Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Review: Sabin, Simulating War

Review of: Philip Sabin, Simulating War: Studying Conflict Through Simulation Games (London: Continuum, 2012). 363pp. USD$34.95 hc.

Professor Philip Sabin is a highly regarded military historian, well-known for his MA course on conflict simulation at King’s College London. His 2009 book Lost Battles: Reconstructing the Great Clashes of the Ancient World was an innovative examination of warfare in classical antiquity that combined scholarly analysis with a set of wargaming rules that allowed a reader to refight the battles studied in the volume. His most recent book, Simulating War, examines the art, science, and practice of military simulation more broadly. The result is both an excellent read and a very important contribution to the study of contemporary wargaming.

Part I of the volume briefly surveys the historical evolution of the field, discusses the theoretical challenges of modelling warfare, and highlights the educational utility of wargaming in the classroom. It also explores the research requirements of game design and the use of wargames as a tool of research itself. The treatment of these topics is both judicious and thoughtful: experienced gamers and game designers will find much to agree with, while those new to wargaming will benefit considerably from the insights that Sabin offers. In Part II the focus shifts to the mechanics of game design, with chapters devoted to components, game mechanics, and the playtesting and refinement of game designs. Part III provides examples drawn from Sabin’s own game designs, with the reader able to follow through why game systems were designed in particular ways to render particular relationships. Additional information is provided in five appendices. The book and website provide rules and components for no less than eight playable games. Ongoing discussion is also possible via an associated Yahoo group.

Despite its title, Simulating War does somewhat limit its treatment of the subject in three respects. First, it primarily focuses on military boardgames, reflecting the author’s long experience using such games (and the design of such games) as an educational and research tool. Digital wargames, Sabin notes, tend to hide most of their assumptions about conflict dynamics “under the hood,” making them inaccessible to most users and difficult to modify. Miniature wargaming rarely goes beyond the tactical and grand tactical, and while visually more appealing also tends to be less useful in highlighting operational and strategic issues, or otherwise illuminating the key lessons of historical battles. Because his interest is generally focused on  historical and contemporary conflict, there is little attention to role-playing games (although an element of this dynamic potentially enters into his multiplayer political-military simulation of the Second Punic War). There is some reference to the rapidly growing academic literature with regard to digital gaming and game studies/ludology more broadly, although it tends to be rather incidental to the discussion.

Second, the sort of conflict being discussed and modelled in most of book is traditional force-on-force warfare. Much more attention is therefore devoted to issues of attrition, terrain, dispersion, and tactics than to the broader social and political processes that conflicts might also involve. Readers interested in civil war or contemporary peace, stabilization, and counterinsurgency operations, for example, may find themselves wanting more on how one might model such non-kinetic aspects of warfare, especially in cases where the political dynamics at play are more important but even less well understood than the military ones.

A third characteristic of the book is the extent to which it is very much written from the author’s personal experiences as a military historian. Much of the discussion refers to particular examples from his classroom experience at KCL, design issues in his games, or lectures to (and gaming with) military staff. In this respects the book offers a somewhat narrower scope than Peter Perla’s seminal work The Art of Wargaming (1990).

In my view, the benefits that flow from these self-imposed constraints far outweigh any disadvantages. They allow the various elements of the book to be grounded in personal experience. The approach also facilitates a very effective linking of design, research, and pedagogical issues, which in turn are further highlighted through the author’s discussions of  the design decisions and philosophy represented in the games included in the book. The author’s repeated attention to the trade-offs between simplicity/parsimony and realism/explanatory power in conflict modelling is especially illuminating, and cuts to the very core of what historical and social scientific theorizing is all about. While it is rare to find an academic work that is so heavily written in the first person, the approach offers an engaging way of highlighting the effectiveness of serious wargaming as an experiential teaching technique.

Simulating War deserves to be widely read, not only by hobbyists, but also by game designers, other wargame professionals, military historians, and others called upon to teach about warfare and conflict (whether in university, military, or other professional settings). It may be a marketing challenge, however, to get non-gamers to pick up a copy. As nice as a discussion at PAXsims, Boardgamegeek, Consimworld, or various wargaming blogs might be, one hopes that this work will also find equally positive reviews in academic and professional journals too. I, for one, would heartedly recommend it to both grognards and academic colleagues alike.

3 responses to “Review: Sabin, Simulating War

  1. Major Tom 26/03/2012 at 3:37 am

    Good review – I’ll order my copy today.

  2. Brant 26/03/2012 at 11:48 am

    if I ever end up back in academia, it’ll be on any game-related reading lists I assign :)

  3. Eric Walters 31/03/2012 at 11:10 am

    Nicely concise yet comprehensive review; I think this book complements Peter Perla’s THE ART OF WARGAMING particularly well, as it dives so deeply into board wargaming. One would hope for similar treatments on miniatures, role-playing, and computer games written by other authors. While there have been a lot on miniatures in particularly, none have taken the approach that Sabin does regarding that subject. For educators like myself who have wanted to implement more gaming techniques into the classroom, this work is invaluable!

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