Military megagaming

This blog post is written by Ben Moores, co-producer of Last Turn Madness — the podcast focused on megagames — and creator of the brilliant ‘Undeniable Victory’ megagame — a game about the Iran/Iraq war in the 1980s. Ben gives us his thoughts on what’s wrong with simulating military struggles in megagames.

For anyone who has listened to our megagame podcast, Last Turn Madness, you will know that I have an issue with the manner in which we represent war in megagames. War is an incredibly intense condition yet many of our military games fail to create an experience that is relatively engaging. Many players actually find elements of the theme and the mechanics incredibly dull. This is a poor state of affairs that we need to think more about.

The bad news is that writing a game is hard, really hard. Many of us start out with a vision of throwing out the rule book and creating something unique and seminal. Breaking the chains of what we know about military gaming looks easy in practice as there are so many wargame concepts out there dying to be put out of their misery. The reality is that development is largely incremental and beset with adversity that involves some fairly humbling experiences.

When designing military megagames I suspect that we would benefit from some of the following: 

Logistics 

Despite being central to conflict we largely ignore logistics. We occasionally pay it lip service but it’s an afterthought rather than being central to core mechanics. Capability, whether it is giant robots or phalanx blocks, is where we love to put our focus.  

I’ve recently been playing “Race to the Rhine”, a co-op board game based on the 1944 Allied drive on Germany. There are a couple of capability pieces representing top level formations but the bulk of the game involves moving and expending 3 different types of shared commodities, you win by having them in the right place at the right time.  

I’d love to see logistics play a more central part of our games or as a parallel organization that sits alongside the commanders of military capability. Not only would it be a better simulation but it would increase the player interaction and tension dynamics between different groups within teams.

Fog of War 

Fog of war is perhaps the most important aspect to a military megagame. It’s central to the analytical debate. Too much information and you reduce the real decisions available to players dramatically. Reducing decisions invariably restricts player’s actions and their ability to interact with their environment. Fog of war turns a maths puzzle into an immersive experience.  

Designers can go further and restrict information to select groups of players within a team so that any information has to pass through multiple layers of interpretation before it’s analyzed by decision makers.  

Fog of war can also be captured through unclear or misleading set up and control feedback information. Lack of transparency on particular combat rules and capabilities can be good tools to use. The impact of these factors can be compounded with evolving changes in the nature of the game.  

Conflicted chains of command 

History shows us that there was often very bitter tension between various military command structures within an organization. For example, looking at MacArthur in the Pacific the war is very much a conflict of his personality and ego rather than how to defeat the Japanese. Within megagames we don’t often capture this particularly well; we are good at directly oppositional politics but we tend to be weaker in the grey zone.  

I’d love to see logistics play a more central part of our games

Dealing with these tensions and opposing factions was often central to the experience in conflict as they are in our day jobs except that the tension is magnified because of the stakes involved. This experience can be further compounded with games that have coalition conflicts. I wonder if in order to make better games we need to start thinking of most commands as coalitions of interests? 

Certainly some organizations were relatively harmonious but this appears to be the exception rather than the rule and as conflicts drag on enmity between elements and individuals can take on damaging characteristics. We sometimes capture this but often just as a shallow briefing rather than part of the mechanics. 

I’d say that we need to look to hidden role games for inspiration. Whilst at their core hidden role games are often very two dimensional they do show us, albeit crudely, the dynamic that we ought to be looking to; one of tense relationships and confusing team objectives. This means adding some mechanics or depth to briefings but as something like “Den of Wolves” shows us it is very rewarding to players and designers alike. I am not advocating “traitor” mechanics but rather more nuanced and novel ways to approach inter team pressure; perhaps limited resource information within teams.  

Domestic Political pressure 

No war is fought in a political vacuum, at every stage there is pressure from domestic political factors and groups to achieve a certain goal or to prove a point. Certainly megagames are an ideal tool to model this and some of the best games marry political concerns with military issues. Megagames are so good at capturing this pressure that it’s sometimes hard not to be critical of other games and their sterile environments.  

This does mean creating a parallel political game and adds another random dimension that could potentially take your game spinning off into the void. However, with good planning and some control leadership this risk element can be stabilized and is well worth the investment and risk. 

With this approach the political game ought to have a marked impact on the military game and if you can have it work both ways it’s even more fun. The military team will invariably attempt to achieve the logical military objective, only to find that they are now out of place to achieve a goal that can be at odds with the situation on the ground. The pressures on the military team to meet political objectives with military tools can be deeply entertaining and immersive. 

warplane.jpg

Evolving experiences 

The military experience is one that evolves. In the book “The Forever War” a soldier fights space battles across huge stretches of time and thus each military contact fundamentally differs from the prior combat experience. Written by a former junior officer who served in Vietnam it directly reflects his experiences of each stage of that evolving conflict with different weapons, hierarchies and political objectives. Megagame games need to capture the evolution of warfare as societies shift around experience. 

It can be hard to capture evolving experiences in a single day. Is it really possible to shift players around in positions and change the rules over the course of the day without creating delays and confusion? Or do you simply override the delays, force a decision and add to the confusion and imperfect decision making? As for delays I’d say that simplifying mechanics and stealing mechanics from popular Legacy board game genres may provide the answer.  

As a community I feel that we have hardly touched upon this particular issue. We are so busy trying to make relatively complex games hold together that this ideal seems like a dream rather than a must have. Yet I’d argue that creating an evolving experience has the potential to be very immersive, tense and will absolutely drive debate and deeper decision making processes within teams.  

It can be hard to capture evolving experiences in a single day

Time pressures 

Time pressure is another element that the community has largely yet to explore. Our games with their fixed times and set agendas restrict our ability to create environments in which decisions are pressurized.  

Part of the problem is that time in conflict changes. Large parts of war can be quiet and then interspersed with moments of intense pressure. For command staffs this pressure can be a little more even as once operations unfold they can be powerless to intervene or just run the risk of spending too much time playing with a very long screw driver. 

I’ve no great suggestions on how to solve this equation. I’ve toyed about with variable turn lengths with resolution incentives and political and military game elements on different time structures. However, I suspect that I don’t quite have the courage to implement something quite so radical for fear of failure. 

Steady Status condition 

We often use the illusion of movement as a game play mechanic wrapped up as a meaningful decision making process. I’d question whether moving large numbers of tokens a number of centimeters from one place to another on a series of interconnected pieces of paper is actually a game. The ultimate test of this is WW1 games. Clearly command staffs spent a great deal of time doing “stuff” that wasn’t tracking formations current location on a map.  

I’d argue that we often confuse moving things with game play. I’d encourage game designers to ask themselves whether their game is interesting if no military force moves. What decisions do players have to make when there is a steady state condition and nothing changes? This involves creating mechanics or a design that allows real decision making or meaningful engagement throughout the course of the day. 

I don’t know the answer to this but I suspect we need to look harder at all the elements I’ve listed to date and draw those out as the gameplay during a steady status condition. This also means that whatever happens to your command in a game that you have plenty to consider regardless of whether you are assigned to a quiet part of the war or the most hectic.

In summary 

I firmly believe that if board gamers can take a relatively sedate topic such as 19th century industrialization or power grid development and make them interesting then we need to think very hard about how we have taken very exciting military themes and often made them so un-engaging. Even if you remain highly skeptical of a military historical game I think one could argue that many of the issues raised here can apply equally to a game about Orange county housewives as much as they can do the 1809 campaign in Austria. 

I suspect it’s going to take someone with a different theme or mechanical interest to inadvertently show us the way. The good news is that as the change will be incremental everyone can play a starring role in that evolution. I look forward to being subjected by all your weird, wonderful and occasionally disastrous ideas.


Ben has told us what he thinks about simulating military efforts in megagames, but what do YOU think? Head on over to the Megagame Assembly Facebook group now to let us know!

Many thanks to Ben for writing this blog post. If you would like to write on any aspect of megagaming for the Megagame Assembly, drop us a line — we’d love to hear from you!

Chris Brown