Saturday 17 February 2024

The Campaign Paradox Revisited

My recent post on campaigning and why we, as wargamers, tend not to run campaigns seems to have sparked a bit of interest and comments, for which I thank everyone who has engaged. In particular, JWH posted a response on his Heretical Wargaming blog, and the comments there are interesting too, and worth a look.

To attempt to summarize the comments, campaigns do happen and are usually regarded with fondness in retrospect. The reasons for not running wargame campaigns seem to cluster around the time constraints, the complexity of campaigns, and the desire to actually get the toys out and fight tabletop battles, rather than move pins or counters around a map.

That said, a fair number of campaigns have been run. Some of them are linked scenario campaigns, where, for example, a battle group or platoon is followed through a series of engagements. As was noted, these tend to be the more resource management sort of games, deciding which resources you are going to commit to a given action, and resting up and conserving elements you might need later. While this is certainly giving a wargamer pause for thought before committing the reserves to a final charge, it is not quite a strategic decision.

The other end of the telescope gives us board games. Aside from self-consciously tactical games, such as, I imagine, Squad Leader, these tend to be inherently strategic in nature. Even a single battle board game gives the wargamer pause for thought about deployment and axes of advance, although again the strategic scope is distinctly limited. Many board wargames are, of course, on the scale of a front or theatre, or even a whole war. These tend to be enormous, quite detailed, and take a great deal of time to set up, let alone play. I think Phil Sabin observes in Simulating War that hobby games are far too complex and lengthy to be useful teaching aids.

Of course, to a great extent, wargame campaigns, as with wargames themselves, are open and flexible objects, and wargamers can and should do whatever floats their boats, as it were. If delving into the logistical arrangements of the war in the desert in 1941-2 is your thing, I am not the person to stop you. Similarly, if all you want to wargame is big battles in the Napoleonic era, that is fine by me. But many of the wargame books you see around do seem to suggest that a campaign is another level of wargaming, as JWH suggested in his survey of books on his blog response.

I suspect that one thing that has not really happened is rule writing for campaign games. I know that there are quite a few rule sets around which include campaigns, and even a few rule sets specifically for them (there is a set in Henry Hyde’s book, for example) but, in my view, they tend to the rather complex. If they do not, they have a habit of being severely simple, as a sort of afterthought to the rules themselves. Neither of these outcomes, in my view, are really conducive to encouraging people to run wargame campaigns.

A wargamer who would like to run a campaign is faced with some more or less complex decisions. There is the level of campaign, whether the participants are squads or armies or anything in between. There is the scope of the campaign, whether it is open-ended or aimed at specific objectives, in a specific time frame. There is also the question of what is to be modelled within the campaign. Are logistics included? Personalities? Replacements and reinforcements? And so on.

In part, I suspect, the question revolves around the campaign rules to be used and the complexity (or lack of it) involved. My narrative campaigns are very simple and easy to run. The outcome of the first battle leads to some choices for both the winner and the loser as to what to do. Normally the winner will make a decision, the loser responds and another battle will be set up, possibly with a few quirks. This is how the Armada Abbey campaign ran, and it still makes me smile when I think about it.

It is not always easy to think of the narrative, however, and, sometimes, the lack of detail might prove to be frustrating. Some wargamers might like the reconnaissance element of campaigning, for example, and the narrative process, while it can incorporate this, might well get bogged down. It is, as I have said, a question of what you want to model.

While many campaign rules do exist, as I mentioned, none have really caught on widely, it seems to me, and many of them tend to the complex. There is no real campaign equivalent to DBA. Whether you like DBA or not, it certainly encouraged wargamers to fight battles. It might even have encouraged a few campaigns at the very abstract level it included. But therein lies the rub: it was very abstract, a vehicle for creating tabletop wargames. Aside from the armies involved, it could have been any period.

I do not, of course, have any answers. DBA was a rule set that arose from long experience of wargaming by the authors, and much practice in wargaming. It may or may not have worked for a given wargamer, but the systems were quite elegant. We do not seem to have an equivalent elegance in wargame campaigns. War is, I suppose, inherently complex.

Clausewitz noted that everything in war is easy, but that the easy things are very difficult. Wargame campaigns should be fairly easy. After all, they are ‘only’ wargames writ a bit bigger. Perhaps if we had some truly elegant rules for wargame campaigns, one which ideally had zero record keeping and many opportunities for strategic thought and decision-making, we might have something that provides a satisfying vehicle for tabletop wargames with context.

The problem seems to be that these two objectives are mutually opposed. We cannot, it seems, have a strategic campaign system that is simple and has zero record keeping, but keeps the interest and decision points that wargamers need. Perhaps we just always land up in this bind and prefer to get the toys out (or do painting) after all.


  1. I think there is a natural tendency to approach campaigns with a wargamer’s mindset, I know I certainly do in many cases and I will end up with grand-tactical or operational level campaigns be they simple of complex. I wonder whether we should be looking at our campaigns and the decisions we have to make through a non-military lens, more of a sovereign head of state’s lens, and consider: treaties, alliances (strong, weak, and changing), taxation, access to ports or trade, blockades, etc. and the impact on the next tabletop battle. I did once veer once from the grand-tactical approach and play a 19th century campaign based upon public opinion which was swayed not just by victories, but losses could be offset by heroic last stands and gallant cavalry charges. Anyway, thanks for a most interesting post.

    1. Thank you. I do suspect that as with some wargame rules we are looking at the wargamer being multiple people at different levels - the overall commander, theatre commander, army commander, divisional commander and so on down the line. The other thing is that we want to fight wargames and strategic commanders often did not command armies directly.
      I like the idea of a campaign which can be swayed by heroic failures, though. And we thought propaganda was a 20th century invention.

  2. A key difficulty is that in the real world Generals want to make a battle as unfair as possible. For Wargamers you need to strip all the peripherals away and concentrate on getting roughly two equal armies fighting no more than six or eight battles to ensure interest is maintained for the duration of the campaign.

    1. Yes, I think that is one of the problems or paradoxes here, unless we can convince wargamers that fighting this action at a disadvantage means they can fight that one at an advantage. And that means detailed map moves and all the complexity that comes along with it. Hm.

  3. In theory I disagree with your conclusion. I do believe that with a well designed database it is possible to have a satisfying campaign system where the record keeping is done automatically by the system in response to the players decisions and the outcome of actions. But, designing a system that might work for any gamer to use, rather than for a particular gamer with an idea of what they want to achieve, is much more complex and not, I would think, a commercial proposition. I potter around with a system I have been trying to develop for ancient warfare from time to time, but increasingly resent the time and concentration given over to it when I could be painting and fighting battles. I hanker for battles that have more context than most rules give them, so have been working on schemes to play out a few days of manoeuvre before the battle, and this is probably where I will end. So, in practice I seem to be coming around to your conclusion, though I still feel I'm missing something in not having the whole campaign environment with economic and political factors affecting the conduct of the war.

    1. Thank you. I'd like to disagree with me too, but I find myself wanting to play wargames (or occasionally paint) rather than worry about the tax yield this year from Skunk province. I can see that a DB system (I once considered an object oriented system which would do much the same sort of thing) would work, but having worked in IT for many years I'd like to keep my PC out of the wargame room.
      But context to a wargame does add quite a lot, I agree, which is why I've been tinkering with various campaign systems, none of which have been wholly satisfactory. They've worked within their own terms, but an awful lot is left out and that sometimes bites.
      I'm not sure there really is a solution to this - it seems to stand as a paradox - but we might be able to help ourselves by admitting the problem and deciding which bits are to be modelled in detail, which ignored and which abstracted. Well, it might work.