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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”.


  1. John,

    From my observations, I suspect that much of what you have written is true. Admittedly I have not had the sort of contact you have had with professional wargamers, but having interfaced with them at Connections UK, it did strike me that many of those who had a wide experience of hobby wargames - both board and miniature wargames - had a better grasp of the possibilities and limitations of different types of wargame.

    One thing that does concern me is the potential for inexperienced wargame designers to get 'tramlined' when selecting the most appropriate design for a game. If they have only experienced - for example - matrix games, they might think that it can be used for everything. Likewise, if the only type of wargame they have used before is a hex-based/combat resolution table one, they may try to shoehorn what they want to design to fit that style iof game.

    One of the most difficult things that I had to learn was how to write rules ... and years of experience teaching complex concepts to young people was excellent preparation for that. Instructions have to be clear, concise, and unambiguous ... and easy to remember. If players have to keep looking at the rules after the first two bounds of a wargame, then the rules are not working and the participants are concentrating on playing then game rather than taking part in it ... and learning from the start xperience.

    My twopennyworth,


    1. From my experience, professional gamers tend to choose the method they are most familiar with. At the moment matrix games are the fashion.

  2. The end of the last sentence got mangled and should read 'on playing the game rather than taking part in it ... and learning from the experience'.


  3. Hello John,

    That's an interesting and thought provoking post.

    It reminds me of a description I once read of the field of Artificial Intelligence (a subject I enjoyed studying at post-graduate level in the 1990's and was of later use to me for my PhD in the 2000's).

    I read a remarkable article, after 50 years experience MIT post circa 2000 considered a dramatic re-evaluation of its achievements and said that a "back to basics" and innovation was required as the field had ossified (a sense of the best was yet to come, but from where?) and researchers should not be 'afraid to try something different' (but learning from the mistakes/experiences of the past) and "show and tell".

    In effect the experts were saying that ] there were no outright experts at all but only practitioners to enthuse in creating new "engineered" systems to push boundaries.

    I hope these comments are not too obtuse, but it seemed to link with your one "no correct/right way" to do something and the "doing something" in a transparent and open (to investigation) fashion was the key to progress.

    For example I will be fascinated to read how your CoW 2017 'ancient' naval battle games went in the Nugget and if you get the planned historical "what-if" 1920's naval arms race game arranged for a future event.

    Best Wishes

    1. very interesting. AI research has produced some very clever pattern recognition, clever robots, self driving cars, but we are still major fundamental breakthroughs are needed to produce the AI of science fiction. We are not going to get there by incrementally improving the current AI systems we have.

      Professional wargaming is full of enthusiastic practioners who are working largely on the basis of personal experience. I am carrying out an academic literature review of professional gaming at the moment and there is less than there is for stamp collecting.

    2. It's the old light bulb analogy
      Innovation so dramatic did not come about by a series incremental improvements to the candle

      Best Wishes