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.

https://paxsims.wordpress.com/2017/05/10/kaliningrad-fires-is-war-but-no-game/

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 http://regimentalrogue.com/primers.htm ; the fourth is available for preview at https://books.google.ca/books/about/The_Defense_of_Hill_781.html?id=zGDZ43PhWEIC&redir_esc=y and the fifth is available on the Net at http://www.benning.army.mil/mssp/security%20topics/Global%20and%20Regional%20Security/content/pdf/Defense_of_Jisr_Al_Doreaa(2008).pdf 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.

https://books.google.ca/books/about/Solution_of_Tactical_Problems.html?id=XEkenQAACAAJ&redir_esc=y

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 http://www.kschroeder.com/foresight-consulting/crisis-in-zefra/Crisis-in-Zefra-e.pdf . 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:

https://www.cove.org.au/wargaming/article-thespian-officers-narratives-and-planning/

http://cimsec.org/interwar-period-gaming-today-conflicts-tomorrow-press-start-play-pt-2/31712

 

 

 

 

 

Namechecked on VICE Waypoint and Killscreen!

ZOC book cover

https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/what-we-dont-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-gitmo-games

Over at Waypoint (the section of VICE magazine that deals with gaming and gamer culture), Muira McCammon, an academic who writes on Guantanamo Bay quotes from the essay on irregular warfare games I wrote with Volko Ruhnke for the Zones of Control anthology . She also references A Distant Plain and Labyrinth.

So, what sort of game system might be able to model the complexity of GiTMO, to give voice to the challenges that detainees, journalists, lawyers, and guards have faced in the detention facility’s history?

My answer: the wargame.

Wargames are a great way to parse asymmetrical conflict in a political system, and in many ways, GiTMO can be understood as a series of power struggles. A wargame has the potential to model the tensions between journalists, detainees, lawyers, and members of the U.S. military. It could give us an outlet to reflect on serious episodes in GiTMO’s history, like that time when Cmdr. Jeffrey Gordon accused journalist Carol Rosenberg of “multiple incidents of abusive and degrading comments of an explicitly sexual nature.” It could help us examine the history of coalition building in GiTMO, like when detainees held an election to select two leaders, one who was revealed to the Americans and one who worked in the shadows.

….

What Ruhnke and Train speak to is a problem that extends beyond wargames. A lot of us with differing ideological, religious, ethnic, and other backgrounds are uncomfortable with the idea of people “playing” games about serious things like war crimes and human rights violations.   Anyone trying to make a wargame out of GiTMO would have to simplify the place, and that carries a number of inherent risks. Another problem: GiTMO is still a morphing, changing place with an uncertain future.

I can think of a few ways to do this, actually, but that will have to wait while I work on other projects. I suspect that Camp Delta will be there for a while yet.

13emeStra11Jan2014-1

Banner: Rodger MacGowan.

And a few weeks ago on a website called Killscreen, she also wrote about A Distant Plain and what did and didn’t go into the Events Deck for that game.

https://killscreen.com/articles/ghost-churchill-make-wargame/

Event cards helped me become comfortable with wargame design. The first deck I really loved and explored belonged to A Distant Plain (2013), a wargame about contemporary Afghanistan. I considered how my Afghan friends would critique the narrative put forth in the deck and the board. What would they think of this attempt to boil a segment of their nation’s history down? Omission, deletion, marginalization, and exclusion—these are issues that always bubbled up in my mind as I shuffled through the deck.

I had mentored a group of Afghan women writers, many of whom were based in Kabul, and I always wondered, if they had been taught wargame design, how might their deck have differed? Instead of having a card devoted to “Koran Burning,” would they have given a card to mark the murder of Farkhunda Malikzada, an Afghan woman falsely accused of burning a Qur’an? As wargame designers Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train crafted their A Distant Plain (2013), which cards had been edited out?

She does have a point and I did attempt to answer her in the comments, but I don’t know if she saw it.

A deck of 72 event cards presents only 72 different chances to alter the game as it is played, even though the number of combinations is astronomical (72 factorial, or 6.123446 to the 103rd power). As I’ve said before, a wargame is a created object, a distillation of first and second hand experience and therefore cannot be a neutral one, any more than there can be a neutral novel. Deliberately or not, there of course will be deletions, omissions, exclusions and abstractions – that’s endemic to the process of recording history itself, let alone abstracting from that history to make a model in the form of a game. The designer, through the processes of research, conceptualizing, testing and production of a game, must make a series of choices of what to include in their design, what to leave out, and how to model what’s been judged relevant enough and left in.

Volko and I were aware of this of course, and took a few online kicks in the ribs for even trying to design a game on a war that was still underway. We felt that most importantly, a designer should be prepared to “show their work” and stand behind what they have done. Therefore we tried to select events that one were based on one or more actual historical events, tactics, or tendencies that materially affected the conflict; in a couple of cases things that could have affected it and were possible but didn’t happen (e.g. a coup d’etat in the Afghan Government). In all cases we had descriptions of what is represented by that card in history in the game’s playbook, with a reference to one or more items in the game’s bibliography.

Jeremy Antley, whom McCammon also references, wrote an interesting post on this aspect in his blog concerning the “My Lai” event card in Fire in the Lake. (Unfortunately, his domain name has expired so I can’t link to it right now – it was at http://www.peasantmuse.com/. Jeremy, pay the Internet Gods!)

And in the final analysis, A Distant Plain is a manual wargame. It’s entirely possible for Muira McCammon, or anyone else, to introduce, edit or replace the cards in the game, for greater or lesser (but certainly different) effect. As Mary Flanagan points out in Critical Play, that’s just the beginning of what you can do!

Paddy Griffith’s Counterinsurgency Wargames – out now!

pgcoincover

John Curry, through his “History of Wargaming” project, has for several years now been bringing out a combination of old, long out-of-print and quite new books and material on wargaming, both hobby and professional.

Paddy Griffith was a prolific designer with a foot in both these worlds. He was a lecturer in Military History at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst for many years, and created several board wargames (collected in “A Book of Sandhurst Wargames”) and many sets of miniatures wargaming rules. He also expanded the genre of “sprawling wargames”: very large-scale tabletop games played by teams of players to game out big battles.

John Curry has been rescuing a lot of Paddy Griffith’s work from potential eternal obscurity, and releasing it via the print-on-demand and ePub routes (Lulu, Amazon, Kindle, etc.).

Here is one of those items: Paddy Griffith’s Counterinsurgency Wargames, a set of three games dealing with counterinsurgency as it was then understood in the late 1970s, designed by Griffith while he was at Sandhurst. Two of the games are suitable for committee play by small groups, the third is the setup for a large exercise involving over 250 people and an entire class of Sandhurst cadets.

The Kindle edition went on sale last week, as did the paper edition. See the link below for a preview of the Kindle from Amazon ($9.95).

https://read.amazon.ca/kp/embed?asin=B01KQUCERK&asin=B01KQUCERK&preview=newtab&linkCode=kpe&ref_=cm_sw_r_kb_dp_49KVxb7AHBCZX

And here is the link to order the paper product: £12.95 plus shipping.

http://www.wargaming.co/recreation/details/pgcoin.htm

Now, I am telling you all this not just because it is an interesting book and subject in its own right, but also because I got to write the foreword! This was a new experience for me and I found it challenging to write, as it deals with the development of official British doctrine over the years.

Here’s a review on the Paxsims blog:

https://paxsims.wordpress.com/2016/09/17/review-paddy-griffiths-counter-insurgency-wargames/

First review of Zones of Control sighted…

http://grogheads.com/?p=11236

… and it’s a positive one.

Not that I was all that worried, mind you!

My contributor’s copy hasn’t arrived yet; perhaps this week.

“Zones of Control” is out!

ZOC book cover

Hurrah, MIT Press has released Zones of Control, the massive (848 pages!) anthology on wargaming edited by Pat Harrigan and Matt Kirschenbaum! Here’s the blurb:

Games with military themes date back to antiquity, and yet they are curiously neglected in much of the academic and trade literature on games and game history. This volume fills that gap, providing a diverse set of perspectives on wargaming’s past, present, and future. In Zones of Control, contributors consider wargames played for entertainment, education, and military planning, in terms of design, critical analysis, and historical contexts. They consider both digital and especially tabletop games, most of which cover specific historical conflicts or are grounded in recognizable real-world geopolitics. Game designers and players will find the historical and critical contexts often missing from design and hobby literature; military analysts will find connections to game design and the humanities; and academics will find documentation and critique of a sophisticated body of cultural work in which the complexity of military conflict is represented in ludic systems and procedures.

Each section begins with a long anchoring chapter by an established authority, which is followed by a variety of shorter pieces both analytic and anecdotal. Topics include the history of playing at war; operations research and systems design; wargaming and military history; wargaming’s ethics and politics; gaming irregular and non-kinetic warfare; and wargames as artistic practice.

Contributors: Jeremy Antley, Richard Barbrook, Elizabeth M. Bartels, Ed Beach, Larry Bond, Larry Brom, Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, Rex Brynen, Matthew B. Caffrey, Jr., Luke Caldwell, Catherine Cavagnaro, Robert M. Citino, Laurent Closier, Stephen V. Cole, Brian Conley, Greg Costikyan, Patrick Crogan, John Curry, James F. Dunnigan, Robert J. Elder, Lisa Faden, Mary Flanagan, John A. Foley, Alexander R. Galloway, Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, Don R. Gilman, A. Scott Glancy, Troy Goodfellow, Jack Greene, Mark Herman, Kacper Kwiatkowski, Tim Lenoir, David Levinthal, Alexander H. Levis, Henry Lowood, Elizabeth Losh, Esther MacCallum-Stewart, Rob MacDougall, Mark Mahaffey, Bill McDonald, Brien J. Miller, Joseph Miranda, Soraya Murray, Tetsuya Nakamura, Michael Peck, Peter P. Perla, Jon Peterson, John Prados, Ted S. Raicer, Volko Ruhnke, Philip Sabin, Thomas C. Schelling, Marcus Schulzke, Miguel Sicart, Rachel Simmons, Ian Sturrock, Jenny Thompson, John Tiller, J. R. Tracy, Brian Train, Russell Vane, Charles Vasey, Andrew Wackerfuss, James Wallis, James Wallman, Yuna Huh Wong

Can’t wait to read this, meanwhile excerpts are available for viewing via GoogleBooks:

https://books.google.ca/books?id=IX38CwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

Obtain your copy through Amazon.com; in Canada, Chapters also has it (or place a special order through your accommodating local independent bookseller – they’ll appreciate it).

Happy happy joy joy!

 

“Zones of Control” available for preorder

ZOC book cover

Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming, coedited by Pat Harrigan and Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, will be published by The MIT Press in April 2016. This book contains over 50 short chapters on wargaming, by many names familiar to people who have spent enough time hanging around this unsavoury corner of Freizeitverschwendungskeit (or is it -schaft?).

One of the chapters, “Chess, Go and Vietnam”, is co-written by Volko Ruhnke and myself. We had been asked separately to contribute, but decided to co-write it because one would have echoed what the other had in mind.

This is the first time any of my writing has been in a book, and I’m quite excited to be in such good company. (And, last I heard, the book will also contain the rules to Guerrilla Checkers – that game gets around.)

The complete table of contents is posted on Rex Brynen’s Paxsims blog at https://paxsims.wordpress.com/2015/10/25/zones-of-control/

The preorder link below is now active, price is $50.00 for hardcover but it’s massive – over 800 pages long!

http://www.amazon.com/Zones-Control-Perspectives-Wargaming-Histories/dp/0262033992/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1445628856&sr=8-1&keywords=zones+of+control+perspectives+wargaming

The MIT Press catalog entry has more information, and also notes that this will be offered as an eBook for $35.00, in April/May 2016.

https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/zones-control

Night Wolves

No, I am not and was never going to make a “Night Wolves” counter for Ukrainian Crisis. But this is part of an interesting story. I recently finished reading Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, a look at the utterly (and deliberately) surreal and disorienting mirrored funhouse that is Putin’s Russia. There is an interesting page or three about the Night Wolves and their transformation from hooligans to State-sponsored enforcers.

And one more thing – why do the Night Wolves (and Putin) ride Harleys? Shouldn’t they be riding Urals, or maybe Dneprs? (Okay, maybe not Dneprs…)

Dnepr-Logo

*****

Alexander Zaldostanov, Russian biker, makes Canada’s sanctions list

Leader of the Night Wolves, a pro-Putin motorcycle gang, targeted by sanctions

By Evan Dyer, CBC News Posted: Feb 19, 2015 4:03 PM ET Last Updated: Feb 19, 2015 4:57 PM ET

Russian President Vladimir Putin presents Alexander Zaldostanov with Russia's Order of Honour. Zaldostanov, described on Putin's website as 'head of a national motorcycle club,' has been added to a list of individuals under sanctions by Canada over Russian involvement in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin presents Alexander Zaldostanov with Russia’s Order of Honour. Zaldostanov, described on Putin’s website as ‘head of a national motorcycle club,’ has been added to a list of individuals under sanctions by Canada over Russian involvement in Ukraine. (Vladimir Putin’s website)

Canada has added the name Alexander Zaldostanov to the list of Russians under sanctions because of the war in Ukraine. But unlike the other prominent Russians targeted, he is not a senior military officer or the CEO of a major oil company. The 51-year-old Zaldostanov, nicknamed “The Surgeon,” is the head of Russia’s biggest biker gang, the Night Wolves. And his elevation to the ranks of Russia’s power elite says a lot about the country Russia has become under President Vladimir Putin. Born as an underground group of heavy metal and motorcycle aficionados in the dying days of the Soviet Union, the Night Wolves have become one of the props of the Putin establishment. According to the U.S. State Department, they sent members to fight in Ukraine and took part in storming the naval headquarters in Sevastopol. Last August, the Night Wolves staged a sound and light show in Crimea to celebrate the territory’s annexation by Russia. The leather-clad Zaldostanov told an audience estimated at 100,000 that “enemies who hated us, killed the Soviet state, and took away its territory and its army.” “We are celebrating our sacred victory at a time when fascism, like putrid, poisonous dough, has overfilled its Kyiv trough and begun to spread across Ukraine. The new battle against fascism is inevitable. Stalin’s 11th strike is inevitable.” The event was carried live on Russian state television.

Ties to the Kremlin

Around the same time, Ramzan Kadyrov, president of Chechnya and a close ally of Putin, became a full-patch member of the club. Putin has appeared with Zaldostanov at numerous public events, as well as riding with the club on his own Harley-Davidson three-wheeler on more than one occasion. In 2013, Putin presented Zaldostanov with the Russian Medal of Honour for “activity in the patriotic education of youth.”

Putin and Zaldostanov

Putin, left, rides with Zaldostanov, leader of the Night Wolves biker group, during his visit to a bike festival in the southern Russian city of Novorossiisk in August 2011. (Ivan Sekretarev/Reuters)

In one recent speech, Putin told the assembled bikers, “You do not just ride your motorcycles; you also perform military-patriotic work. Historical memory is the best cement that binds people of different nationalities and religions into one nation, in one powerful country — Russia.” The Night Wolves, in turn, have offered their 3,000-strong membership to the state as an unofficial militia. Zaldostanov joined a group of Russian nationalist politicians in setting up a pro-Putin movement called “anti-Maidan,” a reference to the protests in Kyiv that led to the fall of the previous, Russia-aligned Ukrainian government last year. At the group’s inaugural event, the Zaldostanov​ warned that his bikers would crush any attempt to launch a “colour revolution” street protest against the Putin regime on Russian soil. “The ‘orange beast’ is sharpening its teeth and looking to Russia,” said Zaldostanov, suggesting the anti-Maidan group could adopt “Death to Fags” as an alternative name.

Defenders of Orthodoxy

Zaldostanov’s Night Wolves have moved so far from their outlaw rebel roots that they now proclaim themselves protectors of the Russian Orthodox Church, which enjoys close ties to the Kremlin in Putin’s Russia.

Putin and Zaldostanov

Putin and Zaldostanov attend a ceremony to open a restored fountain, a symbol of the Second World War, in Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad, in 2013. (Reuters)

Following the arrest of members of the punk-rock group Pussy Riot, who shot an allegedly blasphemous video in a Russian Orthodox church, Zaldostanovled a parade of bikers through Moscow carrying balloons with Orthodox symbols and pledged his bikers would defend holy sites. “I am against the ‘possessed’ who humiliate the believers,” he said. The Night Wolves have also announced a definitive rupture with the international biker movement, declaring on their website: “We do not want to belong to foreign bikers’ traditions that are not able to give good fruits to our Slavic Orthodox country! We Night Wolves are proud that we were born in the land of the great people, the land of Slavs, the rebellious Russians, land of undefeated heroes, the land which does not let the rest of the world sleep since the Roman Empire or even earlier.” Zaldostanov, who was already sanctioned by the U.S. in December, has welcomed his new status as a pariah in the West. “I would very much like to thank [U.S. President Barack] Obama for recognizing my modest services to the motherland. And I promise that I will do all I can so that his concern for me only grows.”