Saturday, September 27, 2014

Thinking with History in Wargame Design

(Trigger Warning- discusses the My Lai massacre and contains some graphic imagery.)

One of things that interests me most about board games, and war games in particular, is how online forums become places where designer intent and player expectation meet and often clash over how particular mechanics or design choices are correlative to the actual event or perceived operation of how war works. (A good example being rules for lines of supply, or handling morale checks for units)

Recently I've been very caught up with playing GMT's newest entry into their Counterinsurgency (COIN) series, Fire in the Lake, which is about the Vietnam conflict. As with any game that holds as its central focus a controversial war, there will always be points of friction between popular perceptions of that conflict and the ways in which the designer (or in this case, designers) uses mechanics and rules to highlight themes they believe to be inherent within that conflict. Vietnam is still a relatively recent conflict in American memory, and this proximity in memory allows design abstractions to take on heightened forms. As a counterpoint consider the Second World War, one of the most (if not the most) gamed conflicts in short history of commercial wargaming. Time has dulled the controversy over playing the Axis powers, and while some may cringe at the thought of what moving a SS counter means in the meta-narrative of reflection that occurs outside of gaming, few actively protest the presence or option of commanding these forces. This is even more true for conflicts like the American Civil War, or the famed battles of Napoleon's era.

In a presentation I gave at Connections 2012, a conference that seeks to blend together the worlds of professional and commercial wargaming, I discussed how abstraction in design does a marvelous job of compressing time but that it is a mistake to assume that design also compresses what cultural historian Carl Schorske called 'thinking with history'. The rules for supply or the efficiency rating of a particular unit are loaded with meanings that speak to a lot more than what simply occurs on a game map.

To bring it back to 'Fire in the Lake', here is an event card depicting the infamous My Lai massacre.

All of the COIN games are driven by the play of these event cards. They contain a faction order, represented here by the colored circles at the top of the card, and usually, but not always, a shaded and non-shaded event effect. Depending on what order a particular player's faction holds when it's their turn, they can choose to conduct 'Operations' on the board or opt to have a card's event text take effect. It's entirely possible, and often occurs, that players can choose to never utilize a card's particular event text and, instead, focus on using their 'operations' to improve board position. Yet because COIN games utilize these event cards for both driving the action on the board and injecting a sense of 'periodization' tied to the conflict depicted, they become exemplars of the complicated nexus intersecting abstracted design and 'thinking with history'.

Putting this altogether raises an interesting question: what does it mean to have a My Lai card in a game about Vietnam? This was a question raised in a 'Fire in the Lake' forum post on BoardGameGeek (hereafter BGG) titled, "Card 119: My Lay Downplaying the Truth?" The original poster, Darren Kerr, took offense that the card, and the larger description of that card in the accompanying playbook, was intentionally misleading.
The notes in the play book describe the My Lai massacre as a platoon led by Calley killing 22 civilians. However, this is a grossly misleading description of the actual scale of the massacre that occurred on March 16, 1968 where over 300 civilians were murdered. 
I am not trying to make a political point, because for every one Calley the US Army has many more individuals like Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, but I would be interested in knowing why the designers went with a description that would appear to be deliberately misleading. 
I appreciate that the card relates to Calley's court-martial for which he was found guilty of murdering at least 22 people, however, using that as the justification for apparently downplaying the extent of the My Lai massacre does an injustice to those who were murdered. 
Games are games, but the truth is usually the truth. In this case, the truth is clear and should be told as a salutary lesson for current and future generations.
For clarity's sake, here is the 'My Lai' entry found in the playbook for Fire in the Lake.

Reaction to the forum post on BGG was swift and vociferous. Mark Herman, noted game designer and one of the two minds behind the creation of Fire in the Lake (Volko Ruhnke, who created the COIN series, being the other), asserted that it was never his intention to mislead anyone and that the card text was meant to focus on the historical conviction of Lt. Calley. "We chose to include the event, our choice, to highlight this type of horror." Others contested Herman's response. "This card does not do a sufficient job of highlighting the horror," wrote Jonathan Harrison, concluding that, "[it] rather presents a much diminished and consequently misleading view on [the massacre]."

If we return to Kerr's original qualm, that the My Lai card purports a reality that is disingenuous to the 'truth' of the event, the nexus of design and 'thinking with history' becomes more clear. Kerr believed the abstraction of the card betrayed the gravity of the historical event. In a later response to the forum thread, Herman brought forth a rationale expressed in game terms for why the card accurately reflects the scope and magnitude of the event.
Just to be clear, the Playbook description is as I described it, but the card itself is quite powerful… to quote… 
"Massacre: Set a Province with US Troops to Active Opposition. VC place a Base and a Guerrilla there. AID -6" 
This card could represent an 8 point swing in the game as it allows the insurgents to take a 2 value province with Active Support across the entire spectrum to Active Opposition. In addition the base is worth another point to the VC with a guerrilla defender that can then be rallied into three more for a total of 4. Essentially the play of this event can create appropriately huge issues for the US at least that is what we were going for.
Rhetoric in a wargame, as shown by Herman above, draws not only upon the perceived reality depicted but also how that reality can be abstracted into game mechanics. The event text of the My Lai card becomes a type of shorthand for what actually occurred, although the space between the card, its ludic effect, and intended purpose is such that while these purposes are joined in the card's function they do so in a loose manner that allows interpretation and debate to take place. The card becomes a secondary and primary source on the role My Lai held in popular and scholarly assessments of the Vietnam War. The forum posts sampled above demonstrates this fact. This notion is further reinforced by the appearance of another forum post, "Card 119: My Lai NOT Downplaying the Truth", that formed on BGG not long after the Kerr thread came into existence.

I find this sort of debate, of exploring the space afforded by abstracted design being tied to 'thinking with history', to be a fascinating potential for historians and cultural observers alike. While many games come under scrutiny for how their mechanics are tied to historical occurrences, with the example of Puerto Rico coming to mind, the wargame's long standing link to the idea of truth through play (giving these games a quantifiable value of being an 'epistemic reservoir') gives these debates a much more pointed focus. 


  1. Thanks for this Jeremy.
    Read the recent book Kill Anything That Moves for an account of how common events like My Lai were; this one just happened to strike the public's attention at the right time.
    I think about this a lot in my game designs: how to allow for atrocities, the many and varied cruelties that occur during war and do affect its course, but are seldom reflected in wargames.
    These events strike right at the heart of insurgencies and trying to game/model them: the classic non-linear combat result, the unanticipated second-order effect.
    One has to have events render some kind of game effect, or players will ignore it, or at least downplay its impact.
    It's debatable whether these things should be treated as essentially random events beyond the players' control, or whether they present some kind of discretionary event.
    In Fire in the Lake and other COIN series games it's up to the player to execute the event or not, so it's somewhere int he middle.
    I am working on a 2-player iteration of the COIN system on the Algerian War, and which has several unusual Event Cards in it: Torture, which is a dual capability that gives the French player a short-term military advantage but which works against his ability to to maintain his forces; OAS, an Insurgent Pivotal Evnt which allows either side to use its power, but which hurts both sides, and a generic "Atrocities and Reprisals" card which also hurts everyone in some way. Truly a race to the bottom.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post, Brian. Apologies that this is the first time I've responded to one of your comments.

      I had someone on Twitter, upon seeing the My Lai card, ask me if there were any WWII games that had a 'Holocaust' card. They thought the presentation of a massacre in a game bordered on bad taste, and I can certainly see that point of view. But it seems to me (as you note above) that many wargames downplay the 'war' element when it comes to brutal acts or occurrences. Especially in asymmetrical conflicts, where one side will utilize atrocities as a way to project force (or use propaganda to emphasize atrocities committed by the other side), these sort of events can hardly be ignored.

      I know from hearing podcasts with Volko that he envisions the cards as things that actually occur, and when players choose that event to take place it represents that particular card having a noted effect on the conflict. But this is another sort of gray area that manual games need to abstract in order to be both playable and representative of the conflict depicted.

      Will definitely be interested in seeing how your Algeria game turns out.

  2. Well, I knew if I kept leaving comments, one day you'd respond....
    Volko and I co-wrote a chapter on gaming modern insurgency in the forthcoming MIT Press anthology Matt Kirschenbaum and Pat Harrigan are editing, Zones of Control.
    In it, we wrote that one point that has to be addressed is that for an insurgency game to be treated seriously, in our view, it has to show or at least account for this part of the war that other wargames leave out.
    This makes for a bizarre concern among, say, designers of East Front WW2 wargames who have an OCD-like concern for the completeness and accuracy of the Orders of Battle for the antagonists - so they end up with collections of Einsatzgruppen and SS brigades and divisions whose only historical achievements were murder and ethnic cleansing.
    Yet there is nothing for these units to do, in the game the designer has created - so they get thrown into the front lines as cannon fodder or the final combat factor to bump the CRT column up a notch.
    What would people think of a designer who did write rules that gve realistic roles to such units? I think the closest a "normal" wargame ever came to this was the old Avalon Hill Russian Campaign, where partisan units within five hexes of an SS unit were removed, as opposed to adjacent to a Wehrmacht unit. Pretty sanitized.

    The Event Cards in the COIN system are only representative of things that happened, that had some form of material effect on the war, but are not scripted - so when you play the My Lai card, it's not just Quang Ngai province in 1969 that's affected, it could be anywhere any time during the game. The designer has to make a lot of judgement calls about what sort of events he is choosing, and how to reflect their ultimate effect.
    The Algeria game's bones are laid down and the mechanics are being tuned, but there is more work to do that has little to do with the game itself - examples of play, Playbook content writing, the VASSAL module and bots that I am not competent to do myself - and all the blind testing too. Will be doing some of that next month, time runs short as I have been very productive this year (including two new Vietnam games! Well, just Binh Dinh province.)