I just finished marking the wargame design exercise which I set my War, State & Society class to do as a group exercise for their coursework which was doubly mean because it was (a) not a regular boring old essay so they had to think about it and (b) required them to work in groups which history students never have to do. It was designed so they could not just knock off an essay the night before the deadline. Not only did it turn out really really well, but some of them even admitted to enjoying it.
It is always a risk when you ask students to do something out of the ordinary run of essay or review that it will go badly wrong and most of the class will produce something truly awful. Since old fashioned map and counter wargames were always a minority hobby that worked differently to “normal” boardgames, I was concerned that it might not work but I was very pleasantly surprised by the results.
I picked list of fairly simple battles from Breitenfeld to Gettysburg, and set a tight limit on the exercise, asking students to produce a one page design like Michael Hanickel’s Hohenfriedberg game, of which I game them all a copy. I spent time working though Napoleon At Waterloo, which is the classic introductory game, and also pointed them at Drive on Metz from the Complete Wargames Handbook. One reason I made them work in groups was because I like getting my students out of the conventional rut of scribbling essays in their lonely garrets in the dead of night, but also because I figured that in groups of 5 or 6 there would be someone who could find workarounds for most problems. I asked them to use the discussion forum on our college LMS as the primary group interaction so I could keep an eye on progress. As an incentive, I decided to allow some marks for group interaction based on the evidence of the postings.
I didn’t draw up a formal rubric for marking the wargames, but, apart from the group dynamics, I was looking for people to come up with a clear map with all the key terrain features marked on it, and to make up a set of counters which showed that they understood how the opposing forces were organised. I said they could simply import an existing, simple set of movement and combat rules like those from NAW or Hohenfriedburg but asked them to come up with 2 or 3 optional rules which reflected the particular circumstances of their battle. I also asked them to consider what victory conditions they would set to reward a player who did better than the historical result. One thing I did stress was that there were no bonus marks for pretty artwork, or for using computer based tools to produce the design – I didn’t want the less artistically gifted or IT capable feeling they were at a disadvantage in the exercise.
Not everyone hit all these points, but most of the finished wargames were pretty close to what sold as commercial wargames back in the seventies and eighties. Some students came up with interesting special rules to cover things like Ewell’s unwillingness to press home his attack on the first day at Gettysburg (the dypspesia rule) through smoke at Borodino to the disruption caused by cross the Nebel at Blenheim. Students go into questions about the battles that rarely come up in a regular lecture – Why didn’t Burnside use Banks Ford? Should Bernadotte’s corps simply not be allowed to move at Auerstadt? How much faster should French units move at Austerlitz? How to manage the arrival of Desaix at Marengo? How large was the Saxon contingent that fled the field at Breitenfeld? How to constrain the Allies at Rossbach to produce a remotely ‘historical’ result? They didn’t always get answers that were right, but I think I did succeed in making them think a bit more about what happened in those battles and why it happened in that way.
So I’m going to keep this for next year, and integrate it more closely with the lectures using some different battles. I may relax the criteria to allow students more than a one page map and more than 50 counters, and I might even think about using a tool like Cyberboard or Vassal for it, although they might be a bit complex for some people, and I wouldn’t want the techtoys to get in the way of the learning outcomes of the exercise. It does show that getting undergraduates to design fairly complex games to simulate historical events can work.