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On the Origins of Species

September 13th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 3 Comments · Design, Wargames

Via Scott Krol, Gamespy has an article from John Keefer about the wargames of the past and their connection to the cons we know and love.

I was reading the article (and Krol’s fact checking) as I took a break from writing my review of Armageddon Empires. Then it hit me why wargaming and serious strategy gaming is often pushed off the front page of gaming coverage.

It has different parents. (WARNING: Gross oversimplification follows.)

Think about it. How many articles or photo essays have you seen on the ‘”glories” of the arcades of the 1980s? This is the birthplace of the first person shooter, the platformer, the racing game, the action sports game and the flight sim.

Role-playing games come from D&D, which came from a medieval wargame rule set married to geek icon Tolkien.

Strategy games come from the board and war games of the 1970s and 1980s.

Of course, most mainstream strategy titles have used the power of technology to almost entirely hide the board game origins, to the point where many RTS are as close to role playing games or platformers as they are to wargames. This merging of family trees is probably the root of much of the hardcore resentment of the RTS genre on one side and the spreadsheet accusations on the other.

And it could be part of why there is so much resistance to the idea of strategy games on the console. The console market is the arcade of the new century. Even though the machines work fine for turn based strategy games (I love Catan and Carcassonne on my 360) the emphasis has been on developing titles that remind gamers of things they played on their first generation consoles which, in turn, reminded people of things they played on their Ataris which, in turn, were copies of things they played in the arcade. Action games have come a long way from the coin consumers of the past, but the general idea survives – you are an army of one killing waves of enemies, gobbling health packs and ammo crates.

In this way, Armageddon Empires is a throwback; a game that would really only be feasible on a computer but looks and plays like a card based wargame. And like many of the biggest Avalon Hill games, you really need a walkthrough to understand what you are supposed to do. But it wears its roots on its sleeve; I don’t know Vic Davis beyond the occasional forum comment, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find a strong board game background. If it’s true that game designers design games that they want to play, I think we can learn a lot about the evolution of computer game design by tracking game genealogies through CVs and the like.

I’ve always liked the idea of game genealogy; the more I learn about games and game developers the more I appreciate the rare genius who can do dozens of original things in a lifetime (Reiner Knizia being the king of them all.) It’s too bad that the Mobygames credits are so incomplete. I’ve tried to update some from my own data, but then they wanted me to send scanned evidence of my changes, etc. and I didn’t get around to that.


3 Comments so far ↓

  • Scott R. Krol

    All good thoughts, and definitely the idea that consoles are the new arcades is a factor, but what also ties into that is the unmentioned financial situation. Especially since console makers look to selling games to make up for the losses they take on manufacturing the consoles. I’m sure that if someone came up with a strategy title on a console that sold 2 million units there wouldn’t be much resistance anymore.

    I think today’s climate is actually fairly ripe for another Panzer General console breakout success story. As the lines have blurred between PC gaming and console gaming, so have the demographics. There are enough ‘old school’ gamers who also own consoles now that you have a built in market.

  • Troy

    Two Worlds on the 360 has taught me that the big barrier to the success of a strategy game on a console is font size. Most people’s sofas are too far from the TV to make out small print or minimaps with any clarity whatsoever. You need a game that can transmit information almost entirely through large print and iconography. So the German style board games are perfect.

    I guess we’ll see how Civ Revolutions does.

    Action/Sport/Arcade games don’t have this problem. Two Worlds, an RPG, has terrible informational issues because I can’t read the text quickly.

  • Vic Davis

    I’m a big board gamer now but that’s after a hiatus of almost 20 years. I played Russian Campaign, Third Reich, Blitzkrieg, Bulge, Diplomacy and Flat Top all the time up until I went to college in 83. I only rediscovered them in 2003 or so when I chanced upon the board game geek by accident. It’s open for debate whether the demise of mainstream turn based strategy was an issue of causation or correlation. It’s not like you can’t find good TBS if you know where to look. Shrapnel, Matrix, etc. still publish games that are as good as anything 10 years ago. Maybe it’s just because the games industry has exploded into the billions and billions and most of that goes into other (twitchy) genres?

    I’ve got two dead X-boxes, a game cube, a found at Walmart completely by chance OH MY God Wii, 2 DS’s and a PSP at home so it’s not like I shun console gaming. I play the games with my young kids. But I’ll be damned if I can imagine myself sitting on the couch in front of the TV playing a strategy game. It’s probably just psychological but my computer chair is for thinking. My couch is for smashing buttons. It’s going to take a pretty big exclusive title to get me to try anything else.