Why Board Games?
A history book with maps and counters


When a local reporter stopped by my office, he looked around and said, "You must really like games."

Now, mind you, the games are all in one 10 x 12 room, and really take three shelves on one wall. There might be 300 of them, all told.

Text Box: My friend Todd, setting up a game of SPI's Cedar Mountain in my office, 2006. Note the game shelves. Not all that many games.

Perhaps this seems remarkable to some people, but the rest of the house has another 10 x 12 room with over 500 hardbound books, almost all of which are American History. More than half focus on America from 1930 to 1980. 

The traditional living room has about the same number of hardbounds, 100 of which are Presidential biographies, and another 100 are detailed American history volumes. A third of those books are detailed to the era of the American Civil War,  and the events leading up to that war.

Round out the room with about 400 CDs, almost all from 1965 to 1975, and you have my office. (The hardbound fiction is out of sight in a hallway around the corner.)

Now I'd think that the books would draw the comments.  But they don't. Maybe as a reporter, he shares the love of reading, so books seemed normal. But I guess 200 wargames seem odd, as opposed to over a 1500 hardbound books on a very narrow subject. (Now, realize he was also there about a series of lectures I was doing on the 1960's, meaning about half of the books in the above picture figured as part of the research for the lecture series. But I digress.)

Well - yeah, I do like wargames. And back in the early to mid 1970s, I didn't really question it. But today, with the 'opportunity' to play computer wargames, people really do not understand the draw of paper wargames that don't provide sound effects, explosions, or their own opponent.

Of course, in today's world, reading seems weird to people as well. If your hobby or pastime requires you to think, that is just wrong to most people, I guess.

In light of the computer games today, I think I can understand the draw paper or 'manual' wargames offer to me and the few people that still play them: They are a collection of data, and they provide insight to the meaning of the information they offer us.

Today we understand 'books' are not just the traditional collection of pages with words between two covers. Today there are ebooks, audio books, and You-Tube video collections of old filmstrips and new videos, coupled with pages of written thoughts and explanations.

Today there are web sites that are photo, video, audio and word collections with detailed information that never touches paper, yet touches our minds.

Now we recognize all of these collections of information are 'books' - if we think of a book as information drawn together in one spot. But the information on the web may not only be written or visual,  but changeable as well. It might be a graphic with click buttons to reorganize the data that you view to better understand the hidden meanings of columns of data.

That's what these wargames were - a different way to combine information distilled by detailed study. Wargames put detailed troop strength and placed them in time a space to the terrain they inhabited, and face you with the same problems their commanders faced. The games then expected you to maneuver the 'data' over the same conditions to see if you could get the answer that you need. The process showed players that different choices affected the outcome.

The difference, of course, is that material wasn't just passively presented. With wargames, you not only had an opportunity to examine 'what happened' but to experience why it happened that way. 

Read a book on the Civil War, you'll learn a lot about the conflict, and that the Union bested the Confederates on the battlefield.  Play Victory Games The Civil War and you'll learn a lot about the battles, and you'll see an application of the theory presented in numerous books that the North's capacity for production, their larger population, and their ability to trade with Europe directed the war in a certain direction.

Play SPI's Terrible Swift Sword, and you'll see why most historians think Lee could have won. You'll also understand why he didn't, and the difficulties that commanders in the field face, as opposed to we gamers that come along 100 years later and wonder 'why didn't he do THIS?'

You'll come to understand, though, that the South could win lots of battles, yet still lose the war.

Read the materials with SPI's City-Fight, which includes a review of the doctrine of warfare in cities from the middle ages to the mid-twentieth century,  and how it has changed, and you'll understand what urban warfare really requires of troops. Play the game, and you'll learn even more about why Baghdad in 2007 isn't someplace you want to be - and why. 

These are books with maps, counters, and words. They are lessons to be experienced and absorbed, not just read.

In short, the wargames are examples that lead you through the thinking of the designer. It also teaches you to think about options, not just assume the outcome is a math problem where 'more' automatically wins. In these games, you have the ability to try to change the outcome, which is a bonus, but the real lesson is the learning experience of why things work as they do. 

Many of the game designers of that era are now noted historians, and authors. A. A. Nofi of S&T fame is now Dr. Alfred Nofi, thank you. Joe Baloski, who wrote a number of great SPI games, including CityFight, is now a best selling author of books on D-Day and the campaign from Normandy to Berlin. John Prados and Randall Reed are known names to readers of history books. And the game designer that powered SPI, Jim Dunnigan, writes best selling history snippet books, but is also the darling of the TV networks when they need someone to explain to them what's going on on the battlefield, and why.

Though the video / computer gaming industry of today grosses more on one game than many movies, most of us that played paper wargames are anachronisms in the 21st century.

But the lessons we learned are no less valuable than they were then. Many of us would argue that more knowledge, not less, is needed today. And wargaming was the nexus that led us to gathering, digesting, testing, and evaluating the information we are given, not simply accepting it as fact. That's a benefit that books and today's computer games rarely offer.  

  --- Russell Gifford, 2008