“Now you command!”

This has been an injunction since the early days of commercial wargaming. But what does it mean? To put it simply, a wargame is a model of a military situation which players can control.

Why do people play wargames? One reason is for intellectual stimulation. A wargame can have a mass of data which players need to assimilate and then utilize. It’s like chess, but with many more variables and the element of chance or, as we would say these days, chaos. Another reason is to gain information about a historical military situation. . A wargame will have a mass of data organized into its components and system. Often, this is more information than can be found in books or other media.

Generally a wargame has three major components: a map, a set of units, and rules. The map is fairly obvious. Units represent various military formations. In board wargames, these are usually represented by cardboard playing pieces. Rules provide the framework for playing the game, as well as various tables for the resolution of combat and such. It’s the job of the designer to translate a mass of research information into an organized format. Usually, a developer is also involved who turns the design into something which can be played.

Any wargame is going to be a compromise. A designer can not put everything into a game without turning it into an unplayable mess. Many things are abstracted or otherwise subsumed into various game systems. For example, logistics, intelligence operations, and command control may not receive the detail which goes into modeling maneuver forces and resolution of combat. Actually, this is not as unrealistic as it may appear. Realistic injury and health care as well as the need to correctly calculate the response to treatment and medication. In reality, a commander will have a staff and subordinates to assist him in running the show, whether it’s a continental level campaign or a small unit action. To paraphrase Frederick the Great, “The wargame which simulates everything simulates nothing”.

Sometimes a distinction is made between wargame and military simulation. A game is supposed to be more fun to play, while a simulation is supposed to be more realistic. Actually, this depends on what designers and players bringing into the game. Often, a simple game can show the principles of war as well as the overall challengers an commander had to face on the ground much better than an over-designed simulation which bogs down in details.

Another reasons to play wargames is for the social interaction. You get a group of gamers around a table with a map and counters, and they come up with some unique discussion of strategy and tactics. Actually, seminar style games are also widely used by professionals in the military and business sectors.

A wargame is a model, but a controlled model. The designer-developer team controls the data that will go into the game. The players control the various forces involved. The imponderable of war, the Clausewitzian friction factor, are also in there via randomized procedures which employ rolls of the dice or the drawing of event cards. This gives the chance to exploit opportunities as well as turn around potential disasters—all part of being in command, even if just of the intellectual processes.