Wargame Thoughts and Commentary

The Fog of War

Wargames have always been pretty good at finding ways to assign a quantitative value to weaponry, and even to unit quality. They have been less certain when it came to some intangibles such as unit morale or the impact of command on a particular battle, especially its inefficiencies and inadequacies, But one area has been the bane of many rule sets and that is the fog of war. This term, often attributed to Von Clausewitz, encapsulates all the unknowns, the effects of friction, the failure of communication and military intelligence, the limitations of not knowing key facts about the enemy, but even about one’s own troops. Gamers would worry some little factoid about drill steps per minute to death, and then blithely ignore what EVERY military thinker since Clausewitz concedes is the single most important aspect of war and individual battles, the Fog of War.

Some gamers, worn down in their daily work by limited achievements, or no achievements at all, are loathe to play games in their imaginary wargame world that present them with unknown and uncontrollable ways to fail yet again. Others simply want to have things go unfailingly according to plan, and to succeed or fail strictly on the merits of their strategy, and not because something untoward spoiled everything; They want to be Napoleon at Waterloo, but without those damned Prussians showing up late in the day! Many gamers don’t want the added rule considerations that are required to even attempt to inject the Fog of War into a wargame, just roll a die and a six hits! Your troops will unfailingly show up right on schedule, and do precisely hat you want them to! A perfect world where rationality and predictability reign!

However, War is not at all like that. Armies, even the best of them, have a high capacity for snafu. The enemy generally doesn’t want to please you by being predictable. The battlefield is unfailingly a confusing place with fewer “Knowns” than wargames would lead one to suspect. Most actionable information is deduced from incompletely known facts, and is more a guestimate than a sure thing. Even in battle we often can observe the behavior of enemy troops in a sketchy way, but seldom have a sure idea as to the reasons why. Were those Union guns withdrawing prior to Pickett’s Charge, or was that wishful thinking? Did their artillery fire slacken from damage from the Rebel barrage, or simply to conserve ammunition? Seen through the stress of battle and the black powder smoke, the fog of war allowed an estimation, but not a firm calculation.

Several early attempts to address this issue were made in wargaming; The blanket down the middle of the table during set-up, the command being in two different separate rooms from the Wargame table, and only written notes going back and forth, but they were clumsy, inelegant, and generally more trouble than they were worth. They failed miserably to provide an efficient portrayal of the Fog of War and are now seldom used.

Later methods, some of which are still used, involved boxes placed over troops and/or various markers with a certain share of them being “Dummies”. Somewhat better than earlier methods, but still fairly clumsy, and dummy or not, there are few “surprises” emerging from the Fog.

Piquet tried to do this conceptually, by basically stating that the tabletop “Lied” and that the positions on the table may, or may not, portray the accurate situation. This offered a concurrent explanation for units moving an extreme distance, or not moving at all, and also meant that the player had to allow for things not being what he expected at any given moment-an element of the Fog of War. Surprises were many, and occasionally could change the momentum in a battle. Both the randomness of the Sequence Deck and the impetus roll constantly challenged players to deal with difficult situations with no “Sure” solution. I also liked the fact that this conceptual approach required no added devices on the table, it was free of clutter. It did prove difficult for some gamers to get their head around the idea, and to accept a very different metaphor for time and movement than the fixed turn.

Zouave is taking a different approach, where the randomness is more constrained, using a card deck with its perfectly balanced suit values in a deck for impetus, but dividing impetus or initiative into two separate but concurrent uses-Command and Combat. It also uses ratings of individual units that are hidden until revealed by combat to disguise the value of the forces engaged. Lastly the amount of command “will” and where it is focused, and for what purpose will be imperfectly known. This can be increased by using the Dial Dude’s Zouave Dials, but inverting them during play so that the amount of command pips stored is totally hidden-until used. The last thing that Zouave does is take the length of moves made and makes them highly variable and unpredictable to BOTH sides. The degree that a gamer is willing to “risk” certain moves-if it makes his army disjointed and exposed as a consequence, and not being able to predict either his other units movement distance, or when it will occur-and, even worse, if the enemy can respond before he can consolidate his formations-will be a measure of his decision making and judgement. No guarantees-just the courage to pierce the fog of war!