Thoughts on commercial wargames in RAND report “Will to Fight”

IMG_0056Will to Fight: Analyzing, Modeling, and Simulating the Will to Fight of Military Units. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

Will to Fight is a 2018 RAND Corporation study undertaken on behalf of the US Army G3/5/7 “to explain the will to fight at the unit level and develop a model designed to support assessment of partner forces and analysis of adversary forces” (iii). Within the report, the authors offer a model of Tactical-Operational Will to Fight. Of particular interest to me, as both a hobbyist and part-time professional wargamer, is the report’s use of commercial wargames. Reading these sorts of studies is always interesting because I get to see how others, often outsiders, view the wargaming hobby. In the case of Will to Fight, the view is definitely mixed with some good for the hobby…and some continued (negative?) stereotyping.

Here is how the authors describe war games (note the use of two words):

War games and simulations are approximations of combat intended to help people think about the nature of war, to help people understand complex military problems without actually fighting, to reduce uncertainty in decision making, and to forecast and analyze notional combat outcomes. War games are played between people, usually across a table, and usually across a flat two-dimensional map. Some war games use three-dimensional terrain and figures to represent soldiers and vehicles. (p. 113)

The study defines simulations as, “computer representations of combat” (p. 113). The footnote to this section makes mention of other types of games, specifically matrix games and card games.

On the positive side, the study makes the point that commercial tabletop games and computer simulations are “generally more effective at representing will to fight, but focus varies” (p. 126). This conclusion is based in great part on a nonrandom sample of 62 commercial products and military games and simulations drawn from a pool of 75 products (p. 126). The study broke this sample into four categories (p. 127-130)

  1. Commercial tabletop games using hexagon maps or model terrain, counters, or figures
  2. Commercial simulation, or computer games from platoon level to the battalion level
  3. US military tabletop games typically using hexagon maps and counters
  4. US military simulation from the squad level to the corps level

As much as I want to commend the authors for taking the time to actually learn about commercial wargames, I also feel they missed an opportunity to experience many great wargames that are out there. By narrowly defining commercial wargames as only “hex map” (hex & counter) or “tabletop” (miniatures) they actually exclude many great games that could help their research. Further, the study group actually reveals a bias against many of these games with comments like this footnote talking about Advanced Squad Leader:

Some commercial game players would argue that rules are always fixed. For example, many hard-core players of the game Advanced Squad Leader would never consider bending a rule to speed game play or to account for an unusual situation. Official military tabletop gaming tends to allow for greater flexibility to account for the messy realities of combat to ensure the purpose of the games not lost at the expense of hidebound conformity (footnote 4, p. 113)

There are other little examples, like the seemingly off-hand comments such as, “Complex commercial tabletop war games like Lock ‘n Load Tactical Modern Core Rules 4.1” (p. 130) that show a belief that commercial tabletop wargames are by nature complex. As an long time grognard, I understand I have a different definition of complexity but have to wonder just how much of the study typing is based on “wall-o-text” reading versus actually playing a game.

Looking a bit closer at the commercial tabletop war games chosen for study shows a mix of old and new games and a variety of designers and publishers. Taking games typed as “Hex map” only from Table 3.5 War Games and Simulations Assessed and Coded (p. 128-129) we find:

This is the point where I am supposed to say that there are better, more representative games out there that could be used for this study. I personally missed my favorite Conflict of Heroes series or Panzer / MBT. I am sure there are many games that could of been used. I can only wonder if this “nonrandom sample” is actually someones game collection (and if it is, it’s a great collection…just not mine!).

All that said, the study reports that commercial games are better than military games at depicting will to fight. The authors define this advantage using a near-formula expression:

  1. Will to fight (not) relevant to combat outcomes + will to fight (not) relevant to victory conditions + game or simulation type – US military simulation
  2. Culture affects will to fight (yes) + training affects will to fight (yes) + veterancy affects will to fight (yes) + cohesion affects will to fight (yes + game or simulation type – commercial (p. 130)

I found it disheartening to read the contention that “none of the military war games or simulations…gave priority to will to fight as the most or even one of the most important factors in war” (p. 133). Indeed, military war games and simulations are, in the words of National Defense analyst Michael Peck in 2003, “firepower-fetish attrition models that award victory to whoever has the biggest guns, rather than giving equal weight to soft factors such as morale, fatigue, and cohesion” (p. 133).

So it looks like military war games need to take their cue from the commercial sector. The strongest accolades are given to a tabletop (miniatures) game, GHQ’s WWII Micro Squad rules:

…GHQ’s WWII Micro Squad, place will to fight at the center of the game. GHQ created a cohesion system that rolls together leadership, morale, and other aspects of will to fight. This meta-cohesion system applies at each tactical fight, and it clearly influences the outcome of the game. WWII Micro Squad and a handful of other tabletop games represent the kind of aggressive adoption of will-to-fight modeling that might help make military simulation more realistic (p. 130)

Wargame designers may benefit from the Will-to-Fight Model (p. xx) presented in this study. It certainly provides a different way of looking at those factors that affect a soldier on the battlefield.

My own reaction to the study is mixed; I like the model but shake my head ruefully at the games selected for study. If nothing else, maybe Will to Fight will give another generation of wargame designers and publishers a chance to assist the military and create a better war fighting force. I can only wonder what designers and publishers like Mark Herman or Uwe Eickert or Volko Ruhnke, or even small start-up companies like Covert Intervention Games think as all in the past or presently support government or military gaming.

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