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

 

 

 

 

 

News Paper Games

… is the not-quite-as-bad-as-last-year title I picked for the short talk I am giving at the national conference of the American Popular Culture Association in San Diego next week.

http://pcaaca.org/national-conference/

Here is my abstract:

Ian Bogost’s 2011 book Newsgames: Journalism At Play described the growing use of videogames distributed via the Internet to fulfill the basic objectives of journalism: to inform, educate, criticize and persuade. Manual games (also called board games) distributed or published through magazines or newspapers were long used for the same purposes prior to the creation of the Internet, and the practice continues to this day. Manual games are more permissive of remixing/ reskinning for these objectives than video games, by a wider range of people. As physical and tactile objects, they demand and offer a different form of engagement with the material, on the ludic and informational level. They also particularly lend themselves to parody and satire, leading to a greater consciousness of “critical play” (Flanagan, 2009).

 This paper will focus on past and current examples of how manual games, as inclusions or features in print journalism products, have portrayed and “covered” (in the journalistic sense) contemporary issues and episodes of social, political and actual armed conflict. It will also discuss and present examples, including ones from my own work, of use of the Internet to disseminate manual games with critical and analytic content on current topics, as a form of citizen journalism.

Surprisingly, Bogost’s book does not mention paper games at all (or manual, or board, or analog, or tabletop, whatever term you want to use for games not played on a computer), except for a chapter on crosswords and other word puzzles with some news content in them appearing in newspapers.

Actually, nothing surprising about that… hardly anyone in the field of game studies writes anything about tabletop games. Last year’s conference had nearly 100 presentations in the game studies area, and three of them were not about some aspect of computer, video, digital games generally … two guys talking about people who play tabletop RPGs, and me.

Bored of War…          Back from Seattle

This year there are only about 50 presentations – it seems to be a smaller conference overall, though there will still be a couple of thousand people there – and still only three on non-digital games: one person presenting about narrative in Pandemic: Legacy (still can’t get used to the idea of a game that you scribble on, without first having made it yourself) and one person talking about “Policing Responsible Citizens: The Gamification of Crime Resistance in Children’s Table-Top Games” (seems interesting), and again me.

The fact remains, the practice of producing manual “newsgames”, under most of these genres, has been going on for some time. They remain as uncommon but clear acts of citizen-based social criticism and analytic journalism. And through DTP software, the PDF file, and the Internet for production, storage and distribution they carry on, in ever-greater numbers of PnP designs from ever-greater numbers of people.

Before there were video games there were manual games. But no one talks about it, at least not at an event like this. My talk is not even an argument, really, which I guess is fine because this seems to be a field profoundly ignorant of its origins.

Am I the skeleton at the feast?

Or does this just not have anything to do with elephants, in the room or out of it?

Anyway, there will be a game night like they had the year before, so I am bringing a few PnP items along for show, tell and play.

 

Interview in C3i 29

tasting3

Apropos of nothing, a picture of me drinking a cuppa joe I really did make myself (long story).

 

I’ve been lucky enough to be asked by several people over the last few years about my  opinions on games, game design, and the games I design. I don’t think there is any one blog post or podcast or paper that encapsulates my philosophy – I am not sure I even have one, I think I just have thoughts and methods to express the thoughts (but maybe that’s what one is).

But last year Sam Sheikh interviewed me for C3i, a board wargaming magazine published by Rodger B. MacGowan (a longstanding great wargame artist, and a designer in his own right). The interview appeared in issue #29 and it’s a good selection of answers about how I got into game designing, what I like to see in the games I design, and how games portray modern irregular warfare (or don’t).

This is a scan of that section of the magazine. I hope you will find it interesting.

C3i29 intvw

Material is copyright RBM Studio 2015, reproduced with permission.

The early history of matrix games; 2p matrix games

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Bob Cordery talks about the early history of matrix games:

http://wargamingmiscellany.blogspot.ca/2016/07/28-years-later-my-small-part-in-early.html

I read about these in the 90s (it may have been from when they started to get mentioned and printed in Wargames Illustrated magazine) and may have been one of the first to mention them to the US professional wargaming community, back when I set up a small wargaming wiki (now defunct) for the Military Operations Research Society’s Community of Practice on Wargaming. If I wasn’t, so what – I’m glad this useful method is having its moment in the sun over on this side of the pond.

The US military has always had a bit of a problem with the “not invented here” issue, but then again, in the very beginning, it was invented there. Or “here”, depending on where your here is. Either way, we owe Chris Engle much.

EDIT: Over at Rex Brynen’s blog Paxsims, Chris Engle himself contributes a piece about how he came to conceive of and develop them! He is now writing a book that sets out the intellectual argument for, and varied uses of, matrix games. Looking forward to this one!

https://paxsims.wordpress.com/2016/07/26/engle-a-short-history-of-matrix-games/

2-player matrix games?

Over on BGG.com Peter Perla and I were discussing the argument resolution mechanism for a small press game by David Janik-Jones called “Move it, Soldier!”. It’s a card game, an attempt to render the Engle matrix game engine for two players – that is, no umpire.

http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/132795/move-it-soldier

The strength of each player’s arguments are rated by the other player, and the differences between the two ratings add or subtract dice from a total number of d6 to be rolled (highest total wins the argument). Peter pointed out that someone who looked at game mechanics, or at least knew about game theory, would never bother rating one’s argument at less than 5 (the highest possible), just to exploit the mechanism. My counterpoint was that the probable point of David’s game is for both players to work at creating a believable and enjoyable narrative together, and that hypercompetitive Lizard People who view all games as elaborate puzzles to break and win ought not to play it. David said much the same thing, less bluntly and more articulately. Peter responded that if that is really the case, then the formalism of the argument resolution mechanism actually got in the way of what the players were trying to do, that trying to make the mechanism objective undermined the motivation to make persuasive arguments. Players would be better off not  using it at all, or at least talking it through and coming to a consensus on who ought to get a DRM and how much.

In the end I suppose Peter is right, as he usually is. But there ought to be a way to solve this 2-body problem. Chris Engle always wrote about these games in terms of role-playing, and perhaps there are mechanisms in that world that could help without getting into thick rulebooks and lists of conditional DRMs. I don’t know enough about what’s been done with RPGs.

Network-centric Go

 

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Well now, this is kind of interesting:

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-networks-fight-jeff-cares

Basically, about 10 years ago the author came up with an idea to re-wire the Go board. The new Network-Centric Go board had the same number of nodes and links (381 nodes, 684 links), but were arranged according to the “preferential attachment” process that researchers have found in models of the internet and world-wide web. You can see from the diagram this kind of network has a very, very large number of lightly connected nodes, a moderate number of moderately connected nodes, and a very small number of very, very well connected nodes.

The first-move advantages are obvious: the move in each turn will be to occupy the point with the highest number of nodes connected to it, until all available points have the same number of nodes. The author claims to have fixed this and made it susceptible to analysis by reducing the board to about a quarter of its size (a 10×10 grid) and adopting a “decreasing clustering coefficient” strategy. (“Clustering Coefficient is a measure of local cohesion, representing the proportion of a node’s neighbors that are also neighbors of each other” – so it kind of sounds like he decided to play normal territorial Go).

Now he has an Indiegogo project to make this game playable online. And you can give him your money!

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/kayanet#/

Thoughts on Kandahar

 

FS03K

Some recent posts from Neal Durando’s Defense Linguistics blog:

Kandahar Hot Washup

Through a Glass, Darkly

I think this man gets what I’m trying to say, or at least that I’m trying to say something.

Money quote from the latter, at least for me:

Of Brian’s designs with which I’m familiar all attempt a similar level of honesty. They are deeply skeptical of ideology and other power fantasies. Their mechanisms give you plenty of rope with which to hang yourself. Glorious blitzkriegs, chevauchées, razzias, and shit-hammerings are rare and never engaged without careful calculation of the downsides. If he had designed OGRE, there would be the possibility of co-opting the cybertank by surrendering power stations along with a good wash and detail. I still say his Algeria is way too hard on the French, although I’ve been able to win playing both sides.

These are, in their way, anti-games. They resist commercialization in the best way by raising the bar for their audience while keeping their author impoverished and angry.

Go read the rest of it! This man is a WRITER.

Much appreciated, Neal.

Bored of War…

… is the in-retrospect,-not-very-good title I picked for the short talk I am giving at the national conference of the American Popular Culture Association in Seattle next week.

http://pcaaca.org/national-conference/

Here is my abstract:

Board wargames, or manual military simulation games, are a form of civilian entertainment that peaked commercially in the 1980s but continue today as a small press, near-DIY activity. They remain one of Western culture’s most complex analog artifacts, rich in their ability to generate narrative and explore historical possibilities.

 However, only a very small number of published civilian wargames address the dominant modes of actual post-World War Two conflict: irregular war and counterinsurgency. This paper will explore the cultural reasons for this absent focus, explain the social and political utility of these games as a means of interrogating and critiquing contemporary conflicts, and present specific games in this field as examples of “critical play” (Flanagan, 2009).

The point I am trying to make is that there are few of these games not just because they are on an icky uncomfortable subject. It’s also because they are subversive – not only of the contextless and fragmented stream of simplified media interpretation of current conflicts, but also of how most board wargames are played.

I find it quite hard to articulate things like this, though I think about them a lot. I want to acknowledge Jeremy Antley, Matt Kirschenbaum and Mary Flanagan for the thoughts and inspiration.

The point may also be lost on the audience – this is a large conference, with a couple of thousand presentations to be made, and the Game Studies area is responsible for about 100 of them. Only a very small number of these are not about video games: a few about tabletop RPGs, someone talking about how the The Game of Life (Milton Bradley 1960) reflected the American Dream, and my thing.

I think they’re going to look at me like I have bugs in my eyebrows.  But it will be experience, and that is cheap at any price, as they say.

arts_feature1-1

Mmm… yeah, probably as illustrated.