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What is a "Wargame?"

Wargames go by many names, but back in the 1970s they were known by the Politically Correct names of "game-simulations" and the slightly more informative sobriquet of "conflict simulations." But what are they? What is this hobby called "wargaming" all about? Allow me to introduce some explanations. - Alan Emrich

From the Dean of Board Wargaming

Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) used to send out a letter to new subscribers to their magazine (that includes a wargame in each issue!), Strategy & Tactics which contained the following introduction:

Well, game-simulations are something like this...

Basically, they are attempts to simulate (but not duplicate) past or future events using quantification (reducing everything to numbers) and the laws of probability (which hold that, while a certain range of outcomes is possible in a conflict situation, the order in which they occur is subject to chance).

Game simulations do not predict with unerring accuracy; rather, they instruct you about the situation. The game simulation serves as a mutable framework within which you can see different parts of a simulation situation interact. A book can have but one ending, a game can end any number of ways... and in every game you can clearly see why the game evolves and ends the way it does. You and the other players control the decisions made in the game framework. Thus, you can control and experiment with situations. While the games are, on the surface, competitive interactions between individuals, they are more frequently "played with" rather than played. People can't resist pulling out the games and seeing for themselves (and often just themselves - solitaire play is very common with game-simulations) "what might have happened if...?"

This page is linked to games like Strike Force One, Battle for Moscow, and Napoleon at Waterloo - games that are intended to introduce the uninitiated to what game simulations are all about. These games contain many of the basic elements found in many conflict simulation games. These elements have been simplified to the point where they can be easily understood by someone with no other experience of this type of game. Once you understand the basic elements of game-simulations, it is relatively easy to grasp and play almost any of the others. It's like learning to read: once you associate the symbols to reality, you're on your way.

Game simulations sometimes seem to people as either a "finite" solution or else something that wrongly pretends to being the "last word." They are neither. Game simulations are merely another tool. How you use them is up to you. They present an alternative approach to they study of history, the human condition, and the world we inhabit. It is true that this method adopts much from the "systems" approach. The validity of considering human activities as a system is not yet proven. The idea that so much can be reduced to numbers (part of the "systems approach) is not yet widely accepted. This approach, and the games published using it, should be used with a good deal of care and circumspection.

James F. Dunnigan

From Frank Chadwick
noted wargame designer

Game Designer's Workshop (GDW) included this introduction to wargaming with their classic introductory game Battle for Moscow:

Battle for Moscow is a free introductory wargame that you can print and play right now.
Introduction logo

Introduction to Wargaming

Wargames are games dealing with wars or battles. But a wargame is much more than just a reenactment of the event; it is dynamic: it re-creates the situation and underlying conditions of the event, showing the major factors which influenced the outcome. It is also competitive: two players vie against one another to win the game, creating a drama and intensity in game terms which echoes that of the real battle. The combination of the two--dynamic and competitive--results in a game that is both exciting to play and representative of the event.

People play wargames for many reasons. They enjoy playing highly competitive games. They have an interest in history (either in general or in military history specifically)--an interest in the events that shaped the world we all live in. Wargaming is a hobby, and, as in other hobbies, sharing your interest in wargaming with other gamers in the hobby is fun.

A board wargame is a wargame that uses a map-board and counters as its basic elements. Although board wargames come in many forms, most have four common features: a map, counters, rules, and charts.

The map shows the area where the battle was fought, depicting important terrain, roads, or other features that influenced the course of the battle. A map usually has a grid superimposed on it. Hexagonal grids are most common because they are efficient and easy for players to use, but other grids (squares, irregular-shaped areas, and so on) are possible. Whatever the form, the grid helps to position the playing pieces and to regulate their movement and combat.
The counters represent the historical forces involved in the battle and are usually square, die-cut pieces of cardboard. The printing on them specifies the type of military units they represent, their nationality, and their combat and movement abilities.

Diagram showing map and counters: the arrows show possible movement paths for a unit:

Movement diagram

The rules tell how the counters move and engage in combat, what the victory conditions are, and any other information needed to play the game. The rules to all good wargames try to show the situation covered by the game in realistic terms: what was and was not possible on the battlefield is or is not possible in the game. Consequently, wargame rules tend to be more complex than those of other games (such as Chess or Risk), but players are rewarded with an exciting and challenging game situation.
The charts summarize often-used game information for quick reference during play. Most wargames have a terrain effects chart, which specifies the effects of terrain on the movement and combat of the counters, and a combat results table, which is used when resolving combat between the counters.

Example chart: Combat Results Table
Combat Results Table

Battle for Moscow is your introduction to just this type of game.

Jon Freeman
from his magnum opus: The Complete Wargames Handbook

The Nature of the Beast

What is a wargame? Or simulation? Or whatever it's called?

Although usage varies, the terms "wargame" and "conflict simulation" refer to the same thing: a game whose subject is combat or some similar form of direct conflict between individuals, armies, "nations," or entire species; particularly board wargames of the Charles S. Roberts type.

Most broadly, a simulation is an imitation of reality; it is a replication or re-creation - usually in miniature - of a real or imaginary situation. Simulations, in this general sense, concern us only if they are further characterized by both flexibility and verisimilitude.

To be a game, an "imitation of life" must be flexible. It must allow you to "play" with it. Books, movies, and television fail this test: The Man Who Knows The Secret always gets killed before he can explain his inevitably cryptic telephone call, but the hero, nonetheless, always figures things out in the end, at which point the villain gets shot (in a book), blown up (in a movie), or arrested (on television). We can't relieve the victim's neurotic fear of speaking on the telephone or prevent the villain's last-minute bungling, and we have no way of finding out what would have happened if someone had done something intelligent, like relay the Vital Information to someone else. In varying degrees, however, model railroading, RAND's computer simulations of the economy in the future, and all board games allow us these kinds of options.

Conversely, a game is not a simulation without verisimilitude, the "lifelikeness" that is popularly, if not always correctly, referred to as "realism." The game of checkers is obviously not a re-creation of anything in life; neither is backgammon. The game of Monopoly, while having some vague resemblance to the real estate business, is still much too unrealistic to be considered a true simulation. In real life, we don't have to drive down a particular street to buy property there; rent is not fixed permanently and arbitrarily (except perhaps in New York City); our utility bills are not determined by chance; we need not purchase (and tear down) houses before erecting a hotel; and the income tax rate is rather more than ten percent. On the other hand, a simulation of the Battle of Waterloo will attempt to mirror, with substantial accuracy, the forces present and their actual capabilities, the terrain of the battleground and its effect on the conduct of the engagement, and the tactics and aims of the opposing armies. "Luck" will be confined to the historical uncertainties of combat.

And the Breadth of it Fifty Cubits

Wargames vary as much in size and scope as they do in period and setting.

At one end of the scale are science-fiction games that treat not just the fate of a planet but the future of the human race - and others - on dozens of worlds in as many star systems. On a map representing tens of thousands of light-years, Outreach simulates the expansion of several groups of intelligent species from the neighborhood of our spiral arm to the center of the galaxy. The game 4000 A.D. confines itself to a mere forty-eight star systems in our stellar vicinity. Star Web and Stellar Conquest both use imaginary configurations of stars and planets. All four games deal with grand strategy - the big picture. Although the details vary from game to game, players must deal with the enormous problems of exploration, expansion, population growth, resource exploitation, commerce, and shipbuilding. You must not only decide how to wage a war, but also when, where, whether, and even who to fight. Unlike the vast majority of wargames, this group is designed for more than two players.

A step down in scale is the simulation of a complete war. In science-fiction games like Imperium, this may involve several worlds, but more typical are World War II and Third Reich. Although neither of the latter two games deals with the Pacific theater (virtually a war in itself), both contain elements of grand strategy. Other similar games, like 1776, may be more strictly strategic in scope. The difference is one of options. In this sense, strategy deals with questions like where to invade, with what kind of troops, and how much effort to expend in which countries or regions. Grand strategy subsumes all this and more: Do you ally with Russia (or Alpha Centauri), remain neutral, or attack? Do you want to expend your resources building fleets or armies? Aircraft or tanks? Fighters or bombers?

Units in games of this scope are large groups-whole armies, or at least corps-level organizations. Combat is fairly abstract and based on the ratio of the strengths of the opposing forces in any particular battle.

A war can be subdivided into phases or geographic areas. Depending on the historical period, it might be appropriate to simulate a campaign in, say, the Civil War or a front in either of the world wars. D-Day is the classic example of the latter, but Atlantic Wall, a newer treatment of the same subject, is more typical of recent designs, which include the longest-playing, largest, most complex, and most notorious games in the hobby. The pieces in War in the East, War in the West, Drang Nach Osten!, and Unentschieden represent divisions or brigades - units that are unexpectedly smaller than those that typify the simulations of a complete war. As a result, there are more than a thousand pieces in each game, and the unusual scale requires up to half a dozen mapboards and a playing area no smaller than that called for by many miniatures campaigns. Save for pride of ownership, games like these are suitable chiefly for clubs and essays on "What I Did on My Summer Vacation." SPI's term "operational" is sometimes used to describe both this class (as distinguished from a "strategic" version of a similar subject, like Russian Campaign, which uses army- or corps-level units) and those games (Panzergruppe Guderian) that simulate a smaller portion of a war - a campaign or an "operation."

The most obvious grouping contains those games that treat a single battle. Depending on the extent of the actual conflict and the scale used to simulate it, it's possible to have a strategic, operational, or grand tactical treatment of a single subject. (Gettysburg '77, Avalon Hill's newest version of its oldest game, is one of the few that can claim to include all three approaches in a single package.) The term "grand tactical" is often used, generally, to describe all "battle" games, particularly for engagements prior to the twentieth century, or to refer, specifically, to those using a scaled-down War in the East approach. La Bataille de la Moscowa, Terrible Swift Sword, and Wellington's Victory all utilize huge mapboards, elaborate rules, and battalion-to-regiment-size units to simulate in loving, if possibly bewildering, detail the battles of Borodino, Gettysburg, and Waterloo, respectively.

Tactical games of whatever scale (from grand to close) usually have less abstract combat systems than strategic games. Ranged fire, which allows a unit to attack or "shoot at" an opponent's piece from a distance, is typical not just of artillery units, as in some operational games, but of all, or nearly all, units: ships, planes, tanks, infantry. This allows a more vivid simulation that many gamers find more exciting. Despite the complexities caused by the detail involved, newcomers may actually find it easier to grasp tactical games-particularly if they are sea or air games and few pieces are involved.

Many tactical games simulate a form or period of warfare rather than a particular engagement. Most include a multitude of scenarios (mini-garnes with essentially the same rules but different setups and objectives) that may represent actual battles or merely typical actions. Pieces normally represent individual ships and planes or small units of armor and infantry (platoons or companies). PanzerBlitz, the father of modern tactical games, at least on land, covers armored warfare on the eastern front; Panzer Leader, as much son as brother, does the same for the western front. Frigate and Wooden Ships & Iron Men deal with naval warfare in the Age of Sail; CA and Dreadnought perform the same service for this century. Richthofen's War simulates air combat in World War 1; Air War and the older Foxbat & Phantorn handle contemporary aircraft.

At the small end of the scale, the tactical binge of the past decade has culminated in a handful of close tactical games. Pieces in Sniper! and Patrol represent single men, and the objectives include clearing a building of enemy snipers or doing the same to a section of forest. Although the activity scale was immediately popular, the simultaneous movement system requires written "plots" or orders for every action taken by every piece. Squad Leader - along with its successor, Cross of Iron, the newest sensation along this line - uses a slightly larger scale: units may be infantry squads or individual tanks, machine guns or leaders. This latter system allows a greater variety of forces than Sniper! and, through the use of intricately interwoven movement and fire sequences, gives something of the feel of simultaneity while, avoiding the tedium of order-writing.

Differences in scale are as great as those between separate periods of history. There are people who play nothing but tactical games just as there are those who sneer at any subject set before World War 2. There is, nonetheless, no ideal scale any more than there could be a "perfect" war. It depends on what you want to simulate and how big or complicated you want a game to be. With hundreds of wargames on the market, you have plenty of choice.

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