Games We Learned About War and Wargaming From

This blog is inspired by Jim Werbaneth's review of FRANCE 1940 in his magazine, Line of Departure, Issue 66. He well describes how he learned both the history of the German invasion of France from the experience of playing the game (inspiring him to get and read books on the subject) and how the game was a "benchmark" in a number of design aspects we now take for granted (variable strengths for the Panzer Divisions, historical alternatives, and--of course--the mechanized movement phase). I thought it worth starting a blog on those games that we felt taught us a lot about history and game design theory.

For me, FRANCE 1940 would be on that list too, but I can't do better (and likely would do far worse) than Jim's analysis in LOD #66. So I'll turn back the clock a bit more--not only in terms of game publishing date, but also in topic--and cover Avalon Hill's 1914, designed by none other than Jim Dunnigan. There's also that wonderful symmetry as here is another game covering a German invasion of France, albeit a generation earlier. There's not a lot of people around who still remember the 1914 game. But it was a ground breaker in its day. Why?
Not a lot of people knew much about the subject. It's amazing that Avalon Hill even thought the game concept would be marketable back in 1968. The design was chock full of new techniques. The idea of hidden deployment of both German and Allied pieces on the Mobilization Chart and then inverted counters during play gave you the possibility of pulling of a Schlieffen Plan (in whatever variation you cared to try) or Plan XVII. Of course, it made young guys like me hunt down a copy of Barbara Tuchman's GUNS OF AUGUST to read all about it. Certainly we'd not seen this kind of mechanic before in our AFRIKA KORPS, WATERLOO, BATTLE OF THE BULGE, D-DAY, or STALINGRAD games!

Step reduction was something we'd also not seen before and wouldn't see again until ANZIO a year later in 1969--and then it would become a staple of a number of designs. In 1968 (and no, I wasn't playing wargames back then), this was quite novel. The French seemed to melt away a bit more than the Germans did. So resiliency of units meant something, not just the attack and defense factors.

And then there was facing. The inverted side showed whether you were on the defense or were mobile in the attack. If you were attacked when you were on the attack yourself, your defense strength wasn't as high. Facing became a staple in tactical games, but here was on operational game that introduced the idea in boardgames.

But perhaps even more innovative were those variant cards which covered Eastern Front events that could affect what was going on in the Western Front!

Best of all, the game production felt like it was dripping with history. The Game rulebooks had period illustrations and was a graphic masterpiece. 1914 felt very much like a simulation of history, gently subduing the game. A game it certainly was, of course, but when it came out, it was such a blend of innovation, historical flavor, and superlative physical production that we really hadn't seen anything like it before.

All these features would become standard fare in game design years later, but 1914 introduced them. For many, many years, this was THE game on the First World War--and only has been knocked off its perch in the past two decades. For a game that is 42 years old, that's a tribute to its longevity.

What games taught you the most about war and wargaming?

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Comment by Russ Gifford on June 3, 2010 at 5:53pm
GREAT review, Eric. Isn't it amazing that even games that were PANNED in their day taught lessons that remain fresh today?
Comment by Wayne Rotella on June 3, 2010 at 9:34am
I don't know if these thoughts apply here but I have certainly been thinking about them once you posted this question Eric.
First, I just finished "D Day" by Antony Beevor and was struck by Hitler's insistence on counter-offensives when his forces were so depleted. It has made me think of the rule that many games use to have step losses instead of the all or nothing of combat results. It is easy to think your forces are at full strength if you just look at the sumbols on the board (like Hitler did on his maps), whereas if you are aware of the friction of battle, factor in the fatigue and equipment loss as well, not to mention the supply issues, table-top warfare takes on a whole new aspect. I think gaming allows for a more detailed study of warfare when you apply the realistic rules many games are using today. Reading the book has also drawn me to break out "The Longest Day" monster game to replay the mighty struggle.
Second, I was always curious about how a squad in Squad Leader had to be penalized for carrying a Heavy Machine Gun when moving. I mean really, you have ten to twelve guys to port it, how hard can that be? Well, once I had the opportunity to break down and lug an M2 .50cal at Camp Geiger, I was quickly educated. Even in its basic parts that thing was heavy. Add the weight of ammo and the fact the squad has to keep up with the guys carrying it I then understood. I find whenever I play SL and ASL I factor in my real-life experiences and find the rules actually are easier to understand.
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on May 31, 2010 at 9:46am
I actually got into Napoleon at Bay late, when Avalon Hill was getting rid of it and it was on sale for six bucks at KayBee Toys about twenty years ago. I agree though, it was a great introduction to Napoleonic operations, and one of the first to represent his system of warfare between the battlefield and the grand strategic levels. My introduction to the system was actually through The Struggle of Nations, followed by Hundred Days' Battles and Arcola.

The Avalon Hill box art is also some of the very worst on record. Whereas the OSG version is just beautiful, and so is their reissue from 1997 by the way, Avalon Hill's is a failed eighth grade art project that gives no idea of what's inside the box.
Comment by Eric Walters on May 31, 2010 at 9:33am
Now I've got to "fast forward" a bit, as the next games that taught me about war and wargaming began in the late 1970s. The game that thoroughly captivated me in my early college years was Operational Studies Group's NAPOLEON AT BAY. Covering Napoleon's defense of France in 1814, a subject not covered by any company or wargame title before, it showcased elements of Napoleonic warfare as never before. For one, it was an operational-level game, which befitted the name of the company. Second, the physical package was breathtaking and the campaign study that came with the game was nearly worth the price by itself! All the early OSG titles, such as ROMMEL IN TUNISIA and DARK DECEMBER, had them.

But it was the system that hooked me. It captured the dynamics of marching, of supply, of command and control in a way no other game of the period had. Locating the "Center of Operations," considering the flow and expenditure of "Administrative Points" to do actions on the game board, and assuring your "Lines of Communication" while assailing that of your enemy--all while coping with limited intelligence and reconnaissance/scouting--just came together very well. The superiority of the Napoleonic organization made for potentially more nimble operations--and the French certainly needed that at this point as they were being overwhelmed by superior numbers. The Allies, however, would need every bit of numerical advantage they could press. After playing this game, I got a copy of F. Loraine-Petre's book of the same name and scooped up book after book on the Napoleonic Wars. I could not get enough of it. OSG did not last, but NAPOLEON AT BAY was republished by Avalon Hill in a rather garish box but it was much the same game inside. Best of all, designer Kevin Zucker's system for modeling Napoleonic operations was refined and published in other games by Clash of Arms and Avalon Hill...and eventually OSG when it came back from the grave.

This was the most sophisticated treatment of command and control functioning I had seen at the time, and one applied to a period and subject that had not truly been given such attention.
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on May 25, 2010 at 9:23pm
I agree about Midway. Of all the Avalon Hill Classics, it's the one that I played the most, and it does hold up well. The lack of destroyers is a bit of handicap, and the nomenclature can be weird; calling aircraft points "squadrons" is definitely off the mark. Still, this is the first naval game that I ever played, and it was a major learning experience, about double-blind systems and naval operations too.

Midway also figured centrally in an introduction to wargaming that I did in college. As an undergraduate in 1979, I did a presentation on wargaming for a speech class, and Midway figured prominently. One of my classmates asked if it had anything to do with the kid's game Battleship. That was a bit of a eureka moment for me, as I realized that the design really was based on Battleship, at least for the search mechanics. In essence, Midway took Battleship, added movement and introduced randomness and detail to combat resolution, and invented naval wargaming as we know it.
Comment by Eric Walters on May 25, 2010 at 8:48pm
Another wonderful game that taught me about war and wargaming was JUTLAND. I got both the double-blind aspect of the operational level game, with all that entailed for naval warfare for the period, and what was for me an introduction to miniatures-style wargaming in a board wargaming format (sort of). Even SPI's DREADNOUGHT didn't scratch my itch as much as this game did. The only game that compared for me was the old AH MIDWAY, but as much as I loved that game, the tactical resolution just wasn't quite as tight (although it was good enough). Interestingly enough, MIDWAY still holds its own pretty well after all these many years. A ground breaking design in its day as well.

As for truly serious games, 1776 was the next big title for me. I was floored by this game. Consider how advanced it was given the time it was published. Extremely innovative for its time in capturing the essence of insurgency/counterinsurgency. It was the monster game of its era and really shined in the campaign game, less so in the scenarios (unlike most of the later monster games that were published).

Okay, I do have to give a nod to PANZERBLITZ, but only because there had not been anything like that game when it came out. The flaws in the system are well known and have been long documented, but it was a true revolution in wargaming at the time it was published. Of course, it spawned a lot of imitators since....
Comment by Joseph on May 25, 2010 at 8:34pm
My first war game was AH Tactics II. My father gave it to me for Xmas when I was around 16/17. I had a lot of trouble understanding the rules. But after that, on to all the AH classics until I dropped out as stated below. By buying 1914 first and then D-Day, I can see the let down. I liked 1914 but found only one person to play it with but they were not that impressed. With the coming of a mech move phase for WWII games, now you could form those pockets read about in the history books. This and other innovations were a quantum jump to me with France 1940, etc. I believe I read 'Guns of August' years after buying 1914, but this game was not why. A friend had recommended the book to me. It read like a suspense thriller which is unusual for a history book. Lyn MacDonald's book "1914:The Days of Hope", although covers all of 1914, reads similar to "Guns of August" but not quite as good, but close.
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on May 24, 2010 at 11:33pm
I definitely learned a lot from 1914, and it took me a couple of years to learn all the rules. I don't think I was that dumb back then, but it was all new, and the rules weren't always very clear. One might say even today that they're still lacking in clarity and organization. Every time that I opened that big gold box I think I learned something, often about the history if not why a "square" was really a hexagon.

My second game purchase was D-Day, and after the richness of the 1914 map, and all that hard to grasp design sophistication, I have to admit that it was a little of a let down.

You're not the only one who was inspired to read The Guns of August after playing 1914. My copy is almost as worn out as my first copy of the game for a reason.
Comment by Joseph on May 24, 2010 at 10:28am
I remember these games. I still have copies. They helped bring me back into the hobby. I had dropped out in 1967 because of AH games being the same mostly because of CRT's and systems in spite of different topics and going into the army. After my army tour(ended 1969) I saw a copy of my father's retired officer mag.(early 70's) with a ad for SPI. I'd never heard of it. I thought, what the heck, and took a trial sub of 3 issues. First one was 'Destruction of Army Grp Center'. I was hooked on the new system completely and have been a subscriber ever sense. With this first issue came ads for AH games "France 1940" and "1914". Sent my check in immediately. They were great. My interest in war gaming was the inverse of some people; I already had a interest in Military History since junior high from my father's books; for example he had a book entitled "The Military History of the United States". From this, I checked more military history books out from the library. When I could afford it, I bought my own. Now my own library of wargames and history books are in the several hundreds. My interest in history had never stopped but it was these games that re-sparked my interest in the Wargaming Hobbly. Next week its Monstercon and can hardly wait. Its pig out time.
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on May 22, 2010 at 6:30pm
I'm glad to provide the spark for the blog post!

I totally agree with you about 1914. That was my first game, and though it has its flaws -- confusing rules and too-slow movement allowances come to mind -- I concur that it was a ground-breaker in 1968, for all the reasons that you cite. Plus, it had some elements that, unfortunately, weren't continued in later games. Besides the double-blind setup, there are variable combat results tables, with the table depending on the size of the units engaged. Mark Simonitch's designs are among the few that continue this tradition, but use varying numbers of dice instead of separate CRT's.

Especially as it's the first wargame that I ever bought, on my eleventh birthday, 1914 has a special place in my heart. Like France 1940 too, it got the Line of Departure treatment, in Issue 57 (Fall 2006).

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