Reaffirming Understanding Through Unconventional War Gaming

Hopefully by now it should be clear to this audience that we don’t turn our noses up to the idea of War Games.  There is a deep rooted German military tradition of kriegspiele – mastery through wargaming.  This is carried on today in modern military’s throughout the world.  One of the larger war games is Red Flag.  It is an air dominate exercise based out of Nevada that occurs four to six cycles per year.

We also don’t shy away from simulation or virtual war gaming and neither does the US Military.  Since the mid 1980’s they’ve used SIMNET which is a real-time distributed simulator for combat simulation of tanks, helicopters and airplanes in a virtual battlefield.  If that isn’t the first internet video game, I don’t know what would be.

Now what happens when the authenticity and even realism of the simulation system gets peeled away, or at least distorted in gaming?  Do the Principles of War, as most notably defined by Clausewitz, still apply?

I think back to my childhood watching episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Did the Principles of War apply in this fictitious universe under new rules of physics and relativity?  I think they still do, even with the viewer not fully understanding these rules.  (Although I will never understand why two ships always met in the same orientation.  Who determines which way is “up” in space anyway?)

A close friend Bret, fellow contributor to WarNerds.com and Deputy Director of Training at One Shepherd, invited me to play a different type of game than I’m used to.  As he explained the mechanics, I recoiled because of its basis in fantasy and inauthentic, inconsistent scientific rules and logic.  I don’t have an interest in learning about a system that doesn’t exist.  Because I’m also a math and science nerd who genuinely gets excited over Excel spreadsheets, he insisted I’d love it for that reason as the core of the game mechanics is based on math.  Recalling my earlier attempts at real time strategy games, I wasn’t looking forward to the experience even though this was technically a different classification of game.  There was so much I wanted to control – so much memorization of character stats and abilities that I would become overwhelmed and end up micro managing the few sources of success at the demise of the overall state of my forces.

Under his guidance I gave the game a chance.  He insisted that the Principles of War applied and the game required effective understanding and use of them in order to be successful.  In my numerous failures and the frustration that followed, I challenged his assertion.  How can massing be achieved if the enemy can literally disappear momentarily or move me back in time a few seconds ago?  How can we out maneuver in such a limited number of prescribed geographic lanes?  How is this simple when I have to study a nearly unlimited combination of friendly and enemy compositions and abilities?  At what point in our technological advances and scientific discoveries do the Principals of War cease to apply?

One of the things that stuck out to me was a comment made by another friend of Bret’s who was helping me get started.  I was expressing my frustration with the combat model and how there was no intuition I could use for scenarios and enemy abilities I hadn’t seen and constantly change.  What he explained later ended up being very profound, though at the time it only added to my frustration.  He said something to the effect of, “You’re focusing too much on the combat mechanics.  You have to understand this is an economy game disguised as a physical combat game.  The more you earn early on, the more economic advantage you will have later on which is how you ultimately win.”

In my frustration with the lack of success I said, “So this game is nothing more that two very massive and complex spreadsheets fighting each other”.  Further fueling my frustration and a bit to my surprise, every player in the room responded with a resounding “Yes.”  What follows is a conversation over text message between Bret and myself.

Matt:  “Principals of war don’t really apply.  The concept of massing is not physical.  Maneuver is a pseudonym.”

Bret: “I’m not sure why you would say that.  I believe the principals apply.  Think of using the shadow plane as camouflage and concealment.  As you maneuver you seek to mask you movements in some way in real life.  The game just has a specific way of doing it.

Maneuver is your rotations and covering down on towers and lanes.  We call it positioning a lot.  If you are not in the correct position your lane can be taken.

Massing is physical in game.  If you see an enemy by themselves or defending a tower alone you mass at that site to overwhelm the enemy at that location.  Same thing if you see an enemy massing in a lane you must mass there with your team otherwise the tower will fall.

The principals of war apply, you just have to be open to accepting the alternate rules of physics and find the analogous models for how we apply them in game.”

Matt:  “That last paragraph is where I have some friction.  the game is not authentic in it’s analogous model to that.  It truly is two spreadsheets fighting.  Kinda cool but misrepresented it its’ presentation.

Bret:   “What do you mean by authentic?  It’s an alternate universe with different rules/laws.  What would make the analogous model authentic?  Yes, spreadsheet, but the problem still with that is that it doesn’t account for human error and the application and timing of abilities used.  If you adopt that frame of mind, then every game is two spreadsheets fighting, isn’t it?”

That last sentence took me aback as I believe he intended it as a pejorative comment.  I wanted to say no, though some part of me does recognize that all games can be described and played out with math.  Game theory has far reaching applications and implications.  War gaming is ultimately the medium by which you verify a theory of imposing your will on an opponent.

I approached the game with a new mentality.  This is an economy game disguised as physical combat.  Do not concern your self with the appearance of characters or how abilities are physically represented.  Think only of the mathematical effects and what you can do to maximize your gain while minimizing your opponents.  That change in approach had a profound effect on my understanding of the Principals of War when you break it down to it’s simplest form.  It had a profound impact on my ability to achieve success, and in the cases where I lost, understand strategically what went wrong.

Playing a battle game based on fantasy and alternate physics has not only reaffirmed my understanding of the Principals of War, I can see larger implications of these concepts in other areas of life.  I’m making links between things like personal finance and the Principals of War I had never connected before.  My mind is going back to more authentic war gaming models and I’m seeing them in a new light.  Rather than concerning myself with micro tactics and even tactics as a whole, I’m beginning to see how these principals have a major impact on strategy that I now understand, where I only thought I did previously.  I’m starting to see more clearly above the tactical level of warfare and filter down all of that effort and detail to its simplest elements.

I encourage you to try and find success in something new.  Break things down into their simplest elements and learn what successful people do.  Then emulate that.  Based on my experience, I think you can learn more than you thought possible.


The game is Paragon and is currently free on PC and PS4.  Comment with your in-game handle and come play with us!

One thought on “Reaffirming Understanding Through Unconventional War Gaming

  1. Christopher Larsen (Ph.D.)

    It sounds as if the learning value from Paragon (mind you: I have not played) may be two-fold. First, you are learning a different level of warfare, namely strategy as opposed to operations or tactics. Whereas the Principles of War apply in all three levels of warfare, they “play” differently. That is, the mechanics are different.

    Second, the mathematic lens of the game appears to explore wargaming through the specific lens of the principle of Economy of Force. There is nothing wrong with that! Look, this is the power of gaming. We can remove elements and certain variables – an instructional concept called scaffolding – to focus a single, more specific concept. Is it “realistic” to simplify war to a game of Economy of Force? No, it isn’t realistic. But that’s not the question here. Instead, the question is whether or not the tasks presented are “authentic” to the concepts and inherent competencies of Economy of Force?

    Although I am somewhat of an accomplished tactician, I’m not much of a strategist. Yet, I’d venture to guess you are learning to see tactics and operations from a purely mathematic perspective. Does this simplify an incredibly complex phenomenon? Oh, yes! Absolutely. But that is often the goal of scaffolded instruction (and gaming) – to learn a concept through a new lens.

    “If you only know something one way, I doubt if you really know it at all.” – Dr. David Jonnasen

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