Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Fog of War Versus Fun of Wargaming

Picking up on a idea mentioned in this post by Capt Arjun, I'd like to discuss the issue of recreating the perspective of a "real" commander.

The wargamer can see the whole battlefield. The real general can only see part of it - as technology increases, the modern general can see more than Alexander could, but it's important to note that what he sees is mediated. A general now, compared to say Wellington, can see about the same thing with his naked eyes. Everything else that the modern general (why do I always have to resist the urge to type "modern Major General" when I type that phrase?) gets to see is mediated - it's a report, a readout, a radar image, an air or satellite recon photo.

More often than not, it's a report: even though he has access to "raw" data (for example, a photo of a bombed out bridge) he is likely to base his decisions on the report processed and generated by his staff (in this case, the bomb damage assessment report). The important point here is that improvements in a general's ability to perceive the battlefield have been in terms of indirect, mediated access.

Even granting that this is an extension of his ability to receive input, it is nevertheless nothing compared to the birds-eye-view a wargamer enjoys of the table. The problems of hidden and plotted movement mean that most wargames still use a completely transparent movement and status system - you can see all units, and can usually see their status (rallied, suppressed, routing etc).

Realistic? No - to achieve that, we'd have to artificially limit the wargame player's ability to see. There are quite a few ways to do this - ranging from plotted hidden movement, to isolating the player in a different room and forcing him to receive only reports and issue only commands, with someone else on the other end effecting the actions. It's a black box we'd be putting the player in, in an attempt to recreate the black box that surrounds the general in real life.

And it's definitely not fun. We have a choice here between the Fog of War, and the Fun of Wargaming, and it's no wonder we choose the latter. Nobody likes informational Fog - real generals particularly, which is why so much technology is being introduced to try and increase information flow between soldiers, and between levels of command - soldiers would like to know without ambiguity where the enemy is, and where the friendlies are, and generals would like to know the status, without ambiguity, of each and every soldier, tank and asset, friendly and opposed. And generals most definitely don't like the Friction (to use Clauswitz's term) of war - they would love it if every order was understood with perfect intent, and executed to exact specifications and expectations. This doesn't happen, but the ideal is still there. Perfect information (the logic goes) leads to perfect decision-making, perfect information flow leads to perfect execution of intent. (one could argue that the genius of great commanders lies in being able to work with/around these limitations, more than in any particular insight or brilliance)

Wargamers have near-perfect information. Games are designed that way from the start - otherwise nobody would play them. A game that frustrates its players is a game that tends to stay on the shelf (wargames are a business, after all) and most players are firmly on the "Fun" axis - and even if not, at least aren't willing to venture so far out onto the limb of ultra-realism and uber-frustration. I don't have statistics, but I would hazard a guess that most of the "black box" rulesets that exist are home-made/specialised rules that were written by gamers (as opposed to published by a commerical wargames company) for a small group of like-minded individuals who do get primary satisfaction out of realism, and are willing to endure tedium, frustration, and heavy paper-work in return.

Attempts at compromise do exist - mechanisms and rulesets that try and create the effect of fog of war, without the heavy bean-counting paperwork. For example, a rule that forces a player to roll against incrementally higher odds to give successive orders to the same unit (think Warmaster) is trying, via a simple mechanism, to recreate a host of real-life events - soldier fatigue, disruption to plans, depreciation of equipment and capabilities, and degradation of command ability - all in one shot - i.e. what Clauswitz called "friction". Mechanisms like this are themselves a sort of short-cut - an attempt to model the signs and symptoms, without having to engage all the details.

Think about how one can attempt to measure the circumference of a circle by drawing polygons of an increasing number of sides: the larger the number of sides, the close one gets to the actual circumference, though never being exactly there. Sooner or later, one reaches a polygon whose number of sides is a manageble quantity, and by multiplying length of side x number of sides, reaches a good approximation of the circumference (yes, I know we could just 2 x Pi x r the whole thing, but stick with me here). This, in wargame terms, would be the "mechanism" - the command die roll mentioned earlier for example, that attempts to create an acceptable approximation, via the probability of simple die rolls, of what fog of war and friction could do on a battlefield. It's an attempt to reach a compromise between Fun and Fog/Friction.

An aside here: the one I've been involved in real military wargaming, i.e. with the military, the perspective was very different. Fun was never an issue - realism was everything. Computers and technicians were used to create an effective Black Box, commanders only being able to issue orders to them, and receive reports via radio. The whole thing ran in real-time - I could not begin to tell you how tedious it was. But it was realistic. After all, they do this for a living: we do this for recreation.

Which really brings me back to the point here: we do this as a recreation, not for re-creation (to use a bad pun). Fog of War is best left to the real battlefield, and Fun of Wargaming left on the wargames table. After all, if it stops becoming a recreational activity, then it'd be real work.


Blogger domgoh said...

I disagree. I think some Fog of War can help to create period flavour, which would in turn enhance the fun aspect of the game as a whole. My prime example would be the "Ambush" game we played back in 2000 with Arjun, Paul Mahoney and Paul Koch.

5:14 am  
Blogger wahj said...

I think the point I'm trying to make is that complete realism often requires complete fog.

As an example, think of how real-time strategy computer games (like Command and Conquer) have an element of "fog" built into the game - literally, in the case of the greyed-out areas where the player cannot see enemy activity until he moves a unit there to observe.

This would be an example of what you are saying - a game having some Fog of War to enhance fun. It is still limited though: for example, the player still has a bird's eye view of observed areas, whereas in real-life, even after units have been moved to observe, the general can only receive reports. There is a balance between some realistic elements (imperfect knowledge, units not obeying your orders perfectly) with some less-realistic elements, which make the game playable.

I guess I agree with you that some Fog of War can enhance enjoyment, but I was thinking of complete and total Fog of War as a requirement for re-creating total realism. There's a spectrum along which we can adjust the level of "fog" and "friction", trading off for "game"-like qualities, and "fun", and I was looking at one extreme end (as an afterthought, I suppose at the other end of this spectrum would be abstracted wargames like Chess?)

(you know, "fun" is increasingly a difficult word to use in these essays: I realise from reading the comments that "fun" is a word that has broad and differing meanings for different people. Might make for an interesting post. Perhaps you, Capt Arjun or Harotio would like to take up this issue of what exactly is "Fun" in wargames?)

9:17 am  
Blogger domgoh said...

Yes, after several years interaction with the Napnuts, I have come to realise that "fun" means different things to different people. Perhaps one of you three can start the ball rolling either on the Blog or on the Forum.

4:01 pm  
Blogger captain arjun said...

I actually quite enjoy Battle Procedure and Ops Orders, which afterall is one big multi-player umpire-controlled wargame.

Which goes to show fun can be all things to all people.

In fact, if I can find a copy of the Battle Procedure sequence online, I plan to write an article on how to use that as aframework to running a multi-player mini-campaign.

4:50 pm  
Blogger domgoh said...

Maybe you can find a US Army battle procedure online somewhere? Or even a WW2 Ops order which you can use as a basis for your article.

9:52 pm  
Blogger wahj said...

Yes, an article on BP would be much appreciated. I can give you some input on BP and OpO from a local perspective, but the WW2 ones are likely to be closer to what we need for the games.

Guderian's biography has a set of OpO from the Ostfront in the Appendices. They are corps/army level OpO though, and as such are very broad, but might be suitable for the campaign aspects of games.

8:46 am  
Blogger captain arjun said...

I read through some of the links Dom posted on the forum and while they are useful for people who already know BP, they aren't useful when you are trying to teach people how to actually do it.

I guess that's why they have staff colleges...

9:00 am  
Blogger Lord-Horatio said...

Some months back I placed a controversial message on the Napnuts forum, titled someting line "What's wrong with wargaming".

The object was to raise questions about miniatures gaming of mechanised warfare (ww2 being my interest).

My two biggest points were hardly revolutionary, but stated.

1) Tabletop minis are not a good way to portray the empty battlefield of modern warfare with its concealment and infiltration.

2) The complexity for formations by the time of airpower and mechanisation makes the game difficult and its "feel" extremely dependent on the echelon of command being represented.

The second point probably applies across all history, there are plenty of examples of the heroic losers, better than their enemies man for man, but who couldn't bring the numbers or organisation to complement tehir elan.

The first point seems to begin during the 20th century.
Prior to that we usually find troops fighting in groups, (even if slightly dispersed), and 3 arms of Foot, Horse and Artillery (Plus the odd Camel, Elephant and Attack dog).

By WW2 we are faced with soldiers who like to hide, but also the new arms of armour and the anti tank weapons devised to resist them, aircraft and anti aircraft weapons.

We aso see army organisations which reflect small and large unit tactics. In earlier times these tended to reflect the groups in which the soldiers ate, marched and were paid.

The point for me is that WW2, along with Ancients and Napoleonics, is one of my favourite periods of history and for gaming.
It is just that the games seem to never quite capture the feel of the real thing.
If you were to ask me what the "feel" is, I would say that games rarely resemble what happened in the history books.

3:39 am  
Blogger Grant Dalgliesh said...

A post on Fog of War, begs the introduction of the Columbia Games block games system to your readers.

The block games have been used to good effect to create a playable fog of war experience for 40+ years now. Check and "Bobby Lee"


12:50 pm  
Blogger Grant Dalgliesh said...

Related links:

Columbia Games

Bobby Lee on Kickstarter

Julius Caesar video review:

12:52 pm  

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