Wargamers Could Learn From Chess Players

Apr 24, 2008, 5:23 PM |

I originally wrote the following blog entry for a wargaming site as a way to tear down the artifical wall of seperation that always seems to divide Chess from more modern wargames.  I have always found this to be a shame as the two have more in common than might first be apparent.  I don't know if I was successful at getting some wargamers to look at Chess with fresh eyes, but I still believe this blog entry to be a good summation of what makes Chess so unique. 


Wargamers could learn a thing or two from chess players. Now, now…settle down and put that lynching rope away. Recall I was a wargamer long before I was a chess player so what I have to say is for the edification of the hobby. In the (mangled) words of Mark Anthony, I’ve come to praise wargaming, not bury it. But wargamers need to consider some chess-inspired ideas that I believe, if taken seriously, will serve to enhance the pleasure of wargaming on the PC.

The tragic flaw of wargaming is the sheer number of titles available to the hobby. Sure, grognards are perpetually squawking about the few number of wargames published each year but, truth be told, this is not the case. Ultra-hardcore titles might be infrequent (games such as Harpoon or Decisive Action), but wargaming-lite titles are actually quite abundant (games such as Rome: Total War or DEFCON). Lump the two categories together and there really is a healthy assortment of wargames to choose from in any given year (which is also why I never subscribed to the “wargaming is dying” argument).

However, this assortment of titles is also proving to be the scourge of the industry. Why? Recall the old maxim of ‘divide and conquer' - that is what this collection of titles is now doing to the hobby. The wargaming community is increasingly fragmenting along preferential fault lines. As such, no single game can claim a majority status and an already minority-status hobby is reduced even further.

Chess players have no such concern. It is our homogeneity that strengthens us. We are all playing the same game, using the same rules. Oh, sure, there are chess variants, but these can be considered to be little more than in the experimental stages of development (Random Chess and Gothic Chess are two such examples). No, the vast majority of players are “on the same page,” so to speak.

This offers tremendous advantage for a number of reasons:

1) Chess has a unified population: Did you know that FIDE (Federation Internationale des Echecs), the chess world’s governing body, is the second largest sporting organization in the world with 161 member nations (only FIFA is larger)? Why is that? Happenstance? Not at all. It is possible because the world-wide population of chess players are all playing the same game. No division here! As such, we present a unified front, not just for competitive purposes (which is essential for any sport to be taken seriously), but for marketing purposes as well. FIDE’s official motto is ‘gens una sumus,’ or 'we are one people,' and that perfectly sums up how chess became the one game known throughout the entire world.

2) Our unity fosters chess scholarship: Another benefit of the chess world’s homogeneity is that it creates the intellectual environment necessary for deep scholarship. Wargamers are blessed with many talented individuals who expend many hours writing detailed AARs or, even more impressively, comprehensive strategy guides. Unfortunately, these efforts are rarely appreciated or rewarded outside of that particular wargame’s hardcore clique of players. Again, how much attention can you attract when Bob is playing ASL, Mike is playing TACOPS, and Don is playing Steel Panthers? Why even invest any effort into these time-intensive projects when you know it may only be actually read by a very small population of like-minded enthusiasts? And then only while the game remains popular?

Chess, since changes are made at a glacial pace, has no such worries. As such, scholars of the game can be confident that their publication efforts can not only reach an audience of global proportions, but also obtain a form of immortality. After all, are we not still reading and studying the literary efforts of such great chessmasters of the distant past as Capablanca’s Chess Fundamentals or Lasker's Manual of Chess? Do a search for chess books that are available on Amazon…know what figure you get? Over 68,000 returns (‘wargaming’ gets a paltry 807 by way of comparison), covering everything from the history of the game, to learning how to play better! It is a well-known fact that chess can brag about having the largest dedicated library in the world…one that is continually expanding as well.

Again, it is the uniformity of the game that allows this to be so.

3) Chess players speak with a common language: Chess players, due to the international nature of the game, have intuitively recognized the need for a “chess language” that can transcend linguistic barriers. Various methods were devised with the three most popular being Descriptive, Algebraic, and Figurine notation. With these modes in place, even language is no longer a barrier to chess. Even better, a systematic method of communicating chess moves logically allowed a systematic method of precisely recording an entire chess game. Ultimately, this methodology was entitled Portable Game Notation, or PGN for short. With a minimal amount of effort, every foray on the chess board could now be perfectly recorded for posterity, not just allowing a continuous record of chess competition (long before the age of video tape, no less!), but also allowing chess scholarship. Games could now be played and replayed, across time, for both aesthetic and competitive purposes (Anderssen’s Immortal Game is a perfect example). Without a doubt, it is this ability that has elevated chess strategy and tactics to lofty heights only obtained by, dare I say it, the actual practitioners of the military sciences.

Alas, wargames, because of their diverse natures, have never achieved a common language. If one wants to record a wargame session, he is forced to write a lengthy AAR understandable only by fellow practitioners of that particular game.

4) Chess pushes the technological envelope: Finally, we’ve come to the logical endpoint of the previous three points. Because it has standardized rules; because there is deep scholarship surrounding the game; and because games can be precisely recorded and later analyzed, chess was a game tailor-fit for the world of computer science. As such, chess and the silicon world formed a fast friendship. Alan Turning, the ‘father of computer science’ and avid chess player, wrote a chess program even before there was a functioning computer to utilize it! Early A.I. work between the Carnegie Institute and the RAND Corporation brought together Allen Newell, Herbert Simon and J.C. (Clifford) Shaw - the publishing of “Chess-Playing Programs and the Problem of Complexity” in 1958 and their ‘NSS’ chess program (which ran on a Johnniac computer) was the result. The rest, as they say, is history. As computer scientists ever pursued their Faustian dream of true Artificial Intelligence, greater and greater resources have been invested in perfecting a computer program that could beat humans at their own game. And in 1997, when Gary Kasparov lost to his machine nemesis Deep Blue (a match that attracted world-wide attention), that goal became a reality.

Since then, professional and amateur research into A.I. and chess has only accelerated, producing a crop of uncannily intelligence chess ‘engines’ that can not only best the best players, but also analyze games both for flaws as well as for new knowledge (Dr. Forbin would be proud). This match between computer science and chess has reaped rich rewards for the chess playing community (of all strengths) as we are never wont for a silicon opponent that can both challenge and instruct us.

Alas, (war)gaming A.I. has not nearly made the strides that chess A.I. has in recent decades. Now, many wargamers are quick to point out that this is not a fair criticism as the average wargame is so much more complex than the 64-square, 32-piece game of chess. True, but this is not a valid excuse. After close to thirty years of computer gaming, is the paltry state of gaming A.I. the best we can accomplish? Of course not. The problem is not with the alleged complexity of wargaming, but with the fact that there are so many wargames that need custom-tailored A.I. engines. It is not that wargaming is more complex, it is that it is more diverse. And since the average (war)gaming title has a very short shelf-life, what programmer is going to invest years of work into perfecting an A.I. engine for a game that will, in all probability, be forgotten in short order? No, the problem with wargaming A.I. is that there are too many wargames.

So what does all this have to do with improving wargaming? I have a radical proposal:

What the wargaming world needs is a master engine (call it WarEngine, if you like). What I mean by this is that instead of producing a catalog of independent wargame titles, the wargaming community needs to produce one master program that can unify the hobby under an homogenous umbrella. In my mind, this WarEngine would be a shell of a program that is similar, in many ways, to the excellent CyberBoard and VASSAL interfaces. However, unlike these programs that are really just instruments of graphical notation, the WarEngine will be a fully functional program with sophisticated and easily updated graphic and A.I. modules. In effect, such a program will still allow a large variety of wargames to be produced, but these programs will need to be compatible with the WarEngine architecture (think of WarEngine as an OS for wargames). Compliance with WarEngine specifications will allow a number of benefites that, heretofore, only chess players enjoyed:

1) WarEngine will unify the wargaming world: Even though WarEngine will allow a variety of different types and eras to be simulated, the wargaming world will now be unified by the WarEngine matrix. As such, the community will be able to capitalize upon organized competition as well as marketing opportunities (i.e., wargamers will be able to negotiate with sponsors via the single voice of the WarEngine global community). Furthermore, because WarEngine will provide the underlying substructure, this should go a long way in reducing wargame development time and cost, allowing a greater number of quality wargames to be produced more efficiently.

2) WarEngine will foster deeper wargaming scholarship: Since WarEngine will be a legacy program (i.e., like an OS, it will be built to withstand the test of time), any wargaming modules that are produced for it will have a far longer shelf-life. Like chess, this will encourage people to devote serious time and effort to the study of wargaming and the modules that are utilized by WarEngine. As such, the library of wargaming should expand both in quality and quanitity.

3) WarEngine will allow wargamers to develop a common language: Because WarEngine will be running all wargame modules, a common language will have developed between wargamers with WarEngine acting as the translator – in effect, a Babel Fish for wargames. Wargames will be easily recorded with the same precision that PGN records a chess game and easily exchanged with other users of WarEngine (even if they are playing an entirely different module). WarEngine will provide the standardized vocabulary for this process. With a click of the mouse, your brilliant victory over the Goths could be shared with your panzer-pushing friend and visa versa. Not only will such a common language foster deeper scholarship (see point #2), it will also serve to cross-fertilize and further unite the hobby.

4) WarEngine will improve A.I.: Instead of having to produce new A.I. modules for each new wargame, WarEngine should foster the creation of macro-A.I. modules that can handle a variety of WarEngine titles. What this means is that you could have an evolutionary development of wargaming A.I. akin to that of the many world-class chess A.I. engines. Instead of a hodgepodge of one-time-use A.I., WarEngine will foster legacy artificial intelligence to match the longevity of the WarEngine itself. This, in and of itself, should go a long way in spurring the development of new and sophisticated wargames.

So what do you think? Of course, I realize that I am making little more than an ipse dixit argument, but I think my points are valid. The only reason why chess, both as a game and as a technological hurdle, has achieved such lofty heights over its more robust offspring is because of the uniformity of the chess community – the very element absent in the world of wargaming. If wargamers would put their differences aside and unify for the good of the hobby, perhaps the hobby will finally rise to the level of public prominence as chess has done.