Originally posted on shenandoah-studio.com on May 16, 2011

Ever since Charles Roberts inaugurated the modern hobby of wargaming in the 1970s, one of the hallmarks of most game designs has been their emphasis on what I would call historical realism. Designers in days of yore famously spent days or weeks researching extensively detailed orders of battle and troop strengths, leading one gamer friend of mine to comment that for them altering the order of arrival for various regiments on the battlefield constituted a major change. Even today, many wargames with battle-specific scenarios have highly specific setup instructions, reinforcement schedules, and special rules designed to make sure events unfold just as they did in real life. Good examples of this are the Great Battles of the American Civil War series and GMT’s Barbarossa series. A classical wargame is a lot like a scientific experiment, with history as the control and everything the same except for the person in charge.

There’s nothing wrong with games like that- wargamers tend to be history buffs and one of the most fun things about the hobby is seeing if you can do better than the historical commanders did. As the old Avalon Hill slogan goes “Now, YOU are in command”, and in order for the test of your command abilities to be fair you must face the same challenges and circumstances that the real combatants did.

But.

The problem with this kind of game is that by sticking too closely to history, I think it loses something vital. War is an inherently chaotic situation, with few commanders ever having complete information on their enemy’s location, the forces at their disposal, and their intent. Before the modern age of solid-state electronics and GPS, it was common for generals not to know exactly where their own forces were located or when they might expect reinforcements. By sticking too exactly to what actually happened, a historical wargame has the potential to cheat players of all that. A Union player at Gettysburg knows that he doesn’t have to worry about J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry until the third day, while a Confederate player who does a bit of research can find out which parts of the Army of the Potomac arrived on the battlefield and when. A British player at Waterloo knows just how long he has to hold out until Blucher comes, and it’s hard to even make a good game of Chancellorsville without hamstringing the Union player- because you can bet he’s going to watch his flank a lot more carefully than Hooker did. Games that adhere too rigidly to history often become chess matches, with piece positions and possible moves carefully planned and executed using information that the player’s historical counterparts would never have had access to.

Okay, Dougherty. So what’s your solution? Throw the history books overboard and just slam roughly historical armies together to see what happens? Not at all. I’m not demanding that we ignore history. What I am saying is that a truly realistic wargame is one that strives first and foremost to put the player into the shoes of his historical counterpart. So change your orders of battle. Use dummy units and random reinforcement tables. Rather than having special rules that limit the player’s freedom of action, limit the information available and give the player freedom to do whatever he thinks will work. Force the player to confront some of the same choices and challenges that the real commanders did on the battlefield, because when you’ve done that I think you’ve accomplished something truly remarkable. You’ve created not just an enjoyable game, but a learning tool that fosters greater understanding of what really happened on some of the most pivotal days of history.

And for me? That’s what it’s really all about.