Two new magazines: A review of Mind, Map & Maneuver and Vindicatorby Christopher Weuve
Note: Both of these magazines have LONG ceased publication. As this review was one of the first things I pubished on my first website, I keep this page around for sentimental reasons.
One week in late November 1995 I read through the first issue of two new periodicals of potential interest to wargamers. The first, Vindicator, calls itself the "journal of Metagaming games and classic science fiction wargames" and is published quarterly by Michael T. Friend. The second, Mind, Map & Maneuver, states that it is in "pursuit of the Art of War: the reference guide for great captains." It is published monthly by Dr. Frank Heffner, of the Resourceful Thinking Development Center. Both publications are currently one-man shows, with the editor/publisher functioning as the chief writer (although both publishers have asked for submissions); this is where the similarity ends.
In the mid to late 1970's, a game company named Metagaming Concepts produced over 50 games. While they were best known for their science fiction and fantasy games (their first game, Stellar Conquest, was sold to Avalon Hill and is still in print today), they eventually produced games covering topics ranging from the Second World War to interstellar combat in the far future. In 1977 Metagaming released Ogre, the first microgame. Metagaming games, (and indeed all the science fiction boardgames of the period) are often remembered with an unusual combination of fondness and derision. Vindicator's goal, as the publisher says in the opening editorial, is to "vindicate" these games, and in that goal it is largely successful.
The first thing I noticed about Vindicator is that it was clearly a low budget effort. Like the microgames themselves, Vindicator is small (8.5 x 5.5 inches, 28 pages) and relatively cheap ($12 for a 4 issue subscription). Despite it's size, there is a lot of content: among other things, issue #1 includes submission guidelines, play-by-mail and miniatures conversion rules for Fire When Ready, optional rules and scenarios for Chitin: I, an article on generating random numbers for play-by-mail play (using lottery scratch tickets), and an editorial entitled "Why We're Here." All articles were written by the publisher/editor, Michael Friend. Issues #2 adds a couple of new contributors who are responsible for about a quarter of the writing. It includes an overview of the different combat systems used by Metagaming, miniatures conversion rules for Artifact, and an update to the Metagaming chronology presented in the first issue.
The articles were readable and informative (if not Pulitzer Prize material), with no glaring faults of either writing style or content. The tone of the publication was very laid back, which made it more enjoyable -- this is clearly a labor of love, and the author's enthusiasm for the subject material is both evident and contagious. I have never met a wargame player that wasn't a frustrated wargame designer at heart, and the contributors to this magazine are no exception. Friend is even exploring the possibility of including new microgames in some issues, probably starting with issue #4.
Overall, my only complaint is that the uninspired, text-only two-column layout, punctuated by a uniformly boring monospace font, is occasionally difficult to read. I would suggest he go to a proportional font, with a little more white space. Given that Friend made some minor layout changes to the second issue, and has announced a change in font and the addition of illustrations beginning with issue #3, apparently he agrees with this assessment. Even with these problems, however, I found Vindicator a highly enjoyable experience.
I wish I could say the same about Mind, Map & Maneuver. This journal fails on so many levels that it is difficult to know where to begin. To be fair, it is much better produced than Vindicator, in a readable 8.5 x 11 format. Also, it is not billed as a magazine for wargamers per se, although it does claim to discuss the "art of war" in relation to wargames. This is not a problem in itself -- "value to wargamers" is hardly the sole criterion by which to judge any publication, and there are many other interesting publications to which I subscribe, such as Sea Power and USNI Proceedings, which are not wargame-centric but which may be of interest to wargamers. More importantly, though is that Mind, Map & Maneuver fails at a fundamental level to live up to the author's stated goal -- to teach the "art of war" through a variety of means, including campaign analysis, book reviews, and wargame design discussions. After reading 68 pages I am no closer to understanding the author's view of "the art of war" than when I started, for many reasons.
The first reason is simply that, unfortunately, Dr. Heffner's reasoning and scholarship are notable only for their absence. His factual claims are unsupported by any logical argument, let alone credible references; footnotes, where they exist, are reserved for further opinion. For example, on page 8 he asserts that "Napoleon knew finding a better way to do something is easier than finding a better person to do it." This statement has the following footnote, which reads in its entirety, "The argument that Berthier's absence in the Waterloo campaign constituted a key factor in Napoleon's defeat is spurious." There is neither support for the initial claim nor any reasoning behind his brusque dismissal of a contrary view. While both of the author's assertions may indeed be true, he has done nothing to convince the reader that, in a sea of competing claims, he has any more claim to proper understanding than any of those who would argue with him. I would even go one step further and say that, by the absence of any support for the author's assertions, I couldn't help but wonder if the author was just plain wrong
This pattern is seen time and again throughout the publication --instead of logic or evidence, the author lays sole claim to absolute truth -- he has been to the mountain and spoken with the deity (presumably Napoleon), and is now prepared to share his wisdom with you. Of the eight books in the book review section (by "Napoleon" again!), the best scored a "0" on a scale of "1" to "5"; of the five books in the "Recommended and Not-Recommended Readings" sections, the sole Recommended book is recommended "only because it contains organized information about the infrastructure of war during Napoleon's Empire...it only touches the tip of the iceberg..." Three of the articles point to monographs available for purchase in the back of the journal ($13 plus for 20-30 pages), only strengthening the feeling that the entire exercise is an ego trip on the author's part.
The more I read, the more I was struck by the irony of Heffner's words -- the more vitriolic the diatribe, the more likely it is that his criticism applies to his own work. For example, "Napoleon's" critique of Clausewitz describes Mind, Map & Maneuver to a tee:
These books resemble the aimless ramblings of a confused mentality. That Carl [sic] was a teacher surprises me as he can have done his students no good except as to the negative example of thinking. Master of excess wording, his thoughts reflected here are just what he stated they were...incomplete notes jumbled together making sense to none. They reflect no deep logical thought on war. When he attempts to define, he defines poorly or defines a thing which requires no definition or the definition becomes a barrier rather than a path to understanding. His reasoning is lazy, sloppy, incomplete or just incorrect...On a scale of 0-5 stars, this drivel rates: -***** (Minus five)!!!!!! (p.52)
It is ironic that this is perhaps the best piece of prose in the entire journal, for overall the writing is as bad as the scholarship. The prose is difficult and convoluted, despite the publisher's claims [in a personal email] that several unnamed military historians and professional editors have reviewed Mind, Map, & Maneuver and commented that the writing is "top-quality," "lucid," and "erudite." Oh, it's not just that portions of it are excessively self-congratulatory, more appropriate for a review than a serious work. Nor do I find the ungrammatical, subject-less sentences to be more than an occasional annoyance, as are the glut of exclamation points (usually punctuating sentences that would have best been left out anyway). No, the writing fails because the entire journal reads like an entry in the annual Bulwer Lytton Competition for worst novel opening (published as It was a Dark and Stormy Night). The following example comes from the opening of "Was Napoleon a 'Genius' or an 'Entrepreneur' of War?" (by "Scipio", yet) on page 7:
Nine score years later Napoleon still exerts magnetism over those who think of war. The French Emperor captures imagination more than any other Great Captain. Contention still rages over his meteoric fame. 'Miners' still dig Napoleon's campaigns in search of gold. Most find gravel in their pans. Others rush fool's gold to the assayer's office. What have these jolly miners to share about their intellectual excavations?
Here is another example, from the "Recommended and Not-Recommended Readings" section (p.64):
Book reviews in many publications provide no help for the serious student of the art of war. Most reviews comprise noncritical, rehashed summaries containing no mention of the art of war. We rectify this! Posted sources relate to journal articles. Sole criteria [sic]? The benefit (or lack of) to students of the art of war. Beneficial works contain information of value for learning the application, infrastructure, or modeling of warfare. Unbeneficial works are trivial in nature, general human interest studies, or collections of unanalyzed facts and pot pouri. They promote little knowledge of the art (provide no meaning or understanding). The list is not comprehensive. Books analyzed in the critique & evaluation section receive more detailed treatment and are not listed here.
Some of you may now be saying, "Yes, but what about wargaming?". The above shortcomings would at least be tolerable if Mind, Map & Maneuver had some value as a wargaming resource, and this is the area where, if it does not shine, it at least glows dimly. Unfortunately, while it is not entirely without merit in this regard, it falls quite short here as well.
To begin with, "it contains no news, unedited opinion, product information or reviews." (p.5) The "no product information" is evident -- there is not a mention of a single wargame by name, even in the articles on game design and computer gaming. This is labeled an advantage (because the "contents are not outdated"), and perhaps it would be if the rest of the journal had some merit. Even the article on converting campaign maps to wargame maps falls short -- it can be summed up as "put the key points on the hex paper" and "use an appropriate scale".
Second, he speaks of wargames in only the most general terms, without any examples. He is critical of game design in general but can offer few concrete suggestions for improvement. His main criticism is that current designs give gamers both too much control and too much information, both about opposing forces and the terrain on which the battle is fought. Heffner states in reference to the value of wargames as military history that "improved wargame design...is contingent on better infrastructure representation. Historical accounts rarely mention details such as map quality except to overgeneralize them...which is why wargame designers ignore them." While his points are valid (and some have been debated in the hobby at considerable length), his solution -- "demand better!" -- is vague at best. (p.10)
His article on "Virtual Warfare: What Is It? An Evolution or Revolution in Wargaming?" (by "Marius") is perhaps the high point of the entire journal, and, while it suffers from the writing problems mentioned above, it at least raises some thought-provoking issues. I even agree with his comment that most wargames suffer from too much information, and that roleplaying games in many ways do a better job of simulating real-world information deficits than current wargames:
Role-playing adventures...do not provide perfect information (players explore and map as they go [and historical hindsight of result does not exist]). Decisions must be made in the context of uncertainty....There are many more adherents of role-playing [than traditional wargaming], not because it is fantasy-based, but because of its puzzle-solving nature. Fantasy adventure games receive anathema from "historical" wargamers, but role-players may be learning more about the art of war! Wargames providing perfect intelligence, even when injected with new twists, quickly become boring. Wargamers learn more fiction than history! (p.39)
Heffner's proposal for "Virtual Warfare" as an alternative to traditional wargames (at least in terms of teaching the art of war) seems to assume that the problem is that game designers haven't defined the problem. This is ridiculous, of course; the problems of perfect command, control, and intelligence been debated in the wargaming community for years. Heffner's solution boils down to better models with limited intelligence for the players -- in other words, "do better" -- without any recommendations on how to accomplish that, other than to learn "the art of war".
A final cause for hesitation for most wargamers is Mind, Map & Maneuver's price -- at $55 for a 12-issue subscription (or $29 for a 6-issue subscription), it is almost comparable to the hobby version of Command or Strategy & Tactics. My advice, worth what you paid for it: Use the money to purchase either a subscription to Command or old copies of Moves. Better yet, buy a subscription to Vindicator and renew it five times.