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No Evocation without Representation

February 5th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 11 Comments · Design

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.


11 Comments so far ↓

  • Jason Lefkowitz

    Great post. And it raises a question in my mind: what the heck happened at Paradox?

    The original Europa Universalis originally caught my eye because of the beautiful presentation. When you moved a unit on the gorgeous map, and the little red line squiggled out, meandering to the unit’s eventual destination… it was like the strategy game I had always pictured in my mind, but never seen in the flesh before.

    EU2 had a similarly great presentation (though not a giant leap from EU’s). But lately they seem to have lost the knack; I didn’t play Diplomacy, but EU3’s default presentation was so off-putting that I literally had to force myself to try and play it after buying a copy. It wasn’t until I found the TOT mod that I could have EU3 with a look that wasn’t deeply disappointing.

    I know they’ve been transitioning from 2D to 3D, but you would think if you were going to do that you’d hire a corps of talented 3D artists to help you make the jump. So what happened? Did they skimp on the design talent as they made the transition?

    Enquiring gaming minds want to know :-D

  • Scott R. Krol

    Interesting read. While I don’t disagree with anything mentioned, I will say that for many wargamers aesthetics always takes a backseat to functionality. NATO icons and four color hex maps would make most people happy. Where aesthetics become more important is in drawing gamers in who might not normally want to play that type of game. I suppose you could also say points 2 and 3 could be used to draw those gamers in who may enjoy that type of game on their tabletop, but typically shy away from computer gaming, by allowing them a sense of familiarity.

  • Gil R.

    Troy, regarding your last paragraph (specifically, the last two sentences), the answer may lie in the fact that we all love games with superior, even evocative, graphics, but these don’t necessarily translate into better sales when it comes to wargames. I can see how when some designers do the cost-benefit analysis they determine that it wouldn’t pay in the long run to put a lot of money into graphics, especially based on the expected returns. Overall, I think that games with excellent graphics would sell about as well with average graphics, because it is game design and game-play that most customers in the tactical/operational/strategic niche are looking for. Proof of that can be found in the way some games that do well have graphics that leave something to be desired, while some quite nice looking games sell poorly if they have other flaws.

    Disclaimer: No part of my comments are intended to allude specifically to the products of AGEOD (which indeed has exemplary graphics) or of the company I’m involved with. I’m just giving my impressions as a developer about the industry in general, since I thought this financial angle had been overlooked.

  • Gil R.

    Huh. While I was writing that Scott came in and made part of my point.

    He’s certainly right about NATO chits. For the hex-based battles in the games my company produced, our graphics artist spent an enormous amount of time producing numerous animated units, but some players prefer to use NATO chits instead of watching actual cavalry, artillery and infantry. Since it’s bad business to refer to one’s customers as Philistines, I won’t…

  • Troy

    NATO chits are great. And you can do it well or poorly. Aesthetics isn’t about whether you draw a soldier or not – it’s about making the most of the style you choose.

    An example of a series that gets it part right, again, is the Armored Task Force series. All NATO symbology, but put against maps that look like modern war planning maps. It gives the right “feel” and is an upfront warning that these are serious, serious wargames. You can’t look at those screens and not get a big clue as to what you are in for.

  • Troy

    Oh, and I think that wargamers do care about aesthetics as well as functionality. It’s not an either/or situation. In fact, I would argue that good aesthetics help functionality by making every part of the system feel like it’s in the right place.

  • Darius K.

    Great post. It’s sort of alluding to an issue I’ve been wrestling with: for some reason, I am enjoying No More Heroes. I typically despise this kind of game, but something about its aesthetic keeps me coming back.

  • Jon Shafer

    In response to Jason’s comments on EU3:

    There’s always the push to do more/better in the industry, with everything. More/better gameplay. More/better content. And of course, more/better graphics. It’s easy when coming from a 2D background to point at 3D and believe that to be the next big “step up,” especially when that’s where the entire industry is heading. It’s hard to make a sequel distinctive while keeping the same style as its predecessors. Would there have been a lot of people upset if Paradox had kept a map style very similar to EU/2 for EU3? Who knows. It’s a risk, a gamble. It was essentially Paradox’s first 3D game (aside from diplomacy). There are huge teething issues when it comes to a switch like that. Graphics are tough in a strategy game. You need the game to be clear and functional but also want it to look good. It’s not a matter of “make the game look as good as possible” like in many genres, but “what can we do that’s cool graphically without harming gameplay?”


  • Jason Lefkowitz

    It’s not a matter of “make the game look as good as possible” like in many genres, but “what can we do that’s cool graphically without harming gameplay?”

    The best explanation I heard from Paradox was that they were told point blank by retailers that they would not allocate shelf space for a game that didn’t run on a 3D engine. And Paradox really wanted to get EU3 into the Best Buys of the world, so they had to comply.

    I’m about as far from an insider on these things as you can get, so I have no idea if that’s what really went down or not, though…

  • Jon Shafer

    Making your game marketable is also very, very important. There are probably tons of great games that have never gotten made because of the belief that they wouldn’t sell well. :)


  • JonathanStrange

    Ageod’s American Civil War maps are beautiful and functional: it’s really useful to set the map filter to different parameters and instantly get info. Yet, at the same time, there’s still a 19th C feeling that you’re getting the outlines a Civil War general would.

    Regarding the use of 2d NATO symbols, I dislike having to use them because of their generic anygame feel, but they’re useful. I’ve found in games like HPS Punic Wars that the 3D units aren’t visually compelling enough (no visible casualties, all formations whether of 10 men or 100 men are the same size,etc.) to forego scanning the 2D NATO symbols.

    Armageddon Empires appeal is partly due to the atmospheric boardgame depiction of a post-apoc world, beautifully aided by the great graphics on the cards. I’m sure that a lot of the “you are fighting for survival” would be lost if we were using NATO symbols for mutant armies and slave raiders. Graphics here are in no way just something to get the masses to buy in.