I have been doing some experimentation recently with using my handheld computer to run wargames. The results have been phenomenal. I wrote a WWII game based on the Canadian Wargamer's Group publication "Canadians in Europe," the rules using battalions as the unit of maneuver, so that a division to a corps can be played on each side, with battles lasting several game-days.
We have so far run about a dozen games, first Candians in Sicily and Italy, and then Eastern Front late 1942. The Eastern Front games have gotten fairly large, with a German Panzer Division and most of an infantry division taking on a full Soviet Tank Corps. There are rules for air support, too, weather permitting. The games play between 2 and 3 hours per day of game time, and the days tend to get shorter as fuel and ammunition supplies run low, and units are attrited.
The design of this system is geared toward not recreating the battlefield inside computer memory, but simply employing the computer to track casualties, ammunition, fuel, formation, unit status, etc., and to calculate modifiers and effects. Flow of play is simple: each turn, the units come up in a random order. When a unit comes up, the commander specifies an order, and, if offensive action is being taken, a target, along with details about range, cover, etc.
The results of the order - base move distance, effects to target, etc. - are reported, and the unit is moved on the tabletop. All distance relationships are tracked on the tabletop. All record-keeping is tracked by the computer. There is a simple point-and-click interface for inputting information. Illegal orders, firing without ammunition, moving without fuel, etc. are not accepted by the computer.
There is no dice rolling - all randomization is handled by the computer. Similarly, there are no markers (other than the use of cotton to represent oily smoke pouring from a destroyed unit). There are rules about how a particular formation may be represented on the tabletop, and on the amount of space a unit occupies, but aside from these, basing, and the number of figures in a unit, are unimportant.
The major difference between our computer-assisted game and a typical paper game is speed: we can get through a lot more wargame, with much more detail, than with any paper system that would require record-keeping and calculation of fire modifiers. The computer makes assumptions about what weapons a unit is using to fire, based on the type of the target, the range, etc. (An infantry battalion with integral HE capability will be using HE to hit a soft target at long range, for example, but would be using integral anti-tank guns to battle armor within effective range.) These decisions - which aren't made by a real-life divisional commander - aren't made by the players, either.
Fire modifier calculations include target and firer formation and action, range, terrain, casualty levels, unit quality, equipment type, and armor type. All you have to tell the computer is that you are static firing or performing a moving fire; who the target unit is; what terrain the target occupies, and the range of the shot. This requires about 3 seconds!
There are some other, less obvious differences between the computer-assisted game and a paper game, as well. A lot of information that would be immediately visible in a paper game is hidden: the status of enemy units, their level of fuel and ammunition, their casualty levels, etc. In a real-life battle situation, especially with the commander relaying orders over a radio link, this kind of information would be hidden. The interaction of the gamers is to simply issue orders to the units, and to hear the results of those orders. Ultimately, this results in a more realistic "command experience." Unless a commander explicitly checks, information about fuel and ammunition, casualty levels, and so on need not be supplied (particularly if you have a referee running the computer).
I will be posting the IBM PC version of this game on this site when we have finished playtesting, and I will also be working on a set of generic 19th Century rules with a similar computer-assisted design. I always shyed away from using computers to run wargames, mostly because I found the presence of a large computer on the gaming table an annoyance. With the handheld computers and tiny laptops now on the market, this objection is gone.
The interface: no typing required!
Another thing I hated about the commercial computer-assisted wargames I had seen was that, because they modelled the wargames table inside the machine, a lot of the flexibility that you get by playing minatures rather than computer games wasn't there. The wargaming table could get out of synch with the computer's view of the action, resulting in problems. Further, referees couldn't exercise their role properly, when the rules failed to accurately cover a situation.
My third objection - especially with the old DOS-based games - was that the user interfaces were clunky and annoying. With my WWII game, I have managed to avoid these problems. The rules took approximately two man-days of programming in Visual Basic to create, with a few hours (so far) adding features (smoke, air strikes, abandoning vehicles) and fixing bugs. These aren't incredibly hard programs to write! And all you need to do to look up something in the rules is to click on the "Help" button.
I think that computer-assisted gaming has many advantages. The time it takes to learn to play is minimal - you need to understand what the game "concept" is (what is represented by a unit, what is the time scale, etc.) and you need to understand what the allowable orders are, but there are no game mechanics to learn. These games can bring us that much closer to a "true" simulation, where a knowledge of the rules is not an advantage, and the focus is on a knowledge of the capabilities of troops, and attention to the flow of battle.
Yes, I do sometimes miss rolling handfuls of dice, but I sure don't miss keeping track of all those battle stats, or calculating lists of modifiers. And I love being able to finish a full game early on a Wednesday night...