Thursday, March 6, 2008

Gunslinger as a "nanotactical" game

The passing of Gary Gygax this week prompted me to think about how profound an impact D&D and RPGs generally had on wargaming, especially in the 70s and 80s.
For example, Avalon Hill's Gunslinger has RPG elements permeating the whole game. It was designed and published by a wargame company, designed by wargame designers and mostly played by wargamers. It's definitely a combat-oriented game, but of a sort rarely seen.
Not just a man-to-man skirmish game of microtactical combat, Gunslinger dips down into a "nanotactical" level of detail.
While in most skirmish-level wargames the player commands a small group of combatants, say a squad or platoon, in Gunslinger the player concerns himself with the placement and actions of particular body parts. Want to see around a corner? You stick your head out. Want to pick up a money bag? You have to decide which hand to pick it up with. Hit by a bullet? You have to see exactly where you got hit.
Each bullet is tracked. It matters whether your cartridges were loaded yourself or store-bought. If you get hit by a .32 caliber pistol and it doesn't kill you outright, you'll probably still be able to fight. Get hit by a .50 caliber buffalo gun slug and even if you're nicked in the leg you'll probably be mortally wounded and doomed to flop around a bit before slowly expiring.
Gunslinger is an intensely personal level of combat that was really pioneered by role-playing games. In RPGs a player normally controlled one character, which is also the best way to play Gunslinger, although it was possible in both RPGs and Gunslinger to handle two or three characters. Still, this is a far cry from the 8-man squad in Ambush! or the dozen or so in Cry Havoc!.
Gunslinger is pretty intense for a board game, which probably explains why it tends to have devoted fans, although it was never a breakaway hit. Like RPGs, Gunslinger pays the biggest dividend when you devote a lot of time to it. Our game group in the 1980s had a regular campaign going and Gunslinger hit the table regularly, at least once a month.
Gunslinger was still, in the end, a board game, however. Unlike the open-ended play of RPGs, Gunslinger was bounded by scenarios and victory conditions. While each character was well-defined in game terms, that definition came from the game designers, not just the players. Floozy, Ling Ho and Sodbuster were colorful characters, but they belonged to the game, not the players.
An interesting experiment, Gunslinger was never really followed up. The new game Cowboys, The Way Of The Gun, for example, is much more of a board wargame in approach. The individual fighters act and react in broad strokes. They move and they shoot. That's about it.
In Gunslinger you can crawl through the dust, poke your head around the corner of the saloon, draw your cap-and-ball revolver and calmly draw a bead on your dastardly foe behind the water trough while praying that the darn gun doesn't misfire when you pull the trigger.
Now that's a game.

1 comment:

  1. Gunslinger is definitely an acquired taste, one that my friends unfortunately never acquired. After 20 years, I finally traded my almost mint copy for Magic Realm. For me, the problem was taking 5 minutes to play a 2-second turn took away the idea that I was fighting a split-second gun-blazing duel. For my friends, they hated all the jams and misfires and how somebody could miss from 6 feet away. I guess I never had the right crowd. For gunfights we usually play 1st edition Boot Hill - realism need not apply!