Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Wargaming and "assassins"

Author Jon Freeman coined a categorization system in his The Complete Book of Warganes (1980) that I always thought was useful for understanding the different tastes among wargamers. He talked about "historians" who were primarily interested in the history part and "military enthusiasts" who played wargames as part of a larger interest in things military, for example.
The categories were not mutually exclusive. People, even wargamers, tend to be complicated creatures and usually have a rich mixture of motives for any behavior. In myself I recognized varying degrees of "historian," "gamer" and "military enthusiast" at work.
The categories have stayed a useful way to understand debates over game designs ever since. A "historian" may tend to disdain "Memoir' 44" while a "gamer" may love it.
One sub-type that I remember being quite common "back in the day" (meaning the 70s-80s) was the "assassin." and the related "competitor." This is the sort of player who loved the competitive aspects of the game the most. This is distinct from the "gamer," although there's usually some overlap, because the gamer is focused on the process of enjoying the game while the competitor and assassin were focused on the joy 0f victory -- a subtle but crucial difference.
As time as passed I seem to run into fewer "assassin" and "competitor" types. This doesn't mean there are fewer good players. Indeed, many really good players are not motivated by winning to the extent "assassins" are. A "competitor" will seek out other good players for the challenge provided by a peer in skill. An "assassin" will seek out weaker players to run up his score.
Sometimes the "assassin" will reveal himself when he boasts about "never" having lost such-and-such a game or having a hugely disproportionate W-L record. This is almost invariably a sign of selecting weak opposition. In contrast, notice that chess matches between top-level players usually result in similar records.
There used to be many of them. I myself, fell victim more than once. But the seem rare now. It could be that the general aging of the wargame hobby has smoothed some of the rough edges off the hobbyists. Mellowing with age, perhaps. But I have my doubts because I don't see deep-seated personality traits changing all that much as people age.
Instead, I think "assassins" and many "competitors" have moved on. Cruising the forums on BoardGame Geek, for example, one often finds complaints about opponents who are a bit too interested in winning for winning's sake. The whole "Munchkin" joke mocks that sort of player in the RPG world.
Back "in the day" there weren't an awful lot of choices for that sort of player and wargames had their attractions. They need games that has enough skill to make winning an emotionally satisfying achievement and enough complexity to provide scope for taking advantage of patsies. Before RPGs, CCGs and Euros wargames were just about it.
But wargames have a lot of drawbacks, as well, and I think the hyper-competitive fled for greener pastures as they became available.
The biggest flaw of wargames, from a competitor's standpoint, it that they're inherently "unfair."
Of the thousands of published wargames, maybe a few dozen involved sides that are exactly equal. Historical battles invariably involve forces that a asymmetric. This no problem for the historian or enthusiasts and even the gamer. Most wargamers are quite satisfied if a game isn't tilted more than 60/40.
For the assassin, even a 51-49 split is no good, because unless he manipulates the choice of sides so he always plays the favored one he's dooming himself to a certain number of losses in any series of matches.
Wargames also generally have a healthy dose of luck, which is also distasteful for assassins, who generally don't want any elements affecting victory to be outside their control.
I think many of them jumped ship when RPGs rolled around, as the "Munchkin" phenomena suggests, although I think RPGs also have a lot of obvious drawbacks for the "winner wanters." Not the least is that RPGs generally aren't really about "winning" and therefore the other players don't acknowledge they "lost."
CCGs are much more fertile ground for players with this motivation. The luck element is a bit unfortunate from their standpoint, but can be mitigated by deep wallets and the metagame of deck-building. Creating some really nasty killer combo deck will often result in a lot of victories in matches that aren't really all that interesting to play. Indeed, the "best" combos are those that render the opponent completely helpless -- preferably before he can even play a card.
Some euros also seem fertile ground for this sort of player with their emphasis on "optimum" play, although I think the best designers try to keep it in check by carefully balance game elements to prevent abusive playing strategies.
Vince Lombardies "winning is the only thing philosophy" might have a place in professional sports -- and in real war -- but it's decidedly unpleasant to run into it at the game table and I'm happy I don't see it too much anymore.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting analysis, makes sense to me. -- Mark Humphries