Friction or Fiction – A Lardy Perspective on Wargames Rules
I am always intrigued by some of the debates regarding rule design on TMP, not least because it is probably the only real snapshot we have of opinion within the hobby. It is, by definition, a self-selecting sample and the views expressed can cover the full spectrum of sanity but like panning for gold, if you look carefully you’ll find some nuggets.
On my return from Historicon I spotted a thread entitled “The Perfect Wargame: Design & Commercial Success” in which various contributors listed what they felt were key points to designing rules which would (obviously!) be commercially successful. There were plenty of ideas in there (you can check out the thread at http://theminiaturespage.com/boards/msg.mv?id=236265 if you are interested in seeing them all). The point that really got my attention was made by a chap called Griefbringer which was as follows, I quote:
“PLAYER IN CONTROL: while real world generals can be rather badly restricted by their command and control possibilities, in a game lots of people want to be able to exercise control over most of their units. Thus command mechanisms that seriously limit player’s control are not likely to enjoy maximum popularity (though they can gather a smaller enthusiastic following amongst those who enjoy the challenge that can be found in the problems of command).”
That really struck a chord with me as firstly I think he is absolutely right on two levels, and secondly it picked up on the issue of command and control in wargaming that I had spoken about in the War College at Historicon. Lots of people have contacted me since asking for a copy of the text, so I thought I’d reproduce it here in full.
Friction or Fiction – A War College Presentation
You say potato, I say potato; you say tomato and I say tomato. We are, according to Oscar Wilde, two nations divided by a common language. To what extent this is true is questionable, but certainly were I to be going on holiday I would load my suitcase into the boot of my car, whereas you would place yours in the trunk. If the car developed mechanical problems I would look under the bonnet, whilst you may check under the hood. I walk on the pavement, you on the sidewalk, and so on. In truth these differences are minimal, and in the course of a normal conversation we have no difficulty in understanding our cousins on either side of the pond, and any variation is of no real consequence.
Unless, that is, it is April 1951 and you are a soldier of the 1st battalion the Gloucestershire Regiment on the Imjin River in South Korea. Six hundred and fifty men faced an entire Chinese Division of approximately 10,000 combatants who were intent on taking their position and advancing on Seoul, whatever the cost in human life.
After a day and a half of fighting the Gloucesters were surrounded with ammunition supplies desperately low. The United States Major General responsible for this sector of the front asked British Brigadier Thomas Brodie how things were with the Gloucesters to get the reply “A bit sticky. Things are pretty sticky down there”.
It was, without doubt, a classic piece of British understatement which resulted in no reinforcements being sent and the position being overrun. A mere 40 men avoiding death or capture. But who was to blame? Without doubt the Major General had asked the right question and the Brigadier had given the right answer, the problem arose from the fact that the breakdown between the two was entirely due to our not quite common language. Indeed Brodie was a good soldier, we awarded him the DSO and you chaps gave him two Silver Stars and the Legion of Merit for his conduct during that conflict. So it is tempting to see the events on the Imjin River as an incredibly unfortunate blunder, or bad luck, however I would propose that even a cursory glance at military history will show us that such unfortunate blunders are far from rare.
“There, my Lord! There is the enemy! There are your guns!”
It is a quote that sadly needs little introduction. When Lord Raglan saw British guns being dragged away from the Causeway Heights at Balaclava he sent General Airey’s ADC, Captain Nolan, with a message to Lord Lucan and the Light Brigade.
That Nolan was sent was a matter of fate. Raglan’s position on the heights some 600 feet above was ideal for observing the battlefield, and yet between him and Lucan was a steep slope which demanded a skilful horseman, and Nolan was the best. Previous ADCs sent with messages had picked their way carefully down from the heights, yet now Raglan could not waste a moment.
It was unfortunate that Nolan and Lucan were more than well acquainted. They could not, in fact, stand the sight of one another. As a result the exchange of words between them was brusque and irritable. This, combined with a rapidly scribbled order from Raglan which did not take into account that Lucan would not have the same view of the guns as could be had from the heights, resulted in the Charge of the Light Brigade.
Yet who was to blame? Had Raglan provided more information in his orders then Lucan may have know just where his guns actually were. Had any other ADC than Nolan carried the note then verbal clarification could have indeed told Lucan exactly where his guns were. Yet in both these cases the pressure of time led to errors being made that would otherwise appear to be rather like our “bad luck” on the Imjin River.
June the 6th 1944, a date that will be remembered by history as D-Day. The Normandy landings were possibly the most carefully planned operation of the Second World War. Yet despite this of the eight companies in the initial wave on Omaha beach only two landed where they should have done, the majority landing a thousand yards to east. The DD tanks of the 743rd Tank Battalion allocated to support the landings found sea conditions meant that over half of the tanks were swamped in the run-in to the beach.
The massive aerial bombardment designed to soften up the German defences over shot their target by around three miles. Killing a few cows in the fields to the south, but doing little or nothing to their supposed target. Bad luck? It certainly appeared like it to the men landing on that beach.
In August 1940 Adolf Hitler issued Directive Number 17 covering air and sea warfare against Great Britain in preparation for Operation Sea Lion. In this he stated that
“The attacks are to be directed primarily against flying units, their ground installations, and their supply organizations, but also against the aircraft industry, including that manufacturing anti-aircraft equipment. “
Indeed the Luftwaffe were ordered to focus on British air capability and not to attack civilian targets. Despite this on the night of the 23rd of August 1940 a group of German bombers dropped their loads on Harrow, a residential suburb on the extremities of London. In retaliation the RAF bombed Berlin on the 25th of August, much to the embarrassment of Goering who had publicly stated that no British bombs would fall on the Reich. This set in train a chain of events which would have the most significant consequences.
Hitler rescinded his order regarding the bombing of civilians
- Goering curried favour by pledging to bomb London
- Kesselring, who was heading the Battle of Britain campaign, endorsed the switch in bombing strategy as by now his intelligence was telling him that the RAF squadrons had been hugely weakened.
- On the 7th of September the Luftwaffe launched the first full raids to comply with this shift in strategy.
Kesselring was right, the RAF generally, and particularly the battered forces in South East England, were at that point on the verge of disaster. Had the Germans continued to concentrate their efforts on destroying the RAF and airfields the Battle of Britain could have been lost. As it was the map reading error of a couple of German navigators resulted in an almost miraculous reprise. I suppose on reflection Hitler could have viewed it as “bad luck” the RAF saw it rather differently.
Iraq 1991. An eight man British SAS patrol was gathering information behind enemy lines. They were spotted, their security compromised. Not, however, by Iraqi forces, but by a small boy tending a herd of goats. The patrol had orders to maintain absolute radio silence. If identified by the enemy they were to make for a pre-designated emergency pick-up point where a helicopter would arrive once a day. They did this but no helicopter arrived as the pilot was taken ill during the flight and obliged to abort the mission.
Forced to now use their radio they found that the set they had was malfunctioning. In fact they could transmit but not receive messages. Their call for assistance was heard by a US pilot, but they were unable to hear his response. Many sorties were flown in an attempt to locate the patrol, but ended in failure and they were taken prisoner by the Iraqis. Again we see a pattern. The goat herd, the radio, the sick pilot, all seeming to conspire to put a spoke in the wheel of military affairs. Could this indeed be another case of “bad luck”?
1979. Operation Eagle Claw, the rescue of the Iranian Embassy hostages was meticulously planned with first class troops, and yet due to a mix of sandstorms, hydraulics problems and pilot fatigue there was a gulf between what was planned and what actually happened. Whose fault was it? Not Delta Force, they had made their plans with the greatest of care, not the Iranian Republican Guard who were entirely unaware of what was going on. It could only really be put down to the most dreadful “bad luck” again.
Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, involved major airborne landings scheduled for the night of the 9th and 10th of July. US paratroops lost 23 transport planes when they flew over friendly naval vessels. A nervous gunner on one ship opened fire and was immediately joined by almost every other vessel in throwing up a curtain of anti-aircraft fire. The result was that the pilots broke formation and the paratroops were scattered over a wide area, many far from their objectives.
However friendly fire was not the only issue to contend with that night. Particularly strong winds meant that many of the troop carrying aircraft were simply blown off course. Of the 147 gliders carrying British airborne troops only 12 landed on target. 69 crashed into the sea. Again, the plans were sound, and the Germans and Italians had nothing to do with these events, it appeared to be simply “bad luck”.
In September of 1777 Philadelphia was occupied by British forces. The war was going well for the British, with a number of victories giving them the upper hand. William Howe left some 3500 men in Philadelphia and moved with just under 10,000 men to Germantown, with a view to destroying the rebel forces in that area.
For George Washington Howe’s dividing of the British forces presented an opportunity to attack and potentially deliver a knock-out blow. His plan was audacious, involving four separate columns advancing by night from different directions to create a double envelopment and then launching a concerted attack at dawn.
The dark night made co-ordination of the columns almost impossible, and most of them progressed more slowly than had been anticipated. As dawn broke thick fog hampered operations further, and then a small outpost of British troops barricaded into a large stone residence held out for far longer than anyone could sensibly have expected, drawing in more troops to what was essentially an insignificant side-show.
As if things were not going badly enough one of the rebel columns veered off course, fell in with another column and thinking them to be redcoats opened fire. A brief firefight ensued before both parties withdrew in some disorder. A lack of co-ordination meant that the British were able to fight off the individual columns in detail, obliging a general rebel retreat.
Now let us consider what went wrong. On the one hand the plan was entirely sound in theory. Had the four columns arrived at the right time, had they all stuck to the planned routes, had the day not been so damnably foggy, then possibly Washington could have destroyed Howe’s force. Such a victory, combined with Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga, could well have obliged Lord North’s government in London to end the war and recognise an independent United States.
On the other hand, one could point a finger at Washington and blame him for expecting rather too many things to fall neatly into place in a pre-ordained sequence. However were this to be a wargame with no representation of friction, things may well have done just that.
All of the examples we have looked at have focussed on what could be described as unexpected events that occur in war. Events that are not errors on the part of commanders, their intentions in all cases are entirely sensible and well meaning; their planning is logical and thorough. What is more these events seem to occur without any assistance from the enemy. So if neither side is responsible, who is to blame?
I guess we could put all of this down to chance or our old enemy “bad luck”, however these unexpected, unplanned events clearly occur with such regularity in warfare that we cannot simply write them all down to “bad luck”. Indeed so prevalent are such incidents that soldiers have developed their own language to describe the effect. FUBAR and SNAFU being just two examples that are best left as acronyms in polite company.
Fortunately for us there is a more polite definition. Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military theorist of the early 19th century, is probably best known for his assertion that “War is the continuation of policy by other means”, a now almost universally accepted definition. Yet if one reads his writing in Vom Krieg, one finds that this is not the truly central tenet. Clausewitz’s writings are extensive and cover many areas of military thinking, but the one thread that runs through them all is introduced in a short chapter entitled “Friction”. It is a mere three pages long, and almost worth reading in its entirety, however I will quote selectively to give the broad thrust of the principle.
“Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war.”
“Countless minor incidents – the kind you can never really foresee – combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls short of the intended goal.”
“Action in war is like movement in a resistant element. Just as the simplest and most natural form of movements, walking, cannot easily be performed in water, so in war it is difficult for normal efforts to achieve even the most moderate results.”
“Friction, as we choose to call it, is the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult.”
So there we have it, a clear definition of how things go wrong. At every point in war the commander must anticipate that friction will interfere with his plans. Not good news if you are a commander of a force, however large or small. Friction can serve to paralyse operations at all levels. We have looked largely at the effect of friction on the big picture, but one can see that if you are commanding a platoon sized patrol one man twisting his ankle in a rabbit hole can significantly affect what you can subsequently achieve. Indeed this is friction at its lowest level. But let us assume your patrol’s effectiveness is reduced by just 10%, and as a result of that margin you consequently fail to identify a enemy force massing just a hundred yards further on, with enemy sappers clearing your static defences. This small event can have an entirely disproportionate impact on events. Think of those German navigators over Harrow. What impact did one Confederate piquet shooting Stonewall Jackson have on the course of your Civil War?
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
And so it is. Even the smallest incident can have huge consequence.
So, if we accept that friction is a reality that affects warfare at all levels, the question we surely need to ask is not whether we should be representing it in our wargames, but how.
I should digress slightly here in order to define what I mean by a wargame.
What is a wargame?
In the most simple terms I would propose that there are two types of wargame. The first is a game played with toy soldiers, the second is a game that attempts to represent war in a credible manner, and may also be played with toy soldiers.
I must immediately point out that I have always seen wargaming as a broad church, where different approaches and preferences can happily co-exist. I see neither one nor the other version of wargaming is “better” than the other, rather like Ford and General Motors you have a choice which one suits you best.
What I will say, possibly contentiously, is that there does seem to be a significant minority in the hobby who favour the former and consequently deride and attempt to shout down those of us who prefer the latter. On wargaming web sites one will often be told that
it’s only a game
it’s impossible to be realistic
there are no bullets flying so it can’t attempt to model reality
or the perennial choice between “Fun” and “Realism”.
I disagree, and to a great extent I think the fact that Historicon has this very War College must surely indicate that for many of us wargaming is more than simply playing a game for fun. We could get the Monopoly set out or Buckaroo if that was truly the only objective.
For me wargaming is an opportunity to have fun, it is ultimately a game and should be enjoyable to play, but also a chance to view history through a game which presents an historically plausible model of warfare. With every set of wargame rules that I have developed I have learnt more about military history and developed a greater understanding of not just what decisions were made, but why, than would have been possible through simply reading a library full of books. Yes, naturally developing a set of wargame rules involves a lot of research, but with reading I am still often left with uncertainty as to why certain choices were made. On the tabletop I can often discover the answer.
If you create a plausible model of warfare you can learn from it. Indeed the story of the von Reisswitz Kriegsspiel rules proves this. It’s an old story, but worth retelling. When in 1824 Lieutenant von Reisswitz presented Kriegsspiel to General von Muffling, then Chief of the Prussian General Staff, he was met initially with a luke-warm reception. As the game developed however, von Muffling’s attitude changed. “This is not a game” he declared:
“This is training for war. I must recommend it to the whole Army”.
And indeed he did. For the last 180 years and more Armies around the world have used games or simulations in order to give their peace time armies practical experience in readiness for times of war. Fortunately nobody at West Point or Sandhurst says, “It’s just a game, let’s not bother”.
In truth I find it hard to believe that those who are most vociferous in their claims that “it’s just a game” are really that divorced from history. Were you to place them in a game where infantry moved 12” and cavalry moved 6”, or where a 0.50 cal HMG had a range of 4” and a smoothbore musket a range of 12”, I think they might be less than happy. You could always tell them “it’s just a fun game, it doesn’t matter, you can’t model reality anyway” but I think they may be tempted to disagree with you.
So we expect our games to reflect realistic march rates for our troops. We want our weapons to have ranges and capabilities that are believable. These seem to me to be the most fundamental building blocks in constructing a set of rules. But what of friction? Well, here I shall turn to Clausewitz again and quote what I think is a sentence that goes directly to the heart of the matter.
“Friction is the ONLY concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper.”
The only thing that distinguishes real war from war on paper. That defines just how important friction should be in a wargame. Without it we are simply looking at a game that reflects the theory of command, nothing more than shifting a series of models to well rehearsed maxims. With friction we have a chance to face the challenges that approximate those that real Generals faced. Clausewitz again.
“The best General is not the one who is most familiar with the idea of friction and who takes it most to heart…The good General must know friction in order to overcome it and not expect a standard of achievement in his operation which this very friction makes impossible.”
To me this is as clear as a bell, and yet to some in the hobby the idea of restricting their command ability in any way smacks of unwanted interference.
To some degree this is reminiscent of a couple of old historical arguments that surfaced in the wargaming hobby many years ago.
The first I don’t recall as it was settled even before I was born, and that was morale. Brigadier Peter Young was adamant that it was the commander’s morale that counted, not that of his men, and that units of model troops were expected to fight on to the last man; each one a tiny lead hero. This argument was, of course, unsustainable in the face of reality and by 1962 when Don Featherstone published War Games there were morale rules in place.
The second spat I do recall back in the early 1970s when I first started wargaming was over national differences in troops. As I recall this largely centred around a set of Napoleonic Rules published in one of the Airfix Guides. The details escape me but what is certain is that wargames rules today rate troops of different nations in different ways without the smallest complaint.
It seems to me that friction in games is now at the same stage where the two sides are drawn up to fight for their cause.
In this I am minded of the much reported clashes between Baron Jomini and Clausewitz in the period after the Napoleonic Wars. In truth Jomini, and Clausewitz agree more than they disagree, but in broad terms they differ in two significant ways.
Baron Jomini was a disciple of Napoleon, he had served as a senior staff officer in the Grande Armee, and his works were well written and served as a comprehensive tactical primer for the age of formal battles. Jomini saw the battlefield as a stage upon which a great commander could perform, his subordinates all pieces in a giant game which he could wield using fixed military principles, laws of war one might say, to achieve great results.
Terms such as Interior Lines, Concentric Attack and Turning Manoeuvres are his bread and butter, as they are today for modern military men, and indeed one hopes wargamers. For Jomini the factor of uncertainty is represented simply by the morale of troops. If a commander can ensure that his troops are in good spirits then he can apply fixed and proven rules of war as a means of ensuring certain success.
Clausewitz on the other hand, suggests that war cannot be governed entirely by fixed principles. He states:
“An irreconcilable conflict exists between this type of theory and actual practice.”
He agrees with Jomini on the theory of war, for example both would agreed on the advantages of a central position or an attack on a flank, however for Clausewitz there is always friction which means that whilst a commander may determine the course of action he wishes to take, he can never be certain of compliance by his subordinates.
There are clear parallels between two wargaming camps. One likes the certainty of Jomini’s fixed rules. For them the challenge is a fight between two Generals whose skills in the art of war will decide the victory. This is represented by rules which tend to be fixed and devoid of friction. Indeed the imponderables are limited to the morale impact of the battle on the participating troops. In the other camp are those of us who prefer a more Clausewitzian view of history. We can make our plans, but we must be aware that by simply sending an order we cannot assume absolute compliance. We may know when we want a column to begin its march, but we can never have certainty as to how far it will get in any specified period of time. Yes, we know roughly what we can expect our men to achieve, but we have no certainty.
In the simplest sense this is illustrated by the classic wargame scenario. I am facing my opponent across a six foot long table with a river running across the centre and a bridge in the middle. For both of us our objective is to seize the bridge. In the Jominian model of war the side which moves first will reach the bridge first, and what is more they will have absolute certainty that they can do just that. In the Clausewitzian model nobody can be certain, even up to the last moment, who will seize the bridge and win the game.
I would suggest that with the Jominian model Wellington at Waterloo would not be worrying about the Prussians as he could work out quite clearly that they would be there on turn 17. Franzecky in the Swiepwald at Koniggratz would be equally certain that he could hold out because his supports would be with him on turn 12. George Washington’s four columns would all move 6” a turn and arrive on cue. On D-Day all the troops would land on the right beaches. The Light Brigade would have fought an insignificant action and Scarlett’s Heavy Brigade would get the credit they deserve. Indeed without friction war could be reduced to the simplest principles. However the fact is that in real war this is not the case.
“In war everything is uncertain, and calculations have to be made with variable quantities”
It is my proposal that a wargame without friction is merely a game of theory, a pleasant and amusing fiction but not an experience which can teach the gamer anything of the realities of war or command. For me a wargame should see a player faced with challenges that mirror those of his historical counterpart. I do not want to have a God-like ability to predict with any certainty what my troops will do. Instead I want to know that if I devise a simple plan it is more likely to succeed than a complex one.
For precisely these reasons the rules that I write incorporate friction. By utilising the card driven systems that are so prevalent in TooFatLardies rules we actively seek to create a backdrop of chaos which the players need to master in order to achieve their goal. This is not to say that chaos is our objective, indeed the art of war is to create order in a chaotic setting, and it is that which we seek to replicate. Clausewitz states that training and experience are required to overcome friction. In our rules it is the quality of the leaders, the Big Men of the battlefield, that allow us to do just that.
When we make our plans we need to consider not our own ideal plan of action, but how we will achieve this in reality. Our commanders are our resources and we need to allocate them according to our requirements. We should consider, as a real commander would, how many points of friction could there be where things could break down. We need to ensure that the best men do the toughest jobs as they have the greatest chance to manage our plans through to a successful conclusion.
By incorporating friction in our games we hope to provide the gamer with a more realistic challenge and ultimately, one hopes, a more enjoyable experience.
Are there any questions.
So, that was it. We followed my presentation with a Q&A session which pretty much drew on the mechanisms that I use in Lardy rules to represent friction on the tabletop. One gentleman was kind enough to describe my presentation as “provocative”, and indeed it was meant to be. However, not to provoke an argument, but to provoke thought amongst gamers with regards how we make our experiences more “real”.
Intriguingly this was an issue touched on by Neil Shuck and Henry Hyde in their latest View from the Veranda in their wide ranging discussion on the difference between a gamer and a wargamer. For me the former is anyone who games, whereas the latter is someone who seeks to model some aspects of warfare in their games. And it is this point which leads me back to Griefbringer’s original post. If, as he suggests, in order to be commercially successful a set of rules needs to hand absolute power to the participants then I am, frankly, on a commercial hiding to nothing. However, there is one crumb of cold comfort within his posting on TMP and that is when he states [games which restrict command and control] “can gather a smaller enthusiastic following amongst those who enjoy the challenge that can be found in the problems of command”.
I think the key word there is “smaller”. Smaller is a difficult word to nail down. I do believe Griefbringer is absolutely correct, TooFatLardies rules will probably never enjoy the commercial success of the systems that attempt to tick all the right boxes in order to be that perfect “game”. They are unapologetically an attempt to provide some insight into warfare and most importantly the challenges of command. Of course they do use what we believe are fun mechanisms to achieve that, but not to the exclusion of historical plausibility. What I do believe fervently is that the “smaller” portion of gamers who are looking for a more interesting challenge based on the Clausewitzian understanding of the uncertainties of the battlefield are now a larger group than they were five years ago. Smaller, yes, but growing.