From time to time I write a bit of autobiography for this blog. It's time for some more, I think, since I need to provide some background for what I have to say about Professor Philip Sabin's Simulating War: Studying Conflict Through Simulation Games. So sit tight, since it will take me a while to get back to the book.
In the mid-1970s I started to play wargames with a friend of mine. He taught me the basics, and then we would sometimes get together to play. Most of the time, though, like many, perhaps most, wargamers, I played solitaire. Even back then, when wargaming faced vastly less competition for a gamer's attention, it was still hard to find an opponent.
My gamer friend tended to buy games from Avalon Hill, whereas I tended to buy games from SPI. I soon realized that I enjoyed wargaming enough to subscribe to SPI's house magazine Strategy & Tactics. Because each issue included a complete game on some topic in military history, and because I also ordered directly from the company, I quickly accumulated a lot of games from SPI. It was my good fortune that my first issue of S&T contained Panzergruppe Guderian, which was easily my favorite of all the games that I received during my years as a subscriber. It was also my misfortune, since the high quality of PGG spoiled me. Most of the subsequent games were not nearly as good, and a few were fairly dreadful. I'm still having nightmares about Armada, an unplayable game that should never have been sent to subscribers. Magazine wargames are still sometimes hastily rushed out the door, and so their reputation for being underdeveloped, which they acquired in the glory days of S&T, lives on.
I more or less stopped wargaming after I graduated from high school. My games stayed at home when I went away to college, but I pulled one off the shelf now and then when I went back home to visit my parents. Otherwise, though, I didn't make any effort whatsoever to keep up with new developments in wargaming for roughly thirty years. About three years ago, however, I started to get back into it.
If you've looked my autobiographical posts or my academic autobiography, you've seen that I've had problems with my back and right shoulder for several years. Fortunately, I've gotten better, but I still have to ration my time in front of the computer. That characteristic typing position you know what I mean, the one that involves having your elbows at your sides and your hands over the keyboard seems to be what most aggravates my pinched ulnar nerve. That's why I've had to cut back on blogging the last few years, and, just in general, the progress of my scholarly work has slowed as a result of this pinched nerve. But, fortunately, as I said, I'm feeling better these days.
Anyway, it's still a good idea for me not to spend too much time in front of the computer. (So, to tell you the truth, I really ought not to be writing this post. But we don't always do what we should, do we? This may or may not be to your advantage, depending upon what I have something of interest to say about Prof. Sabin's book below.) I was thinking about this in early 2010, trying to figure out what to do about it.
I cut back on my blogging and my reading of news and current events. I was never much of a computer gamer, which meant that there wasn't much computer time to be saved there, but I stopped playing the occasional game of Klondike. I also reduced the amount of email that I send. And so forth. (If you're reading this post, then you probably spend too much time at your computer as well. Therefore, you don't need me to recite all the ways in which you could reduce your dependence upon it.) I wanted something else to do away from the computer besides reading books, listening to music, and watching movies. I've been doing those things for years. So what else was there?
That was when I started wargaming again. It's true that I play a few boardgames, but, really, I enjoy wargames more, especially since they tend to be better suited to solitaire play. Because I'm no longer an academic philosopher, I no longer have to read as widely as I did when I was teaching my many different classes. So I've reduced the size of my philosophy library and greatly increased my holdings in history. I've long been an avid reader of military history, and so my renewed wargaming nicely dovetails with my steady consumption of books on military history. I'm currently writing a commentary on Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment, which, since it was written during the dark days of the Third Reich, takes on the topic of fascism. So my reading about Nazi Germany even fits in with my interest in wargaming.
The basic point of the preceding paragraphs and this is why all of this autobiography is relevant to my discussion of Prof. Sabin's book is that I have a fair amount of personal experience of wargaming. (Yes, my involvement has been somewhat episodic and thus scattered over time, but it continues to this day.) More important, though, is that my interest in wargaming has never been driven primarily by a passion for gaming, but rather by a lifelong fascination with history. (This, by the way, is why boardgames have never interested me as much as wargames.) Wargames are games, of course, but I've never regarded them as just games. I've always seen them as vehicles for historical understanding. Of course, they need to be entertaining (and thus their primary duty is to entertain), but they can be much more when they are sufficiently ambitious, properly researched, and carefully designed.
Okay, enough background information about me. Now on to my discussion of Prof. Sabin's book.
The most remarkable thing about Prof. Sabin's book is that it exists. Really, it's that simple. That an accomplished academic has written a book about an activity that some people are certain to dismiss as childish is quite a step forward in the intellectual appreciation of wargaming. Not only does the book discuss wargaming in a serious (which is not to say a solemn) manner, it even contains games that the reader can build and play (or download from Prof. Sabin's website and then build and play). A scholarly book with games in it! Gasp!
So we should just take a moment to appreciate the mere fact of the publication of Prof. Sabin's Simulating War: Studying Conflict Through Simulation Games. (And while we're at it, we should also applaud Continuum Books for deciding to publish the book. Too many academic publishers are given to following the latest academic fashion, rather than searching for innovative projects and fields of study to promote.) It's just nice to be able to read such a book.
The book consists of three parts: theory, mechanics, and examples. For my money, the most interesting part is the first one devoted to the theory of wargaming. I was especially intrigued by Prof. Sabin's tales of how he has used relatively simple wargames in his classes in the Department of War Studies at King's College London. The opening sentence of chapter 3 deftly summarizes his vision of the educational utility of wargaming: "The most important function of wargames is to convey a vicarious understanding of some of the strategic and tactical dynamics associated with real military operations" (31).
In the classroom this precept, he argues, requires for its realization small conflict simulations that can be easily learned and quickly played. (The phrase "conflict simulation" is often used as a synonym for wargames, especially the ones that strive to model some historical conflict as accurately as possible. Wargamers routinely debate the extent to which a particular wargame simulates the historical contest that gives the game its theme and guides its design. Also, sad to say, the phrase is sometimes employed to avoid embarrassment or so-called "game shame" on the part of wargamers. It's sort of like saying "film" or "cinema" instead of "the movies".) The first color photo in the book, immediately after page 72, shows groups of his students playing a simulation of his own design. Students quickly learn to appreciate the complexities of military operations, because, Prof. Sabin writes, they "must grapple with real strategic and tactical dilemmas as they struggle to beat their colleagues" (37).
The element of struggle is extremely important and not fully grasped by attending lectures and reading textbooks. Real warfare, after all, isn't a thought experiment or an intellectual exercise. It is a contest in which opposing sides typically pay a high price for participating, especially the loser. The players of a wargame attempt to beat each other in a manner similar to that of real combatants, and they do so in the full knowledge that something important, as defined in the victory conditions of the game, hangs on the outcome.
Real military contests, thankfully, happen only once, but wargames give us the opportunity first to simulate some particular conflict and then to replay it again and again. As Prof. Sabin writes in his book's most incisive sentence, "Wargames bestow in miniature the almost God-like ability to rewind time over and over again and to experiment with all kinds of random variations and alternative decisions, thereby creating the ultimate counterfactual sandbox" (55). When I was first playing wargames as a teenager, I certainly didn't know the word 'counterfactual', but no less certainly did I appreciate this aspect of wargaming. (So, by the way, do wargame publishers. Their advertising often challenges potential purchasers to change history.) This is one of the things that always fascinated me about the best conflict simulations.
Prof. Sabin's discussion of game mechanics will probably be of less interest to those who are already oldhands at wargaming, and those who are just beginning to take up wargaming will probably find it somewhat bewildering. He covers typical wargame mechanics, e.g. hexagon map grids, zones of control, stacking limits, and the like, as well as how designers attempt to simulate combat and command in different periods of history. Much of this was already familiar to me, of course, but I appreciated the ways in which Prof. Sabin articulated how these design choices can be brought together to create individual wargames.
Prof. Sabin then provides his readers with eight simple games of his own design. They make use of the techniques described earlier in the book, and thus give his readers an opportunity to see his design principles in action. I have to admit that I have yet to play any of these games. I already have enough unplayed games in my collection. But I recently purchased the commercial version of "Hell's Gate" from Victory Point Games. This game simulates the Korsun Pocket of 1944, a battle between German and Soviet troops. I'll be playing it in the near future, and I should be able to post about it. So more on this game at a later date.
I would have liked to have seen more on two particular topics, however. In the book's introduction Prof. Sabin talks about military gaming, that is, the tradition of Kriegsspiel that began in the early 19th century. Since I'm not a military professional, and since I've never read much about this type of gaming, which I assume is quite different from the largely commercial, hobby wargaming that Prof. Sabin discusses, I'm in the dark as to how the wargaming I know differs from what military professionals have been doing for two hundred years. That's just my ignorance, of course. But I think that Prof. Sabin's book would be even better if it not only said more about this difference but also illustrated it in some appropriate fashion.
The second topic that could have used more discussion is that of the morality of wargaming. Prof. Sabin discusses this briefly on pages 161 to 163. What I would like to see discussed is whether or not there are moral restraints on what aspects of a military conflict a designer should seek to simulate. Should, for example, the genocidal aspect of Nazi Germany's war against the Soviet Union be simulated? There are many, many wargames that simulate the German invasion of the Soviet Union, but as far as I know, none of them attempt to model the Einsatzgruppen and concentration camps that followed in the wake of the Wehrmacht's advance. This aspect of the historical conflict was hardly an afterthought. It was a key component of Nazi ideology, yet it is hard to imagine that someone will ever design a game that simulates the Holocaust and makes it a major element of the German war effort. Maybe there is such a game, and I'm just not aware of it. I certainly hope that there is no such wargame, but is this just squeamishness on my part, or is it grounded in some sort of moral objection? I would be interested to read what Prof. Sabin's has to say on this topic. As of this writing, I have no clear thoughts on the matter.
As you can see, I have a very favorable opinion of Prof. Sabin's book. If you're interested in wargaming as an intellectual activity that goes beyond merely having fun playing games based on military history, then I recommend Simulating War: Studying Conflict Through Simulation Games to your attention.