Essence of a great war-game – I

Whiling away some time in Birmingham airport, delayed by snow in Edinburgh, I’ve recorded some thoughts on what makes a really great war-game for me.

I’ve discussed my current list below and summarised it here.

  • Convincing portrayal of topic
  • Encouraging players to carry out believable actions within the game’s context
  • Excellent fit of mechanics to topic
  • Appropriate level of challenge

This is all personal and not terribly analytical, because players and designers have their own views of what makes a great board or card war-game. I’m looking for the essence here, not just examples, although I’ve tried to illustrate my points with concrete examples from my own experience.

First I’ll define some terms. I mean “great” not just good, so the principles have to be capable of producing excellence. “Wargame” – let’s use a fairly broad definition to include board and card games that have the topic of “warfare”. And I would include things like Twilight Struggle, that isn’t about “hot” war but is generally included amongst war-games. However, I’m excluding non-warfare conflict games and also miniatures from this exercise.

Topic is vital. This doesn’t mean that the game has to be in a popular period, or in an obscure one. Execution of the topic aspects has to make the game believable. What do I mean by “believability”?  I think this goes to the heart of the “theme v simulation” debate that I have rehearsed elsewhere. The game has to convince the players that it reflects an aspect of the reality or truth of the topic.  I think this could be achieved by theme or simulation.

An example of where this might be achieved by theme could be Up Front. I have heard it argued by people whose views I respect, that Up Front is a poor representation of WW2 infantry combat, and it pretty much fails on key simulation aspects – ground and distance relationships are abstract, command features are rudimentary, and you cannot carry out “realistic” doctrinal tactics. However, it seems to me that it captures some of the essence of fire, movement, morale and periods of inactivity that typify infantry combat.

An example of this from the simulation  perspective would be Paths of Glory. With its range of historical event cards that constrain play, and its effective strategic movement and combat rules, PoG gives an excellent flavour of the European strategic level conduct of WW1; it is a successful game and also to some extent a model of the WW1 European theatre, albeit that it compromises in favour of the game over the simulation.

The mechanics of our putative great wargame have to work very well within the game’s perspective and parameters (‘Weltanschauung’ is what I mean here).  This is not necessarily to do with how smooth and unwrinkled the game design is. Wargames are notorious for having clunky bits of law-based rules (the Germans in PoG shall not end their movement in the Channel ports in 1914 for example). Sometimes this feels necessary in war-games that attempt to portray or at least allow for what actually happened in history. Hence the predilection for card-driven systems, in which over-riding card can take care of awkward exceptions.

Great game mechanics have to do their job superbly within the context of the topic – they have to “fit” the topic. So a WW2 strategic game not only has to portray armoured warfare convincingly, but also has to have mechanics that enable players to carry out believable (theme or simulation) armoured operations. For a great game, I think this aspect of play should be positively encouraged, not just enabled.

This aspect is often helped by providing players with an historical role (a character or team) through which their actions are enacted. Typical strategic roles are high command teams, often implicit rather than explicit. “Being Napoleon” is a common wargamer role!

The mechanics have to either simulate an aspect of the topic very well or provide exemplary flavour or both. An example is the simple supply unit system in SPI’s La Grande Armee system, coupled with a forced march sub-system that allows French units greater latitude to break away from formal supply constraints than their Austrian, Prussian and Russian enemies.

The game also has to be a great game in its own right. It has to provide an appropriate level of challenge for its audience.

Component quality is a tricky one. Many would include this as a requirement, but traditionally war-games publishers have not been able to afford high quality components owing to the small size of markets. Personally I’m happy with cheap and cheerful hex and counter approaches, so I don’t include this as a requirement. Others may disagree.

To be continued …


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