Wargame Thoughts and Commentary

Process Oriented or Results Oriented?

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Late in the day at the close of Getzcon, Jim Getz and I sat for a while in my study and talked about war gamers and their reactions to various wargame designs. We also reflected on the way war gamers react to wargame rules. This was a particularly good time for our little discussion as we had just come off a micro-convention where several different wargame systems had been played, all of which shared a similar approach; Field of Battle, Die Fighting, Maurice and Longstreet.

We reflected on the different systems of wargame design, and how gamers either strongly approve of certain kinds of design or insist they don’t work, and that they will never play them. This even in the face of many gamers that find that those same designs do work, and that they would play nothing else!

Our discussion explored the ends and outs of designs that use variable card sequencing, variable unit values, and both conventional and unconventional combat resolution methods using cards, multiple die types, as well as direct and indirect means of measuring both unit and army morale. We chatted for quite awhile and then came to one conclusion; It isn’t anything intrinsic in the game design that leads to rejection of most rule designs, or even claims about whether they are impossible to play, but, rather, it is the gamer’s themselves!

Jim first suggested that gamers are either literalists and process oriented, or abstractionists and results oriented, in their expectations of a game design.

The process oriented gamer wants everything that occurs on the table top to be explained in the actual game play. If the Slobovian Guard advances on the enemy and exchanges fire, he wants to know how men fired and how many men, to the man, were hit whether an officer was hit and which one, and which way the wind blew the smoke after the fire. They want the game rules to break down each action into discrete steps that are each considered and overtly resolved, without equivocation or the “fog of war.” They want to know, and possibly control, every possible combat decision and outcome, with the minimal amount of chance or delay. Above all, they want outcomes to be the result of a literal and predictable process. They can only accept the outcome if it is the accretion of many,many layers of micro-decisions, all quite open, and without any irrational variables or hidden surprises. They see great generalship as a problem of weighing the factors that influence combat-drill, plan, weaponry, and muster, and, after weighing the obvious factors accurately, they expect a result that is always. always, highly predictable. They will only allow for a minimal effect of variables and unknowns-generally a die roll-and expect any outcome to be the result of the accretion of the processes without any surprises or unpredictable outcomes. They see battle as an extension of a rational, risk-adverse, process. It is chess.

The results oriented gamer is quite different. He certainly wants good history and valid decision points, BUT he wants fewer of them, and demands less “explanation” by the rule’s processes of the minutiae of what occurred. What he wants is a quick resolution that presents the next set of decision points. He wants the end result quickly and decisively. He is also far more open to surprises, the unpredictable, and the vast range of irrational events and chance that one finds in the historical accounts of battles. The results oriented gamer wants to deal with the issues at hand and wants to create the narrative of the game to move on to a series of problems to be solved, full well knowing that the resolution of this set of problems will lead to others. It is MANAGING battle field game play to maximize his “hand”, however bad, that fascinates him, not the accretion of advantages that lead to a certain, or near-certain, result. He loves the vagaries of a narrative replete with unexpected outcomes, upset plans, and the fact that there are few sure things. He wants his games to have a narrative with all the twists and turns of a good book or movie (and most battle histories). This is where card sequenced game design excels, as does the introduction of unpredictable elements into movement, troop values, troop effectiveness, as well as turn sequence. Clauswitz once said that battle is like a game of cards in its narrative aspects. It is poker.

Results oriented gamers often find process oriented games-just plain boring! It is not unusual for them to refuse to play process-heavy games, for the simple fact that it seems unexciting, and rather like drinking flat champagne. Results oriented narrative games require a certain imaginative mindset from the get-go.

Process oriented gamers simply feel that they don’t have enough information, or control, in a narrative game. It is too abstract in it’s weighing of variables, too unpredictable. They often refuse to play because the game makes no sense to them. When I first introduced Piquet many years ago, I remember Pat Condray deeming the design “Zen Wargaming” because it didn’t supply him with the, until then, “Normal” construct of facts, process, and accreted results that he had known for his entire gaming career.

There is no question that results oriented, narrative games have grown in number and sophistication over the last 20 years, but the Process games are still in the majority, and probably always will be-if for no other reason than they are more easily accessible to more people. They are more transparent and the aspects of good play are far more obvious. One of the characteristics of narrative games is the need for the gamer to deduce the best courses of action without the rules obviously stating them. This, alone, defeats the narrative games designs appeal to those who just want to be told what to do. Narrative games usually have a “puzzle” aspect to figuring out the interaction of the various rules systems for best effect. Process designs are explicit in their demands, while Results/Narrative designs are implicit.

There is, of course, room for both types of game designs, and either type of gamer is amply supplied with a tremendous variety of both approaches to wargaming. But make no mistake, when a design is rejected by a gamer or his group, the fault usually lies not in the game design, but in the gamer’s mindset. As with many other creative works, such as books, movies, or paintings, two different people will see very different things in the same object, and popularity is not necessarily the best measure of their intrinsic quality or long-term merit.