Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Historical research and wargaming (Part 1): Constructing the framework

The following piece has been contributed to PAXsims by James Halstead. Part 2 can be found here.


Historical research and wargaming (Part 1): Constructing the framework 

Wargaming offers a unique methodological toolset to study historical conflicts and while there has been interest in using wargames as an educational tool, there is little focus on what wargaming can offer analytical, military history research.[1] The first part of this article will outline how the structured, and exhaustive, research necessary to design historical simulations can provide unique insights for historical research. Since wargame design needs to account for player decisions that diverge from history there is a need to comprehensively research not just the historical record but counterfactuals too. This analysis is carried out in a structured framework which helps the designer to understand both the environment the battle is fought in, but also the military makeup and performance of both sides and how best to incentivise historical play.[2]

The research for a wargame therefore requires the creation of a very different and, in some ways, more rigorous and encompassing model than many traditional military histories. While there is a strong element of the counterfactual to wargaming this still presents ‘a highly useful way of exploring cause and effect.’ Developing a rigorous and thoroughly analytical representational model of historical conflicts can be of huge value in giving greater prominence to underutilised sources and in understanding contemporary opinions and priorities.[3]

Wargames research utilizes a framework that studies the geographical environment, the orders of battle of the opposing sides, generic capabilities of the formations involved and opposing decision environments.[4] This first section will study these factors individually, exploring exactly why they are important and the consequences that proper examination and integration of these factors can have for understanding of military history.


Studying the ground over which a battle is fought is vital for any study of a battle. Along with the Order of Battle, it is one of the most obvious research benefits of war gaming. Properly modelling a battle’s geographic environment can lead to interesting insights. For example, the German Operation Michael Offensive in March, 1918, against the British Fifth Army and elements of Third Army is often seen as being so successful (at least initially) because of the favourable force to space ratios in favour of the Imperial German Army, better tactics and weak British defences. What is often not considered is the nature of the terrain itself with the British defences lying on a wide, flat plain, with higher ground to the north and south. Approaching Operation Michael as a wargame reveals the nature of the terrain acted against the British defenders and they were forced to give up so much ground, falling back on river lines such as the Somme, partly because of the dearth of defensible features behind Fifth Army’s front line. In turn, these river lines were often only given up when outflanked; meaning that the British Army simply was not able to fall back on terrain favourable to a defence across the entire width of their front line. The German assault against the southern portion of Third Army units to the north of Fifth Army was less successful during Operation Michael and the follow-up, Operation Mars, partly because the British defenders were fighting in much more favourable terrain for defence. Because terrain is such an integral part of the wider model wargames encourage far more engagement than is usual with the characteristics of the terrain on which the historical conflict was fought. With most traditional military histories lacking good-quality maps this can encourage the wider use of easily available sources with a corresponding increase in the level to which terrain is considered as a factor in the historical result.

Order of Battle

Alongside the creation of a proper map, researching an order of battle and the generic capabilities of formations are the basic building blocks in the creation of a rigorously analytical model. This is important to the creation of a wargame because, unlike traditional military history, missing key formations out or incorrectly modelling their capabilities in combat can have important consequences.

The research of an accurate Order of Battle is often nothing much more than a necessary task that doesn’t reveal anything particularly exciting; however, it is still an important step to creating a viable model and therefore something that needs to be properly addressed. Again, like maps, many traditional historical works often give the order of battle only the most cursory of attention. Although orders of battle often do not provide anything particularly revelatory, they undoubtedly contribute a great deal to the wider framework. Knowing exactly which troops were where is an important part of creating a valid simulation and, again, creates a valuable, if incremental contribution to the wider wargame model and can lead to some important, if seemingly minor revelations regarding force to space ratios and the true strength of formations often represented on maps as abstract unit symbols.

However, in some cases the value of proper orders of battle created through commercial wargames have provided interesting revisions to historical works. Dave Parham’s research on the Battle of Stalingrad in the 1980s points out the 76th Infantry Division did not fight at Stalingrad: the assault on the city centre consisting of only two divisions rather than the three that many histories have commonly asserted.[5] Similarly Orders of Battle for Austria-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia in 1914, are obscure and hard to come by, with the most modern, and easily accessible, order of battle found in a commercially published wargame.[6]

Generic Capabilities of Formations

Understanding the generic capabilities of formations which took part in the conflict is really the full marriage of the geographical study and order of battle into a fully realized model simulating the physical capabilities of the military formations involved. Studying the combat record of formations provides a wider appreciation of the generic capabilities of both side’s formations while understanding how the terrain affected the ability of the units collected in the Order of Battle to move and carry out combat introduces completes the basic physical model. The final step is to understand the contemporary military objectives, doctrines and politico-social priorities of participants.

Decision Making Environments

In order to produce an accurate simulation, designers must understand why commanders behaved as they did historically, which requires the priorities and motivations for both sides to be incorporated into the wider model. Historical actors often do not behave rationally to modern perspectives, and what good wargame and historical research does is uncover the reasons that made their choices made appear rational. It is necessary to study the strategic priorities and objectives of both sides to understand why they behaved as they did, and to introduce incentives into the design, to encourage players behave in this way.

For example, in a simulation of the German invasion of France in World War Two, it might seem obvious to the player that they need to attack on either side of any German breakthroughs, neatly cutting off and isolating the Wehrmacht Panzer formations. However, in any accurate simulation of the battle, there will be rules simulating command and control confusion in order to prevent the Allied player from doing precisely this. Similarly, accurately depicting the decision-making environment can also help bridge the gap between military and cultural or social history. A simulation of British and Commonwealth forces in Western Europe in 1944 and 1945 would not just require the accurate modelling of their capabilities but also consideration of the specific style in which they fought battles; to avoid casualties and maintain morale. A successful simulation might, for example, impose heavy penalties on the Commonwealth player for taking infantry casualties and encourage them to use heavy artillery support and set-piece attacks.

Studying the decision environments and the factor’s which the opposing commanders took into account when making their plans can provide very different perspectives from the logical assumptions modern audiences can make when analysing history. This is, of course, something that all good historians should be doing in the first place but the clear analytical framework process that war game design necessitates can often make those perspectives much clearer and assist insight into the wider battle.

Wargames, while utilizing the same skills as traditional military history, research within a framework that provides much more technical and specific understanding of conflicts which can, in turn, challenge many assumptions made by existing histories. It is not so much a radically new way of approaching research but of framing the evidence and creating an emphasis on underutilized, but very accessible, sources such as Orders of Battle or maps. In the second part of this article, this framework will be applied to studying the ‘Gaza School Counterfactual’ that was developed in the 1930s about the Third Battle of Gaza, as an example of the way that this wargaming research framework can benefit historical research by framing underutilized, but easily accessible evidence.

[1] Phil Sabin, Simulating War (London, 2012) and Robert Citino, ‘Lessons from the Hexagon’ in Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming

[2] Phil Sabin, Simulating War (London, 2012) p. 47

[3] Paul Cartledge, The Spartans: An Epic History , (New York, 2013), p. 126

[4] Phil Sabin, Simulating War (London, 2012) p. 47-48

[5] John Hill, Battle for Stalingrad Main Rule Book, (Simulation Publications Incorporated: New York, 1980), p. 19

[6] Serbien Muβ Sterberien, (GMT, 2013)

James Halstead is a military historian who is primarily interested in the two world wars of the 20th century. He studied for his Masters at Kings College London (including Professor Phil Sabin’s Conflict Simulation module) and is currently studying for his PhD on Information Management in the British and Commonwealth Armies at Brunel University, London. James has delivered lectures on the Royal Flying Corps and Air Force in the Palestine Campaign at the RAF Museum, Hendon and will do so again at Wolverhampton in 2020. James can be found either on twitter at @JamesTTHalstead or you can read his research blog at:

One response to “Historical research and wargaming (Part 1): Constructing the framework

  1. Tim Smith 03/01/2020 at 11:51 am

    Brilliant! Exactly right! I hope to retire in a few years to pursue exactly this kind of simulation-based military ‘historiology’, as I call, as distinct from the narrative, factual historiography, the limits of which conflict simulation so starkly shows. You’ll be my first citation.
    Timely article for me, btw. I’m now helping Kevin Zucker & team (OSG, playtest the upcoming offering from his ‘The Library of Napoleonic Battles’ (TLNB — lots of info on his page). A question that has arisen concerns how many of the 3rd Coalition’s casualties occurred during the Battle of Austerlitz, 2 Dec 1805, or during the pursuit thereafter, which is not covered in the time period, or attrition model, he offers for that battle scenario. Determining that number directly effects the overall attrition ratio the battle should show, and thus how we evaluate the extent to which the historical/technical accuracy of the model (series design/rules for TLNB) is suitable for Austerlitz. Herr Doktor Zucker insists all is good, where I think his TLNB, having been tested almost exclusively against battles that occurred after Nap’s opponents had modernized their armies, fails to capture the radical asymmetry of pitched battle at the time when Nap, his marshalate, and La Grande Armee were at their peak and were faced by Frederician, Ancien-Regime armies at their nadir of political and military obsolescence.
    It turns out it’s not that easy to dig up that salient datum. We’re poring over Chandler, Duffy, Goetz, Bowden, etc., and it is not clear. (I just ordered Trevor N. Dupuy’s small book on the battle — if anyone should have it, it’s him!). In other words, ‘for want of a nail’!! — or, more specifically of a datum. Without knowing how many were killed in battle versus rounded up thereafter, we cannot validate the Austerlitz scenario and therefore not truly evaluate the universality of the underlying TLNB model.
    This process, of course, applies scientific method, in which counterfactuals are the basis of all causal analysis (and correlation): one must remove a variable to ascertain its effects. Basic Bacon (and not just Francis, Roger, too). Only experimental science can do that, and in all domains where real-world factors cannot be manipulated directly, scientists must formulate models and test them by running them against their own internal assumptions (verification, in the ‘context of justification’) and the external evidence (validation, in the ‘context of discovery’). This testing is known as simulation, of course, or ‘playtesting’.
    As you’ve pursued this, have you had the opportunity to explore the underlying philosophy and methodology? If not, allow me to recommend ‘counterfactuals’, ‘hypothesis-testing’, Karl Popper and Carl Hempel. The Wiki is always my own first skip on the yellow brick road, but I’d look at the Stanford and Internet Encyclopedias of Philosophy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: