Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

The role of chance in wargames

Nicholas Edwards was a MA student in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, and VBS Designer for Bohemia Interactive Simulations (UK). His 2014 thesis on the incorporation of chance into wargames can be found here..

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chance-dice-random-numbers-1-AHDThe role of chance in wargames used for training purposes is an important, if little written-about, issue that can greatly influence the perceived value of these games in the minds of both instructors and trainees. I am therefore currently completing a Masters dissertation looking at this issue of chance, defined here as those mechanics introduced to add an aspect of randomness and unpredictability to result outcomes within the game. The study aims to establish an understanding of the major considerations that exist in the design of this aspect, along with the benefits and pitfalls the element has due to its very nature.

This project will need to investigate just how chance can best help derive the appropriate decision-making environment for meeting the training objectives. This shall require understanding just what is meant when speaking of uncertainties in combat, how this may be represented through game mechanics, and in what way the training objectives shall guide this process of abstraction. It must also be recognised whether there is a risk of the wrong lessons being drawn due to fluke results and if there are some training objectives are better suited to deterministic result calculations. Finally, the study will need to look at the extent to which uncertainties in information and adversarial intent may offer alternative or complementing methods of achieving the same effects.

Nevertheless just as, and if not more, important is the consideration of the target audience. Players are a reactive, not passive, part of any wargame and how to ensure a positive player reaction to the aspect of chance in a game is important to achieving the training objectives. It must be seen if certain groups of players will potentially react differently to the introduction of the chance element in a game and whether its application may need to be tailored based upon this. Dice offer a good example as they can have a divisive effect and their acceptability may be very dependent on who is playing the game. Bad presentation could easily therefore lead to a situation where the entire wargame is met with the derision of being simply a “dice game”. Furthermore, the risk of a negative reaction because players do not accept the representation of chance, use it as a scapegoat, or feel the game is unfair and rewards luck over skill, will need exploring.

The issue of presentation shall therefore be a major element in answering this question and it will be important to comprehend just by what extent the method by which chance is generated influences the learning potential of a wargame. Central to this will be seeing if mechanically identical representations of chance can have vastly different impacts because of variances in presentation. Another avenue to explore here must also be the role of the instructor in ensuring that the presentation of chance avoids these potential pitfalls and instead bolster the training objectives.

The credibility of wargaming in training is in many ways linked to the correct utilisation of chance and this study has set out to find how individual contexts may influence the balance required between skill and luck, the reaction of the audience, and what methods of presentation may be best suited. By applying the experiences of those with an expertise in military wargaming who have dealt with these issues, this study can hopefully outline the major considerations needed to ensure best practice when dealing with this aspect of wargaming.

Nicholas Edwards  

5 responses to “The role of chance in wargames

  1. Russell King 14/05/2017 at 11:59 am

    On the other hand, there are some very interesting “chanceless” wargames, or close to chanceless; a few of which are Diplomacy, Le Jeu de la Guerre by Guy Debord, the SPI Grenadier/Rifle and Sabre series, and Chinese Chess.

  2. Major Tom 27/03/2014 at 8:43 am

    …and some cultures (the British Army for example) have a real problem with dice. This seems to me to be linked to a fundamental misunderstanding of risk – and if you don’t understand risk, you really have no business being an Army Officer…

  3. Rick Maurer 19/03/2014 at 7:34 pm

    I think a player’s beliefs and expectations are critical to views on games. Some people do not respond well to random chance or chaos because it conflicts with their belief or thinking that through careful planning, will power, or patience, you can overcome any challenge or obstacle. The concept of having no control over their destiny or fate is extremely frightening and disconcerting; honestly, they don’t know how to handle it. On the other hand, other players can accept this concept and just do the best they can, but they can also accept that sometimes you can make all the right decisions and still lose.

  4. Rex Brynen 18/03/2014 at 5:10 pm

    Typo corrected–thanks.

    In many training contexts participants view the introduction of chance (especially in the form of a die-roll) as reducing the exercise to the level of snakes-and-ladders. This is the reason, for example, that my own Humanitarian Crisis Game uses random event cards rather than dice–although both rely on “chance,” cards are less problematic with the target audience. This is the sort of dilemma Nicholas will be exploring.

  5. mconfoy 18/03/2014 at 5:05 pm

    Chance is misspelled in the introduction. Chance is what makes wargames not chess.

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