At some point during their climb up the career ladder, naval officers usually encounter wargames. An interactive way to learn from past battles and campaigns and predict how future ones might be fought, wargaming has long been studied, refined, and taught at the U.S. Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island. In 1960, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz famously told a class at the school that nothing that happened in the Pacific during World War II was a surprise-except the kamikazes-because it all had been gamed at Newport before the conflict.1
The real surprise may be that wargaming reaches far beyond service schools-that it is the focus of a strong hobby that offers a broad range of military games to the general public. In this tabletop universe, players experiment with and learn about forces, capabilities, and battles past, present, and future. For example, they can figuratively put themselves in the shoes of Admirals Frank Jack Fletcher and Raymond Spruance or those of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo at the Battle of Midway. How could Nagumo have better used his numerical carrier-plane advantage? What if Spruance had delayed launching the fateful U.S. air strike on the morning of 4 June 1942? Those are the kinds of questions that compel wargamers to refight battles.
Early Gaming with "Miniatures"
Popular wargaming really started with novelist and historian H. G. Wells. Just before the outbreak of World War I, his book Little Wars was published. The work, in which Wells advocated playing games instead of fighting wars, featured simple rules for a game using miniature lead figures.2Little Wars sparked interest among the public, members of which formed a cadre of gamers that remains strong. Pride of place among the gaming community therefore belongs to the "miniatures" players.
With the 1940 publication of Fletcher Pratt's Naval War Game conflict at sea joined land battle as a subject for miniatures gaming.3 A well-known science-fiction writer and historian in the mid-20th century, Pratt readily conceded-as good game designers always will-that his formulas to calculate damage and derive outcomes of battle were arbitrary. But his game impressed many when it replicated with remarkable precision the course of the 1939 Battle of the River Plate.
Miniatures games, then and now, use sets of figurines (men, ships, planes, vehicles, guns, etc.) representing actual forces maneuvering across a land, sea, or air space. Rules are designed to control the behavior of the forces in realistic ways. The "game" in miniatures commonly refers to the set of rules controlling play. Detailed terrain and figurines can be used in many different games or limited to depicting some specific historic situation. For example, recent gaming conventions have featured highly specific terrain sets crafted for such situations as Omaha Beach on D-Day, the storming of the Tuileries Palace during the French Revolution, and the Battle of the Alamo in the Texas Revolution.
Birth of Board Wargames
As the Korean War ended, popular wargaming underwent a revolution-the emergence of board wargames, in which small cardboard playing pieces, or counters, representing military units, vehicles, or ships are moved across a cardboard-mounted map. The first such game was titled, simply, Tactics and designed by Charles S. Roberts in his Catonsville, Maryland, apartment. Roberts formed the Avalon Game Company (later changed to the Avalon Hill Game Company), and began selling copies of the game in 1954. It was revised as Tactics II in 1958 and supplemented by other games-including Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Civil War, Blitzkrieg, and D-Day-at a rate of one or two titles a year.
Among the public, these games were novel because they were based on military principles, including the notions that all forces maneuver every turn, terrain affects movement, forces can have special capabilities, and a variety of factors-including strength, terrain, and luck-determine combat outcomes. I can personally attest to the novelty. I acquired Tactics II in about 1960 while visiting the captured U-boat U-505 at Chicago"s Museum of Science and Industry. An avid player of many games, I had never seen anything like it. Others felt the same, and before long board wargames acquired a following. Unlike miniatures, the games were highly portable and did not require much room or time to set up and play.
In the late 1960s, Avalon Hill brought in a freelance designer, James F. Dunnigan, to develop general-interest games but then to create several wargames. Dunnigan, who sparked an advance in the genre by closely tailoring his simulation models to the situations they represented, then formed his own company, Simulations Publications Inc., which in the 1970s became Avalon Hill's main competitor. Meanwhile, Game Designers' Workshop, the brainchild of Frank Chadwick and Mark Miller, carried the push toward more realistic simulation even further.
The trend toward realism can be seen in Avalon Hill's early naval titles. The company's 1964 game Midway featured limited intelligence (dual boards for each player to search for the other's forces), but its treatment of operational aspects was crude. A few years later Jutland, a Dunnigan design, retained the search mechanism (using plotting pads rather than boards) but presented combat mechanics very much akin to those in naval miniatures. Warships could distribute fire, shots were apportioned to specific armament or other vessel attributes, and critical hits were possible.
Jutland coincided with a ramp-up in the ranks of gamers. Many entered with trepidation but were pleasantly surprised. Edward Wimble, who became a noted designer, remembers eyeing Jutland in a store for weeks before finally taking his paper-route money to buy it. He's been hooked on simulations ever since.
Just as the board wargame community was attaining unprecedented size in the early 1980s, however, two developments indelibly changed it: the advent of computer simulations and the emergence of role-playing games. And then in the 1990s collectible card games became popular. The trends proved centrifugal forces, drawing fans away from both miniatures and board gaming. An industry shakeup was another such force. A role-playing company took over Simulations Publications in 1982 and then sold it off in pieces. In 1996, Game Designers' Workshop folded. Avalon Hill persisted through most of the 1990s but at the end of the decade was bought out by the Hasbro Corporation, which continues AH as the trademark for their line of military board games.
The 21st-century gaming universe features some new companies, as well a few old. Multiman Publishing, a project of Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, is a significant force, having acquired rights to Schilling's favorite Avalon Hill games-the Advanced Squad Leader series and Joe Balkoski's Civil War battle series-plus the lines of some noteworthy expired publishers. Also powerful is Avalanche Press. Columbia Games holds the title of longest-surviving company, dating from 1972, and Clash of Arms Games is among the oldest. The field of larger companies includes Decision Games and GMT Games, while there are also a host of up-and-comers.
The basic elements of a wargame are generally the same, regardless of the publisher. When you open the box of a typical game you'll find one or more booklets that present rules, game scenarios (battles), and commentary; a set of charts and tables that regulate various game functions; printed and die-cut cardboard counters (sometimes these are plastic) for use on the map board; the board itself; and dice of various kinds to generate random numbers used with the charts. Whereas in the 1960s map boards were usually just that, in more recent years the use of map sheets has become prevalent. The simulation systems in the games range from the simple to the very complex, and a rating to show the degree of complexity is often included on game boxes. In general, we're not talking about Monopoly here-all of these types of games are more complicated than the usual parlor fare.
Refighting the Pacific War
Tom Dalgliesh, a wargame designer and former Royal Navy officer, considers himself predisposed to the sea. "It's a good subject for games," he said, "especially where you can put names on ships." Dalgliesh pioneered a board game format using small wooden blocks instead of cardboard counters. The blocks are ideal for both limited intelligence rules and tracking casualties or damage to units. While most of his Columbia Games designs deal solely with land actions, his classic Quebec 1759 or exciting Rommel in the Desert are critically dependent on background naval actions. His naval opus, however, is a grand strategic game of the Allied-Japanese war called Pacific Victory that includes carriers, battleships, cruisers, and submarines. Designers cannot resist some subjects. It's as if they feel compelled to make a statement on them. Such was the case with Tom and the World War II Pacific. The theater just contains so much military variety.
Other leading designers similarly felt obliged to make their Pacific war declarations. Mark Herman's Empire of the Sun, a simulation published by GMT Games, is exciting gamers right now. Its "card-driven" system forces players to trade off among desired actions. Brian Knipple of Avalanche Press has The Great Pacific War, which uses the mechanics of one of my own game designs, Third Reich. Jim Dunnigan's old game USN has been reworked by Decision Games. This summer the company expects to release the truly massive (seven 22-by-33-inch strategic maps and close to 9,000 counters) game War in the Pacific, and it has two more Pacific strategic games in early development. "It looks like we have an emphasis on the Pacific right now," said Decision's president, Christopher Cummins. Going in the opposite direction, Multiman has the highly aggregated (210 counters, one map) Fire in the Sky, by Tetsuya Nakamura. Hasbro has its own entry, Axis & Allies: Pacific, by Larry Harris.
One of the attractions of the Pacific war is its smorgasbord of aerial, naval, and ground action; the players get to do everything. Many other campaigns feature similar variety. Against the Odds magazine, which includes a game in each issue, has featured Perry Moore's simulation of the 1943 Aegean campaign in the Dodecanese and is developing a game on Gallipoli. Observed publisher Stephen Rawling, "Our games examine the economic, political, religious, and social aspects of naval warfare in concert with actual battles at sea." The magazine format, in which Rawling can complement a game with detailed treatises on the simulation's subject, aids in that endeavor.
A classic naval wargame subject for obvious reasons is the Battle of Midway. Many strategic games have Midway scenarios, but there are also specific games on the battle. Avalanche Press offers Midway (210 ship counters, 280 aircraft and other counters). A different take-one of the fast-play, all-card designs Decision Games calls "Lightning Games"-is Dan Verssen's Lightning: Midway. Meanwhile, Leyte Gulf, a long-ignored naval subject-perhaps because of the huge array of forces involved-is suddenly in favor. Against the Odds' upcoming Christmas issue will include Imperial Sunset, a version of the great battle. Avalanche recently released what it terms "the biggest game we've ever produced," Leyte Gulf, which at 560 ship counters and 1,610 other pieces lives up to that billing.
Many Battles, One Set of Rules
Series games, in which the same core rules are used for numerous games, have become a popular facet of naval simulations, as well as board wargaming in general. Clash of Arms may have been first on this bandwagon with Larry Bond, a game designer before he became a novelist. Bond and the company teamed for a set of naval games that spans the 20th century and includes Dawn of the Rising Sun (Russo-Japanese War), Fear God and Dread Nought (World War I), and Command at Sea (seven World War II games). Harpoon is their modern naval combat entry, later supplemented by High Tide covering the 1980s, with a foreword by former Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman. The games, each of which includes about 20 to 50 scenarios, rival Jane's Fighting Ships as data sources. Ed Wimble, one of the company's principals, said of their modern-themed simulations, "Our stuff is so good it ought to be classified!"
Clash of Arms' naval series have serious competition from Avalanche Press. According to Avalanche President Michael Benninghof, "Naval history is uniquely suited to board games; the pieces spread on the playing surface allow players to instantly imagine ships on the water." The company publishes two major naval game lines: the Great War at Sea, and the Second World War at Sea. The former includes simulations dealing with the conflict's Mediterranean theater, the worldwide cruiser-raider campaign, and the Battle of Jutland as well as the Spanish-American and the Russo-Japanese wars. Moreover, in a remarkable lionization of U.S. naval planners in the interwar era, gamers can actually play out the U.S. schemes for war against Japan, Great Britain, and Germany with U.S. Navy Plan Orange, U.S. Navy Plan Red, and U.S. Navy Plan Black. Avalanche's World War II series is equally rich. In addition to Midway and Leyte Gulf, the line includes simulations covering action in the Indian Ocean (Eastern Fleet), Mediterranean (Bomb Alley) and Southeast Asia (Strike South). The key differences between Avalanche and Clash of Arms naval sets lies in the fact that the former are avowedly board games. The Clash series can be played on map boards but are best played using miniatures.
Gaming the Age of Sail
While games based on 20th-century wars predominate the naval simulations hobby, the age of sail has not been ignored. Early sailing-ship games (notably Avalon Hill's Wooden Ships & Iron Men), however, have fallen out of print. Tom Dalgliesh whimsically reminiscenced that he always wanted to play Trafalgar but could never do it on a board. That problem is now solved, courtesy of GMT Games, publisher of Mike Nagel's Flying Colors. A tactical game whose scenarios range from the Seven Years' War to the Napoleonic era, Flying Colors does not require written plotting nor much record-keeping.
Clash of Arms, meanwhile, has Mark Campbell's tactical game, Close Action. As with Clash of Arms versus Avalanche in the age of steam, Close Action has the more detailed game system, while GMT's Flying Colors is simplified to accommodate larger fleet actions. For Napoleonic strategic naval campaigns, GMT has the perfect companion in development: Phillip Frye's 1805. The company's Anthony Curtis promised more: "We've got a commitment toward conflict simulation that spans the gamut and includes naval games like all others."
That's good news because naval games comprise only one small corner of the board wargame hobby. All of the companies mentioned as well as many others offer a wide variety of land- or air-warfare games, ranging from the tactical to the strategic and from simple card play to complex simulation. In short, a tabletop universe is out there that has something for anyone who wants to experiment with military history.
Board vs. Computer Games
By John Prados
Board games and miniatures are not the only formats in which to play at war. Computer games offer an alternative. These can be divided into two groups: arcade games and broader-scale simulations that are comparable to board games.
Most readers probably have heard of Grand Theft Auto, the current craze among arcade games, but this genre also includes flight-simulator-style designs and a variety of wargames in which the player assumes the role of a pilot, tank commander, warship captain, or special-forces soldier. Such games as Atari/Microprose's Battleship: Surface Thunder and Pearl Harbor: Defend the Fleet; Ubisoft's Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon; and Electronic Arts' Medal of Honor: Allied Assault are characteristic of the genre.
Larger-scale tactical, operational, and strategic games comprise the other type and can be described as board games in a machine. Here the computer screen displays the map board. Side panels display unit strengths, properties, and other characteristics. The player gives orders by designating particular units and indicating their goals or functions. After units are moved or other actions taken, the software generates results and displays the new situation. Playing a solitaire version of a board game is often difficult; computer gamers, however, can play against the software's artificial intelligence (AI) automaton program, as well as against a human opponent.
As with board games, an enormous variety of computer wargames are available, and the series phenomenon applies here as well. Examples include American Conquest: Divided Nation (CDV Software), Campaigns on the Danube (Matrix Games), and Battles in Italy (also Matrix Games). On the naval side are War Plan Orange (Matrix Games) and Jutland, Tsushima, and Guadalcanal (all part of the Naval Campaigns series from HPS Simulations).
As a player and designer, however, I confess I continue to prefer the board to the computer. For one thing, I was never much interested in arcade games. While I grant the broader-themed games' advantages in terms of rapid combat resolution and reduced bookkeeping, they have some drawbacks. First, in terms of display, these games usually require scrolling and pinpointing to show detail at a scale enabling the player to appreciate the real battle situation. Second, machine-automaton problems in computer games are endemic, and examples are legion of designs hampered by their AI systems producing unrealistic or unsatisfactory play.
Most important, any game—board games included—nearly always has some feature or features with which the player disagrees, such as mistakes in the design or errors in data. With a computer game the faults are invisible and making corrections is almost impossible, but adopting a house rule for a board game is easy. Players occasionally ridicule the rules presentation in board games, but the other side of that coin continues to be that game-system or data errors are easily accommodated. Board games also have a certain tactile quality that is lost on the computer. I suppose it's those things that make me a board-gamer.
Where to Buy Wargames
Board wargames are sold in some game and hobby stores, but the best place to buy them is probably directly from the manufacturers. Most of the companies mentioned in this article have Web sites that are easily found on the Internet and through which games may be purchased.
1. For gaming at the Naval War College see Michael Vlahos, The Blue Sword: The Naval War College and the American Mission, 1919-1941 (Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1980). On more general wargaming see John Prados, Pentagon Games: Wargames and the American Military (New York: Harper & Row, 1987); Thomas B. Allen, War Games: The Secret World of the Creators, Players, and Policy Makers Rehearsing World War III Today, (New York: McGraw Hill, 1987); Andrew Wilson, The Bomb and the Computer: Wargaming from Ancient Chinese Mapboard to Atomic Computer (New York: Delacorte Press, 1968); and Peter P. Perla, The Art of Wargaming: A Guide for Professionals and Hobbyists (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990). Sadly, as far as I am aware, all of these books are out of print.
2. H. G. Wells, Little Wars: A Game for Boys from Twelve Years to One Hundred and Fifty and for that More Intelligent Sort of Girl Who Likes Boys' Games and Books (reprinted New York: Macmillan, 1970).
3. Fletcher Pratt, Fletcher Pratt"s Naval War Game (New York: Harrison-Hilton Books, 1940).