Wot I Think: Simulating War by Philip Sabin

To Professor Philip Sabin a wargame isn’t just a plaything, a contraption for turning weapons-grade boredom into 24-carat fascination. To the man that teaches the World War Two in Europe, Warfare in the Ancient World, Fighting in the Air, and Conflict Simulation modules at King’s College, London, high-quality historical strategy games are invaluable research and educational aids, as useful in their own ways as conventional written histories. In his latest book, Simulating War, he explains why his Strategic Studies students are often to be found hunched over hexgrids, and details a design approach that, though geared towards the creation of board wargames, contains much that will interest and inspire computer wargame creators.

When you spend a significant portion of your leisure time in the company of digital diversions like Combat Mission, Command Ops and Graviteam Tactics, it’s tempting to think of board – or ‘manual’ as Sabin likes to call them – wargames, as obsolete… bumbling Gladiators in a sky full of darting Bf 109s. Simulating War is a powerful reminder that games you can paw, sneeze over and spill tea on still have advantages over their less tangible descendants.

To Sabin, manual wargames are cheaper, more malleable, more democratic, and more accessible than computerised equivalents. While the author acknowledges the solitaire play, FoW, command simulation and networking advantages of series like Airborne Assault, Hearts of Iron, Combat Mission, and Decisive Battles, and frequently uses flight sims in his classes…

“First Eagles allows me to explain basic fighter manoeuvres in the context of World War One, and to show how well-handled scouts could attack two seaters from the blind spot beneath their tail. Battle of Britain II lets students experience something of the massed air combats of 15 September 1940 from the contrasting perspectives of a British and German fighter pilot and a German bomber gunner, and it conveys wonderfully the problem of distinguishing friend from foe in these tangled and fast moving engagements… I employ IL2 to let students see the difficulties that inexperienced German pilots had in finding and strafing Allied airfields during Operation Bodenplatte.”

…his firm belief that students learn as much from fashioning simulations as playing them, means roughly half of Simulating War’s 350 pages is devoted to the science and art of designing simple yet resonant board microgames. Chapters covering subjects like accuracy vs. simplicity, simulation research, component design, and command dynamics explore everything from deciding on a game’s turn structure, and map grid pattern, to determining how much randomness is appropriate for your combat resolution system.

Even if you’ve been playing and designing wargames for years, the incisive analysis of the pros and cons of the various approaches, is sure to illuminate; the emphasis on simplicity, elegance, and – above-all – robust historicism, is bound to cause you to look afresh at any designs currently on your drawing board. The same bulky manuals and overflowing counter trays that render some manual wargames impractical in a classroom context (The author insists his students work within strict 100 counters, 17” x 22” map, and 7500-word manual design guidelines) turn many promising PC wargames into wearying labour camps. Sabin argues, extremely persuasively, that less is often more in the world of wargame design.

Eight of Sabin’s own bijou creations are described in detail in the second half of the book. Along with full rules, and short illustrative AARs, there are notes in which the author explains design decisions, objectives, and the testing process behind titles like Block Busting (a company level WW2 FIBUA sim played on a 9 x 6 square grid), and Roma Invicta? (Hannibal’s Italian campaign played out on map divided into 13 regions). We learn about the inevitable compromises that come with the relative simplicity, but also see how very subtle aspects of warfare can be explored in crisp, DIY designs.

Big Week, a recreation of the last day of the ‘Big Week‘ Allied air offensive, forces US players to grapple with tough escort provision dilemmas, and German ones to confront difficult scramble timing and pursuit questions. Hell’s Gate (a Korsun Pocket sim played on 20km hexes) illustrates why pocketing was such a common feature of land warfare in WW2 and “helps students understand the fundamental trade-off between massing forces for increased combat effectiveness (whether attacking or defending) and spreading troops more thinly to guard an extended front.”

In Fire And Movement – “a simple grand tactical simulation of an attack by a British infantry battalion in 1943-45” Sabin “rejects the fetish for detailed simulation” creating “a radically simpler model” in which terrain, manoeuvre, firepower, and ammo usage are all sketched with the lightest touches yet end-up feeling strikingly credible. Simplicity isn’t a panacea in wargame design, but in the hands of designer as well versed in military history and wargame design as Sabin, it can feel awfully like one.

The author admits he’d love to see serious manual wargames shelved alongside serious military history in high street bookshops (he cites several examples where board wargames actually provide more trustworthy information than well-regarded written histories). Given this desire, it’s a pity that the book doesn’t come with easily extracted examples of one or more of the eight games. Colour reproductions of maps and counters are included, but with boards spread across several pages, and counters often printed on map reverses, assembling a usable game would require fiddly scanning or serious biblio-brutality. Yes, you can download printable game assets via this website or buy Victory Point Games’ deluxe version of Hell’s Gate but a tear-out-and-play example would have complimented Sabin’s accessibility agenda far more naturally.

In between the (slightly pointless) plates, the revealing design notes, the pithy rules summaries and the wealth of practical advice, Simulating Wars contains clusters of highly readable pages on the morality of wargaming…

“Board wargames are abstract reflections of a few of the physical dynamics of particular armed conflicts, and their devotees tend to be peaceable, intelligent and often rather apolitical individuals who read widely about all aspects of military affairs. There is no sense, as some have argued with violent video games, that playing the simulations fosters real-life aggression and desensitises users to the moral gravity of actual warfare and killing. Indeed, the experience of seeing how easily plans can go awry and severe losses can be sustained is far more sobering and salutary than the jingoistic feelings of invincibility fostered by Rambo-style movies and video games”

…its history as a military tool…

“During the interwar period, Doenitz used wargaming to develop his wireless-based ‘wolfpack’ tactics for U-boat attacks, while US Admiral Nimitz later claimed that ‘The war with Japan had been re-enacted in the game rooms here by so many people and in so many different ways that nothing that happened during the war was a surprise – absolutely nothing except the Kamikaze tactics; we had not visualised those’”

….and its problematic public image. If you are looking for a history or an overview of the pasttime, you should probably look elsewhere, but the mass of practical design advice is leavened with enough historical references, wider observations, and tactical insights to keep a casual wargame consumer turning pages.

A rallying cry for wargaming DIY and a treasure trove of design tips, the book has caused me to blow the dust off a couple of board game prototypes. It’s also left me wondering if modern PC wargames aren’t trying to do too much. Where Sabin’s manual game designs focus on a key dynamic of their subject matter, striving to simulate that dynamic with the minimum of fuss and rule clutter, many leading computer wargame devs seem keen to simulate every possible aspect of their theme in as much detail as possible. When they inevitably fail in some area, we the punters and reviewers complain about the failure. Perhaps it’s time for a new breed of less compendious, more streamlined and honest computer wargames… games designed to deliver specific messages, communicate specific historical truths. Failing that, are there any devs out there willing to hire Sabin as a design consultant on an improved, 21st Century version of the Wargame Construction Set?

Simulating War: Studying Conflict Through Simulation Games is published by Bloomsbury Academic and is available in paperback (9781472533913) at £15.30 and hardback (9781441185587) at £22.50.


  1. Duke of Chutney says:

    I’ve played the VPG edition of Hells Gate. Its not a bad for a small hex and counter, but imo, with the hex and counter format in particular you do need some complexity and depth to make it really interesting. You don’t have to go quite as far as OCS or GBOH, but having the opportunity to cut supply lines and plan out combined arms operations makes it more fun. With block games and card driven games i tend to think the less is more approach works better.

    Do you play many paper and card war games Tim? If you do write us up a column on some of them. We have Cardboard Children on this website so i see no problem with you venturing beyond PC on occasions.

    • Tim Stone says:

      You can cut supply lines in Hell’s Gate. Going by the play example in the book, it would appear to be a pretty important aspect of play. The absence of a combined arms attack modifier does seem a trifle odd but adding a house rule to cover such attacks would be simple and very much in the Sabin spirit.

      I don’t do a lot of board gaming now, but I do like to keep an eye on what’s happening in that neck-of-the-woods. If I ever get round to another ‘Heavily Engaged’ piece then there’s a good chance a solitaire board wargame will be the subject. Probably either Raid on St.Nazaire or B-17: Queen of the Skies.

      • Duke of Chutney says:

        I found a real cutting off of supplies in Hells Gate relatively rare if the German player moved well. Tanks in open terrain is the way to go to deal damage, but i only played it 3 or 4 times.

  2. Scurra says:

    I definitely recommend this. I read it a year or so ago and the range of practical design advice is invaluable (and some of the games have considerable merit too.) And I agree with the conclusion to this piece – the indie renaissance has been about games that are about something – maybe this should spread more widely.

  3. Philopoemen says:

    I worked on COTS simulations that were used by various militaries back in the day, and they all had the same drawback – they did what the client wanted them to do. There was the rise of Manouevre vs Fires based theories etc, and proponents of both sides wanted *their* theory to reign supreme when put on display. So games like Decisive Action were very much on the supremacy of artillery (Fires) and something like TacOpsCav was much more movement biased. etc etc.

    Historical games have always seemed much more organic, and while board games are nice, playing something like Gary Grigsby’s Russo-German War gives you a much better appreciation of Barbarossa than the equivalent tabletop games, and takes up much less room.

  4. Haphaz77 says:

    Good read.

    “many leading computer wargame devs seem keen to simulate every possible aspect of their theme in as much detail as possible.” Reminds me of my maths classes where I was told ‘all models are wrong, but some are useful’. No simulation is going to match real life, so it is futile to try, but you can get interesting results (for military wargaming) or

  5. hemmingjay says:

    Thank you so much for including the last photo of the box cover from Wargame Construction Set. I loved that “game” so much and put in over 100 hours at a time when people didn’t do such things. The included campaigns were excellent but the included tools really let you achieve remarkable designs for the time and even now(other than graphics). It was a truly important title in the development of strategy titles on the PC. Kudos for including it in this story.

  6. CookPassBabtridge says:

    I bought this ‘book’ and can only say that I am dumbfounded that the author would go with such a non standard format. I have tried jamming it into a standard CD slot (just made funny noises like tearing paper), and there’s no USB slot.

    I’m all for progress but for heaven’s sake.

  7. rofltehcat says:

    How heavy on images and diagrams is the book? The sample from Amazon only has one figure that I can display on my phone (I read e-books on my phone, judge me) but some of the article pictures (scans/photographs?) show colored tile maps etc. that would be impossible to navigate on it.

    Or would you recommend the print edition?

    • Tim Stone says:

      In addition to the 24 colour plates (counter sheets and boards for the eight featured games) there’s 29 black and white figs. These include graphs, diagrams illustrating concepts like ZOCs, and, accompanying the AARs, board sketches showing games in process. Only the latter are really important (without them you may struggle to follow the AARs),

  8. ludicrous_pedagogy says:

    Great WIT!

    “The author admits he’d love to see serious manual wargames shelved alongside serious military history in high street bookshops (he cites several examples where board wargames actually provide more trustworthy information than well-regarded written histories).”

    Yes and indeed in the secondary school classroom. What better way to make history class more engaging! If anyone’s interested they should try Jeremiah McCalls ‘Gaming the Past’ which is a practical guide for using games to teach secondary history education. It’s something that has inspired me in creating special lessons for history classes in the school library I run (which is mostly full of games).

    “Board wargames are abstract reflections of a few of the physical dynamics of particular armed conflicts, and their devotees tend to be peaceable, intelligent and often rather apolitical individuals who read widely about all aspects of military affairs.”

    I covered parts of this is my dissertation when I was talking about the alternative thread to ‘militainment’ in the history of computer war-gaming.
    If anyone’s interested p12-19 I think:
    link to drive.google.com

  9. Gothnak says:

    I bought some wargames at an auction recently, and received them at the weekend. One of them is called ‘War of Europe’ and sells for £170 on ebay… On the box it says ‘Average playing time 180 hours’, What the hell, that’s just the average. I also need to catalogue all 3600 counters before i list it :p.

  10. GenBanks says:

    I want to take this guy’s class!

    I think games in general also provide another, broader insight into the past. I did my undergraduate degree in history and every first year student gets taught about the great debates on the nature of history and what drives historical change. For example, there’s the Whig view of history which is that the past is a narrative of progress, there’s ‘great man’ theory which, predictably, portrays ‘great men’/heroes as the fundamental drivers of history, and you get all kinds of other theories which place emphasis on more systemic social/economic factors. Jared Diamond (the Guns Germs and Steel guy) talks a lot about environmental factors, that the success of the western nations is based on their advantageous geography. In individual wars, historians argue about the importance of individual battles, or whether outcomes were made inevitable by economic fortunes etc.

    Video game designers actually make big statements on the nature of historical change, intentionally or not. Most strategy games are arguments about the nature of history to some extent. Total War games have an interesting relationship between economic fortunes and battles, showing how an individual battle can be decisive but if there are three more stacks of units coming up then economic weight is usually going to win the day. Civilization has a huge chunk of Jared Diamond to it (starting location) while also giving lots of weight to strong economy and good leadership. Crusader Kings gives (to me at least) a stronger impression of history as being a kind of overwhelming wave, with limited potential to influence things on an individual level (but I haven’t gotten to a very deep understanding of Crusader Kings yet). By their nature, video games tend to provide at least some weight to the ‘great man theory’, since they need to give the player some sense of agency, but there’s still a surprising amount of variety and interesting ways in which games can be linked to schools of thought on historical interpretation.