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Improving Wargames

October 4th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 11 Comments · Design, Media, Wargames

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.)

From Butts:

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.


11 Comments so far ↓

  • Scott R. Krol

    Why is it when some genre slows down the answer is to slap some new paint on it, or add a couple of widgets, because it has to be improved? Perhaps it’s not wargames that need to be improved but rather the audience for them.

    Unfortunately no coverage comes from the fact that as the PC went from nerd tool to your standard household appliance the audience for gaming began to widen, and as it widen the majority of readers shifted to those that don’t play nor care about wargames. After all, wargamers, when viewed as a whole in the gaming community, have always been a relatively small fraction. So while it’s extremely frustrating to see the media blow off wargames (and to a certain extent strategy gaming in general unless the title comes prefaced with that Sid fellow) it’s not surprising.

    Ultimately it all comes down to a need to increase the base population of wargamers. From there, as they grow, the media in turn will notice that there is an audience for this kind of stuff, or more wargamers will infiltrate the ranks of the media and gain more coverage.

    Considering the production levels of board games today, and the ease of introducing newcomers because of that into the hobby, there is a good chance that we’ll see an increase in wargaming down the road. But on the computer I doubt we’ll ever see it return to the old days of SSI (and definitely don’t think we’ll ever see Steel Panthers on the 360 like some of our forum members have been wishing).

  • Troy

    While the revival of board gaming could lead to a larger audience of wargames, it’s worth noting that the Euro games are about as far from the wargame market as you can imagine. So it will be a generation or two for any of that to filter through in any sizeable way.

    “Improved” is probably not a good word to use here, and there will always be room, I suspect for the groggy-ist of groggy games. And, yes, wargamers were an over-represented sliver in the early days of gaming because they were the early adopters.

  • Gil R.

    I just added a response over at Butts’s column itself, but thought I’d share this here, about hexes:

    “A brief note on hexes, since you mention them. Hexes are used in games because they are the optimal geometric shape for a two-dimensional surface: take a look at Wikipedia’s entry on the “kissing number problem” and you’ll see what I mean. Hexes are also ideal because the center of a hex will always be equidistant from the center of all of the adjacent hexes, which makes programming much easier, and also best simulates the ability of a military unit to roughly control a circular area, ideally next to friendly units that control their own areas. Of course, an argument might be made for hiding hexes in games, but the use of hexes for 2D cannot be improved upon.”

    So there’s a good reason why, if you’re going to want multiple units controlling patches of ground (or sea), hexes should remain in use in many games.

  • jason

    “and definitely don’t think we’ll ever see Steel Panthers on the 360 like some of our forum members have been wishing”

    While an actual Steel Panthers title isn’t likely, wargames on the 360 or PS3 are not out of the question considering that titles like Dai Senryaku VII: Modern Military Tactics have been released on the Xbox and PS2. Not to mention Conflict on the NES, Super Conflict on the SNES, Nectaris on the PS1, Panzer General 1/2 on the PS1, and Advance Wars on the GBA/DS.

    Dai Senryaku VII link:

  • Scott R. Krol

    @Troy: Not really thinking about the Euro crowd but with the rise of really good looking, production heavy games such as Tide of Iron, Memoir ’44, Conflict of Heroes, which make entry into the hobby much more friendly than anything SPI or AH offered in 1976.

    @Jason: Sure, but those have always been the relatively oddball title, especially when you compare the number of games that aren’t wargames that have been released on consoles to the number that could be considered (and to your list I would add the PTO series–and most of KOEI’s lineup–andPanzer Tactics DS)wargames and the ratio is immense. And other than Advance Wars and Panzer General I wonder how many even broke even?

  • JonathanStrange

    I think many of the “might have been wargamers” are already hooked on devising tactics and strategies for so-called “lightweight” RTS, RPG, and FPS games.

    The kid who might have played Avalon Hill’s Squad Leader is instead analyzing build orders in Warcraft III or Kohan 2. The teenager who might’ve played SPI’s Napoleon at Waterloo now plays Spellforce or Warhammer’s Dawn of War. They just never make the leap into “serious wargaming” but their games are just as deep and often just as complex as wargames. I played an ancient SPI boardgame called “Road to Moscow” and it’s rulebook was like 2 or 3 pages – it was a fun game because I was making all the decisions but it was simple!)

    Even if wargames did “improve,” they’re faced with so many competing games all vying for gamer’s limited attention. Still, it’s worthwhile to explore new designs anyway because the wargaming market is so small that any increase in players that would be trivial for FPS games or RTSgames would be huge for wargaming.

  • Alan Au

    Does Close Combat count as a strategy wargame? What about Company of Heroes? I guess I’m partially (re-)asking the questions about the “S” in “RTS” and how much context matters.

  • Dave Long

    I’d actually welcome a high profile hex-based and turn-based wargame. I think the biggest roadblock to such a title being successful beyond the grogs is production values, but it seems to me that one or two good artists could put something more than acceptable together.

    What wargaming needs is to get something simple out there again that people really pick up and play. The grogs seem to hate when “their genre” gets simpler, but that’s what has to happen. You need gateway games in strategy/war gaming. Same scenario that flight sims have always faced, too. The hardcore hate the less hardcore options and will try to tear them apart instead of allowing them to speak to their own audience and bring more people to the table.

    I love Memoir ’44 because my kids can play it and they don’t even know they’re gaining an appreciation for wargaming.

  • Michael A.

    Well said, Dave. But although the “hardcore hate” exists, I’m not convinced its that bad. Hardcore players bought Panzer General, even though it was far from being a good simulation of WW2.

    I wonder if, perhaps, the wargames developers/publishers are not more conservative than the market. It’s easier to create a grognard game that you know will sell X thousand copies, than to try something new that might tank if it doesn’t connect with the fan base.

  • Ralph Trickey

    The biggest barrier in most of the wargames that I’ve tried are that the learning curve is ‘challenging’ I remember that when TOAW came out, I felt that I had to read the manual before playing (100+ pages.) TOAW has a clean interface and the basics are very simple.

    It’s definitely possible to provide a better tutorial, possibly by starting with Napoleon and moving on through the major wars which introduce new concepts like naval and air warfare.

    An XBOX 360 port would be possible, but challenging. The biggest issue is that using a joystick for control would be difficult. I tried the latest Civ:Revolution game, and found it disappointing. It’s usable for small scenarios but needs work to have it work on a larger scenario. It may be possible to do something to allow the AI to control formations, and have the player control at that level, or something similar to combat mission. There are a lot of exciting things that could be done like allowing quick two or more player games, and other things like that and tournaments to bring the more social elements into play, but they would be difficult to do well.

    I talk about some of this in my blog, although I need to post again about the status of the next patch.

  • Tim McCarron

    Wargames isn’t a dying genre, its a fractured one.
    Youve got the board wargames in one corner where the games are complex full of depth etc.. and you’ve got the computer wargames in the other corner which too often are superficial, lack depth, succumb to RTS type modes etc..

    What’s needed is for the Board Wargame companies to come in to computer market (AH tried this but failed in the PC game era infancy) and put their titles online with full blown rules integration.

    We are part way there, with play aid tools such as Vassal, Cyberboard etc.. but it falls short because you still have to look up all those rules. The aids lack rules AI. You wont grab many computer players interest in your game if they’ve got to read a 32 page rulebook and apply it perfectly. And old boardgamers are less likely to sit on their PC wasting their time trying to explain it to their computer geek brethren just to play with them.

    Get the boardgame publishers involved with full blown rules AI integration purchased software and marry the two camps together and a new age is likely to dawn. It doesnt need a game AI in an age of internet connectivity / peer to peer connections can overcome