The paradox of wargame design

An outline of the inherent difficulties of designing wargames for recreational purposes

Professional wargaming, or “wargaming proper”, emerged in the late 18th century as an educational tool for military officers. Analog games of this type are still played by modern officers, but they are games only in the sense that they replace real warfare. An officer, playing a wargame on a printed map, can act in much the same way as they would at war.

Recreational wargaming is fundamentally different from professional wargaming. A recreational wargame is a game in a different sense: It’s intended to amuse, not to teach. Importantly, the theme of a recreational wargame is war, and people play it because it is about war.

The two types of wargames have influenced one another’s development, but remain distinguishable from one another and from other games. Chess, for example, is a game and has a martial theme, but is not a wargame. It’s possible that people played historical forms of chess either to learn about real warfare or because the game was about war, but nobody plays the modern form of chess for either of those two reasons.

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Why we play anything

The real reasons why people play chess may include, but are not limited to:

The last three bullet points combine into one higher-order motivation that board gamers often report: Problem-solving in an artificially limited space provides a pleasing sense of order and neatness. This resembles the satisfying feeling of working on a jigsaw puzzle, and the feeling of accomplishment you get from a good workout. The underlying reasons here are possibly evolutionary.

A complete list of realistic reasons why you might play chess is much longer. It includes reasons that have even less to do with the properties of the specific game. For example:

Game design is about giving players reasons to like your game. This is just as true in wargaming as in other genres. Apparently peripheral reasons cannot be ignored, and that is especially true in wargaming. Just like the players of a digital wargame in the documentary Man at War (2012), people play analog wargames for an unusually wide variety of reasons. Those reasons are not harmonious.

Diverging motivations: Wars vs. games

Real wars have rules, of a sort. For example, perfidy is a common war crime. However, the laws of war make a terrible rule set for wargames, and not just because people break them. Wars are interesting partly because their problem spaces are extremely open: So open that you can even break the rules.

A lot of wargamers think of war in terms of economic optimization problems that are unrelated to the laws of war: Technological development, production, recruitment, training, intelligence, logistics, and so on. Those problems should all map quite well into a recreational game, and solving them will usually determine the outcome of a war, but wargames are rarely about them. Wargames are mainly about battles, for various reasons. Some players naïvely think that individual battles are more important than economic factors, but more commonly, players think of battles as exciting because of all the action.

Battles, like economics, can be regulated, and this can be done in various ways. In the 1970s, some of the most popular recreational wargames were made by Avalon Hill and Simulations Publications Incorporated (SPI). Avalon Hill was known to design for a balanced competitive gameplay, which is what you have in chess. SPI leaned into what board-game designers call theme, bringing history to life through simulation and narrative. Those specializations make sense, because there is a clear tension between game balance, simulation, and narrative.

You see this tension in the medium every time a player builds a new piece of terrain for a miniature wargame. Nobody has ever found a satisfying way to regulate the shape of terrain pieces. That’s great for creative and narrative purposes, but it’s a constant source of edge cases in determining who has line of sight, who is in cover, and whether the battlefield is actually fair. War implies the freedom to make any irregular ruin, and to play it for advantage. That same freedom is bad for gaming.

The easy way to achieve balance in a game is with technical symmetry in a rigid system. This is again like chess, where identical armies face off on a small grid, but it is also why chess can’t simulate war. Exciting narratives about real war commonly involve a well-characterized underdog like Hannibal moving freely in a position of ambiguous disadvantage, not with identical armies and not on a grid. You can certainly say that Hannibal solved a series of optimization problems, but he also violated his opponents’ model of the possibilities of war, the metaphorical “rule set” of his time. At a very basic level, it is a paradox to combine balance with freedom. Players want both, but war doesn’t have both.

Miserable imbalance is the aim of war, even if you ignore all civilian suffering and all the ignoble ambitions that lead to aggression. You start an open war, or an offensive, when it looks as if you are stronger than your opponent. Expectations may be incorrect, and there is drama in their resolution, but whichever party gets the upper hand typically snowballs to an even greater advantage. That escalation of an already existing advantage isn’t dramatic. It is boring, especially in a game. The alternative outcome, a stalemate, is also boring.

Risk (1957) is arguably the most popular wargame of all time. Its designer, Albert Lamorisse, made the decision to start the game from a position of balance, but to allow imbalance to get out of hand without ending the game. Risk is notoriously boring once you’re at a decisive disadvantage. It’s even more boring once you’re knocked out altogether, even though armed forces in real wars do get knocked out. A game of Risk can drag on for “1–8 hours”2. That’s a realistic range at scale, perhaps representing 1–8 years in simulated time, but it is not practical. Fun games tend to have a predictable duration, but real wars don’t have that feature either.

If you’re designing a board game from scratch, you can pick a theme that doesn’t bind you to realism, but the theme of war in Risk does require a certain amount of resemblance to war. Some players argue that the socially impractical features of Risk are good features because they add that realism. I would rather say the game’s design is flawed, but the point I’m trying to make is that any other compromise between practicality and realism would also have been flawed, at least to some extent.

The paradox of wargame design is that players want to play these games for reasons that are hard to combine with good game design.

Luckily, this is only a paradox, not a contradiction. You can have balance, verisimilitude and drama, all at the same time, but that is exactly what’s hard. It’s so hard that Risk, a mediocre game, is the closest thing the genre has to a classic. Nothing else is still widely played decades after launch. Avalon Hill and SPI no longer exist in recognizable forms. They failed as companies, partly because they couldn’t please even as large a market as Risk.

Vulgar solutions: The example of Games Workshop

Nowadays, the best-selling recreational wargames are made by Games Workshop (GW). GW’s corporate mission is to “make the best fantasy miniatures in the world, to engage and inspire our customers, and to sell our products globally at a profit”. Tellingly, neither games nor wargames are mentioned in that mission. Their absence is a symptom of the diverging player motivations that go into wargames. They’ve diverged so far that playing games is now just one aspect of recreational wargaming as a hobby, and not the most important aspect.

You might buy a GW product, such as a set of figures for Warhammer 40,000 (40K), for any of the reasons that you might buy a chess set, including those I listed above. However, the aesthetics have taken the upper hand over all other sources of pleasure. GW’s miniatures are sold unassembled and unpainted. Finishing them is literally a hobby in itself. The majority of customers stop there, without playing the game. Others are mainly interested in the fictional backdrop of the game, which includes more than a hundred published novels.

Accordingly, the game Warhammer 40,000 is designed to cater to a diverse set of interests. It can be played as a simulation on the fictional backdrop, in the same way that SPI games could be viewed as simulating history. Because the fictional backdrop is a colourful science fantasy, it functions as a supernormal stimulus for narrative games, which can resemble role-playing games. The game can also be played as an excuse to “use” the miniatures for something; a hands-on exhibition of art.

40K can even be played competitively. However, the wargame is so overgrown with design criteria that competitive play is marginal. Rules for the game are orders of magnitude more complex than chess, including hundreds of unit types with unique rules. In the interest of fairness and simplicity, board setups at tournaments tend to look boring. There’s a new 40K game (“edition”) every two or three years, and between these, there is a continuous churn of other developments in the rules: New units and campaigns, quarterly balance adjustments, FAQs, etc. Keeping up, while also painting miniatures to a high standard, is a lifestyle if not a full-time job.

Replacing real, historical wars with science fantasy has not resolved the paradox of wargame design. Developments to 40K as a game do not pull the game in a consistent direction. There is no ideal for its evolution, because even competitive players want different things from it on a purely technical level: Different levels of asymmetry betwen its factions (should every faction be equally viable in every scenario?); different granularities of balance (should every unit type in a faction be viable in a tournament?); different compromises between complexity and elegance; different types and degrees of determinism and secrecy. These interests all compete with the interests of the non-competitive players, who typically prefer a more beginner-friendly game that mirrors the fictional background too well for balance. They also compete with concerns external to the game, such as GW’s plans to stop selling one model kit and get the players to buy another.

Changes to 40K are designed to produce a sense of novelty, to feed a news cycle, and above all, to move product. As of its tenth “edition”, 35 years into its development, 40K is more of a product release cycle than a playable game. Judged on the merits of its gameplay alone, it is flatly inferior to meaty board games like Cthulhu Wars or Gaia Project, because its goals and principles are strictly commercial. In a word, it is a vulgar design, created to skirt the paradox.

Conclusion

Recreational wargames are a backwater of game design. That is partly because the design goals for a perfect large-audience wargame are borderline contradictory. Players genuinely want features that are likely to be mutually exclusive. This is ultimately because wars and good games aren’t similar.

Even the greatest commercial successes of the genre, whether it’s Risk or 40K, have succeeded in spite of their rules. Those who enjoy them do so for other reasons, including a general interest in the theme of war, and in subjects other than war and games. Perhaps the commercialism and technical vulgarity of 40K are required to make a recreational wargame profitable in the long run, but I don’t think so.

If you are interested in war, you are better off reading about it, or going to re-enactments and such. You’ll probably have more fun than you will playing wargames. If you insist on playing wargames, go into it with low expectations, find a game that matches your interests in some detail, and find out whether the other players are there for overlapping reasons.


  1. See C. Thi Nguyen’s philosophy of games. 

  2. Wikipedia estimate