A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Computers in Wargaming - 1 - Preamble

The other week, one of the less supportive comments I received accused me of "ridiculous intemperance" (isn't that wonderful? - I'm really very proud of that) and, naturally, I value this feedback, as they used to say in the upwardly-mobile 1980s. Unfortunately, it was a good way wide of the mark - the truth is that behind my flatulent presentation and verbosity beats the sad, dry little heart of an actuary.

As a kid I designed all sorts of solitary games for my own amusement – cricket matches played with dice, a jousting game using Timpo knights and playing cards – all sorts. When my cousin and I were both about 11 we built up a model bus fleet to serve a large mythical island in the Irish Sea (alarmingly similar in concept to the Thomas the Tank Engine idea), but, instead of sensibly crawling round the place with toy buses, uttering gear-changing noises, we got hopelessly sidetracked into drawing maps and producing detailed timetables. Later, my education and professional training were heavily mathematical, and included a lot of statistics and probability, stochastic modelling and so on, so I guess I have always had an interest in playing around with mathematical simulation.

Which gently leads me into a topic which I have been intending to cover for a few months. Computers. If you feel a cold twinge at the mention of the word, do not be alarmed. I have no drums to beat here, but I do have a lot of experience of the subject, both in a wargaming context and from the wider viewpoint of process automation in general. I promise not to tell you what is right, or what you should all be doing, and I hope that some of this may be of interest. A blog, after all, is useful not least because of the opportunity it gives to take a peek through someone else’s windows.

Digression: mention of what is useful about blogs reminds me that one of the big benefits I have gained from writing this stuff over the past five months is the sorting out of ideas. To write something down in an intelligible manner, it is necessary for me to tease out the knotted string which normally fills my head into a more linear, structured form, and a great many light bulbs turn on while I am about it. So, even if you find my blog tedious and/or pointless, you will now have the comfort of knowing that I, at least, am getting something out of it!

End of digression.

The subject of computers is a big one, almost certainly far too big to cover in a single post. This is a bit of a shame, in a way, since dividing the topic up into a series of threads will inevitably risk someone coming back to me and pointing out that I have overlooked such-and-such, when I have not forgotten it, but haven’t got to it yet. That’s all OK – I’m quite happy with that. I’ll try to keep the subject matter focused and relevant – if you are prepared to give it a go then maybe we can help each other out if need be.

Areas I intend to discuss will include some general points on the practicalities and pitfalls of automation, what computers are good at, their use in miniatures wargames (and some of the things which really don’t work very well), some examples of commercial or shareware software of which I have some experience, how I have developed my own game-management systems, and my theories on why the majority of wargames programs are handicapped by some fundamental conceptual and design flaws. I am very much aware that some of this sounds a bit dry – I hope I’ll be able to enhance it with occasional touches of intemperance to brighten things up a bit.

One subject area I wish to swerve is that of self-contained computer games of a wargaming nature. This is – I admit it – a little like my former avoidance of the subject of board wargames, in that there is an element of fear of the unknown in there. I have seen Total War and Cossacks, though not for a couple of years, and some aspects of them look wonderful. I am nervously aware that if one day someone does this right, and we can switch on the PC and find ourselves in a customisable game which looks like a Sergei Bondarchuk movie, we may wonder what on earth we were doing all those years messing about with painted toy soldiers. Having said which, I think we are some years short of that, and I recall that Cossacks II once corrupted the operating system on one of my computers (it rendered the CD writer useless), so there is still some room for scepticism.

If, at any point during the next few postings, anyone spots that we are entering a non-trivial debate about run-time environments, or if someone mentions Unix, please blow a whistle and we’ll stop immediately.


  1. I shall await further posts with interest. I was about to say that I've neve used computers in wargaming, but it occured to me that all my campaign games have been conducted via email - does that count?

  2. Yesterday I caught the 1983 movie Wargames on TV. (Its about a kid who hacks into NORAD and almost starts nuclear holocaust in case you haven't seen or heard of it). Looking at the rooms full of banks of processors, mass storage units, tape drives and air conditioners was very nostalgic. hmm if not particularly relevant as a comment perhaps.

    The best use of a computer for tabletop games that I've experienced was when a friend turned his into a giant egg timer that tracked sequence of play, timed the movement phase and played an appropriate time when your time was up. But I have played CM games enough to see some of the reasons why others might like them. In others words I'm looking forward to following along as you go.


  3. Ross - I've never seen the Wargames film, though I know of it. Representation of current technology in films is always good value - even recent stuff is amusing - is it Independence Day where the techno-wizard has a laptop, showing a countdown (to something appalling, no doubt) in 4-inch-high characters, so that the dummy in the back row can read them.

    In the UK, the Saturday afternoon TV sports programme once upon a time used to bring the football results into the studio, live, as the games ended, on a golf-ball-head teleprinter. When the teleprinter was consigned to a museum, the replacement on-screen results service was deliberately slowed down so that it printed out in the same way as the old machine - presumably someone at BBC thought it was more exciting if they kept people waiting.



  4. Tony,

    I've wasted the last 22 years designing software so i am looking forward to your thoughts. Over the years it's often occurred to me that i could quite easily computerise my favourite rule sets - but i always come to the conclusion that there's little point. Two main reasons i suppose - i stare at a screen all my working day so why the hell do i want to spend my leisure time doing ditto, and then there's the lack of really portable hardware (or my unwillingness to shell out serious money for same). I guess the efforts of apple, adobe, etc. in recent years have cancelled out my second objection, but the first still counts rather heavily....but feel free to convince me otherwise...8-)

  5. You know? - you're right - I think you just convinced me!

    I think you may be surprised how low-tec my approach is - I maintain that (for me) the low-tec solution is the most suitable for wargames. Please give me a nudge if/when I get stuff wrong! My computing involvement in my employed life was always at the business process analysis and strategic planning end so that, though I can program, I only do it for fun.

    Cheers - Tony