May 18, 2024

5 Questions With… Dr. Peter Perla

Jim Owczarski, 8 February 2021

Dr. Peter Perla is probably known best for his book, The Art of Wargaming: A Guide for Professionals and Hobbyists, published in 1990.  No mere theoretician, though, he has several published wargame designs including the well-regarded Risorgimento 1859: The Second Italian War of Independence which he co-designed with the late Richard Berg.  

Perla-AOWHe holds his Ph.D. from Carnegie-Mellon University where his thesis dealt with a mathematical combat model.  He joined the Center for Naval Analyses in 1977 where he works as its Director for Interactive Research Products.

This interview, though, is about his on-going Kickstarter for The Pratzen: Austerlitz, 1805, a very crunchy-seeming look at the critical fight for the eponymous heights in December 1805.   It might also spend time asking questions about the 1824 Kriegsspiel and why it is awesome.


Let us begin with pleasantries:  Who are you and how long have you been a wargamer?

Well, I guess my main claim to fame is that I wrote The Art of Wargaming some 30 years ago now. I’ve been a “professional” wargamer since about 1985 when I started doing analysis of Navy wargames as part of my career at the Center for Naval Analyses. I’ve been a hobby gamer since I was ten or so, counting American Heritage games and Risk as at least proto-wargames. Mr first  “real” wargame was Avalon Hill’s Midway, IIRC, when I was about 11. So all told, nearly 60 years. And I’ve been writing about and reviewing hobby games for nearly that whole period.


I was tempted to ask “why Austerlitz” or “why the Pratzen Heights”, but your ad copy mentioned the 1824 “Kriegsspiel” so everything else to me fell away.  You have obviously been at this one for a while, did your system find the subject (Austerlitz) or the other way around?

Yes, I have been tinkering with versions of the system for some 20 years. I went through several game subjects as test beds for it. But Austerlitz has always been a fascination for me, ever since I read a book on the battle by Claude Manceron when I was a kid. And my best friends growing up were named Goldbach! (A very cool Napoleonic in-joke. — The Author) As I read some more recent books and first-hand accounts I realized that so much of what I thought I knew about Soult’s attack on the Pratzen was not quite right. It was not the cut-and-dried affair that so much of the Napoleon mythology tells us.


I have long believed SPI’s Grenadier to be one of the most underappreciated games of that era.  Given your gifts as an explainer, can you tell everyone else why it is awesome and how it inspired “The Pratzen”? 

LOL. Grenadier was one of those epiphany games for me. I had been reading military history and playing AH and SPI games for quite a while when Grenadier first appeared. So I wasn’t exactly jaded but I thought I was pretty savvy. Then I set up one of the scenarios. I can’t remember which one it was but it involved a bunch of cavalry on each side. As I started pushing the counters around I realized I had no idea what I was doing. You had to understand something of the actual tactics of the period to make reasonable use of your troops. And the deterministic nature of some of the combat results was bizarre, leading to a more chess-like experience of planning combinations of moves. It was an interesting experiment on Jim [Dunnigan]’s part, and not wholly successful if I’m honest. Hence my later desire to “fix” it. A typical motivation for game design projects.


Bonus question, I guess, why did you choose to shift the unit scale up?

Frankly, one of the odd things about the original Grenadier is that the unit scale—nominally infantry companies, whose sizes varied across the different time periods and armies—always seemed a bit loose, and it varied by scenario. That type of scenario-based game often played fast and loose with scale. So as I contemplated my own take on things I decided that I wanted to tie the unit frontage tightly to the hex scale. And for line infantry of the Napoleonic period that translated into roughly two feet per man in line. To keep a reasonable hex scale that would allow a detailed representation of tactics and still cover a substantial portion of an historical field, I decided that 50 paces—125 feet—was as small as I could go. That meant the units need to have a front of 60 men. So for a standard three-deep line, that meant 180 men in a unit, which was about the size of a French two-company division or a Russian company. The Austrians were a bit tricky because their units were understrength and often composed of recruits, so in some cases they are only representing two-deep lines, the common deployment for understrength units.


What would those of us who love the 1824 recognize in “The Pratzen“?

The translation from the von Reisswitz Kriegsspiel (which I like to abbreviate as vRK) to Pratzen involved a lot of detailed fiddling with things. I tried to adapt the movement rates pretty directly, but the fire combat was tricky. The vRK rules use a detailed roster system for recording casualties, impractical in a modern game not implemented on computers. And the units—double the scale of those on Pratzen—were considered combat ineffective at various percentage losses. So I did a lot of mathemagical manipulations to create my fire tables. The close combat results are closer to a direct use of the vRK system. Which, by the way, use an odds-based system differently from what we are used to: the odds in the tables are the odds of winning, not the numerical ratio of forces! But the full set of the original vRK rules were once again too complicated to be practical for a modern boardgame because they took into account more aspects of a fight, which an umpire could manage but that written rules alone would have trouble with. For example, the positioning of supporting lines and the complicated techniques of cavalry attacking infantry. And of course, the whole gestalt of the vRK rules, with hidden information and umpire’s rulings being key, is far different from a modern boxed game.


As of this writing, your Kickstarter is funded and making its way through stretch goals.  I do hope it makes its way to a mounted map.
Is wargaming dead?  You may use both sides of the paper.

LOL again. A mounted map would be an amazing luxury for such a two-map game. I certainly hope we get there.

As for the death of wargaming—rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. Boardgames of all types have proven surprisingly resilient in the face of the oft-predicted “killer app” of computer games, and wargaming is no different. Miniatures wargames also remain a vibrant community, if a niche within a niche, as demonstrated by the recent Virtual Congress of Wargamers held over Zoom from the UK. More and more games are being produced by more and more younger designers and publishers. And of course DTP gives new ideas a new route to market. If wargaming were really dead, my house would not be groaning under far more new titles than my long-suffering wife would prefer!

Thanks very much to Dr. Perla for the time and get out there and back the Kickstarter.  I need that mounted map!


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