Enabling Lies Wargames Tell

Recent playtest of St. Léonard, Situation 1, "Not Such a Bad War After All."
Recent playtest of St. Léonard, Situation 1, “Not Such a Bad War After All.”

No notion takes flight without a leap of faith. Games are of necessity simplified ambitions of the designer. I think there’s a long literary explanation for this bearing on how one best spends one’s limited time on earth, but I’ll spare you further elaboration. After all a game can’t quite save your life but it can feel that way. And it certainly helps if the designer feels the threat or possibility that time might run out. To distract ourselves from this, to get any game started, we need enabling lies.

Hexes are a lie. CRTs are a lie. Until they are tested, probabilities themselves are a lie. But some lies are better than others. A designer’s job is to choose the most enabling ones. A developer’s job is to leverage those choices even further. You can’t have a game otherwise. Good lies suspend disbelief, enable appropriate paranoia, but also seem to rhyme with historical truths. Band of Brothers is a good game system. Do I move or do I fire? What if I am making a terrible mistake? Players end up torturing themselves with the same questions which bother tactical commanders.

Historical truths themselves have crossed the horizon of probability and become validated as facts. I don’t mean to be so obscure. In the broad context of From the Ground Up, it wasn’t at all certain that the entire Normandy invasion would not be thrown back into the sea, although it is difficult to imagine this would be the case now. It turns out the telling fact was the amount of shells that an ever-growing artillery park could deliver to enemy targets was the central fact of the campaign and, not incidentally, one of easier ones to calculate beforehand. More on such knowable unknowns and low-hanging fruit, later.

In designing historical games you have to come to some understanding of which factual results represent outliers to probability. To take up Normandy again, it wasn’t considered possible that simply offloading supplies to the beachheads without any port infrastructure could surpass the capacity of a port or artificial harbor, yet hindsight shows this was the case. This was not an outlier, but in the order of things, however unforeseen. The challenge to the designer is more pronounced when you climb down through the operational echelon to the tactical. Study of any given tactical battle often argues that it was yet another for-the-want-of-a-nail event.

Over the next few posts, I’m going to look at some of the enabling lies that I’ve had to tell to get the design of From the Ground Up, ahem, off the ground. I mean to write something about time, scale, artillery, and (my favorite) terrain.

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