#BookLook – Wargames Handbook, Third Edition, by James F. Dunnigan, 2000

When studying the history of the wargame hobby, one inevitably will run into the name James F. Dunnigan. His first published game was Jutland (Avalon Hill, 1967). His company, Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) was THE wargame company of the 1970’s and 80’s. He started Strategy & Tactics magazine which continues to publish to this day. He is, in many ways, a father to the wargame hobby.

Although I am a longtime hobby grognard, I also have some links to professional wargaming in the Department of Defense. In the lead-up to CONNECTIONS 2018 this year I decided to study up a bit. In particular, I wanted to focus on the definition of a wargame. What better place to look than at a book written by James Dunnigan, the Wargames Handbook, Third Edition: How to Play and Design Commercial and Professional Wargames (Writers Club Press, 2000).

I was surprised at my reaction after reading this book. A giant of the hobby, who I had set up on a pedestal, does not deserve to be there.

The Wargames Handbook is a real mixed bag and I actually find it hard to categorize. It is part professional design guide, part memoir, part contemporary history, and part…useless. The copy I have in hand is the Third Edition published in 2000. The first edition appeared in 1980 with a second edition in 1993 before it went out of print in 1998.

The Wargames Handbook consists of nine chapters with End Note and Appendix. After reading the book I see the content as broadly divided into three categories:

  • Designing Wargames
  • History of Wargames
  • Computer Wargames

Of these three categories, the one of least interest to me was computer wargames. Dunnigan comes across as more than a bit bitter at the rise of computer gaming, and computer wargames in particular. He goes to great pains using figures and statistics to show the impact of computer wargames. For a tabletop, manual wargaming like myself his “contemporary history” accounts come across more as whines. The worst part has to be the multi-page GENIE replay of a computer wargame. If Dunnigan had a point here, it was lost in a wall of uninteresting computer printout.

The history of wargames parts are interesting but have since been done in much more detail elsewhere. Other histories also show a bit less bias and are more comprehensive than that presented here. It looks like Dunnigan wrote what he knew best, that is, his personal experiences and survey results. Granted, that experience is vast and in the golden age of wargames (1970’s and 80’s) he was right in the middle of the hobby, but he was not the only one.

The professional portion of the book is the designing wargames parts. As one Goodreads reviewer put it, “it’s heavy on what to do, but kind of light on how to do it.”

It would seem like Chapter 1 – What is a Wargame? would be a good place to find a definition of a wargame. Alas, this chapter is mostly devoted to a description of his wargame The Drive on Metz. Actually, the chapter is not just a description of the game, it is game play laid side-by-side with history. The closest Dunnigan gets to defining a wargame is the first three paragraphs. However, he fails to give us any sort of concise definition:

  • “A wargame is an attempt to get a jump on the future by obtaining a better understanding of the past.”
  • “A wargame is a combination of “game,” history and science.”
  • “Basically, it’s glorified chess.”
  • “If you’ve never encountered a wargame before, it’s easiest to just think of it as chess with a more complicated playing board and amore complex way of moving your pieces and taking your opponents.”
  • “A wargame usually combines a map, playing pieces representing historical personages or military units and s set of rules telling you what you can or cannot do  with them.”
  • “To be a wargame, in our sense of the word, the game must be realistic.”

Chapter 2 – How to Play is the heart of the wargame design advice. That is, if one wants to design a classic hex-&-counter wargame. Also contained in this chapter (indeed, the bulk of the chapter) is a listing of The Technical Terms Used in Wargaming. Alas, “wargame” or a variant does not appear in this listing!

Chapter 3 – Why Play the Games (and how to get the most out of it) is mostly a survey of historical periods and opportunities for wargaming. To me, the most interesting sections were the last two. In Fantasy & Science Fiction Games, Dunnigan points out that,

Unlike historical games, fantasy and science fiction have fewer restraints on what they can get away with. The designers as was as the users are eager to try anything. I find many innovative ideas concerning game mechanics can be found first presented in fantasy and science fiction games. These ideas can then be applied to historical subjects (p. 142)

As a longtime naval grognard, I found the last section, Special Problems of Air and Naval Games, to be more than mildly interesting. I was a bit surprised that Dunnigan sounds like he gave up on designing air and naval games because, as he puts it, they “can be most interesting and illuminating when conducted on the individual…level” (p. 145). Dunnigan capitulates designing aerial and naval games to exclusively the realm of computers. I think the truth is a bit deeper here, and maybe hits a little to close for Mr. Dunnigans ego.

IMG_0309Within my game collection I have five James Dunnigan-designed games. The one aerial game, Foxbat & Phantom (SPI, 1973) is not highly rated. Setting Jutland aside the other naval game I have, Sixth Fleet (SPI, 1975) plays like a land combat game at sea; i.e. totally unrealistic. Given the many wonderful air and naval games across the years, I have to wonder if Mr. Dunnigan was too fixated on hex-&-counter that he was unable to find the design spark to make a great air or naval game.

Chapter 4 – Designing Manual Games is more design advice, though again through the lens of The Drive on Metz game. In this chapter Dunnigan presents the complete rules of the game – as though reading a set of rules is enough to teach you how to write one of your own! I wonder how many game designers would agree with the opening sentence where Dunnigan states, “Game design is very much like writing a book, term paper or any other work of nonfiction. In many respects it’s actually easier” (p. 146).

I’m going to skip comment on chapters five thru seven (covering computer wargames and the history of wargames) and chapter nine (Wargames at War) because I already commented in general above. I do want to look closer at Chapter 8 – Who Plays the Games because I am disappointed at the blatant biases Dunnigan shows here.

In Chapter 8 – Who Plays the Games, Dunnigan starts out with a pithy comment, “Wargaming is the hobby of the over educated” (p. 300). He goes on to use market research and surveys from his time at SPI and Strategy & Tactics to study the wargamer demographic. Not surprisingly, he finds that the demographic is older (and getting older) and overwhelmingly male. He whines at how RPGs stole wargamers away and in doing so raises his nose in elitism over young gamers:

When role playing games (RPGs) became available, the social networking of students worked against wargames. The kids who played wargames were generally the brightest, if not always at the head of their class. RPGs are easier to get into and much larger numbers of students were able to participate. Many of the wargames became gamesters, the one participant in in an RPG who has to keep track of a lot of things simultaneously. Wargamers have a lot of skill and experience at that. Moreover, the average age of getting into wargames was twelve or thirteen years old. Wargames are, intellectually, an adult exercise and younger kids can’t really hack it. (p. 301)

Dunnigan goes on to discuss complexity in wargames, and in doing so doubles-down on the elitist gamer image:

“Wargames have always been arcane, but now publisher are putting out “simple” games that are only regarded as such by the more experienced players. If a game that is simple in absolute terms is published, the experienced gamers who comprise the majority of the buyers, turn their nose up at it” (p. 303).

This elitist attitude was first apparent in the Introduction where Dunnigan discusses “mushware.” As he writes:

Mushware is my term (borrowed from a programmer who worked for me years ago) for what people do with complex procedures in their brain, without the benefit of a computer. Mushware was also the reason why the market for manual was never that large. Only a small portion of the population come equipped to handle mushware. The ones who were exposed to manual wargames became, whether they wanted to or not, wargame designers. The mushware gamers couldn’t avoid understanding how the games worked, and in excruciating detail….We’ll never get back to the 70s, but with wargames established as a permanent part of the commercial gaming landscape, we can expect an unending stream of new and innovative ideas. Especially from those equipped with mushware. (p. xix-xxi)

My feeling after reading this book, and especially chapter eight and the discussion of mushware, is not inspiration but sadness. I am a bit sad that one of the giants of the hobby is not the great inspiration I had always envisioned. Instead, I now see Jim Dunnigan as a wargame designer that possessed a narrow ability to design historical land warfare wargames using classic hex-&-counter mechanics. I also see him as viewing himself as a member of an exclusive group – a group that is unwilling to share a hobby with RPG and computer wargames and collectible card games. Interestingly, I don’t recall reading anything about Magic: The Gathering in this book – amazing given how MTG was responsible for RPG and boardgame near-extinction in the 1990s. 

Fortunately, Dunnigan’s elitist attitude runs counter to the predominate mood of the boardgame hobby today. Indeed, in the very year the third edition of the Wargames Handbook was published, a “simple” wargame entered the hobby. Battle Cry (Avalon Hill, 2000) is regarded as the first of the Command and Colors System that in many ways revolutionized the wargame hobby with a “simple” wargame that broke many of the hex-&-counter design rules that SPI (and Dunnigan) clung to. I don’t find it surprising that the RockyMountainNavy game collection includes four Command and Colors games; nearly as many games as Jim Dunnigan designs owned.

This past weekend, the RockyMountainNavy Boys and I visited The Games Tavern in Chantilly, Virginia. We went in to look at tank models because the youngest RMN Boy likes to build armor. The weekend gaming was in full swing:

We were approached by many people who offered game and model advice and comment. We were invited to look at demos and displays and personal collections. My youngest was the center of attention because, I can tell, the hobby wants to bring young blood in, not keep it out. The incredible number of games – even wargames –  being published these days from designers that maybe had no wargame background proves that using mushware to design games is as useful as believing that midichlorians are part of the Force.

I recognize the Wargames Handbook is a snapshot in time as seen by the author. I am very glad that we have come far as a hobby in the intervening years.

Featured image courtesy goodreads.com

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