Saturday 6 April 2013

The Medium and the Message

What do you expect from a set of wargame rules?

My guess as an answer to that question is that a set of wargame rules is a fairly conventional book type thing with an introduction, definitions, and some rules for battles and, maybe, some suggestions for campaigns, or some army lists or something similar at the back. Maybe there are some nice colour pictures of toy soldiers in the text, and a few photographs which try to explain some of the finer points of the rules, and so on.

I can think of few rule sets which do not conform to this sort of structure. I suppose that the one sort which do not are computerised rule sets, but they do not seem to be actually that popular. At least, I’ve never used them and I think I have only seen computer wargame rules at one show, and I cannot remember if they were on sale or used in a demonstration game.

There may be a number of reasons why rule sets are usually in a given form. The overwhelmingly like reason is that most of us do not want a computer cluttering up the wargame table alongside everything else. Certainly in the days before wafer thin lap tops, tablets computers and Smart phones, most people did not want to wheel a great big PC into the room just to calculate the results of a few dice rolls.

Speaking as someone who spends most of his days sitting in front of a computer screen, I, personally, do not wish to do so in pursuit of my hobby as well. Aside from the fact that computers go out of date faster than you can say ‘Moore’s Law’ and the fact that often, at the most critical juncture, they go wrong and refuse the calculate the effects of the advance of the Imperial Guard at Waterloo. I might work with them but I do not have to like them.

Be that as it may, I’m still not sure that computer moderated rules are terribly popular. The point is, I think, the computer moderation of the rules. I have reasons to suppose that placing wargame rules on computers, so they can be read as, say, a PDF, might be popular, but that is simply because you can then read the rules on, say, a Kindle rather than on a paper page. The medium has not changed that much; a book on a Kindle is, in all important respects, an analogue of a book. After all, that is an important aspect of the marketing of e-book readers.

 The result of this trend, that of placing conventional rule books in computer formats, is that the full use of the possibilities of computers are not exploited by format. By this I mean that, for example, video or audio channels are not exploited and nor, in most cases, are ideas of, for example, having an army list calculator built into the rule set. A wargame rule set, conventionally, is a flat document which does not do an awful lot. A wargame, however, is a dynamic thing acted out in some sort of real time.

Now, I suspect that computer moderated rule sets are not terribly popular because we like to ‘see the workings’, as it were. If I am the general of a wargame army, I want to roll the dice and see the result, not tap a few numbers into the machine and get a result. I want to feel personally responsible for rolling that 6, or feel the terrible sinking feeling of the double one that sends my hussars scurrying the wrong way across the table.

So a computer moderated wargame rule set probably pushes the boundary of what we want from rule sets a little bit too far. We do not want to be confronted by a completely black box which just issues inscrutable results. Part of the reason for wargaming, I suspect, is a desire to see the logic behind outcomes, even if that logic is moderated by random dice rolls. After all, the randomness more or less balances itself out within a game or two, if not within a given game itself.

The fact is, the medium does have a role to play in determining the message. A book gives a way of receiving the message: you have such and such factors, you have this terrain effect, you have a dice roll and you look up the results of this table. The result is explicit and intelligible. This is not the case in a computer moderated rule set. Inscrutability is not what we are after, even if it can be argued that it is more accurate (whatever that might mean).

Wargaming, of course, does use computers extensively, but not for the actual game itself. You, gentle reader, are an example of this, reading a wargame related blog. But the rules are not really a part of this. One answer might be that wargamers are inherently conservative; another might be that I am completely out of touch with wargaming reality, but I suspect the answer is much more widely known than that.  If we use computer wargame rules, we change the nature of what we are doing.

It is well known that, for example, a text of a story and a video of the same story give different responses in the viewer, even if the events in each are the same. The medium in which the story is delivered is a part of the story. While, of course, it is an exaggeration to declare that the medium is the message, there is a real effect. If we computerise our rules, we are doing something different from having the rule book to hand; it is not a totally different sort of event, but it is, to paraphrase Star Trek, ‘wargaming Jim, but not as we know it.’

I am probably writing from outside left field here, and do not think I have been very clear, but I would be interested to know: would you use computer moderated rules?


  1. I maintain and often use self-written wargames which run on a laptop - they work well for solo play, and I stick to very strict rules about program design, single key-touch commands and very simple data-entry. I have Napoleonic games - including campaign army attrition and management, which is especially useful - and am currently testing a computer implementation of what started out as Clarence Harrison's "Victory without Quarter" (ECW), but which has expanded in scope rather, as a result of the omissions and logic holes in Clarence's original game.

    My chief rule for using a compuer is that the game should run better or more conveniently as a result - if the computer becomes a nuisance or a distraction, or if it destroys the spectacle, then it is removed from the game. I wrote a number of windy blog posts a year or so ago on why the design characteristics of commercially available wargame management systems are almost always inappropriate and get a bad reputation.

    Currently, most of my games use Commands & Colors rules or simple rules derived from Charlie Wesencraft, without a machine in sight, but I have used, do use and will again use computer-managed games - but only of my own creation (I think). Computers are particularly good at keeping rosters off table, performing endless background morale tests without losing the will to live, and offering scope for concealed troops a la FatLardies "blinds" - and they are especially useful for a solo gamer, not to provide an AI opponent, but to conceal information as appropriate and make simple choices.

    I regret I never was the full wargaming shilling, anyway, so my stance on computers is unlikely to place me any further from the mainstream...

  2. Forgot to mention - I own and have tried two commercially produced Napoleonic game management systems. One is Iron Duke, the other is Follow the Eagles (Tactical). FTET is a standard-issue black-box game - you spend all your game time wondering what the hell the computer didn't like about your orders this time. Iron Duke is friendlier but still has endless mouse-clicking Windows GUI screens which do not seem like a lot of fun to me.

    I realise that both these systems have fans, but not for me.

  3. Curiously enough I find that I tend to divide the wargames rules I own into two camps - those I read and those I play.

    I love Command & Colours, Memoir '44 and all the related sets. They are excellent, simple and satisfying. I have played solo games using Memoir '44 online AI as an opponent.

    However, the rulesets that I read (and very occasionally play) often offer more than a simple ruleset. I enjoy reading Charge! as a book. The same can be said of Napoleonic Wargaming for Fun. I may not use the rules as much, but they make me think about the hobby in a far more in depth way.

    I always thought the Generalship game from Napoleonic Wargaming for Fun would benefit from automation.

  4. I've played Carnage & Glory maybe a dozen times, once willingly to see what I thought, the rest of the time to be sociable. There were three main issues for me, the relative importance of which shift depending on circumstance.

    1. As you point out the Black Box effect. When results didn't match expectations it was impossible to know whether the author's interpretation of the history was different from my or if I'd been unlucky or was subject to moderator error (which we had several of - wrong id punched in etc). In some cases I eventually found that yes the author and I disagreed in other cases it was probably a random error or an input error when the forces were set up as the moderator was unable to replicate the result. If you played the game every week for a year, you could learn the game as an officer learns real war but for the occasional casual game it was frustrating trying to guess if you were lucky/unlucky or wise/unwise.

    2. Input Interference. Our group games usually include a fair amount of social chatter, trach talk and so on but during the computer moderated games. Every one has to be dead quite for most of the 6 or more hours so that the moderator can hear the orders being called out and focus on what he was doing. At the same time, it was serial input so must of the time was spent staring at the table listening to codes "613 firing at 314 at 12" " etc

    3. Player Disconnect. This took 2 forms but I'll cram them together. The first is that result did not follow action. So you declared fire or a charge or what have you with all units on both sides and then it might be 20 minutes before any visible results were read out by which time it was hard to remember which unit 613 that had taken "heavy losses" was. There were no visual cues on table unless a unit routed.

    3b. The other disconnect came from the gaming aspect. I missed the satisfying emotional connection to the dice as you mention. This ties back partly to the knowing if you were lucky or not but is primarily emotional.


  5. I have no experience with computer moderated Wargames at this point. All I have done is put several rules sets on my iPad kindle but that is, as you say, merely an analogue of books.
    I did however get over my Kickstarter scepticism last recently by backing a project to put a set of naval rules into an iPad based games moderation app. The naval rules I have tried with my ACW ship models require many charts, ship logs, and other paper flotsam which are a chore to manage during the game and which clutter the table. So I am keeping an open mind at present.

  6. I think I could only get into computer moderated rules if I could read the code. I don't play computer games for a similar reason - I don't know how they work (the black box effect). For me, part of the joy of gaming is at least knowing that my actions produce a result via, to me, known process. Which is why I like written rules as I know what is happening and, even without design notes, at least you can see what the outcomes are for various things.

  7. To try to summarize so far:
    Firstly, there is an issue of inscrutability. We do not know how the computer rules generate the result, and it may differ in its assumptions from our understanding of history.

    Secondly, there is a problem with data entry, accuracy and the time it takes to enter the data and get a result. This could be an issue to do with poor user interface design, of course.

    Thirdly, computer moderated rules disconnect the players from the game in some way.

    I suppose that for seaborne battles with fewer units, some of these problems might be overcome. Didn't one of the modern naval rules come with a program to deal with some of the complexity?

    As Mr Foy suggests and Mr Travers seems to agree, only if we can see the guts of a program (and possibly are able to modify it) might we be happy to use it.

    I have occasionally wondered if an object orientated implementation of rules using something like Java with a decent user interface might help with some of these issues, but the problem is time and energy, of course.

    1. Erm - agree with all this, but your OO/Java thought made me blink - sounds like another solution looking for a problem. One of the biggest things which goes wrong with computer systems (in my humble but well-seasoned opinion) is that someone's starting position is an architectural approach or technical platform - such matters are really only of interest only after you've defined exactly what you wish to achieve, which includes stuff like working context, ease of use, appropriateness of user interface etc.

      The user interface is so overwhelmingly critical in a game that choice of language or analysis methodology become primarily issues for ease of maintenance or transportability across platforms. The main reason why I don't make my home-brewed game management software more widely available (apart from lack of demand, of course) is that I do not wish to satisfy anyone else's ideas of how the game should work, and the idea of providing user support sends me running for the bottle!

      At its very simplest level, a rolling computer display which cues the next game turn phase and summarises the main things you need to know for this phase (move distances etc) is a useful and non-hostile thing. It's surprising how quickly someone will suggest that it could do some dice rolling and calculating, and keep records... Much of the maintenance work on my programs is cutting out extra added elegance which seemed a good idea at the time.

    2. Well, I wouldn't run away with the idea that it was anything except the vaguest of vague hand waves, although I could see how such a system could work for a campaign game.

      My general rule of thumb is not to consider for a computer solution anything that can be done with a pencil and piece of paper, which includes most of the actual wargame rules.

      I guess a 'game management system' which you suggest is different from computer moderate games; something between a pencil and paper rule set (or on, say PDF) and the full PC run thing?

  8. I remember seeing a computer moderated Napoleonic game (I think it was at Derby) a couple of years ago. Six players patiently taking turns to call out numbers to the computer operator to bash into his machine. It all looked very tedious and I was reminded of the joke about how many council workers it took to change a light bulb.

    Strikes me that a computer ought to be a tool for doing some of the tedious jobs inherent in playing a wargame,such as recording casualties or morale states, but we have done away with a lot of these jobs by changing the way our rules work. It seems a long time now since I last kept a list of casualty numbers, totting up to multiples of 20, or 30, or 33 to take off a figure.
    So the computerised game I saw seemed to be a bit old-fashioned. It generated its own tedium to deal with.

    I can see the computer being useful in naval games, where there does tend to be a need to keep detailed records, but whether you'd want it to do the whole job and actually generate the records by, say, calculating the effect of hits, I'm not sure. The computer is supposed to free us of the boring stuff, not the fun stuff as well.

    Of course, I'm a recovering technophobe. This might be a setback...

  9. I think that computers should be able to do a lot of the tedious stuff in campaigns, but not really in battles because there is no direct link from the table to the PC, and so someone has to enter all that stuff.

    To reduce a game to data entry is a retrograde step of significant proportions, I agree.

    1. I did ponder in a purely casual way what differecne it would make if the units were equipped with RF tags or similar with a grid on the table for location including contours etc and players were equipped with some sort of handheld control units to communicate with both unit and control unit, all simultaneous. Oh and of course the units should move by themselves. I'd need richer friends to ever take part in such a thing, not in my lifetime I think.

      For modern naval games a computer screen is about all you need since even 30 years ago, combat was directed from a computer screen in a darkened Ops Center, not the bridge. (first time I met trackballs and graphic displays was in 1976 on a US destroyer)

    2. Nice idea!

      I suppose that, in a way, stuff like Rome: Total War does that, but dispenses with the table altogether...

      Which leads me to the aesthetic view of a miniature wargame. we only do it for the look of the toys, really.

  10. For me computers have potential to form a sort of electronic chief-of-staff role. Keeping records, status of units, prompts, and intelligence. There's lots of little mechanisms covering things like that could add to a game if only they weren't so time consuming and footling to deal with.

    Lots of potential for campaigns.

    1. Yes, it does seem to be in the realm of campaign games that computers may have their real employment. A computer in a game is too much of an imposition.