May 24, 2024

A wargame Spy Story from Len Deighton (Spy Story, Panther Books, 1974)

RockyMountainNavy, 30 June 2022

As I was building my Wargame Library recommendations I was going through my book collection and found a much older wargame-related title that many of today’s wargamers probably have never heard of, much less read. The book, though a work of fiction, talks extensively about professional defense wargaming. Spy Story, written by author Len Deighton in 1974 (my copy is the “Special overseas edition” paperback published in 1975 by Panther Books) is a spy thriller with “war games” as a major plot element. Here is how the book back matter reads:

When war games are played for real…

Patrick Armstrong is a tough, dedicated agent and war-games player. But in Armstrong’s violent, complex world, war-games are all too often played for real. Soon the chase (or is it escape?) is on. From the secretive computerized college of war studies in London via a bleak, sinister Scottish redoubt to the Arctic ice cap where nuclear submarines prowl ominously beneath frozen wastes, a lethal web of violence and doublecross is woven. And Europe’s whole future hangs by a deadly thread…

Spy Story, book back

Spy Story by Len Deighton (Panther Books, 1974)


My own personal introduction to Len Deighton was his non-fiction historical book Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain (first published in 1977, my copy is the 1982 Ballantine Books printing). Between Fighter and Spy Story and other Battle of Britain wargaming of the day such as the historical analysis gaming by Paddy Griffith at the British Army Staff College, I have to wonder just how much insight Mr. Deighton had on the state of 1970’s defence wargaming in the UK. In Spy Story, the Battle of Britain and the “Studies Centre, London” are deeply connected:

‘Also with the historical stuff we nearly always run the same battle with varying data to see what might have happened if…you know the kind of thing.’

‘But tell me.’

‘The Battle of Britain that we’re doing now…First we run the whole battle through—Reavley Rules…’

‘What’s that?’

‘Ground scale determines the time between moves. No extension of move time. We played it through three times using the historical data of the battle. We do repeats to see if the outcome of a battle was more or less inevitable or whether it was due to some combination of accidents, or freak weather, or whatever.’

‘What kind of changed facts do you programme into the battle?’ said Schlegel.

‘So far we’ve only done fuel tanks. During the battle the Germans had long-range drop tanks for single-seat fighters, but didn’t use them. Once you programme double fuel loads for the fighters, there are many permutations for the bombing attacks. We can vary the route to come in over the North Sea. We can double the range, bringing more cities under attack and so thinning the defences. We can keep to the routes and attacks actually used, but can extend fighter escort time over the target by nearly an hour… ‘

Spy Story, Ch. 4

The plotting table and ‘Tote board’ in the Battle of Britain Bunker at RAF Uxbridge (courtesy


click images to enlarge

[The Reavley Rules reference is apparently to a set of miniatures wargames rules published in the UK in the late 1950s. Carl Reavley’s rules were called Sand Table Tactics, or SANTAT. I understand that John Curry over at the History of Wargaming Project has more info. I was also modestly surprised to see Deighton’s comments on drop tanks in his later Fighter book that seemingly take an opposite view from that expressed in Spy Story. Deighton points out on page 236 of Fighter that drop tanks were never really a realistic option for the Luftwaffe.]

So just what is the “Studies Centre, London” in Spy Story?

‘No need to wait. I can tell you that they are pumping a couple of million into the Studies Group over the next six months. We’re going to have five hours of day computer time, including Saturdays and Sundays.’

‘You can’t be serious.’

But Ferdy knew that I was in a position to tell him. ‘Scenarios,’ I said. Instead of the studies, we were going to do projection forward: strategic guesses on what might happen in the future.

Ferdy is only a few inches taller than me but he is able to make me feel like a dwarf when he leans forward to murmur in my earhole. ‘We need the American data—the real hard stuff,’ he said.

‘I think we can get it, Ferdy.’

‘That’s pretty high-powered. Scenarios would be top level security. Joint Chiefs level!’

Spy Story, Ch. 5

What sort of wargaming appears in Spy Story? Early Harpoon (Admiralty Trilogy Group) in a way:

‘All I’m asking for is a simple A.S.W. run-through, to show these idiots how we work.’

‘Anti-Submarine Warfare run-through,’ said Ferdy patiently, as though encountering the expression for the very first time. It was easy to understand why Schlegel got angry.

‘Anti-Submarine Warfare run-through,’ said Schlegel, without concealing the self-restraint. He spoke as if to a small child. ‘With you acting as the C.-in-C. of the Russian Northern Fleet and these NATO people running the blue suite to fight you.’

‘Which game?’

‘The North Cape Tactical Game, but if it escalates we’ll let it go.’

Spy Story, Ch. 5

Here is how Deighton describes the “War Table’. The detail presented here is very much like the movie Wargames would depict Cheyenne Mountain years later. It’s so well detailed he must of seen (and played?) the real thing :

The Table took up most of the ballroom. It was well over seven yards wide and at least twelve yards long. In the bottom left-hand corner was the tiny Jan Mayen Island. The North Pole was halfway up the left of the table, the right showed the ragged northern coast of the Soviet Union, from the Laptev Sea and the New Siberian Islands right the way down to Murmansk and a slice of Norway.

The whole Table could be folded away and replaced by other latitudes, but this was our bread and butter. Sections of the Table hinged to give access to plotters who couldn’t reach far enough across Lapland to find the Barents Sea. But conveniently close to the bottom edge of the board there was the almost land-locked White Sea which sheltered Archangel, where Soviet Undersea Warfare Command had built a large underground control centre, and a powerful series of transmitters to control the Northern Fleet submarines.

Only a few hundred miles away was the Northern Fleet’s HQ at Murmansk, and farther along the Kola Fjord was Poliarnyi. Ice free almost all year round, from here came the Russian Navy’s Tupolev 16s: the gigantic ‘Badgers’, noses full of guidance radar, slung under with intelligence pods and Kennel air-breathers under each wing, so bedecked with missiles and gear that they’d had to extend the runway by five hundred metres to get them into the air. These were the boys that came sniffing into Hamish Sound and down even to the Thames Estuary and out into the Atlantic: timing the defenses, listening to the radio traffic and watching shipping all the way to eastern Canada.

From here too came the big jet flying boats, crammed with homing torpedoes and nuclear depth charges, patrolling the Northern Sea Route in summer, and in winter the Arctic ice. And here were helicopters of all shapes and sizes, from two-seaters to sky cranes. All nice kit without a doubt, but don’t think they were staging all their all-weather patrols in case some Russian Chris-craft owner needed winching to safety.’

Spy Story, Ch. 6

“2nd Fleet North Map” (Victory Games 2nd Fleet, 1986) from BGG User @Paul Q covers same area…


There is one (long) passage in particular that Deighton writes in Spy Story that convinces me he was a war games player. There are also some thoughts here about the nature of wargames that (in 1974) answer questions I repeatedly hear at the professional CONNECTIONS wargaming conferences even today:

‘There’s a problem with all these games,’ warned one of the embassy attaches, a Canadian. ‘If you don’t introduce the element of chance—dice or random machine—you get no idea of what happens in war. But introduce it, and you’re in the gambling business.’

I winked at Ferdy but he had to keep a straight face while this Canadian mastermind was looking at him. We’d often said that no matter how slow you take the briefing, one of these hoorays is going to ask that very question. You could put it on the big machine and trip it for a print out.

‘It is not a war-game in that sense,’ said Ferdy. He smoothed his rumpled hair. ‘You do better to regard it as a historical reconstruction.’

‘I don’t dig you,’ said the Canadian.

‘Some history might be instructive, other aspects of history less so. If you learn from experience here, then that of course is splendid, but it’s dangerous to start off thinking of the process as a future event.’

‘Is that why your set-up is civilian operated?’

‘Perhaps it is,’ said Ferdy. Nervously he picked up one of the plastic plot markers from the morning’s test run-through. ‘Let’s be clear. We don’t control any Fleet elements from here and neither do we predict what they might do in a future action. Once we made a strenuous effort to stop the word ‘game’ from being used about anything we do here—”studies” is the operative word—but it was no use, people like “game” better.’

‘That’s because your material is too out of date by the time it’s ready for the Table?’ said the Dutchman.

‘The material used here is collected from intelligence ships and aircraft. We probably could radio it back an have fairly recent data on the Table, but unless we processed the game at the same speed as an actual battle there would be little or no advantage.’

‘I’ll tell you something, Mr. Foxwell,’ said the German Captain, ‘If, God forbid, we ever have to start retransmitting electronic intelligence from the Barents Sea…’ he tapped the War Table, ‘…I’ll give you a dozen five-figure groups before they trip the nuclear minefields and end your game for ever.’

Spy Story, Ch. 6

Spy Story even gets at the psychology of wargamers:

‘But you’ll fight us single-handed?’ said the German.

‘No,’ said Ferdy. I’ll have the same size staff that you’ll have.’

I interrupted him. ‘Mr. Foxwell is being modest,” I said. ‘Red Suite Command is a coveted assignment for those of us to catch up on their light fiction.’

‘I’ve been the Red Admiral many times by now,’ said Ferdy. ‘I can remember so many of the computer responses for my logistics. I can keep the overall line-up in my mind’s eye more easily than you’ll be able to. And I know all the tactics you are likely to pull out of the hat. By the way, have you decided which of you will be with me on the winning side?’

‘Me,’ said one of the American submarine Captains.

‘The confidence you display, Mr. Foxwell.’ The German Captain smiled acidly. ‘Is that because the standard of visiting staff officers is so low, or are you so expert?’ He licked his lips as if tasting the last drips of lemon juice.

‘I’ll tell you my secret,’ said Ferdy. ‘You’re mostly experienced naval men with many years of sea duty. All sailors are romantics. You look at this table and you see frigates, cruisers and nuclear subs. You hear the breakers, smell the warm diesel and hear the voices of old friends. Committing those units—and the men inside them—to battle is a traumatic experience for you. You hesitate, you vacillate, you die.’

‘And you are not a naval man, Mr. Foxwell?’ the German asked.

‘As far as I’m concerned,’ said Ferdy, ‘you’re just a bag of plastic markers.’ He picked up one of the plot markers that gave the strength, direction, and identity of a naval force steaming past the Jan Mayen Island. Gently he tossed it into the air and caught it. Then he hurled it into the far corner of the room where it landed with the noise of breaking plastic.

The War Room was silent. The two Admirals continued to look at Ferdy with the same polite interest with which champions eye contenders at weigh-ins.

‘Then we’ll see you tomorrow, gentlemen,’ said Ferdy. ‘And come out fighting.’

Spy Story, Ch. 6

The wargame play depicted in Spy Story is a great example of how defence wargaming of the day was played out. The wargame shown comes across as very similar to that found in The United States Naval War College Fundamentals of War Gaming (3rd Edition, March 1966 (Reprint)) by Francis J. McHugh or rules related by editor John Curry in United States Naval War College Manual Wargaming (1969): Wargames at the Start of the Missile Era. I also found more than a few similarities to the play of Warship Commander: 1967-1987 Present Day Tactical Naval Combat (Enola Games, 1979) and especially the Sea Command: Present Day Naval-Air and Anti-Submarine Warfare expansion.

Every chapter in Spy Story has a header excerpt from the “Studies Centre, London.” Each is related to the coming chapter in some way. Reading through the 21 chapter headings, I am more and more convinced that author Len Deighton had access to “official” versions of defence wargames for there is too much here just to be “created” out of thin air for a book.

Chapter One – “As each bound ends, units cease to be operative until commencement of next bound. RULES, ALL GAMES, STUDIES CENTRE, LONDON” — The use of the term “bounds” for a turn is very likely drawn from the UK miniatures wargames community and another indicator that both Deighton and defence wargaming were related to—or drawn from—that community.

Chapter Two – “In games where the random chance programme is not used, and in the event of two opposing units, of exactly equal strength and identical qualities, occupying the same hex (or unit of space), the first to occupy the space will predominate,. RULES, ‘TACWARGAME’, STUDIES CENTRE, LONDON” — Interestingly, a quick search turned up no wargame published that uses the title ‘TACWARGAME.’ I wonder if the name is copyrighted from this book? Note also the use of the term “hex” which had been in use by RAND wargaming since the 1950’s and commercial hobby wargames since Charles S. Roberts introduced it in the early 1960’s. This also raises the question of just how much influence the U.S. defense wargaming community (like the Naval War College) had on UK defence gaming.

Chapter Three – “All time is game time… RULES, ALL GAMES, STUDIES CENTRE, LONDON” — But see Chapter 11 later for out-of-game time rules…

Chapter Four – “The senior officer in Control Suite at commencement of game is CONTROL. Change of CONTROL must be communicated to the Red Suite and Blue Suite (and any additional commanders), in advance and in writing. RULES, ‘TACWARGAME’, STUDIES CENTRE, LONDON” — A very usual rule when playing with an Umpire. Again, very likely a legacy of the UK miniatures wargaming scene (or adopted from U.S rules?).

Chapter 5 – “No game decisions or plays are valid or binding except those made in writing during game time. RULES, ‘TACWARGAME’, STUDIES CENTRE, LONDON”Sigh. Looks like wargaming—professional or hobby—always has had rules lawyers.

Chapter Six – “There is no limit to the number of staff officers or advisers in either Suite, nor the Red and Blue Suite staffs need be of equal size. RULES, ‘TACWARGAME’, STUDIES CENTRE, LONDON” — This was long before the days where it seems game designers have to worry about “down-time” for players or game pacing.

Chapter Seven – “The success or failure of ALL games will be measured ONLY by the lessons learned through post-game analysis (POGANA). In this respect the object of each game is not victory. ‘NOTES FOR WARGAMERS’. STUDIES CENTRE, LONDON” — This is a great rule reminder for the professional wargaming community as what one learns from the wargame is more important than who wins. Unfortunately, too many non-professionals often criticize defense wargames when “victory” is not achieved. WINNING IS NOT THE POINT!

Chapter Eight – “Line reject: to miss a move. Wargamers must remember that fuel, fatigue and all logistics support will continue to be expended during a move. Continuous instructions (air patrols etc.) will be continued and naval units will continue on course unless halted by separate and specific instructions. Therefore, think twice before rejecting. GLOSSARY, ‘NOTES FOR WARGAMERS’. STUDIES CENTRE, LONDON” — It would appear that defense wargaming in Russia missed this rule…

Chapter Nine – Chess. A pejorative term used of inexperienced players who assume that both sides make rational decisions when in full possession of the facts. Any history book provides evidence that this is a fallacy and wargaming exists only because of this fallacy. ‘GLOSSARY FOR WARGAMERS’. STUDIES CENTRE, LONDON” — A good takedown of the “rational actor” view of wargames.

Chapter Ten – “The action of the civil power will not be included in the TACWARGAME. RULES, ‘TACWARGAME’. STUDIES CENTRE, LONDON” — “War is a continuation of politics by other means” does not—at least in this game—mean that politics is a continuation of war…

Chapter Eleven – “Intelligence and espionage (in plus or minus categories) are programmed according to Section 9 of the STUCEN Programming Manual. Commanders are solely responsible for information, false or otherwise, collected outside of game time, i.e. in off-duty hours. RULES, ALL GAMES, STUDIES CENTRE, LONDON” — Good to see intelligence and espionage addressed, even if they only serve as a “modifier” in the game.

Chapter Twelve – “At the discretion of CONTROL game time can be speeded, halted or even reversed so that bounds can be replayed with the advantage of hindsight. No appeal can be made except on the grounds that notice in writing was not received before CONTROL’S actions. RULES, ALL GAMES, STUDIES CENTRE, LONDON”— What does your gaming group do when somebody wants to take back a move?

Chapter Thirteen – “Conclusions reached by any member of STUDEN staff concerning the play are deemed to be secret, whether or not such conclusions were based upon play. STANDING ROUTINE ORDERS, STUDIES CENTRE, LONDON” — A reminder that wargames can teach lessons that go beyond what simply happened on the table.

Chapter Fourteen – “Attacker. For the purposes of the assessment the ‘phasing’ player, who brings his unit into range, is called the attacker. The player against who the unit is brought is called the defender. GLOSSARY, ‘NOTES FOR WARGAMERS’, STUDIES CENTRE, LONDON” — A classic “hex occupied” rule very likely derived from the many hobby wargames of the day.

Chapter Fifteen – “Global commitment negative. A game with global commitment negative is restricted to the military forces on the board. Global commitment positive. A game in which either or both sides will be reinforced by land, sea or air forces from other theaters of war. E.g. During a Northern Fleet war game Soviet naval units might be reinforced by elements of Baltic Fleet or Polish naval units. NB – Such introduced elements can be larger than the sum of the forces available at game opening. GLOSSARY, ‘ NOTES FOR WARGAMERS’, STUDIES CENTRE, LONDON” — Reinforcements, anyone? The War in Ukraine shows a variant of this rule as “Global commitment positive” flows weapons to Ukraine while Russia struggles under a form of “Global commitment negative” (with the apparent exception of the PRC).

Chapter Sixteen – “The ‘retreat before combat’ option is only available to land forces with intact flanking units. The ‘retreat before combat options’ is available to all naval units at all times. RULES, ‘TACWARGAME’, STUDIES CENTRE, LONDON” — Years ago I criticized Jim Dunnigan’s 1975 game Sixth Fleet: US/Soviet Naval Warfare in the Mediterranean in the 1970’s (SPI) for being too much “land war at sea.” It looks like Dunnigan’s game may have simply been “the state of the art” at the time.

Chapter Seventeen – “Environment neutral. The environment neutral condition is one in which the weather, radio reception, sonar operation and water temperatures remain constant throughout the game. This does not change the chance of accidents (naval units, merchant shipping, air), delays of material or communications or random machine operation. GLOSSARY, ‘NOTES FOR WARGAMERS’. STUDIES CENTRE, LONDON” — Weather in wargames is often what makes or breaks one’s strategy. How different a Battle of the Bulge game plays with clear weather!

Chapter Eighteen – “…history does not prove games wrong, anymore than games prove history so. ‘NOTES FOR WARGAMERS’, STUDIES CENTRE, LONDON” — Many wargames seek balance, and a part of that balance is being able to recreate the historical outcome in a wargame. In some cases I am convinced game designers alter the balance in ways that enable the historical result but at the cost of breaking the game. Too many wargame players apparently cannot accept that the fickle hand of fate might have more influence in a moment than the best laid plans (or game rules) of humans.

Chapter Nineteen – “Submarine units of any type surfaced within range of enemy Class A submarines will be considered destroyed. RULES, TACWARGAME, STUDIES CENTRE, LONDON” — The finality of this rule, with no apparent appeal to chance or luck, makes the TACWARGME rules sound on the verge of modeling & simulation instead of wargaming.

Chapter Twenty – “It is the nature of the war game that problems arise that cannot be resolved by the rules. For this reason CONTROL should be regarded as consultative. It is not recommended that CONTROL resolves such problems until adequate exploration of the problem has taken place between all parties. ‘NOTES FOR WARGAMERS’, STUDIES CENTRE, LONDON” — Alas, telling players to “come to a reasoned and agreed upon” conclusion is still nearly impossible.

Chapter Twenty-One – “PRINTOUT (pink sheet total) is the end of the game. Subordinate, aggregate and continuous play not included in PRINTOUT are not part of the game. RULES, TACWARGAME, STUDIES CENTER, LONDON” — It would appear that even back in the day there were some who wanted to play “campaign games” and keep going and going and…

For a hobby wargamer, Spy Story be Len Deighton is an easy summer read and an appealing bit of escapism as the main character—a wargamer—also plays “real” spy games. For professional wargamers, especially defense gamers, Spy Story offers a look back at “how it was” and provides a reference point to see “where we are today” in the defense wargaming community.


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2 thoughts on “A wargame Spy Story from Len Deighton (Spy Story, Panther Books, 1974)

  1. Nice article. You might also enjoy “Game of Birds and Wolves” about the wargaming done in Britain on how to escort the WWII convoys and ASW tactics.

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