RockyMountainNavy, 22 February 2021
C3i Magazine Nr. 34 introduces a new column by designer Harold Buchanan, designer of Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection (GMT Games) and Campaigns of 1777 (Decision Games). He also was the developer of the issue’s feature game, Battle for Kursk: The Tigers are Burning, 1943 designed by Trevor Bender.
Harold Buchanan’s Snakes and Ladders, Nr. 1 is “Why do we play what we play?”
In the article, Harold recounts an interview on his Harold on Games podcast with Ananda Gupta (co-designer of Twilight Struggle and Imperial Struggle, both from GMT Games) and their discussion on player archetypes. In this new column Harold introduces us to his hypothetical taxonomy of wargamers. Since Harold said he wanted to trigger some discussion and welcomed comments, I’m weighing in. So here goes.
On the Shoulders of Giants
Brant, the Regimental Commander and Editor-in-Chief here at Armchair Dragoons also pointed me to a study titled, “Experiences of Hobby Game Players: Motivations Behind Playing Digital and Non-Digital Games” written by himself and CarrieLynn Reinhart. “The purpose of this study was to investigate the patterns of motivation and usage by card, role-playing, computer, and board game players, known in this study as hobby game players.“ Brant, I read it and hope Harold considered it before he wrote his column but it doesn’t change my reaction to him below.
Mentioned in the Harold on Games podcast was an article by Patrick Carroll in The General Volume 25, Nr. 5 from 1989 which described three player profiles in wargaming: the Competitor, the Socializer, and the Dreamer. Not only does Harold reference this article, but Patrick Carroll makes an appearance in a response after Harold’s column in the latest C3i Magazine. Coincidentally, I am also reading Jon Peterson’s latest book, Elusive Shift, which talks about the early days of D&D and the “conflicts” roleplaying gamers had with wargamers. Both of those works were at the forefront of my mind as I read Harold’s column.
A New Pentagon Wargamer
Harold’s Historical Simulation Engagement Profile consists of five attributes: History, Mechanics, Strategy, Social, and Visual. Basically, the more one exhibits a given attribute, the further out from the middle that player is depicted on the diagram. The result is a radar chart depiction of a wargamer. As we will shortly discover, for History, Mechanics, and Strategy being further out on the chart is “bad” whereas for Social and Visual being closer to the center is “bad.”
click images to enlarge
Harold gives us his very loose definitions of each attribute. I note that none of these are “hard and fast” rules but often a subjective judgment – not a quibble (yet) but an observation.
History – “At one extreme (the outer part of the diagram), players feel passionately about the history and will only play games that represent their views of the history. As we approach the center of the diagram, we find players who may not be familiar with the history in any depth and usually aren’t critical of the presentation. In between we find players that are interested/curious about the history but will not select or discard a game based on its portrayal.”
I’m trying to think of a wargame that players play only because it represents “their views of the history.” Or is Harold telling us that people who play Ty Bomba’s Tomorrow the World (3W, 1989) aka Triumph of the Will (Compass Games, 2017) are Fascists? I also don’t understand why because one chooses NOT to play a game from a given time period they are pushed to the outside of the chart (seemingly the “bad” direction according to Harold). How does personal interest (or disinterest) in a time period make somebody a “bad wargamer?” That’s like saying someone is not a fantasy literature fan just because they haven’t read Tolkien.
Mechanics – “At the inner extreme we find players that enjoy a variety of mechanisms and would never use the word simulation. On the outside of the hub we find players who find religion in the mechanics.”
Where would somebody place that only wants to play single-mechanic deck-builder wargames? How about somebody who prefers area control with chit pull? This definition doesn’t work because at the outer extreme Harold wants to put “simulation” and at the inside he wants to put “many mechanics.” In reality, many mechanics can make a simulation. Come on Harold, just say, “At the outer extreme are rigid simulations and at the inner extreme are those elegant Eurogame-derived mechanics.” Harold doesn’t explicitly say it here, but I feel like he is communicating that “good” mechanics have “elegance” whereas more simulationist wargames are, by default, “bad.”
Strategy – “Strategy attributes on the outside of the diagram trend toward complex games that require a great deal of thought, before, during, and after a game….Time invested learning, playing, and studying decline as we move toward the inside of the diagram….Near the inside extreme of the diagram players prefer lite games.”
Within this definition, I fear Harold is mixing strategy (thinking about your actions) with complexity (mechanical difficulty). For an excellent discussion of Game Complexity I recommend listening to Ludology Episode 238 “Unraveling Complexity” where they discussed six forms of game complexity in depth. Further, I believe that complexity and strategy are not linearly related. Mark Herman’s Gettysburg (C3i Magazine Nr. 32) is a very lite wargame that takes little time to learn and not that much time to play. You might not think about it ahead of time, but as you play and afterwards I challenge you to not reflect upon what Mr. Herman really means when he says he wanted to design a wargame that is “History distilled to its essence.”
Social – “At the outer extreme, a game is not worth playing alone or even without a crew at the table….Moving toward the center we find players who care less about who they are playing and more about the quality of game play….At the inner most extreme, the player wouldn’t mind just playing alone and rejects the need to share an experience, either by choice or necessity (isolation by desideratum).”
This sounds simply like player count. Where does one like me fit? I play lots of solo wargames, some 2-player wargames with my Middle Boy, and other times I play multiplayer with both of my boys or a game group. Oh yeah, COVID sucks and we all have had to find ways to be social yet maintain social distance. Somehow that makes me a bad wargamer?
Visual – “In the hobby there are still classics from the 1970s and 1980s that are played but look and feel very dated. They prove that visual appeal of a game is not a key driver for all players (nearer the inside of the diagram)….At the outer extreme are players who feel the graphics play a key role in their gaming experience.”
I simply call this attribute “Harold’s bling factor.” It’s also grossly unfair; I’m sure that if in the 1970s Redmond Simonsen at SPI or Winchell Chung for Task Force Games had the same color palette available for publishing as Kyle Ferrin at Leder Games has today they would use it instead of those “boring pastels” or simple black & white (with just a dash of red).
Harold comments that he almost included a sixth attribute, Competition, or the need to win. I wish he had because I don’t feel splitting it between Strategy or Social clearly captures the need in some wargamers for competition. I personally believe it’s an important attribute and goes a long way towards explaining why I don’t play the non-historical, multi-mechanic, low strategy, highly social, blinged out X-Wing because I absolutely HATE the ruthless competitive attitudes around so much organized play in my area. I also note that both Carroll and Peterson include competition as an aspect of gamers (Competitors for Carroll, Power-Gaming for Peterson).
One question I have for Harold concerns the “area” of the graph for a given wargamer. Is it possible in your taxonomy to “max out” every category? Or, does the “sum” of the five attributes have to equal 100%, meaning the more you are in one attribute the less you must be in another? Looking at the graphics provided, I feel that it it the latter. This seems important to me because I do not feel that the attributes are necessarily dependent on one another. Just because one might like complicated Mechanics does not mean they must give up on the Visual, or does it? Again, the graphics as shown seemingly tell me so.
Archetypes as Stereotypes
While I generally agree that Harold’s attributes are helpful descriptors of a wargamer, as you can tell I am unsure about some of the definitions and how to rate someone against a given attribute. Where Harold absolutely loses my support is when he maps his engagement model to illustrate five wargamer archetypes:
- Leader – “Using this system to cover this conflict was brilliant.”
- Gatekeeper – “That’s not a wargame!”
- Convert – “I want to get into wargames.”
- Expert – “I love that system – I play it almost exclusively.”
- Core Wargamer – “I’d like to try that game; I’ve heard a lot about that system.”
Looking closely at the charts for each of the five archetypes, I really only see three groupings. The Leader and Core Wargamer are nearly identical while the Gatekeeper and Expert are also very similar to each other. The only really different one is the Convert.
The archetype I least understand is Gatekeeper. Harold uses the Gatekeeper to make a point; through the language in his column Harold clearly dislikes Gatekeepers and uses this archetype to show gamers who have no place in the hobby with him. What I see is Harold telling us through his Gatekeeper archetype that he intensely dislikes wargamers who are high on History and Mechanics, play alone, and don’t
want demand snazzy components. So I guess as a (near-simulation) Harpoon V (Admiralty Trilogy Games, 2020) player who really loves “refighting” the Cold War (my “view of history”?) but often has to do it in a solo setting (thanks, COVID) with counters substituting for miniature ships (or even just using graph paper – the horror!) I am automatically a negative for the hobby.
Gee, I didn’t know.
To me, the key failing of Harold’s Historical Simulations Engagement Model is that it seemingly defines player attitude by game preferences. While I too have a dislike for Gatekeepers, I personally believe there is no magical combination of these five attributes that makes one such a gamer. To me, a Gatekeeper is defined by their attitude and actions and not by the games they play – or don’t. It’s just as likely that a Leader acts like a gatekeeper as an Expert might. Likewise, an accountant is just as likely to be a Gatekeeper as a History major. I sure you know more than a few heavy Eurogamers who are just as likely to gatekeep as Catan players.
Not All is Lost
Although I feel Harold’s Historical Simulations Engagement Model fails as a useful defintion of gamer archetypes, I still think it can be useful as a descriptor of one self without trying to fit into a particular archetype. Here I embrace Patrick Carroll’s thoughts in response to Harold:
“…reflect on them – ask yourself how they describe what you do and how you think about it. Notice whether other wargamers you know are similar or different. Over time, you may find yourself becoming more tolerant and self-aware….”
Harold’s model may also have use as a descriptor of historical wargames instead of players. Try mapping your favorite wargame using these five attributes. Then map a few more. After a while one might see a pattern, or a common range of attributes, in the games that one enjoys most – or least. You also possibly could be somebody like me who finds that my games are all over the map. It’s not a perfect translation but I think it makes a good start. One immediate problem I see is Social where one could easily assign a rating based on solo, 2-player, or multi-player. However, one has much more difficulty assigning a rating to games that have a large tournament segment of players because it might be a two-player game but the tournaments can be very social events. Better yet, try substituting Theme for History and see what what happens!
Make sure you read Harold’s column in C3i Magazine. Look at his engagement model and figure out where you are. Use it to discover you own biases, strengths and weaknesses. You can map other gamers, but don’t go so far as Harold did and try to pigeonhole them into an archetype and let that influence your interactions with them. Use Harold’s Historical Simulation Engagement Profile to help you understand yourself and your fellow gamer, not push them away just because they may be different than you.
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