Professional game designer and pixel artist.

Simulation Vs. Metaphor

NOTE: This was originally published some time in 2008. 

ALSO NOTE: In this post the term ‘simulation’ refers to a detailed and realistic simulation (like you might get in a flight simulator). The term is used to broadly speak about games which attempt to accurately recreate real life experience. I describe some games as metaphors and some as simulations. All games are simulations of a set of rules be it Flappy Bird or Arma 3. I use simulation here as a way of distinguishing between abstract and realistic games.


Often in Warhammer 40,000 (or any rules based miniature wargame) a situation will arise that seems like total bullshit and does not reflect how troops would fight on the battlefield. The rules are queried and checked and then someone will be left with their jaw open at how seemingly unfair or unrealistic the rules are.

This is down to the fact that the rules are not there to simulate every battlefield situation. Back in the 1st and 2nd edition of 40K (we are now on 5th) the rules were extremely elaborate and were designed to try and cover everything, simulating as closely as they could the battlefields of the 41st millennium. This meant that there were an incredible amount of tables, bespoke charts and rules and it took an ungodly amount of time to resolve things like combat. The Irresistible Force and Immovable Object situation would arise again and again because Codex entries would conflict with the rules, wargear items would clash and all sorts of modifiers would apply to the simplest table roll.


When the 3rd edition rolled round the designers stripped it all down, dumped nearly all of the rules and started again. They boiled it down to the most important elements and rather than simulate a battlefield they tried to create a metaphor for a battle.

Miniature wargames have the inherent problem of using miniatures. Imagine a war zone in the far future. Infantry crouch behind cover and blind fire at a horde of aliens swarming over a ruined building. Grenades detonate around power armoured war gods and commanders scream over sabotaged comm lines to ill disciplined troops. The battlefield is chaos and cannot be conveyed by miniatures. Miniatures cannot be reposed on the fly to show that they are crouched behind cover and we cannot physically check to see whether the hoofed aliens trip on the exposed cabling of the bombed out office they are attempting to move through. This leads to a breakdown in simulation and the need for an essence capturing metaphor arises.

Using the example above, in the old rules if you wanted to fire through your own troops to an enemy beyond, each trooper would have to individually check to see if they had a line of sight and then resolve their shooting as normal. This would mean that you would need to check the LOS for potentially up to 20 figures. This would often result in conflicts and arguments between players and thus an effort to provide granularity and simulation in the rules slowed the game down with unnecessary complexity and bad attitude.

In the 5th edition rules the simulation has been scrapped as it helped no one. Checking individual line of sights would suggest to the players that the figure’s pose represented a snap shot of their actions on the battlefield which is nonsense. Soldiers do not remain in one pose or even one posture during a battle. They crouch to avoid fire, go prone in craters and charge across streets. Now all friendly units are allowed to fire through each other without any line of sight checks. Instead, the enemy receives a bonus cover save.

This has gone from providing a simulation to creating a metaphor. Instead of being pedantic about the position of a miniature, we imagine that as the Storm Troopers turn to fire at on coming Orks through an allied squad of Guardsmen, the Storm Troopers time their shots as the Guardsmen duck into a crater or dive down as squad leaders coordinate their attack. The cover save that the Orks receive represents the Storm Troopers taking difficult shots through or round a mass of bodies as artillery lands around them and their comrades are cut down.


This attitude sits better with some people than it does others. The entirety of Warhammer is abstract silliness and it is easy to see where they have chosen to capture the essence of the situation and provide the most streamlined experience they can. Games Workshop designers also choose to outright contradict common sense in order to provide a better game.

In previous iterations if a unit wiped out an enemy squad in close combat they would be able to move into combat with another nearby enemy unit. This is pretty dramatic tactically as a specialist close combat unit could very easily destroy a huge amount of squads over the course of a couple of turns. Now they cannot do this which allows weaker armies to have a chance to shoot the rampaging combat monsters and level the playing field. This infuriates close combat players but it benefits the game greatly.

As designers, be it of table top games or videogames, we craft a set of rules that allow players to have an enjoyable experience. The above close combat rule is the 40K equivalent to the rubber band AI in Mario Kart. Is a game more interesting if one player very quickly gains a huge advantage that cannot be overcome by the other player or is it more interesting if it comes to a nail biting finale where two players have dealt blows to each other and kept on equal footing until the exciting end game?

In an engaging game the player’s advantage should not come from the rules but rather the tactical application of those rules. But how does this relate to videogames?

Well, modern videogames have a problem with players perceive them as simulating reality. Players often wish the rules of a videogame were different to allow them to perform actions that they imagine their character could do in the real world.

This problem is unique to modern games that have realisitic graphics and that take place in real world locations. This is because the rule system is less obvious as players assume these games are simulations. Someone once described Rainbow Six Vegas as a simulator to me. They argued that because the game has realistic art, realistic weapon handling and took place in a real geographical location that the game was attempting to simulate real life.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. R6V has a very definite set of rules that are no different to the set of rules in Mario. No one questions Mario’s rules though. How can you question whether it is a simulation when you control a plumber that jumps on the heads of some mushrooms, collects other mushrooms and is friends with other mushrooms and where a family of dinosaurs command an army of ghosts, turtles and grinning bullets?

Rainbow Six Vegas is essentially the same game as Mario when viewed in a reductive way. The game provides a setting for the player to move in and combat enemies with a number of tools. The player must learn the rules of the game and use their understanding of these rules along with a selection of tools to get from the beginning to the end.


The difference is that players can relate to the Rainbow Six characters and setting more easily and can impose their own desires and perceptions of reality upon the supposedly realistic aspects of the game. The fact is that R6V is entirely unrealistic. You can disembody your vision and view yourself in the third person, heal fatal bullet damage, the weapons are not at all realistic and instead of neutralising a terrorist cell you kill an entire army.

The game has a very defined set of rules and does not create what we traditionally call a simulation of combat. Instead it creates a metaphor of a special ops team clearing buildings of terrorists. This is because a game where you rappel through a window, throw a flashbang, shoot two dudes and then order your team to blow open a door and clear the next room is far more fun than trying to rappel through a window to find that there is a knot in your rope and then being shot in the legs and waiting for an hour for the rescue team to clear the building and extract you and then spending days of gameplay in a military hospital. The former is a metaphor for how we wish combat was and the latter is a simulation of the actualities of combat.


What people actually want is a believable context. They want to perform the actions they feel they should be able to in possibility spaces that feel contextually realistic. When a player resorts to saying “That’s not realistic” at a point in a game it means that the metaphor has been broken and that they now view it as a simulation. This is a fine line to tread when we have games that look like Crysis and are the nearest to photo realistic as we have gotten.

Designers must strive to create games that are like the 5th edition of 40K. Games where the players buy into the fantasy and do not resort to wanting a simulation but instead are happy with the metaphor for whatever scenario we are trying to create.

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