual Combat Commander, er… commander.  While they are fascinating accounts of branches of wargaming that we seldom see, much less describe in any level of depth, a significant slice of the hobby-grog world is going to greet these chapters with a collective shrug before resuming their arguments about the relative effectiveness of British naval guns in the North Sea in 1916.

The Details

Several specific chapters deserve additional detailed discussion, too.

Schulzke’s haranguing of America’s Army, the recruitment video game officially released by the US Army, is peppered with half-hearted attempts to caveat the criticism leveled at the game by other authors, while he himself mercilessly slams the game.  He states “The propaganda function of AA is heightened by the way the game avoids considering alternative viewpoints on military service or on American military operations” and also notes that “The game likewise fails to consider the possible nonmilitary solutions to the conflict scenarios that frame the multiplayer battles or to raise the possibility that military operations could destabilize the countries in which they are carried out.”  Both of those statements accurately portray the limitations of AA as it was released.  And yet, both are completely beyond the scope of the game, whether it was designed as a propaganda tool or not.  Applying this same line of criticism to other video games, Schulzke must also lay in bed at night wondering why the Madden series of NFL video games fail to include cut scenes of players in the trainer’s room undergoing concussion protocol testing, or why the Grand Theft Auto games don’t also venture into city-level public policy statements about preventative police tactics designed to pre-empt the crime sprees glorified by the game.  The Call of Duty series, and every other FPS out there, manages to bypass kum-ba-ya drum circles as a means of resolving conflict without criticism.  Holding AA to a higher standard because it was released by the US Army seems disingenuous, as though a US Army-sponsored game is somehow failing society if it doesn’t also incorporate the State Department, Doctors Without Borders, and Dr Rex Brynen.

Even in chapters I greatly enjoyed, I found a blips that seemed inaccurate, such as a different discussion that mentioned America’s Army and characterized it as an adaptation of a commercial game (which contradicts what I had been told in multiple private conversations with the original creator), or the lack of mention of the Braunstein games and their impact on Arneson as an early catalyst toward the development of role-playing.  The idea of a “revolution in military affairs” has been discussed in the military easily back into the networking-will-solve-all-our-problems heyday of the mid-‘90s, but another chapter treats it as a post-Iraq drawdown invention.

Brien Miller's chapter is well-illustrated with examples of how statistical analysis was integrated into game engines.

Brien Miller’s chapter is well-illustrated with examples of how statistical analysis was integrated into game engines.

Levinthal’s and Conley’s chapters on miniatures at war also struck me as out of place in a book filled with discussions of actual games, as both seemed to me to be little more than anti-war propaganda dressed up as photographs of figures otherwise used for minis wargaming.  They both seemed to approach the subject as wargames-as-protest-art.  While interesting as an analysis of art, they both seemed barely tangential to the analysis of wargaming in the book, and I’m not sure either chapter is all that necessary, and certainly not both.

Wrap It Up With A Bow

And yet, I’m sure there are other readers who will wholeheartedly embrace those chapters while finding their own quibbles with Brynen’s chapter on non-kinetics, or Losh’s chapter on gender.  The beauty of Zones of Control is that there’s so much in here that the likelihood is that the reader is going to find more to his or her liking than not.  Bond discussing the creation of Persian Incursion is a fascinating look the process of building one of the odder game systems to emerge in recent wargaming.  Racier talking about Paths of Glory is of comparable quality and insight.  Zones of Control gives equal time to aesthetic creators (Mahaffey), professional practitioners (Bartels), academics (MacCallum-Stewart), legends (Costikyan), and journalists-turned-creators (Goodfellow).  Even those chapters whose contents you don’t agree with (like my critique of Schulzke’s chapter above) serve as jumping-off points for very serious conversations about wargaming as a whole.

“Do you need to buy this book?” is the ultimate question.  Unless you’re a single-track wargamer, who eats, sleeps, breathes, and lives & dies with one type of game – tabletop hex & counter, or digital FPS – there’s going to be more than enough reading to keep your interest.  Moreover, if you work in wargaming at all, whether as a hobby designer, or a defense contractor, or an educator using wargames in the classroom, this is a must-buy.  And if you can manage to bill it to an expense account, buy two!

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7 Responses to GrogHeads Reviews Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming

  1. Philippe Bruneau says:

    ” avoiding the overly-pedantic and never-solved argument about “what is a wargame? ”
    I believe it answers by it’s many examples.
    “which should help the ASL mafia understand what’s being discussed” – great line. Made me laugh.

    I would point out that in a hobby that is truly a passion for some, the arguments will never be resolved and that’s part of it’s beauty. It’s wargaming.

  2. Brian Train says:

    Thanks for the review Brant! Truly, there is something in here for everybody.

  3. […] GrogHeads Reviews Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming […]

  4. Tom Meier says:

    Thanks for the comprehensive review Brant – I’ll be checking this one out.

  5. […] biggest news for me personally was the release, last spring, of Zones of Control, the collection of essays on wargaming that I edited with Matthew Kirschenbaum for the MIT Press. Three years in the making, and […]

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