IGN’s Steve Butts is one of the last wargamers at a major game media site. (Before his departure from 1up, Jeff Green and I were in negotiations over how I could contribute there since Grognard God Geryk is too busy for that sort of thing. That may be a dead letter at this point.)
In his latest Warplay column, Butts points out what he thinks are the two biggest problems facing wargames today – they don’t take advantage of how much computer game design has changed since the glory days of the genre and they don’t do enough to bring new wargamers to the table.
(If you’ve been reading this blog for a few years, you know that I’ve hit this same points over and over again.)
So our plea to wargame developers is simply this: First, take a chance and branch out from the standard formats. Unit chits and hex maps definitely have their place in the genre, but they’re not the only approach you can take to simulating a battlefield. Second, make sure that you’re trying your best to ease new players into the genre by including comprehensible and accessible tutorials and not simply relying on players to figure it out for themselves.
Koios Works’ Panzer Command games have taken up the mission that Battlefront pioneered with Combat Mission. Creative Assembly’s Total War battle engine is a very light wargame that deserves more kudos for getting people interested in serious battle simulations than it often gets. And, if you can get past the fact that naval warfare isn’t usually that much fun, I’m really looking forward to Storm Eagle Studios next game, Jutland. All of these examples show how you can use attractive graphics and simple controls to get the player into the game.
But once you get to a theater level game, it becomes very difficult to integrate the RTS type experience that Butts extols as one possible future for wargames. Fighting a war at this level means abstraction, and, to this point in time, abstraction means icons and hexes.
I think we can do away with hexes in our computer simulations. Neither Flashpoint Germany nor the ProSim games use hexes, and both work just fine as wargames. (The ProSim games are, by the way, some of the least friendly wargames to newcomers, but are quite a lot of fun.) But the abstraction will be there, and the bigger the theater the greater the abstraction.
I also think that we in the gaming media are largely to blame here. Most gaming media sites won’t touch wargame coverage at all, leaving it to specialist sites like Wargamer (which is affiliated with wargame publisher Matrix Games) and Armchair General. Even this blog has fallen behind on its wargame coverage, mostly because it’s hard to set aside time for games that I am not being paid to learn how to play. I still need to give more time to Grigsby’s War Between the States, which I quite like, but it’s competing with Colonization, Hinterland, whatever RTS is coming out in the next month and the books I have to sift through for my column.
With no coverage, there is no wider audience interest. With no wider audience interest, there is little incentive for developers to move out of the grognard ghetto many have moved themselves into. As media attention withers, design innovation decays, and then we in the game journalism business can say that the genre is dead and therefore deserves no attention.
Meanwhile, adventure games are making a comeback.