PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Peter Perla on wargame design

The following report was submitted by PAXsims research associate (and King’s College London student) Harrison Brewer.


 

1200x630bb.jpgAlmost anyone versed in wargaming will have heard Peter Perla’s name and rightly so. Perla is as close to a household name as one can get within the wargaming community, barring James Dunnigan and Avalon Hill. Perla has done it all – he has been a wargamer, a designer, a Navy defence researcher, a contributing editor to wargaming magazines, the subject of a Private Eye cartoon, and author of what could be referred to as the holy text of wargame design, The Art of Wargaming.

I first heard of Peter Perla during my conflict simulation seminar, taught by Rex Brynen at McGill University. The Art of Wargaming was one of two textbooks we used and quickly, you get a sense of how Perla straddles the schism of wargame design – is wargaming an art or a science? This question has been chasing myself during my brief experience as a wargame designer, first at McGill and now at King’s College London under Phil Sabin’s equally grand tutelage. With this in mind, I was incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to hear Peter speak at King’s as part of the Conflict Simulation module I am enrolled in.

Peter began by saying that the process of creatively interpreting historical events is the same as writing fiction – you must identify the hero, the villain, and the conflict. Wargaming is no different although the content is almost always more macabre. Any designer must first decide where the key conflict lies in the minds of the participants. Who were seen as the protagonists? Is the battle of Waterloo about Napoleon or is it about his generals? Peter emphasises that you must decide who and what you want to focus on before you begin the creative process. Secondly, no conflict is fought in a vacuum. Once you have decided who features and what they are fighting about, a wargame designer must decide what story they are going to tell. Is it about the political economy, the social tensions, the diplomatic negotiations, or the political compromise? There is no rule to understanding the context, but it is the bread and butter of any wargame and so, should be the first ingredients you find and from the best sources. Peter is a self-confessed tank man, despite his long career in the Navy, and uses the acronym TREADS to help guide any new project he embarks on. TREADS stands for time, resources, entities, actions, dynamics, and space – these elements are the building blocks of your wargame. How you connect these pieces and how you communicate them to your audience will help to communicate the story you are trying to tell.

\Next, Peter outlines his three paradigms of design, the analyst, the artist, and the architect, and explains that any wargame will have a little of each. How much or how little is dependent, once again, on the story being told. The analyst is concerned with how well your model models the real world quantitatively. It involves equations, data, mathematical modelling, and simulation – think of operational analysis. Persian Incursion is such a game, at least in its highly detailed treatment of air operations, aid defences, target hardening, and weapons capabilities. The artist wants the player to experience the emotional and intellectual challenges of the situation and is concerned with the more intangible elements of the conflict. The artist’s main design problem is how to get the tension of the actors involved to drive player decision-making – The Grizzled, a WW1 survival simulator, or the Vietnam Survival Game are good examples. The architect focuses on the structure of a wargame. What decision points will the player face and how do you build a framework that creates these decisions and lets them reflect the real-world dilemmas faced by the actors within a given conflict. AFTERSHOCK is an example of a game that has complex dilemma frameworks and a wide range of interconnecting decisions.

Peter ended by offering some words of wisdom to the fledgling game designers in the room – the importance of the ‘proliferation of complexity followed by ruthless simplification’. Every designer should make the game complex beyond belief in order to create a model that reflects the environment of the conflict before trimming and pruning it down to be as simple as possible. Whilst you are head down, submerged in memoirs, orders of battle, and statistics, it can be easy to forget that your design must be digestible by the layman wargamer. Indeed, the job of a designer is to take something complex, translate it into a new medium, and make it believable, understandable, and simple.

Harrison Brewer

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