On Killing: Getting beyond One Step, One Hex

It takes a stone killer to kill a stone killer.
It takes a stone killer to kill a stone killer.

Here’s a partial response to Lewis Pulsipher, designer of Dragon Rage and Doomstar, about dicey wargames and deterministic euros. Occasionally Mr. Pulsipher floats a taxonomy he is considering to see what it provokes. Mr. Pulsipher associated dice and wargames with an historical approach, an association which I challenged, citing the necessity for designers of professional wargames to hide coarse-grained (non digital) randomization from military clients who really don’t appreciate it. You gotta pocket your dice if you want credibility with some soldiers. There is a huge reluctance to be seen taking chances in armed conflict. I’ve witnessed this myself. Leadership means certitude. Dice are the physical manifestation of incertitude. Better not to touch them.

As for wargamers, they only think they want control — what they really want is plausible rationalizations for failure at the right moments. A lot of so-called serious gamers are completely full of shit and need to be called on it. Not necessarily a winning commercial strategy, I’ll grant you. I’ve talked this over and over with every designer and player I respect and who will give me the time of day. After I finish my big project [FTGU] (which is deterministic move/randomized combat and a good system designed by Jim Krohn) I want to do a grand tactical system that I’ve outlined called “Nine Rabbit Heads in a Box”. My idea is to allow everything to be deterministic to better get at the differences in the fluidity of operational rhythm by emphasizing time and attrition effects. A “move” will include maneuver and combat in the same go. The objective is to create a game I could use for a staff ride and resolve in an hour or so, reliably evoking C2 and terrain challenges.

To which Mr. Pulsipher reasonably responded:

If they want rationalization for failure, surely they prefer games with uncertainty, not games where they feel in control (and consequently have to blame themselves, in two-player).

Yes, that’s what I’m saying. That’s my take on wargamer psychology, anyway. And why I responded to the initial post so enthusiastically. I think the most psychologically desirable outcome on a classic CRT is a “Defender loses one step and retreats one hex.” Resolution systems which deliver too many outliers too frequently beyond this outcome raise hackles. Everybody thinks they’re awesome at probabilistic analysis even though research shows otherwise– which is certainly true in the heat of the moment. This human weakness seems absolutely true considering historical contexts for warfare.

A little about humanity. In sports like tennis and fencing it has often been remarked that the most successful contestants will despatch the adversary without a second thought, something that most people — even good players — naturally hesitate to do. A winning mindset demands that sympathy be the opponent on the other side of the net more deserving of annihilation. Hence my notion that one step, one hex is the outcome that both attacker and defender find easiest to accept. This is the psychological norm for an attack on a given position. This psychological subtext demands that an attack, which is a rational, calculated decision — better that it have some effect, after all — but the attacker’s humanity in turn depends on sparing the defender’s ego. Or honor or whatever. The dice are there to take the heat for outliers to this yearned for outcome. They spare players’ humanity. Gamers of any sort don’t suffer violence to this notion well.

8 thoughts on “On Killing: Getting beyond One Step, One Hex”

  1. “Leadership means certitude”? That’s a gigantic fail, if that’s the attitude. Because real life rarely offers certitude. Even the Mathematical Theory of Games rarely offers certitude.

    Is it really “Leadership means toeing the line” set by upper management (generals)? Just follow the rules, the accepted ways of doing things, don’t think or try to be creative. Sounds like how the Soviets used to do it. Don’t we know that’s a failed system?

    1. I realize I didn’t address the second paragraph of your reply.

      I really, really wouldn’t make an equivalence between certainty in command with “toeing the line” of upper management. What I mean was that leadership means making a decision and sticking to it. Additionally, the whole point of wargaming is often to learn the basics of accepted solutions and the weak points of those solutions. So, yeah, learn the accepted solution in training so that you might be able to better improvise the field seems like a perfectly worthwhile objective.

  2. What I mean is whatever else leadership may be, it doesn’t mean vacillating, constantly consulting subordinates for alternate courses of action. Sure, it might mean taking calculated risk. But, in the training environments I’ve been in, leaders have been asked to adopt plans, convey them clearly, and defend them before the critique of senior officers. Incertitude in itself is a tell for inadequate preparation, which should include a surmise of known unknowns. In any case, I was voicing what I perceive to be the hesitation toward random resolution mechanics, not my own opinion.

    There are right or wrong answers and you might debate this but, yes, leadership does mean playing it as it lays. Yes, you pay in lives. That’s why training is continual and different approaches are used. It’s hard to understand from the outside. Usually what you get are mealy-mouthed half measures which are almost always bad solutions.

    I initially shared your reaction. And it is certainly how I play the devil’s advocate in conducting matrix games. I was also fortunate to work with commanders who indulged the complexities I could introduce into a given situation. At the end of the day, someone has to bear moral responsibility for the choice. A totally clueless leader certain of a bad course of action is better than a leader who cannot make a decision and transmits his confusion down the chain of command. The safety valve is command intent to which poorly-commanded subordinates will bend their actions, even in spite of a stupid, yet certain COA.

    Why is the Soviet system a failed one? To the contrary, try to sell that notion to the Germans to see if there are any takers. Fortunately Cold War-era Soviet C2 and that of various NATO allies remained untested. In any case, discussion of those differences usually bears on subordinate leader initiative, not lucid decisionmaking. But we’re far afield from dicey wargames now.

    I’ve been looking around for a link to a talk given at UK Connection 2013 by Graham Longley-Brown, a link to which escapes my searches. I’m not saying that avoiding dice is wrong or right, only that this seems to be the case. GLB has a good talk on the subject. Here’s the entire agenda of the conference. I’ll keep searching for the recording.

  3. When I worked with military people on Ft Bragg, I heard enough to realize that avoiding risks was the way to get ahead. If one officer did 5 things that turned out well and one badly, he was not promoted, instead someone who did nothing notable (0 well and 0 badly) was more likely to get ahead.

    That’s quite a while ago now, so things may have changed.

    1. Tallies. Dice might say SOP or an accepted COA is flawed. Not a big deal among peer trainees. But the commander may be watching.

      If you’re the facilitator and you don’t stop whatever you’re doing to make that a teaching moment (preferably throwing to a subject-matter expert) your trainee just had a very bad day. Even if you do stop, discuss SOP, and hammer out a different, better COA they may not trust you. Buy-in to the exercise can evaporate.

      It is first command’s responsibility to build an environment where culpability for shock outliers a game or simulation might deliver are grounded out; then, credible facilitators must adapt to the training environment without abdicating their responsibility to deliver a challenge to accepted notions.

  4. One issue – outliers exist. The “golden BB” which took out the Hood, forex.

    Unless someone seriously wants to make the argument that shot was planned.

    Dice can be used to arbitrate that.

    THAT said – it may be interesting to have a hybrid system – but how do you account for vagarie of morale, an individual lucky shot, covering fire that keep a squad suffifiently supressed due to a terrain feature not visible at map scale to prevent them from shooting well, etc?

    So I don’t have an issue with dice… BUT…. if the typical effect of a hail of fire is to make people stop until they can bring more fire to bear, then that should cause people to dig in as a default, with low – probabilty rolls causing a retreat (commander broke?) or rally / advance (commander was inspired, someone ot lucky, etc)

    Maybe the person taking fire cold skew that by choosing NOT to take cover but keep moving, and suffer worse casualties, but then again, every individual driver, every rifleman, every mortar round and vagary of high altitude wind that cannot be predicted…

    1. Of course you’re right about outliers. But planning doesn’t account for outliers by definition. Principles of command cannot be taught by constantly attending to exceptions. Nor can dice adequately supply enough crazy for the truly improbable. We get a kind of oatmeal substitute just one or two standard deviations off the mean instead, which has over the years, become more of a narrative and commercial expectation. I call it, “One step, one hex.” Better armies always have a gloss on outlying results built in to their doctrine; usually they call it “flexibility” or something like it.

      I once introduced an old troopie to digital simulations via TacOps. He immediately cheated, adding aviation assets to his ORBAT without compunction. All that mattered to him was winning the game. and the game was everything in the digital toolbox. The best outliers are supplied by player behavior and are not endorsed by the system. This is why I find tennis and fencing so violent when conducted with proper execution.

      Wargames that are all outliers seem aberrational to me. I really dislike _Combat Commander_ for example in spite of the fact that it enjoys the endorsement of the straight-up, badass maneuver warfare thinker Robert Leonhard. Not to mention that it is a model of attention to detail in terms of writing and production. The fact that some real tactical and operational fights may become throbbing piles of entropy only means that the focus of any game (or other analysis) treating them should be properly upstream of that moment. Or at a different echelon, etc.

      Please excuse the long delay in approving your thoughtful post. I was travelling through the end of September.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *