CDV has released the North American retail version of Ageod’s American Civil War, one of the best wargames of 2007. I’m writing a review of this release for Gameshark, so my full opinion on this game will be found there in a week or so.
It’s really impossible to speak of the Ageod games without commenting on how nice they look. They look neither like war games nor like real geography, existing on some sort of visual plane that’s a mix of 19th century atlas drawing and Parker Brothers backdrop scenery. They are evocative of games you think you’ve played some other time in some other format but never mimic any real experience. They are more similar to the animated maps you’ll find on a PBS or History Channel documentary than to any game you’ve played recently.
And even within the Ageod wargames the aesthetics have distinctions. Birth of America‘s map is almost faded, devoid of rich color like a wall hanging that has been sitting in a local museum for too long. Napoleonic Campaigns is more vibrant, with the varied European terrain forcing itself on your senses. The unit art is less distinctive from one game to the next, but it too has a period elegance that you’re sure you’ve seen before but just can’t place.
The University of Maryland’s Matthew Kirschenbaum has written about “the look” of wargames; how they resemble not war but representations of war – what gamers have been trained to think war looks like.
Take maps. The maps in a book such as Esposito and Elting’s West Point A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars are masterpieces of abstraction. This is not to imply that they are faulty or prima facie misleading, only that they work through artificial yet collectively agreed upon conventions for capturing the chaos of lived experience through a set of formalized, explanatory depictions (see Mark Monmonier’s classic How to Lie with Maps). Games are likewise abstractions….Visually wargames borrow many of their conventions from battle maps and military cartography. Yet in many wargame systems, once the first die is thrown and the temporal dimension is set in motion—once the abstraction has become interactive—any resemblance to a military battle map tends to degrade rather quickly. The battle doesn’t end up looking very Napoleonic, which is to say it doesn’t end up looking much like other representations of Napoleonic warfare.
There is something to that in Ageod’s games. As the turn clock marks time, the armies march over representative terrain, sometimes just missing each other. It’s like watching Ken Burns’ Civil War, where Lee has to maneuver through Virginia until he can fight on more favorable terms. Armies move like that on screen, so they should move like that on monitor, right?
Since strategy and wargame aesthetics are, by their nature, representative, the designer has to choose what he/she is representing. (I am, of course, painting with broad strokes in what follows. As always, nitpicking is welcome in the comments.)
1) Period feel: One reason to prefer the original Imperialism to its deeper, richer sequel is that, like Ageod’s games, the faded maps help transport you to the 19th century in a way that Imperialism II‘s deep, deep greens do not. Imperialism II is brighter, but not, in my opinion as evocative. The Theatrum Orbis Terrarum mod for Europa Universalis III is a great improvement over the original map because in a game that is so dependent on an historical feel, the Paradox designed map seemed a little out of place.
Sometimes a game gets one part right, but not the other. Defending the Reich is a great game that plays a bit like those giant boards you see people using in movies about the Battle of Britain. But the map looks ripped right out of a modern atlas. Better to have gone whole hog and made the map look like one of those boards.
2) Miniatures: As a direct descendant of miniature gaming, it’s odd that so few wargames embrace the miniature feel. The Tin Soldiers games from Koios Works were the most open about it, even having a disembodied hand remove dead units from the “board”. Even the trees look like molded plastic. The Dragoon/Horse and Musket titles from Boku Strategy games captured the feel of miniatures in the game play, but they never quite looked right. Age of Rifles is the classic game from the past that felt a lot like a miniatures title.
3) Cardboard: This is the wargame design default position, and since the graphics are so bare here it’s not hard to make something feel sort of right. But some do it better than others, aesthetically speaking, and this is where SSG stands out. Not only have they made some of the best WW2 games of recent years (see Korsun Pocket), they’ve also managed to make their games feel like you are moving cardboard and rolling dice. It’s a bit of a trick, since their games don’t really look like cardboard chits at all. Like Ageod, there’s a little bit of deja vu sleight of hand going on here. One way they do this is showing the dice. Simple, no? Armageddon Empires does the same thing – the simple act of exposing the dynamics is an aesthetic choice in many ways. SSG also uses very bright colors and very simple iconography. I’ll admit to not liking it much at first; it seemed too “busy”. But bit by bit I understood just what they were trying to do.
Compare that “business with a point”, for example, to the disastrous Paradox port of Diplomacy. There were a hundred things wrong with that game, but even a quick glance at the screenshots, with mugging avatars and blobby map might have put off prospective buyers. The simplicity of the classic Diplomacy map was buried under a mess of color and features.
4) Reality: Few strategy games bother with photorealism for obvious reasons. The payoff just isn’t there, and unless you are an international giant like the Total War games, making things look realistic isn’t going to get much bang for your buck. But properly deployed, as in Mad Minute’s Take Command Civil War games, you can get as convincing a representation of 19th century combat as you’ll find at your local re-enactment society. A few real time strategy games have moved up the realism ladder, especially Company of Heroes, though it too is more representative of popular images of WW2 (Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan) than actual combat.
Aesthetic choices made in the design stage have a serious impact on the sensations transmitted to the gamer. Would Ticket to Ride be as successful a game if it was about space travel? How much of Bioshock‘s power was rooted in the crumbling 1950s architecture? Both choices were intentional and targeted at specific design goals. We would probably have better games if more designers asked themselves what conscious or subconscious feelings they are trying to touch in their design. Since the interface and the visuals are the first thing gamers encounter, it could come pretty early in the design process.