Indirect tactics, efficiently applied, are inexhaustible as Heaven and Earth, unending as the flow of rivers and stress; like the sun and moon, they end but to begin anew; like the four seasons, they pass away to return once more. 

There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.

There are not more than five primary colors (blue, yellow, red, white, and black), yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever be seen. 

There are not more than five cardinal tastes (sour, acrid, salt, sweet, bitter), yet the combination of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted. 

–Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Chapter 5: “Energy”, [6-9].

Here’s a cryptic story of something that may or may not have happened to somebody: maybe me.

When Flames of War, the WWII game, came out in the mid-to-late 2000s, a particular wargaming group was an early adopter. They bought the rules, the miniatures, and started playing right away.

One wargamer didn’t bother. He had other projects to finish before he invested in yet another army, but he got to play Flames of War occasionally with this group. And overtime he thought he got to know the rules fairly well, but there’s one thing that bothered him:

The Russians always lost.  Always.

The German tanks and infantry would chew the Russians up. Every. Single. Time.

This went on for six months. And said wargamer had even tried to figure out the probabilities as to why the Russians always lost, just judging by the rules reference sheet he was given. And everything seemed to check out.

Statistically speaking, the Russians were at a disadvantage in the rules went it came to fire power and training. Even all the points added up, but the wargamer suspected there was something missing the math.

Then one day, the wargamer actually perused a copy of the Flames of War rule book and had an epiphany: “What the hell? This isn’t how we play the game at all!”

The group had made a number of house rules–rules that wouldn’t appear on the reference sheet–that would end with Germans crushing the Russians every time. But they never bothered telling the player.

Said wargamer brought this up to the group, but they wouldn’t change the house rules. The Russians had a chance of winning, they argued, you just have to play them right.

So the wargamer said: “Fine. Next game you play the Russians and I play the Germans.”

The wargamer annihilated his opponents’ Russians, and then pointed out why the house rules rigged the game in favor of the Germans.

Flames of War wasn’t seen in the wargaming group for at least six months. The guilty had been caught and embarrassed.

The moral of the story: house rules can be the most insidious of indirect tactics in wargaming.

Some house rulings are necessary. Wargames cannot cover every eventuality, and so in-game rulings may need to happen.

How do you know if a house rule is complete BS?

If you don’t hear of it before the game starts.

(Also, Flames of War is actually a decent beer-and-pretzel tournament-style tabletop wargame. The Russians have a fair-enough chance of winning–if you play by rules).

Next on The Art of Wargaming: “How to Fight Like Edward, the Black Prince.”