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A Love Letter to a Dying Form

June 1st, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 16 Comments · Blogs, Wargames

If you don’t read Soren Johnson’s blog, you should.

Today he writes a love letter to wargaming, and neatly segues into a promo piece for Hexwar. But this was the paragraph that got me:

It’s hard to say what effect wargames had on me. The ratio of time spent reading rules/collecting games compared with time spent actually playing them was pretty lopsided in favor of the former. No matter how many times my friend Eric and I failed to make it through a game of Third Reich, I always considered myself a wargamer. All the time spent learning rule sets left its mark on me. Wargames were an attempt to simulate combat before computers were capable of managing these mechanics for us, so I believe that my first “gameplay programming” experience came from trying to fit all these rules into my head as a cohesive whole.

Do kids play wargames with their friends anymore? You would hope that the easy availability of computer wargames would have had some trickle down, but even the electronic wargaming world isn’t exactly brimming with new blood. Wargames are far from dead, but they aren’t thriving anymore. It could be a generational thing; wargames meant more culturally, I think, when there was actually the prospect of an armored confrontation somewhere in Central Europe.


16 Comments so far ↓

  • Scott R. Krol

    Do kids play wargames with their friends anymore?

    No. And that’s the problem no one wants to see. You can go on and on about how we’re living in the true Golden Age of wargaming, and in many ways that’s true. From subject matter, production values, and support it’s never been a better time to wargame. But there’s no fresh blood.

    Go to a con, hook up with fellow gamers at a store, where ever, and we’re talking old men playing. At 37 I’m the youngest in our group. You may get lucky to find a father teaching his son the ropes, but we can’t count on every kid wanting to follow his father’s hobby.

    Hell, look at the average age of the designers in the industry. Most are pushing social security, if not already there. How many designers are under 30? If you’re a teenager dreaming to be a game designer today you’re going into computers, not cardboard.

    Wargames are dying the slow death of a thousand cuts…

  • Jason Lefkowitz

    Probably it depends on how you define ‘wargame’. Are the kids playing Third Reich? No. But are the kids playing Advance Wars? My guess is yes.

    If you’re a teenager dreaming to be a game designer today you’re going into computers, not cardboard.

    Indeed, and IMHO the biggest problem wargaming faces is its unwillingness to break from the hexes-and-counters boardgame paradigm, even as the move from boards to computers have made that paradigm irrelevant. Even the greatest computer wargames (I’m looking at you, Panzer General) play out in an environment that isn’t far removed from a gameboard. While some games (Combat Mission) have made tentative steps into 3D environments, nobody has really cracked the nut on how a wargame would work that really embraced the computer; I had hopes that Company of Heroes might be the first, but then I bought it and discovered that it was more Warcraft in field-gray than a wargame proper. Too bad.

    (See also: this nearly decade-old rant from Old Man Murray on the subject, which is just as true today as it was then.)

  • Scott R. Krol

    Personally I don’t mind the fact that many computer wargames aren’t that far removed from their cardboard roots. In fact, decades ago when I first became interested in PC gaming it was that very fact–the ability to play a wargame anytime I wanted to without the need for an opponent or set up–that intrigued me most of computer gaming.

    But what I find disappointing is that while I’m perfectly fine with turn-based, hex-based, CRT-based computer games, why not take full advantage of what the computer can do and add in things that aren’t very feasible for humans. Using Third Reich as an example, playing it on the kitchen table I don’t want to have to track the ammo, fuel, and morale of every single troop in corps. But a computer could track all that. In the board game you have very simple weather modeling. In a computer game you could figure weather hex by hex, yet how often do you see that?

    In essence often computer wargame design is about doing the bare minimum instead of trying to take advantage of the possibilities.

  • Andrew

    Hah. A TBS game with very detailed weather simulation would be awesome.

  • Michael A.

    Hmm – I’m younger than Scott, and I’m definitely not the youngest wargame player in the club where I occasionally spend some weekends pushing cardboard (currently completing a marathon session of GMT’s “Pax Romana”).

    Two problems:

    1. The lack of “Panzer General” like products out there. Wargames have become a nice, but to me, part of the problem is that the products are also digging into that niche. There are very few computer games out there that appeal – or even try to appeal – to the non-hardcore strategy gamer anymore. Where is the Memoir’44 of computer games?

    2. The “elitist” mentality. Do kids play wargames anymore? I’d say a very definite yes – unless one does not count the many kids playing Warhammer/Lord of the Rings as wargamers. The sad thing is that a lot of “wargamers” don’t, and rather than welcome new players, some wargamers turn up their noses at people playing Warhamer, Memoir ’44, et al. And then they wonder why no one wants to play games with “real wargamers”… :D

  • Jason Lefkowitz

    Using Third Reich as an example, playing it on the kitchen table I don’t want to have to track the ammo, fuel, and morale of every single troop in corps. But a computer could track all that.

    Indeed. I recently snagged on eBay a copy of a game that my friends and I played rather obsessively as kids — Avalon Hill’s B-17, Queen of the Skies. Lo and behold, it arrives and I discover that — from my perspective today — it is boring as hell, because it basically consists of rolling a six-sided die eight million times to determine the outcome of every possible event. You’ve taken off! Roll to see if your landing gear retracted properly. You’ve hit bad weather! Roll to see if your windscreen has iced over. It has! Roll to see the degree of visibility that remains. And on and on.

    This is stuff that I took in stride way back when, but I’ve been spoiled by the computer’s ability to handle all this stuff for me, and there’s really no going back after that.

    One other thing — it occurs to me that “kids used to play wargames, now they don’t” may be a bit of a false characterization. It seems like it’s true, because when we were kids, we played wargames. But (let’s be honest) we were geeks; most kids back then weren’t devouring massive SPI rulebooks, even if we were. Today the sort of kid who would have devoured those rulebooks has moved on to other geeky pursuits — maybe they are writing mods for Battlefield 2 or something. But was there ever really a golden age when wargaming was part of the experience of the average youth? I doubt it.

  • Darius K.

    Actually, kids do play wargames these days. Not a lot, but they do. I’m 24, and I started on Warhammer when I was 9 (in 1992, hardly a golden age of wargaming), and then when I was 12 I moved on to hex-based games like Battletech and whatever-I-could-pick-up-at-my-local-game-store. A lot of my young wargaming friends picked up the habit from their dads.

    I played all these games while also playing PC adventure games, first person shooters, and RPGs on my SNES.

    I still have limited contact with my college gaming club, and there are still a handful of freshmen coming in every year with hardcore wargaming experience. These kids were born in 1990, for perspective.

    So while I’d say the number of kids these days who play wargames is small, a blanket “no” is way too generalized an answer.

  • Troy

    But are the kids playing Advance Wars? My guess is yes.

    This is a good point, Jason. AW is certainly a wargame and has been a successful franchise for the DS.

    These light wargames are probably our generation’s Panzer Generals, or at least could be if there was anywhere to go from there.

    But was there ever really a golden age when wargaming was part of the experience of the average youth?

    Nope, but I don’t believe in Golden Ages. Wargames were always a niche thing, and you are certainly right that it is too easy to interpret our own experiences as the typical ones.

    But there was a time when wargames were at least a respectable part of the nerd niche among a younger population, and people have moved on from it. (They’ve moved on from reading, too.)

  • Dave Long

    It was a little disconcerting to me when I heard some kids talking about Call of Duty and those like it as “wargames” recently.

    I think I noted that’s not really what they are, but the dumbfounded looks I got made it clear that wargaming is pretty much an old man’s game (30 and up) and the only ones who are young and aware of them are the kids of those of us that played them when we were young.

    I also think wargaming has always been a small niche pursuit even when it was super popular on boards and computers and now that gaming has really engaged the mainstream, its size relative to the whole is more apparent. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either. It’s just the way it is.

  • Troy

    It’s not just kids calling military FPSes “wargames”. I’ve read that in the gaming sections of some respectable mainstream press.

  • Dave Long

    Yeah, I’ve seen it there, too.

    Sometimes I wonder why I keep on writing about games. I often feel like at 36 I’m quickly being relegated to an outsider to this hobby as people younger than me attempt to redefine it the way they see it rather than looking back on the history of the hobby and using that knowledge to help shape current trends without stepping on the past.

    It’s disheartening to watch many in the press try so hard to alienate people from this hobby at every turn.

  • Dave

    Wargaming is dying, if not dead, because we wargamers killed it.

    It’s the most obsessive of hobbies. You take the stats-mania of the most die-hard sportsfan (only insted of ERA you get armor penetration numbers and jet fuel consumption rates) and combine it with electronics, and what do you get? Absurd reductionism into what is essentially a statistical exercise.

    Who hasn’t played a computer wargame and within the first fifteen minutes griped, “That’s not how Hitler/the Tiger tank/a MiG-29 would behave!” Alas, out of a hundred players, 99 will have a different opinion of what is “right.”

    Meanwhile, the *thousands* of game players will be wondering why the GAME isn’t any fun to play. Or why the programmed AI is a moron. Or why multiplayer is ridiculously inefficient, if not impossible.

    We all agree– a human player is the best opponent. How many computer wargames are easy to play against human opponents? How many are *inviting*? Making a computer wargame so complex and time-involving is a great way to engage our obsession. . . alone. In a fifty or hundred turn monster wargame, PBEM is an exercise in boredom.

    Worse, how many wargamers are, by nature, social outcasts? I’m pretty outgoing, but I know that I don’t want to bother PBEMing some total stranger for days and weeks on end to enjoy my games. I’m an avid Xbox Live gamer, and the best thing about it is the complete *anonymity* of the enterprise– I can play with my “friends,” but for the most part, I can just log on and play a game with a complete stranger and never think about it again. I don’t have to invest in developing a pen pal relationship with a potentially unreliable partner. All the benefits of an intelligent “human opponent” with none of the social investment that face-to-face wargaming requires.

    The wargaming industry will continue to suffer as long as we demand that the processing power of our computers be used for bean-counting rather than intelligent solo gameplay, *OR* games are designed to make it easy, intuitive and *quick* to play other people online.

  • Bruce

    Wow, great thread and comments. Jason, I have a copy of On Target Games’ original B-17 (which AH then republished), which looks like it was put together in someone’s kitchen before the days of desktop publishing, so I definitely know how you feel. I remember how exciting that game was because you could play solitaire and not have to make decisions for both sides. It was like you imagined a computer game might be. Then, as computer games got more sophisticated, they filled that need and that was that.

    I look at “wargaming” somewhat differently – not to further Balkanize gaming or dismiss sci-fi or fantasy gamers who like Warhammer or Battletech, but I don’t quite see those things as wargaming. Geek culture has its pastimes, and I saw wargaming as more “history geek meets gamer” than anything else. There were plenty of geeks in junior high, high school, and college who liked gaming, but many did not have any interest in historical wargames. The ones who did always had a fascination with history, even if it was sometimes narrowly limited to tanks-and-planes history, or muskets-and-horses history. Those were the people who would read a book about Waterloo, and immediately want to “game” Waterloo. There were plenty of geek gamers who liked turn-based gaming, but did not have any real interest in history. Those were non-wargamers.

    I am sure that the number of history geeks hasn’t appreciably declined. Of those who are gamers, why aren’t they playing wargames? probably because there are plenty of other historical tie-ins that satisfy their history craving, but are more engaging than hex games. I would bet that EU and Civilization and other such games now occupy people who might (might!) otherwise have ventured into wargaming. I would never call those games “wargames” because for the old wargamer crowd, they aren’t. But they might be keeping most potential wargamers out of the hobby. And who can blame them – I don’t think I’d be sold on HPS Sims or SSG games if I had all of the current gaming opportunities available to me as a kid.

    Dave, I don’t really feel like a gamer anymore, either, which is one reason (besides work) that I have stopped writing.

  • Scott R. Krol

    B17QOTS actually still has a huge following. Virtual squadrons, campaigns, you name it. I’m actually in the process (err, granted I’ve been in the process for months now…) of doing an ongoing AAR of the life of my B-17.

    If you want to play it but want to forego all the dice rolling find an emulator and get SSI’s 50 Mission Crush. It came out for Atari, Apple, and I believe the C-64 and is a near perfect computer version of QOTS although they of course never name that game. ;)

    And for more dice rolling fun pick up KPG’s B-29 Superfortress which is a more of a simulation than QOTS

    And like Bruce regarding things like WH40K, Advance Wars, etc as “wargames” I have to say I don’t see them that way, though I don’t look at it as an elitist attitude. They’re just different things. Like a Wendy’s hamburger and a fine steak at . Sure, they’re both food but they’re in different realms.

    I’d also have to say that since Soren was discussing old AH games and SPI titles I think he was aiming for a specific genre, classic hex and counter wargames, as opposed to the “modern” classification.

  • JonathanStrange

    I’m 28-years-old and although I’m not a wargamer, my father was. So I’ve seen more than a few Avalon Hill, SPI, and other wargames. Even played a few games of Squad Leader – which I enjoyed but…

    Frankly, aside from a very commendable attempt to be realistic, most of the games were rather…dull. I think they were meant to be studied mostly and played occasionally. My father recalls that although he owned Squad Leader and its expansions and considered himself a fairly active game, he thinks that at most, he played every scenarion once. And with years of gaming, he had only a dozen or so regular opponents.

    I’ve played dozens and dozens of Medieval Total War and Rome Total War battles, easily a hundred Civilization worlds to finish, a few hundred Combat Mission battles, etc. I’ve fought hundreds of different opponents in dozens of different turn-based, RTS, etc. games.

    Yet I’m not a wargamer. I do dimly understand and wish we had more of opportunity to play games that made us think and plan ahead rather than react but…

    Have you seen the AI in most strategy games? And having to depend on some stranger – who may or may not be a loon – to have a decent opponent? Often not worth the wait.

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