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Wednesday, 16 August 2017

In the valley of the blind the one eyed man is king

For a number of years, I was always concerned about stepping forward to make a contribution to the field of professional wargaming. I felt that there must be a multitude of experts just out of sight and one day they would descend on my efforts and demolish me in a polite, but comprehensive way. Now I have been to Connections USA (the professional wargaming conference in the USA), Connections UK (the professional wargaming conference in the UK) and COW (conference of wargamers), I finally realise that there is no cabal of wargaming expertise hidden out there. I always assumed they were just too busy to interact with the rest of us. There is in fact a dearth of experts in professional wargaming. 

So what does experience a professional wargaming expert need to qualify in my eyes? Some of the following seems relevant. This is not a checklist that implies all experts need all of these skills. 

  1.  Wide ranging experience of professional wargaming (obviously).
  2.  Experience of hobby games, as the hobby is far ahead of the professional arena in some areas e.g. graphics, maps, clever game mechanisms and layout of rules to minimise the learning curve. However, it should be noted that some lessons from hobby games should not be taken into the professional domain.
  3. Teaching experience, as a lot of what we do involves explaining (rules, scenarios, briefings etc.) and then running after action reviews. Any teacher does this on a daily basis; checking learning is just part of the Kohl Learning cycle.
  4. Knowing the basics of operational analysis and maths is also essential to understand where the numbers come from.
  5. Historical knowledge often helps assess likelihood; being able to give an example from history is a powerful argument that there is a chance that something that has been done before can be done again
  6. Having some experience of game development.  This does not mean that all players of professional games need to be master game designers, they just need enough insight to understand the game design trade-offs of abstraction and generalisation. Realising that developers make these decisions helps players effectively utilise a professional wargame.
  7. Reading a quality daily newspaper or watching the BBC news provides a global cultural geo-political and cultural context to many of our operational and strategic games. How can anyone play a game about the Baltic Republics in Europe without some insights into Polish cultural norms and what these mean for any confrontation with Russia?

Professional wargaming is 200 years old, but in some ways the art and science of professional wargaming resembles a subject that was only invented ten years ago. Many of the discussions, to me at least, resemble those seminars at the early RUSI meetings in the late 19th century where the basics of naval wargaming were being developed (See Fred Jane, Lieutenant Castle R.N., Captain Colomb R.N.Lieutenant H. Chamberlain R.N. and John Curry (2014) Over Open Sights: Early Naval Wargaming Rules 1873-1904 Early Wargames Volume 6 for reports on those early naval wargames which were the precursors to the Fred Jane 1898 naval game).

The subject lacks quality well researched peer reviewed journal articles about various tools of the subject. There is also a lack of circulated research reports demonstrating wide experience and reading. Conference presentations routinely lack references to contributions of others to support what is being said; instead they have an over reliance on anecdotal experience. Often this is along the lines of “this is my experience”.

To be absolutely clear, I am not criticising anyone who has presented at a conference, written a report, book or otherwise contributed to the development of professional wargaming. For all of these efforts are essential and necessary steps to move the subject into a position where it scholarship and research can drive it on. However, to me at least, wargaming is not an art or science, yet

However, the advantage of this current state of art is summarised by the expression, “in the valley of the blind, the one eyed man is king”.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Peter Perla Final Keynote Speach

I feel privileged to be sat watching one of the key figures in modern professional wargaming deliver the Keynote speech at the US professional wargaming conference. Peter Perla's (1990) book was key in helping move forward wargaming as a professional tool.

These are just a few quotes from the talk.
"This high-level official interest in wargaming may be new, but serious, professional wargaming has been practiced for nearly 200 years. Sometimes it has pointed the way toward success. Too often it has been oversold by charlatans, abused by the cynical, and ignored by those who most need to learn from the insights it can provide. Today we face a critical historic inflection point. We can't afford to screw up this opportunity. It's time to get wargaming right. It's too important not to."

"The essence of games is found in their basic nature. They are about people making decisions in the context of competition or conflict, usually with other people. All the while plagued by uncertainty and complexity."

"As I have been thinking about the litany of uncertainly recently, it led me back to an even older point, one that I have heard attributed to Abraham Lincoln in the dark days of the Civil War. “It aint what you don’t know that will get you; it’s what you know that aint so.” We have seen a lot of that since spring 2003. We knew that the Iraqi people would welcome us as liberators. We knew that we could get by with a small military force while we rebuilt Iraq and turned it over to a democratically elected government. We knew . . . well, you get the picture."

Success in any art may be regarded as the product of three factors:

a—the right thing,

b—rightly applied,

c—in time.

If either of these factors is zero, the result will be zero. The right thing rightly applied too late, the right thing misapplied, and the wrong thing, whether applied or not—neither of these combinations promises success.

When from a study of the experience of past wars, and of that of artificial wars checked up by suitable trials in the fleet, we shall have discovered what is the RIGHT THING’; when, by the practice of artificial war, we have so familiarized ourselves with the various theaters of war, the situations and their appropriate solutions that we can see the RIGHT THING,’ ‘RIGHTLY APPLIED’; and finally when, by persistent practice of artificial war, we shall have so trained our appropriate mental muscles (the mental processes), that the proper line of reasoning has become the line of least resistance, so that we shall think right even if we have no time to think at all—instinctively, actually quicker than though—thus enabling us to do the ‘RIGHT THING,’ ‘RIGHTLY APPLIED, ‘IN TIME,’ then, and only then, shall we fully realize the true meaning of the saying that ‘the best school of war is war!’”

Games taught decision-making, not decisions.

Gave "an adaptable process to follow and confidence in their decision-making abilities."

Facilitated transformation of tactics, strategy and technology.

Succeeded through "cyclic osmosis" of rotation from students to planners, operators, faculty.

"Research laboratory for every detail of naval warfare."
Games are accurate because:
     they incorporate external and human factors
     they include humans as decision makers
games are accurate  because game designers are predictable.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Reflections on Wargaming Publishing

To the casual observer it looks like 2017 is another golden age of wargaming publishing. Not since the Donald Featherstone era have so many books on our hobby hit the shelves. There are a number of wargaming publishers, all centred on the UK. There are a continual deluge of wargaming books, including many self-published ones. However, the numbers hide a problem; the reality is many of the books are dire.

With the dearth of experienced wargaming editors, the content, history, game system etc. in the books is of variable quality. I bought a second hand book on gaming ancient naval warfare and found the rules were flawed. If you ignore the errors on the picture captions, the book is basic introduction to ancient naval warfare, with some nice pictures, the rules seem to lack play testing. I will give an example. Triremes attacking triremes from the front kill each other on a roll of 2-6 on a six sided dice. This means if you outnumber the enemy you should simply charge the enemy from the front and statistically you will win. E.g. when they lose ¼ of their ships, which is very quick with triremes in these rules. 

Many of the books are far too wide ranging, by authors who lack awareness of developments in the wider wargaming world. They contain the author’s ‘wisdom’ that is either just general knowledge or just wrong. This situation is exasperated by the publishers being forced to keep editorial input to absolute minimum in order to make the books cost effective. 

Of course, there are exceptions. Bob Cordery’s The Portable Wargame is an example of book well written and focussed on a specific theme, games played on small table tops. However, to get to write a book of quality, is the result of writing hundreds of articles over years to develop the craft of word smithing wargaming literature. Most of the new writers arriving on the wargaming publishing block have omitted this literary apprenticeship and it shows. 

What are the potential longer term trends from this? The wargaming publishers are jockeying for brand position, but they are damaging their own name with each publication. For every book such as Frostgrave which succeeds, there are nine more that are not. There are a lot of disappointed authors out there who expected to make substantial income from their pride and joy in print, but are dismayed that the free market is more discerning than they realised.