Jim Owczarski, 23 August 2019
I would like to get a few things out of the way before I become rant-y.
Ooh, that’s a rant. It’s very rant-y. — Depending on the day, either my editor or Pikachu.
I like Professor Marco Arnaudo both as a game reviewer and as a voice within the wargame community. I am a subscriber to his channel, a listener whenever he reviews wargames, and my family will tell you I have filled many hours between Origins and my home with extended listening sessions. My son does a passable impression of his delightful diction and inflection.
Moreover, his tastes and mine often align and he has championed not just good games but good topics for games. I have even gone so far as to adopt his definition of what is and is not a “wargame”, but that is another discussion.
Moving on, I want to be very clear that I am a fan and friend of David Thompson, game designer and all around good fellow. In other circumstances full disclosure would have required me to mention that I was a playtester on his Undaunted when it had a different name and was in a different set of hands. He has been a guest of the Armchair Dragoons at Origins and puts a great deal of effort and thought into his designs. Nothing I write here should be taken as diminishing that.
With all this as prologue, allow me to ask: what in the nine circles of the Inferno is Professor Arnaudo talking about in the middle of this video (12:50 or so)
I am pleased that he likes Undaunted. I am pleased he recommends it as highly as he does for the reasons he does. I have grown weary, however, of people who insist as he seems to that designers and game companies must lead us to the sunny uplands of the future from the swamp we as wargamers have collectively been mired in since the administration of Gerald Ford. His remarks are similar to many I have read that suggest only now, here in this time of Chinese printers and boardgame cruises, are we playing “accessible” games. This is a nonsense and I would like to take up the case for the defense of my childhood.
On what charge will the AH/SPI/VG, &c., Empire of Grey-beards stand indicted?
Simplicity of rules, perhaps? Not so. By purest chance I was last night reading the designer’s notes for the SPI quadrigame Napoleon at War. (I know, leave me alone. It was late, my son was in bed, and my wife was working.) Therein it is written that the company had struggled to find a successful market niche for Napoleonic games. I, of course, find this unimaginable, but it was their company, not mine. The notes go on to say that it was only when SPI lit upon the idea of the quadrigame with simple standard rules (did any of them run to more than 10 pages?) and even slighter scenario-specific rules, that the door was opened to a game now regarded as a classic of the form and, I presume, the following year’s release of one of the greatest games ever designed, Napoleon’s Last Battles.
while Mr. Zucker has certainly evolved the system in the 44 years since, I respectfully submit that he has not surpassed it.
And speaking of NLB, as I often do, it is a model of good rule writing, done in a relatively simple style, and which runs to only a few pages. My son comprehended it and its nuances by the time he was ten and, while Mr. Zucker has certainly evolved the system in the 44 years since, I respectfully submit that he has not surpassed it.
It is undeniable that the the ’70s and ’80s gave us complicated games. Ab initio, though, companies and reviewers understood that rule complexity was both of consequence to purchasers and was a subjective matter. 1914 was derided regularly for its complexity and opacity. Campaign for North Africa was an inside joke long before Dr. Cooper got hold of it. No one mistook NATO: Division Commander for Wooden Ships and Iron Men or Caesar’s Legions. And for every one that enjoys Wellington’s Victory to this day, there are plenty who enjoy Napoleon far more.
May I also say that it is strange (pilfering a point made by my friend Brant Guillory on a podcast somewhere hereabouts) to hear the howls of “these rules are to complex” thrown to heaven by those toting about the second edition of Pathfinder which has a core rulebook — note a single book of what will be many — that weighs in at 640 pages. I will be closely scrutinizing the bookshelves of all who review games in the future to see who will strain at the gnat of most wargames while swallowing that particular camel.
Before leaving this charge behind, I would encourage Professor Arnaudo and anyone else who has a grievance with particular games — as he evidently does — to name them. It makes understanding the arguments made much easier.
Some of SPI’s greatest failures were noble ones as, to borrow the cliche, they were more “released” than “tested”.
What, then, of design innovation? This is, of course, subjective, but I think the Empire produced innovation sufficient to clear it of the charge. I will not here address the fact that somebody had to invent even the most rudimentary pieces of our lexicon — attack factors, defense factors, movement allowances, terrain effects, Zones of Control (ZoC), &c. Rather, consider that everyone who has ever used a block to conceal unit information surely owes at least a tip of the cap to Tom Dalgliesh? His Napoleon‘s use of point-to-point movement in 1974 informed a lot of thinking about the possibilities of operational gaming. How many iterations of ZoC were tried in this era to see which one most closely matched the battles of the era? Does no one remember Sniper! and those who tried to play it double-blind? Some of SPI’s greatest failures were noble ones as, to borrow the cliche, they were more “released” than “tested”. This does not excuse their failures, I certainly greeted some of them with a rage born of hard-earned money lost, but I think SPI particularly engendered a real spirit of experiment.
I also think it fair to point out, although I do not believe that this is the issue to hand, that this era experimented in topics and themes as well. Yes, there were Gettysburgs, Waterloos, and Stalingrads. There was also, however, Feudal (1967), The Plot to Assassinate Hitler (1967), War of the Rings (1976), The Creature that Ate Sheboygan (1979), Death Maze (1979), and a range of arcane historical topics that I have only been exceeded by brave smaller operators like High Flying Dice Games, Hollandspiele, and One Small Step publishing.
What, finally, of aesthetics? Here the matter is harder. Recent technological innovations have made printing easier to manage and significantly more affordable. As galling as I find the horrific die-cutting in Wellington’s Victory, I know the arcane origins of the use of die-cutting for wargames as opposed to its intended purpose, and understand why it could come out that way. As fond as I will always be of the cream, beige, and goldenrod of the SPI maps, those that Hexasim is creating today are far more lovely. The less said about the strange color schemes of D-Day and Waterloo, the better.
If I may, however, I think it can be argued that, borrowing from Robert Frost, they were working well within their harness. How many boardgames available at that time at your local department store were well-crafted, with pleasing boards, and interesting pieces? To denigrate The Thirty Years War quadrigame in the face of, say, Sweden Fights On is to forget a time when the POP-O-MATIC was an innovation. I played Headache, Parcheesi, Sorry, Trouble, and, yes, Monopoly. I played them more than I should ever care to confess. I hope it can be agreed that the board and art for The Russian Campaign was not too great a step down.
In summation, revel in this time. It is a splendid one for wargamers with a remarkable library of great offerings. As I have written and said elsewhere, I am not sanguine about the long-term prospects for historical wargaming. I think for cultural and other reasons it will continue to wither as those who built the Empire pass. It will not “die”, whatever that might mean, any more than Rome “fell”, but I think it will struggle. The niche in which we find ourselves, however, must not be laid at the feet of those that made historical wargaming a “thing”. They produced “simple” games. They produced accessible games. They produced innovative games. They produced games on all manner of themes. If they produced complicated games it was only because some portion of their market as they understood it wanted those too. Somebody is still buying ASL and OCS games for heaven’s sake — I kid!
All consumers can and should call for the creation of the products they desire and for which they are willing to spend their money. The legacy of games we have been left by those who came before us, however, gives the lie to the notion that they and their offerings are the reason people turn from historical wargaming.
That fault is in ourselves.