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Subject: Cardboard Legerdemain: How wargames try (and fail) to create the illusion of actual conflict rss

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Pete Belli
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A comment frequently seen in wargame discussions makes me chuckle every time I read it: in the middle of a stimulating debate a Geek will mention that game ABC is more realistic than game XYZ.

Even the best wargame designs can only create a carefully crafted illusion of an actual battle or campaign. Like the people in the bitterly accurate fable, some within the cadre of stalwart wargame hobbyists have trouble admitting that the emperor has no clothes.

Grognards with 10, 20, or 30 years in the hobby might cyber-snicker when a fresh new player mentions one of the low complexity games that can lure a curious Geek into the sticky web of historical conflict simulation. According to the harsh discipline of the wargame legion these titles might not deserve to stand in the front rank with the real wargames.

The experienced wargamer will often stress the solid historical accuracy of the real wargame and will probably place a heavy emphasis on the strength of simulation. The candy-ass "lite" wargame could be dismissed as unrealistic at best and derisively excluded from the wargame genre at worst.

Nonsense. All wargames register somewhere on a sliding scale between the historically plausible designs at the high end and those games created with a gossamer fabric of concessions to playability at the low end.

Please allow me to present three common examples which illustrate this wargame legerdemain.


The Expected Unexpected Development

Stalingrad is one of the most frequently simulated campaigns in the wargame hobby. Historical accuracy has come a long way since the early days of the Avalon Hill classics. Some of these modern titles could include a meticulously researched order of battle based on the most recently released sources. Maps might be checked and double checked to determine the proper location of each railroad junction or river crossing. This is all good stuff.




How many Stalingrad games allow the Soviet player to secretly build up forces on the flank of the advancing Axis armies in preparation for a devastating winter offensive? Even detailed rules placing the German player in a strategic straitjacket at the whims of Hitler cannot truly recreate this campaign. Unless the Axis player is dozing in the balcony the Soviet player will not be able to get away with pulling a rabbit out of his hat.


Today’s Knowledge Grafted Onto Yesterday’s Situation

A series of carefully researched Civil War games has presented the players with beautiful maps loaded with intricate historical detail. Any devoted ACW Geek can tell you that the atrocious maps used by the generals on both sides were highly inaccurate. During the 1862 Peninsula Campaign the Union army had maps that bore little or no resemblance to the actual landscape. A Confederate general who fought on the Peninsula in 1862 said the Rebel staff officers had no more knowledge of the local terrain than they had of darkest Africa.


 


Later in the war troops serving under a Confederate general seized a Yankee map of the area around the Rapidan River in northern Virginia. The general ordered multiple copies to be made. The captured Union map was considered to be more accurate than his version which depicted the terrain he was already defending. During the battle of Chickamauga some Union staff officers at army headquarters were relying on a widow who lived in the neighborhood to tell them where the sounds of heaviest firing were coming from based on her estimates of the distances to local landmarks. Command rules can help to recreate what Clausewitz called the friction of war, but few grognards have watched a portion of their army march down the wrong road or approach a ford that wasn’t there. We know the magician didn’t really pull that silver coin out of our ear, but we smile anyway.


Laser Beams Burning Through The Fog Of War

Armchair strategists have an august view of their hexagon battlefields with a grasp of the action rivaled only by 21st century satellite reconnaissance. This challenge is being addressed. The current selection of block wargames can offer the illusion of hidden deployment. However, even with the use of "dummy" blocks you may not know where the enemy is, but you know a lot of places where he isn’t.




All but a handful of designs provide both players with the precise objectives and victory requirements of the opposing force. The average wargame also offers commanders detailed information about the arrival of enemy reinforcements, the capabilities of each subordinate officer in the enemy’s command hierarchy, and the combat strength or maneuverability of each formation. Progress is being made here, too. The frequent use of event cards to guide play in modern designs has placed a premium on proper decision making, functioning as the lovely assistant who distracts the attention of the audience away from the magician’s hands during a performance.


Illusion & Alchemy




All wargames are based on an illusion, a suspension of disbelief. For some Geeks even the most painfully obvious magic trick is still exciting, even when the wires and mirrors are visible. The grognards have already figured out how Houdini escapes from the locked trunk in a tank full of water... why not let the new members of the audience sit back and enjoy the show?



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Andrew Tullsen
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Thanks for a good and interesting read. I always look forward to and enjoy your articles.
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Pete,

You might also add games that contain "First Turn Exceptions." Oh-so "realistic" wargames that present rules that model a campaign or battle—but then break them on the very first turn (or at some other point in the battle or campaign) to recreate specific events. Such as games that offer special rules for the attack on Pearl Harbor or the opening attacks in the Battle of the Bulge.

Another irony that I find funny concerns the celebrated game Napoleon's Triumph. Units that are adjacent to the enemy don't even know what type of opposition they are facing. I should think that I if would know enough about a nearby unit that it belongs to the enemy, I would at least also know enough to determine if it were Cavalry, Artillery, or Infantry.

Not a big deal. Just funny. Part of the fog-of-war element that wargames need to be fun, playable, and plausible.
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William Barnett-Lewis
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Pete,

What you say is true. So? I worked in a BN S2 shop. It's real world true too now (actually worse. But that's another game... ;) )

Don't worry.

Be Happy.

William
 
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Lot's of great points, although I don't necessarily quite agree with all of your conclusions.

Re: Stalingrad

The fact that player knowledge / hind sight will result in avoidance of the historical situation is why Turning Point: The Battle of Stalingrad is still one of my favourites on the battle, as it starts with the Soviet counterattack with the 6th Army in Stalingrad and the Rumanians, Hungarians and Italians on the flanks. I don't entirely agree that historically the Soviet build-up on the flanks was 'secret'. There were indications it was happening - it was a combination of Hitler refusing to acknowledge it and his insistance that the Soviets were on the verge of collapse that caused it to be ignored until it was too late. He had reacted similarly with the attacks towards Moscow in late '41, pushing his field commanders to continue the attack long past the point where it made sense, in spite of their belief that the Soviets were going to counterattack.

Re: (American) Civil War

You've made a number of good points regarding attempts to simulate 'battles'. That is part of the reason I much prefer 'strategic' level wargames in such situations. The 'vagaries' of battle, as you've described, tend to come 'out in the wash' (or die roll(s)). The particular circumstances of a single 'battle' are difficult to simulate 'realistically', as you've described.

Generally I would say one can / should differentiate between issues with limitations of 'accuracy' (map locations of key features, forces etc.) vs. problems which arise due to historical hindsight. Even with such limitations as you've described, I feel comfortable saying one wargame is more or less 'realistic' than another. A score of 9 is still more than 5, whether it is 'out of' 10 or 100! However, it is interesting that the 'extremes' of 'level' of game (i.e. tactical and strategic) seem to suffer less from some of this knowledge than the middle ground (operational).
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David Hughes
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The whole discussion goes away if you think of wargames as models. No model can represent every facet of reality. Instead they focus on what the model maker thinks is important. There are games which address - successfully - each of your three points.

That doesn't make them "realistic" - whatever that may mean. It does make them effective models of that aspect of reality.

Sorry Pete, but your original post is as wrong headed - and sensationalist - as a National Enquirer lead story

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You make valid points but I find these kind of posts a little silly. It might amaze you to know that grognards are fully aware of the limitations of wargames. Wargames are models. They highlight certain aspects of a battle or a campaign. It is a little patronising to suggest that you realise this and other people do not. I play a wargame and read a book or books on the same subject. The two things complement each other. The wargame is as 'realistic' as the book and adds another dimension.
Edit. You beat me to it David!
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I wonder what happens in High Command staff planning rooms that is so essentially different from pushing cardboard chits on a map and comparing arbitrary strengths.
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Richard Irving
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nomae wrote:
You make valid points but I find these kind of posts a little silly. It might amaze you to know that grognards are fully aware of the limitations of wargames. Wargames are models. They highlight certain aspects of a battle or a campaign. It is a little patronising to suggest that you realise this and other people do not. I play a wargame and read a book or books on the same subject. The two things complement each other. The wargame is as 'realistic' as the book and adds another dimension.


Actually, in my experience, many grognards don't seem to understand the limitations of the models.

The type that say, "Combat Commander is a completely unrealistic game--you cannot fire/move/recover if you don't have a fire/move/recover card. My troops wouldn't just take that pounding without reacting!"

Unfortunately, there are many such instances of fear, confusion, insufficient/incorrect intelligence, etc. in WW2 infantry combat where soldiers didn't react. The lack of the needed Fire card simulates in a simple and playable way the vagueries of the situation: Maybe my troops can't effectively fire back because:
- They are cowering for their lives in a foxhole. Fear is a powerful narcotic on the battlefield.
- They can't fire effectively because they haven't spotted where the enemy fire was coming from.
- They can't communicate effectively and thus can't effectively coordinate their attack.
- Maybe the troops ARE actually firing, but for all of the reasons above, it simply has no effect on the enemy.

In real combat, a company commander (which is the player role in the Combat Commander) doesn't have anywhere near as much as knowledge or control the player does in the game--even with the card play elements.

Yes, a tactical WW2 infantry wargame could be designed where maybe a spotting roll is need to see if the units to see the enemy, coordination rolls are needed to allow an attack with multiple units, and then finally further to actually resolve the combat. But the additional fiddliness of such a game would overwhelm the minor increase in "realism".

It is not the amount of detail that really makes a wargame realistic, it is whether the right details are chosen.
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Steve Constantelos
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Quote:
few grognards have watched a portion of their army march down the wrong road or approach a ford that wasn’t there.


In solo play, I don't study the maps beforehand. In some games, I send out scouts that may or may not report back--this will at least slow progress along unknown terrain. I do these things and get myself(selves) into fine messes all the time!
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p55carroll
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nomae wrote:
You make valid points but I find these kind of posts a little silly. It might amaze you to know that grognards are fully aware of the limitations of wargames. Wargames are models.


And models are essentially illusions--just as Pete's post says. It's a matter of perspective and a choice of words, that's all.

Quote:
They highlight certain aspects of a battle or a campaign.


Because that's all any model, or illusion, is capable of. IOW, they pull off a sleight of hand, convincing players to look away from what's not being highlighted so that what is being highlighted will seem oh, so realistic.

Quote:
It is a little patronising to suggest that you realise this and other people do not.


Did Pete say that? I don't get the impression he thinks he's the only one in the know. On the contrary, it sounds like he's addressing an audience of people who do know what he's talking about.

Quote:
I play a wargame and read a book or books on the same subject. The two things complement each other. The wargame is as 'realistic' as the book and adds another dimension.


Never seems to work that way for me--unless I'm just reading light historical fiction. If I read a serious book on a subject, even the best wargame on that subject pales in comparison and seems to horribly distort what I've just read about.

But if I play a wargame (most any wargame) on a subject I have not recently read about, I happily suspend my disbelief and consider the game totally realistic. It can be as realistic as my imagination makes it--and that's wonderful to me.

Years ago, I subscribed to S&T magazine, which included a game that matched the feature article (I guess it's still being published; I saw an issue on a newsstand recently). If I read the article first (and I usually did--stupid me), it spoiled the game. After catching a glimpse of what the battle or campaign was really like, via the article, the game always seemed ludicrously structured, distorted, and oversimplified.

But "oversimplified" is misleading. The game itself didn't seem too simple; more often, it seemed too complicated. I felt I had to do a lot more thinking in the game than any commander or participant in the real event had to do. Often, they just pointed at the enemy and said, "There; go get 'em!" I had to meticulously move a hundred unit-counters around the map, calculate odds, and all that. So, I felt the game provided me with a more complicated experience than real-world commanders had to deal with. But at the same time, only a very few aspects of the actual battle or campaign were "highlighted" in this "model"--and in that sense it felt oversimplified.

Whenever I read about a battle, I always wish I could wargame it, because then I'd get a clearer picture of the spatial relationships, strength differentials, and other "mathematical" elements that are hard for me to visualize as I read. But if I actually do wargame the battle I've read about, I'm always disappointed--for reasons given above.

Hence, over the years I've grown to prefer "light" wargames. They're oversimplified too, but they're unabashedly so. They don't require me to do a lot of complicated thinking and move taking. And yet they can still provide me with the basic overview of battles and campaigns--the map, OOB, etc. Or at least a credible approximation--enough to bring that slice of history to life on my tabletop and give me some vague sense of how things were.
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Nigel Wright
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Quote:
few grognards have watched a portion of their army march down the wrong road


Time to dust off that old copy of Torgau!
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Nicholas Uloth
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I’m sure I once ran into Pete at a convention, he was playing a game making boom and rat-a-tat-tat sounds while he played, pushing little plastic men around. I believe it was his own design.

Quote:
All wargames are based on an illusion, a suspension of disbelief.


Now I understand why.

While wargaming in the wider world is largely an intellectual pursuit played by people who are interested in history, simulation and such things, in the US there are a lot of players who are basically into it for the nostalgia either of their childhood or their military career.

Quote:
And models are essentially illusions--just as Pete's post says.


No they are not, just as perception and representation are not the same thing.
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Mr Pavone
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This dude is right, and wrong.

Not one of these games even comes close to accurately modelling actual conflict, much less war.

While I was in the army, from 1992-1996, I took part in some of the largest wargaming exercizes the US DoD held. It took thousands of men at computer terminals, thousands of men in real life vehicles, maybe a million miles of cable and god only knows how many lines of code. We counted bullets, beans and gasoline, built supply routes, moved men and materiel, killed the badguys and treated our wounded. All this lasted for a week and was running 24 hours every day.

I have found that wargames, as fun as they are, truly are artificial and only take the time to model what the designer actually knows. Real war is too big and too messy to stuff into one little, yes LITTLE TINY BOX.

Quit taking this stuff too seriously.
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Nicholas Uloth
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While I was in the army, from 1992-1996, I took part in some of the largest wargaming exercizes the US DoD held.


And yet you failed to kill a single russian. By your own definition it was a complete failure. One wonders why they even bothered if it was so 'unrealistic'.
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niculoth wrote:

Quote:
And models are essentially illusions--just as Pete's post says.


No they are not, just as perception and representation are not the same thing.


Model = illusion = representation = simulation. Perception is what the viewer does with that (or what the designer did in creating it).

Are you saying a model airplane is not an illusion/representation/simulation/semblance of a real airplane? That it's somehow the real thing?

It's true that some models (or illusions, representations, simulations, or semblances) are extremely accurate and serve serious purposes. But the blip on a radar screen is still just a visual representation of the corresponding object. The radar operator still has to imagine that the blip represents an airplane in his scanning sector. A blip is not a real airplane; and sometimes a blip can be a false reading.

A tiny minority of arcane wargames might approach that degree of simulational complexity and accuracy. Sophisticated computerized wargames used by the military, for example. But A Victory Lost? Or even Case Blue? A far cry from some kind of radar-like simulation of their subjects.

Wargames are structured experiments with fictional alternate-history scenarios. Good historians are extremely skeptical of what-ifs, because when you get right down to it, there's no certainty about any of them. We can't prove that such-and-such would have been possible, no matter how much we're inclined to believe it. Go back and change something in history (if you could, but you can't), and there's no telling what will actually happen. Hence, it's fiction and speculation. Educated speculation maybe, but guesswork nonetheless. In short, it's imaginary.

Take imagination completely out of the picture, and what's the experience of playing a wargame like? Maybe something like doing math problems.

Put enough imagination into even a game of checkers, and it can be a richly detailed simulation of the Battle of Stalingrad.

Imagination is the key element that makes illusion/modeling/simulation/representation work.

So the key to wargame design is to create something that will make a player suspend his disbelief and think, Hey, this model looks and behaves just like the real-life stuff! I can believe this is a good reflection of the historical events being portrayed.

OTOH, if the player shakes his head and says, "Nah, this isn't credible. Why, it's just a game of checkers with Stalingrad window dressing!" then the design fails in its attempt to get that player to suspend his disbelief.

Individual wargamers vary quite a bit. Some readily suspend their disbelief even over a "light" wargame; others stubbornly refuse to suspend their disbelief until they're presented with a sufficiently "heavy" wargame. To each his own. Each is a different challenge for the wargame designer--who can't please all the people all the time.

IMHO, of course. modest

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pete belli wrote:

Laser Beams Burning Through The Fog Of War

Armchair strategists have an august view of their hexagon battlefields with a grasp of the action rivaled only by 21st century satellite reconnaissance. This challenge is being addressed. The current selection of block wargames can offer the illusion of hidden deployment. However, even with the use of "dummy" blocks you may not know where the enemy is, but you know a lot of places where he isn’t.


Though it can be a bit of an unpopular subject this is one of the areas where computer wargames clearly have the advantage. No need to provide equal information to both sides when the computer is there to act as referee. In many cases you don't even necessarily have any knowledge of the exact terrain until you scout it.
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niculoth wrote:
Quote:
While I was in the army, from 1992-1996, I took part in some of the largest wargaming exercizes the US DoD held.


And yet you failed to kill a single russian. By your own definition it was a complete failure. One wonders why they even bothered if it was so 'unrealistic'.


I understand the poster's point. Training for a real battle points out all the real activities that can go wrong (and often do) in the real thing. As a result, there is often "failure"—to do exactly what you want, when and how you want to. The very reason for the admonishment that planning should be kept as simple as possible.

In the fake battles we play at, we have rigid rules that we can rely on; call out our opponent for cheating (real war is all about cheating: doing just the things that your enemy thinks you cannot do—and as unfairly as possible); and know exactly what our capabilities and limitations are. We know the terrain, often the complete TO&E of the opposing forces and the timetables and conditions for the arrival of reinforcements. We can pull rules loop-hole rope-a-dopes. It's all very clean with few real surprises.
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Ben Delp
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This just in... wargames are games.

After we return from the break, a story of one man who discovered that water is wet.
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Why all the buzz during the Cold War about starting a nuclear war and the Prisoner's Dilemma, if an extremely simple model can't possibly pose the same decision pattern of real situations? Back then, many mathematicians took the dilemma as a very good representation of the actual problem faced by the US and the USSR.
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HeinzGuderian wrote:
Why all the buzz during the Cold War about starting a nuclear war and the Prisoner's Dilemma, if an extremely simple model can't possibly pose the same decision pattern of real situations? Back then, many mathematicians took the dilemma as a very good representation of the actual problem faced by the US and the USSR.


When it comes to games, I often ask myself: how hard does it have to be? Or, how complex does this game need to be to make its point? I agree with you that hard problems can be simply expressed. Matrix gaming, for example, is a great way for people to game complex scenarios using simple rules to achieve plausible results. What such games need are judges that are well-read on the scenario covered.
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p55carroll
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pete belli wrote:

All wargames are based on an illusion, a suspension of disbelief. For some Geeks even the most painfully obvious magic trick is still exciting, even when the wires and mirrors are visible. The grognards have already figured out how Houdini escapes from the locked trunk in a tank full of water... why not let the new members of the audience sit back and enjoy the show?


I don't think the grognards are spoiling any fun for "new members of the audience." The problem is rather that some grognards have not figured out how Houdini escapes; they're thoroughly mystified, to the point where they honestly believe it's real magic and not just a trick.

To them, Memoir '44 is just legerdemain--just the simple trick of pulling a rabbit out of a hat. They can bestow friendly, knowing smiles on those who still enjoy that sort of thing. As a change of pace, they may enjoy it themselves.

But Case Blue? That's Houdini escaping from the locked trunk. It can't just be a trick; it's gotta be real magic--or a solid study of real military history, as they put it.
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Patrick Carroll wrote:
pete belli wrote:

All wargames are based on an illusion, a suspension of disbelief. For some Geeks even the most painfully obvious magic trick is still exciting, even when the wires and mirrors are visible. The grognards have already figured out how Houdini escapes from the locked trunk in a tank full of water... why not let the new members of the audience sit back and enjoy the show?


I don't think the grognards are spoiling any fun for "new members of the audience." The problem is rather that some grognards have not figured out how Houdini escapes; they're thoroughly mystified, to the point where they honestly believe it's real magic and not just a trick.

To them, Memoir '44 is just legerdemain--just the simple trick of pulling a rabbit out of a hat. They can bestow friendly, knowing smiles on those who still enjoy that sort of thing. As a change of pace, they may enjoy it themselves.

But Case Blue? That's Houdini escaping from the locked trunk. It can't just be a trick; it's gotta be real magic--or a solid study of real military history, as they put it.


Now I get it. Grognards look down on simple wargames but delude themselves by thinking that Case Blue is something deep and meaningful.
I can't speak for other people but there are two reasons for playing wargames in my opinion. The first is that they are an enjoyable and challenging game.
Some people will want to play something simple where they do not have to think too hard about rules others will want something more complex. The best game to play with someone else for me would be something with simple rules but a lot of decisions.
The way I use wargames is to pick a subject, say the Seven Years war, set up one of the BAR or Prussia Glory games plus Clash of Monarchs, pick out one or more books and then spend several weeks exploring the subject.
The games may not be realistic but they are models that add to my reading and help me understand more about the subject.
If I was doing the same for WW11 then Memoir 44 would not be as useful as Case Blue. They may be points on the same line but so are stupid and intelligent. Case Blue can teach you things about operational warfare and the importance of logistics. It is not reality and it is not a professional course, and guess what, I actually understand that.
It seems to me that peoople are ascribing opinions to 'grognads' that they do not profess just to knock them down. And it seems to be people who have some problem with complex games.
If you don't like them don't play them. How simple can it be.
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I tend to agree with Patrick Carroll on this one.

I play a game and suspend my disbelief about how things really are because regardless of the game (Memoir 44-Valor & Victory-Conflict of Heroes-CC-ASL) it still has various limitations (no real fog of war, hexes, I-go-you-go); I watch a show like Band of Brothers and know that a few corners were cut to remove some of the boredom and/or unnecessary plot/story; or I read a memoir of actual combat action.

Games do seem both over-complicated because it's not real life and the flow is all broken and nothing is simultaneous and disorganized and hectic and terrifying. Simpler wargames (V&V, CoH, even Memoir 44) do feel better to me at my age as well. The basic tactics and thrill remain, but the obsession of creating what is not possible, a perfect simulation of combat, is not getting in thhe way.

My latest crazy idea is that I almost think that tactical combat (esp. WW2) might be better played as a narrative-focused role-playing game (based on the narrative and dice-don't-make-decisions Wushu "rules") with three of four people playing squad or company commanders and the "DM" being the enemy. Perfect fog of war, tension, story-telling elements, combat, flow. No tables whasoever. I might try this.
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DaveyJJ wrote:

My latest crazy idea is that I almost think that tactical combat (esp. WW2) might be better played as a narrative-focused role-playing game (based on the narrative and dice-don't-make-decisions Wushu "rules") with three of four people playing squad or company commanders and the "DM" being the enemy. Perfect fog of war, tension, story-telling elements, combat, flow. No tables whasoever. I might try this.


Watching Saving Private Ryan my first thought was (aside from how much I hate Tom Hanks and how much I disagreed with their mission) that it felt very much like an RPG. They get a quest, assemble a party, and head out having encounters along the way. Apocalypse Now could be construed as much the same. Maybe it just comes from playing Twilight: 2000 in the past, but I think there's a lot of potential here... you just need to find a way, like T:2000, to get them out from under the chain of command and with a bit more independence.

Patrick Carroll wrote:

But Case Blue? That's Houdini escaping from the locked trunk. It can't just be a trick; it's gotta be real magic--or a solid study of real military history, as they put it.


Well, not so much real magic as something else entirely. Like most escapes of a certain level it's not about the "magic", but the knowledge that they're actually doing it... not something impossible, but something very challenging that requires a lot of skill and talent. At that level you don't need tricks to appreciate it as they'd only disguise the artistry of what's really being done.
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