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Posted on Oct 31, 2003 in Stuff We Like

Wargaming: A Unique Way to Experience Military History

By Brian King

For students of military history, wargaming is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to understanding the events and conflicts of recorded history. Reading about a battle is one thing, but vicariously commanding an army in that battle adds a whole new dimension of understanding. Wargaming allows you to relive military history very nearly as a first hand experience rather than a dry summation of an event. It gives you the freedom to try to change history by avoiding the mistakes of past leaders sometimes letting you make larger mistakes! Wargaming lets you explore every nook and cranny of possibilities in a reconstructed virtual world, and gives you access to one of the most important questions in history; “What if?” What if we change this one little event, what would be the new outcome of the skirmish, battle, war?


Wargame designers know their topic well, and have studied all the “What-ifs” and variables of history in the making of their game. It should come as no surprise then, that some of the best wargame designers are true military historians. Many can tell you each individual unit that fought in a particular battle, as well as where they were before the battle, what their leaders were like, the quality of their equipment, why the battle was being fought, and the outcome and repercussions down through history. With meticulous attention to detail, wargame designers reconstruct history to the last detail, thus giving us our “departure point” where we take command and recreate that event. When we replay the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union, we literally have access to each and every tank, plane and man that took part. The research that goes into many wargames is literally that detailed.

Once we have been given a highly detailed and credible reconstruction of the battle (including unit placement, weather, terrain, supply, and 100 other factors) we should be able to set things in motion and achieve results nearly similar to what happened historically. This is called play-balance and is a necessity to give the game credibility. After all, who would play a wargame if the Confederates won the battle of Gettysburg 100% of the time? What could we ever learn from such a lopsided game? Once we have faith that the units on our game board are exactly the same as they were historically, we are faced with our first and possibly most important dilemma. Do we take the same approach as our historical counterpart and hope for a historical outcome, or do we try to do it our way? We come back to “What if?”

What if the German 6th Army was allowed to retreat from Stalingrad instead of being left there to be destroyed? What if the US was allowed to invade North Vietnam, instead of having to fight a defensive war in South Vietnam? What if General Rommel was given enough supplies and manpower to seize the Suez Canal? What outcomes could we expect if those alternative histories were allowed to play out? The only way you can reliably answer those questions is through faithful recreation of the events and combat units involved. A good wargame will be able to give you that answer, or at least a very educated approximation of what could have happened. It is one thing to know the German 6th Army was destroyed inside Stalingrad, but it is quite another if it could be shown that if the 6th Army survived, the war might have lasted an additional six months, or that the Western Allies would then be able to reach Berlin before the Russians! Suddenly that “What if?” becomes very dynamic, and gives new perspective to the historical record.

Lets visit some of these “What-if?” questions using what is undeniably the best wargame construction set available, Norm Koger’s “The Operational Art of War: A Century of Warfare.” This system (abbreviated as TOAW) has evolved over the past 5 years, and although not perfect, it does allow recreation of almost any battle from the present day back to the American Civil War. The real beauty of this game, however, is the scenario editor which is the key to giving designers the tools they need to recreate history. As a credit to the versatility of this game system, designers have contributed over 500 scenarios to the military history community. This gives access to almost any “What if?” you can fathom from the past 150 years, as well as into the next 20.

Probably one of the most intriguing questions in recent military history is whether the Axis could ever have won WW2 or if it was a fait accompli that the allies would overwhelm them in the end. Were Hitler’s blunders and dabbling the reason for its downfall, or could a more skilled leader have found a way to guide Germany through to eventual victory? This question is the driving force behind such games as Avalon Hill’s Third Reich, SPI’s World War II (European Theatre of Operations), and it is also the driving question behind a scenario for TOAW called Europe Aflame.

Europe Aflame map

This scenario is a true monster in that it attempts to model the dynamics of the entire war in Europe 1939-1945 from the Urals to the Azores and from Petsamo to South Africa. Frankly it is a near-impossible task, and one which literally pushes the computer program to the limits of its abilities. However, it has been a labor of love for its primary designer (Mark Stevens) as well as scores of players constantly offering advice to improve the level of realism. The drive for accuracy is only matched by the playability of the scenario, making it accessible to the most casual gamer or a serious student of military history. The Axis player can feel his hair blown back as he pushes his Panzers across Poland, France, Denmark, Yugoslavia, etc., but when the direction turns east toward the Soviet Union the wind indeed turns cold. Tough choices abound for the student of history, all of which can be explored in this virtual world.

Using the powerful event engine of the TOAW game system, it is possible to control variables such as the US lend-lease program, supply shortages when oil fields are captured, alliance shifts when one side is doing exceptionally well, and many other historically accurate variables. These events give us the backdrop to conduct our “What-ifs? in this virtual World War II” What if the Axis focused more heavily on capturing the Middle-East, could that have given them access to Russia from across the Caucasus? What if France and the UK decide to attack into Germany in 1940 instead of the other way around? Would it have led to stalemate? What if the US enters the war in the summer of 1941? Does that mean D-Day happens in 1943? Does the US still get caught flat-footed at Pearl Harbor? Those who play this scenario several times can probably give an intelligent answer to all those questions.

Maginot Line 1939

Now lets take the scale down a couple of notches and simply focus on a single battle. In his scenario called Two Weeks in Normandy, designer Brett Turner gives us the chance to recreate one of the most critical battles of the 20th century. If we play as the allies, the goal is to get inland as far as possible and do better than their historical counterparts General Montgomery and General Bradley. If we play as the Germans, we must overcome some huge deficiencies and somehow find a way to hold the allies close to the beach in time for Field Marshal Rommel’s reinforcements to arrive. Of course this has been done on board games such as Avalon Hill’s The Longest Day, but playing on the PC eliminates the problem of finding opponents or having to set up stacks and stacks of unit counters on flimsy map boards. The computer age has given us this remarkable tool,  and we can study the entire war in Europe with nearly as much detail as we can study one particular battle. The outcomes are always in doubt when we sit down to play, and it is this doubt which brings history into the present, forcing us to make and understand the choices of those that commanded each side in the historical battle.

Utah Beach

Finally, we can use TOAW to study a modern day hypothetical conflict such as a Russian invasion of Finland and Sweden. Seem unlikely? Of course it is! However, as long as we can get an accurate accounting of Russian and Scandanavian forces available, we can easily enter that data into our scenario and have the two sides slug it out. It has been said some military planners would be shocked at the level of detailed information some wargame designers have compiled about their force strength and capabilities. This is a tribute to their skill and dedication to “getting it right.” In his scenario Nordic Light, designer Pelle Holmen postulates what might happen if Russia was so bold as to attempt to invade Scandinavia. What if Russia spared no effort invading Finland, could that nation survive? What if Russia was too slow in its invasion of Sweden, could or would NATO come to the rescue? What if the nuclear spectre reared its ugly head, where would the conflict end? By studying the situation and playing the scenario, we get a pretty clear idea of the geo-political ramifications of this attack and thankfully we can arrive at an answer without a shot ever being fired. Just as students of military history can study past possibilities, they can also study future probabilities. Wargaming is serious play.

Nordic Light map

The designers of these scenarios and wargames in general do all the necessary research and testing, creating simulations that at times border on obsessive for detail and accuracy. The best designers make sure the end result of any given battle is not pre-ordained, and give the player the option to conduct the battle in whatever way he or she sees fit. The serious students of history will be more intrigued by what could have happened and will push the battle in new directions to see alternate endings. So when someone presents the question “What if?” a wargamer doesn’t turn to a book to find the answer, he sits down at the computer and plays out the scenario. It might take a day, a week or even months to play out the question but the student will eventually emerge with a perspective which is unique, and thus valuable, to military history. Like military re-enactors or battlefield visitors, wargaming allows us to interact with military history in a very real way.

You might be asking yourself why I didn’t answer any of these “really important” “What if?” questions for you. If you are curious about knowing the answers, it probably indicates you are a student of military history and are predisposed to this type of exploration. I invite you to enter the dynamic world of computer wargaming to find your own answers to the “What ifs?” I have presented here. You might be surprised by how much you learn.

by Brian King
October 18 2003