Book Review: The Art of Wargaming by Peter Perla

Topic & Content

Originally published in 1990, this second edition was edited by John Curry and published in 2011. A treatise on the theoretical aspects and historical background and applications of wargaming, the book is organized as follows:

  • Part I: Perspectives
    • The Birth of Wargames
    • Wargaming and the U.S. Naval War College
    • Wargaming after the War
  • Part II: Principles
    • The Nature of Wargames
    • Designing Wargames
    • Developing Wargames
    • Playing Wargames
    • Analyzing Wargames
    • Integrating Wargames with Operations Analysis and Exercises
  • Part III: Prospects For The Future
    • Navy Wargaming Today
    • What of the Future?
  • Hot Wash-Up
    • So a Wargamer and a Black Swan Walk into a Bar…

Thesis

Perla’s main point is to explain the nature of wargames and how they’re used in the professional and hobby worlds. In doing so, professional and hobby wargamers can further their education and continue to contribute to the future capabilities of wargames.

Author’s Background

Peter Perla is a senior research analyst at CNA (Center for Naval Analyses) and is widely considered to be one of the top theorists on wargaming in the United States. Apart from designing commercial wargames, he also writes on defense affairs. In just about every other book on wargaming I’ve read, Perla is mentioned in it somewhere.

Critical Observations

Positives

Similar to how Michael Stanford’s A Companion to the Study of History is a good book on the theoretical concepts of history, Peter Perla’s The Art of Wargaming is an excellent book on the theory behind wargames. This includes both professional and hobby games. Perla writes in a simple and unpretentious way which gives clarity to various aspects of the wargaming field. Thus, I can say that this book really helped to define for me what wargames are, their history, and their uses, misuses, and abuses. Having read a number of other seminal works on wargaming, it’s clear that everyone has a slightly different definition of what a wargame is. However, I would say that Perla (2011) has one of the better definitions which he writes as, “a wargame is a warfare model or simulation in which the flow of events shapes, and is shaped by, decisions made by a human player or players during the course of those events” (p. 280). That being said, I would personally broaden that definition to include Operations Other Than War (OOTW). In that respect, I also agree with James Dunnigan’s use of the term “conflict simulation” in place of wargame since it avoids the unsavory connotations of the words “war” and “game” (Dunnigan, 2000, p. 225). Another thing is that Perla makes a clear distinction between wargames, operations/systems analyses, and military exercises. None of those are the same thing, but they can be used in a cycle of research to support each other. As noted in his definition, wargames are focused on the human decision-making elements, and while they do make some use of mathematical models, on their own, they’re not good at generating quantitative data. In fact, quantitative data is better used as an input for wargames, rather than expecting wargames to accurately produce quantitative data as an output. If you’re looking for a lot of mathematical formulae and number-crunching, then you want operations/systems analyses. If you’re picturing a lot of infantrymen and vehicles moving around in the bush in simulated combat, then you’re thinking about exercises.

Many have compared Perla and this book to Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, in that, they’re both works on theory. That being said, Perla includes a good chapter on the principles of wargame design and development. While not the same in terms of practicality or scope as Dunnigan’s The Complete Wargames Handbook, Perla still gives the reader a lot of good advice for how to keep a wargame focused and playable. As noted multiple times, one of the biggest challenges is balancing realism with playability. Perhaps what’s most important to take away from this book is what wargames are and what they aren’t.

Negatives

I have a few criticisms of this book, but they both could be largely chalked up to the fact that it’s probably a reprinted edition. One criticism is that this book suffers from frequent typos and jarring formatting issues. Some areas contain large spaces in the middle of a sentence, and the placement of certain tables and charts seems off as if they should’ve appeared a page or two before. For example, “a sentnce wil look ___ a _________ bit like this.”

Another criticism of this book is that the scanned photos have very poor definition. Thankfully, this book isn’t heavily illustrated, but the strange formatting, typos, and blurry images show that it’s clearly a reprint.

Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)

Reflecting back on my reading of wargaming literature (thus far), I should have started with this book and then moved on to other works. Instead, I pretty much went in reverse order. Ultimately, I would highly recommend Perla’s book as a starting point for anyone interested in the field of wargaming or in game-based learning, in general. It lays an excellent foundation for the reader to understand exactly what wargames are, how they are used, how they shouldn’t be used, and how to think about the benefits of using games to further our education and study dynamic systems/situations.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

References

Dunnigan, J.F. (2000). The Complete Wargames Handbook: How to Play, Design, and Find Them (3rd ed.). iUniverse.

Perla, P.P. & Curry, J. (2011). The Art of Wargaming: A Guide for Professionals and Hobbyists. Naval Institute Press.

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