War gaming for adults

For those with a serious interest in war gaming, a detailed commentary from  renowned expert John Drewienkiewicz

The early days.

In common with many of my age group I started war gaming with Britain’s’ fine lead figures as a boy - I still have the plastic 4-man American Civil War set somewhere. I had a break from about age 12 to 30 when I stumbled on War gaming in the Army.

I started with Romans and the War games Research Group 4th edition. Then as now I was looking for rules which ensured that if you played the tactics historically then you got a reasonable result. I must admit to enjoying massed Ancient British Chariot charges taking out Sassanids for a brief moment though.

It got more analytical when I met Paddy Griffith, first when I was a student at the Army Staff College in 1978, and then in 1984 and 85 when I returned as an instructor to teach the same course, and found myself designing exercises with Paddy. He was inspirational in boiling a problem down to its essentials. He took us out into the training area behind Sandhurst and conducted American Civil War ‘TEWTs’, tactical exercises without troops. He constantly challenged the status quo and sloppy thinking.

Recreational war games

It’s interesting comparing the military war games I took part in as a soldier with the recreational war games I now run. In the army all mission preparation and much of the training is in effect simulation. At platoon, company and battalion level it was all about skills and drills, and doing things in a predetermined way so that it was second nature.

At its most simple it’s putting things away in the same place. In my engineer unit we had a rule that the mine detector was under the back left seat so that you knew where it was all the time. When you work at night it is astonishing how long things take to do until you make simple rules like that.

Command post exercises

The Staff College training had some really well thought out ‘command post’ exercises where you acted as a commander with a staff and ‘fought’ the battle using telephones. The Camberley Staff College had its own telephone exchange for inserting information to players, who sat in rooms around a central hall where the controlling staff sat around a map or ground model with the situation portrayed on it.

 Writing a set of orders against the clock.

There were also TEWTs where you went out to a spot in the country and planned the defence of a piece of ground, and then had to write a set of orders against the clock. Rather like a Staff Ride, where you look at an operation that happened and discuss what might have been done differently. Staff Rides were used by the US Army in the 1980s and 90s and we have picked them up too. Most of the battlefield tours of the Battle for Berlin 1945 were originally researched in the early 1990s by the Army when it had to diversify because the autumn exercises came to an end with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

 Manoeuvres on the ground.

Whilst serving in Germany in the British Army of the Rhine [BAOR] there was a series of exercises at ascending levels that ended up with manoeuvres on the ground, usually in September and October.

I recall one where we went out in September and we were still in the field on Remembrance Day in early November. The Headquarters deployed in advance and ‘played’ the start of the operation, then the actual units deployed and manoeuvred as ordered for up to four weeks.

Rivers were crossed using bridges that we built and, if the bridges were not there at the appointed time, it was a career-limiting experience for the hapless engineer commander

An hour to play one minute of combat.

Finally there were higher level research games where the effect of new equipment was gamed and studied in the Defence Operational Analysis Establishment. They had scientists who did the sums and serving soldiers were drafted in to play the commanders.

I took part in one in about 1983 where better airborne surveillance and anti-tank helicopters were added to the defence mix of the 1st British Corps. It was laid out on a map board with a kilometre of ground on a one metre square board in huge detail.

It took about an hour to play one minute of combat and I was there about a month, so we played a morning of World War 3. Sadly these sorts of facilities, which were admittedly expensive, were done away with by the politicians in the mid 1990s so we have no way of doing this sort of research in-house any more.

There were in my view lots of other areas where we should have cut before we hit research, not least still having horses in the Army a century after they stopped being useful. I am sure that the roadside bomb problem in Iraq and Afghanistan could have been sorted more quickly if the scientists had still been in place.

 Designing a war game.

When designing a war game based on real events there are many things to take into account. Terrain has to include the key features at the right distances, but it does not have to be accurate to model railway standards. If the fence layout and micro-terrain is very complicated, one way of representing it is to set a reduced movement rate.

This worked for our simulation of the American Civil War (1861) Bull Run Game, where all ground was broken except the Warrenton to Centreville road which was less hard going so long as you stayed close to the road.



Briefings have to be pre-scripted at the start. Once the game starts the player briefings are up to the players. In our Bull Run game we invited the two commanders to brief their subordinates, and they were distinctly sketchy.

The result was that individual players reacted as they saw fit and that caused one of the Union players to diverge from his orders to a major degree, which was unfortunate but understandable and has many precedents. This sort of player interaction and dare we say it, confusion, is what makes a game in my view.

 Intelligence is key.

I fantasise about running a game with three boards, one for each player and one for the umpires, but it would be a nightmare to set up.

In my book on the Gettysburg campaign I described trying to disguise the Union forces strengths and dispositions on Day 1 of Gettysburg by putting out both the mounted and dismounted figures for Buford’s division at the same time(whereas even cavalry have to decide whether they are on or off their nags at any given moment), and how we got confused and allowed a ‘ghost’ unit to intervene decisively.

These days we often place a marker on the board and cover it with flock so that at the right moment it is discovered. We also allow hidden movement until units reach the point where the enemy could see them. Again, it is all down to the umpires to provide the level of detail at the appropriate time.

Players in roles.

Players in roles is an important part of the pre-game preparation. We usually know who is coming a week ahead and so we have time to match players to roles and opponents.

Some of the ‘Kingshall Irregulars’, as we call our group, go back 40 years so know each other very well; others were colleagues in my Army days as much as 30 years ago. So we know who is aggressive and who is cautious, who is a team player and who is a bit selfish, who will press on regardless and who is easily discouraged.

The ability to roll good dice is another factor, and equates to Napoleon’s observation on luck in generalship.

Age plays a part too. In a Franco-Prussian War game of St Privat and Gravelotte(1870) we wanted the Prussians to charge ahead without much deep analysis and we wanted the French to dither; we assigned the roles of the Prussians to the ‘young set’ whose average age was 30, and the 50-60 age group were the French.

The French then internalised the problems and were only reactive whereas the Prussians pushed on without much coordination, so we got the sort of historically accurate approach that we had hoped for.

Tricks of the trade.

I think that, as a game designer, you need to know the ground better than the players. The players can be reassured that what they see is an accurate representation of what they could see. If there is a hidden dip it needs to be kept hidden.

Hence for Gettysburg I have walked the ground extensively with two colleagues over a period of almost 15 years. Maps do not show 6 foot deep folds in the ground and you have to look for them.

McPherson’s Ridge (Gettysburg first day) has a 4 foot deep hollow that is a reverse slope; at Brandy Station the southern part of the battlefield was completely new to the Union, and completely unmapped, so we designated some terrain squares as ‘black holes’ and when a unit entered it the umpire took it over and eventually allowed it to exit the square in a fairly random direction.

Of course you need people who are willing to be umpires but we find the role to be great fun. It also allows you to set limits for command and control; we are hugely sceptical at the allocation of extra bonus points because eg a brigade or divisional commander is around. First the lines of sight were more limited than is portrayed and secondly there were relatively few commanders whose presence really inspired. Many more appear to have been brave but baffled.

 First Bull Run 1861

First Bull Run 1861 is the sixth volume in the series “Wargaming in History” (WiH) published by Ken Trotman Ltd. Richard Brown, the publisher, began the WiH series with just Charles Grant, a professional wargames author.

It coincided with my work load reducing and my co-author Adam Poole urging me to write up the dozen or so Gettysburg games that I had staged over the years. Without him nagging I don’t think I would have approached Richard Brown but it has been a rewarding experience and has ensured that I now have to run games, instead of being allowed to by my long-suffering better half.

 We hit some speed bumps.

Richard Brown wanted us to do ‘Jackson in the Shenandoah’ after our Gettysburg book, but as we started to sketch out the book we hit some speed bumps that made us reconsider. First, you cannot understand the mindset of the individuals without harking back to First Bull Run.

The Armies develop from the experience of that first battle. The role of intelligence was also crucial. To play the Shenandoah Valley properly you have to have a way of presenting the opposing sides with very different levels and quality of information/intelligence.

We were not sure that we were fully au fait with how to achieve this so we wanted to trial our approach on a campaign where the dis-proportionality of intelligence was less marked. We eventually worked out how best to run a closed pre-game, so we studied First Bull Run and ran the campaign, before writing it up in our second book.

 A very good primer.

As a one-battle campaign 1st Bull Run is a very good primer for learning the basics for a more complicated campaign later. We wanted to set up a battle which started in Washington, not as the Union Army advances over Sudley Ford. That offered the Union player in particular a slightly different set of options, some of which he actually took.

I also wanted to keep the Confederates on the back foot as the Union juggernaut bore down on them, and this effect seems to have been achieved. It developed into two separate, simultaneous battles which required Beauregard to keep some reserves uncommitted during the first battle so that he had some options left when the second battle was unveiled.

 Suppliers and distributors.

Richard Brown’s firm, Ken Trotman, is the supplier and he has a good website. In the USA the books are distributed through ‘On Matters Military, and they are even available via Amazon. I regret to say that Waterstones feel it is too specialist a subject for them. I took the book into my local Waterstones in Bury St Edmunds where the lady manager just looked at it in disbelief.

It's not 'chiklit'.

So I suppose that it cannot be described as ‘chicklit’. This is war gaming for adults. That said, the WiH series is firmly established and now runs to six volumes, with Charles Grant moving forward in time from Frederick the Great to Wellington in the Peninsula, and our next projects will be the Shenandoah Valley and the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 – a logical progression from the American Civil War in my view.


John Drewienkiewicz, Bury St Edmunds, England

John discovered wargaming in the British Army at the same time as he was being called upon to do Cold War  war games for real. He was commissioned in the Royal Engineers in 1966, becoming the Engineer in Chief of the Army in 1994. He spent from 1996 yo 1998 on operations with NATO in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He retired as a Major General but keeps his hand in  with post-conflict work.

For information on his publications:

Wargaming in History - Publishers www.kentrotman.com

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