Wargame Thoughts and Commentary
Design Metaphors in wargaming


Hougomont Falling

In my many years in wargaming, I have often noted the intolerance that exists within the hobby for the other guy’s rules, the appearance of his tabletop terrain, the other guy’s choice of figure scale, and, even, what the other guy thinks he is doing when playing a war-game.

This critique usually takes the form of accused inaccuracy, “His rules are SOOOO unrealistic!”, or belittlement, “That game is just beer and pretzels!”, or damning of process,”They use Cards! Multiple sided dice! A variable turn sequence!” My favorite was a recent reviewer that incorrectly complained that Die Fighting used “A bucket of Dice”, thereby making it suspect.

Of course, the reverse is also true when claims are made that a group is refighting a historical battle and experiencing the “real” thing! Why they even included rules for the unit with the deaf captain and the illiterate messenger-that got lost in the woods in 1813!

It is important to remember that the first aspect of wargaming is the use of metaphors; the use of one object or process to represent another thing or process (either well or badly) . An example is to use the metaphor of a die roll to represent a round of musketry and its effect, or twelve metal 28 mm miniatures to represent 500 men and officers of a regiment, or a one inch high piece of foam, spray-painted green, to represent a thirty foot undulating hill.

Games are all about metaphors, and each metaphor is not only meant to represent some other thing or action, but that representation is abstracted in varying degrees set by an accepted rules structure. Do we need to roll a die 500 times, once for each actual soldier in a combat unit’s fire-or do we abstract that effect into 5 rolls, one for each hundred men, or a single roll? Do we actually need to place every figure into a structure-lifting the roof carefully, or simply declare that the men are in the house and “abstract” their presence? Do we need to remove figures from the table with we very “hit”, or simply mark a roster, or place a marker, or impose some immediate action upon the unit dependent on the degree of the loss? Does a unit have to have a set declared, ratio of figures to actual muster, or just declare that X figures represent the unit?

The truth is, that once you roll the first die, place the first figure on the table, draw the first card as a metaphor for the march of time, or accept that a cardboard and balsa box is a stone and mortar fortress-there is no certain answer to that question. It’s whatever your mind’s eye finds acceptable, and whatever your friends will tolerate or equally accept. There is no RIGHT answer!

However, it is also my experience that if there is one thing the hobby of wargaming has FAR too many examples of, it is literalness, i.e. the inability to abstract and remain open to indirect metaphors that can illustrate some truly meaningful things about warfare in a historical period, and combat in general. All too many gamers get so locked into the “Acceptable” metaphors of time sequencing, combat, movement, and command control that they are blind to alternatives that are no more “unrealistic” and , often, insightful in new ways in illustrating historical events and resolving strategic and tactical problems.

All metaphors are, by intrinsic meaning, false equivalencies, but they invite the mind to create meaningful, and better understandings from the use of the metaphor. The important thing is to be open to new ideas, new metaphors, and to have the intellectual curiosity to explore concepts that are new and different.

One man’s absurd idea, is another man’s brilliant metaphor!

Wise travelers often vary their route, no telling what wonders they might run across!