Thursday, February 26, 2009

Intricacy vs. realism in wargames

Wargames usually feature much more intricate game procedures than typical games. Eurogamers often complain that wargames are "fiddly," apparently believing there's a lot of in-game activity that bears little relevance to the main decision points for the player.

Some of this is bookkeeping work, either with papers or markers, that seeks to track some of the varied factors that affect battle outcomes in the real world such as fatigue, casualties, ammunition, fuel, etc.

Some fiddliness comes from the detailed accounting of military strength, of movement allowance and terrain effects.

Some results from intricate game phasing and procedures that try to account for weapons effects, doctrinal practice or communication.

Wargames are, indeed, rather intricate, and I think this results from a fundamental tension between design goals.

No, this is not another entry in the realism vs. playability debate, although it's related.

No, the tension is between the game designer's need to represent the decision points that the player/commander should influence and the need to provide the entertainment value of the game player as a witness to the spectacle of combat.

A real-life commander at any level has very limited means for knowing what's going on and issuing orders to try to influence the action.

During the battle of Waterloo, for example, Napoleon probably issued no more than a half-dozen orders all day. He certainly wasn't involved in any activity that remotely resembled counting combat factors, coordinating the precise configuration of attacking divisions and assessing exactly how many movement factors were needed to get everyone in position.

When Lee ordered Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg he issued only the most general guidance to Longstreet, with his biggest role being assigning the attacking divisions and specifying the point of attack. A player/Lee will be far more involved in the details.

Some of this work is, of course, a consequence of the physical limitations of a manual wargame, but not all of it is, as can be seen when you look at turn-based computer wargames which could strictly limit the player to a historical amount of control, but typically don't.

Indeed, even a manual wargame doesn't have to get down into the weeds. Is Memoir' 44 an unrealistic wargame because it doesn't have a lot of detail -- or is it actually a more realistic game because the player/commander doesn't do much more than issue general orders to attack or move here or there?

What Memoir'44 doesn't do is allow the player to witness all the activity that's going on. A unit moves, takes a shot (rolls dice) and something happens (or not) to the target. Exactly what going on when the target loses a figure and retreats a hex isn't specified. Are those losses casualties or deserters? Is the retreat orderly or a a near rout?

At the other end of the spectrum you have a game like Advanced Squad Leader, which depicts the action in excruciating detail, down to the facing of individual tank turrets, the malfunctioning of individual weapons and whether a squad passes through a building or alongside of it. The player has far more control of the action than any real-life commander could dream of. Indeed, the player has more control of each piece than the commander of that piece would have. Maneuvering a tank through a village the player controls every increment of movement, every swing of the turret, while knowing the exact lay of the land -- things even the actual tank commander couldn't do.

But it's entertaining as hell, which is why ASL is such an involving game to play. But witnessing every detail of the action comes at a considerable cost in "fiddliness." And at the end of the day, after executing a half-dozen die rolls and following several procedures you end up with a result -- which could have been expressed as "you lose a half squad and they have to rout to that patch of woods." Not all that different than Memoir '44.

Non wargames can generally dispense with a lot of details because the entertainment value of the game is heavily focused on the decisions of the players and the interactions between them. Exactly how the conflict (if there is any) or other actions are resolved is neither here nor there.

Player decision-making can be important in wargames, too, but it's not even necessarily of first importance. In many wargames the player has surprisingly little real impact on the course of the game and in most wargames there can be a lot of entertainment found in playing the game solitaire. Players of nonwargames may play the game through alone on occasion to learn the rules better or try out a strategy but I don't think they do it regularly. The game's fun is provided by the social interactions and the chance to match wits with an opponent.

On the other hand, a wargame can be very entertaining to play alone because a big chunk of its appeal is in witnessing how the action unfolds. Providing that appeal requires that the "how" be depicted and that, I think, is one of the factors that distinguish wargames from other games.


  1. Excellent post. Very interesting distinction between "intricacy" and "playability." Having been a long time wargamer, I've noticed the difference. While I have fun playing a round of "Battle Cry" or "Heroscape," it doesn't give the same enjoyment as a game of "Russian Campaign" or "Soldiers."

  2. We're skirting pretty close to the "game vs simulation" argument, which I'd prefer to avoid most of the time. In the end it comes down in large part to semantics.

    For me, the differentiating element of a wargame is the historical perspective it brings to the gamer. For example, Bulge games need to worry about the capacity (and control) of the road net and the supply issues the Germans faced. East Front games need to take into consideration the vastly different command and quality issues of the Red Army and Wehrmacht.

    There are many different ways to show these historical elements. CDGs use card events to show the socio-political elements. A3R, EE/AE and WiF use an economic model. The East Front Series uses an asymmetric sequence of play (Soviets have to do their mech movement first, then combat, then regular movement, opposite of the Germans) that's appropriate for that period of that front, and both EFS and OCS require buildup of materiel, something rarely shown at a more strategic level, in order to put on an offensive.

    My point is that wargames require "chrome" at some level in order to teach the lessons the designer wants to get across. Euros have no such burden, and in fact a great majority of them could just as easily be given a completely different theme and come out just as satisfying. They have no lessons to teach outside of the play itself.

    I'm not making any judgements here, only saying that what eurogamers call "fiddliness" is exactly what attracts wargamers to their hobby. While intricacy will vary greatly in wargames (look at Waterloo 20 vs Case Blue), the realism, at least in whatever historical parameters the designer wishes to explore, is what sets those games apart from others, and is one of the reasons why wargames have such a devoted, if small, following - we love to learn about history, whether it's about the weaponry and ordnance, or about the tactics and strategy, or about the underlying events driving and shaping the conflict that are harder to get "on the board". It's why I can own twelve games on the Bulge and enjoy each one for it's own lessons taught and merits.

    While I also love to play Euros, no one compares them for being about German medieval mercantilism, but rather for their common collection of systems and mechanisms. We learn very little about the period, but a lot about simple economic systems and resource gathering/management. Despite several games on said mercantilism, I have never gotten the urge to go out and buy a book on the subject, while Paths of Glory started a landslide that resulted in ten or twelve books on the subject in my library.

    While it's true that the complexity will keep players away from a lot of wargames (and a misguided sense that a mounted map is a better map, and wood/plastic is better than cardboard counters), the truth is that if you're interested in history, you'll make the effort necessary to understand and play wargames, and if not, you'll stick to Euros. It's more complex than that, of course, but at it's core I believe this is what differentiates the two hobbies.

  3. Great blog, I forwarded it to some friends.

  4. Excellent topic to consider when thinking about what you intend to get out of a particular game.

    Like Dug mentions, if you want to learn more about the particular history of the period, and what was going on (even if a commander of that time didn't have every bit of detail that the player can access) wargames of some complexity are very rewarding.

    I don't know enough about "Eurogaming" to know if I'd like it or not...