Who hasn’t asked themselves this or been a part of a “what if” conversation in their lifetime. Speculation is as much a part of human nature as disappointment, grief, and happiness. Speculation is at the root of faith after all. Throughout human history we have had faith in a great many things like leeching for curing illness, a pantheon of gods to explain the cosmos, and even our own lucky charms that seem to increase the likelihood of positive outcomes. We speculate because understanding alternate paths in history or in our lives is both cathartic and typically fun.
In the realm of history, speculation drove some of histories great rivalries. Consider Patton’s assertion that if resources had not been diverted to Montgomery’s Operation Market Garden he could have used them to drive into Germany and end the war sooner. I think this hypothesis is debatable. After all, without Market Garden could we be sure that Germany would capitulate under the same circumstances? Without Market Garden would resources tied up in Belgium and the Netherlands have been diverted? Would the supplies that Patton sought, namely fuel, have been sufficient to make the final stab into Germany and sustain it?
However, this is an excellent example of what I would deem hypothetical. I would characterize games such as The Next War by SPI, Brezhnev’s War by Compass Games, and the Next War series from GMT Games as examples of hypothetical consims. A game like Talon or Federation Commander while hypothetical are more science fiction than grounded in some sort of reality that makes them both plausible and calculable for their intended outcome. After all, AT&T speculated we would still be using pay phones to make video calls in their 1994 ad campaign while only 14 years later finding a working pay phone would be difficult!
Without further background, here’s what I believe constitutes a great hypothetical consim.
5 – A plausible topic
The card game Smash Up imagines pirates vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Unicorns vs. the cast of Big Bang Theory. That is all well and good, but it’s not plausible. Fun as that may be, we’re looking at the realm of near future, far future, or historical plausibility. Third World War games, like Third World War from GDW approach their topic matter with historical sensitivity. At the time, this would have been near-future rather than historical as we see it from 2017, but the objectives, OOB, tactical doctrine allowed by the rules, and the weapon systems modeled show respect for the plausible conflict. The combatants are not half-baked parodies of themselves and the situation isn’t shoehorned to tell the story of the game.
4 – Combatant Forces Modeled Intentionally
This can be an easy place for designers to quickly get it wrong. Hypothetical is always tricky. We learned a lot about Russian’s armament capability that we didn’t know during their invasion of Ukraine and subsequent involvement in the fight against ISIS in Syria. They were well ahead of projections and, as such, this is a bit of a tricky road to walk for designers. How much do you “fudge” the stats in the name of simply not knowing the specific capabilities and how much do you simply rely upon the known and published intel? Furthermore, getting the OOB correct can be tricky. After all, during the last Russian military exercises in Eastern Europe there were outlandish reports circulating that they had 100,000 troops from Belarus northward! The actual number, following the conclusion of the exercises was closer to 45,000. Depending on your scale, how detailed does you knowledge need to be? Tying it in with number five, is the game trying to tell a story about a hypothetical conflict simulation and the OOB is material but only insofar as it furthers that narrative?
3 – Political Awareness
The game needs to have some kind of political awareness. Whether it’s baked right into the rules (stacking, multi-national coordination, limits of advance or AOs) the game needs to model something to do with the political environment that created the conflict. After all, the political context is what typically drives a solid hypothetical consim. In the case of the Next War series from Mitchell Land, we get treated to a political matrix that helps outline the who and when of intervention. In the case of South China Sea from John Gorkowski we are treated to a card-driven political game that precedes armed conflict and sometimes avoids it all together.
2 – An Opinion
The game needs a story to tell. Persian Incursion from Clash of Arms games is a good example of a game with a message around the plausibility of an Israeli first-strike against a nuclear Iran. Players read briefings, review maps, their order of battle, speculated orders of battle for the aggravating nations, and must put together force packages capable of executing a first strike. For a commercial wargame, this one got quite a bit of media attention and ultimately the story it tells is one of the fragility of relationships in the Middle East. Does Israel gain what they think they’ll gain from such a strike? That core question at the heart of What-If scenarios is key to their success. Looking outside of the modern world and going back to Gettysburg, we get a hypothetical scenario from Dean Essig in Last Chance for Victory where we can explore whether or not Longstreet’s plan would have actually worked. These hotly debated historical what-ifs provide a solid grounding in opinion and narrative that will drive a great hypothetical consim.
1 – Fun
This goes without saying, but I’ll include it here because the lure of “chroming up” a hypothetical consim is attractive! Again, I’ll refer to Clash of Arms’ Persian Incursion. It is on my shelf and I’ve read through it, but I am not sure I’d want to play it. The game just doesn’t sound fun. It sounds like work. On the other hand, Essig’s Gettysburg What-If is a fun one because it’s an accessible What-If in American Civil War lore. The underlying game system was created to model grand tactical combat in that conflict and layering this well researched scenario on top of it is a treat. The Third World War series has sustained its value and longevity by being approachable, plausible, and fun.
It’s entirely possible a game might slip outside these criteria, but the barrier for enjoyment goes up as a result. In the case of Compass Games’ Brezhnev’s War, we see a game that has significant research flaws with regard to the OOB failing on point number 4 made above. The game, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily attempting to be historically accurate. Instead, it’s trying to present a story about the challenges NATO would have had stopping an all out dash for the industrial Ruhr by a motivated Soviet Union aggressor. The game could still be fun and I bought it knowing the faults of the OOB because it just looks like simplistic fun. As a hypothetical consim though, it fails to live up to the promise of a better researched game.
What are some of your favorite hypothetical consims and do they meet these criteria?