Another thing I’ve been working on….

svhnmapsnip         svhnctrsnip

These are just snips but they kind of give away what, and where, and how.

All framed up, and ready for testing.

Soon to be second in the BBW Series.

Tactical narratives are not games


LT Backsight Forethought. Why does every subaltern try to grow a mustache?

Over at Rex Brynen’s great blog Paxsims is his reaction to a recent post on The Strategy Bridge website, about the first of a series of “tactical decision games” – the first is Kaliningrad Fires, about a hypothetical American force deployed in Lithuania to thwart an advance by Aggressor Fantasian Soviet Russian forces.

As he points out, the piece is called a game, but it isn’t really… because it’s not adversarial, nor does it have any real cycles to it. It could be called a wargame only in the narrow sense that the US Army uses the term: when a commander is deciding on a Course of Action (COA), he is said to “wargame” out how each COA might unfold, just to see how logical and feasible it is.

There is a long tradition to these pieces. They form part of a junior officer’s training and have been called any number of names – DIs, tactical problems, TEWTs – and their purpose is not to play out a game with rules, conflict and an outcome, but to see how well the student can formulate a logical plan of action in the time allotted, with due consideration for the problem’s parameters and its likely implications. “Creativity” (or more often, buggering about with what the text of the problem didn’t say in order to try and pull a Kobayashi Maru on the Directing Staff), comes later… first show us you’re smart.

There is an equally long tradition of presentations of worked-out tactical problems with solutions and discussion, presented in books in fictional form. They are called tactical narratives (or at least that is what I will call them, for purposes of this post).

The first of these to get wide circulation was The Defence of Duffer’s Drift written in 1904 by Ernest Swinton, then a Captain but who went on to develop the concept of tanks in battle, trained the first British tank units and finished his career in 1938 as a Major General and Commandant of the Royal Tank Corps. This is a classic and has been reprinted and reproduced many times, by all English-speaking armies (and was also translated into Urdu, for the Indian Army). It describes the experience of young Lieutenant Backsight Forethought, in command of a platoon of 50 riflemen and tasked with defending a “drift” or river crossing site during the Boer War. Forethought has no prior experience, so the book is a series of six “dreams” or visions where his first attempt is a disaster, then each subsequent dream explains a different principle or set of lessons as the scenario is played through again and again and he does better each time.  (link at the bottom, for this and other pieces)

This book was probably not on the required reading list for junior British officers then, insofar as a professional officer before the First World War was encouraged to read at all. But it was widely read, and its “serial dream” structure inspired several imitators:

  • The Battle of Booby’s Bluffs, written 1921 by Brigadier General William A. Mitchell (no, not the “Billy” Mitchell of Air Force iconoclasm);
  • The Defence of Bowler Bridge (about 1930);
  • The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Emma Gees (1979 by LCol Ken Nette, PPCLI – this one is on the history and tactical employment of machine guns, and I still have a reprint of the article from when I went on my Machine Gunner’s course in 1982);
  • The Defense of Hill 781: An Allegory of Modern Mechanized Combat  (1988)
  • The Defenseof Jisr al-Doreaa (2009, placed in Iraq)

The first three are all available as a collection of tactical primers at ; the fourth is available for preview at and the fifth is available on the Net at but it was and is also available for sale on Amazon, bound with Duffer’s Drift.

It’s interesting that all of these tactical narratives deal with the defensive phase of operations.

One of the older items on my bookshelf is “The Solution of Tactical Problems”, by LCOL Joseph Needham, from 1907. Subtitled “A Logical and Easy Way of Working Out the Tactical Schemes Set at Examinations”, that is exactly what it is: a series of little vignettes placing the student who wants to pass the exams to enter RMA Sandhurst or some other military school in the position of a junior officer, tasked with commanding a flank guard or setting out pickets or something… the student thinks about his disposition and the author tells him the correct answer, as set forth in whatever Field Service Regulations there were for the infantry in 1906-07. Needham would rewrite and update the book each year, adding and changing the problems, up to the end of the First World War.

There are also examples of interactive tactical primers, written in the “choose your own adventure” style. Three examples are by John F. Antal: Infantry Combat: the Rifle Platoon (1995); Armor Attacks: the Tank Platoon (1991); and Combat Team: The Captain’s War (1998). Again, this is an interesting way to present the information, and it does verge on being a game, in that progress through the lessons is influenced by decisions made by the reader and the text is somewhat adversarial.

Then there are the extended narratives that read like novels but started life as manuals. There is Kenneth Macksey’s book, First Clash, written in 1985 and which takes an operational look at how things might have played out for the 4th Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group in southern Germany – it was also sold commercially as a book.

In 2005, a Canadian science fiction writer named Karl Schroeder was hired by the Canadian military to write Crisis at Zefra, a conceptual book about how Canadian soldiers would deal with asymmetrical threats in a generic African city of the near future (2025). A bit too goshwow with respect to the technology for me – nano-this and nano-that – but these things are valuable just by having been written down. The whole work is available at . Annex B of the work is a survey by then-Major Andrew Godefroy of fictional narratives used by and for the Canadian military, beginning with Duffer’s Drift, which kind of brings things full circle.

This post has gone on longer than I planned to make it, and my original intention was to write about two other interesting items I found recently, on the uses of wargaming as tools for professional development. That will have to wait for another day, but I put the URLs here as a reminder for me, and a curiosity for you:






Interview at Grogheads!


The inestimable Brant Guillory (okay, maybe he’s about 129.5 but don’t quote me on that) has interviewed me for his excellent website Grogheads!

Thoughts on my favourite games, innovation in games, and my favourite Hasil Adkins song… plus the first announcement of my latest project (well, it will be the latest one for a week or two yet).

(He keeps calling me a “theorist”, and I don’t know why… but if it makes you happy to know one Brant, I will play one for you.)

Thanks Brant!

Back to USAWC

  • May 16, 2017, 4:30 pm – Strategic Art Film: The Battle of Algiers, moderated by Brian Train.  US Army War College, Root Hall, Wil Washcoe Auditorium. For more information, call Army Heritage and Education Center at 717-245-3828.

In about two weeks I will be returning to the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania for a repeat performance of last year’s event: I will be moderating a screening of the Pontecorvo film The Battle of Algiers and then we will have some guided play of Colonial Twilight.

Algiers and Algeria at AWC

The difference is this time Colonial Twilight will be in its final, approved form! Apparently it is still on track to appear in June 2017, just a bit too late for the Consimworld Expo in Tempe, Arizona (at the end of May, this year) but about three years since GMT first approached me about doing the game.

After this I am going to Ottawa for a couple of days, where I will be at the Cangames convention on the weekend. It’s their 40th annual convention! Maybe I’ll see some of you there. I’ll be running a couple of games of Colonial Twilight there as well, and maybe some other goodies.

Interview at The Player’s Aid: Gandhi

Bruce Mansfield is in the process of developing Gandhi, a new COIN system game that covers the exit of Britain from India, 1917-47. This is his first “large game” and takes the system in a new but for me inevitable direction: the incorporation of nonviolence into a violent situation. I say inevitable because I have always felt that the COIN system would do well in any number of power-politics situations; it doesn’t always have to be about an actual war.

The game made its P500 point extremely quickly, in just over 24 hours, and I am one of the people on the preorder list. The game will probably be out next summer if all goes well and I’m very interested to see what develops.

Anyway, the interview, per Grant Kleinheinz’s usual style, is extensive and detailed and will tell you all you want to know about the game in its present state:

Springtime in Caracas

CP Cover

Civil Power for a tactical examination of the situation.


Caudillo for an operational, pol-mil look.







Three dead yesterday, bringing the total to eight. Pro-government armed groups threatening and sniping at marching protesters, while the police and military deal with any heavy-duty confrontations. Arrests of real or imagined “coup plotters”. Economic and industrial chaos spins further out of control.

This looks bad, and it’s going to get worse, even if (or especially if) Maduro leaves office, through the door or on it.

Back From San Diego

Well, it was a pretty good conference!

This time, people seemed to have a slightly better idea of what I was talking about… here are my slides and text:

NPG body 8 apr (text)

News Paper Games 6 apr (slides)

I went to a number of interesting presentations too. There seemed to be not as many as the conference in Seattle last year, generally. This might be due to the time of year – someone on the panel I presented with came in the day before, and left the day after to get back to his classes – or due to geographical distances.

The game night was fun, and even catered (though I had already had a big dinner). I taught four people how to play Guerrilla Checkers, and sent them off with copies of their own.

We had pretty good weather too, a few degrees warmer than here but the sunlight was much more direct. Unfortunately, no time for touristy things except that we did get to the USS Midway museum just up the road from the hotel, and clambered around in the guts of an aircraft carrier for three hours. It was fun, I had never been in such a large ship, and the capper was the talking robot in the Captain’s cabin, in the likeness of Captain Larry Ernst, the last Captain of the Midway before it was finally decommissioned in 1991. Spooky video above.

I do regret not being able to get to Balboa Park, where all the museums are. The San Diego Museum of Man had an exhibit on the history of cannibalism, and just a few hundred yards away was the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theatre! Two of my favourite topics… one would weep bitter tears at missing the combination of the two. Anyway, an excuse to go back to San Diego one day. (Image: the All Puppet Players, of Phoenix AZ)