Designing Tomorrow's Wargame

Discussion Board on this Wargame Article

By David Kopel

Strategy Page, Oct. 5, 2005

How should wargame designers respond to the new military environment of the war between the United States and Islamofascism?

Rule number one: Don't make the game into a mere vehicle for whatever didactic lesson you are trying to teach. In particular, don't force the game to lead to particular results. Nobody knows how history will turn out, including you.

As a cautionary tale, consider two games which violated Kopel's First Rule of Wargame Design.

In late 2002, Californian Dermot O'Connor released a web-based wargame called Gulf War 2.5 about the impending invasion of Iraq. According to the Feb. 20, 2003,, the game was made available at O'Connor's website, Today, though, it's no longer listed among the available games at the site. And no wonder.

According to ENN, the game had "only one possible outcome." Although the invasion of Iraq was "quick and easy," Gulf War 2 then mandated the following events: "Iraqi anthrax attacks on Israel and a nuclear strike on Baghdad in response. From there, warring Middle East nations all vie to carve up the remains of Iraq, with Iran invading in the South and a Kurdish revolt in the North. Soon, militants in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia rise up and nuclear weapons are spread throughout the region. War between India and Pakistan ensues, while Iran and Saudi Arabia contemplate war with the US."

Not one of Gulf War 2's mandates came true. Saddam may not have even had any anthrax. And the problems that did ensue in Iraq (terrorist warfare by Ba'athist remnants and al Qaeda foreigners, with logistical support from Iran and Syria) were not among Gulf War 2's range of outcomes.

Now Gulf War 2.5 never pretended to be a sophisticated simulation; it worked through Flash animations. And in response to an irate player, O'Connor posted a disclaimer on his website, "Technically, Gulf War 2.5 is NOT a game." Instead, "It's a satirical cartoon."

Even so, Gulf War 2.5 got respectful treatment as a realistic game from Reuters, Yahoo, and Excite, garnering newspaper coverage from Dubai to the U.S. to New Zealand.

Now it's easy to dismiss O'Connor as an angry nut, because he is. His website is filled with the hatred and vicious language which characterize the anti-American fringe of today's so-called "peace movement." He says that Bush is a Nazi, the U.S. is "the Fourth Reich," and warns his readers about the Zionists.

But if Gulf War 2.5 is a deservedly-forgotten effort which attracted more attention from credulous journalists than from serious wargamers, consider one of the best-selling wargames from the mid-1980s: Balance of Power. Designed by Chris Crawford for the Mac, it was ported to the PC, and grossed over ten million dollars.

Crawford's book, Chris Crawford on Game Design, contains many valuable insights on what makes a good game, and how to design for playability and long-term player interest.

Nevertheless, his best-selling Balance of Power, which was in its time the most sophisticated commercial computer wargame yet designed, was a failure -- an abject lesson in how a talented designer allowed his ideology to ruin a game.

In a book excerpt on, Crawford explains how he came to design Balance of Power, a Cold War simulation:

"I embraced the core values of the 60's counterculture, the most prominent of which was pacifism. War, in that view, was the greatest evil mankind had ever created, and was to be avoided at all costs. As the 1984 electoral campaigns heated up, there was plenty of belligerent talk from the right wing, and a series of alarming events boded ill for the future of peace. And here I was, profiting from the sale of wargames, and contemplating designing even more. It was wrong, and I knew it. But what could I do?"

His answer: "I would design an unwar game, a game about the prevention of war, a game about peace."

The result was Balance of Power. When I bought my first personal computer in 1987, I purchased two pieces of software: WordPerfect 4.2, and Balance of Power.

Balance of Power had very sophisticated graphics, for its day. The game was filled with chromatic detail about various countries, and seemed to exude realism.

Yet the game was so tied to Crawford's political theory that it was extremely unrealistic. Essentially the game forced the player (US or Soviet) to promote his national objectives only by extremely cautious diplomacy. If an opponent threatens your sphere of interest, you can threaten back even more strongly. But never try to out-threaten an opponent in his sphere of influence. Try to make marginal gains in areas outside the sphere of either player. If you could turn Ethiopia from pro-Soviet to pro-US, that was about as good as it got.

Balance of Power was a good simulation of the timid foreign policy style of the Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter administrations. The game got a laudatory review in the New York Times from a former National Security Affairs assistant to Jimmy Carter. Crawford credited the memoirs of Ford's Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, with "a large influence on my design."

As Ronald Reagan pointed out in speeches, Kissinger was "quoted as saying that he thinks of the United States as Athens and the Soviet Union as Sparta. 'The day of the U.S. is past and today is the day of the Soviet Union.' And he added, '. . . My job as Secretary of State is to negotiate the most acceptable second-best position available.'"

History, of course, turned out entirely differently from how Kissinger, Carter, and Crawford expected. Reagan aimed for something which Balance of Power made off-limits: the destruction of the Evil Empire. Reagan achieved his goals with strong and repeated anti-Communist rhetoric, with huge increases in conventional forces, by building up intermediate nuclear weapons in Europe, challenging the Soviets to a strategic arms race which bankrupted them, and shipping arms to resistance fighters in the Soviet sphere of influence (Afghanistan).

Balance of Power had absolutely no way to win the Cold War the way that Reagan actually did win it. To the contrary, such strategies could never succeed in the game, which amounted to a computer version of Helen Caldecott's hysterical prediction in the Fall of 1984 that the re-election of Ronald Reagan would make nuclear war "a mathematical certainty."

I abandoned Balance of Power after a particular game in which I, as the U.S. President, rhetorically declared my support for the democratic opposition in Eastern Europe. Despite Soviet indignation, I refused to back down from the rhetoric -- although I never went beyond mere rhetorical support. Pursuant to Crawford's simplistic system, the computer (playing the Soviet side) found that I had infringed in a Soviet sphere of interest, and had ignored every possible threat from the Soviets warning me to shut up. So the computer declared nuclear war, and announced that I had lost the game, since a nuclear war had begun.

Obviously, this is a preposterous result for the game to impose. Imagine if Ronald Reagan had gone on television every week to denounce human rights violations in Soviet-dominated Poland. And further imagine that he did nothing else, in any form, to challenge the Soviets. Do you think the Soviet Union would have started a nuclear war just because of Reagan's words?

The Soviets might have reduced or severed diplomatic or trade relations with the U.S. They almost certainly would have escalated their own anti-U.S. rhetoric. They might have increased their funding for anti-U.S. proxies such as the Communists in El Salvador. Perhaps if they were really furious, they might have even brought Nicaragua's Sandinista dictatorship into the Warsaw Pact.

But would the Soviet Union have launched an all-out nuclear strike because the U.S. President kept harping about freedom in Poland? Of course not. The possibility is only infinitesimally higher than zero, and would depend on the Soviet dictatorship being suicidal and irrational, which it definitely was not.

Now for the First Corollary to Kopel's First Rule of Wargame Design: Don't underestimate how much ideology can constrict a nation's actions.

Consider Diplomacy, an extremely simple game from the 1959, which I still rank as one of the greatest wargames of all time. It doesn't try to be realistic about the mechanics of war, but instead teaches some very valuable lessons about great power diplomacy -- about how duplicitous diplomats can be; about the difficulty in telling whether your allies are really allies or are really in league with your enemies; about how to confuse people into acting against their long-term self-interest.

But there's one important way in which Diplomacy teaches the wrong lesson as a diplomatic simulation. In real life, national leaders have much less freedom of action to changes sides suddenly than do the players in diplomacy. Diplomacy is set in early 20th century Europe. Some of the nations, such as Czarist Russia, really did have the ability to change alliances almost at will.

But the democracies, especially England, did not. Even though popular opinion can, to some extent, be manipulated by a national government, the democratic public is not, and never has been, so gullible that it can switch from "Oceania is allied with Eastasia against Eurasia" to "Oceania has always been as peace with Eurasia, and has always been at war with Eastasia" in a single day. Changing public opinion and obtaining democratic consent takes time -- sometimes longer than the six-month turns of Diplomacy.

I'm not faulting Allan B. Calhamer for his brilliant game design. Trying to impose too much realism would have gummed up the mechanics, and made Diplomacy much less accessible to new players. And when a game needs six or seven players, it's usually necessary that it be newcomer-friendly.

What I am suggesting is that a realistic design for "Terror War 2010" has to incorporate, at least in the optional rules, some of the ways in which ideological constraints limit a player's freedom of action. For example, in "Terror War 2010", if the person playing Franco-Germany spends five years of game-time supporting Iran, and trying to undermine U.S. influence in the Middle East, the Franco-German player should not in a single turn be able to switch sides, and send troops to join in the surprise American invasion of Iran. Elected officials in Franco-Germany simply would not dare to switch sides so quickly, without an interval of gaining support from public opinion.

Conversely, the Iran player might realize that he and Israel could form useful strategic alliance against Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the Shah of Iran and Israel did sometimes cooperate. But if the game presumes that Iran remains ruled by its current theocracy, then the game should make the Iran player pay a high price (such as automatically forfeiting 80% of its terrorist units) for cooperating with Israel.

One final thought: Thomas P.M. Barnett has written in Fire & Movement about the U.S. military continuing to wargame the Chinese invasion of Taiwan, and the ensuing U.S. naval intervention, while failing to wargame asymmetric terrorist warfare. I'd agree that the military should wargame more than just "Raging Dragon: The Battle for the Straits of Taiwan." But I think Barnett goes much too far in concluding that wargaming the Chinese invasion is a waste of time.

Just because Chinese aggression would be contrary to Chinese commercial interests does not mean that Chinese aggression could never occur. The Taliban could still be running Afghanistan as their private hell on earth, and making a lot of money from an international gas pipeline, if they had not been so wedded to their ideology that they stupidly allowed their nation to be used as a base for attacks on the world's only superpower.

Mussolini could have made himself and his nation rich by staying neutral in World War II, but he was led into war by his crazy ideological vision of recreating the Roman Empire.

The current Chinese dictatorship may not believe much in Communism anymore, but it does believe in the historical Chinese empire. They want Taiwan "back" just as much as the French wanted Alsace-Lorraine back in 1914 -- perhaps even at the cost of jumping into a major international war, as the French did (against their own economic interests).

Moreover, dictatorships have often found that a good remedy for domestic dissent is promoting foreign aggression. Many of the Chinese people have very little faith in the central government; much of China is already quasi-anarchic, and if the Chinese economy stumbles, the central dictatorship might decide that -- although attempting a swift conquest of Taiwan would be risky -- it would be less risky than failing to distract domestic dissent.

So I would like the Pentagon, and commercial wargame designers, to produce future history games on new-fangled asymmetric conflicts, andon traditional conventional warfare. If, perhaps, the Pentagon can be criticized for thinking too much about Taiwan, commercial wargame designers have not thought about it at all. Perusing the various wargame websites, I found no game on the subject of the Chinese invasion of Taiwan.  So can somebody produce something about Taiwan? Perhaps such a game (like the older games about a hypothetical Soviet attack on West Germany) could help deter future war, by revealing strategies about how to successfully resist Communist imperialism.

Dave Kopel is Research Director of the Independence Institute, a public policy research organization in Colorado (; He has previously written about wargames in National Review Online and Jagdpanther.

[Correction: According to reader e-mail, there are two Taiwan wargames.]

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