Updated: May 19
By Alan Emrich
I am a teacher. My last teaching gig lasted well over a decade helping the next generation of game developers understand the mechanics of game design, the principles of prototyping, the humanity of storytelling, and what their work-life (and life in general) will be like during a career in the game industry. My lessons never minced words and I kept a ready, humorous outlook at every foible and pitfall that working with games and gamers has revealed to me.
My students believed these anecdotes were for laughs, but they were lessons carefully crafted to “stick;” and, boy, did they! As I hear from my graduates on social media, they effuse their thanks having arrived to work in the game industry emotionally prepared; what they had “seen” through my roguish insights inoculated them to the underbelly of the game industry. Unfortunately, these truths surprised the heck out of their peers who have since left the industry or, worse, adapted to it but are now embittered by it. My graduates gush their own game industry stories to me, thus adding to our shared knowledge base and, I hope, some teachers will emerge from their ranks and pass the baton forward.
I am also a wargamer. Some fifty years in the cardboard-and-painted lead-filled trenches that I have shared with many a fine gaming buddy has taught me plenty of sage lessons born of long our gaming experience.
Teachers always teach what they most needed to learn. They don’t want the next generation to struggle as they did to learn it, and so a teacher’s own life lessons are the smoothest and best-prepared in their repertoire. Most students have heard the line about “history repeating itself.” I then explain that history can get away with that only because people didn’t learn from it the first time it happened and now have to re-learn it the hard way. In that vein, I explained to these great students that my insight comes from using my hindsight as foresight (through the courtesy to human nature and historical repetition).
“The first lesson of History is that we do not learn the lessons of History. It is as simple as that.” – Dr. J. Rufus Fears
Despite the resemblance, I am not Yoda.
However, Jedi, you too have seen the ways of History. You know that we must learn and apply the lessons of the past to the problems of the present if we are to build a better future.
And that is why your wargame experience is broken! (Wait. What?)
Real Wargamers Play the Campaign Game
Scenarios are fine, but I have observed over the decades that “real wargamers” play the campaign game. The questing for a long, fulfilling gameplay experience traipsing across the map over time to see the sweep of history that changes by your will… Ah! In a campaign game, you can more-fully explore that paper or pixel time-machine and develop changing vistas not just revealing the game’s model (i.e., the interactions of its core systems and mechanics) but also its simulation (i.e., using the model to show changes over time and the cascading consequences of decisions made and the caprice of fate). These become clearer visions and indelible impressions, particularly while playing a campaign game.
Scenarios are smaller, shorter versions of a campaign game. And while fine as games, real wargamers play the campaign game because they want the full breadth of its experience. That is what most wargamers came to play when they bought that game in the first place. It is only natural for the consumer of a wargame to “want it all.”
History is Our Other Hobby
If you are a wargamer, military history is your other hobby. It also teaches many related and useful things such as demographics, sociology, economics, geography, philosophy, psychology, and other disciplines that, together, form the strong sinews of history that tie us to our past. However, in this “age of entertainment” that we live in, our historical knowledge means, all too often, that “we have seen this show before” and, with the power of playing a game, we are trained in this discipline to employ the lessons history to improve our future (in games, at least).
The formula is clear: Wargamer + historian = less likely to repeat the errors we have learned both from history and the those we have learned at the game table; these lessons of history and gaming are not wasted on enlightened wargamers.
Driving the Train off the Tracks
The butterfly effect dominates wargaming. We play wargames to change history (to improve the situation for those represented by the role you are playing in that game). But even one tiny degree of change moves things ever farther from “history” over time and distance. At some point, you will look at the map and say to yourself, “Wow, the train is really off the tracks now and the game’s narrative has moved into uncharted territory. Well, that’s what I signed up for. Let’s explore!”
This is also known as the Wargamer Chaos Theory; that is, wargamers do not generally play to preserve history, they play to alter (or destroy) it. Knowing where the landmines of history are buried and where its opportunities were lost, wargamers clutch their dice and cards knowing that their brilliance will shine if not thwarted by the gods of those dice and cards (or the other player, of course). To every gamer seems this truism: “When I win, it’s skill; when I lose, it’s luck.”
However, knowing and even appreciating the plight of your historical counterpart only invites wargamers to tinker even more to “right history’s wrongs.” But within limits…
History: Gambling on the Short Game
History is not made by anonymous forces; history is made by people confronting a crisis and making their decisions in response with what information they had at the time. Those legendary leaders who have made “crisis” history had to gamble on the correctness of their decisions and often took the short-term view for their solutions. They had no do-overs or respawn points; mistakes were typically measured in lives lost (including their own) and the suffering of survivors and the destruction of what they had built or achieved.
Because history’s crisis leaders were working without a safety net and the consequences were very real, one quality they shared was being a good (and fortunate) gambler. The Cost/Risk vs. Reward/Consequence formula was the fulcrum of their decision-making. Risk is the price of real leadership when daring a venture. They learned that errors and opportunities define the boundaries of the future to the immediate left and right, and that unknowns define the boundary of the future ahead. If you know of Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Washington the Delaware, or the Conquistadors burning their ships – that is what it means to take a huge gamble without knowing what the long-term consequences might be.
That is the type of history that makes great wargaming moments. But how do wargamers confront those moments?
Wargaming: Risk Aversion in the Long Game
For wargamers, the only carnage is measured in game pieces; there are do-overs and respawn points. Mistakes are measured in games (not lives) lost and the only suffering is personal (whether from the agony of your defeat or from the insufferable gloating of your opponent in their victory).
Yet, for even that trivial investment in “the bragging right” of a game’s outcome, wargamers are remarkably risk-averse! “I’m not going to rush my troops through that gap and seize the objective; those troops will be out of supply and maybe even cut off and killed!” What they mean is: that is probably not a risk worth me losing the game for. What they do not have, that their historical counterpart did, is a drive and desire to finish this game and win it now – to them, there was no “long-run” and every crisis was a true existential threat that had to be dealt with in immediate and decisive terms.
In a recent discussion with game designer Frank Chadwick about the Soviet Spring offensive in 1942 and the huge losses the Soviets suffered sustaining it, he said: “The important factor was the Soviet tenacity in sticking to their Winter Counteroffensive’s Big Ambition which was to completely crush the German field force and be in Berlin by that autumn. They kept attacking and suffering large losses long after there was any realistic prospect of their plan working.”
This “Big Push” mentality is exactly the kind of mistake that, with historical hindsight, wargamers eschew. Wargamers have a too-clear view of the situation and, quite simply, "know better."
That’s Why Your Game is “Broken;” You Broke It!
And there’s the rub. You know from history when to keep pushing and when to stop. You know from your WWII gaming experiences that Sealion is nigh-impossible and the defense of France in 1940 was fatally flawed. Of course, that is not how it appeared to the combatants at the time, but you are bringing your knowledge of the past with you and altering the future through your gameplay. This makes it hard for a game to duplicate history’s “emerging,” real-time, short-sighted, self-inflicted wounds on any sort of rational basis because you’re not going to do that, are you? And the more of those mistakes you erase and the more caution you bring to the game table to keep from losing (rather than taking big risks and trying to win right now), the further many wargames depart from the historical narrative.
Well, it has to be okay if the history goes off the rails (because that's what players do), but we (the game developers) must strive to keep the game on the rails in these circumstances. Of course, how do you explain to players, "If you don't play like history, don't complain if the game situation doesn't look like history."?
Many “expert” wargamers play like professional gamblers seeking tight, competent gameplay on a turn-by-turn basis to optimize their success over the long haul (particularly when playing a campaign) and across a series of games. Well, that ain’t how it happened in history, folks. Even crisis leaders with that particular “wargamer’s gift” of patience (e.g., Marshal Massena at Zurich, Switzerland, at the close of the 18th century) had only one chance to get it right and were willing to risk everything to win rather than just playing not to lose; their decisions were driven by a desperation that is hard to recapture behind the safety of a game table.
Game Development: A Test of Systems and Quest for Balance
What is a designer to do when the players are breaking history with rigid, disciplined gameplay instead of breaking bad (as their historical counterparts did)?
There is only so much the designer can do:
First, make sure the model is right: units, values, terrain, core systems… they all need to have the backing of real historical research and yield plausible interactions and outcomes. The game model requires verisimilitude (the appearance of being true) to lend it credibility and perceived realism.
Second, validate the simulation to make sure that reasonably historical play yields reasonably historical results; while players are never forced to duplicate history, the proof of a simulation is that it could if the player’s stuck to history’s script. That is another important yardstick by which to measure a historical simulation’s veracity – can it duplicate history’s lessons when “following the script?”
Third, find the pressure points in the system and make sure none of them intrinsically break the game or unbalance things between two fairly-matched opponents. In particular, look for “gamey” things that players will always do but their historical counterparts would not (or could not) and try to remove them (or at least smooth them out to minimize their impact on the game’s flow and balance).
Finally, check the narrative – when players take things “off script” from history (as they always will), make sure that whatever new game state it leads them to is plausible and that they clearly understand how they reached it. Having players create an alternate history on their game table is one thing, but it won’t matter much if they lose track of the plot and miss the lessons of their experience playing it. Player’s need to walk away able to recall the highlights of their story and which key developments lead them to its (perceptibly proper) conclusion.