Wargame Thoughts and Commentary

General Sherlock Holmes


One of the aspects of war-games that I personally enjoy, but is rarely commented upon, is the joy of solving the puzzle. People are used to solving many other forms of puzzle games, such as the solution of a crossword puzzle, the deciphering of a code or rebus, the final pieces placed in a jigsaw puzzle, or figuring out the best play of a card in almost any multiplayer card game-poker, cribbage, or whist.

War-games, especially the best of them in my opinion, have some aspects of solving a puzzle. You look at the field of play, note the terrain, the pieces in play, estimate the motives and nature of your opponent, and form a plan to win a battle. Many aspects of the puzzle are unknown and must be, to use Sherlockian terminology, deduced. What is that enemy unit worth? What is the best line of attack? How do I best utilize the rules of the game to my advantage? The evidence (clues) are assembled, and the solution to the puzzle is winning the wargame. Some people do this better than others.

In war, that is exactly the skill of the best generals. They seldom know the location, type, or capabilities of every piece in play, particularly the enemy pieces. They sometimes, particularly in transitional periods of warfare, don't really know all the "rules", which is why bad generals are often accused of fighting the last war-the one whose rules they do know! What they are required to do is discover the best ways to use their units, given the terrain, and the rules that ARE in play. They must SOLVE the puzzle.

This is frequently not required in war-games. In fact, some rules writers go to great lengths to avoid asking this of players. Everything is transparent. Most factors are completely known. Terrain effect is extremely predictable. Turn sequence is fixed. Morale breakpoints are known to all. Not to ask too much of the gamers, the writers then give them plentiful hints on play, often to the extent of providing an extensive play-through of the rules, with strong suggestions on play. This is the equivalent of giving a general a drones-eye view of the battle field, a 100% accurate OOB for all forces, including the enemy, and a trip into the future to see how the current "rules of war" should be best played.

In truth, this is probably good business, as it makes even the dullest gamer "smarter." No surprises. No need to think about things, its all quite self evident, and VERY obvious. The only thing left to account for is the plain dumb luck of dice rolls. A loss is then easily ascribed to bad fortune, not bad planning.

However, it takes the gamer and the game much farther from any passing similarities to actual command in war. Why do certain generals win and others lose? Education? Nope, intelligence has a role, but many a military school graduate has been outshone by some precocious leader from outside the system. Luck? Certainly that plays a role, but there is some truth that good generals make their own luck. Technology? Certainly, though through much of the horse and musket period the technology was essentially identical. Doctrine? Yes, though if any war lasted for more than a couple of years the doctrinal difference generally soon disappeared as the loser began to copy the winning pattern of "play." No, it all too often boils down to which general was a better puzzle or problem solver. Which leader or leaders saw the situation more clearly and formulated a solution to the battle before them, better, faster, and more cleverly than their opponent.

Marlborough, Villars, Maurice, Washington, Napoleon, Wellington, Grant all share this amazing capacity for solving the puzzle strategically, operationally, and tactically.

In our own group, there is one player that absolutely gets the interactions and hardly ever loses. (That isn't me!) There are a couple of players whose luck always seems to be bad, and defeat is a common outcome. They play the game, but haven't yet seen the answers. One of our gamers seems to have a reasonable grasp on the WSS solution, but was absolutely crushed in a recent FPW game when he tried the same solutions with very different problems. He failed to see that it was not the same puzzle.

In one of my latest blog postings, "E=MC2+DFII", I quoted a list from Einstein for solving problems-Number 10 was especially meaningful to me. " Learn the rules, and then play better!"
It is a dicta that I strongly encourage for new DFII players to explore. DFII is not a game where things are self-evident. Oh, it's a very simple game in terms of mechanics, but the interaction of those rules, and the implications of play are not obvious. The game rewards repeat plays and growing experience and perception of the best way to solve the DFII "puzzle." This requires a bit of patience and not assuming that your initial effort reflects the game, when it is well played. You must solve the puzzle. It is worth the effort, I guarantee you!

You must also grasp that the solution may be indirect and not simply discovering a sure pattern. On that note, I leave you with my favorite exchange between Holmes and Col. Ross from "The Mystery of the Silver Blaze':

" Is there any other point to which you wold wish to draw my attention?"

"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

" The dog did nothing in the night-time."

" That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.

Have fun, think about puzzle-solving, and I recommend reading Sherlock Holmes very highly. He would have been a very good general.