Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Zones of Control - Perspectives on Wargaming

Zones of Control - Perspectives on Wargaming, is a new book about wargaming in all its different facets, with a strong emphasis on professional wargaming. I haven't read through all chapters yet, but I managed to read roughly 50% of the book so far (not the first half, but selected chapters throughout). The contents consist of 59 different chapters written by different people active in wargames design, or who have studied wargaming academically.

I must say I felt a bit depressed after reading a number of chapters. Not because of the content - which was excellent - but because I was asking myself "What the heck are we doing as hobby (miniature) wargamers - claiming to design wargames? There is this whole body of academic literature on serious wargames design, and we are busying ourselves discussing the relative merits of rolling a D6 over a D10, or whether a stone wall for cover should provide a +1 or a +2." My feeling after reading the book was that we as hobby miniature wargamers are a small freak sideshow in the spectrum of wargaming, and just noise in the bigger world of wargames.

Now, I am an academic myself, and I have published quite a number of academic journal papers to know the difference between "serious" academic work and "hobby" work (check out my Google Scholar profile :-)). My field is computer graphics, but in order to do some serious graphics research, you need to know about computer programming, algorithm design, algorithm analysis, integral and differential equations, numerical integration techniques, analytic geometry, applied algebra, user studies, perceptual psychology, etc. It is a far different world from the hobby enthusiast who is also doing computer graphics, drawing 3D models using a free 3D modeling program, using Photoshop to enhance his pictures, or perhaps developing a small plugin or mod for a game. Both activities are "computer graphics", but there is very little common ground between those activities. Academic research is a completely different beast, compared to the hobbyists who are discussing the merits of a specific feature in a graphics software package, as seen from a user's point-of-view. But the software package used by the hobbyists often is developed with insights and techniques developed in academic research. Ultimately, both spheres are interlinked.

So, after reading Zones of Control - Perspectives on Wargaming, I felt like the hobbyist who doesn't have a clue about the deeper understanding of wargames. This is not to say I didn't know about professional wargaming before. Years ago, I read Peter Perla's The Art of Wargaming, and I came into superficial contact with professional wargaming during my miltary service. I never bothered to read much about it after that, since I thought the aims are different, so there's not too much of a connection between professional and hobby wargaming. Hobby wargaming is a toy, an entertainment, a passtime for people interested in military history. Professional wargaming is there to train military officers, and is designed as a learning tool. Although both do share a common ancestry, ever since H.G.Wells published Little Wars in 1913, hobby wargaming has pursued a path of its own. Hobby wargame designers design games. Professional wargame designers design training tools.

But the book blew me off my socks. In some of the chapters, people make the explicit link between hobby wargaming and professional wargaming - although the hobby wargames mentioned in this context usually are the hex-and-counter type, not the toy soldier type. I have argued before in several discussions (e.g. on TMP), that there is not much of a link between both, exactly because the design aims are different. I never understood the wargamers who claim that a (board) wargame designed for entertainment actually is a serious tool to train for war. "Really? You can learn to command an army by playing Tactics 2?" Nevertheless, in various online discussion, this point is always made. I often think this is because the confusion people have about the name "wargame", and leave out the adjectives  "hobby", "training", "miniature, "board" or "professional". After all, when discussing football, isn't it important one specifies whether one is talking about European or American football, or mini-football, foosball, or a football computer game? Sure, it's all football, but why discuss it as if it's all the same thing?

So, if there is indeed a strong connection between professional and hobby wargaming, and if we have professional wargame designers who clearly know their stuff, then what the hell on earth are hobby miniature wargame designers thinking they're doing? Shouldn't we leave the game design to the professionals? Or should we as gaming enthusiasts all start reading the academic articles and use whatever insights the professionals have developed? Are those insights even transferable to hobby games to begin with?

I lay awake for some nights pondering this very question. I do like writing my own rules for miniature wargaming, testing the game out with my friends, or sending in articles about our games to the glossy miniature wargaming journals. I like playing with my toy soldiers. On the other hand, as an academic, I know there's this world of difference between tackling a problem academically or fixing it at the hobby level. So how is a hobby like miniature wargaming perceived by serious wargame designers? Simple child's play? Noise in the wargaming universe? Should we - as miniature wargamers - simply stop pretending we are doing anything more than just playing a simple game? (In fact, I do think we are just playing a game inspired by military history - but there's this neverending discussion that it's always something more, and people get confused ...)

After a couple of days, I started thinking about the unique assets of miniature wargaming, that I couldn't see being present in professional wargaming, and I became somewhat more relaxed:
  • The visual spectacle! For me, *miniature* wargaming has always been about the toy soldiers. Moving toys around the table is a large part of the attractiveness of the hobby, as is the modeling aspect that is linked to this.
  • Elegant gaming mechanics! Miniature wargaming is a game, and games design is focused around designing elegant and playable mechanics using dice, rulers, cards, ... as well as around producing plausible results.
  • History, not training for actual war! Miniature wargaming most often is involved with historic subjects, not something wargames designed for training the military are really considering.
  • Fantasy and Scifi and Imaginations! Many popular miniature wargames explore alternate universes, and care little about training or historic plausibility.
  • Storytelling! In the end, a good wargame is telling a story inspired by military history. One could even make a point this is the most important point of our hobby.
So, I slowly reverted back to my original stance. Yes, there are many genres of wargaming - all called wargaming :-) But in the end, I do not see much similarities between wargaming as used by professionals and recreational wargaming as played by hobbyists. Sure, there might be the occasional game or gaming engine that can serve both audiences, but I think those are the exception rather than the rule.

To conclude, I do think the book is an interested read - I am still not sure whether the connection between the pro's and the hobbyists is real, or artificial. Anyway, I'll have to make a final judgement once I've finished all the chapters :-)


  1. A thought provoking read. I look forward to part two.

  2. I wonder how playable (in the wargaming hobbyist sense of the word) 'professional' wargames rules actually are and what mechanics they use as there has to be a method of handling activity on the tabletop.

    Too much supply, command, communications, casualty recording? Define too much! Surely it depends on what you want out of a game and what level it is simulating?

  3. Phil

    Sorry to have my name featured so much on your post. I seem to have struck a common theme buried in the discussion.

    Your topic is certainly provoking some serious comments, which is great and I'm sure that was a major aim of yours in the first place.

    See you in November. I am assured by my surgical team that I will be fit enough to fly by then. September instead is going to a painful and quiet period for me.


    1. Jim,

      Not a problem - thanks for replying. I like thinking about games design and wargaming, so that's why I raise such questions now and then. And of course, there are no clear-cut answers.

      Btw, I fully agree that wargaming as a hobby is only a game, no need to take it more serious than that. Most of the time I'm fully in the "let's roll some dice and enjoy ourselves". But sometimes some things bug me and then I want to stir the pot a little ;-)

  4. nice write up. I'm going to pick this up. I think the big difference between the academics and us is the idea of having a game referee. That changes everything.