Fairness in Wargames

In Search of Historical Simulations

chess board

Chess qualifies as a nearly perfect wargame, if fairness in combat is an important consideration to the players. Terrain, troop types, armies, movement ranges, combat statistics, objectives and rules are identical on both sides of the line. Everything is on the board, clearly in sight, and there are no dice to determine individual combat results. However, even chess isn't entirely fair. The player with the white pieces has the advantage of the opening move, enabling her to elicit a more or less predictable range of counter-moves from her opponent until the initiative changes.

Even a seemingly fair game like chess does not guarantee that players actually enjoy the process of winning or losing a contest. Expert players are emotionally invested in the game, and they experience extreme psychological and physical stress during a chess competition. Harrassment and outright psychological warfare can be used to intimidate and destroy an opponent at chess. And, to be literally crushed at this game by a modern supercomputer is probably a most devastating experience for the world-class chess player.

In Love and War

Fairness in wargames is a much debated concept, particularly after a battle, when one side feels like they lost, while the opponents bathe in glory. Egos may be bruised, but only if egos were invested in the effort to begin with. If wargames are primarily about winning, it may be a good idea to adopt the chess approach and create an opening position which is fair and equitable. Army point values should be equal, terrain may have to be chosen by random dice rolls, hidden movement must be controlled by umpires, and players should be using percentage dice or two D6 to arrive at an averaged, bell-shaped distribution of results. Most importantly, the opponent needs to be told that the game is about winning only, reminding him to fight with equal vigour.

However, most of the interesting battles in history cannot be simulated correctly, if fairness is required. Agincourt, Lützen, Rossbach, Leuthen, Marengo, Austerlitz, Jena, Friedland, Shilo, Fröschwiller, Ypres, Dieppe, Stalingrad, Normandy, Arnhem, Diên Biên Phú, Grenada, Kuwait and hundreds of other notable events involve a degree of unfairness which needs to be recreated accurately. Many times in history, interesting battles developed out of a strategic blunder or opportunity - depending on the point of view – And they would usually be accepted only if the disadvantaged side did not realize the magnitude of the problem until after battle had been joined.

Determining Factors

  • Army Organisation
  • Unit Capabilities
  • Deployment Position
  • Tactical Objective
  • Variable Terrain
  • Hidden Movement
  • Special Events
  • Linear or Curved Dice
  • Knowledge of Rules
  • Tactical Expertise
  • Player Conduct

Subliminal Deathwish?

The simulation gamer accepting a significantly inferior tactical position, knowingly accepts defeat before battle has even begun. It would be conduct unbecoming of an officer if his opponent were to attribute the inevitable victory to brilliant tactical maneuvering on his part. There are a number of clever rule sets which treat exceptionally one-sided affairs like Custer's last stand at Little Big Horn as a multi-player solo-game, using automated opponents against a team of allied players. This approach has a lot of merit, because it removes much of the competitive element among players. If the tables are stacked correctly, players may even be compelled to support eachother in battle or perish individually.

The solo-game approach may be used in many other areas of simulation gaming, especially if a likely opponent is known to have employed a national doctrine which may be automated to some degree. When this is possible, players fighting on the same side will want to support eachother fully in the exploitation of opportunity. Victory can be enjoyed openly, because there are no human egos to protect on the opposing team. Of course, there is always the possibility that a player readily accepts the losing ticket, and that his opponents are considerate enough to protect him from certain negative psychological effects of the thrashing he is about to receive.

Exploiting Opportunity

Frederick the Great's most brilliant victories cannot be recreated in miniature, unless the opponent is prepared to accept the surprise cavalry charge which rode down the French marching columns at Rossbach, or the Prussian flank attack at Leuthen, which crushed the Austrian left flank and drove the demoralized survivors into fresh troops attempting to form a hasty line in the center. Austrian forces at Leuthen outnumbered the Prussians by a factor of nearly 2 to 1, a combat ratio which would almost always compel the Prussian player to adopt the tactical defensive in a head-on battle, completely changing the flavor and historic appeal of Leuthen.

To win Leuthen, Frederick had to destroy the enemy army in detail. The Prussians knew the area well, they had occupied it for some time, and this particular battlefield had been used for several routine army maneuvers. Accordingly, the entire home team disappeared from sight at a point only 3000 meters away, and immediately opposite the center of the Austrian line, and it did not re-appear until much later, when the full-scale oblique attack struck a flanking blow against the Austrian left flank. For some time, the Austrian army made no effort to re-deploy, they had every reason to believe that the envisioned frontal attack would develop at any moment.

To simulate this compelling misinterpretation on a miniature battlefield of Leuthen, the Austrian player would have to agree not to move his center and right wing until the left wing has been crushed. However, even if this course of action is mandated, the Austrian player is likely to feel very apprehensive about it, because he is watching every step of the disaster about to unfold. Alternatively, if special rules were available which would favor a Prussian deception and Austrian hesitation at Leuthen, the Austrian player would not be privy to certain event until they unfolded in earnest.

Stacking the Table

Most wargamers understand that accurately recreated miniature armies and tabletop battlefields are a prerequisite for historic battlefield simulations, and we accept that one army will be stronger or deployed in better terrain than the other. Many of us even consider army combat doctrine to be an important expression of national character, and we account for it by adjusting certain factors in the game like move rates, fire combat values, morale ratings, and leadership modifiers. Finally, some of us are interested in reliving great moments in history, acts of exceptional bravery, and foolhardy attempts, they view the wargame as a catalyst which allows historic action to unfold.

Simple rule expansions like hidden deployment, automated and weighted objectives, double-blind movement, special event cards, variable terrain, and critical hits create an atmosphere which elicits historically accurate behaviour from player generals. In fact, the wargame rules themselves can be even simpler than they are today, allowing the player to focus more on the marginal elements which add so much flavor to the game.

The intention of Military Miniatures Magazine's new series of articles on wargaming is to introduce several compelling rule expansions which add historic flavor, maximize attention to desirable detail, and minimize bookkeeping. Readers are encouraged to submit ideas, house rules and new game concepts to editors@miniatures.de. Compatibility with popular rule sets is an important consideration, players should be able to use an expansion without having to learn entire new game systems.

Frequently Asked Questions

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