Gaming the knock-out blow — I

As I discussed recently, Philip Sabin's Simulating War: Studying Conflict through Simulation Games (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2012) is primarily about using wargames to understand past wars. This is sensible; apart from the obvious benefit of helping us to understand history better, there's also the useful featurethat there are some facts to go on -- this war, campaign or battle happened once before, so we know something about the forces involved, the terrain it was fought on, the dynamics of combat at the time, and so on. Sabin does occasionally discuss wargaming future conflicts, though mainly in the context of wargaming in the military, where refighting the last (or worse) war is of limited interest.

However, I've been thinking about how to wargame something which is not quite a historical war, and not quite a future war: the knock-out blow from the air. This never actually happened in the past, but for a time was thought to be what might happen in the future. Precisely because of this, a wargame of the knock-out blow could be extremely valuable in demonstrating just how far it was from the reality of aerial warfare. But also precisely because of this, it would be difficult to find the information needed to design the game.

Difficult, not impossible. In fact, I've already done most of the work needed. Part of my PhD and forthcoming book involves a reconstruction of an ideal or consensus form of the knock-out blow theory as it was articulated in the airpower literature from the First World War to the Second. So I could use this as the basis for a wargame showing not what would have happened, or even what could have happened, but what people thought was going to happen in the next war.

Well, that's easier said than done. As Sabin discusses, there are many ways of representing warfare in a wargame, and hence many choices to be made about the maps, the counters, and most importantly the rules. How do this? While I have a reasonable amount of experience playing wargames, I have none designing them. One thing Sabin suggests is starting with an existing game on a related topic, and adapting it to suit or at least borrowing useful elements. Now, as far as I know, there aren't any other wargames simulating the knock-out blow, or for that matter strategic aerial warfare in the interwar period.1 So three realistic options come to mind. One is to start with a game set in the First World War, and project it forward. I have a couple of these: The First Battle of Britain and Airships at War 1916-1918. The second is to start with a game set in the Second World War, and project it backwards. Again, I have a few to work with here, including RAF and The Burning Blue. These approaches both have the advantage of the games being at appropriate scales, and of simulating the sorts of dynamics and tradeoffs inherent in aerial warfare. They have the disadvantage, of course, of being based on historical reality rather than contemporary imagination. The third option, then, is start with a game simulating nuclear warfare, since in many ways that's closer to the anticipated effects of the knock-out blow than was actual aerial warfare of the period. Perhaps surprisingly, there are a few such games, such as the Warplan: Dropshot/First Strike series and Fail Safe. Unfortunately I don't have any of these, though perhaps unsurprisingly I have been meaning to change that. These, of course, would be at a completely different scale to aerial warfare in the 1920s and 1930s, though that may not actually be too much of a problem at the strategic level.

It all depends on what aspects of the knock-out blow I want to simulate. I'll think through some of those choices in another post.


  1. There are some alternate history wargames out there, but in my experience they tend to either stick fairly closely to the real history, such as Case Green, or else tend to be fairly fantastic dieselpunk scenarios, Crimson Skies-style (or Aeronef for the steampunk crowd, and let's not forget the roleplaying equivalent, Forgotten Futures). I did find an interesting discussion on Interbellum about the wargaming potential of H. G. Wells's The Shape of Things to Come (1933), which is not too far off the mark; but that seems to be for miniature gaming. See also this, on the same blog. 

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7 thoughts on “Gaming the knock-out blow — I

  1. I’m seeing Defiants versus nuke-armed Gothas over Essex, gaming by using incredibly expensive diecast models and catapult-fired ball bearings. Plus “Get out of HG Wells” red cards. No dice.

  2. Very interesting. I suspect that _The Burning Blue_’s grand tactical scale is probably the most appropriate for the air defence modelling, though with aircraft speeds maybe 1/3 lower you might have to tweak the hex scales and turn times. Without proper early warning (apart from sound mirrors?) I suspect the defender would be limited to running standing patrols.

    At the operational level, I’m not sure how a campaign would work. I’d imagine it’s either a case of ‘knockout blow suceeds’, and the game is over in one turn, or ‘knockout blow fails’, and the game becomes much more like a WWI air campaign.

    On the imagination/reality front, aren’t there naval wargames in which torpedoes have a chance of working like the wonder weapons pre-WWI navies feared they might be? Which in turn makes contemporary naval tactics make much more sense…

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    Alex:

    Thanks, though it’s out of my timeframe and, more problematically, much more interested in orders of battle and such rather than game mechanics. (Understandably, since it’s about designing a scenario for an already existing game.) Just on that point, OOBs are the least of my problems. Given the hypothetical and even fantastic nature of the knock-out blow, as well as the likely scale of the game, it doesn’t make much sense to worry about how many Harts are stationed at which aerodrome or how many gas bombs a Ju G24 commercial bomber could carry — especially when these are future-war scenarios which have little to do with the air forces existing when they were dreamed up. So I would be using fairly generic units, which fits in with Sabin’s advice to design microgames rather than something massively detailed (more on that in future!)

    Jakob:

    I would probably leave acoustic mirrors a la Tucker for an optional rule, since they were secret, as far as I know — at least they weren’t discussed in the public literature that I know of. But yes, standing patrols only, or interception after they’ve been and gone.

    I don’t think a strategic-level game need be quite so either-or as that; as I discuss in next post the KOB was rarely envisaged as being quite that fast. But still, it could be quite abstract. To tip my hand, if I do actually make these games, I will probably adapt one of Sabin’s own games, Big Week (which simulates a day of US bombing of Germany in February 1944), for the approximately operational-level game. The strategic level might be inspired by Sabin’s Second World War. Burning Blue could be used, but it is a very detailed simulation and as I suggest above I think that is the wrong way to go for a game like this. The uncertainties are just too great, in all directions. But if somebody else would like to have a go I’d be very interested to see it!

    Interesting what you say about naval wargames — I haven’t heard of anything like that. Can you remember more?

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