The Wargamer’s Curse

Decades of wargaming and simming have changed me in ways I’m reluctant to admit. Although I can still – thank goodness – see footage of death and destruction on distant battlefields and feel pity, outrage, and despair, forty years of exposure to ‘realistic’ martial entertainment means these feelings sometimes come jumbled with smaller, less empathetic thoughts and emotions.

For the last three weeks I’ve been following events in war-torn Ukraine with a mixture of horror, satisfaction, and fascination. The horror needs no explanation. The satisfaction is the grim kind that comes from watching a thuggish, bumbling, unjust Goliath stopped in his tracks by a brave, cunning, just David. The fascination? That’s an inevitable consequence of spending a significant chunk of your life in the company of war-themed games teeming with tactical and technical truths.

Taught to analyse complicated battlespaces and appreciate subtle weaponry differences by countless wargames and sims, I find it almost impossible to view the dramatic phone and drone-camera battle footage that’s been appearing lately on Twitter accounts like Oryx’s, without engaging my grog cogs. The materiel, the situations, the camera angles, the explosive denouements… they’re simply too familiar to prevent thoughts like “Hope the crew got out” and “God. More families plunged into grief.” from sharing skull space with “Textbook ambush”, “How would I have approached that?” and “That’s what happens when you probe with unaccompanied AFVs”.

The same games that have tutored me in the art and science of warfare have also inadvertently trained me to derive pleasure from the money shots that end many real-life combat vids. Ironically the user of high-fidelity military entertainment potentially gets a greater endorphin hit from missile movies than the gamer who plays war-glorifying, war-simplifying trash. More than most, we understand how much skill, patience, preparation, and luck is needed to turn a tank into a turret-tossing volcano, a helicopter gunship into a blazing comet, a convoy into a scene from hell. After all, we spend our evenings and weekends striving for very similar goals. The fact that our digital triumphs don’t involve the deaths of real sons and husbands, real fathers and brothers, is, of course, rather important, but it doesn’t, I think, automatically exempt us from all soul-searching.

A serious, life-long wargaming habit doubtless explains why I can’t read map-adorned articles like this one without picturing myself, a few years from now, playing a Ukraine 2022 wargame in which savaging and severing stretched enemy supply lines is a vital step on the road to victory.

Is it insensitive to contemplate digital diversions involving Z-daubed tanks and circling Bayraktars while people are perishing in Mariupol, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy? Both my heart and head murmur ‘yes’, but whether contemplated now or postbellum, serious wargames inspired by Putin’s ‘special operation’, will, I’m sure, eventually arrive. Crude arcade games inspired by the fighting are already popping up here and there.

Even if decorum or future events discourage mainstream developers from mythologising what may turn out to be one of history’s greatest against-the-odds survival stories, this conflict is sure to leave its mark on Simulatia and Grognardia. Like military analysts the world over, wargame and sim smiths are watching the war with saucer eyes, you can be certain of that.

The past few weeks have proved, beyond a shadow of a quadcopter, how useful drones – even cheap commercial models – can be on a modern battlefield. The attentive will have seen, for example, multiple demonstrations of their value as artillery battery FO aids. The idea of a contemporary or near-future tactical wargame without multiple forms of pilotless aerodynes now seems faintly ridiculous.

The vulnerability and limitations of angry houses have also been starkly illustrated by the vids and images coming out of Ukraine. While I’ve no doubt we’ll see special forces soldier sims set during the cataclysm, unless the Ukrainian army changes its tactics dramatically in coming weeks, I don’t imagine aspiring armour sim devs will be queueing up to recreate the conflict’s hapless T-64s T-72s, T-80s and T-90s.

Many makers of WW2 Eastern Front fare will I’m sure look at the numerous pics of hopelessly mired AFVs and wonder if they’ve shown that muddy troublemaker, Rasputitsa, sufficient respect in the past. Perusing similar images of vehicles defeated by hazards such as narrow bridges, steep embankments and yawning drainage ditches, has definitely deepened my respect for Graviteam. Unsurprisingly perhaps given their surroundings and back catalogue, the Kharkivites seem to understand better than most just how challenging it can be to keep hulking war machines moving and upright when tarmac, grip, and daylight are scarce.

“Do the makers of tactical wargames routinely under-estimate the importance of local knowledge?” is one of the more interesting questions I’ve found myself pondering recently. Terrain fog-of-war is almost unknown in our diversions, and perhaps shouldn’t be. The commander familiar with every ditch, berm, and copse on his section of the front, who knows which map lines represent vehicle-friendly shortcuts, which sloughs of doom, has a huge advantage over the invader who arrived in the neighbourhood yesterday, and has nothing but outdated cartography to guide him. Discovering where the enemy is and isn’t, isn’t the sole purpose of recon.

My blind faith in unscripted AI may prove to be one of this conflict’s least consequential casualities. We’ve grown accustomed to artificial adversaries who approach battles on Day 100 of a war exactly the same way they approached them on Day 1. The hardware might change, but the thinking and tactics generally don’t. Having watched the Russian approach in Ukraine evolve in under a month from “Swan towards objectives” to “Reduce objectives to rubble”, it strikes me morale and experience stats are often asked to do too much heavy-lifting in wargames.

Whatever conclusions the artisans of Simulatia and Grognardia end-up drawing from this utterly dreadful man-made catastrophe, the Wargamer’s Curse is likely to be a feature of the hobby for many years to come. I’m convinced wargames and sims can explore the art of war without accidentally inuring us to the horror in the process, but ask me for a list of games that pull off this magic trick and the list I’d proffer would be awfully short.

26 Comments

  1. Great article! I admit I was feeling uncomfortably weird, checking a war gaming website now that real life is concerned with real “war gaming”. It is a very paradoxical feeling: having acquired some military analytical skills from a war gaming hobby helps to make sense of the madness, but it also feels “wrong” now that is beyond the realm of simulations. Seeing it tackled in a discussion is great, even if I don’t have a solution, it still feels unconformable, to say the least. just sharing some random thoughts here.

  2. I’ve been having similar thoughts in recent days. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    One thing I’ve seen recently is a number of people getting into Combat Mission: Black Sea. I have mixed feelings about simulating a current conflict. I played Afghanistan 11, so maybe I’m just calling the kettle black, but one seems much more abstract than the other, so maybe that’s a factor.

    As far as Black Sea goes, I think it highlights one of the most glaring omissions in most wargames: civilians. When you hammer a city block with MLRS you aren’t just suppressing the soldiers there, you’re indiscriminately killing the people who live there. When you level a building you are taking away someone’s home. I think it’s not too much to ask for wargames to do a better job of modeling the human cost of war, and I think it’s possible to do so respectfully without taking away from the tactical/strategic experience.

    Sadly games have limited budgets and resources, so unless wargamers start demanding it, I expect civilian representation will be resigned to being a “nice to have feature” that gets left on the cutting room floor.

    • Definitely agree on the civilians aspect. A while back I was playing a scenario in CMBN as the attacking Allies and suspected a row of cottages of housing some irritating infantry AT troops, so I ordered a linear arty strike on the houses. Whilst I was waiting for it to come in, I did start to think about what I’d done in terms of the real world, but wargames are usually played out in a moral-free environment.

    • Lack of civilians is one of the most frustrating elements of computer games for me. It’s not just wargames, dumb shoot ’em ups rarely include civilians other than as an occasional gimmick, and “realistic” RPGs never get the ratio of non-combatants to baddies right (not to mention they often emphasize killing every last enemy over routing them or persuading them to surrender). I understand that it’s probably difficult to model countless actors who are milling around randomly – or hiding/fleeing in terror – but without them computer games can’t help but feel very “gamey”.

      I find it interesting to read interviews with developers who comment that they removed a “realistic” mechanic because it made the game less fun. I am sympathetic to that, because in most cases as a gamer i find it tedious to play a game which is exceedingly laborious – that’s what i have to do in my work life, so why would i pay money to do it some more in my free time? On the other hand, it does leave us with “sims” that don’t feel quite as honest in their simulation as we might hope in the abstract. I still feel like the holy grail needs to start with something like Warren Spector’s “city block simulator”.

      Stepping back from modeling individual civilians a bit, i suspect in the case of strategic (vs tactical) wargames, it would be easier to model war crimes. You could include something like a “brutality slider” that affects the morale of both your troops and the enemy, and perhaps results in a delayed propaganda effect that might either harden the resolve of the enemy, or influence them to surrender.

      What i find interesting about the current conflict is that i’m not aware of any wargames that model this kind of lopsided economic pressure on one of the belligerents. In games the battles seem to more be about who has the most boots on the ground, but in this case it’s two overlapping David and Goliath stories – the traditional Goliath has the bigger army, but the David has itself become a Goliath by wielding the economic power of almost the entire world. I’m not sure how you could model this in a game without getting even higher level and making it more of a global political simulation.

    • I think there’s another side to including civilians that puts a lot of studios off, which is that there will be some awful people who will revel in killing civilians etc. I can imagine a lot of game makers not wanting to enable people like that if they can avoid it. Nobody wants videos of their game ending up on the news because someone turned it into a warcrimes simulator.
      (It’s similar to the outcry about the phrase “deus vult” in Crusader Kings 2/3, which was a phrase from the Crusades which is much beloved by racist arseholes. Paradox were conflicted between removing it to hopefully alienate that kind of people, vs their commitment to realism and options.)
      It’s a tricky subject.

      • I’m a bit late to the party, but Phuzz is correct. Having worked on Fable, we intentially from the get go prevented the player from killing any children for example, as then the game in newspapers is primarily about ‘killing kids’ irrespecitive of everything else.

        So as soon as you put in ‘soft targets’ for the sake of realism, there will be a % of people who do it for fun and then a % of press with agendas that will try and use it to demonise computer games.

        The worst press we got with the Fable franchise was ‘My son played a game where he could have sex with a man!’. Beheading was never complained about though.

  3. Brilliant article. Maybe your bes. Courageous to tackle the topic at this time, but your thoughts mirror my own. I’m also about 40 years into wargaming and after processing the enormity of the whole thing, how this is a struggle for the soul of the West, I also thought: ok, I’m going to be playing this for the next twenty years.

    Key take away from the conflict so far from a wargaming perspective:

    1/ Infantry matters. You simply cannot have a tank armor battle simulation without powerful infantry. Here’s looking at you, Steel Beasts (it has infantry, but simplified) and Tank Crew (no infantry). The tanks are not omnipotent and all-seeing. It’s just people in there, after all.

    2/ Looking at the drone footage of tanks driving into fences, the lack of formations etc, I suddenly gained a lot of respect for the AI in Graviteam. My Graviteam battles often play out like that, total mess. Again, the surgical formation keeping in Steel Beasts just don’t cut it.

    3/ Morale is all important. Again, only Graviteam seem to get it right.

    4/ Graviteam specific comment: oh my god, the terrain actually looks like that. I always suspected they had skipped out on trees or something, but no 🙂

    5/ CAS: is difficult. Again, aircraft are not all-seeing. Without motivated infantry on the ground to help them, they seem pretty toothless.

    6/ Railroads matter like it was WW1 🙂

    Again, thanks for a very good read.

  4. Really appreciate this Tim. I like your final thoughts on how the non military cost of a stray shot should morally mark playtime/simulatia. I feel rather guilty about why that now seems more pertinent than for a setting based on any more recent conflicts though. Why didn’t I notice before?

    A shout out to the CBMS Black Sea forum though for keeping up on the military side of this so much better than the news.

    • Thanks for the tip on the Black Sea forum thread. I’ve missed reading some level-headed conversation about what’s going on from a drier point of view, something that i feel was more readily available in the blogosphere during Iraq. The common approach to reporting on this war has been more breathlessly emotional than what i look for in the news.

    • Tim´s link about russian logistics references the Institute for the Study of War blog. (ISW) Please note I don´t have the expertise to judge its accuracy or the existance of any agenda on its part, but I found it to be concise and informative. IIRC I stumbled over it years ago via an article in the Guardian. I am sceptical about it trying to make predictions, though.

  5. Thanks for this, Tim. A great article as always.

    I’ve noticed that as I’m glued to developments in the invasion of Ukraine as anyone is, I’ve stopped playing any wargames, sims, or military games in general. The brilliant Elden Ring has been a great escape from the rising horrors we’re witnessing. I remember feeling a certain type of way about wargaming during the Bush/COD era of gaming. Modern AAA gaming felt like jingoist propaganda and, like other commenters have said, the human toll of conflict was either abstracted or ignored in wargaming as well.

    For me, wargaming — whether it’s grogging over hexes, coffee, and a desk-bound notepad or mil-simming in modern military formations in Arma with almost a hundred other people utilizing realistic comms — is my equivalent of role-playing. I would never enlist, I’m a pacifist, I’m a leftist, what have you. My military engagements are purely recreational.

    When people I know, either family or colleagues or old flames from youthful vacations, are being slaughtered in real-time, that recreation feels a little more hollow. A little more contradictory. I take long breaks from wargaming, and other than Tiny Combat Arena, I’m on one now. Thanks again for the brilliant perspective, and SLAVA UKRAINI!

  6. When I see all the devastation in Ukraine I can’t help but think of the many hours I’ve played “This War of Mine”. I am humbled at the thought that I was playing a situation that many people are now having to live through. It really makes you step back and think about a lot of things, especially how lucky many of us are that we are not thrust into that situation. I can only hope and pray that the Ukrainians will prevail.

    • 100% agreed. This War of Mine got me through the first round of lock-downs, the bleakest winter storms, and now this.

      It really is an outstanding game, and I wish there was more interest in simulating the civilian conflict experience.

  7. Feel no guilt. People in the West of Europe and on other continents can watch events with a degree of detachment, and almost have to. We can condemn the wanton assaults on civilian populations but also decry the public humiliation of prisoners of war. We can provide the anti-tank missiles that are deployed so effectively and also assess their effectiveness.

    We can count the losses even as we argue the tactics, the strategic, the operational movements. We are observers, deterred from intervening by nuclear weapons and so there is no shame in observing.

    We’re also gamers. We can recognise that Armored Brigade doesn’t model the spring mud of chernozem plains. We finally understand the truth of Battle Isle derivatives that end up with logistic logjams on road networks. We can see our own gaming failures played out on a real battlefield, watch professional commanders make the same basic mistakes we’ve had to learn in our virtual entertainment.

    We can also see the videos of people dying. We can see the corpses, or what’s left of them. We can be thankful we get to just play the games.

    I won’t apologise for finding the footage, the reports, the assessments of the war fascinating. Even entertaining. I won’t apologise for wanting to play the ambush mission in Combat Mission Black Sea that was almost perfectly replicated by Ukrainian forces on the same road modelled in the game. I won’t apologise for wondering how games will learn from this conflict and change, and provide new and relatable experiences.

    Neither should you.

    • Not so very contradictorily to my comment, I agree. There is a certain access and perspective our hobby affords us, and the call to do that very same mission or to tackle some Graviteam campaigns has been strong. I have also bought all the Graviteam DLC I can.

  8. I think the terrain comment is a very astute one. I’ve often believed, especially in board games, that this local lack of understanding of terrain is a huge factor missed.

    Playing the AH game Up Front changed my perceptions forever (followed by Field of Fire in the current era). Not knowing the map and having terrain played as the game develops was really eye opening. Compared to Squad Leader, for example, where every good and bad location can be instantly discerned. Obviously, at higher scales, everyone can easily find the distance from, say, London to Cardiff or where the major mountain ranges of Europe are located. I think most people would struggle to name a dozen terrain features within a mile of their house.

    It’s funny that while units have fog of war in games like CM, maps are considered to be perfectly known.

  9. Well this is an interesting topic, because immediately on the outbreak of hostilities I couldn’t really bring myself to engage with any of the violent, semi-realistic computer games that I typically enjoy. It just felt wrong to be play acting at it while the human cost was very much on immediate display. When I really interrogated myself about my feelings, it was the knowledge that innocent people (being the people of Ukraine) were inevitably going to be on the receiving end of a very blunt application of force for no good reason. The word I kept coming back to describe what was going on was simply “evil.”

    However, as the conflict has continued, it’s become a much more nuanced set of feelings. Predominantly I want the Russian effort to fail. To the extent to which Russian troops are being killed, wounded or captured, my only comments are “good” and “more.” Why? Because right now we are witnessing war crimes. Because the world needs to see that wars of aggression can and should fail. Because Russia is simply so broke that the equipment that is lost will be difficult to replace. Because to rid us of Putin he must be humiliated, toppled and stained with the blood of his military personnel.

    Fundamentally, our rules-based order and modern liberal democracy survives on a willingness to inflict real violence on anyone who transgresses and this is a good reminder of what resolve looks like after a long time of having outsourced this stuff to 1% or less of the male population for basically minimum wage.

    So how does this relate to wargaming?

    Recently, I’ve been playing CMBS because I want to see Russian BTG’s blown up and torn to bits. It has become an effigy to my anger and disgust at what is ocurring. I’d be happy to blow up Russians into the future (tbh, in real life or on the computer). I’m appy to glorify the defenders of the Ukraine and to minimise the humanity of the Russian Armed Forces because they simply shouldn’t be there in the first place.

    Is there anything broader about wargaming to be observed as a reuslt of the current crisis?

    Well, I’ve concluded that it is right to be interested in in armed struggle. It does not per se harm anyone and in many respects it is less ethically questionable than fishing because no-one gets hurt.

    Second, one must always bear in mind the immense pity of war so that the study of conflict does become its celebration. One must strive to limit one’s interest in ways that are ethical and respectful.

    Third somethings are worth fighting and dying for, we must not lose sight of the fact that our strength is what brings peace. Sometimes you need to literally be prepared to die on a particular hill for the greater good of mankind. We shouldn’t shy away from how noble and meaningful that is. It deserves to be recorded, studied and remembered.

    So with all that said, I think we should still all seek out the unedited truth so that we do not grow found of it in the abstract. Show me the ruined cities, the burning BMP-2s, the MLRS strikes, the burning corpses and the civilians hit by mortar strikes and left dead in the street. Take it all in, that’s the true cost of conflict and why it can never be permitted or encouraged. Even though I find the sight of burning Russian equipment deeply satisfying I try to remember that for every burning T-72B3 there are more dead civilians than tank crews at this point and that, ladies and gentlemen, is literally a crime.

  10. Thank you for this, Tim. I’ve also noticed that weird endorphin hit that comes with watching footage of AFVs being shot up, and having to remind myself that these vehicles are crewed. I imagine this feeling must be even more pronounced if you’re professional military and seeing MANPADS or AT finally getting used against the Russian bear they were designed to counter.

    My own personal observation is that every nerd has a subject they want to wax eloquent about, and it’s a weird feeling when it’s an active shooting war where most of the equipment is familiar to you. ‘Oh, oh, that’s a TOS-1! It means…oh. It means there will be incredible suffering in downtown Kyiv.’ I sent in a donation to the Ukrainian Red Cross after that.

    On a related note, I can’t reiterate enough that most wargames don’t model civilian casualties, and teach you that only YOUR force casualties matter. Even Combat Mission’s modelling of limited ROE in SF2 just focuses on damage to civilian architecture, as if the war is being conducted in some Historic Preservation District and at the end an urban conservationist will just wag their finger at you and deduct some points.

    That this mentality also seems to also be a key element of real-life Russian urban-fighting doctrine in Grozny, Aleppo, and now in Mariupol, is to their shame.

  11. I feel I have little to give or to what to what other commenters already said. I fear a few jumbled thoughts must suffice.

    First this: It is not a curse. Some peoples´ brains simply react to the game of chance that is one of the three classical aspects of war. Some brains react to the piano, others to the bells and whistles of slot machines. And some to war.
    If these brains are more suspectible or more immune to remote PTSD by the immediacy modern media provides to the realities of this war, I could not say.

    What helps me to bridge the gap between gaming facination and suffering is to see this as yet another reminder to what a omniferous thing war is. It is a human activity and it touches all things human.
    I suspect few could watch the news about this conflict and not realize that it is not a purely military endeavour. The range of factors is mind-boggling. All of this re-entrenches my believe that a war will show the signs of its time. It doesn´t even stay the same from its start to its end. It has a zeitgeist. As does gaming. In fact, cultural activities are often the most useful tools to display and judge a zeitgeist.

    And I would very much assume that the activity gaming brains engage in instinctively is a neccessary component. It is critical to even imagine a way out of this. (Just consider the assumption of several experts at the panel discussion of the Harvard Kennedy School that serious peace discussion will only take place once the battle for Kyiv is underway and showing a discernible tendency. Right or wrong, what they did is game it through in their heads.)

    If war is a all-encompassing human activity the inclination to game with its probabilities is a part of it, too. It must.

    I am readily admitting, one would be an inhuman idiot to assume it would be the only or even the most important consideration. But familiarity with the mechanisms of war, even highly technical ones, are helpful.
    As a simplistic example: The way the russian army conducted itself in the first week of this war, strategically and tactically, tells us alot about the mindset and goals of those who started it and who planned it. This mindset has wide-ranging repercussions for peacemaking in this war and the political future of the whole continent, very much including the political culture that will emerge. I can´t do more than primitive name-dropping here, but the trajectory of the EU will certainly be heavily influenced by what key players and the public alike presume the russian actors are thinking.

    I suppose this a long winded way of me saying NOT to engage in gaming terms with the war in Ukraine will not help either. You must also game this through in your head, if you want the whole picture. And if anything shall ever get better, we need as much pieces of the whole picture as we can possibly get.

    I fear I have not been very eloquent or coherent and way too repetetive in this one. My apologies.

  12. What a thought-provoking comments section. I almost didn’t post this article, fearing it would be seen by some as grossly insensitive, or a cheap dig at the people who provide our entertainment. Reading your kind words and insightful takes makes me glad I pressed ‘publish’. Thanks.

  13. Bloody good piece Tim, and one that really resonates with me (and your usual crowd I suspect).
    My personal experience is seeing those long Russian columns, discussing with friends the best tool to get rid of them…and that resulted in me installing DCS and plunging for 3 weeks now in the A-10 module

  14. Well done and addresses questions people outside the genre might ask. For myself at age 65, I’ve seen enough movies and read enough books and heard enough songs to become as familiar with the blood and guts of warfare as I can without participating in first person. Perhaps importantly, as an American we had the war on TV every night from Vietnam. We had My Lai. And we had Gen. Westmoreland, perhaps the most disastrous American general since Custer, running the show. So I don’t have these qualms. I guess half a century of doing this I’ve built in the assumed gore that goes along with pushing symbols around a map, and that aspect doesn’t come to fore as it might with younger gamers.

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