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  • Keith

Where Are The Umpired Conflict Sims?

It’s old hat now that Dungeons & Dragons, published by Wizards of the Coast, has seen a massive resurgence in popularity. Combat, is facilitated as essentially an umpired conflict sim. It goes beyond that, of course, but roleplaying games, writ large, are seeing a renaissance on the coattails of the popular 2014 re-release of “the world’s most popular roleplaying game.” You may be asking, “What does this have to do with wargaming dude?”

Back at the start…

To answer that question, it’s important to go back to the start. More specifically, to look at the early applications of miniature wargaming from which historical miniature wargaming grew. Classically, wargaming was led by an “umpire” who adjudicated the rules, made rulings on results, and secretly knew the engine behind the games.

This freed the players to concentrate on their leadership actions. In short, it put an emphasis on strategy, tactics, and the coordination necessary to lead a team rather than requiring all participants to actively manage the rules overhead AND those components of leadership. This paradigm remains in place today in professional wargaming because it’s an effective management strategy. This is especially true if the participants, researchers, or corporation are testing their preparedness for a crisis or attempting to refine a new doctrine/strategy. The purity of the exercise remains in tact when a neutral party adjudicates.

As commercial miniature wargames grew in popularity, it was important that all players knew the rules ahead of time. That worked well to facilitate a common set of expectations and to increase the competitive toolkit available to each player. Knowledge of the rules, and of the tactics became centrally important for success.

The Gygaxian Umpired Game

Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were both avid historical wargamers both through miniature wargaming and tabletop board game style wargames. Gygax had design credits on both types of games, so it was certainly no stretch to say that he was well aware of the power of an umpired game when we unveiled Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) as an extension to his Chainmail rules.

Though Gygax dropped the Umpire term in favor of Dungeon Master (DM), the role remained largely true to its professional wargaming counterpart. The importance of knowing the rules to any roleplaying game for players isn’t nearly as important as the DM knowing them. In fact, I played in more than my fair share of D&D games when I was a kid where I barely had any grasp on the rules. Instead, players get to focus on the actions of their player, the relationships between those players, and their communal relationship to the world created by the DM.

Early reviewers of the game were somewhat skeptical that an umpired game system would persevere. That’s where the real magic of D&D was built into the system. The DM was, for all intents and purposes, empowered to do whatever they pleased (and pleased them) in the umpire role. If a rule, die-roll, or game system needed to be modified in some way, the DM was empowered to do so. Consequently, the role of DM as an adversary of the players was entrenched in the early years of D&D. This was built upon by modules that exploited this tendency. It was only MUCH later (like the last 10 years) that the DM as a facilitator was widely accepted and expected.


After the success of D&D, and to some degree concurrent with it, was the evolution of wargames that would attempt to bring this umpire role to the commercial wargaming scene.

The first of these games, undoubtedly has to be Diplomacy which released in 1959. By far, the most common way to play the game is with a third-party referee who receives the orders and executes them, sending players back a fresh version of the map. The play-by-mail system for this game goes back to the 1960’s and persists online to the day. Though it was the first, it is clearly the longest sustained success of this type of conflict simulation. In fact, it may be the only one that has true longevity and active participation.

1964 saw the release of Midway from Avalon Hill. This was not adjudicated, but it was a double-blind game that essentially added some additional nuts and bolts to the classic game Battleship. A light and fun game, Midway set the bar for double-blind games to follow. In fact, double-blind has become the de facto solution to a lack of adjudicated wargames in the market whether through Columbia’s block game system which is oft-repeated or through planning on mini-maps or using concealment counters. Double-blind owes much of its heritage to Midway from Avalon Hill.

In 1980, SPI released NATO Division Commander which was the most ambitious attempt to create an umpired wargame. The game came with a map just for an umpire who could either have perfect information and control his forces against a single opponent, or he could accept orders from two players and use his map to track their movement only transferring units to the commonly viewed map when appropriate.

The game suffered from several problems including a lack of playtesting that affected the various doctrine that the umpire had to follow along with confusion about the various “modes” that the NATO player would need to employ. As a result, the game remains a popular grail game for collectors, it rarely (if ever) sees play.

So…What’s the Solution?

I think Clash of Arms may have come the closest to getting this right with their 2010 game Persian Incursion. The game provides players with detailed intelligence briefings, possible action outcomes, detailed planning maps, and guides for putting together strike packages to explore what a hypothetical preemptive Israeli strike against a nuclear Iran might look like.

The result is sort of a mess. The information overload for civilian players is a serious issue. That said, there was some talk at the time of the game’s designer perhaps breaking the law by releasing the game commercially because of the prescriptive way strikes are assembled.

Looking a little deeper, however, and the seeds for a robust umpired game exist. Persian Incursion provides playbook for what future attempts at ‘fun’ umpiring might look like.

My Recommendation

Start with the scenario briefing booklets. Each player receives an incomplete, and sufficiently biassed, view of their own forces, strategy, and key objectives. Players could secretly adjust elements of their preparation for the scenario using a small hand of cards that include deficits (negative points) and advantages (positive points).

Players would secretly add advantages and disadvantages to their factional posture and provide these as a bundle to the umpire for review. The difference between the players would be announced as the score offset. Essentially, a double-blind VP bid system that would result in one side needing to outperform the other based on the selected suite of advantages and deficits which affect the resolution of various elements of the game (supply, intelligence, force distribution, readiness, platform performance, etc.)

In the next phase, players would use a pad of planning maps to plot their actions for the upcoming turn. Each action would use time as the limited resource and readiness as the variable. Once completed, these would be submitted the umpire for review against the actual force postures for both sides. This would favor a strong intelligence “feeling out” period to begin each scenario using whatever platforms were appropriate for the era and scenario.

The umpire does all the “checks” behind the screen to verify the effectiveness of each of the plans and then a common information board is updated. This may result in maps being updated with unit dispositions or simply in the expenditure of resources and time. It may also be when combat is resolved according to the doctrine provided. A recon in force may engage an enemy unit whereas a purely scouting mission where the force remains undetected may have opted not to engage.

Players would be expected to accurately reduce their supply levels and an inter-turn procedure would occur wherein supply and logistics would occur naturally. The time for the scenario would tick down creating the urgency of time that could also be controlled by the umpire who may choose to extend the game based on the expenditure of lives, supply, deficits and advantages that may have an effect on the end-game timing.

So…what’s different here?

The umpire in this system has three elements that make it more enticing:

  1. Control

  2. Adjudication Responsibility

  3. Advisement

In short, many of the same pieces handed to DMs by D&D are given to the umpire in this system. They get to be all knowing. They get to actively participate in shaping the scenario and resolving the conflict. They are also advising players as an impartial third-party on rules and potential outcomes. In effect, they get to manage the game with perfect intelligence while the players get to experience their own side’s unique bias and how that gives them achievement or failure.

The deficit and advantage system provide players an opportunity to create some replay ability and uncertainty with each playthrough. The trick, just like with Dungeons & Dragons, is that the game requires a constant stream of scenarios to sustain interest. That’s where publishers would love this. Scenarios could be designed by the umpires with a scenario design kit that’s purchased and publishers could crank out scenario packs for different eras and types of conflict.

You could do a Persian Incursion style game or re-fight a civil war battle or even look at a hypothetical GIUK incursion by Warsaw Pact navies in 1972. The possibilities for products would be endless and it would empower players to share their creativity while showcasing teamwork, solid scenario design, and bring professional wargaming and commercial wargaming just that much closer together.

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