This time, however, I would like to take a slightly broader idea: what exactly is a war game? How does it function?
The idea I have is that a game, in general, is a conflict of two narrative, one from each player. Now, I know that there are games which have a single player (I am, after all, mainly a solo wargamer), but even so I think there are two conflicting narratives at the heart of the process. Of course, there could be more than two, with multi-player games where the players have varying objectives, but I will leave that complication aside for the moment.
Consider a different game, say tennis. Now, the objectives in tennis are quite clear. Both players want to win the game. If one of them, does not, it is not, strictly, a game of tennis; it is a knock about, or practice, or training, but not a competitive game. In the case that both players do want to win, each player has a narrative end in mind: me as the winner. Both make such moves as they are capable of in such a way as to achieve the objective of their narrative. So the game proceeds via serves and return, volleys and so on, with each player attempting to obtain an advantage for their own particular narrative. Eventually, one player, and one narrative will be victorious.
He other issue within such a game is, of course, the constraints imposed on the players, and their narratives, by the rules. The rules ensure some degree of ‘fairness’. Now, we have to be a bit careful here. Rules do not ensure absolute fairness: some people are better at tennis than others. That, after all, is something of the point of the game. The rules do, however, constrain the moves the players can make, so they are equivalent. Both players, for example make serves, and, roughly speaking, make equal numbers of serves with equal chances, given the individual’s ability, to score points.
The rules, then, constrain the possibilities of the game. For example, I read somewhere recently that even an omnipotent, omniscient God cannot win a game of chess against Gary Kasparov if all God has is the king and a pawn. This is not any failure of omnipotence or omniscience, but simply that, within the constraints of the rules of the game, no winning strategy exists for God. Of course, God could cause Gary to become confused, make foolish moves and so on, but that is outwith the game rules (and even so may not enable God to win, as it happens).
With respect to wargaming, therefore, the idea is something like this. The two players have conflicting narrative aims, that is, both side wish to win. The process of them winning is decided by the players, how they deploy their toy soldiers, the terrain of the wargame table and the moves they make. These factors are the ones which, broadly speaking, are up to the wargamers themselves. These are the items which the wargamers manipulate to achieve the victory of their own narrative.
There are other factors. We have already noted the effect of rules in constraining the moves that the players can make. It may be, for example, that one player lands up in a similar position to that of God in my chess example. There is no good winning strategy for him, and so his narrative goal has to change from winning, to minimising the damage, or inflicting disproportionate damage on the enemy, or delaying him, or whatever. The scenario possibilities are, of course, endless.
Additional to all these fairly predictable issues there is also a degree of randomness involved in the game, arbitrating, at least in part, between the different narratives. The randomness is not, of course, absolute, it occurs within the game. In most wargames, anyway, troops do not appear suddenly in the middle of the battlefield as a result of a random throw of the dice. Their combat may be more or less effective, but the impact of the randomness is constrained by the rules themselves.
Sitting behind all this is, of course, the expectation that the events on a wargame table will be reasonable and, at least in part, rationally understandable. To link back to the idea of conflicting narratives, we do expect a narrative to unfold in a reasonably linear fashion. This may not, of course, happen in real modern novels, for example, where authors like to try to mess with time and space to show how clever they are, but most popular stories are reasonably linear in time (think Harry Potter, for example).
Not only do we expect linear time, of at least clear cause and effect, we expect that our blocks of toy soldiers will behave, in some fashion at least, like blocks of real soldiers, and if, as seems likely, we are not sure how a block of real soldiers might have behaved, we expect a degree of intelligibility in the behaviour that they do display. Thus our rules have to allow for reasonable behaviour, albeit moderated by a constrained degree of randomness.
Of course, the ultimate aim of any wargame, indeed, most games, is to ‘win’, whatever that might mean within the context. Winning, in a campaign game will likely be very different from winning a tournament game. In the former there may (and probably will) be a requirement to keep a force in being, leading to less in the way of gambits and more in the way of conservative and solid tactics. In the latter, the aim is to win, pure and simple, with little regard for an overall situation, because there isn’t one.
Overall,, however, the aim of each player is, given the constraints, to obtain the possession of the dominant narrative and win. If nothing else, this is an unusual way of looking at wargaming.