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  • Keith

What is a Wargame (to me)?

This is one of those annoying and hotly debated topics that has waxed and waned over the years across our hobby.  After all, definitions help bring order to chaos and make sense of expectations.  When I say that I’ve traveled a mile, in English units we understand that to be 5,280 feet.  There is is a philosophical tidiness to definitions.  After all, if we’re to enjoy these games together shouldn’t we understand where each other are coming from when we discuss wargames?

Here’s the rub though.  I don’t believe there is one definition of wargames.  In fact, I suspect that the greater scrutiny put to any individual person’s definition of wargame the more flexible it may become unless they’re inclined to entrench when faced with opposition.  So, as you read this article, understand that I both come in peace and that my definition isn’t meant to invalidate yours.  Further, and perhaps more importantly, I only intend for it to apply to my discussions so when you read my blog and see me refer to wargames you know what I’m thinking (regardless of how wrongheaded you may find it to be).

So, let’s put some additional caveats in place.  This blog, and therefore this definition, are intended solely to cover tabletop board wargaming.  Wargaming on different sides of the gaming world whether topically or geographically means different things.  To most outsiders, I suspect they immediately jump to Warhammer 40,000, Warmachine, or a historical miniatures ruleset.  In the truest sense, those are without question wargames.

Let’s put another caveat in place…I am referring solely to historical and hypothetical conflicts.  After all, War of the Rings is a wargame, but it falls outside of what I’ll be discussing.  The same is true of Jim Krohn’s excellent Talon and Space Empires 4x series from GMT Games.  Again though, these are speculative Science Fiction rather than hypothetical conflict.

Finally, one last important caveat, there are aspects of war so critical to understanding its conduct that I fully support the inclusion of games on these topics as wargames.  For example, Churchill is largely a game about a series of Conferences during which the national and strategic alliance strategy for the allies is set forth and executed in the most abstract terms militarily.  To me, this is a historical wargame.  The same would be true of a variety of other games like Quartermaster General, Supply Lines of the American Revolution, and yes even Twilight Struggle.  There, I’ve said it.

Our Three Rules

So, with our three rules in mind:

  1. Must be a tabletop board wargame

  2. Must be historical or hypothetical in topic

  3. May include topics considered crucial to the conduct of a war

What is a wargame?

Wargames are “conflict simulations,” but not all conflict simulations are wargames.  After all, I could have a game about competing railway barons who struggle for the territorial rights to build their rail empires.  While a conflict, this would not necessarily be a wargame.  If that’s the case, then we must examine what are eligible conflicts and what about those conflicts makes them materially different from our railway baron problem?

First, I would contend that the end goal must be for some sovereign, though typically national. entity to achieve a strategic goal.  The game itself can be a subset of any layer related to that problem.  In our railway baron problem, it is unlikely that two competing national or sovereign interests are engaged in conflict that largely benefits a baron of industry.

Second, I would suggest that a conflict that is covered by a wargame must include coverage of the use of arms at some level regardless of how abstract.  Arms may be a resource that is consumed as we see in an economic or logistical representation of conflict or it may be explicit as it is in hex & counter wargames.  Further, those arms may be something that’s a means to an end such as the Coup action in a game like Twilight Struggle.

Third, the conflict must have a measurable winner or loser, but not necessarily both.  For example, a winner may be determined but even at great cost.  In effect, the opportunity for Pyrrhic victories may be possible.  So, in our railway problem we see an economic victor and loser, but do we see a national winner or loser?  Is there a sense that the outcome of the economic struggle has affected a larger international or civil internal conflict?

These criteria and explanations may well be imperfect in your eyes.  I hope they challenge your assumption at least to a small degree, but if you find them lacking I hope they push you to consider what conflict is and its relationship with a wargame.  In the end, it is important to find those cellular levels of definition where we can agree or build agreement.

So, if we’ve solved the problem of conflict vs. wargame for my definition and we’ve narrowed our scope what other burdens must we undergo for the purposes of this definition?

In my opinion, none.  Components, size, complexity, scale, scope, and era are immaterial to the rest.  As I said, my definition is broad and is intentionally so because over the past 10 years or so I’ve begun to re-evaluate what it is that makes up a wargame and why I think it fits the definition I’ve built for myself.  In terms of this blog, and maybe even for your own thinking, my hope that this primer gives some clarity and sense to what I’ll be talking about.

As always, if you have other criteria or just completely disagree, please share below!

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