Monday, June 1, 2009

Are hex-and-counter wargames played out?

For decades when someone said the word "wargames" the images that came to mind were dominated by cardboard counters moving across a hexagon grid. Most purpose-built introductory wargames, from Napoleon at Waterloo, through Drive on Metz to Target: Arnhem feature a hex map, cardboard counters and usually feature "standard" wargame mechanics such as zones of control and CRTs.

But isn't that paradigm pretty much played out at this point?

The appearance and excitement over the new Waterloo game from Warfrog Games prompted me to wonder if the old hex-and-counter wargame is creatively played out. It seems like most of the innovation and excitement in the hobby over the last decade or so has been outside the hex-and-counter format.

While the sometimes feature hexes and counters, the card-driven games that are so popular now more often feature area or point-to-point maps and the very first one, We the People, did not use hexes.

While block wargames have been around nearly as long as hex-and-counter games, there's no doubt they have never been more popular, with genre-originator Columbia Games finding success with titles such as Hammer of the Scots and being joined by GMT with games such as Europe Engulfed.

Even when they use hexes, most of today's most exciting wargames such as Memoir '44 or Tide of Iron don't use counters and they certainly don't use standard wargame conventions such as zones of control or attack=defense-movement factor counters.

And some of the most innovative wargames of recent times such as Bonaparte at Marengo don't use any recognizably classic wargame mechanics at all.

There are still some hex-and-counter games coming out, but once senses that they're not really breaking any new ground and are not forming the leading edge of game design.


  1. I think calling the hex and counter paradigm "played out" is a bit strong. I'm sure Decision Games would be surprised to hear that. I have not played many of the point-to-point games, but have played some area movement games and some block games. Certainly, "realism" is over-valued at times, and often misunderstood in game design terms, but most of the non hex-and-counter games I have encountered err a bit on the light side. There's a great Euro craze, and these wargames are Euro-inspired and may be a bit of a fad (albeit a long-lasting one). I find it annoying when a game uses models or blocks at the expense of unit differentiation. I think in Tide of Iron, there are two types of tanks and in M44 only one (at least in the basic game). I'd rather have a counter game with clear differentiation among the types of tanks. I'd also usually rather not spend the extra money (and poundage for shipping costs) just to get models or blocks, although they can be fun at times.

    The current thinking seems to be that block or model games are somehow more sophisticated but is it really that difficult to play a game with counters -- especially if they are of reasonable size? I'd rather be able to see the unit capabilities at a glance rather than having to determine which model I am looking at and then look up its attributes. Still, hex-and-counter games could benefit from some of the streamlined mechanics and user-friendliness of the Euro games.

    Point-to-point, area, and hex games could be inter-translated for the most part, although one or the other may be appropriate for any given purpose. A hex grid has the advantage of giving a nice regular representation of terrain without one having to look and see where the boundaries between areas are. It would be silly to represent some games as area or point to point. Notice that all (?) the recent tactical WWII games still have hexes -- even if they substitute models or blocks for counters.

    ZOC's represent the ability of a defending unit to react to another unit moving into/near it's area. Dropping these completely in some simulations would mean that the movement rates of units would have to be dramatically reduced or some system of opportunity or alternating action be in place. That latter can be nice when it is done without 100's of extra chits or cards, but that is rare.

    The current fascination with point-to-point and area or block games seems reminiscent of political correctness. Woe be to he who deviates from the party line.

    Finally, the old hex-and-counter games have some nostalgia and are fun for some (like me) because of that. They'll be back ... if they've ever gone.

  2. Played Combat Commander lately?

    While the pace of innovation in Hex-n-counter is not fast as in the "waros," it's not "played out" by any means.

    There is a type of complexity hex-n-counter can bring that you simply can't get from game types that have limited to no information on the game pieces.

  3. I'll respectfully disagree. Hex and counter games are still out there, still making their presence felt. However, unlike 30 years ago, there is more competition from other formats: CDG, block, area impulse, etc.

    That said, some of the best games of the past couple of years have been hex and counter games. A Victory Lost, Devil's Cauldron, Combat Commander, SCS Bastogne, all are very good games. In the same time, most CDGs have been rather lackluster, overly complex, or just a flat out mess. And I'm a huge CDG fan.

    There have been a lot of attempts to attract new gamers through plastics, but they're really just counters. In Battlelore, you have exactly the same information as in a block game if you left the blocks visible to both sides and left the "what do I need to roll" part on a piece of paper instead of the block.

    Clearly there is a segment of the population that won't touch a wargame because they have paper maps and cardboard counters, but let's be honest - these aren't going to be wargame collectors. They'll pick up a couple of games and go right back to Euros. The Grognards know that the important thing is everything but the components (although human elements will always be important, being able to get information about a particular unit quickly and easily). For wargamers, it's history, the game system, tightness of the rules, the research that went into the game, and how this particular game sheds light on the historical conflict, all in varying measures.

    I do agree that most of the innovation in hex and counter wargames has probably come and gone, but there's nothing wrong with incremental innovations.

    The biggest changes in wargaming are going to be when you download a wargame to play on your generic smart-paper set. If that comes sooner rather than later, you'll see not only a huge increase in the number of titles that become easily available (think of all the DTP games out there now), but also in the fact that you can change unit information on the fly as the conditions change. You already see some of this in VASSAL, but nothing can substitute for face-to-face play. I look forward to that day.

  4. Well, it is certainly thought-provoking. Along the lines of what Don said, yes, I look forward to the day when board wargames are assisted by an embedded or attached computer. This will be a different experience that playing online. It will have the boardgame appeal and the FTF social interaction. A lot of this is rather funny in a way because a hexgrid IS and area movement map and is easily translated into point to point!

  5. I'm not sure. I'll have to come back to you about this one.

  6. I think it would also be difficult to design a block or area game that can cover a large area in some detail, e.g. a monster game. Part of the fun there is to observe the emergent phenomena that is the result of lower level player (and designer) decisions. Even something as modest in scale as say "A Victory Lost" would be difficult to model in a straightforward way without hexes and counters.