First lesson from NUWC’s gaming group

Our strategy and innovation gameing group has met a dozen or so times and played 4 different game to this point. What have we gotten out of this expenditure of about 40 hours each?

One of the most important is the value, or lack thereof, planning – particularly in the military sense – has on “chaotic” game situations. Its interesting to read the negative comments on many Euro games at Board Game Geek. “I can’t “play” the game – it plays me”. “You can’t figure out how to win, the winner “just happens” at the end”. “Too much is go on to keep track of, there is no way to way to “play to win” just survive until an artibray conclusion”. Our group had a lot of the same kind of comments, and dicussion lead to a distinction between two kinds of fundamental “winning processes” – planning to win, and coping until the opportunity to win presents itself.

The degree of structure to the interaction coupled with the rate at which the game state changes seem to govern what sort of “winning process” is applicable. Traditional wargames tend to be classic “plan to win” games. The structure the interation ocurs within is fairly static, often “Newtonian” in operation. A 7-10-8 armored unit is always worth 7 attacking, 10 defending, and moves with 8 movement points. Never 10, never gets stuck at 6. The CRT doesn’t change. 1 more attack strength point added to a 20-7 battle always has expected results according to the 3-1 column. You can plan, because the situation evolves at a know pace, and the rules prevent “Black Swans” from gumming up the works. Wargamers tend to love games like this becasue they develop “game winning processes” based on planning long term interactions between the ways and means to get to ends. Means are fixed and innovation occurs in the “ways” department. you gauge progress toward ends, and make relativley minor tweaks as you go.

Give a died in the wool wargamer a Eurogame and often they throw there hands up in disgust. “I can never get (insert desired resource here) when I need it”. “Too many things happen too fast, how are you supposed to take everything into account?” “This is stupid, just when I figure out a way to win, the whole thing changes on me.” All gripes that arise from not being able to plan and implement a strategy to win the game or at least succeed in the different “phases” of the game.

It struck several of the group “This sounds alot like the gripes you here coming from Iraq and Afgahnistan”. They were trying to play a “wargame” with its planning conventions, and found themselves in a Eurogame, where the situation is too dynamic and interactive for planning to propagate heirarchically from strategic to tactical levels. That is not to say there is not strategy at each level, the “game winning strategies” are just not neatly heirarchical.

The result which has lead to a very interesting dicussion regading how you “innovate” in thse situation when there is so much novelty involved to begin with? This whole discussion reinforced my own notion of the need for a complement to heirarchical military planning that involves synthetic inference of synergies between opportunities (and threats) rather than always use the analytic deduction of actions from desired ends.

Part of this is what the “design’ movement seems to be getting at, but that seems to be a “conditioning” of top-down “strategy-based” planning, rather than the notion of “coping to keep yourself in the game” (often reactively) sowing the seeds of potential opportunity, most of which will not come to anything, but a few will. This can be done within an overall strategic framework for winning, but becomes a bottom- up “luck = opportunity + preparation” thing than a MDMP style top-down hierarcical planniing problem.

When someone asks “Why are you playing those silly games” this is the first “elevator story” I’m trying to simplify to have in my back pocket 😉

More to come…

About Paul Vebber

"If you read about something, you have learned about it. If you can teach something, you have mastered it. Designing a useful game about something however, requires developing a deep understanding of how it relates to other things."
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7 Responses to First lesson from NUWC’s gaming group

  1. elliebartels says:

    The connection between the shifting dynamics of euro games and COIN really stuck home, as I’m in the middle of a similar debate. I’m in the process of modifying a game (which while not classically a euro-game does have the same feel in this respect) for COIN classroom use and got some push back that there was not enough “strategy” to the game because of exactly the dynamic of rapidly shifting opportunities you point out. In trying to decide whether this is a fatal weakness for the project, I’m torn as to whether this is just a question of what you think needed COIN lessons learned are (and therefore really a questions of doctrine) or if it has more to do with experienced gamers expected more consistent strategy than is possible in the real world. Paul, it sounds like your discussion would suggest the later, but I wondered if you (or the rest of the brain trust here!) have thoughts?

  2. Jon Compton says:

    Actually this is addressing an even larger issue. We are programmed to think in terms of deterministic processes to achieve certain outcomes, and such thinking processes are naturally uncomfortable coping with rapidly adapting complex systems. I believe that those 7-10-8 wargames reinforce an approach to thinking about how we interface inside conflictual environments that is dangerous, and increases vulnerability to those black swan events we spend so much time talking about. In reality there is no determinable path to victory, especially in our current world where conflict is no longer just kinetic, and all exchanges are likely to be highly asymmetric. I think players of traditional wargames have a point in terms of the game qua game, but not as game qua analog of conflict.

    Saying that a “euro” style game sucks as a training device because it doesn’t present the opportunity to conjure up a magic bullet solution to a military problem reveals a problem in our thinking that is astonishingly fundamental and basic, and yet immensely profound.

  3. Skip Cole says:

    Great article and replies.
    Its a human tendency to not like to have to deal with ambiguity; to seek out convenient categorizations, even if they are incorrect. Getting people who are highly successful climbing social ladders (with relatively well-defined hurdles) to then embrace what they do not know or understand will probably always be a challenge.
    Does a cookbook with recipes on how to do this exist? The mechanics of gaming have been pretty well documented, but I’m not sure that the ‘art of opening people’s minds’ has been.

  4. try the game of Flux, where the cards you play change the rules of the game and the criteria for winning 🙂

  5. Michael Peck says:

    Living in a Oregon college town with lots of Eurogamers who have no interest in wargames, I find the opposite problem. Wargamers can handle ambiguity far better than Eurogamers. Eurogamers hate wargames because they have dice, whereas many Eurogames are often deterministic. They also don’t like them because there are too many fiddly rules, which prevents them from devising a simple, elegant, and game-winning strategy.

    It’s even more curious because gamers see themselves as being more intelligent than average folks (probably true), but also more open-minded, which is not true. I’m beginning to wonder whether there’s something about gamers in particular that hate ambiguity, although the uncertainty is what attracts them in the first place. I actually enjoy ambiguity in games, but then I don’t have the steel trap, chess player mindset that characterizes the most successful gamers.


  6. John Kantor says:

    The Gamers Operational Combat System (OCS) has a non-deterministic combat system – but gamers still count movement points ad infinitum.

    GMT’s The Napoleonic Wars is a great example of a non-deterministic game. If you play it deterministically, it will be a boring build-up to a gigantic battle with the results determined mostly by luck.

    However, if you play aggressively – expecting to lose a number of battles – but prepared to take advantage of the ones you win, it will be both exciting – and an excellent simulation of the historical situation.

    But I’m tired of hearing about COIN. No strategy can defeat a terrorist insurgency. No insurgency can defeat a standing army. The one who wins is the one who gives up last.

  7. Pingback: More from playing Euro-games | Wargaming Connection

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