Simulating War: Studying Conflict Through Simulation Games

April 26, 2012

Computers have not eclipsed manual board war gaming. This is the strong message delivered in Philip Sabin's Simulating War. This book is about war gaming, and if you are expecting a traditional treatment of simulation, you may be disappointed. Sabin, a military historian, is also a master war-game designer, and a significant part of the book is devoted to very effective descriptions of his methodology and design, with several examples of completed games provided, including Second Punic War, Roma Invicta?, Hell's Gate, Big Week and Fire and Movement.

The book's stated purpose is to "teach you how to research and design your own simple wargames on conflicts of your choice, just as do Professor Sabin's own students in his MA course on conflict simulation". Without a doubt, Sabin meets this goal. I was at one time an avid board war-game hobbyist and also participated in professional war gaming during a career in the US Army, so Sabin's book found a ready audience in this reviewer. It may not be appealing for readers who are not interested in board-based games.

Quite simply, in terms of describing manual map hex grid war gaming, Sabin has written the most readable book on this topic to appear in a long time. It is well written, entertaining and presents a lot of original material and new ideas on war-game design.

Based on the descriptions here, it sounds as though the King's College London classes in which Sabin uses these games are lively, and having his students work through war games may indeed be very useful. It is certainly a novel approach. However, I would have found the pedagogic aspect of this work more compelling had the author spent a little more time discussing the desired outcomes and some hard data indicating how his teaching techniques achieved those outcomes. However, that is not the stated objective of the book.

Eight pages offer full-colour plates containing maps and playing pieces for the war games extensively described here, reminiscent of magazines such as Strategy & Tactics, which includes a war game in every issue. Making use of the game components in Sabin's book will take some effort, as the pages are not easily removable, but he also makes the maps and game pieces available via a King's College London website. The graphic files are high quality and easy to download and manipulate.

Simulating War is not without its faults. A reader who expects serious treatment of model validation will be disappointed, as the focus of this work is very much on playability. Sabin correctly points out that board game layout can be more illustrative than computer screens. This is often true, particularly in classroom settings; however, there exist war-gaming centres with computer screens every bit as large as many of the full-size hex-based war-game boards. Hybrid approaches to war gaming, where manual boards are controlled by computer-generated results, are not new, and deserve more consideration. The basic mathematics described in Appendix 3 covers a primitive but highly playable means of modelling the stochastic aspects of conflict simulation.

The author makes frequent references to his previous book, Lost Battles: Reconstructing the Great Clashes of the Ancient World, which I found distracting. Simulating War stands on its own (as it should).

Reading this book led me to dig out my old Avalon Hill and SPI war games that I had not looked at in more than 20 years. I enjoyed reading this book: it is well researched and academically sound and, for the right audience, it will be very welcome.

Simulating War: Studying Conflict Through Simulation Games

By Philip Sabin. Continuum, 416pp, £25.00. ISBN 9781441185587. Published 19 January 2012

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