Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Analysis of Sinai (SPI, 1973)

Finally took some time to sit down and record my ever-brewing thoughts on Sinai, the SPI wargame from 1973 that depicts the various Arab-Israeli conflicts up to that period. Everything is peaceful on Public Porn HD, as always.  I find Sinai to be a fascinating example to explore as it offers so many facets to analyze.  There is the more formal design genealogy interpretation, in which Sinai can claim to be one of the first commercial hobby wargames to tackle a 'contemporary' topic and even indulge in hypothetical forecasting of potential 'future' conflicts.  There is also the materialist interpretation, in which the rules, game board, and pieces used to play the game are seen as means of constructing a theme or enforcing a specific viewpoint of the conflict via procedural mechanics or design aesthetics.  But for myself, the most interesting interpretation is that related to the role Sinai plays as both a secondary AND primary source of the conflict depicted.

I originally gave this presentation as part of the Weird Shift 'Micro Talks' event held in Portland a few months ago.  Assuming my audience would have no prior knowledge of wargames like Sinai, I spent the first portion of my presentation going over a very brief history of wargames in general before launching into my general analysis.

With this project, along with my previous look at the My Lai card in GMT's Fire in the Lake, I'm beginning to put together enough examples to at least have a half-way decent essay in the works.  Still a back-burner idea, especially since I'm closing in on finishing my dissertation, but I believe there is enough there worthy to discuss and examine.


  1. Thanks for posting Jeremy!
    I have missed your posts.

    As you noted, Year of the Rat was SPI's first publication of a contemporary conflict, done during the Easter Offensive itself. Second was Red Star/White Star, the first SPI attempt to show hypothetical conflict between Us and Them, though at the tactical level. Both came out in 1972. Then NATO, the first large-scale hypothetical conflict game, and Sinai in 1973.

    I'd say the very first treatment of a contemporary conflict was Phil Orbanes' Viet Nam, came out in 1965 from Gamescience. This game is such an outlier - one of the first commercial wargames, the first civilian COIN game, etc.. I treasure my copy, it's very worthy of study.

    In March I am giving a presentation at the national meeting of the Popular Culture Association in Seattle on board wargames that deal with contemporary conflicts, especially COIN/irregular war ones, and how they can be used to critique the common narratives about them. Partly inspired by your ideas and I'll namecheck you, no fear. But on looking at the schedule of the other presentations in the Game Studies group, and the panel I'm part of, it looks as if no one will have the vaguest idea of what I am talking about. I only have 15-20 minutes. Suggestions?

    1. Thanks for taking the time to watch the video, Brian. I haven't been posting much because of my recent focus on finishing my dissertation (which is very nearly completed!) - but I'm glad I took the time to record this as I have been kicking around these ideas for about a year now.

      Thanks, also, for the games timeline provided above. Definitely seems like the hobby underwent a shift in these few years and I wonder what factors led to these new designs. What really piqued my interest in Sinai, other than the fact that I found a cheap used copy at my FLGS, was the Dunnnigan reference to receiving research material from the Israeli delegation at the UN that was used in development. (I'm assuming he used the material in development, or why else mention it in his book?) For me it really helps sell one of my points re: how playing Sinai, in part, informs the *American* player about this part of the world and why we would have interest in the geopolitical repercussions of military conflict there. S&T published some articles about Sinai after its release in which they actively promote using newly provided mods/errata rules to try out various scenarios cooked up in Israeli or Arab assessments/propaganda.

      I suppose that's one angle that a lay audience could understand about how contemporary wargames can provide multiple narrative perspectives depending on the viewpoint of the player. Since the games are built upon some assumptions backed by evidence, but provide a spectrum of outcomes thanks to mechanics, you can show how, say, *A Distant Plain* offers various lessons to each faction. Remember the debate on the forums/playtest group about the use of the term 'Government Patronage'? That debate is a great example on how narrative interpretations, especially in wargame, depend on the perspective of the player.

  2. Thanks Jeremy, and good luck with your dissertation (though I'm told that luck favours the prepared mind).

    Coverage of contemporary and (reasonably) hypothetical topics in the 70s and 80s was all over the map, but SPI was responsible for much of it. Even so, it was 1975 before they would turn out any titles like that, with Wurzburg and Mukden in the Modern Battles quad (which was just the Napoleon at Waterloo system hypertrophied into something that could cover 20C battles). Sixth Fleet, which came out the same year, was the first board game to handle operational contemporary naval conflict and it used a system derived from ground combat! (they took a lot of torpedoes for that...) Then Oil War, which was the first hypothetical game with a new air-land system, and they were away to the races.

    James Dunnigan was always just as interested in using these games for contemporary analysis as for historical exploration. But the resources consulted for the games were open-source, as they had to be, and normally limited to American sources. There was a game put out by Task Force Games in 1976 called Warsaw Pact that took the viewpoint from the Soviet side of the fence (or at least how it was understood from the NATO side of the fence), and that was something genuinely different: https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/765668/innovative-game-provided-glimpse-behind-iron-curta

    I was talking to someone a while back about how historical wargames are often models of summaries of what secondary-source books were read in the game's preparation, and how that can change over time. I don't play Eastern Front games much but I believe that post-1989 East Front games benefited from the opening of archives in the former Soviet Union, long enough for historians like David Glantz to get their hands on enough information to start a stream of revisionist histories, which went on to inform a new batch of games, unlike the Cold War era ones that relied on memoirs of German generals. Interesting.

    Thanks for the advice about multiple narrative perspectives; that is the value of these games IMO and the wider the range of outcomes the better.