The Historical Angle, and a Few Others
There are other aspects of a game which provide opportunities to examine the situation from different angles. For instance, air, land or naval games all have different characteristics. The same goes for the level of the game, whether it be tactical, strategic or the operational. Specific key elements to be looked for also vary with the period. Ancient warfare had different key elements from Napoleonic wars or World War II. What follows is a discussion of all of these specific periods and areas and what the player should look for in each of them.
Quick links to the various periods
- The Ancient Period (3100 B.C. to A.D. 600)
- The Dark Ages (600 to 1200, also know as the Medieval period)
- The Renaissance Period (1200 to 1600)
- The 30 Years War and pre-Napoleonic Period (1600 to 1790)
- The Napoleonic Wars (1790 to 1830)
- The American Civil War and the 19th Century (1830 to 1900)
- First World War Period (1900 to 1930)
- World War II (1930 to 1945)
- Games of the Contemporary Era (1945 to a Few Years From Now)
- Fantasy and Science Fiction Games
The Ancient Period (3100 B.C. to A.D. 600)
It is unfortunate that the market is so thin for games in this period that we must cover such a sweeping era in human history in one "period." Ironically, demand for games of this period demonstrated a dramatic increase in the wake of Communisms collapse in 1989. With the resulting demise of popularity for all those "Warsaw Pact/NATO" games, many gamers suddenly became very eager to know more about ancient history. Very curious, but a true fact (based a consumer surveys and game sales).
While there was a lot of activity in this period from the viewpoint of a student of history, most of the military developments in this period were basic in the extreme. This era starts around 3100 B.C. with the beginning of recorded history. Much of our information of the earliest period is centered around the civilizations of the Middle East, primarily Egypt, and much of it's derived not directly from written sources but from archeological findings.
During this time, the organization of armies had not progressed very far. When it came to operations on a strategic level, however, large kingdoms and empires were being formed and maintained over generations. Thus, really large armies, people numbering in the thousands, were capable of being raised and maintained only for as long as they could feed themselves in the field. For this reason, most of the campaigns in this period were little more than large-scale raids. The objects of these foraging expeditions were somebody else's food, utensils, treasure, women, slaves or what have you. War in this period, indeed up until quite recently, had to pay for itself. Any games treating with warfare in this age had to deal with the fact that the armies could literally die because of errors in the leaders' calculating where the food was or wasn't.
Warfare in this period was very much an extension of local politics. These raids, that passed for campaigns, were conducted for the furtherance of political goals: to punish a neighbor, weaken a neighbor, steal from a neighbor, frighten a neighbor, assist an ally, force someone to become an ally. The threat of a few thousand hungry spearmen descending upon one's farmlands was usually a strong motivator for a change in political outlook. The kings of Egypt were never reluctant to use such a tool and because of the fertility of their farmlands along the Nile it was quite possible to go to war any number of times during the year, as long as this occurred between the planting and the harvest. At other times the king had only a small bodyguard at his disposal and it would have been foolish in the extreme to risk his person in a foreign land with such a small armed force. Professional armies were not going to appear for a while yet.
On a tactical level things weren't much more encouraging. Chess, I should point out, is a rather accurate rendering of tactical warfare in this period. Indeed, it is a fairly accurate rendering of warfare (with some exceptions which we will get to) up until the last few hundred years.
To see the chess connection, consider what two armies had to go through in order to fight a battle in this period. After the general had managed the miracle of getting his army to meet at a certain place (where the enemy also happened to be) and the other side had deemed it a good idea to fight a battle, both armies would line up facing one another, normally with their mass of spearmen in the front ranks, archers, if any, just behind them. Cavalry would be on the flanks with perhaps a reserve of the most trustworthy spearmen behind the archers under the direct command of the king or general himself.
It's important to note that very few battles were capable of being fought throughout this entire period, unless by mutual consent. The amount of time required to get the troops lined up in any sort of battle formation might be five or six or more hours. During that time the other army could simply march off. And often did if the prospects did not appear promising.
Cavalry was not much superior to infantry in this period. Some combat was possible from the back of a horse but not much and the foot soldier was not at the same disadvantage he would be after the development of the stirrup and the more heavily armored horseman. The stirrup was invented about 2,000 years ago, but up until about A.D. 500 most cavalry did not have it, which meant that the horseman was rather insecure on his mount. Therefore, it was possible to use cavalry for little besides rapid transportation for what was essentially a foot soldier. Horses tired easily, and had to be fed and watered besides. Large, all cavalry armies, did exist in this period. But only in large grassland areas and even then these masses of nomads could only operate during warm weather when there was plenty of grass to feed the horses. Since most of the early civilizations formed around heavily farmed river deltas, there was not a lot of well watered grasslands nearby to support large numbers of mounted nomads. Any nearby nomads were few in number compared to the masses of farmers and city dwellers.
The battles of the period depended somewhat equally upon the stamina and resolve of the opposing forces and the charisma and skill of the opposing leaders. The leader generally couldn't move too many units at the same time (no radios) and usually could move them only in a forward direction. A more skillful army would be noted for its relative abundance of effective leaders. But no matter how many effective leaders there might be in the entire army, communications was always an enormous problem. The battle line might extend for a few hundred yards with the troops shoulder to shoulder and anywhere from half a dozen to a couple of dozen ranks deep. An army containing 3,000 spearmen, 1,000 archers and 1,000 cavalrymen (or chariots) would be a fairly substantial army indeed. Fully deployed it might extend for only 200 or 300 meters plus cavalry or chariots on the flank and a small reserve (often the royal bodyguard) behind the battle line with the king. A more highly organized army might have its spearmen divided into contingents, generally under the command of the noble who raised them. Feudalism is an ancient institution.
With all the noise of 4,000 or 5,000 men (plus horses) standing about in such a small area (even if they were under orders to keep the noise down), sending a voice signal more than 50 or 100 meters would be chancy at best. Messengers could be used and often were, but they were relatively slow. Even more effective was the use of musical instruments and flags. It was not just for show that ancient armies marched off to war with a lot of flags and other pole-mounted signaling devices as well as a fairly substantial corps of buglers, drummers and other musicians.
But even with this type of signal corps, the range of orders that could be issued was rather limited. Generally, one could order advance or retreat. A retreat was always a rather risky operation as it might easily turn into a rout. Other key orders would be the commitment of the mounted troops or the royal bodyguard (often with the "royal body" as its head and this was rarely done for obvious reasons).
Once everyone got his troops sorted out and headed in the right direction, the fighting itself was rather desultory. In fact, the casualties tended to be rather light during the combat phase of the battle. Much depended on morale.
During this era, the bulk of military history shows that the defense had an advantage over the offense. Even the poorest spearmen generally had fairly large shields that they carried with them.
If they could afford it at all troops would have some rudimentary "armor" constructed of wood, multiple layers of cloth, wicker, or if they were really wealthy, leather. Metal, being such an expensive commodity, was usually used only by the wealthiest. Some type of protective head covering was also employed. The offensive weapons, at least up until about 2,000 B.C., consisted of spears and daggers. Up to that point, metal working had not yet reached the point where swords could be forged. Archery was also employed, but the bows were weak, the arrows crude, the arrowheads themselves being only mild bronze. For the most part, however, archery was employed in massive fire straight up into the air and down onto the enemy troops. If the defenders had their wits about them they would raise their shields and give themselves fairly effective protection. The front ranks would have their shields lowered to face the enemy spearmen. Once the two masses of spearmen met there would be a lot of jockeying about, pushing and shoving and a lot of other activity, the chief product of which tended to be fatigue and demoralization. It was simply a question of which side broke first.
I suspect that the side that could put on the most fearsome show (including the rival musicians, flag bearers and someone who could best be described as a "stage director") would prevail until the other side decided it wasn't worth it and tried to head for home simultaneously.
Most casualties were inflicted when one side began to hustle for the rear. It's one thing to try to get a shot at a fellow who's got a big shield in front of him. But when his back is shown, wound-inflicting prospects improve immensely.
As one would imagine, the fleeing enemy has more of an incentive to move quickly than does the pursuer. The army in flight consisted of many individuals in danger of either being killed or captured and sold into slavery (or worse, as torture and buggery were popular post battle activities).
It was during the pursuit of a broken enemy that the cavalry or charioteers came into their own. Chariots were expensive propositions: two-wheel carts drawn by two horses or other fairly swift draft animals (asses, donkeys, etc.) These vehicles were at their best in the pursuit of a broken enemy or in fleeing from a triumphant enemy. Then as now, the lowly G.I. did most of the work and comprised most of the casualties. The nobility and better-off soldiery tended to be mounted and made a major contribution only when the foot troops had won the victory. If the foot troops lost, the wealthier and more mobile soldiery would flee the battlefield largely intact while their less noble companions were slaughtered by the enemy charioteers and cavalry. Now you can understand why being in the cavalry was considered such a swell situation.
Through out this period, the most common form of combat was not the battle between two armies on a dusty field, but the siege. It was not for nothing that the first cities were noted for the walls. In fact, the walls came first, as without the walls anything within the city limits was easily seized by a superior army. Typically, an army would not invade a neighbor unless they were pretty sure that the victim could not field a larger force. The usual routine was to march in, grab anything worth stealing (food, animals, slaves) and march up to the city. If enough food was on hand, the invading army would lay siege to the city. The only thing that would prompt an assault on the walls was the assumption that there were too few defenders to resist and/or a shortage of food among the besiegers. A well defended city maintained food and water reserves for a siege. If these were adequate, and if there was sufficient warning of the approaching army, the local farmers would flee with animals and additional food supplies to the city (burning any unharvested crops as they did so). Obviously, if an invader was quick enough, he would arrive at an ill prepared city, short of food and local manpower needed to defend the walls. Sieges were risky, but skilled generals were able to bring them off. The price of failure was high, as a city not taken might send its own army to your walls in the near future.
Between 1000 and 500 B.C. a number of military "revolutions" took place. Around 1000 B.C. the age of iron really got rolling. Iron allowed for a number of improvements in weaponry and equipment. The introduction of iron swords made it possible for a more skillful infantry army to reach a decision without the pushing and shoving match that usually occurred in previous battles. The Assyrians came along with a number of innovations during this period, one of the key ones being archers on horseback. This opened up all manner of tactical possibilities, the principal one being highly mobile, long range firepower.
The Assyrian kings also instituted a number of other innovations which were not so obvious on the battlefield, except for the results. First of all, they saw to it that their troops were always well equipped and that weapons were kept in repair. This was not always done in the past and when it was found out it was often too late. The Assyrians also instituted an ongoing training program for their troops (who were still, as were most armies, basically a part-time militia.) Superior organization also allowed the Assyrians to put more men into the field for longer periods of time. Although accurate numbers are impossible to come by, a good estimate is that the Assyrians were capable of fielding armies of upwards of 30,000 to 40,000 men.
Another interesting innovation of the Assyrians was the use of mass terror. They would literally kill everything in sight if there was any resistance when they invaded an area. The shape of things to come, one might say. The word quickly got around, and before long all it took was the approach of an Assyrian army to add another victory to the Assyrians win column. The Assyrians eventually ran out of local enemies, got soft, and their former victims eventually evened the score. There aren't many Assyrians left. Those that do remain live in Iraq, where they are no longer noted for their warlike behavior.
Meanwhile, back in Greece, and off in Rome, many of the same basic ideas the Assyrians had developed were being reinvented.
By 500 B.C. warfare was becoming very highly organized. In fact, at this point warfare achieved a degree of organization that was superior to what would exist a thousand years in the future.
The armies of Greece and Rome (not to mention Persia) were models of modern organization. The organizations were rather formal (with units of 100 men, 500 men, 2,000, 3,000 men, etc., depending upon the army), with groups of leaders functioning as the trained officers for (and especially among the Romans) the beginning of a regular, fairly large standing army. At the height of the Roman Empire, between A.D. 100 and 200, the Romans maintained regular forces of more than 100,000 men. This, in an empire containing perhaps 100 million citizens, was an unheard of feat. It was for this reason, in addition to their overall administrative skills, that the Roman Empire lasted as long as it did.
Despite the increasing efficiency of field armies, the defense managed to say ahead of the offense. This was primarily through the more thorough development of the art of fortification. Fortified cities and military camps became extremely difficult to take, not to mention extremely expensive to take. It was not impossible but the professional armies that were becoming more prevalent (the Greeks of Alexander and the Romans of the empire period) generally had no trouble taking any fortified place if they wanted to badly enough and were willing to pay the price.
The most highly effective of the ancient armies still had to face the same basic problems of any ancient army: poor communications (over long distances) and mobility limited basically by how fast the men could walk (or travel by ship), and how much food could be carried or procured in any one area. These were harsh restrictions that were not really overcome until the last century.
The superiority of the Romans, for example (as well as most other successful ancient military organizations), was mainly a result of their more effective killing ability. The basic Roman fighting unit, the cohort (about 500 men), developed a battle drill in which the first two ranks of troops would vigorously engage the enemy with their swords and shields while the rear four ranks would throw their spears and hold themselves ready to relieve the two ranks fighting. This constant "assembly line" approach to hand-to-hand combat was usually invincible against less well-trained opponents.
Indeed it was not superior technology and skill that overcame the Romans eventually. It was sheer force of numbers. Even though the Romans tried (often successfully) to absorb the barbarians surrounding the empire, a combination of internal decay and tremendous external pressures brought it down. With this event, the ancient period came to a close. All was lost and the Dark Ages ensued.
The main things to look for in the ancient period are games that emphasize the politics and economics of warfare. These subjects were complex and interesting even way back then. For games on battles, look for an understanding of the details of these actions. Many of the military systems were not as simple as they looked.
The Dark Ages (600 to 1200, also know as the Medieval period)
The Dark Ages was overall a step backward in terms of military technique and technology. The one big innovation was the increased prominence of the mounted fighting man.
From 100 to 500 there was a seemingly never-ending wave of nomad horsemen armed with swords, spears and bows coming out of the central Asian plains. The horse archers would fire volley after volley into the foot troops. Then, when the defenders seemed suitably weakened, horse mounted lancers would charge in. With the aid of the stirrup, the shock effect of these horse lancers was nearly irresistible. Non-Oriental barbarians in Europe, particularly the Germans, adopted these Oriental
techniques and out of this came not only the destruction of the western Roman Empire, but also the development of a mounted armored "man at arms." This included the legendary "the knight in shining armor," but most of these guys were simply well trained and experienced swords for hire.
Because of the tremendous breakdown of organized society in western Europe, the European mounted warriors tended to be fairly independent individuals. They leaned toward more armor and less archery, not to mention less organization and, in large groups, less effectiveness. But since these men at arms generally fought one another it really didn't matter most of the time. Gone was the ancient pattern of warfare whereby the vitally protected infantry would do most of the work and take most of the casualties while their better-armed armored (and mounted) "betters" occasionally hacked away at one another, but more frequently pursued the enemy or left the battlefield when danger threatened. The medieval man at arms mainly wanted to go after another man at arms. Any low life infantry in the way were usually just ridden over (even if they were friendly).
Such superior military organizations that existed during this era generally followed the Oriental (Mongol or Byzantine) model. That is, they used fairly disciplined forces consisting of mounted or unmounted archers and equally disciplined and armored fighting troops armed with lances, shields and swords (or axes, or whatever).
In a time when there was a lot less wealth to go around, campaigns and battles became more infrequent. The Byzantine Empire lasted until the 1400s primarily because it had one of the more efficient fighting forces. But the mainstay of the Byzantine Army was the cataphract. This was a mounted and well-armored fighting man equipped with a very powerful bow, a lance, a heavy sword, a shield (with three heavy and fairly deadly darts behind it) and sometimes even an ax. The cataphract could fight mounted or dismounted. He could use his bow either way also. The cataphract was a pretty deadly combination and probably the most effective of the medieval warriors.
The battles themselves during this period hadn't changed much from the earlier period. There was still the communications problem, the battle still had to be by mutual consent (except when one side was mounted and the other wasn't) and most armies still depended to a large extent on part-time warriors, although the level of skill of some of these part-time armies was quite high. Since fighting seemed to be the thing a lot of these warriors would prefer to do, other occupations were dull but necessary.
This epoch was noted for some rather dynamic operations. The barbarian nomad continued to come in from the east and every few generations there generally would be some sort of campaign and battle. The battles tended to be quite dramatic. The campaigns could be rather dull. Within this era of 600 or 800 years there were still plenty of things that a gamer will find interesting, particularly the economics and politics.
The Renaissance Period (1200 to 1600)
As far as military history goes, this era was not so much one of renaissance as it was of transition from primitive warfare to the rudiments of modern warfare. During this time most of the military institutions, tactics, techniques and weaponry that we recognize today had their origins.
Infantry, for example, regained its premedieval primacy. It did so, ironically, by going back to the weapons, tactics and formations of ancient Greece-that is, the phalanx. This was a formation of spearmen. As with the Greeks, some of the spears were as long as 21 feet; there were a dozen or more ranks and every rank thrust its spears forward. The "spear wall" presented an unbreachable obstacle to the heavily armored cavalry. Although advances in metal working and armor design made the armor protection of the "men at arms" nearly invulnerable, their lack of training and discipline did them in as much as anything. The pike men of the Swiss and other German states were, in contrast, highly disciplined and organized. It was this as much as their use of the spear wall that enabled them to revolutionize ground warfare.
The next big innovation was to be found in the proliferation of missile weapons. The longbow of the English was only a temporary advantage as it required a considerable amount of training and practice, and this severely limited the number of longbowmen who could be fielded. The crossbow, although not nearly as effective in terms of rate of fire and range as the longbow, was able to penetrate armor and was capable of being used by relatively untrained soldiers. For this reason the crossbow probably saw a far greater use than the longbow. The traditional shortbow, the weapon of peasants and hunters, was still to be found. But given its ineffectiveness against most armor it was rarely a critical weapon.
During this epoch, gunpowder was introduced. Initially, it was used for rather crude cannon and soon some not-so-crude cannon. The chief use of these cannon was in reducing fortifications. This had a rather fundamental effect upon the conduct of warfare. No longer could an inferior force rely upon is fortifications to hold a superior enemy at bay. It was heavy artillery that was instrumental in bringing about the fall of Constantinople in the middle of the 15th century. Eventually, firearms became small enough to be used by individual soldiers. This did not become widespread until the end of this period. However, it's the beginning of modern warfare, because no longer was an extremely long period of training necessary to field an effective fighting man. The age of continuous, high intensity, warfare was dawning.
Mass warfare could still occur on an intermittent scale during this time. In the 13th century, Mongol armies laid waste most of eastern Europe and were prevented from overrunning western Europe only by political events in their homeland. Their army was primarily one of mounted troops, using discipline, archery, organization and an all-around higher quality "art of war" in general. They easily subdued their less well prepared European opponents. Throughout this period the Asian cavalry armies were a constant threat to European kingdoms. It was chance, more than anything else, that prevented more encounters. History shows that most of these encounters, had they occurred, would probably have been quite unfavorable for the Europeans.
Meanwhile, the Europeans seemed quite capable of destroying each other. The 100 Years War, for example, was a 100-plus-year period of intermittent warfare, pillaging, civil war and outright mayhem between English and French. But it had one positive effect: it helped to make possible strong centralized governments in each of the countries.
There wasn't a great deal of large-scale warfare during this era, primarily owing to the black death in the 14th century and the beginning of religious upheaval in the 16th. There was a lot of technical innovation, and you should seek out games that show this.
The 30 Years War and pre-Napoleonic Period (1600 to 1790)
This era begins with one of the most uncivilized wars ever fought in Europe and ends with some of the most "civilized" ever waged.
Between 1618 and 1648 the 30 Years War raged. Most of it was fought in Germany. It is alleged, with some substance, that parts of Germany have yet to recover from the hosing they got during that war. It was initially a religious war but it quickly degenerated into general anarchy, with mercenary armies ravaging back and forth across the landscape.
As with most wars of such intensity and duration there was considerable "progress" in military technique and technology. By the end of the 30 Years War there were a number of armies that were more than 50 percent armed with firearm weapons. Pikes, swords and such were on their way out. By the end of the 17th century the bayonet was being introduced. By 1700 the pike was little more than a tradition. After over three thousand years of preeminence, the spear disappeared from the battlefield.
One of the more important results of the 30 Years War was that the damage was so pervasive and intense that there was, by almost universal agreement, an understanding that it was not to be allowed to happen again. And indeed it never has, at least not to the extent of the 30 Years War.
Although armies were now armed almost entirely with gunpowder weapons and were somewhat better trained, they were still basically mobs that required hours of stumbling about to get into a battle formation. In other words, battles still had to be fought by mutual consent.
All of this changed with the coming of Frederick the Great in the middle of the 18th century. One of Frederick's most important innovations was his extensive use of the cadence step. This meant troops marching in step in a very highly controlled and disciplined fashion. This enabled him to literally outmaneuver enemy armies and force a battle when the other side might have wished to avoid one. The tactic was relatively unheard of and for the first time in military history one army could truly control events.
During this period, the standard tactical capabilities of armies were developed. Indeed, on the tactical level there was very little change during the Napoleonic era (at least as far as truly effective tactical techniques were concerned). Almost all the weapons that were available during the Napoleonic period were developed during this pre-Napoleonic epoch.
On the strategic level, naval movement ability and ship firepower, as well as the increased ability of governments to marshal financial resources for extended campaigns, was highly developed. And it went no farther during the Napoleonic Wars. The American Revolution, for example (1775 to 1781), was part of what was literally a world war with action going on in Europe and the Far East as well as in North America and the Caribbean. These world wide operations were largely the result of improved ship building techniques and the arming of these larger ships with many cannon. In fact, there was generally more artillery fire power at sea in this period than was available on land. A fleet of a hundred ships (not uncommon) could muster several thousand large caliber cannon. No land army could match it. Fortunately, the ships were confined to the seas.
It's a pity that there's not more interest among the gaming public for games of the pre-Napoleonic period. This is probably attributable to a number of reasons, the chief one being that the Napoleonic era overshadows it so much. Yet there was a greater variety of interesting situations during the pre-Napoleonic time than there was during the Napoleonic Wars themselves. There is some evidence of increasing interest among gamers for games of this period. However, this interest must grow quite a bit before publishers can do more games on this era.
Although a publisher has published one game on the Seven Years War (Frederick the Great), one could get a number of additional games out of this war (fought between 1756 and 1763). The War of the Spanish Succession (1701 to 1714) contained a great number of independent campaigns and some rather striking battles (Blenheim being one of the more famous). The great Northern War (1700 to 1721 in Russia) matched a very interesting group of opponents against one another and the list goes on and on.
The Napoleonic Wars (1790 to 1830)
This period, it goes without saying, was dominated by Napoleon and the French Empire. This was a time of lightning campaigns, national insurrections, fall of empires, the general reorganization of Europe and a lot of "color."
What a gamer should look for in this era is many of the tactical and strategic developments that matured toward the end of the pre-Napoleonic period. The one additional thing the player has is the increased importance of leadership. The Napoleonic era was one in which leaders counted for considerably more than they did in previous times, primarily because there was a lot more good leadership available, particularly on the French side. But the enemies of the French had quite another problem in that they were saddled with a truly overly generous allotment of inferior leaders. This discrepancy had a lot to do with the striking French successes early in the Napoleonic Wars. It wasn't just the ultimately superior numbers of France's enemies which brought Napoleon down. It was more a matter of a slight decline in the quality of French leadership going up against a marked increase in the quality of the leadership among France's enemies.
Many of the so-called tactical innovations of the French were merely temporary expedients. It was the British in particular who had a superior tactical system. When the French met the British it was quickly discovered that the massed French columns could not bludgeon their way through the disciplined musketry of the British two-man line. So it goes.
The American Civil War and the 19th Century (1830 to 1900)
This was a period dominated by one major war-the American Civil War-and a host of technical, doctrinal and organizational developments among the many armies that did not fight a major war.
It was by no means a time of absolute peace, only relative peace. The Germans, under the leadership of the Prussians, learned much from their experience during the Napoleonic Wars and developed the effective fighting machine that would be responsible for so much destruction in the 20th century. During the 19th century the Germans were so superior to their opponents that they humiliated the Austro-Hungarian Empire in a number of days (1866) and took not much longer to smash the French during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
The key development was the emergence of the rifled musket. This gave the infantry, for the first time in history, long-range firepower (out to 1,000 meters). This changed (until the 20th century) the whole concept of artillery usage. During the Napoleonic Wars artillery could be rolled up to within a few hundred meters of the infantry and blast away without much danger of being shot to pieces by the defending musket-armed infantrymen. It was demonstrated with deadly results during the American Civil War what would happen to anybody, infantry or artillerymen, who came within 1,000 meters of enemy infantry armed with rifle muskets.
At the beginning of the American Civil War most generals on both sides were schooled in the tactics and doctrine of the Napoleonic period. After a number of exceedingly bloody battles, they quickly changed their tactics. Casualties in the American Civil War were considerably higher than in the Napoleonic Wars, even after the new tactical realities had been comprehended. If it hadn't been for the ability of the Civil War armies to maneuver, the American version of World War I would have been fought 50 years earlier. As it was, the lessons of the American Civil War were largely lost on Europeans (most Europeans in power anyway). A gamer who wants to be successful in the American Civil War game on a tactical level cannot afford such blindness.
As noted, outside of the American Civil War there were few campaigns of any great significance during this time. The only exceptions to this general situation were those campaigns involving Europeans against non-Europeans. These were the so-called Colonial Wars. Although the Europeans had generally superior weapons, their tactics and doctrines were not always up to the needs of the situation. Most of these campaigns took place in Africa, although there were some in Asia. Many of them would make quite interesting games, but they too suffer from the same problem that afflicts most campaigns in the pre-Napoleonic era. Most gamers are not aware of them. It's simply going to take time for people to become educated about them. One of these campaigns in particular was noteworthy: the Boer War fought toward the very end of this period. The Boers, European immigrants themselves, although by now "Africans," gave the British quite a number of setbacks. The earlier campaigns of the Boers and the British against the Zulus also are of considerable interest.
First World War Period (1900 to 1930)
This period, dominated as it was by the First World War, had a number of previews between 1900 and 1914. There was the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, which on land contained all of the weapons and results of using those weapons that appeared during World War I. Not too many people seemed to get the message. After all, they were only Japanese and Russians and what did they know? In 1912 there was the Balkan War. In fact there were a number of Balkan wars, which also saw many of the weapons and techniques that dominated World War I put to use. Again nobody paid any attention.
The basic problem in World War I was that the defense had gained an inordinate advantage over the offense. Rapid-firing artillery, shooting from positions out of sight of enemy infantry (through the use of trigonometry and ground survey), and more modern machine guns were more than the unarmored flesh of the attacking infantry could withstand. It took the development of armored fighting vehicles (tanks), chemical warfare and modern infantry assault (infiltration) tactics to overcome these defensive advantages. Unfortunately, it took four years and many millions of casualties before the solution was found. By then the war was over. Because World War I covered such a wide area there's no end of interesting campaigns and battles. Immediately after World War I there were additional interesting wars and battles: including the Russo-Polish War, the Russian Civil War and various heavily armed disturbances within Germany.
One of the outstanding features of this era, aside from the general destructiveness of the weapons, was the lack of outstanding leadership anywhere. There were a few leaders who rose above the rest, but none of them could be said to have been truly exceptional. It was not a time of "great captains." Any games on the period should show this aspect where it becomes critical and this is often the case.
At sea, it was the beginning of modern warfare. The submarine proved itself in the North Atlantic. The battleships didn't do much of anything and the beginnings of air power against land forces showed, to those who cared to see, that it was only a matter of time before this new weapon also dominated naval operations.
World War II (1930 to 1945)
This was the definitive military event of the 20th century. World War I was the introduction and everything since 1945 has been a variation on the trends established between 1939 and 1945. Although World War II is considered ancient history these days, as the veterans of that conflict become grandparents talking about their distant youth, it still has a powerful attraction for historians and wargamers. Remember that when wargaming first began to emerge in the early 1960s, World War II was THE war. Korea was seen as a coda to World War II and Vietnam had not happened yet (and when it did, most citizens, historians and wargamers wished it hadn't).
Because so many games have been produced on World War II, many of the elements of that war that deserve to be covered by special game mechanics have already been dealt with many times over. So much so, that all games on post-1945 conflicts use World War II games as a point of reference. This was not the case with most other periods. By definition, our periods are defined as times when there was no dramatic change. The next period represented the next era of substantial change in how wars were fought. For all practical purposes, we are still in the World War II period. We have defined subsequent periods mainly because World War II was such a vast conflict. This has to be kept in mind when discussing games of the World War II and subsequent periods.
World War II brought about a revolution in the way warfare was conducted, every bit as dramatic as the revolution wrought during World War I. But while the tactical and technical revolution of World War I was essentially static, the revolution and technique during World War II were mobile and dynamic in the extreme. Moreover, the changes emerging in World War I were but the preliminaries for the full blown development of modern warfare techniques that matured during the 1930s and World War II.
For the first time in history there were armies consisting of millions of fighting men going at one another over a battle line literally thousands of miles long. It was possible to kill hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the course of a week-long campaign, while the victorious side might advance hundreds of miles. This last element, the huge territorial gains, was what distinguished World War II from the more static World War I. The basic ideas of mass warfare were there during 1914-18, but the mechanization that put the "blitz" in the blitzkrieg was not available until the 1930s.
To fully appreciate the implications of all this, one must realize that this type of dynamic activity was in the past restricted to battlefields usually no more than one or two miles in diameter. Until trucks and tanks were developed (and mass produced) troops could only advance as far as they could walk. Horses never really provided the same kind of mobility, as horses required enormous amounts of food and were very prone to injury and disease. Firearms made horses more vulnerable to injury on the battlefield than humans.
With mechanization, the same fluidity and dynamism of movement found in smaller battlefields was now being played out on battle zones hundreds of miles in diameter. If nothing else, this made maps of the battle more recognizable to the average person since they were maps of entire regions rather than small-scale maps of obscure crossroads where armies happened to meet one another.
Game designers didn't have too much trouble handling land operations in World War II. It wasn't much of a jump going from the Hussar squadron of 100 or so men on horseback to the Panzer division of 12,000 men (and more than 2,000 motor vehicles). Artillery had increased in its range but then so did the scale of the game map. In a Napoleonic battle each hexagon on the game map represents 100 or 500 meters. In a World War II battle where the artillery can fire 10 or 20 times farther, the hexagons represent 10 or 20 times as much space.
In land warfare, the unique dynamics of mechanized combat have been treated in an extensive variety of game rules. The primary thing the gamer is trying to recreate here is the ability of mechanized forces to rapidly concentrate on a portion of the enemy line, make a breach, then exploit it by pouring a certain number of highly mobile mechanized forces through it. This mechanized group then surrounds large portions of the enemy forces. What I have just described is what is basically known as the blitzkrieg. It was still being used in its World War II form as recently as the 1991 Desert Storm operation.
Where things really get complicated in World War II is when you input the weapons that never existed (in a big way) before 1939. Take air power. This spawned any number of problems for the game designer. You now had things such as airborne infantry, troops that landed by parachute. They had airplanes flying off ships. Those aircraft carriers had to be dealt with. Although ships still looked like the ships of fifty years before, dramatic changes had taken place. Entire armies consisting of hundreds of thousands of men could now be landed from the sea within the space of a few days. Thousands of aircraft could be put into the air against one enemy target within a few hours.
Over the past 10 years most of the design problems have been solved in one fashion or another. There is still considerable room for better solutions and much of this work will be done not only in the World War II games but also in the games of the contemporary era.
A gamer should be looking for two things in World War II games. Both of them are opposite extremes. On the one hand many gamers want a fairly simple game. He should look for one that deals "elegantly" with the key problems in the particular situation being simulated. At the other extreme are the more detailed games, in which the player is looking for more innovative and effective solutions to the problems occurring in that particular situation.
Since so many of the World War II battles have been done quite often on the same scale by different publishers, one is beginning to see some very elegant treatments of the more popular battles. This is creating extremely interesting games. Although the World War II era has lost much of the popular appeal it once had, it is still probably going to be the era from which some of the more interesting games will come.
And in the final analysis, World War II is still the area from which a disproportionate number of new ideas and concepts will come. The era is just too big. Too much was going on and it's too recent to be ignored as many of the older periods are. Hobbyists will dash off into the future and into the past for the novelty of it all, but they will continue to come back to World War II for the meat and potatoes of simulation in gaming.
Games of the Contemporary Era (1945 to a Few Years From Now)
Games in this area fall into two categories: those that are already historical and those that haven't happened yet. Most of the historical games in this period (from World War II to the present) are no different really from games done on World War II or an earlier topic. They are, however, more topical, not so much because they are closer to our present time, but because the developments in warfare technology that they demonstrate are that much closer to what would happen if certain armies went to war today or tomorrow. This is an important consideration when dealing with games of the present and immediate future. What all these immediate future and present games are can be summed up in one word: extrapolation.
Extrapolation is nothing more than taking a current trend and continuing it into the future. This works quite well in historical research. No technique is perfect but extrapolation has served better than any other. Of course, the farther into the future one gets the more shaky one's extrapolations become. This makes life a little more interesting. It also makes observing many of the contemporary period games interesting. When the events they "predict" actually occur it's interesting to see how close they were to what could and did happen.
Understandably, people in the military are most interested in these "predictive" type games. Not only the military, but also many civilian and nonmilitary governmental organizations have a keen interest in games of this sort. "Why," you might ask yourself, "would all of these organizations with all of their resources be interested in a predictive game from a civilian organization?" The reason is very simple. Civilian publishers do their games out in the open. They are published for all to see and criticize. As one book analyzing the professional wargaming scene put it (Harvard University Press: "The War Game," long out of print) stated:
"Some of the planning factors used in amateur wargaming may even be more accurate than those used by the professionals; at least the data are more openly available and are actively challenged by this large and active group of amateurs."
Games on wars not yet fought have proven remarkably accurate. I designed Sinai during the Summer of 1973, only to see my predictions for the "next" Arab-Israeli war come true. In 1990 I worked with designer
Austin Bay on a Desert Storm game. It was published in December 1990, and accurately predicted all that happened in the next two months. We are dealing with some powerful predictive techniques here, and the techniques are powerful because they are constantly honed on historical situations.
Beware, however of predictive games. The difference between a false prophet and a real one is usually detectable only after it's too late. Proceed with caution.
Fantasy and Science Fiction Games
These games, of course, are based upon fictional subjects. The science fiction games are usually founded upon books, stories (or, at the very least, ideas) as found in contemporary science fiction.
Fantasy games pay much less attention to science and much more attention to magic. I should point out, however, as a historian, that the plots and general frameworks of almost all of these games are derived from ancient and medieval topics. Much science fiction postulates an era of exploration, discovery and facing the unknown. It sounds like Christopher Columbus all over again. Fantasy games will also follow those plot lines, but in addition will delve frequently into ancient and medieval mythology and religion. Gamers I've surveyed who had a strong interest in fantasy and science fiction had an equally strong interest in the medieval period. This was surprising at first, but upon a little reflection not so surprising at all. This may explain how users of even fantasy games can get into arguments about "realism." Fantasy is often little more than the past the way we would have liked it to be. Science Fiction is the future the way we want it to be.
Computer fantasy and science fiction games are very popular because they can make visual things that otherwise are unlikely to be visualized. With historical games, we have a wealth of pictures from the past. Fantasy and science fiction is largely invention, and computers allow the invented visuals to be made concrete.
Unlike historical games, fantasy and science fiction have fewer restraints on what they can get away with. The designers as well as the users are eager to try anything. I find many innovative ideas concerning game mechanics can be found first presented in fantasy and science fiction games. These ideas can then be applied to historical subjects.
May the force be with you. So it goes.
Special Problems of Air and Naval Games
Table of Contents
Chapter 3 Table of Contents