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What’s wrong with wargame(r)s

October 4th, 2005 by Troy Goodfellow · No Comments · Uncategorized

Gaming journalism’s wargaming guru, Bruce Geryk, has posted a new column on why wargames are letting him down. His point, in a nutshell, is that the computer has set a trap for wargame designers by allowing them to design more complex simulations of historical conflicts but not get around the basic design deficiencies that have plagued the hobby for some time. The result is a series of games that either play out as puzzles (with a single best solution) or have such a scattered design component that the player can find exploits after a few sessions.

The point that hit most home for me, though, was the tyranny of the message board.

But the biggest obstacle to making simpler computer wargames is that a lot of people don’t like simple games, period. Almost the first thing you’ll read on any official forum where a new historical strategy game has been released is someone asking for a patch to simulate some minor detail, without which the poster asserts the game is worthless. When Crown of Glory was released, someone immediately complained that leaders, while they could be killed in combat, could not be wounded. Then someone suggested that leaders not only be wounded, but have variable convalescence periods in the hospital. Then the world exploded.

Leaving aside the semantic debate over whether Crown of Glory is a wargame or not – it’s a strategy game in my book because you decide the units you will build and choose who your enemy will be – this kind of complaint has been made about every game that had a remotely historical theme. From the battleship sinking phalanxes in Civ to the absence of slavery in every Age of Discovery game, many strategy gamers are convinced that the closer a game approximates history, the more fun they will have. Love of history is converted to a love of games that are just like history.

(Ironically, many of these same people are in the RTS hating brigade and mourn the death of the TBS game. To my knowledge, Napoleon never moved in turns.)

Of course, this emphasis on kitchen sink accuracy is most renowned among the rivet counting flight sim set. So it’s not just the wargamers who mistake detail for fun.

The curious thing in all this is that no historian of any merit really dwells on the details of a situation unless it affects their overall understanding of an event. The fact that the rectangular shield of the legionaries wasn’t around in the mid-Republic or that the acceleration rate of the Zero fighter couldn’t compete with later American planes are insignificant compared with the generally superior training of Roman soldiers and the crippling lack of oil facing Japan.

I guess that fantasy gamers have a bit of an advantage on us grognards. All the complaints about class nerfing in MMOGs are based on either personal class choices or on theories about how changes to class powers will affect the game in general. Will there be too many druids? How do you persuade someone to play a healer? How do you allocate experience for a party kill? Even when wargamers and strategy gamers discuss how changes would affect game balance or design they pay lip service to history. (Check the Paradox forums for discussions on Muslim sea transport in Crusader Kings.)

I’m not immune to this, of course. My annoyance at elephants that behave like tanks is a theme here. I do love wargames and wargamers. The games are actually pretty relaxing, and my PBEM experiences rank as some of my favorite games. You can trash talk in the emails, debrief after a difficult encounter, get pro-tips from generous superior players as you work your way down the Misssissippi. Wargamers are among those most open to house rules – gentleman’s agreements on what tactics are off limits.

My love of the games is the root of my general frustration at times with those who just don’t get the whole “game design” thing, those who want to see things happen as they happened. They may be a minority of wargamers, but they flock to message boards and forums like Goths to the bathhouse. I’ve always held that the most strategy gamers don’t frequent message boards, but game companies take these boards seriously. And sometimes good can come of it – for all its occasionaly fanboy exuberance, the Paradox boards sometimes come up with game enhancing suggestions.

And Bruce, if you read this, dibs on what you want to sell on Ebay.


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