Gaming the knock-out blow — II

So, I want to construct a knock-out blow wargame. In my PhD/book, I define an ideal knock-out blow from the air as having six key characteristics. Three of these describe the attack itself: surprise, scale, and speed. Three describe what it destroyed: infrastructure, morale, and civilisation itself.

Starting with the attack, as this will define most of the actual mechanics of the game:

  • Surprise. An attack would be next to impossible to detect. Strategically, an attack would likely come without any warning; the aggressor would be able to time the offensive for maximum effect, and the defender would not be mobilised. Even if an attack is expected, incoming bombers could not be detected before crossing the border, which in the British case means that the best that could be done would be to mount inefficient standing patrols to try to intercept them before they reached London, or attempt to catch them on the way back after unloading their cargo. And even then, the bombers would be hard to find, and able to defend themselves very effectively. Bombers will be the most important units in the game, therefore; fighters might even be abstracted out into the combat system. Also, if the initial attack does not incapacitate, then the defender would be able to launch its own raids on the aggressor, so both sides will need to have bombers.
  • Scale. The aerial fleets involved would be massive compared with the strategic bombing campaigns of the First World War, maybe even those of the Second, with hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of bombers. Some of these could be commercial bombers, airliners converted to military use, which might be a bit less effective than purpose-built bombers, but not by much. The low interception rates mean also that there would be little wastage. So there might be a lot of units, though the tendency to fly en masse might mitigate this. It depends on the scale.
  • Speed. A knock-out blow would operate very quickly: months, weeks, perhaps even days. This factors into the length of a turn. An entire knock-out blow could be simulated in, say, 15 turns of a week or so. Note, however, that at this scale it would take much less than a turn for bombers to reach the target. So a strategic level game like this would not involve units flying around the map, but rather they would be committed in an abstract sense to a target or even a theatre. They might not even be represented as counters at all, but as a numeric force level, which moves up and down according to attrition or production (which could be a factor at this scale). You might not even need a map (though if there are multiple theatres it might help). So, quite abstract. An alternative would be to have a smaller scale game, simulating something like one day in the war, and turns being maybe two or three hours. Then you could do the more familiar, and perhaps more accessible, style of game with units moving around the map and opposing units trying to stop them. Another level would be the tactical one, fighters vs bombers. At this scale, a game might not be very different from the historical reality, since it is a given that interception has taken place. But bombers in formation would be much more capable of self-defence, even without escorts (which were generally not thought necessary).

Turning now to the effects of a knock-out blow, the question is whether to simulate these directly or abstractly. It would be possible in principle to simulate a nation's industries, communications, resources, ports and civilian morale, and the interdependencies between them. Attacking any of these would have knock-on effects, and eventually the cumulative damage would cause society to break down completely. At this point, if not before, effective resistance would cease and the knock-out blow has succeeded. Factories, power plants, ports, railway and road nodes, administrative centres, etc, could be marked on the map and selected as targets; civilian morale is obviously more abstract, but equally obviously attacking population centres would be the best way to attack morale. (Hello, London.) Alternatively, all these targets could be taken off the map and damage to each type tracked by moving a counter along a track. Much easier, though perhaps less fun. Again, it would probably depend on the scale of the game itself, and whether there is a map at all. Either way, some way of representing the knock-on effects would be needed; perhaps when damage to one target system reaches a certain level then damage could be added to all of them. A similar mechanism could be used to determine the degradation of a nation's fighting ability, with production falling off as the knock-out blow proceeds, for example. (Raids directly against the enemy air force could also be undertaken, which might degrade it more rapidly but at the cost of passing up an opportunity to bring a knock-out blow closer.) Or all of that could be emulated much more simply with a victory point system.

So this gives some idea of the considerations involved in designing a game simulating the knock-out blow, not as it would have been fought, but how it was thought it would have been fought. Some things have become clearer. The key thing is decide the scale of the game, since war looks different at different scales. This is why Philip Sabin's concept of nested simulations is useful: two or three games are better than one (at least if your goal is enlightenment rather than enjoyment). In this case, there's a strategic game with turns of a week or so, and a large-scale map or no map at all; an operational game lasting a day and with a map covering the parts of each combatant reachable by its opponent's air force; and a tactical game at a much smaller scale, with turns lasting seconds or minutes and units of individual aircraft, say. As I've suggested above, I think this tactical game would tell us less about the knock-out blow than the other ones, so henceforth I'll concentrate on the operational and strategic games.

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6 thoughts on “Gaming the knock-out blow — II

  1. Alan Allport

    I too have been reading Sabin's book, and I'm not trying to be unhelpful here (no, really, for once I'm not), but I have to admit that I'm struggling to understand what the point of a knock-out blow simulation would be. I think I have the same concern Jakob mentioned in the other post; since the game (sorry, simulation) would be designed to depict what writers thought was going to happen, rather than what would probably have happened, and since most if not all of them seemed to think that a KOB would be rapid, unstoppable, and decisive, wouldn't the outcome be predetermined from the beginning? The only way to win (for one side anyway) would be not to play and all that ...

  2. Post author

    It's a good question. For me, the key is in your jest about games vs simulations (and Sabin discusses his preference for the term simulation, too, though I diverge a bit from him here). We expect games to be not completely one-sided, otherwise they are unfair and boring to play. For a game of a historically one-sided war or battle, you can adjust the victory conditions so that if the underdog performs better than their historical counterpart then they can still win (even if, in absolute terms their forces have still been defeated).

    But for a simulation, I don't see why it has to be fun or fair in any way. It's just a tool for historical understanding. So I'm not really all that interested in making the game (simulation, whatever) particularly fun or enjoyable, or even played, necessarily (most of the games I've bought in the last decade or more I've never played, only read). In the first instance, all I actually want this game to be is an illustration of the knock-out blow theory, an alternative form of historical representation (if a picture is worth a thousand words, then how many is a game worth?) If all the game does is show whoever reads or plays it that a knock-out blow would have involved the aerial forces of one country flying over to the other's capital and flattening it, that's fine -- at minimum it reinforces the message of the book (and as may be obvious, I'm thinking of this game as a sort of counterpart or promotional tool for the book, rather than to be used for my own research). But then I can start adding chrome to reflect some of the other ideas associated with the KOB: commercial bombers, an international air force, counter-bombing (and as noted above, this makes the game more two-sided), deep shelters... stratospheric bombers, silent bombers, death rays! My hope is that this will make these concepts and the way they altered the standard KOB model more vivid, and maybe even at this point, some fun. At least for those who for whom the idea of such a game has some appeal. For everyone else, there's always the book!

  3. Alan Allport

    OK, that's fair enough. I guess for me the point of a serious historical game/simulation is to try to illustrate for students/players why things happened the way they did; and simulating something that not only didn't happen in real life, but couldn't have happened in real life in the way it's being depicted, seems a bit too abstract. But I do take the point about board games being more for perusal/reflection than for actual playing. I've a bookcase full of them, and the only thing I ever actually have time to play any more is Small World on the iPad ...

  4. Neil Datson

    Possibly the place to start is the war games played at the RAF Staff College in the inter-war period.

    From memory, there is a mention of one such exercise (1930 or thereabouts) in Malcolm Smith's British Air Strategy Between the Wars:

    Red Country bombed Blue Country's cities, Blue bombed Red's air bases. After 48 hours Red had no air force left, so could not continue the war. Rather than let the game drag on into absurdity the judges stopped it. They declared Red the winners on the grounds that Blue had already surrendered because of chaos, social dislocation etc.

    Adopt such an approach and scoring the game becomes nice and simple. As you note Brett, it doesn't have to be 'fun' or 'fair'.

    While I'm not up on inter-war KOB postulations, a 48 hour victory seems a short enough period to call it 'KOB theory' and not 'attritional theory'. Is it possible that such war games were even the way in which 'KOB theory' wormed its way into RAF doctrine?

  5. Chris Williams

    I wrote an online 'game' about one aspect of WW2 - agriculture in the UK - as a educational tool. The point was to get the players to work out what some of the main factors in play were. It's not an especially good simulation.

  6. Post author


    I guess I'm assuming that players (or readers!) would have a reasonable understanding of the realities of aerial warfare -- I mean anyone interested enough in the topic to go to the trouble of reading about such an obscure topic is probably reasonably familiar with the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, etc, and can pick up where it diverges from our world. But maybe not? Designer's notes making these divergences explicit might be a good idea. Another possibility would be a variant with some rule tweaks to make it more like the real thing (e.g. early warning and interception).


    Yes, that's something I had been meaning to look into. The 1927-33 ADGB exercises you mention are fascinating and deserve some attention, not only for what they reveal about RAF thinking but also in the way they were communicated to the public -- rather than wargames, they were fully-fledged exercises with actual aeroplanes simulating raids on London; not easy to hide, and nobody tried to. (Somebody should write an article about that.) Barry Powers, Strategy Before Slide-rule (1976) and John Ferris, 'Fighter defence before Fighter Command' (1999) also give some useful details. Because they were exercises, they couldn't be used directly as the basis for a scenario (unless it was about a war between Red and Blue), but Ferris intriguingly mentions wargames (at least in the period 1930-33) which might be more useful. Though they would presumably be secret and so wouldn't inform the public's understanding of aerial warfare in the same way that exercises might, and it's the non-Air Force view of airpower that I'm interested in.

    But yes, that 1930 exercise result was as KOB as they come. It does highlight one idea that is easy to gloss over (for at least), that attrition rates for bombers would in fact be extremely high, but that it would be worth pressing home the attack anyway because the chance of a KOB would be so high.


    Indeed you did! That's similar to Sabin's microgame approach: keeping it simple makes easy to design and play, as well as enables you to highlight the key factors (and the dynamics between them, as Beat the Ministry does) you want to get across, without getting bogged down in a mass of interesting but distracting detail. For teaching purposes, I do think that's right, even though the World in Flames player in me recoils in horror at such simplistic mechanics and components.

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