2b. Role

"Today, there seems to be a definite split in the hobby, particularly among computer-game designers and players, between those who prefer 'games' and those who prefer 'role simulators.'"

Dr. Jay C. Selover, "Firing Line," Fire & Movement, 8
reprinted in Peter P. Perla, The Art of Wargaming 309 (1990)

How closely should a wargame simulate the role of a particular actor?  The question of role-simulation is essentially a specialized type of wargame modeling question, but it is so central to the format of wargames that it deserves independent analysis.  Some genres of wargames are better equipped to present players with either a "role" or "non-role" experience.  Conventional board and miniature games are generally biased toward "non-role" presentation.  Players generally have perfect information about the positioning of both friendly and hostile troops, and have the ability to micromanage the actions of each of their units.  Physical wargames are generally biased toward role experience, for obvious reasons.  Computer wargames at present have no inherent bias, since they are equally capable of creating role and non-role simulations.

From an evaluative standpoint, the question of role-simulation must depend on the goal of the wargame.  The five general goals of wargames as listed on the previous page were: 1) prediction, 2) model exploration, 3) strategic training, 4) simulation immersion, and 5) policy formation.  Role-simulation generally supports four of these goals.  Wargames that incorporate the information limitations inherent in actual combat roles should generally be more successful predictors, better strategic training devices, provide more realistic immersion experiences, and promote sounder policy formation.[1]  However, non-role wargames also serve some of these goals.  Model exploration should be generally more effective if participants have perfect information about games.  Additionally, it is possible that an "unrealistic" surplus of information and ability to micro-manage events may (at least sometimes) provide additional value in strategic training.  Finally, more "mythological" versions of simulation immersion, which choose not to simulate the effects of fatigue, confusion, and poor information inherent in true role-simulation, may produce a more enjoyable game experience.  Generally speaking, then, in wargames designed for purposes of training and prediction, role-simulation should be given more weight.  In wargames primarily designed for educational and entertainment, realistic role-simulation should be generally less important.Stratego computer game

The Fog of War
Role-simulation generally entails placing restrictions on information.  The fog of war refers to the incapacity of actors in a conflict to attain reliable information about their own forces, their enemy's forces, and their environment.  Board games generally have difficulty in recreating this effect, since the board serves as both the information source for players and the information authority for rules purposes.  Nonetheless, some board games have attempted to achieve the fog of war effect.  The popular wargame Stratego prevents players from knowing the identity of opposing forces by limiting each player's field of vision to allow them to view only one side of a game counter, much in the way a hand of cards is concealed.  In wargames at the Naval War College, moving screens were used to simulate the horizon and prevent opponents from ascertaining enemy fleet formations.  In a chess variant called, appropriately, Kriegspiel, the fog of war is applied to enemy troops: three boards are employed, one for each player, and one board which is maintained by a referee.  Players see their own pieces, but are not made aware of the moves of their opponents, unless a move of theirs would capture or be impeded by an opponent's piece.  As is apparent from these innovations, however, adding fog of war effects to board games usually requires specialized and sometimes cumbersome equipment.

Computer games and simulations can create (and remove) information limitations much more easily.  This is due to the fact that computer simulations always possess an extensive "second board" in the form of the computer's memory.  How much of the information is shared with players is entirely in the hands of game designers.  This can create the possibility for some interesting technologies that combine board game features with simulation information limits.  For example, Microsoft's Age of Empires (and most current real-time strategy games) has a fog of war feature that leaves unexplored territory in darkness and only reveals enemy troop locations and movements when a player's units are within a certain viewing range.  When multiple players participate in a game, each player's "game board" sees only as much information as he or she has acquired.  The acquisition of information and elimination of the fog of war therefore becomes an important factor in game dynamics.

Organizational Roles
In addition to information concerns, effective role-simulation should also capture the effects of organizational dynamics.  This entails relationships to superiors, peers, and subordinates.  Relationships to superiors may entail balancing conflicting mission objectives and orders with a player's own understanding of situational realities.  Relationships with peers might entail simulating cooperation and competition among branches and units.  Relationships with subordinates might entail concerns about morale, delegation of responsibilities, and training and recruiting coherent teams.  In the vast majority of board and computer wargames these concerns are completely ignored. Professional wargames generally deal with the issue more effectively, since participants are well aware of these concerns.

Role and TimeTime
As H.G. Wells observed, war often involves boredom, the simulation of which would serve no conceivable goal.  Yet proper role simulation should provide players with realistic time models.  In fact, this is rarely the case.  With the exception of real-time machine simulations (tanks, jet fighters, etc.), wargames almost always dramatically reduce the time scale of a conflict.  Even the most monstrous wargame can often be completed within 100 hours, and many games attempt to represent multiple-year conflicts with a few hours of game time.  Rule-heavy tactical board games occasionally err in the opposite direction, creating situations where actions that would take only a few seconds in life must be carefully plotted and calculated to achieve greater "realism."  Professional and physical wargames again seem to be superior in this regard.  One technique commonly employed in military-political games is the "telescoping" of time: players are provided with a set piece crisis scenario upon which they must act, but following a resolution on a course of action, the time frame jumps to the next crisis, with a brief summary of the inter-crisis events.

Model Opacity
Model opacity" is a concept somewhat related to role-simulation.  Model opacity describes the degree to which the inner workings of a model are visible to wargame participants.  Generally speaking, computer games provide more opaque models and board games provide less opaque models.  For example, in a board game, the rules often specify the maximum range of a weapon and the relative amount damage that weapon can inflict on targets.  Since these models are non-opaque, players can (and often do) modify the models if they find them inaccurate.  In computer games, these factors need not be explicitly described, and often can not be modified by players. In physical wargames, models (to the extent that they exist) are generally non-opaque.  In military-political wargames, models generally are opaque, since the results of player actions are decided by the analysts and designers in the control group.  

Some wargame analysts have criticized computer games for their opaque models, suggesting that the non-opaque nature of board games made them superior.  This contention seems to closely parallel the debate over role-simulation, in that the value of model opacity seems to depend upon the goals of the wargame.  If role-simulation is valued, opaque models might be more realistic, since they do not offer players perfect information about the "physics" models of their resources and environment.  In real life, such information is reliably learned only experientially, if it is learned at all.  On the other hand, if the goal of a wargame is to fully explore and analyze a model, a non-opaque model is clearly superior.

As the above discussion makes clear, the nature of a player's role must be a key issue in evaluating wargames.  Yet neither role-simulations nor non-role simulations are inherently superior.  The value of either approach depends on the design goals of the game.  The most that can be argued is that a consistent approach to designing the player role must be superior to an inconsistent approach.

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1(back).  It should be noted that information constraints are inevitable, though some are perhaps imposed intentionally.  There are indications that the United States is attempting to currently attempting to remove role-based information constraints where this is possible.  See Craig Bicknell, The Net-Saavy Navy, Wired News, December 1, 1999.