Okay it is the last day of the year, I am contemplating the Lucullan dinner awaiting me, and taking time to write some (understatement) lines about 2018 and wargames. Plenty of bloggers do that… after all it is quite normal to look back in such a day (before filling our stomachs and forgetting everything). I will say it has been a positive year for the hobby in general, and for my corner of it in particular. We saw plenty of new releases, good and bad, more good than bad, and I was able to play and paint several of them. Even the computer side of it has been good, with the new Combat Mission Shock Force 2 released, The Operational Art of War 4 and other little things. Basically a good year for the hobby… and the Perry twins’ early XV century cavalry is arriving in a couple of week…
Yet despite all the positives there are some negatives (no I am not talking about personal ones). The hobby community is more and more divisive, crap is still coming out, and there are some uninspiring trends. I would say that the negatives are more about people than the hobby in itself, and certainly they concerns people who get publicity… basically I am quite pissed off by the ‘public face’ (there is one?) of the whole wargaming hobby. More often than not the hobby appears to be represented by its lesser lights, certainly the more aggressive.
I have already written a tirade against Facebook groups few posts ago, but to be quite honest some of the issues that plague these groups are also plaguing the big wargaming websites (rather than forums) across the internet. Basically the issue is one:
What I do not like deserve to die.
|I play games on maps...|
|I play games with miniatures. And to respond to Brian painting and building them is part of the hobby, and result is warranted.|
Well I am the first to say that plenty of people deserve to die, I am a military historian by trade and one thing that history teaches is that sometimes deaths are necessary and inevitable… but usually these concerns evil dictators, madmen, and pesky colleagues (and maybe politicians whose asses are glued to their comfy chairs…). I am not really interested in seeing particular strand of the wargaming spectrum dying, neither to see companies disappear (okay FGA excluded… but well, how many supporters FGA had ever had?). Yet, if you look around there is plenty of negativity. In his end of year summary for Wargamer.com, Colonel (USA RTD) Wilbur Gray made a quite scathing prediction for board wargaming, hex and counter will die, GMT and Decision will disappear, Compass (that it happens to produce hex and counter wargames!) will thrive on their carcasses. Of course miniatures and computer wargames will not be affected by gloom and doom. Of course it is no secret where Bill Gray’s sympathies’ lay. On the same token, other commentators (admitting their previous failures in predicting wargames’ future) again predict the collapse of hexes and counters and the eternal rise of CDGs! Or something else, like War-Euros combinations and the like. Other people predict the demise of miniatures for computer games…
Basically everyone, his brother, and their aquarium fishes make wild prediction centred on the thriving future of their favourite kind of games and the demise of the rest. There is the underlying idea that only on aspect of our varied and storied hobby is worthy of salvation. Plenty of these predictions have come to pass, and we are still playing, designing, and publishing a wide array of different wargames.
Because all the Cassandras, and the other assorted Sunday’s prophets that had seen the light in computer wargames and the dark in other kinds… have failed. Funnily enough the first of these two cents fortune tellers, James Dunningan left the field to become a third (or fifth?) rate strategic expert. The idea that computers killed board wargames is a dead, putrefied, skeleton horse. It stinks. Yet it is still around… like the myth of the German military invincibility (read one of the latest articles by Ty Bomba to be treated to the uber-Germans winning the second world war… no, wait… they lost…) it is a myth that is never ending. Back in time, reflecting on the demise of SPI James Dunningan blamed computer games for the destruction of paper wargaming. Of course there were lot of other trends involved (and also Dunningan may have had a big personal role in the fall of SPI, and tried to cover it up), and board-wargaming did not die at all, despite Dunningan analysis. Yet the idea that somewhat the hobby is relying on a flat base of older gamers who survived its heydays is often casually thrown in discussion. The recipe to stave off disaster is, we are told, crossover games, and moving away from traditional wargames toward computer. Often these calls are coupled with accusations of male dominated hobby, snobbism against fantasy or science fiction. More often than not there is a tone of impending doom… change or be swept away. Each of these elements has its champion or champions. Yet the underlying impression a moderate gets is… ‘I do not like game XYZ so it has to be bad and disappear’. And then there is the unanswered question… why?
Then you have the people that claim hexes and counters are dead, and cards, areas, and meeples will rise… it is the current CDGs crowd, or the current COIN crowd. Yet, Card Driven Games have been around for a while, and they are not so new. They have not supplanted hexes or counters. Plenty of them uses counters, and some even hexes. It is worth to note that their boom as passed, and while they are not going away (and why they should?), they are just become part of the whole hobby. Cards are used also in Miniature Games (I ain’t been shot mum anyone?). It is a worthwhile mechanic but not an end unto itself. And we had plenty of crap and bummers in this department.
Then there is COIN… the new grail… except that despite a couple of good games, the whole series is sliding down the crappiness and some designers force COIN on the throat of everything… yet you have people arguing that COIN will supplant everything else, and everything else is destined to rot in hell…
It is disheartening to see so many people relishing in their prophecy of doom for entire segments of the hobby. Even more disheartening because these prophets looks quite shallow, and their arguments take up places that could be used for more useful endeavour, like informed discussions, and reviews. Frankly, who cares if a computer games expert bashes board games? Does he know what is talking about? Short answer, only people who dislike board games care, and he does not know anything.
Thankfully, like Dunningan prediction and analysis (that hide his own poor decisions in SPI…) these prophets are basically rubbish. Let’s paint a better picture… maybe, one based on real knowledge. I will start from computer games. Recently on the Facebook wargamers group the idiot of the day (If you want I can provide Facebook names too, after all Marck Zuckenberg does it all the time…) said that the relation of board wargames to computer wargames is like that between VHS and DVD. Persuading young people to play board wargames over computer games is like pretending people to go back to VHS from DVD. Okay…
There are deep issues in this view. Basically, it is just an outgrown of Dunningan’s claims of PC games killing board ones. New technology always supplants existing one. The underlying idea is that board games were somewhat inferior to their electronic counterparts and more expensive. But, when Dunningan was pontificating not only electronic wargames were in their infancy, they were few, basically crap, overpriced and relied on hardware that, until sometime later, was extremely expensive. A single pc game could have been not too expensive, but it needed a computer that was not readily available to everyone. This even before addressing issue like quality, AI, and playabilty. I saw some of them, and they were quite subpar. Basically Dunningan was talking hot air, like he does in his strategy page… old habits never dies.
The Moderns have at least the benefit of cheaper hardware (but how cheap is a computer rigged to play the latest games?) and better games. PC wargames have evolved and some are innovative, interesting, well researched, and engaging. So at least they have something to show. Now there is an issue that cannot be denied, I cannot deny it too. Computer games sales far outstrip traditional wargames one. Fair point, but one that is also completely irrelevant.
We are comparing apple to oranges, and even in a bad way. The issue that what I call the ‘PC doom crowd’ fail to address is what a computer wargame is. Nitpicking? No. It is the heart of the issue. How many computer games that really qualify as wargames are sold? What really qualifies as computer wargames? If you just pull out the average Joe from the street, if you can get an answer at all it will be Call of Duty or Warcraft/Starcraft, if you are lucky a Total War game… But we have a deep issue, computer games that are often called wargames by the press and the public are not wargame in any sense. There is very little relation between Call of Duty and ASL as there is very little relation between Rome Total War and Imperium Romanum II. I have seen this with students. They are quick to think of them as wargames because that is what they are told. But wargames they are not. Also they appeal to different people. Yes there will be overlap, as there is overlap in everything, but this is not changing the reality. Real wargames are a minority even in the PC market, their sales are not that big, computer games in general did not steal the player base of wargames.
Once you remove the oranges and remains with the apples it is also interesting to see what the apples are. A lot of PC wargames are tactical in nature. There are very few operational or strategic ones. Also players often criticize board-wargames for their lack of details. I remember a discussion on RPS Flare Path column on Phil Sabin’s Simulating War book. One of the posters was complaining on the limit in the level of detail of any ‘manual’ game compared to games like War in the East. Fair point, but…
1 1) He did not really read or understand Phil’s position about details
2) 2) Despite disagreeing with Phil’s emphasis on abstraction, I am persuaded that details do not equal realism by default. Just because a game track each infantry squad on the whole Russian front it is not more realistic than one who only track army corps.
Again the computer player in question is attracted to detail in a way that is outside the scope of any playable manual wargame (much better definition that board wargame, let’s use it!). I play computer wargames and manual ones. I find very little overlapping. I found them not very related. I also play Total War, and have played several Call of Duty and Medal of Honour games. Let’s leave CoD and MoH alone for now. They were never wargames to start with, and, right now, they are also bad games more concerned with campy multiplayer, scripted movie sequence, and very little with any meaningful conflict simulation aspect. Also, they are not wargames, they are first person shooters. They are the brothers of Doom rather than ASL.
Total War and other RTS or even 4X turn based games are, often, hailed has wargames or historical games, but they are not wargames at all. They have war and conflict, but grouping them together with manual wargames would be wrong. As it would be grouping together their player bases. It is worth noting that some RTS have evolved in the so called ‘E-sports’ and are nothing more than click fest.
Even serious title like Steel Beasts Pro or Combat Mission are games that is difficult to pin together. They are apple and oranges by themselves, and it would be very difficult to find equivalent in the manual wargames library, especially for title like Steel Beasts (they are simulators, again a different beasts, notwithstanding the idiots on BGG and other places that confuse simulation with simulator). Combat Mission (especially the first series) feel like a miniature wargame, but for now we are focusing on another genre.
The bottom line is that computer and manual wargames scratch different itches. On top of that perusing game forums I have seen very few people who are even aware of the existence of manual wargames at all… my experience in KCL Conflict Simulation class, and in Wolves ‘Virtual Warriors’ module is that while there are more students familiar with computer games and manual wargames, there very little in the way of ‘I stopped playing manual wargames because the PC ones were better’ often the computer crowd is stuck on total War, Paradox grand strategy (and often they do not care too much about the level of historical details), and CODs… on the other hand some students dismissing manual wargames as obsolete by default in September came to different conclusion after having played and designed games at the end of the module.
What I see is a large, healthy base of publishers doing manual wargames, and other doing computer wargames. Their catalogue are strong and varied. Their titles cater for different interests, mechanics, and players’ inclinations. Each medium, and each title has its own strength and weaknesses. It is worth to mention that while there is an overlap in players, (and I just played Slitherine’s intriguing Panzer Doctrine…) the players seem to be two largely discrete communities.
Bottom line: the boom in real computer wargames happened after Dunningan wrote his nonsense. It even happened after the fall of Avalon Hill, and the dark age of manual wargaming. Probably they are two unconnected phenomena. Yet this myth is still with us, and duly resurrected when the idiot of the day wants to explain why manual wargames are a doomed hobby. Nonsense. We can just play our games in peace.
Now let’s move on… the second big myth. The new holy grail game technique that will rule them all… give me a ring please… Even better is it is a crossover to euros. The crossover that will suddenly bring thousands of eager new players in the hobby by virtue of its simplicity and appeal (and low price!). I think everyone hopes for it… I think everyone with a working brain knows it is just rubbish. There are several wrong assumptions at work here. First of all is that you can entice people to become wargamers just hanging an easy game in front of them. After you have hooked them they will simply move to more complex games, finally they will all play ASL! I do not think this is making any real sense.
First of all, there is an assumption that one size fits all, be it players’ interests and game mechanics. There is also a mental limitation at work, that one mechanic can cover everything. This is a phenomena that you can see both in board and miniatures wargames. There was a recent article on Wargames Soldiers and Strategy waxing about the idea that a single mechanics can simulate everything at every scale, from Sumer to Ramadi… I scratched my head… and mentally binned the author in the realm of idiots. I am sorry to use such a term but it was just a demonstration of the lack of understanding of warfare and its modelling. Okay… it could provide food for the game vs simulation debate. But here is serving another purpose. An historical wargamer, one who understand history, will scratch his head if an Assyrian chariot is simulated in the same way of a French 1812 Cuirassier. Even more if an unit of chariots and one of cuirassiers are modelled in the same way (I mean their functions, not they physical models!). Yet the one game to rule them all crowd propose exactly this. What we can call… the Sauron’s technique… will replace everything else. Sadly for the prophets, luckily for everyone else (including the prophets of the different Sauron’s technique…) it will not happen. Despite the claims that the new games will replace the old it will not happen. They will just sit together on the same shelf.
IF we look at the past of the hobby it is something that happened all the times. Everytime a new mechanic was introduced the players were divided in camps, some outspoken supporters, some claiming it was just a fad (why? Was it used improperly?), and the silent majority buying what they like, and leaving on the shops’ shelves or website the games they did not like. Some designers become fixated on certain mechanics (Mike Rinella and its area/impulse, who is simply saying the approach is better than anything else, without explanation), some rejected it, most simply adding it to their libraries. Nothing new, no impeding collapse, despite every time someone yelling at the ultimate mechanic. Still… people continues to search for a grail that looks more like the Ring… nothing holy, just a chimera that, once reached is only a curse… remember the end of the Fellowship… there is no rule to rule them all.
But it is not just the random poster on Facebook or BGG that clamours for it. Years ago, boardgame (be careful, Boardgame not Wargame…) designer Lewis Pulsipher, the creator of Britannia claimed that wargames were destined to irrelevance because our games do not have plastic components, area maps, and are too complex. Okay, if someone creates an idiocy guided cruise missiles Pulsipher would be a perfect guinea pig to test the guidance system. Yet beside the fact it was just an empty, baseless, claim by a second class designer and smelled more of self-advertisement than anything else, it highlighted the issue at hand. More often than not people use the internet, or even game magazine not to discuss issues, but to do negative promoting, criticizing other products and approaches to promote theirs. Wargames are not bad. Wargamers are bad. There is this habit to knock off things to sanctify others. Wargamers are not the only culprits, historians and strategic analysts are even worse offenders. Lewis Sorley is a master of it, launching vitriolic attacks on General Westmoreland just to make a saint of Creighton Abrams. And what about the dean of all strategic forgers? Basil H. Liddell Hart?
|You need counters... put such information on a plastic meeples... or produce a similar map with areas... sorry mr. Pulsipher, you do not know what you were talking about...|
Even stellar figures in the hobby fall prey of it… I remember reading a piece written by my favourite Miniature Wargamer designer, Richard Clarke, the Lord of Lard… dismissing manual map based wargames, and telling the readers they were dead… He had bad experience playing the Europa series back in time and written off, thousands of titles… and a vital strand of the hobby. I was reading about divisions moving at a glacial pace over the Russian steppes. At the time I was playing the new edition of Red Star and White Eagle from Compass. And it was not division moving a glacial pace, it was the Konarmya racing forward, and then the Polish counterattack… it was exciting… it was engrossing… it was a fight for a country, rather than a fight for a village. It made me think twice about the usual engagement with Rich’s Chain of Command or IASBM. Yet I like both approaches. I do not knock off one or the other.
What I found irrelevant of this approach is that the Sauron’s technique is not a solution, is part of the problem. As me and Phil said to countless cohorts of students, there is no right or wrong way to design a game. There is no perfect answer to every problem. This is exemplified with the different approach me and Phil takes to design. Loom at my own games or the games I have worked with (easy go to BGG and look up to game designer Arrigo Velicogna), and do the same with Philip Sabin. You will see plenty of differences in approach. Even better for today discussion you will see that even our games tend to be different between them. Some designers are just iterative, some are instead letting the situation to dictate the technique to be used. Plastic meeples? Fine as long you do not want plenty of information on your game pieces. Miniatures are better than counters, at times they are, at times they are not. Variety is the key. The final game does not exist. The ‘evolution’ that some closed minds see is only a nightmare for us.
|Plenty of new games on different subjects, with different mechanics, including mine.|
Well… it was along post… and one quite negative on wargamers, but, I am persuaded, positive on the hobby. I am sitting on my uncomfy chair right now. I can see part of my collections of wargames. PC, Miniatures, Board. They are varied, they are exciting, they are an important window over military history. Some are easier, some are more detailed, some are broad brush approach. The bad ones… well I tend to avoid buying them, trade them, sell them, or put them somewhere else… I also have my list of eagerly awaited pre-orders. Under the trees I had Iron and Oak, Tinian, and War for the Union (2nd Edition). A broad and varied lot! I also got TFL annual magazine with new rules and scenarios. And a couple of games on steam too. Right now there is nothing on the table, I borrowed it to my mother for her Lego city… But I am looking confident on the future. There are plenty of interesting project approaching completion. Adam Starkweather is finishing his operational game on Vietnam, a Rumor of War with Compass, and two new games of his company scale series. GMT has a new Next War game coming, and Bruno Sinigaglio big game on the Ardennes (and Compass has Danny Parker reworking his Bulge Masterpiece. MMP has a TCS game on Bir el Gubi, the Ariete armoured division giving a bad day to the 22nd Armoured Brigade, a rubbing generations of British historians, blinded by their arrogant, baseless, and racist contempt for Italians, and slavish admiration of a nazi like Rommel, have always attributed to Germans… (that for that idiot Capitan Blood, that on the Lead Adventure Forum claimed that the Italian experience in North Africa was only shoddy and sorry… an insult to my country, my Army, and myself as a former Italian Army Cadet Officer… another star display of historical ignorance)
The past year was good, the new year looks even better.
Go Forward Wargaming
And Best Wishes for a great 2019 to my readers!