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Friday, 20 July 2012

Perspectives: Realism in Wargaming

Hi all,

following on from last weeks post about game balance, I've dug up an old favourite of mine about realism in wargaming. Although this is quite an old article, it still holds true, and is one of the articles which really got me thinking about how wargames work. Enjoy.

Wargame Realism And the Psychology of Defeat by Paddy Griffith

When wargamers call for greater "historical realism" in their rules, they may mean one of two things. If they are strong and upright citizens, then they will, in fact, be seeking for greater historical realism; and all will be well. In many other cases, however, they may simply be looking for a scapegoat.

In his book "The psychology of military incompetence", Norman Dixon has explained that defeated generals often look for scapegoats, to cover their own mistakes. Napoleon at Waterloo is a fine example of this, as he was able to say that Grouchy, D'Erlon, Jerome, Ney, and Soult were each, in their way, responsible for the disaster. To believe the Bonapartists one almost has to put down Waterloo as a personal triumph for the Emperor.

In wargames, a defeated "general" often has no subordinates to blame; so he tends to turn against the rules or the umpire. If he can point to some aspect of the game which he thinks was "unrealistic" then he can take the sting out of his defeat.

This means that a lot of the call for greater realism in wargames is motivated by a rather suspect emotion. It is not really a call for greater realism at all, but a call for less painful defeats. This in turn means that when wargame rules are changed "to make them more realistic", they are usually changed in one particular direction -- that of greater control by the player over the game.

Defeat is more painful to a player who has little control over his pieces than to one who has a high degree of control. At first sight this may seem odd, since players with high control have themselves to blame for what happens -- they are directly responsible for their own defeat. In fact, however, it is easier to accept defeat when you are fully responsible for it. It is much harder to accept defeat when some of the game has unrolled outside your control. A car driver who backs into a brick wall by accident will accept the damage philosophically, and be more careful next time. A driver who has another driver crash into him will tend to be outraged and vindictive. That is the difference between high control and low control.

In wargames terms, defeated players always want more control -- which is often the opposite to most historical realism. In real battles, generals often have relatively little control over what goes on: they cannot always make their subordinates move in the right direction (e.g. the Charge of the Light Brigade), at the right time (e.g. Ney's delayed flank attack at Bautzen), or in the right formation (e.g. at Waterloo Wellington's orders to form square were contradicted by the Prince of Orange). They do not always know as much about the terrain as they think they do (e.g. the French in 1940 must have thought the "umpire had changed the rules" when the German armour came through the Ardennes), and are often quite astonished by enemies appearing at unexpected places.

Imagine a Chess game in which the player could not guarantee that his pieces would move where he wanted them to, or on the move he wanted them to. Imagine a Chess game where the kings castled diagonally, and the knights hopped eight squares at a time -- according to a dice throw outside the player's control. Imagine a Chess game where the colour of the squares was variable, and unknown to the player. All this is unacceptable to Chess players. They insist on 100% control of their games, and do not look for scapegoats when they are defeated.

I think that when they call for "greater realism", many wargamers really mean that they want a game which is nearer to Chess, and further from the uncertainties and low level of control of the battlefield. They want to avoid the mental discomfort of relying upon the arbitrary whim of an umpire or the random chances thrown up by a dice ("Average Dice", for example, have been specifically developed to limit the role of chance in wargames. For greater realism, actually, someone should develop a "Maximum Unpredictability" dice!). Especially important, wargamers want to avoid defeats which are painful -- even though in real life defeated generals have found defeat very painful indeed (e.g. The dazed Von Thomas wandering into captivity across the wreckage of his Panzers at Alamein; Ludendorff foaming at the mouth, in his fit after the battle of Amiens, 1918; or the Russian commander at Tannenberg, who felt so badly about his defeat that he shot himself). It may, perhaps, be less fun for wargamers to have low control over their games -- but it would at least be more realistic.

The following are areas in which lower levels of control could be introduced into wargaming:

a) Wider variations of results, due to dice throws: i.e. fewer "average dice".

b) More active umpires, "interpreting" (or even inventing) the rules as they go along, so that players cannot claim infringements of a stated set of rules. Only the umpire should know the rules.

c) More concealment of enemy units, and of terrain, when it is in "dead ground".

d) More possibilities for units under a player's command to "disobey orders", or at least to move late.

e) Fewer possibilities for players to make low-level decisions for each and every one of their sub-units. The Army commander should not be responsible for the tactical formation of each battalion; when each skirmish company opens fire, etc., etc. Decisions of that sort usually originate no higher than the Brigade commander.

f) Longer reaction times and command delays. It is amazing to see the effect on a wargame if there is just one turn's delay imposed between the player making a decision, and the action being taken e.g. in Second World War games, try adding a rule that vehicles must take one "slowing down" turn, between moving at speed and halting to fire.

g) More possibilities for morale panics to spread, out of control. Also longer rallying times.

All these things would deprive the wargamer of some of his "Chess-Player" control over the game. They would add to the historical realism of the model battle.


Paddy Griffith set out to create games that were both playable and realistic. The philosophy of games that animates his design, or designs, is that game rules must never be dogmatic, and the author expresses his mistrust of lawyers who play a game by hunting for loopholes in the rules (like W.C. Fields in the Bible).

Comments, as always, are welcome.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting stuff, accurate and insightful, and I think perhaps an explanation of why my beloved Warmaster never really caught on; it doesn't offer much low-level decision making, or probability-wrangling beyond the command mechanics.