While I like painting and modelling, what I love most about wargaming is designing and playing scenarios. Now those scenarios don’t necessarily have to be historical – it’s great fun to devise games set in a fantasy or sci-fi world. But for some reasons, I’ve become very interested in the American Civil war and I really enjoy researching the period. Fortunately, for the ACW, there is an abundance of sources available online – not only the indispensable Official Records, but also numerous autobiographies and regimental histories (many of them accessible through the Internet Archive).
However, this material can also become an impediment. Let me explain why. When I research a historical action, I try to find out as much as possible about what happened that day: which units were involved, what was the state of the troops, what was the terrain like, who was commanding, what did they plan to do, what did actually happen and so on.
The problem is that it is easy to get lost in those details. You may end up with a very detailed representation of the historical action, but nonetheless with a scenario that does not capture what it was all about. The reason for this is that scenarios are not static models. To work as games, the have to be dynamic, open-ended processes.
Of course, the historical action was also a dynamic, open-ended process. The people involved did not know what was going to happen, and it was their decisions and actions that determined the outcome. Fortunately, modelling this is what wargames are good at. Wargames – at least the good ones – model the decisions involved in warfare. In one of the Lardies Oddcasts, Richard Clarke remarked that his games always aim at recreating the command decisions faced by commanders in the field. For this, it is important to decide what level of command you want to represent: A regimental commander has other worries than a corps commander, and to mix those levels up is a sign of bad game design. Completeness – trying to model as many decisions as possible, so that you have to micro-manage a regiment’s formation while at the same time decide the deployment of your reserve division – does not actually contribute to a more ‘realistic’ depiction of historical events.
This, I think, is equally true about scenarios. Replicating everything you know of the historical event on the table top may produce a fine diorama, but it will not result in an exciting and dramatic game. To capture what a historical action was all about, it is important to try to recreate the perspectives of the opposing commanders. What was their aim? What did they know? And what were the specific circumstances that shaped their decisions (such as terrain features or the expectation of reinforcements)? It’s important to remember that the commanders in the field had a very limited outlook, not only in the literal sense – most of the time, they didn’t see the deployment of the enemy and his movements – but also in a more general sense: They didn’t know what the enemy was up to and what he knew of their own intentions and aims. Rule sets like Sharp Practice or Longstreet have already built-in mechanics to model this fog of war. But I think it can sometimes be important to integrate such a limited perspective in the design of the scenario itself. Usually with scenarios, both players know not only their objective, but also the other side’s aims. They also know the troops involved, the reinforcements that will turn up, the terrain and so on.
Paradoxically, to accurately recreate the perspective and the decisions of historical commanders, it may be necessary to leave out details or to modify the deployment, the troops involved or even the terrain. Bolstering one side to create more balanced forces, for example, is not always a boring ‘gamey’ trick to make a scenario more interesting for both players.
When a Union raiding force was attacked by Confederates in June 1863, the Rebel commander didn’t know he only faced 60 soldiers. In a scenario based on accurate numbers, the Confederate player could just charge ahead, knowing he will steamroll the Union force. But this does not capture the uncertainty of the historical commander and the cautious advance that characterized this specific action.
Historical research is great fun and an important prerequisite for designing historical scenarios, but it is not an end in itself. When the research is done, it is important to try to reduce the situation to its core: What was it all about? What was at stake for the commanders? What shaped and what limited their outlooks and decisions?
The real challenge is to translate historical facts into a game that is not only exciting to play, but that also replicates some of the command decisions faced by the historical commanders. This may involve fiction, but nevertheless – or even because of that – it may also produce those cherished and fleeting moments when, during a game, you suddenly feel a jolting connection with the past.