March 3, 2024

Ponderings of a Metropolitan Elite Wargamer…

RockyMountainNavy, 15 February 2023

I encourage each and every one of you to get a copy of C3i Magazine Nr. 36 not only for the wargame inside (Trevor Bender’s Desert Victory: North Africa, 1940-1942, C3i Combined Arms Series, Vol. II) but also for articles like “Wargames: simulation or stimulation?” written by James Buckley (@CardboardEmp on Twitter). I started reading James’ article because that subtitle, “simulation or stimulation,” caught my attention. I am working on an article [I am Brant, really!] on how the definition of wargames for wargame practitioners has changed over the past 100 years. The words “simulation” and “stimulation” seemed relevant to my research. So I read on.

In my thoughts here, it may be better to get the “bottom line up front” and look at Mr. Buckley’s concluding paragraph first as I think it will help us in this discussion:

“You might grumble that we don’t want or need to change our hobby to meet the needs of the masses. But that’s not what I’m arguing. The games don’t need to change. Just how we express them. It has to be done responsibly. But hobby wargames are first and foremost games. I’m not saying the single act of toning down scientification of our hobby will massively reduce the barriers to entry into wargaming, or fully overcome the negative views the likes of Mike Lees have of us. But alongside other initiatives, such as the Zenobia Awards, and the more generalist-friendly work that’s emerging from the likes of Cole Wehrle or David Thompson, it might help a bit.”

Alas, I fear that this call for action, though very well-intentioned, actually promotes the saddest aspects of hobby wargaming Mr. Buckley (may I call you James?) argues needs to be avoided.

 

As I read James’ article I asked myself, “Who are these wargamers he speaks of?” Starting with comments from Mike Lees of Shut Up & Sit Down, James relates, “…wargamers do not acknowledge that we are gamers like everyone else, exploring the stories we love. We consider ourselves a breed apart. The gaming equivalent of metropolitan elites.

metropolitan elite : a group of people who live in large cities and have education, money, and other advantages, who are seen as not understanding the problems and views of ordinary people living in other places (Cambridge Dictionary)

 

To be fair, James claims to not “totally” agree with Mike Lees and assures you and me that wargamers are also generalist board gamers. That said, if I’m reading James right, he at least somewhat agrees with Mike Lees that wargamers (i.e metropolitan elites) are the snobs of hobby gaming who are too aloof to understand the “problems” boardgamers (i.e. “generalists”) have with “our” hobby. James insists that you and I must change that.

“You might grumble that we don’t want or need to change our hobby to meet the needs of the masses. But that’s not what I’m arguing. The games don’t need to change. Just how we express them. It has to be done responsibly.”

According to James, how do we express wargames in a responsible manner? From reading the article I think he tells me:

  • Think of wargames as roleplaying games
  • Accept that wargames are ‘thematic’ games, aka “Ameritrash”
  • Stop calling wargames ‘models’ or ‘simulations’
  • Stop designing games with long, detailed rules (“barriers to diversity in the community”)
  • If you are an amateur historian or connected with professional wargaming you are ill-suited to be a wargame designer
  • Take inspiration from “American-style games” like Undaunted Normandy or Pax Pamir 2nd Ed. and “use components, aesthetics, and artwork…without pretense”
  • Write rulebooks less car-manual style and in first person
  • Provide a Spotify list with your games.

 

James leans hard into portraying wargames as roleplaying games by emphasizing how wargames are “stimulation” for the mind. What exactly does James mean by “stimulation?” When James talks about stimulation he is talking about the ability of a wargame to engage the “theater of the mind.” James invokes the thoughts of Volko Ruhnke who “remarked that conflict simulations are in part some roleplay.” Here I agree…and note this has actually been “known” to wargame practitioners for over 100 years and still recognized today.

 

What I think James is talking about here is the power of wargames to create narratives. The thoughts of wargame professional Ed McGrady come to mind when he wrote in the article “Getting the Story Right About Wargaming” for War on the Rocks where he says:

…regardless of advances in military and gaming technology, wargames are a human activity. That is their real advantage. They are not better because they use fancy displays (they really don’t need them) or elaborate models (which can bog things down and get in the way). Their advantage is to bring the human element into a problem. When people lose in games, they feel the loss. When they win, they get excited. Even just rolling the dice to determine an outcome affects the players, changing how they play the game…Wargames capture the human aspect of decisions.

 

Ed’s view is actually not that different from some generalist gamers. Here is Alex Evans writing for wargamer.com in “Why tabletop wargames tell better stories than most RPGs” and explaining how wargames are better than even RPGs for him:

I’m a self-described narrative-first gamer – story comes above all other considerations for me – and I’ve devoured RPGs ever since I could get my hands on them, joyfully frittering away (at a conservative estimate) half my youth on Diablo II, The Elder Scrolls, Baldur’s Gate, Dragon Age, Neverwinter Nights, Fallout, Mass Effect, and countless other, less remarkable titles. I happily poured thousands of irreplaceable life-hours into those games because the overall worlds they created, and the sweeping stories they told, captured my imagination like no shooty-bang-bang videogame thriller ever could.

But even the luxurious, sweeping escapism in these indispensable RPG videogames falls tragically, inescapably short – and perhaps always will – compared with the overwhelming narrative return on investment offered by tabletop wargames. It’s all to do with the consistency with which these games can generate that most sought-after of gaming experiences: an organic, unscripted, and utterly true-feeling story ‘moment’ – a seemingly unique confluence of in-game events that’s at once gripping, authentic and memorable.

 

Thanks to the academic rigor of the professional wargame community practitioners—wargamers connected to professional wargaming and very likely even many amateur historians that James cites as negatives—we know that wargames are stimulating. Some generalist gamers know it too? What do we need to change?

James define wargames as, “in the same family as ‘thematic’ games, also known as American-style, or Ameritrash games.” He talks about complexity of wargame rules: “…such dialogue, when first stumbled upon by otherwise wargame curious generalists, might scare people off.” Indeed, James calls for wargamers to, ”dial down the ‘scientification’ and reframe the discourse towards what wargames can do in terms of stimulation.

James further baits me by claiming, “a common view seems to be that wargames are ‘a bit different.’ They are ‘conflict simulations.’ They don’t tell stories, they ‘model’ possible outcomes. Rooted in academic enquiry. More than just a game.

He then opines: “But I think the terms like ‘modeling’ and ‘simulations’ are disingenuous. More importantly, I wonder if it’s unhelpful.

James goes on: “Disingenuous because a map, some counters, dice and 40 pages of rules are not capable of simulating much.
This ties to a later point James makes about language: “Academic euphemisms can provide a layer of protection against potential criticism that certain subjects are too important to discuss in ‘game’ terms. 

Whether he realizes it or not, James at this point appears to be channeling his inner Jim Dunnigan. In his Wargames Handbook: How to Play and Design Commercial and Professional Wargames (Writers Club Press, 1992), Mr. Dunnigan famously comments, “A conflict simulation is another name for wargame, one that leaves out the two unsavory terms ‘war’ and ‘game’.” This is also similar to thoughts from Philp Sabin in his book Simulating War: Studying Conflict Through Simulation Games (Bloomsbury, 2012) where he describes wargames conflict simulations as, “in the form of a game, which players can win or lose by making decisions which need not be the same as the actual commanders.” I think it’s clear that wargamers can accept that wargames are games; why can’t the generalist do the same?

 

It also is clear that James is not a fan of how many wargame rule books are written. “It might be how we write rulebooks for wargames. Less car manual-style, moving away from referring to the player in the third person.” In response I simply note that the latest BGG generalist gaming hotness, Frosthaven (Cephalofair Games, 2022), has an 84-page rulebook (let’s not for the moment consider the $489 USD cost of the game at Amazon; like that’s not a “barrier” to entry…). Another generalist it’s-a-wargame-but-not title, Root (Leder Games, 2018), actually has two rulebooks; a very conversationalist Learning to Play and a second car-manual, legalistic-style Law of Root). But hey, if you want to pick up the retail-priced $28 Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #1 (Multi-Man Publishing, 2004)—a game purposely designed to be a gateway wargame—you better be ready to soak in a whole 12 pages (gasp!) of rules. 

IMG 1342

Granted, those 12 pages of rules are not “taking inspiration” from Undaunted Normandy (Osprey Games, 2019) nor Pax Pamir 2nd Edition (Wehrlegig Games, 2019) which James gushes, “use components, aesthetics, and artwork to help bring a story to life.” James, make sure you tell Amabel over at Hollandspiele that their paper-map, chipboard counter Blue Panther printed games will never “stimulate” anybody’s imagination much like the original edition of Pax Pamir from Sierra Madre games in 2015 apparently didn’t do.

“But hobby wargames are first and foremost games.”

They always have been. Even generalist gamers know this. BoardGameGeek, the internet home of ‘generalist’ gamers, breaks boardgames down by eight major subdomains: Abstract, Children’s, Customizable, Family, Party, Strategy, Thematic, and Wargames. Interestingly, perusing the site reveals at least three different definitions of “wargame”:

  • Classification (Subdomain)
    • Strategy Games (more complex games)
    • Wargames (conflict simulation, etc.)
  • Wargame (Category) – “All games in which war and conflict is the subject. Wargames now have their own subdomain on BGG. The subcategories within the Wargame category tend to include only wargames, but it is possible for a game to be about the Vietnam War, for example, without being a wargame. Similarly, it is possible for a game to be about any war and still not be considered a wargame by some or all of the gaming community. Here on BGG, the category itself tends to have a fairly liberal interpretation.”
  • Wargame (Glossary) – “n. A game in which players put military units or military-type units in direct or indirect conflict with each other. The goal of these games is typically annihilation of opponents and/or the attainment of certain strategic conditions. These types of games will often have high thematic content and a varying degree of abstraction. (See also miniatures game). Wargames are subdivided into three general scales: Strategic, Operational and Tactical. (See also simulation)”

For a group that tries so hard to tell others they are different, generalist gamers appear not to be able to clearly define what it is that they are distinguishing; indeed, generalist gamers give themselves an easy out by claiming to have “a fairly liberal interpretation.” It’s almost as if the language of generalist gamers is so confusing that maybe, just maybe, one might want to apply some ‘scientification’ to those definitions…

 

“I’m not saying the single act of toning down scientification of our hobby will massively reduce the barriers to entry into wargaming, or fully overcome the negative views of the likes of Mike Lees have of us. But alongside other initiatives, such as the Zenobia Awards, and the more generalist-friendly work that’s emerging from the likes of Cole Wehrle or David Thompson, it might help a bit.”

If it isn’t clear by now, I take exception to the notion that scientification [my word processor keeps telling me that is not even a word] of wargaming is a negative. It’s as if James is trying to tell us that generalist games are the opposite. I argue that with the rise of Eurogames, the board gaming segment of our hobby is realizing that a key to good game design is to have some degree of design rigor. Look at the work of Geoff Englestein who, in addition to being an accomplished game designer (with even a few “wargames” under his belt), is perhaps the leader in boardgame ludology. He has written books like Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design: An Encyclopedia of Mechanisms in an attempt to bring rigor to game design. If scientification of board games is acceptable, should scientification of wargames not also be accepted?

I agree with James that a poorly written rule book is perhaps the greatest barrier to entry…to ANY game. This applies to any game rule book regardless of format or what game it is written for. It should be no surprise that publishers across the hobby gaming spectrum are recognizing this fact and more and more are bringing editors on board. For every Ameritrash, thematic “wargame” out there you can find an equal number of those “elegant”, glitzy Eurogames with poorly written rule books. If we want to change how rule books are written, let’s make sure it is for the right reasons and not just because some happen to not like numbered paragraphs.

 

I’ll also ask James at this point to please clarify how he envisions the wargame community “toning down” the scientification. Is is more than not calling wargames “simulations” or “models” and writing rulebooks with SPI case notation and using bling components? When a generalist gamer sees a wargame on your table and asks you about it, are you able to answer or do you stumble because inside YOU can’t express yourself? Do you answer by explaining how it is different (negative approach) or how it is similar (positive).

Screen Shot 2023 02 14 at 6.52.07 PM

 

I will also point out that James’ article appears to me to be somewhat dissonant with other articles in this same issue of C3i Magazine. In “Mark Herman’s Clio’s Corner, Nr. 13 –  Wargame CRTs or How to Resolve Chaos,” Mr. Herman provides a deep dive into combat resolution tables—CRTs—which he uses for “resolving the chaos of war through number and dice.” Mark concludes by stating his view of, dare I say, what sounds to me like an approach to the scientification of wargames:

In the end I favor the chaos of CRTs and dice, as I think they more accurately reflect the chaotic nature of warfare. Nothing I have ever read indicates that anyone has ever reliably predicted combat outcome. All you need to do is examine military pundit opinion prior to the illegal invasion of Ukraine in 2022. No one predicted what has happened and why I favor probabilistic CRTs to represent this uncertainty.

 

James’ article also seems at odds with another article in this issue of C3i Magazine. ”C3i Interview: Charlie Kibler” celebrates Mr. Kibler’s contributions to physical game design and art direction…in wargames. When asked about his philosophy for game graphics, art, and physical design he responds by saying:

First and foremost what I do…needs to work, be easy to use, and also be easy on the eyes…It needs to enhance the playing experience…even help transport the player back into (or up to) the time period.

 

“In Memory of John Prados” by Lenny Glynn also appears in this issue of C3i Magazine. Mr. Prados one of those individuals that James says are not helpful to our hobby as he was an academic, wargame professional, and wargame designer. Oh, if we all could be just a little bit like John Prados as remembered by Mr. Glynn:

“A scholar and activist who mined historical archives across the US and abroad to produce more than 20 books on war and intelligence agencies and their operations. He also designed dozens of first rate wargames, most notably The Rise and Decline of the Third Reich (1974), Avalon Hill’s 70’s-era classic that introduced a generation of gamers to macro-level World War II gaming. John was absolutely dedicated to learning the truth about the conflicts he wrote about, most notably the wars in Indochina from the late 40’s through America’a own disastrous intervention in Vietnam. And while he could be scathingly critical of many military leaders and politicians, he was always deeply moved by the courage and suffering of the grunts who did the fighting—all of them—American, Vietnamese, Japanese…Union and Confederate…all of them.”

 

Finally, I respectfully call your attention to yet another article in issue Nr. 36 of C3i Magazine by Riccardo Masini who writes in, “An Ocean Apart: Wargaming in the Land of the Eurogames” about “diverse issues related to gaming and culture.” I’m going to quote Mr. Masini at length here because his words are important:

In these true vanguards of the hobby, articles about diverse issues related to gaming and culture in general are starting to appear, with pieces about the nature of simulation, game studies, design solutions, hybridization of different game categories (yes, also ‘Euro’ mechanics…), approaches to modeling complex historical realities, counterfactual research methods and so on. The is happening in Europe, as well in other countries, slowly but steadily gaining the status of a stable trend for the future.

Even in this regard, diversification is the key word. Diversification is not just in the quantity of cultural heritages or national histories treated in our games (which is, of course, already a very positive development), but also in the quality of our approaches to simulation, both regarding game mechanics as well as reflections on how games can relate with different cultural aspects. Also, and that is not bad at all, it’s a way to reach new quotas of public exposure.

For sure this will represent a great challenge for the entire wargaming community, once again ‘in the open’ and out of the walls of a self-imposed siege. The lessons from the past, from those experiences born in national communities far away from each other but kept together by their passion for wargames, is just that: in order to not simply survive but to carry on its journey, historical simulation games should be at the forefront of all attempts to get past the concept of a fragmented ‘game culture,’ focusing instead on a healthier and more prolific relationship between ‘games’ and ‘culture.’

 

The problems James highlights should be seen as an opportunity—like Ricardo points out—for the wargaming community to positively engage with our fellow gamers. I strongly agree with where James’ heart is in this article, but just as strongly believe we need to work together to call out the virtues of wargames—some of which James has in this article but cites as negative expressions. We need to respectfully challenge those broad generalist gamer perceptions that we are a metropolitan elite that is aloof and distant from them. I fully support the wargame community engaging in constructive actions to make wargames, as James puts it, “more generalist-friendly.” Part of that effort can be better written rule books. Part of it is encouraging all would-be designers. Part of it could be components. There are many wargame content creators out there that are already engaging in a positive manner. Wargame publishers are doing it too. But let’s do it by focusing on the positives of our hobby.

Postscript: I guess I never addressed the call for Spotify lists. I have nothing against anybody’s music, but adding Spotify lists to a wargame rule book seems like the opposite of the call to be more generalist. I mean, in order to curate that list one needs to be a kind of amateur historian, right? But James tells me amateur historians are bad for wargames so now I’m more confused…

 


Ed note: for anyone interested in the original article, Mr Buckley posted a tweet with an image of it that is largely readable if you open just the image in its own window and rotate either the image, the monitor, or your head

 


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IF YOU ENCOUNTER A COUNTER CASTING A HEX IN A HEX
AND YOU COUNTER THE HEX WITH A COUNTER-HEX IN THAT HEX DURING THE ENCOUNTER,
AND YOU HAVE TO COUNT HOW MANY HEXES ARE IN THE HEX DURING THE ENCOUNTER
ARE YOU PLAYING A HEX-AND-COUNTER WARGAME?

3 thoughts on “Ponderings of a Metropolitan Elite Wargamer…

  1. Well… an interesting piece, and one I largely agree with. While I know James and he is a nice chap, I also understand some of the problems here. Something that James seems in love is the presentation. But what presentation means? I for one do not like a lot of the pieces and components that James seems to think augment the ‘attractiveness’ of games. More than once I felt bland meeples and half-sculpted miniatures are just plain ugly compared to counters. And as a disclaimer I am also a miniature painter (thus either I am not wedded to counters, or I have an high bar…). More often than not I find the so called ‘tactile’ components a detraction from the visual side. Let’s face it, some counters are much better than meeples but some of them are ugly. Yes there are some ugly wargames out of there, but there also some excellent ones that are graphical masterwork. I would say Almoravid and Inferno spoil what should be visual treat well stepped in period art, with awful wooden pieces.

    And then there is the usual canard “Disingenuous because a map, some counters, dice and 40 pages of rules are not capable of simulating much.” Well a map, some counters, and around 40 pages of rules were sufficient for the Royal Navy to simulate tactics before WW2. And as wargamer, USN officer, and professional Historian Alan Zimm pointed out in Warship, it was the basis of Commodore Harwood tactics at River Plate (including some dangerous assumption on the penetrative power of 6″ guns…).

    To a certain extent it is the usual empty talk about realism and simulations without really explaining what a simulation should be and what the writer expects…

    Anyway too much rant… well done piece RMN (or Brant?)

  2. Excellent article. I don’t understand why the wargame hobby should be dilluted to the point of it ceases to be about wargames, in order to fill in people who don’t like playing wargames.

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