Wargame Thoughts and Commentary

Gaming Metaphors

Wargames are games. That simple statement is often argued about or stentoriously repeated as a statement of great wisdom on all wargame forums at some time or another. It is a truism. It does point to one fact of wargaming that gets overlooked by many people: Wargames are artifice. They are NOT simulations, since they are not testable, nor is their purpose to exactly illustrate any action or process of battle. They are entertainments. They are a relatively harmless and simple diversion, a way to socialize and pass time, not unlike Monopoly, Chess, or a game of cards. Surely, they are based on history, and the designer’s understanding of that history, along with his purpose, theme, or hypothesis about that combat as he lays out the rules of the game. But, bottom line, wargames are games with rules. They are a creative mix of fact and fun, not unlike a historical novel-such as the Flashman or O’Brien’s Aubrey novels. This is coupled with rules-which are just as in Scrabble, Poker, or Yahtze shows how the gamers will interact; what is fair, and what is foul.

Wargame rules attempt to set up metaphors-subtitutes of one process by another process that serves to represent the real process through an artifice. To illustrate the effect of musketry on a battalion, for instance, we don’t actually go out and shoot somebody-we substitute a die roll with certain effects flowing from its result. The die roll is used as a metaphor for a round of musketry. Most wargamers accept this metaphor, as it has been around for over a hundred years. They see nothing strange or awkward about it.

However, metaphors must be learned and accepted. When I first wrote Piquet there was a howl from many people who suddenly started talking about “Card Driven” games, and their loss of control over armies! The Piquet card sequence deck was a new metaphor, when introduced, for the flow of time. Gamers had grown so used to a fixed and predictable game sequence that they saw the card deck as chaotic, and ‘Unrealistic.” No matter that the fixed sequence games had many of its own artificialities, and its metaphor for time-the fixed sequence turn-was no more or less susceptible to oddities, such as the artillery ALWAYS firing before the infantry, or the cavalry always moving first or last. It was simply that one gaming metaphor for time collided with another-and out of familiarity the fixed turn was deemed “realistic” and the card sequenced turn was deemed chaotic! Now, after 15 years the number of games using the sequence deck, or its equivalent, has become so common that the metaphor has become more “realistic!” Nothing really changed but the mindset of gamers and their acceptance of this different metaphor.

One of the new metaphors in Zouave is the one for “orders”. In the past, some wargames used the most obvious of metaphors-the single courier figure with a handwritten note under his base saying something like “ Take that hill and then turn left.” Some still use this method. It is blazingly simple, not very imaginative, and, as generations of gamers have discovered, very open to all sorts of abuse in interpretation. It also creates a metaphor for something that may have been quite a bit more rare in actual battle, the written order with a high degree of specificity (rather like those given to a car driver attempting to find a gas station). Some use order chips placed by each unit-usually freely on a turn by turn basis-making orders mere ephemeral things that last only a turn and then are changed at will to meet unexpected events. Other designers have tried other metaphors, or ignored the issue altogether, allowing everybody to do just what they want to do,, and when they want to do it. This leads to that most unrealistic of all wargame events-the general advance by all units in an army.

When one looks at battles it is pretty clear that much of the order process was a combination of a pre-battle conference, initial formal orders, informal and often sketchy battle notes, and very frequently, verbal communications that were responding to the current situation as it developed. It is also apparent that the reason one promoted divisional and corps leaders to their position is that you expected some level of local initiative and response, if the situation warranted it. The written order or order chip metaphor isn’t very effective in portraying much of this.

In Zouave, I have created a new metaphor for orders. They are simply pennies, each of which denotes a bit of command energy, a metaphor for ordered intentions, that are acquired both before the battle and after it begins in a manner that is very dependent on the quality of the Commander, who can try to distribute them to his divisional commanders. This distribution is pretty free prior to the battle, but during the battle the process is muddied by the the abilities of the Commander in Chief, the quality of the recipient commander, the distance that separates the two commands, the conflicting needs of the various divisional commanders, the status of the various division’s troops, and, lastly, the actions of the enemy. These pennies represent the command will, the initial formal orders, the flow of information, the verbal orders, and the ability of lower commands to act. This is done simply and clearly. It enforces ruthlessly the need to focus an attack, and the humiliation of being outfoxed. If a gamer wanted to, he could easily substitute the new magnetic markers that have come on the market, but the pennies work just fine.

It is a different metaphor. I think it’s very effective, and fairly innovative. But, I’m sure some gamers will have to learn how to be comfortable with a new “Chaotic”metaphor. I look forward to the reaction of the wargame community.

Here’s a photo of a Divisional commander with a great deal of information, Command will, and orders to execute!: