Dr. Sabin’s simulating war list: Dilemmas in gaming

In conjunction with his new book, Dr. Phillip Sabin has started an e-list called “simulating war“.

A discussion there regarding Dr. Peter Perla’s recent NDU talk got into some territory we have discussed here

Dr. Sabin writes of Dr. Perlas distinction between “Artist”, “Architect”, and “Analyst” game archetypes:

While Peter was speaking during the recent telecon, I was thinking of what to ask at the end, and it struck me that a good angle would be to explore what UNITED the different wargame archetypes he identified. It seems to me that a key element of any wargame worth playing (especially from an educational or professional perspective) is to explore the dilemmas and trade-offs facing the real antagonists. The whole point of having a player decision element rather than just an automatic simulation is that there exist alternative tactical or strategic choices each with their own pros and cons. Dilemmas over what to do may be caused by a number of factors, including (but not limited to) the following:

– limited resources, and the consequent need to balance concentration at some points against economy of effort elsewhere;
– the respective merits of offence and defence, with seizing the initiative being offset by the costs and risks of leaving one’s own lines;
– uncertainty, and the issue of whether to lose time by waiting for better intelligence;
– risk, which means that certain actions may have a high payoff but may also have high costs if things go wrong;
– interaction with an active opponent, so that one’s own best strategy depends on the enemy’s actions and dispositions;
– tension between military and political factors, making it hard to weigh up what balance to strike between them.

I discuss this issue of dilemmas and trade-offs throughout my book, especially in chapter 8, but in retrospect I should probably have made even more of it than I already do. Without clear alternative choices grounded in one or more of the above tensions, wargames risk becoming mere ‘experience games’ analagous to simply reading a book or watching a movie about the real conflict, but with random variation changing the story to a greater or lesser extent.

What do people think about this idea of the encapsulation of dilemmas and trade-offs as being a core defining element of any wargame worth playing? The trouble is that, the more evenly balanced the alternatives, the more ahistorical and hypothetical the game will tend to become, while the more clearly the historical tactics are privileged, the fewer real dilemmas the players face and the more they are simply ‘along for the ride’.


Several responses broadened this from “wargames” to “games in general” or at least “strategy games”.

I find it interesting that the dilemmas Dr. Sabin invokes deal with many of the “principles of war” (particlualry the UK variety)

The first seems to put “concetration of force” at odds with “economy of effort”.

The second seems to put “offensive action” at odds with “security”.

The third seems to put “maintenance of the aim” at odds with “flexibility” – assuming an implied “waiting for better intelligence to do ‘something different than I’m doing now’ – opportunistically adapting to new aim.

The fourth seems to put “surprise” at odds with “sustainability” and perhaps “cooperation”.

The other two are more realted to gaming as a tool (an active opponent) and particular situations – each has its own weighting of political vs military constraints and restraints.

I’m assuming the definitions in each case per the wikipedia link.

I’m not sure if I’m reading too much into this, but would be interested in others take on whether there are natural tensions between principles of war in general, or if these are situational constructs that are local, not universal?

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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6 Responses to Dr. Sabin’s simulating war list: Dilemmas in gaming

  1. Jon Compton says:

    It seems to me that your question has an inherent assumption that principles of war are somehow uniform. I would argue that they are not, thus the tensions exist on both ends of that spectrum.

    • Paul Vebber says:


      Sorry if it came across that way. I picked the UK “version” because of the origin of the “dilemmas” and referenced the wikipedia article that points out the variety of “principles” with a wide degree if generality in mind. I’m not clear on what spectrum you are talking about the ends of? You mean the spectrum of sets of principles, or the spectrum of a given set? How do you define “ends”? Should there be internal tensions in a set of principles? Does that not imply a “meta-principle” is needed to resolve the tension? Or should a set of principles be like a multi-dimensional set of axes within which the competitive space is defined? THE UK ones seem to have some of this quality, but US seems seem more independent.

      Just thinking out loud about possible connections between what people has thought important about “making good war”, and the connection to what people think is important in making a good war or strategy game. Does connecting the two give insight into making better games? It seems so to me.

  2. Counter intuitive thought it seems, The Principles of War are not actually the set of principles that the UK Armed Forces turn to in the first instance. They are generally considered insufficiently focussed to actually guide military planning, and are more considerations to hold in the back of your mind.

    A more useful (and used) set of principles are the tenets of the Manoeuvrist Approach, a quick summary of which is: the Manoeuvrist Approach is one in which shattering the enemy’s overall cohesion and will to fight, rather than his material, is paramount. It is an indirect approach that emphasises targeting the enemy’s conceptual and moral component of his fighting power rather than the physical. The approach involves a combination of kinetic and non-kinetic means to achieve effects, which shape his understanding, undermine his will and shatter his cohesion. It aims to apply strength against identified vulnerabilities. It calls for an attitude of mind in which doing the unexpected, using initiative and seeking originality is combined with a single minded determination to succeed. It is applicable to all types of military operations and across the spectrum of conflict.

    Key to this is attacking the adversary’s will and cohesion. The means to do this are:

    Attacking Will:
    Pre-emption. To pre-empt the enemy is to seize an opportunity, often fleeting, before he does in order to deny him an advantageous course of action.
    Dislocation. To dislocate the enemy is to deny him the ability to bring his strengths to bear.
    Disruption. To disrupt the enemy is to selectively attack to break and throw into confusion the assets that are critical to the employment and cohesion of his fighting power.
    Seizing the initiative. Seizing the initiative is the ability to dictate the course of tactical events.

    Attacking cohesion:
    Firepower. Firepower destroys, neutralises, suppresses and demoralises.
    Tempo. Tempo is the rhythm or rate of activity on operations relative to the enemy.
    Simultaneity. Simultaneity seeks to overload an enemy commander by attacking or threatening him in so many ways at once that he can not concentrate on any one, nor establish priorities between them.
    Surprise. Surprise can be absolute or relative.
    Shock action. Shock action is the sudden, concentrated application of violence.

    These then, give us an insight into ‘good warmaking’ (at least from the Brit perspective). Why is this relevant to making a good wargame? The answer brings us back to Phil’s original premise that ‘a key element of any wargame worth playing is to explore the dilemmas and trade-offs facing the real antagonists’. I agree with this premise but would suggest that we read ‘commanders’ for ‘antagonists’; most recreational wargames tend to be fought between two people (actually most are solo, but that’s a sad state of affairs we won’t dwell on!) adopting the roles of the two principal commanders. Even in professional military wargames it is seldom that more than two levels of command are exercised simultaneously due to the inevitable delays and inertia this imposes and the resultant loss of precious training time.

    But it is not just the overall commander doing all the pre-emption, dislocation and all that good warmaking stuff. In fact, most of the decisive effect is achieved by cumulative actions taken at every level below the commander, and his real task is to provide the direction and control to allow his subordinates to get on with their jobs using mutual understanding, unity of effort, timely and effective decision-making, trust and decentralisation – namely Mission Command (UK parlance).

    The relevance of all this doctrinal blurb to wargames is that it is not done (only) by the commanders, but at all levels and by all force elements. So all of the above has to be encapsulated in the rules and mechanisms of the wargame. This is a real challenge. It is not sufficient to capture all of this in generalisations such as ‘Troop Quality’ or aggregations of all these factors into a single combat effectiveness rating, although such mechanisms are often based on some of the factors listed above.

    I think Phil’s ‘dilemmas and trade-offs’ premise is correct, and that alone should give us a far greater understanding of the decisions facing commanders. But, for a wargame to deliver insights into levels of command below that of the overall commander, we need to explicitly build the characteristics listed above into wargame rules and mechanisms. That’s one take on the relevance of ‘good warmaking’ to a good wargame – and quite a challenge! It’s one I’ve introduced to Phil’s excellent MA student sessions at Kings College London, and I am fascinated to see what these very bright students of conflict simulation come up with! Enjoy.

    • Philip Sabin says:

      Graham is insightful as always, but I want to pick up on his ‘sad state of affairs we won’t dwell on’, since I think the preponderance of solitaire play among hobbyists is actually a telling factor in this discussion. I deliberately used the term ‘antagonists’ rather than drrrrrty’commanders’ since it seems to me that most hobby wargames fit most closely into Peter’s first category of ‘analyst games’, being designed less as dedicated command simulators than as complex ‘working models’ of an overall conflict in which the role of the players is much more general and god-like than that of any individual commanders. That helps to explain why solitaire play is so pervasive, since the attraction is more to experience and experiment with the dynamics of reality than to prevail in a competitve game (as in chess). Coming to grips with the interacting decision dilemmas faced by each side is still a key part of the interest, but it is not necessary for the players to identify with a single commander to do this. I discuss this issue of working models vs command simulators a lot in both my recent books.

  3. joesaur says:

    Phil’s statement, “the more evenly balanced the alternatives, the more ahistorical and hypothetical the game will tend to become, while the more clearly the historical tactics are privileged, the fewer real dilemmas the players face and the more they are simply ‘along for the ride’.” is, I think, telling.
    If, in fact, we limit the players to pre-defined decisions (by weighting the rules in some way), we are removing the uncertainty that existed in the actual participant’s minds. I don’t remember a single important battle where the outcome was so pre-ordained that there were no doubts in the minds of one side or the other. Each and every one was initiated with fewer troops than the general or admiral thought he needed (strategic allocation of forces meant he couldn’t get any more), under less-favorable circumstances than he would have liked to have seen (timing, location, weather, whatever), but under the imperative that he be victorious. And only half were. Some were despite long odds (Rorke’s Drift, Leyte Gulf, Karbala Gap); other fights turned out to be much easier than predicted (First Gulf War).

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