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Designer's Notebook: Creating Opponents for Wargames

November 20, 1998

Recently a producer friend of mine came to me with an interesting design problem. He was working with a developer to hammer out the details of a wargame set in the future, and they were having trouble agreeing on a suitable opponent for Our Heroes, who are, of course, human space marines.

The developer was firmly against using organic aliens (read: slimy bugs), since in their opinion aliens have been overdone recently. They were interested in doing something involving religious fanatics, and my friend wasn't sure that could be made to work. He and I batted ideas around for a while, and it got me thinking about how wars come about and how the different circumstances can be incorporated into computer games.

First, if you're going to do aliens, particularly if they're bug-eyed monsters, then the backstory doesn't matter that much. Either we want their planet or they want our planet; they're trying to assimilate us or we're trying to wipe them out. Wargames about aliens are usually about as subtle as a can of Raid. Starcraft gave us two different kinds of aliens, the organic and the high-tech, with extensive backstories for each, but without a timeline and a map it was all rather difficult to follow. It didn't matter: they were bugs and they wanted to kill us.

With humans, however, it gets much more interesting. Humans are certainly willing to kill each other without much provocation, but if you care about the backstory, you have to have credible motivations for war.

Wars can be divided into two main categories: international and intra-national, or civil. I'll look at each of these in turn.

International Wars

International wars usually occur because of some conflict between two groups of people over a resource, or because one group seeks power over another. The flames are fanned by good old-fashioned xenophobia, and even if there aren't racial differences between the parties, cultural differences can be made to serve instead.

Imperialism is one of the most basic sources of war. The 16th and 17th-century battles between England and France, or England and Spain, are perfect examples of the kind; they were imperial nations seeking to expand their power and influence at the expense of the other. A point worth noting is that the imperial nations don't necessarily disagree over issues of political ideology - England, France, and Spain were all strong monarchies. They'll usually find justification somewhere, however. For instance, Spain justified its opposition to England by claiming to be supporting the Catholic Church following Henry VIII's seizure of Church property. What Spain really wanted, though, was to force Queen Elizabeth to marry King Philip and unite the two empires.

Imperialism is an easy subject for computer games because of its fundamental simplicity; it's not that different from wars against alien bugs.

Proxy wars occur when large, powerful nations want to avoid full-scale warfare with each other: they get somebody else to fight for them. The US backs South Vietnam, the USSR backs North Vietnam, and you get the idea. They're an interesting subject for wargames because there's always the possibility of drawing the big guys into direct battle with each other, with devastating consequences. For the patron nations it's a game of poker: how much prestige are they willing to stake on a minor war in a foreign country? For the proxy nations, the trick is to win the war without depending so much on their powerful ally that they become a puppet and lose their own sovereignty.

Colonialism (or imperial expansionism) is what happens when imperial nations attack poorly-armed indigenous populations in an effort to gain control of their land and resources. The British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese colonized the Western Hemisphere; the British, French and Dutch colonized southeast Asia, and so on. Colonialism is an awkward subject for computer games for a couple of reasons: first, it's rather frowned upon nowadays; and second, most of the battles in history were pretty one-sided. With a few exceptions such as the Zulu wars, the superior technology and organization of the colonizing powers tended to result in utter defeat for the hapless natives.

Ideological differences were given as the main reason for the Cold War, which fortunately never developed into a hot war. International wars that are genuinely about ideological differences are relatively rare; most countries are fairly willing to practice toleration for their neighbors' quirks as long as they aren't threatening to themselves.

Religious fanatacism can often lead to war, but it comes with curious limitations. Religious fanatics are by definition not rational, and seldom allow their actions to be governed by sound strategic thinking. The Crusades are one of the best examples of this. The First Crusade was started by the Church, which urged the European peasantry to abandon their homes and march to Jerusalem to rid the Holy Land of the infidel. Disorganized, under-equipped, and ill-disciplined, most of the Crusaders died of starvation and exposure in the forests of Bulgaria without ever getting near the Holy Land.

Religious fanatics are content to follow a charismatic leader as long as all of his actions are consistent with their goal; but caution or hesitation are likely to result in his immediate replacement. The modern wargame player prefers to play strategically, not fanatically, and probably isn't going to want to play using troops who can veto his decisions. They might be suitable for an AI opponent, but not for a side that a human player would choose.

Humanitarian intervention is recognized by international law as a sufficient reason for one country to invade another, and was the justification for such military operations as the Israeli rescue of hostages at Entebbe, Uganda. It's also a loophole big enough to drive a truck through. If country A has a minority group who are ethnically related to the people in country B, and country A starts to repress them, country B is likely to invade on their behalf. The US invasion of Grenada was theoretically to protect American medical students, although from what was never made clear. On the other hand, if a country does not have a vested interest, it's often willing to turn a blind eye to the most appalling atrocities. Hitler might well have gotten away with the extermination of Germany's Jews, Catholics, Communists, homosexuals and handicapped, if he hadn't insisted on dominating the rest of Europe as well.

Humanitarian intervention can provide good backstory for a wargame but it doesn't really affect the game's design very much.

Feudal wars were not really either international or civil wars, because the concept of the nation-state is weak under feudalism. In the feudal system, in principle, every person owes allegiance to someone higher than himself (except for the king, who is at the top of the pyramid). As a knight, your allegiance was primarily to your liege lord, and only indirectly through him or her to your country. In practice, the barons were constantly shifting allegiances and struggling for political dominance over one another. The goal of feudal wars was seldom to conquer an enemy outright, but to force him to agree with your terms. In some respects they resembled family feuds, perpetuated by the warrior culture of the nobility. Looting and holding prisoners for ransom was a significant part of feudal warfare, which gave it an economic element unrelated to the war's theoretical justification.

Feudalism is an ideal subject for on-line, multiplayer wargames because of its opportunities for negotiating alliances.

Raiding was common among mobile peoples such as the Plains Indians of North America, or the Vikings of Northern Europe. Both the native Americans and the Vikings had warrior cultures in which personal displays of courage and fighting prowess were highly valued. Although we can't really classify raiding as a kind of war, doing it - and defending against it - does require military skill.

The objective of raiding was not domination of another people or seizure of their land, but simply loot and trophies from slain opponents ("scalps"). Although you could make a game about raiding, I don't think it would really be a war game. Raids were chiefly about tactics, not strategy.

Civil Wars

Most of the wars in the 20th century have been civil wars for control of a single country. It's much easier to make a case for attacking your own government than it is for attacking someone else's government. Civil wars arise for a variety of reasons.

Political ideology was behind the Chinese civil war (1927-1949) and the English civil war (1642-1648). In the former case, the parties were the Communists and the Nationalists; in the latter, the King versus the Parliament.

Differences in political ideology can make for interesting backstory in a wargame, and they also have consequences for the game itself. Highly aristocratic societies have little respect for the common foot soldier, preferring smaller numbers of elite or mercenary troops. Egalitiarian societies tend to put their faith in the masses. This could easily be reflected in the game's design.

Rebellions are usually caused by some grievance a group of people have against their government. Although we're taught as children that the American Revolution was about political ideology, it was really more about the American colonists being fed up with British taxation and what they saw as abuses of power. American and British principles of liberty and democracy were fairly similar; the problem was the taxes and all those redcoats swaggering around. The American Civil War was also in the nature of a rebellion. The two sides were not that politically different; the reasons for the war were mostly economic.

This is a classic for games, and of course it's the basis for the Star Wars saga. Everybody loves an underdog and fighting for freedom from the oppressor, blah blah blah. The trick is to make it credible that the rebels would have access to enough arms to constitute a real threat. Many rebellions linger on for years as terrorism or guerrilla warfare because the central government can't quite smoke them out, and the rebels can't quite get hold of enough arms and soldiers to win.

Monarchical succession has been a constant source of civil war over the years. If a monarch dies leaving no clearly-defined heir, or one which many people find unsuitable, the result is almost inevitably a civil war. The war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda of England was a war of succession. Matilda was heir to her father's throne, but she was personally unpopular and many of the nobility preferred a male ruler.

Issues of monarchical succession may not be very successful as backstory for a wargame today, since most people would find them difficult to relate to as a motivation.

Factionalism based on charismatic leaders is another source, and it doesn't really matter what their claims for legitimacy are. Many of the civil wars of ancient Rome took this form: Julius Caesar versus Pompey, Octavian versus Mark Antony, etc. Like monarchical succession, it's not very accessible to modern players.

One of the most pervasive, and most tragic, reasons for civil war is racial, religious, or cultural tensions, of which the Hutu-Tutsi conflict in Rwanda and the Serb-Croat war in Bosnia-Herzegovina are only the latest in a long and bloody line. Any time two hostile groups share the same country, there's bound to be trouble. Efforts to settle the problem by partitioning the land (as with India and Pakistan, or Israel and Jordan) usually just end up turning a civil war into an international one.

To most westerners this is a fairly unpalatable subject for a wargame. We've seen too much of it in our lifetimes as it is, and we know that diplomacy, toleration, and mutual respect are the way to go. In Belgium, the Flemish-speakers may grumble about the French-speakers and vice versa, but it's fairly unlikely that they'll take up arms at this point.

To return to my friend's problem, interstellar wars in the future are likely to arise from one or another of these circumstances. Two competing groups will discover a valuable planet and both will want it. Colonists will want independence from the mother planet. A tyrant will have to be overthrown. A new political order will arise to challege the old. And so on. The pages of history hold the answers; all you have to do is look.

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