Essence of a wargame – V

…part V and the concluding part of a two-part series…

For the others in this series, see: Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IV.

In this series I’ve been attempting to examine qualitative excellence under these headings:

  • 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 post draws some vague and unscientific conclusions from what’s gone before.

Excellence may be purely comparative; perhaps an ‘excellent’ game has to be outstanding or extremely good merely in comparison with other offerings. This may mean that an ‘excellent’ game under one paradigm might be only ‘good’ under another. For example, what do we think of La Grande Armee, a traditional hex-and-counter SPI game with an unmounted, minimalist board and very little chrome, compared with a new extravaganza like The Eagle and The Lion? Perhaps BoardGameGeek might supply a little help here, as it does have ratings for board games, so we can get an idea of what BGGers at least think of board wargames past and present.

A quick and dirty review of the top 100 wargames on BGG by rating gives the following frequency results by 5 year date bands (these dates being publication dates):

  • Before 1980:  5
  • 1980 – 84:  9
  • 1985 – 89:  6
  • 1990 – 94:  6
  • 1995 – 99:  4
  • 2000-04: 15
  • 2005-10: 55

As expected perhaps, the majority of the games listed were published in the last five years, but it’s noticeable that 20% are over 20 years old and 5% are even older. There are fewer from the 1990s than the 1980s, reflecting the demise of SPI and Avalon Hill presumably. Both Squad Leader and Advanced Squad Leader figure high up in the list, as does Britannia, even though these could be considered as more ‘old style traditional’ than exhibiting more recent design features. So we can perhaps conclude that ‘older paradigm’ wargames can stand the test of time.

I’ll now try to review the 4 headings I dreamt up, by looking across each of my three examples for any threads that seem relevant.

Convincing portrayal of topic

I think that the essence of this aspect is covered by the level of detail of the game, the quality and effectiveness of the chrome used, how the game is placed in its context, and the games’s historical or thematic authenticity. All these elements must gel together to convince the players that the topic is covered well. I don’t mean that the game has to have a lot of detail, or over-developed colourful pieces, excessive background or extraordinary adherence to historical reality. The design should cover all of these elements at an appropriate degree for the aim of the design. This will be different for a tactical game versus a strategic game, a short game versus a ‘monster’ game.

Encouraging players to carry out believable actions within the game’s context

Players should feel that they are making relevant and believable decisions within realistic restrictions. There is a game design problem here, in that there will sometimes have to be a compromise between historicity and competitive game play; for example World War I and II games tend not to reflect accurately the vast allied resource superiority, nor the political intricacies and personality clashes of the personnel involved. Most wargames are two player zero sum games, so there tend to be monolithic, single points of command (one player) and the advantages of the bird’s eye view (total or near total knowledge).  However, the game should present players with appropriate strategic or tactical decision-making points.

Victory in the game doesn’t have to equate to historical victory, and departure from the historical approach can be appropriate in the interests of game play; on the other hand, I recall the Kasserine Pass scenario in Desert Steel, which imposes historical deployments and historical victory conditions on both sides, making it extraordinarily difficult for the Germans to win (even though they did historically, which looks like a very against-the-odds result) – an important lesson perhaps that sometimes you’re given a task well beyond your means, and soldiers often have to just get on with it – and can sometimes succeed against all expectations. Finally the actions of the players should write a believable historical or thematic story.

Excellent fit of mechanics to topic

Here I think the game has to encourage, not just enable, appropriate game play within period or theme. It must also simulate one or more aspects of the topic extremely well or provide exemplary flavour or both. The game play should have an appropriate tempo for the type of game and its theme. The mechanics should succeed in presenting relevant and appropriate effects during the story, for example by punishing a-historic action, rather than laying down the law, or through other subtle constraint on the players, for example through sequence of play (see Unhappy King Charles for some good examples of this practice). In some cases, games have to use proxies for some of the variables, a typical example being the use of dice for fog of war or chance in combat. For a game to achieve excellence, proxies must have been carefully chosen, so that they do not introduce unwelcome side effects. For example the cards used in Commands and Colors are a proxie for various command control issues; however, they can have the side effect of randomly crippling one side, because there is no way to remedy bad card draws.

Appropriate level of challenge

For excellence a board wargame needs to be a competitive game with a significant element of skill. How the luck to skill balance is handled is very much a matter of approach and style. I would rateNapoleon’s Triumph – no luck – very highly, but also games like Paths of Glory, where there is an element of luck in the order in which cards are drawn and also dice-based Combat Results Table. My preference is for more skill and less luck, but the balance depends on topic. For more complex games with a steep or long learning curve it is useful to provide introductory scenarios or graded challenges to help beginners. Play balance is important in the interests of fairness, though in many games, if the experience is sufficiently good then somewhat surprisingly this may not be vital.

I’ve come to the end of this rather longer than expected series. I’m still not certain of the validity of the insights here, but I think it gives an idea of my own thinking along these lines.


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