Thursday, 7 June 2012

World At War: Triumph and Folly

World at War, triumph and Folly

Now something different. I have been without camera for several weeks so no new picture of my painting even if I had work quite a lot recently instead I will dabble a bit  on the main playing  side of my hobby paper and counters.
Recently there has been a bit of flak on CSW, the premier wargaming forum on the internet, on a game series I like quite a bit and that I have been involved into.  Mark Walker’s World At War.  I have to admit that several of the people trying to defend it have done a poor job, turning, in my eyes, more as Mark’s fanboys rather than player really liking the game. And some of the critics have said several good things. I have been involved in World at War from longtime so finally I decided to put in writing my thoughts on it. 

The Game:

World at War, WAW for short is a platoon level game set in 1985 during an hypothetical Third World War. It is based on random chit driven activations of formations (be NATO companies or Warsaw Pact battalions).  It is very table light with the majority of information printed on counters (and as some of the critics on CSW have pointed out the counters could have benefitted from a better font type) and dice heavy with a lot of die rolling (to hit, armour save and the like). The counters are quite attractive. Some of the side views are simply work of art. If I have to pick something it would be the German recon battalion I designed.  The counter artist did a splendid work. Also the PLA tanks are impressive. 


Having every bit information on the counter itself is not a bad idea.  I think a lot of the criticism over the game system is not only unwarranted but completely without base.   It is not complex but it is not even simplistic. In my opinion it portrays quite well tactical doctrine and relative strength and weaknesses of the equipment. Despite the idea that it is a “hardware game made by someone who does not know about hardware” I think it is quite successful in representing hardware at system level. So one for the game zero for the idiotic pundit.  They say WAW did not portray doctrine. It is a tactical game, doctrine is often the realm of the scenario designer, especially if your scenarios are involving an handful of counters. One of the commentator say the game encourage the Soviets to assault NATO  positions and this is not historical. I would dare to say that Soviet tank design and Soviet tactical procedures were not designed for stand-off firing but by quick advance. Frunze Academy’s tactical problems involved stand off suppression by fire only on the flanks of the main attacks. And then by artillery rather than tanks or infantry.
Artillery could be a problem. It is not directly represented but abstracted. Again a lot depend on scenario design. Scenarios deserve a bit of a comment. Someone asserted you cannot design your own scenario because you have not instructions. I do not feel this was necessary, Indeed is around 4 years I am designing my own scenarios… to that critic I will respond “do your own homework and research”.

The Sandbox

If you think twice WAW is the perfect sandbox. It is sufficiently open to give you whatever you want if you are willing to put yourself on the line. It is not a spreadsheet  with point systems and scenario generators, but it has an almost open ended potential. There is nothing that, in case you do not like published scenarios,  prevents you from designing your own. Every three or four months Line of fire is providing you with several new scenarios, often with new units and sometimes with new maps. It is great.  I love the old  Assault, but WAW  is continually expanding giving you more and more possibilities for exercising your own judgement and creativity.  Of course there are limits.

The Fence

The main limit is that WAW is not a sandbox. Mark had decided to link it to a fixed setting. And now the problem starts. Order of battles are often incomplete, units are presented in a rather awkward fashion, often in a way that made designing your own scenario based on actual research very difficult. Of course the gaps are slowly filled, but it is not easy. Especially when you are told that “filling formations is boring and not exciting”. Ok it is boring, maybe, but it is because someone made a mistake at first.
And you have the story… Mark’s scenario, instead of being based on tactical situation and doctrine are based on his story. At start it was not too bad. The more the series progress the more the story is less entertaining and the scenarios convoluted and, frankly, silly. Also the scenario drives the counters making the formations included  more and more silly. Again not a game killer in its own if the sandbox is still there.

The horror

But the sandbox potential is further reduced by…
A complete inability to give us proper formations.  Now we reach the stage of the last boxed module; Paris is Burning. When I opened that box and looked at the French forces I had the urge to cry. Whoever did the research deserves to be shot. The French order of battle is completely fantastic. No one has bothered to read anything about the French army. The 2me REI a light motorized unit part at the time of the 6me Division Blindée Légere instead of having its VAB (wheeled) has AMX10P (tracked). Allocation of formation is frankly just made up. You cannot really field real French forces in Paris. And the scenarios are just the product of someone who has never bothered to look at troops disposition in Europe at the time or NATO plans and exercise.  But you get a ugly map of Paris that does not convey any idea of a big urban setting, some campy scenarios not even barely plausible and some rants.  That “masterpiece”, that I rated 5 on BGG just because it gave me some French toys and because I did not want to be too harsh on it,  will be shortly followed by America Conquered another sick idea…  at least in the middle Jeff Schulte’s excellent Into the Breach has appeared giving us sufficient forces to fill some important gaps. I am really hoping it will wait for me when I will be home at the end of the month.

The Conclusion:

I will be harsh, I think WAW is a good game despite Mark’s effort to reduce it to a joke. While he is good  at hardware level he does not anything about doctrine, order of battle, tactics, history and organization. His story is a joke at best, insulting at worse. His scenarios have no bearing on reality. And do not really represent any real doctrine except for “red hordes steamrolling west”, a myths serious researcher have long dispelled.  I would not have any problem with that if Mark had just bolted on the story and developed it without stymieing the system. As it turned out Mark ended up in the middle between the proverbial rock and hard place. He had “subcontracted” a lot of scenario design to external sources like me but he cannot resolve to let it fully free. He is attached to his creation,  I can understand it (except when he mention the “great” work of Game Workshop with their own “game” he did not know a lot on the troubles and the silliness of the evil empire), but the game is suffering. And he is too defensive especially covering his mistakes. The T-80 debacle was a famous example but I have my picks too. Paris is Burning, the French module is, as already mentioned,  the crappiest work I have ever seen as far research is concerned. If it was the work of one of my student I would have failed the student, in a game in Phil Sabin’s Consim class probably it would have warranted and epic failure. As far research goes WaW published boxed modules do not include anything that can be  called that.  Worse than all Mark is covering his errors with patethic excuses (real formations are boring). I worked on an article on real order of battle and potential approaches to Germany central front  just to have turned it down because it insinuated Mark’s research was wrong. Heck, his research? Again? AMX10P in the 2me REI? Black Eagles in 1985? South Korea invading the north in 3 days? With what a 1970 infantry army with almost no mechanized infantry and depending on US C3I? Japan invading Korea with no amphibious vessels? Anyone with basic internet and library access can ascertain that. I have put a lot of effort and time in WAW, desgined modules, including an excellent and well received (by playtesters) one on a possible (and quite probable in case of WW3) Soviet invasion of Hokkaido.  It has cool Japanese stuff that has been shown only on Japanese language only games… but a former USN Officer with a Naval War College education seems to not have ever read about the Bastion Strategy (no I am not believing he did not know about it, he can pretend but not so far…).

And now we have reached the critical point. WAW is not a game about a hypothetical WW3. It is a game about Mark story that is set in a setting that mirrors a bit 1985. And I think here WAW fails. He started the system with a different, or at least an apparently different, premise. The crappy stuff came later.  I think the entire construct is weak. You can create your own world for a game and there is nothing bad on it but it has to be your own world, just mixing and matching from the real world will not suffice. Also other similar attempts have open worlds were conflict continues and develop in part according to player wishes and actions. Even in Warhammer you have an open end where your actions have a meaning, where you can write your own record. In WAW the story sounds stale and on rails. I will never stem the tide. Everything is already written. I cannot feel part of the story. 

The astute reader will say WAW is not the first example. GDW Team Yankee was similar. You got the point, but Team Yankee was published after the book, and you decided if you want the story or not. Plus the book was much better than the crappy Walkerverse.  

I am a cold war kid. I grown up when the GFSG was still there and played NATO-WP games. WW3 is my own stories. I have done sufficient academic research on the topic to have my ideas.  I am not interested in a closed crappy story set there.  If the Walkerverse had been set in the future or on another planet closely resembling 1985 it would have been great. The current setting is just a joke.
Again it would have been a no problem if Mark had been just used the game to tell his own story as an addenda. But alas WAW has not taken this approach. Designing scenario for WAW is thus a nightmare. I can live with physical and practical constraints, I can curse countersheet limitations and go forward. But I cannot have good modules and good exciting scenarios turned off because they do not fit the crappy story, a story that for all practical purpose to me is awful. There is also an underlining problems with the system, how you design a scenario, that indeed is your own creation part of your own narrative, in a close system written by someone else and then even been asked to have it fit in someone else narrative? It is a question Mark has never addressed, I told him “I cannot write your story, because I am not you”; I think it is pretty obvious. But I never got any answer on that.  I think we have a sort of unspoken deal where I can write my scenarios and Mark is not too picky on the background. It works, but it is not perfect, especially when you have subpar work like Paris is Burning to work with.  It also left the main contradiction of the enterprise unsolved.
I also left people weaker in addressing criticism. His criticism directed to the system or to the setting?

Will I continue to play it? Yes. Will I continue to buy modules? No. Will I continue to design scenarios? Yes. Still I feel frustrated, disappointed and slowly sliding toward a dead end. The system is sound; the potential is enormous. The silly “apparatus” and restriction are really killing it.

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