Games and simulations


A key element in any wargame is the scenario. It sets the boundaries in time and space of the simulation, as well as its initial conditions. For a historical wargame, a scenario might be the battle of Cannae, or the British and Canadian sectors at D-Day. Creating such scenarios involves researching orders of battle, contemporary maps, unit diaries, histories and so on. From this research flows the game map, units and the rules themselves. For a counterfactual and indeed retrofuturistic game of the knock-out blow such as I'm contemplating, there are by definition no historical events to draw upon. So where would I start?

One way is to just create a generic scenario, drawing on my own understanding of interwar airpower writing. The obvious one would be the classic knock-out blow scenario, with Germany launching a surprise attack on London, and a war lasting a few days. That has the advantage of being relatively unconstrained and easy to design, and fits in well with the microgame approach Philip Sabin recommends. And I may well do just that. But there's another way, which is to use some of the scenarios imagined during the interwar period itself.
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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.


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. []


[Cross-posted at Society for Military History Blog.]

If I had to recommend one military history book I've read this year it would be Philip Sabin's Simulating War: Studying Conflict through Simulation Games (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2012). Admittedly, this is not your usual military history book. Sabin ranges at will from the 5th century BC to the present day, devotes twelve pages of its bibliography to games as well as providing the rules to eight games in the book itself, and talks about things that didn't happen more than those that didn't. The reason for all this is that Sabin argues, I think persuasively, that insights into historical warfighting can be gained through historical wargaming. In particular, he advocates the use of wargames in teaching military history, something he has much experience in and offers much advice about. Firstly, Sabin argues that what it is best to use what he terms manual wargames rather than computer wargames, that is played with dice and paper on a table-top (though there are in fact computer-assisted versions too). The advantage of this is that students can easily understand the rules, rather than have them hidden in a software black box. More importantly, they can also modify the rules, to experiment with increasing realism or playability, for example, or to alter what is being simulated. Even more importantly, they can design their own games, to reflect their research and understanding of a particular war, something Sabin has his own MA students do. Secondly, he advocates the use of what are called microgames with small maps and no more than twenty or so pieces per side, as opposed to the more complex wargames available commercially, which can have hundreds or even thousands of counters and very finely detailed maps. The main reason for this is that in his experience anything more complex than this is too hard to teach in a two-hour class. Also, given the need to make a game playable as well as gaps in our knowledge of the battle or campaign being simulated, Sabin suggests that it is better to focus on accurately representing key dynamics, such as the importance of suppressing fire in infantry combat, rather than trying to incorporate every last detail. Thirdly, and relatedly, for several of his courses Sabin uses nested simulations to represent warfare at different levels. So for the Second World War, he uses one game covering the war in Europe from 1940 to 1945, another focusing on the Eastern Front, a third at the operational level (depicting the Korsun pocket), and a fourth at the tactical level, gaming an assault by a British infantry battalion against German defences. This enables him to highlight the ways in which warfare looks different at different scales. There's much more in here, reflecting Sabin's years of teaching, playing and designing wargames; it's an essential book if you're interested in trying this at home (or in the classroom).

So if you had to recommend one military history book you've read this year, what would it be? What one book most impressed you, informed you, surprised you, moved you?

Note: I've changed the book featured here. I may discuss the reasons for this in a future post.


The Open University's Chris A. Williams (who should be confused with the Chris Williams who comments here frequently, since they are the same person) has done a good thing by developing a nifty online simulation called Beat the Ministry, to accompany a joint OU/BBC television series -- on which Chris is lead academic consultant -- Wartime Farm (see also here and here). Beat the Ministry puts you in charge of planning British agriculture during the Second World War. You get to decide how much land to devote to farming, how many horses to use in ploughing as opposed to tractors, and how much land to allocate to the different types of livestock and crops. There are three rounds corresponding to the early, middle and late war periods. To maximise your score you need to take into account the way these choices interact with each other; for example, barley is good fodder so you probably don't want to skimp on that if you've decided to increase the number of horses used in order to reduce fuel and machine imports... and so on. There are also various crises which you'll need to respond to, such as labour shortages and the Battle of the Atlantic. Beat the Ministry is nicely done (especially the mock newsreel introductions), fun to play and should prove useful for exposing students to the kinds of decisions and factors that the real Ministry of Food had to weigh. Give it a go!

I haven't managed to actually beat the Ministry yet. But one thing I have learned: don't rely on the Australians.


Observer, 3 May 1942, 5

The Observer reports that Japan now claims to have captured Mandalay, 'second city and former capital of Burma (5). This seems not to have been confirmed by official British sources yet; however

It was stated in authoritative circles in London yesterday that with Lashio already in enemy hands, it would not be worth while suffering great losses to defend Mandalay.

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[Cross-posted at Cliopatria.]

Earlier this year I was tutor for a subject which explored the idea of genre, using books, films and plays about war for this purpose. One of the texts we read was Primo Levi's account of his time in Auschwitz, If This Is A Man.1 One of the sections I found most interesting was Levi's lengthy account of the camp's internal, unofficial economy, which used 'prize-coupons' (sometimes given as a reward, exchangeable for Mahorca, a kind of tobacco) as currency, which could be used to buy things like shirts or extra rations of bread. Prisoners (or 'Häftlinge') would try to think up new ways to get coupons which could ultimately help them survive even a little longer. All the trading in prize-coupons going on meant that their value fluctuated 'in strict obedience to the laws of classical economics'.2
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  1. To me a Holocaust memoir didn't seem to fit into the category of 'war' as well as most of the other chosen texts, but that's neither here nor there now. []
  2. Primo Levi, If This Is A Man/The Truce (London: Abacus, 1987), 86. []


Compare and contrast. The Daily Mail in 2007:

During the dark days of the Second World War, British children passed the time with marbles, hopscotch, tiddlywinks and, for a lucky few, a Monopoly set.

But over in Germany, the amusements were far less innocent.

In one version of bagatelle named Bombers over England, children as young as four were encouraged to blow up settlements by firing a spring-driven ball on to a board featuring a map of Britain and the tip of Northern Europe.

Players were awarded a maximum 100 points for landing on London, while Liverpool was worth 40.

And the Daily Mail in 2010:

British children of the time were playing marbles and hidding [sic] in air raid shelters.

But for youngsters under the Third Reich, this board game was invented to teach them the tactics of warfare - against a British foe.

The war time amusement, Adlers Luftverteidigungs spiel, which translates as the Eagle Air Defence Game, involves two or more players attacking enemy positions on a geographically illustrated board while defending friendly territory.

The supposed contrast between pacifist British kids and militarist German kids is as silly now as it was then. Apparently the Daily Mail hasn't learned anything in the interim. (I checked to see if the same person was responsible for both, but the new article is credited to the improbably-named "DAILY MAIL REPORTER".) The only difference is in the quality of the comments: last time they took the writer to task for his foolishness, now they're almost spEak You're bRanes-worthy.

No doubt there were differences between British and German games of the period -- it's hard to imagine any British equivalent of the 1936 game Juden Raus, where the aim is to force the Jews in your town to emigrate to Palestine -- but simplistic dichotomies (as the Daily Mail seems to be fond of) are not going to help us understand what they were.


Joseph Miranda. First Battle of Britain. Decision Games, 2009. A wargame, not a book, included with Strategy & Tactics 255. The German air offensive against Britain in 1917 and 1918. The German player raids British cities and tries to damage civilian morale; the British player tries to intercept the raiders and bomb their aerodromes. It's a long, long time since I've bought a copy of S&T, and I try to avoid buying wargames because I never seem to actually play them, but I couldn't resist in this case, given the subject matter!

Robin Prior. Gallipoli: The End of the Myth. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2009. As noted in comments! I doubt it will actually end the myth, as far as Australia is concerned, because it doesn't seemed to be aimed at the Gallipoli story as Australians understand it. Rather, it's aimed at other historians who have argued that the Dardanelles campaign was a good idea badly executed.

Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn B. Young, eds. Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth Century History. New York and London: The New Press, 2009. A collection of essays on subjects ranging from British air control in Iraq to the present-day legal questions surrounding the bombing of civilians. Most interesting to me is probably the one by Tetsuo Maeda on the bombing of Chungking (Chongqing) between 1938 and 1943, since it's hard to find much in English on strategic bombing by Japan. I think I actually did a double-take when I turned to the list of contributors and saw that three of them were people from my own university I'd never heard of! That they're philosophers and lawyers only partly excuses this ...