OnLine of Departure

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OnLine of Departure Support Wargames by Jim Werbaneth




Supplements and Player's Aids



Originally Published October 19, 2001

By Jim Werbaneth

I am not a lawyer, nor have I attended a single day of law school.  My degrees, a BA and MA, are in political science, and I work at a bank. 

So I was very much surprised in the spring, when I received an invitation from Professor John Setear of the University of Virginia’s law school to go to Charlottesville and speak to a class of his.  The course concerns contrafactual events, that is “what if’s,” in the context of international law.  The reason for the invitation was that I had designed the board game Britain Stands Alone for GMT Games, covering the greatest contrafactual of World War II-----What if Nazi Germany had managed to invade the United Kingdom in 1940. 

My reaction was one of surprise.  I was not an attorney, nor was I the most prolific or renowned designer around.  Yet one of the very best law schools in the United States was interested in my work, and what I had to say.  At first I thought it was a dream, and that in the morning I’d wake up to the reality of my usual life.  But the invitation was the reality. 

Plans changed as time went on.  Nothing was etched into stone, and Professor Setear and I discussed what might be best for his purposes, and his students. 

Then came September 11.  With American life in general and interstate transportation in particular in a state of ragged and sad disarray, my trip to Virginia was delayed by a couple of weeks.  However, it also became a little more ambitious.  Professor Setear asked if I could discuss the new conflict with interested law students, using my Military Gamer article The Brutal Road to Security as a basis.  Of course I consented. 

I made the trip, leaving Pittsburgh on Sunday, October 14.  I was due in Charlottesville at three the next afternoon, so as might be expected by those who know me, I made it a two-day journey, with detours to the Antietam and Bull Run battlefields.  I admit to my compulsions. 

I arrived on time and met the professor, and within an hour I was observing a game of West End’s RAF, played by two law students, in a small faculty lounge area.  Usually, RAF covers the Battle Britain as a solitaire game, with the system playing the Germans, but Professor Setear was handling it differently.  The students cooperated to handle Fighter Command, and he took the German side.  He went into the gaming session with a long list of pre-drawn Luftwaffe operations and events in order to speed play, going to the card decks only when he ran out of raids.  In addition, as the sole experienced board wargamer, Professor Setear took over the bulk of the rules interpretation and combat resolution.  This freed the students to concentrate on strategy and actually fighting the battle.

I was very pleased to see that they were really understanding and enjoying the game.  Despite being newcomers to wargaming, they quickly understood the dominant factors of intelligence, timing, and aircraft range: That the Me 109 could not reach much beyond London proved critical.

Due to the constraints of time, it was impossible to play an entire game of RAF.  Instead, the goal was for the students to get far enough into the game to better understand the historical campaign that it simulates.  As it was, the game lasted for five days, and the Royal Air Force was badly beaten and exhausted, but with significant replacements due to arrive the next day.

Immediately after that, Professor Setear and I went to a larger classroom for Britain Stands Alone.  There were four students scheduled to play, with two other experienced gamers, one a student and the other a member of local law enforcement, also attending.

I have a great deal of confidence that Britain Stands Alone can serve as a good instructional tool.  After all, I did not exactly stint on the history when I designed it.  However, it is a fairly complex game, with elaborate interactions within the subsystems.  At least one of the students destined to play it had never seen a hexgrid before, and none of them had seen a wargame map with terrain.

So at Professor Setear’s suggestion, we played a much-simplified game.  Two players sat on each side, one handling land units, and the other air and naval operations.  They would formulate general strategy, and I would execute most of the movement and combat, with their approval of course.

We also distilled the game system into a virtual introductory game.  The irregular warfare units, the Brandenburgers for Germany and the Auxiliary Units for Britain, were the first to go.  Then so did the Home Guard, and most of the cross-Channel logistics.  The latter is really one of the most defining aspects of Britain Stands Alone, but I got rid of it readily, as the objective was to have a good game for novices, one that would be instructive to them as students, and not to show off the game in all of its glory.  However, to give some attention to the logistical problems facing the Germans, I arbitrarily limited the number of units that they could ferry over.  What fought in Britain would fight fully supplied, but could expect little reinforcement and few replacements.

There was a general air of skepticism, one that I expected and fully understood.  This was a big leap for those who had no experience in military simulations, nor expertise in military operations.  That night, the United Kingdom was really unknown territory.

Fortunately, once the game got underway, things changed.  The players discovered that this could be fun, and that their actions could have consequences for history, at least the simulated kind.  Though the game lasted just five turns, about fifteen days of operations in Sealion, they could see a slow but undeniable German progress from Dover toward London.

From the beginning, the students had a healthy grasp of the kinds of decisions needed in such a campaign.  Where should the Germans invade?  When asked, I did not make any recommendations, but told them that the Wehrmacht planned to invade in Kent, around Dover, and that the British originally viewed East Anglia as the most likely site.  The German players chose Kent.

They also wanted to know which side was stronger.  I said that Germany had overwhelming superiority on land, assuming a different outcome to the Battle of Britain for game purposes an advantage in the air, but were totally outclassed at sea.  From that, they could see that Germany’s major advantage would be difficult to bring to bear across the English Channel.

The players’ interest grew in other areas as well.  They asked about the problems of simulating an event that never really happened, and the methods and priorities of research needed to design a game on military operations. 

Furthermore, some time and a couple of pizzas later, they were having fun.  The Germans were eager to attack London directly, and were willing to spill all the blood, including their own, to do it as soon as possible.  Both sides found that they liked to bomb things, and readily found the relationship between aerial attack and ground combat that I had built into Britain Stands Alone.

The next day came the biggest challenge of my stay, the talk on countering terrorism.  I already knew that this was an unusually knowledgeable and adept group of people, and any questions were liable to be tough ones.

Both expectations turned out to be true.  There were about twenty attendees for what was planned to be an hour-long session.  I concurred with Professor Setear’s request that I speak for a short period, ten or fifteen minutes at most, and then turn the rest of the time over to questions and discussion.

What followed was a very productive and stimulating discussion.  The questions were incisive and perceptive.  I stand by what I’ve written on the subject, but know that some readers considered my approach rather harsh.  So did some of the students, with very firm convictions to that effect, and areas which they wanted to question.  They were also very polite, without a single shred of politically correct dogma or moral arrogance.  Many simply had a view of the conflict that relied heavily on the idea that morality and ethics should always be paramount for the conduct of any policy, including war.  Others put a priority on finding a solution that avoided counterproductive means as much as humanly possible, and saw the application of violence toward Afghanistan as possibly just such a strategy.

There was actually no fundamental disagreement between us, just differences of perspective and priority.  I come from an academic background in which realpolitik and the “power school” of international relations hold the most appeal.  I am definitely an admirer of Hans Morgenthau.

Like Morgenthau, I can also see how a blind adherence to power relations untempered by a moral component creates a monster.  Hitler is the best example of a power politician whose cynicism recognizes no constraint of law, whether natural or divine.  Therefore I tried to make clear that the moral concerns that some students stated were entirely valid, but had to be balanced against the measure of what is effective in eradicating terrorism.

So there was common ground among us.

In addition, one student questioned whether a desire to maintain national resolve might actually be a suppression of war aims and means under the mantle of patriotism.  It was a most a most valid question, from a woman who had a very good grasp of the duties of a citizen in a democratic republic at any time, war or peace. 

Our time together was supposed to be an hour.  However, after the people with one o’clock classes left, we went on for another thirty minutes.  The issues discussed were important, and I was honored that those who remained were eager to continue.

My final duty was several hours later, at Professor Setear’s regular class, the one for which I was originally invited.  That was another small group organized in a seminar form.

We began with a discussion of the games people played for the course, and what they had learned from them.  The consensus was that the games, and RAF was the most widely played, were valuable means of active learning.  They would not replace books or articles, but gave a perspective that text narrative and analysis lacks.  Several mentioned that they did not fully grasp the importance of aircraft range and performance, which was part of their required reading, until seeing it in interactive form in RAF.

Those who played Britain Stands Alone also found it constructive, I was happy to hear.  One student mentioned that the map gave him a fresh appreciation of how terrain can impede mobility and aid in the defense of a territorial objective.

Ironically, I never did talk much about Operation Sealion.  It probably was not really necessary, as they had already read my article on the subject in Command Number 45 (October 1997).

Instead, part of the class became a workshop about creating wargames.  The students had plenty of questions regarding the science and art of game design, especially about research, scale, and victory conditions.  As the resident game designer, I was happy to answer to the best of my ability.

One thing that struck me was that although nearly all present had very little experience with board wargames, they were able to identify the most important elements of one.  Perhaps it was their legal training in process, and perhaps native intelligence, or most probably both, but they discovered the critical aspects of game design immediately.

I was truly sorry to see the class end, as it meant the end of my work at the University of Virginia.  That was mitigated somewhat by some very good sushi that followed, but I was still sorry to go.

All of my thoughts and feelings of my stay in Charlottesville can be summed up by saying that this was the best experience of my wargame design career.  I deeply believe that the craft, and its educational value, were fully appreciated.  In addition, though there are other experienced game designers with many more credits and awards, one would never know that from the way that the faculty and students treated me.  I cannot say enough in appreciation for the way in which they made me feel welcome.

This goes beyond hospitality.  Nothing would have worked without their enthusiasm and active participation.  I spent enough time inside classrooms to know when people go through the motions.  This was not it.  They approached the wargames with open minds, and yes a little healthy skepticism, and invested a good deal of thought and work.  It was rewarding to me to see that they were rewarded for the experience.

At the same time that John Setear introduced the board wargames that so many of us love into the course, he preserved its academic rigor.  Following my visit, there was going to be some very in-depth study of the jurisprudence of war.  If someone wants an easy class, I suggest they look elsewhere.

I have absolutely no mixed feelings about my short time at the University of Virginia.  It was entirely positive, with my only regret being in taking leave of it.