Sunday 20 October 2013

Designing Wargames – A personal perspective ... from 1997!

I was trawling through my old computer files, pruning those that were redundant, when I came across this. It was the text of a lecture that I wrote and delivered back in 1997 … and it was interesting to see how much of what I wrote and said remains pertinent today.

Like all historians, I always feel the need to start any presentation with some explanation about how the state of affairs I am about to describe developed. I hope that this will help my audience understand the reasoning – or lack of it – that has gone into what I say, and the experience and evidence that my thinking has been based on.

I have been playing wargames for as long as I can remember. The first one I can remember was when I was about five years old, and was against my father. We used a mixture of old Britains hollow, lead figures and some of the then very new Timpo plastic ones. There were – I recall – no “rules” as such; just common sense. Needless to say, I lost!

When my younger brother was old enough to start to play wargames with me he proved to be a disappointing opponent. Although I was now able to occupy the position my father had previously filled – namely the automatic winner of the wargame – my brother showed no interest in or and aptitude for wargames; he preferred to play football!

I was therefore forced by circumstances to become a solo wargamer, and from fairly early on I began to develop an interest in fighting wars rather than one-off games. Like a lot of youngsters of my generation, I drew up maps of imaginary countries and populated them with every-growing armies of Airfix soldiers, tanks, and aircraft. I tried – whenever possible – to give each country’s armed forces its own “identity”, and within a few years I had built up sizeable British, American, and German-style armies. One thing was, however, missing – a decent set of rules!

My “Road to Damascus” came one Saturday in the local library. As usual I was trawling the Military History shelf for anything new to read, when I saw a small green and black dust cover with the words WAR GAMES on it. I picked it off the shelf, and opened it with interest. Within seconds I knew that I had the answer to my problems in my hands. I took the book to the counter, booked it out, took it home, and read it from cover to cover in one go. At the time I did not know who Donald Featherstone was, but he provided the vital spark of inspiration that I needed to become a fully fledged wargamer.

On the following Sunday I was allowed to commandeer the dining table, and I played my first wargame with written down rules. My father showed an interest, and volunteered to command one side. I beat him, and he has never played me since!

That copy of Donald Featherstone’s book went backward and forward to the library every fortnight for nearly six months for the loan to be renewed. At that point the librarian had begun to make comments about other people possibly wanting to borrow the book, but I was not worried – I had already begun to write my own set of wargames rules.

Needless to say, they were rubbish – but they were my rubbish, not someone else’s, and ever since I have been reading other peoples rules and writing my own.

So what has my long acquaintance with wargaming and wargames rules taught me? First and foremost, that the definitive set of wargames rules for any period has yet to be written. To misquote Abraham Lincoln:
A set of wargames rules can suit some wargamers for most of the time or suit all wargamers for some of the time, but they can’t suit all wargamers for all of the time
The reasons why are not difficult to identify. I think that they are:
  1. Wargamer rule writers are – almost by definition – individualists with strongly held opinions, and it is very difficult to get such people to agree. I contend that Wargame Developments is the exception to this general rule because of the nature of the people who join WD. We are a “self-selecting elite” who – in my opinion – share one single belief; that is that active, critical discussion can help us to improve our wargames.
  2. Wargamer rule writers have a self-defined set of objectives in mind when they are creating their wargame rules, and the end results might – and in fact often will – conflict with the views of other people. This is why I always find Designer’s Notes at the end of a set of wargames rules extremely helpful. They explain what the designer was trying to achieve, and therefore help the user to understand the mind set of the designer. In turn, they often explain why certain rule mechanisms were – or were not – used.
  3. Wargamers rule writers may well be under commercial or other pressures to produce a particular end result. This may seem the same as the previous point, but I contend that the motivation is different, and that this affects the resulting “rules of the game”. A wargame rule writer might be pressured to change certain aspects of their rules to meet the specific needs of the people who have commissioned his or her work. For example, a figure manufacturer who has produced a range of figures and wishes to encourage people to buy them, or a weapon manufacturer who wants to influence a potential purchaser by proving – through the use of a combat simulator – that they need a particular new weapon that only the manufacturer can supply.
I can cite two examples to support this last contention. In my own case, I was asked to re-write my original Spanish Civil War Wargames Rules by a figure manufacturer to fit in with a new range of figures they were producing. I declined because meeting their demands would have changed certain fundamental aspects of what I was trying to achieve. I have also seen an example of a weapon manufacturer using a combat simulation to sell their own particular weapon system. In this case it was Westland Helicopters. They commissioned a small computer company to produce a promotional “video game” to use with potential buyers. The game emphasised the potential usefulness of the new Westland Helicopter on the battlefield, and compared it extremely favourably with products of rival manufacturers.

My second observation about wargaming and wargames rules is that there has been, since the advent of “recreational” wargaming in the 1960s, a perceived divide between “realism” and “playability” in wargaming. The first is sometimes portrayed as being the Holy Grail for wargamers – the quest for the “perfect” wargame – whilst the other is often cited as being unachievable if a game is anything approaching “realistic”. Furthermore, the definitions of “realism” and “playability” have somehow become entwined with the concepts of “complexity” and “simplicity”. It is almost as if:

Complexity = Realism
Simplicity = Playability

Now I have played some very simple games that felt very realistic, and some very complex games that were very unrealistic. As a result, I would contend that many wargame rule writers have fallen into the following trap:
  1. They factor in as many inputs as possible into the rules.
  2. They use highly complex mathematical processes to manipulate these inputs.
  3. They assume that the resultant outcomes must be correct, even if common sense – or Inherent Military Probability – say otherwise.
What they have done is become obsessed with inputs and processes, and they have forgotten that desired outcomes can equally well define the required processes, and therefore the necessary inputs. In my opinion it is rather like assuming that a soldier, when under fire, thinks “That’s a round fired by such-and-such a rifle, which has a range of x metres and a rate-of-fire of y rounds per minute when fired by a trained soldier. I should be scared” and not “Sh*t! Where the f*ck did that come from?”

A prime example of a high input and complex process system is that proposed in Colonel Trevor Dupuy’s books NUMBERS, PREDICTION & WAR, UNDERSTANDING WAR, AND ATTRITION: FORECASTING BATTLE CASUALTIES AND EQUIPMENT LOSSES IN MODERN WAR. As far as I can see the system works, but only with some rather drastic “fudging” of data. In particular, that dreaded beast called “National Characteristics” rears its ugly head. Are the Germans really as good as Dupuy’s system seems to make them, and if so, why did they lose in 1918 and 1945? Did Saddam Hussein read and believe the assessment of his troops made in the chapter entitled FORECASTING CASUALTIES IN KUWAIT 1992 in ATTRITION? After all, Dupuy predicted that Iraqi casualties would total 51,000 and that US and Allied casualties would total 15,000. Furthermore, he stated that:
the evidence presented in this book suggests that these estimates are almost certainly accurate within 100%.
My third observation relates to the obsession that wargamers have for wanting to be every soldier on the battlefield, although I note that this is now in danger of becoming a phenomenon amongst commanders in the “real” world. The growth of radio communication has meant that every soldier can now be an input in the command net. In turn this allows the possibility of all levels of command giving orders to individual soldiers on the battlefield. To my untutored eye this looks like a recipe for disaster. Commanders should command, and “grunts” should fight without everyone from the corporal upwards looking over their shoulder. The distinct possibility that miniaturised television cameras and transmitters will soon allow commanders to “see” what each soldier can see fills me with dread, and will lead – in my opinion – to “war/life” imitating “wargaming/art”.

The arguments in favour of deciding that the level of command you want to “fight” at determines the complexity of the rule mechanisms used are well know, but are constantly ignored by wargamer rule writers and wargamers. They seemingly want to command corps and divisions, but also want to be able to turn the turrets on their model tanks to see if they can fire at a potential target. Why is this? Part of the answer was given in a recent letter to the Editor of PRACTICAL WARGAMER:
I venture to suggest that for many gamers the closer our game structure comes to recreating the problems and perceptions of any army commander, the less active a role is available to the player and consequently the less attractive the game.
Further on in his letter, the writer states:
The more realistic the experience of high level command, the more does the game become a simulation which unfolds before the player, reflecting the initial troop dispositions and overall plans devised by the commanders. As army level commanders the players become bystanders – as indeed were real life army commanders – rather than active participants in the events.
The writer finishes his letter with the argument that wargaming lower level actions – and thus lower levels of command – remains so popular because wargamers like to feel that they are influencing the events that are unfolding.

I suspect that this is very true, and it explains why the “Bottom Up” approach used in RAPID FIRE, SPEARHEAD, and COMMAND DECISION – to name some recently designed World War II wargame rules – is still so very popular and so commercially successful. They do allow wargamers to command large formations and also to worry about small unit tactics. They generally do not concern themselves with the boring, but essential aspect of commanding large numbers of troops – logistics. Instead, they tend to concentrate on the minutiae of the different armour thickness on the front, side, and back of a particular tank and the armour penetration of the main weapon with which it is armed.

There are, however, some rays of light on the horizon. “Top Down” wargame designs are becoming more popular, and are proving to be commercially successful. DBA, DBM, and HORDES OF THE THINGS (and their clones) have shown this, and it is to be hope that MEGABLITZ will follow suit in due course.

What sets these apart for the rest is the fact that they do exactly what the writer of that letter to PRACTICAL WARGAMER said; namely they:
become a simulation which unfolds before the player, reflecting the initial troop dispositions and overall plans devised by the commanders.
They do this by:
  1. Reducing the number and type of inputs required to those that are absolutely essential.
  2. Reducing the level of complexity in the method by which the results of various actions are computed to the most basic possible.
  3. Concentrating upon the functions of command.
  4. Maximising the impact of the “human in the loop”.
This last point is, to my mind, the most important factor that is ignored by most modern wargame rule writers. This is my fourth observation about wargaming and wargames rules, namely that we have forgotten that warfare is a human experience, and that human behaviour is the most decisive factor influencing its outcome.

So why has it been ignored? I would suggest that one reason is its unpredictability – you can not model it. It is not like a rifle, a machine gun, or cannon. There are no human “proving grounds” or “firing ranges” where we can “test fire” human beings to produce “range tables” of reaction. People like John Keegan in THE FACE OF BATTLE, Norman Dixon in ON THE PSYCHOLOGY OF MILITARY INCOMPETENCE, and – more recently – Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman (US Army) in ON KILLING have pointed the way, but many have yet to follow the path they have indicated.

So how can we – as wargame designers and rule writers – factor the “human” element into what we do? One method is that found in DBA; namely to create a simple but workable model of mass human reaction on the battlefield, coupled with the player’s own reactions to events as they unfold. Another – that used in MEGABLITZ – is to concentrate purely on the players’ reaction to events, and to allow that to determine what happens. A third method is to make the “human in the loop” essential to the whole game structure, and that is typified by the processes found in a Matrix Game. The problem with the last two – and I suspect the first as well – is that they are dependent upon the players having a good grasp of military history and fairly normal personalities. If you don’t know what I mean, try running a Matrix Game with a sociopath as one of the players – I have, and it can be an interesting journey into the depths of the (in)human psyche!

My final observation is to suggest that there are some basic ground rules that wargame designers and rule writers should follow. These twelve ground rules to success are:
  1. Be specific about your objectives.
  2. Identify the player’s roles.
  3. Identify the type of decisions players will need to make.
  4. Decide what information the players will need to play the game.
  5. Collect and collate that information in a form that players can use.
  6. Identify how the outcome of events will be determined.
  7. Devise the processes required to determine those outcomes.
  8. Ensure that the processes devised are as simple as possible.
  9. Identify what inputs are required by those processes.
  10. Ensure that the inputs required are as unambiguous as possible.
  11. Identify how the outcomes will be relayed to the players.
  12. Make sure that “Nothing may be done contrary to what could or would be done in actual war.” (F T Jane)


  1. Wonderful piece and still very relevant. Many thanks for posting it.

  2. Bob,
    This could surely be submitted to MWBG?!
    Much good advice and sound principles - that I have often ignored!

  3. Very interesting talk, and I think still valid today.

  4. An interesting discussion - something that has from time to time sparked a lively correspondence in the 'Miniaturewargamesrulesdesign' Yahoo group (though no action there lately). Many of the discussions revolved around attempting to reconstruct on the wargames table something of the dynamics of warfare and battle, others on the extent to which command levels need/ought/are desirable to be detailed in a given rule set, still more on the realism/playability imperatives.

    I have a lot of sympathy with the remark that too great an emphasis on reconstructing command problems is likely to lead to an unattractive game. I don't regard myself as much of a 'logistician', so I'll want enough and no more of logistics in a game to make it something of concern to the 'army commander' without distracting too far from the primary wargamer's purpose: to fight battles and campaigns on the table top.

    I recall I think George Gush (or it might have been Jon Freeman) talking (well, writing) around this issue in his (very good) book, drawing a distinction between 'width' (complexity) of a game, and 'depth' - a rather less definable 'value' that has to do with the demands upon a player's skill, effort, play development, intelligence and what have you. Snakes and Ladders is a 'narrow' (simple) game, and 'shallow' as well - requiring no skill at all. Chess and Go are also quite narrow, but both are very deep games.

    I am inclined to pause, here, as Chess (the game I know something about) contains a whole deal more complexity than its Laws might suggest. It has tactical and strategic components both. The interplay between pieces and pawns can become so labyrinthine in complexity it is hard to work out even who has the better of it. And this among units whose only difference in capability lies in their mobility. What is it about a Queen's mobility that makes it so powerful?

    I am reminded of a prominent wargamer's remark concerning a knight, being the more powerful, defeating a pawn every time. What if, he asked, an off-form knight met up with a particular belligerent pawn?

    Well, that happens a whole lot more often that you might imagine - until you think about it for a bit. Consider this: 1.P-K4 P-K4 2.N-KB3 P-KB3 (a bad move, but simply to illustrate a point) 3.NxP PxN. There you go: having defeated one pawn, the knight is in turn defeated by the next one that comes along (that in fact White has near on a winning game after 4.Q-R5ch is neither here nor there). [In Algebraic notation, if the Descriptive is too archaic: 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 f6 3.Nxe5 fxe5 4.Qh5ch]

    You don't need huge dollops of complexity in rules design, I think, to test a player's skill and sagacity. I'm inclined to think that much of the detail in wargames design is simply to persuade players that they are indeed fighting a Punic War, Napoleonic, World war Two, or Middle Earth battle.

    Maybe we should rekindle this discussion on MWRD?

  5. I omitted to mention that with a few exceptions, I write my own rule sets, generally of an 'old school' cast, but also 'one brain cell' sets for particular purposes.

    I have some problems with commercial sets, especially ones that I suspect of being governed by caprice, or otherwise reducing my role (as was so well put in your posting) to that of a spectator. The DB* series had the virtue of relative simplicity, sufficient player interaction, enough of the 'feel' of a battle (though I found this gradually eroded by insufficiently thought-through amendments), and one felt one had a measure of control of the troops. I felt they were a vast improvement on WRG 7th, (and that in turn an improvement over WRG 6th).

    But I also feel that somewhere in the design process, one has to distinguish between and take into account chance and uncertainty. The two are closely related, I think, but not the same. Perhaps I can revert to chess to illustrate what I think is my point.

    It is said that there is no luck in Chess. That's not quite true. There is no chance in chess: the moves are all there, governed by its laws. It's just a matter of finding them. And that's where uncertainty lies: finding the 'right' moves. It is also uncertain how one's opponent will respond. By its nature uncertainty in chess often works in the players' favour rather than otherwise: the opponent's making a mistake.

    In war, there is a great deal subject to chance, and more subject to uncertainty. How a unit will behave in the stress of combat, or the outcome of a combat is probably more a matter of chance than uncertainty, though both are present. What is happening on the 'other side of the hill', though, is more a matter of uncertainty.

    Chance and uncertainty are dealt with in different ways. You can do something about uncertainty - that's what military intelligence is for. Chance is simply a matter of calculation.

    Perhaps Poker might illustrate the difference better. What Joe-across-the-table is holding is a matter of almost complete uncertainty - all you know is that he doesn't have the cards you are holding. But you can calculate probabilities - the chances.

    That you figure it is highly probable no one has a better hand than your full house (chance) doesn't actually help a whole lot, if Joe-across-the-table keeps adding aggressively to the pot!

  6. When my older brother was old enough to start to play football with me he proved to be a disappointing opponent. Although I was now able to occupy the position my father had previously filled – namely the automatic winner of the game – my brother showed no interest in or and aptitude for football; he preferred to play wargames!

  7. Prufrock,

    I had forgotten that I had written this piece ... and one reason why I decided to share it with my regular blog readers as a blog entry was that - despite its age - it contains ideas that are stilll relevant today.

    All the best,


  8. Arthur1815,

    Thinking about it, your suggestion that I submit the content of this blog entry to Miniature Wargames magazine makes a lot of sense ... and I am giving the matter my serious consideration.

    All the best,


  9. Sean,

    Thank you very much for your kind comment. I am very pleased that you think that it contained some useful ideas.

    All the best,


  10. Archduke Piccolo,

    Wow! What an interesting pair of responses to my blog entry.

    I would love to respond in detail ... but for reasons that will become evident in the near future, I am not able to do so at present.

    I would -however- love to continue this discussion in the future.

    All the best,


  11. Steve Cordery,

    How very true ... and I am still rubbish at playing football (and I suspect that you would probably be a better wargamer than I ever was a soccer player!).

    All the best,


  12. Coming late to the table on this one. I don't fundamentally disagree with anything you've written but I think you have missed a few angles that are important to me.

    Recently, I have tended to think of rules as primarily focusing on one of the following, usually with at leat one secondary focus, occasionally a conflicting one which is usually trouble:
    a) modelling outcomes
    b) modelling processes
    c) recreating experiences
    d) providing a gaming experience.

    If we take a simple case, say a Napoleonic French column assault on a British line this might mean:

    a) examining historical outcomes of such events, establishing a probability of several outcomes. When this event occurs in a wargame, there might be 1 roll against a chart to determine what the outcome was without any explanation of how and why that outcome was obtained on this occasion.

    b) examining the drill, weapon performances and human reactions then so that players might have to execute appropriate drill maneuvers with shooting and reactions take place in the appropriate sequence all leading to an eventual outcome which in an ideal world would be the same as in a but with the reason it worked out that way being shown but with more time and effort. This would ideally allow the effect of changing the process to be tested but at the risk of giving misleading answers if the data is wrong or has been misinterpreted.

    c) This is similar to B but rather than focussing on technical details, the designer strives to recreate the feeling of someone invloved as recorded in memoirs etc. Often it can be shown that memories or intreptations were wrong but the goal is to give the player an experience. " I moved my men up the hill, Bob fired at me and I took too many hits and couldn't get my units to charge home. Next turn....." etc

    d. Lastly, its more about questions like is 1 die against a chart more or less fun than an opposed die roll or a series of die rolls?

    Just floating some thoughts so to speak.


  13. Ross Mac,

    As ever, you make some very pertinent comments.

    If i do decide to write a newer version of this blog entry for publication, I will certainly address the matters that you raise.

    All the best,



Thank you for leaving a comment. Please note that any comments that are spam or contain phishing messages or that come from Google Accounts that are 'Unknown' will be deleted.