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Off the board – Computer wargames and the people who don’t buy them

August 12th, 2005 by Troy Goodfellow · No Comments · Uncategorized

Strategyzone Online has an interesting article and discussion on the question of whether wargames on the computer have been left in the past as the gaming industry and hobby find new ways to exploit the power of computers in other genres. Don Maddox writes:

“It is abundantly clear that wargames have not kept pace with the impressive improvements seen over the last decade in other genres. One only has to glance at the difference between the original Sim City and Sim City 4, or the original Doom and Doom III, to see just how far PC gaming has come from its early days.”

This is undoubtedly true. The hex-based wargame still, for the most part, uses the force icons that we are all familiar with, and most of those that use graphical images for the armies don’t spend a lot of time on them. Look at the blurry soldiers in Dragoon (a hex-based game) or the “adequate from a distance” armies in Take Command: Bull Run. Maddox worries that the failure of computer wargame designers to offer something new and compelling is preventing the hobby from growing. New gamers have little interest in wargames because there is nothing bringing them to the table. It’s not that graphics are the most important thing, it’s that they are the first thing new gamers will notice.

The article gets really interesting when Maddox interviews wargame designers for their opinions. Dave O’Connor claims that wargaming leads the industry in AI. John Tiller defends wargames by saying that “I wouldn’t say that wargame designers are using outmoded ideas. A better way of saying it would be that they are using classical time-proven ideas.” There is a lot of disagreement on whether or not boardgames are still an influence on wargames.

I think that Patrick Proctor (ProSim Games) hits the nail on the head with his answer to the second question. The answer reads, in part:

“But some innovations just are not being accepted. There is no reason to play on hexes anymore. Hexes were an abstraction that allowed human beings to easily calculate move distances and facings. Modern computers (even not-so-modern computers) can crunch numbers so fast that this is no longer neccessary. Discrete turns are not really needed anymore, either. … Again, the power of computers allows a modern wargame to iterate several times per second, if the designer desires. As long as there is a facility to allow players to stop the action when things get hectic and consider AND implement orders (read: give orders while paused) during game play, why shouldn’t a player be able to intervene whenever he wants? “

Preach on, Proctor.

I look at the 1989 classic Harpoon and wonder why it didn’t lead a revolution in wargaming. It was derived from a tabletop boardgame, but didn’t mess with hexes or turns. It was completely real-time, allowed you to pause whenever necessary (it was often necessary) and was completely compelling without being overwhelming. But, in the last 16 years, real time strategy games have moved to simpler fare and wargames have, by and large, stuck to the tried and true.

Call it “classical time-proven ideas” all you want, I think that many wargame designers resort to the hex system because it is easy and familiar to them. It’s also easy and familiar for their audience, and this is to be encouraged. Wargaming can’t grow if it scares off the few missileheads who still love these games.

But, just like adventure games, wargames are dying because of their inability to adapt to a new technical reality. True, many wargamers love the niche. For some grognards, the small size of their cohort means they are an elite squad of afficianados. They fear, with some good reason, that opening up the genre might also mean dumbing it down.

There’s no reason this has to happen. There are wargames out there that have innovated and drawn audiences – Harpoon, Sid Meier’s Civil War games, Combat Mission. And there are good hex-based turn based games, too. But it may be time to leave the hex behind before all the wargamers are.


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