Brant Guillory, 2 July 2019
There’s an interesting thread / discussion over at BoardGameGeek about an oft-tread topic of “how many ____ games do we really need?”
This question is invariably muttered under the breath whenever a new Stalingrad, Gettysburg, D-Day, Waterloo, or Bulge game is released, we’re rapidly approaching those saturation points for Sicily, Jena/Auerstedt, Battle of Britain, Shiloh, Midway, Leipzig, strategic-level AWI games, and Kursk.
Great, another game about the same old battles, in the same old places, with the same old contestants, resulting in many of the same old results and lessons learned. The fact that no one even needs to reference a map or any further details when discussion the Peach Orchard, or Hougoumont, or Sainte-Mère-Église, or the Tractor Factory tells you how well we’ve over-gamed these topics. Or have we?
there’s a decided advantage to walking back over well-trod ground, and that is that you already have the other factors – terrain, weather, orders of battle, etc – already under control, because you’ve explored them so many times
Here’s the thing about those battles: that history is pretty well memorized. We all know what happened, how it happened, and why it happened. We have such a thorough understanding of those battles that they actually offer a perfect canvas for what comes next, which is changing the systems we use to play the game.
If I’m interested in various ways to explore small-unit leadership within a battle, I can look to any number of various tactical game systems to explore different ways in which designers model the effects of leadership on the battlefield, whether is ASL, or LNLT, or PanzerGrenadier, or whatever other platoon-and-below system you want to use. But to offer comparisons of the battle with an understandable underlying context, there’s a decided advantage to walking back over well-trod ground, and that is that you already have the other factors – terrain, weather, orders of battle, etc – already under control, because you’ve explored them so many times.
When you’re first gaming out a ‘new’ battle (at least, new-to-you since most of our battles are at least 60+ years in the rear view mirror) you’re still trying to figure out what mattersin the fight. Is there a piece of key terrain that the original combatants overlooked? Is there a supply route that would’ve made a difference? If I alter my order of battle slightly, does that provide the support I need to sustain a key breakthrough? Where’s the bestculminating point on the battlefield? It might take a dozen or more runs through that battle before you have a solid understanding of how & why that battle unfolded in a particular way.
That suspense doesn’t exist at Gettysburg. We know Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top matter, and we know why. So at this point, we can dispense with the explorations of the battle itself, and use that common frame of reference to instead explore leadership models, or logistics, or whatever other tweak the designer is using in describing this new take on the battle.
Some years ago, Avalanche Press released a Gettysburg game that radically altered the spatial references on the map, in that they did away with hex-based movement for odd-shaped areas, but also changed the movement and stacking paradigm in that a unit counter had to physically fit inside the area, and could not stack. It was an innovative approach to the battlefield geometry that was musket-based warfare, wherein keeping units together in formation was the preferred way to fight so that they could mass their fires.
If that game gets released about the Battle of Decatur, there’s a very different player experience, as the unique nature of the movement and stacking rules might get lost in the examination of how the actual battle is unfolding. Instead, because everyone understands the details of Gettysburg, that battle provides a well-understood common frame of reference from which players can examine and assess the new ideas in the game system.
But Dennewitz? I mean, besides the French, do you even know who else fought in that battle, or where it is?
Similarly, we know what matters on the ground at Waterloo, Leipzig, Austerlitz, and Borodino. But Dennewitz? I mean, besides the French, do you even know who else fought in that battle, or where it is? I mean, the Order of the Square Button can probably give you the names of the casualties in the order they fell on the battlefield, but the rest of us don’t have any idea. If a designer releases a new game in a new system based on that battle, how much time is spent learning about the battle, and how much time is spent learning about the system?
Clearly, there is room for innovation in the systems we use in our wargames. No one should be satisfied with the same 6 or so basic rulesets applied to every game, even if they are as good as Simontich’s ‘4X series, or the COIN system, or ASL, or La Bat. We need new ideas to keep the games fresh, to keep our hobby intellectually stimulated, and to open new ways of examining the history we’re gaming out on the tabletop.
But when those new systems – Combat Commander, Band of Brothers, HoldFast, or FAB for WW2 games, for instance – are first rolled out, one of the best places to start might actually be revisiting those familiar battlefields we all know by heart, like Normandy, Kursk, El Alamein, Anzio, Stalingrad, and the Bulge. Those easy on-ramps give players an opportunity to focus on the system itself, without wondering whether or not the it’s the system or the history that’s producing the results they’re seeing on the table in front of them.
So don’t be too hasty to malign the existence of “yet another Stalingrad game” or “geez, Gettysburg, again.” It may well be that those battles offered the best entry point to attracting new players to a new system, and allowing well-gamed grognards the chance to compare the argument the designer is making to all those other designers that have come before.
But yeah, go find some off-the-wall battle to play, too.