Book Reviews: Lost Battles & Simulating War by Philip Sabin

While these are two different books, I thought it would be appropriate to put both reviews in one post since they deal with the same overall topic of wargames and have similar formats.

Unfortunately, while Sabin originally offered downloadable content for the wargames in both of these books from his page on the King’s College website, that site page no longer exists. As far as I’m aware, he still teaches there at the time of writing (June 2021), but the website seems to have been revamped and the original webpages (along with the downloadable content) for these books are gone. Additionally, Sabin makes a number of references to the electronic mailing lists on Yahoo Groups that share ideas about these books and their games, but Yahoo Groups no longer exists, either. Thus, the URLs in these books no longer function. However, Sabin recently created a new site to host his content on which can be found at https://sites.google.com/view/sabinwargames/home.

Lost Battles

Topic & Content

A book on examining ancient warfare using a a dynamic modeling system. Part game designer’s note and part wargame, Philip Sabin’s Lost Battles provides readers with a wargaming system to both experiment with and deepen their understanding of warfare in the ancient world. The book is organized as follows:

  • Part I: The Model
    • 1. Sources
    • 2. Armies
    • 3. Movement
    • 4. Fighting
    • 5. Command
    • 6. The Model in Operation
  • Part II: The Battles
    • 7. Athens and Sparta
    • 8. The Age of Xenophon
    • 9. Alexander the Great
    • 10. The Successors
    • 11. Carthage and Rome
    • 12. Hannibal and Scipio
    • 13. Rome Moves East
    • 14. Julius Caesar
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix 1: Rules
  • Appendix 2: Using the Model
  • Appendix 3: Directory of Battles
  • Appendix 4: Glossary

The book is divided into two parts. The first half of the book details development and rules of the comparative dynamic model (i.e. the wargame/simulation) that Sabin developed. He explains how the model is designed, why he designed it as such, and how it’s supposed to work. Essentially, this part of the book is one hundred pages of Sabin’s game design notes. The second half of the book covers 35 ancient battles, from the Greeks to the time of Julius Caesar, to which the simulation can be applied.

Thesis

Sabin’s goal for this book was to create a comparative dynamic model that could be used to examine tactical engagements in ancient history from which there is often poor and/or conflicting evidence. Through using this model, readers/players can experiment with the tactical engagements and draw their own conclusions about the course of the battles and the potential for alternative interpretations.

Author’s Background

Philip Sabin is a professor of strategic studies at King’s College, London. He’s a well-known wargame designer and has written extensively on using wargames for educational purposes.

Critical Observations

Pros:

It takes some time, but once you learn the rules and how to use the simulation, then the book becomes more interesting since you’re applying the model directly to the battles in the second half of the book. Sabin does note that the model is meant to be a “grand tactical simulation,” hence it’s intentionally abstract in certain areas and is somewhat generic since it needs to be broad enough to simulate the dynamics of all of the 35 ancient battles that he covers.

In this regard, this book is very interesting because it’s a wargame and 35 scenarios which can be played with it. All you really need are some dice, a pencil, and some paper. However, there is a deluxe edition of Lost Battles that includes a board, counters, and rule sheet, in addition to the book, although I didn’t purchase that edition.

When compared to the wargames in Sabin’s Simulating War, it’s clear that the model used in Lost Battles is meant to be much more detailed. It does require a larger time investment and has a steeper learning curve since the game’s mechanics are more involved. I’ve only played a handful of the scenarios (battles), but overall, the game rules work, and Sabin is making a very unique argument for using wargames and game design as a tool to add to the methodology of historical research that goes beyond traditional scholarship.

Cons:

Unfortunately, while Sabin originally offered downloadable content for the wargame in this book, and his later book, Simulating War, from his page on the King’s College website, that site page no longer exists. As far as I’m aware, he still teaches there as of June 2021, but the website seems to have been revamped and the original web pages for his books are gone. Additionally, Sabin makes a number of references to the electronic mailing lists on Yahoo Groups that share ideas about these games, but that no longer exists, either. Thus, the URLs in this book no longer function.

As with Sabin’s later book, Simulating War, one issue I have with this book is that there’s not a clear and concise rule sheet. Famous wargame designer, Jim Dunnigan, calls these single-page rule sheets “summary sheets.” They should list the basic game rules and applicable combat results tables in a quick-reference, easy-to-understand format that allows the player to jump in and play the game. Appendix 1 does contain the game rules, but they’re written in paragraphs. Thus, it forces the player to read through a bunch of text to understand and apply the rules. (The deluxe edition does contain a rule sheet which makes the rules quicker and easier to apply.)

Another problem is that the model and the battles in the book are purely land battles. There appears to be no provision to modify the model to examine naval engagements in ancient history. It’s probably up to the reader to study and apply their own game design to such scenarios. Furthermore, while the game rules do work, I found some of them (like the morale mechanic) to be a little clunky to use. However, this may be due to the fact that I’m fairly inexperienced with board wargames.

My final gripe is purely personal. While the model is an excellent and dynamic way of studying these ancient battles that highlights the benefits of studying military history using wargames versus traditional scholarly methods, my problem is that I’m simply not interested in ancient history. I find the places and names to be difficult to pronounce, and my temporal distance from these events, along with my ignorance of the topic, also makes it difficult for me to mentally contextualize the cultural world that these battles took place in. Of course, this is purely a matter of personal preference, but Greek and Roman history just bore me to tears! (I was half asleep in my philosophy 101 class in college. Plato’s The Republic and Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics damn near put me into a coma.)

Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)

Overall, I find the concept of the book very unique. Using wargames (and simulations/models) as a tool for studying history can be a breath of fresh air. I think Sabin did a great job of creating a flexible simulation that could be taken, modified, and applied to comparative analyses of other battles in history for which there is little surviving evidence.

That being said, my lack of interest in the topic of ancient history really detracts from my enjoyment of the book, the scholarship in it, and of the game. Additionally, the occasional clunky game mechanics and lack of a concise rule/summary sheet make me less inclined to continue playing this game.

In spite of my problems with the book and the simulation it contains, I still recommend Sabin’s Lost Battles to anyone with an interest in wargames, ancient history, and how the former can be applied to studying the latter.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Simulating War

Topic & Content

Simulating War is essentially a textbook, of sorts, detailing the pedagogical benefits of wargames and providing readers with eight micro-wargames, either to play for themselves or for instructors to use in the classroom. The contents of the book are as follows:

  • Part I: Theory
    • Ch. 1 Modelling war
    • Ch. 2 Accuracy vs simplicity
    • Ch. 3 Educational utility
    • Ch. 4 Simulation Research
  • Part II: Mechanics
    • Ch. 5 Designing the components
    • Ch. 6 Modelling conflict dynamics
    • Ch. 7 Modelling command dynamics
    • Ch. 8 Integration and testing
  • Part III: Examples
    • Ch. 9 Ancient warfare
    • Ch. 10 World War Two
    • Ch. 11 Tactical combat
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix 1: Assembling the components
  • Appendix 2: Finding published simulations
  • Appendix 3: Basic mathematics
  • Appendix 4: Using Cyberboard
  • Appendix 5: Kartenspiel

The book is divided into three parts. The first two parts cover the theoretical nature of wargames, their educational uses, and the common ways in which they model conflict with maps, physical pieces, and mathematical models (i.e. game mechanics). Part three outlines specific wargames for different eras of history and at different levels of war. These range from the strategic to the tactical and ancient history to World War II.

Thesis

Sabin’s goal for this book is to provide a justification for the pedagogical benefits of wargames and practical examples of small wargames that can be played in the relatively short time span of a 1 – 2 hour block of classroom instruction. In Sabin’s words, “My aim of this book is… to suggest that creative application of the analytical techniques developed by wargames enthusiasts over the past half-century offers some novel and powerful tools for teaching and research in the strategic studies field” (p. xx).

Critical Observations

Pros:

Unlike Lost Battles, this book is much broader in how it covers the general application of wargames, specifically regarding their use in an educational setting in Part I. To that end, Sabin offers a lengthy discussion on how he has used wargames in his own teaching at King’s College, London. Furthermore, Sabin offers a balanced view of the benefits and drawbacks of computer-based wargames (and PC games, in general). They certainly have their uses, such as being quicker and more accurate at number crunching. Yet, another thing to consider is that most artificial intelligence in video games isn’t some hyper-advanced, state-of-the-art, self-learning programming. Rather, it’s operating on relatively simple logical routines of an “if – then” sort and using triggers, random number generation, or dice rolls to determine certain events. All of those things are also simulated in manual games, it’s just that the player doesn’t see them on the computer screen due to the software programming (what James Dunnigan refers to as the “black box” of programming). Sabin devotes Part II of the book to discussing many of the common mechanics used by game designers to simulate various aspects of conflict, such as space and time, movement, combat, command, fog of war, etc.

The third part of this book is where it really shines by giving the reader eight small wargames to play. There are two games covering ancient warfare at the strategic level, two covering World War II at the operational level, and three covering World War II/generic modern warfare at the tactical level. The last game is in the appendix and is a simulation of Napoleonic-era warfare using a deck of 52 playing cards.

For each game, Sabin describes his design choices for the game’s mechanics, the rules of play, and then provides an example of a game turn. There are also full-color plates for each game providing the player with the game map and counters (playing pieces). These plates can be cut out, scanned, or photographed and printed out for use by the reader to play the games. As previously mentioned, they used to be available online for download (when the book was published in 2012), but I haven’t been able to locate any of them (as of June 2021) because the URLs in the book no longer exist.

Cons:

Several of my problems with Simulating War are very similar, if not identical, to the issues I have with Lost Battles. One noticeable thing is the absence of any simple naval wargames in this book. I would like at least one naval wargame (either strategic, operational, or tactical) since Sabin included land and air wargames in this book.

Some of the instructions for the rules of the various games are difficult to understand. I found it particularly difficult to understand how the fields of fire worked based on the illustrations for the tactical Fire and Movement and Block Busting games. As with Lost Battles, there’s not a clear and concise rule sheet (summary sheet) for each game. For each game, there are separate sections detailing the rules, but they’re written in paragraphs. Thus, it forces the player to read through a bunch of text to understand and apply the rules. Since many of the instructions and game rules are interrelated, better formatting would be appreciated. Simply put, a rules sheet (summary sheet) for each game that breaks down the rules and procedures of play into bullet points or some other concise format (instead of reading them in paragraphs in the book) would be far easier to understand and apply.

Regarding Sabin’s discussion of the many possible game mechanics which can be used in wargames, the chapters focusing on modelling combat and command dynamics could be better formatted by breaking down the individual game mechanics into lists and categories, as oppose to just having them written into the narrative. For example, if a game developer wants to model X combat/command dynamic, then a sub-heading, followed by individual game mechanics would be easier to read. For example:

COMMON MECHANICS FOR MODELING FOG OF WAR

  • “Technique 1” (explain how it works and how to integrate it into a game).
  • “Technique” 2 (” “).
  • so on…

I think such a format would make it far easier for aspiring game designers to formulate a sort of “tool box” from which to draw from. That being said, from other books I’ve read on wargames, most game mechanics involving randomization simply have their probabilities (outcomes) listed on a table and use dice. The common example being a Combat Results Table (CRT). As for non-random game mechanics, a categorical list of commonly used practices would be beneficial.

While appendix 3 offers explanations on the basic mathematical models used (probability, proportions, etc.), a chapter devoted to how different chance devices are used (dice, etc.), along with what modifiers are and how to integrate them with the game, would be appreciated.

Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)

It should be noted that Sabin applied these games at the undergraduate and graduate levels. He does provide examples of using these games in his BA and MA courses on wargaming, but I’m curious to see how well they would engage students at a secondary level. One thing I would like to try is to apply one or two of these micro-games in a middle/high school classroom. It would definitely require a lot of “scaffolding” to allow students to conceptualize what the games are about and what they teach. I suspect some students will be interested in these games (most likely those familiar with D&D), but I also suspect that even these simple wargames would be too complex or abstract for many other students who are more accustomed to playing games on their phones, PCs, and gaming consoles. Without the fancy graphics, sound effects, and button mashing, they may be turned off by the slower gameplay, cardboard pieces, and dice rolls, even though those things form the core elements of their video games. It may just be that wargaming is bit too high brow of a topic for teenagers in the 21st century.

While I think some of the formatting of this book could be better, Sabin still makes an excellent argument for the benefits of using games in the classroom with regard to how they can be used to study the dynamics of a historical scenario as an active learning heuristic. With that said, Simulating War stands as a very unique piece of literature for educators looking to try something different with their curriculum beyond the standard reading and essay writing.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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