Monday, June 7, 2010

The Evolution of Wargaming

First, I want to say that the weekend was fairly awesome. Mustard got to hang with her friends for a lot of it, and that gave me some time to hang with mine. Because Dave Worley's back in town for a short visit before returning to his new home in San Antonio, I put together a BOB game yesterday afternoon. I'll write a full post about BOB later, and will post the rules for those interested. For now I'll just state that it is a set of WWII air combat rules I wrote some years ago for the CGC. It uses the Battlepole (which you should be able to get from Mark over at Scale Creep Miniatures (Flagship Games best invention hands down), and scale model planes. This weekend we re-fought the shooting down of Admiral Yamamoto in a Betty by three P-38's. To give the poor Admiral a shot, we allowed him the chance for some air cover in the form of three random Zeros, only one of which contributed anything. In the end, the Betty went down and all the P-38 pilots got to go home and argue about who should get the kill... And thus wargaming mimics reality once again!

But enough of that. I want to talk about the evolution of the miniature wargaming hobby. Wargaming in one form or another has been around for many years. The first wargaming system is often claimed to be Kriegspiel, which the Prussian general staff used as a training exercise. But it was made specifically for the military and was not considered entertainment for the general public, so I shall contend that the first real wargame as we understand them now was Fred T. Jane's (THE Jane - of the Jane's identification books) rules for naval wargaming using model ships, published circa 1898.

I have yet to see Jane's rules, although I understand that they were recently republished. Naval wargaming is a different sort of creature than wargaming with toy soldiers, however, so I'm going to begin consideration with HG Wells famous publications, Floor Games and Little Wars. I picked up a reprint of the later a few years ago, and so can speak as a first hand witness of this remarkable little gem.

I will refrain from describing Little Wars in detail, but I can give you this visual: If you have ever seen the movie Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, there is a scene toward the end of the movie where the grandfather character is playing a wargame on the floor of the living room with his old commander. They have set up toy soldiers and are throwing and rolling items at each other's armies, knocking them down like a game of 10 pins. Little Wars is more like this than a modern wargame. Artillery fire is resolved by shooting dowels from model cannon that actually fire, and melee combat is resolved by comparing the number of figures in each unit. Super simple stuff, and obviously made for gentlemanly enjoyment.

Of course, it probably didn't take long before someone noticed the shortcomings of such a system, in terms of historicity. If your unit of Old Guard can be wiped out by a unit of raw recruits just because the recruits happen to outnumber you by a couple of models, it might just leave a bad taste in your mouth. Clubs started writing rules for their own use, adding more "teeth" where they felt needed, but no one was publishing rules for general public use, and so the hobby remained small and select.

And then Featherstone came along. Donald Featherstone has arguably contributed more to wargaming than anyone else on this planet, and he most of all deserves the sobriquet "Father of Wargaming". Starting in the mid-20th Century, Featherstone began a prolific writing career writing wargames rules and interest books, as well as a fair amount of material on military history in general. His wargaming rules used dice (all six-siders as that was all that was available at the time), and were still fairly simple and are relatively fast-playing affairs. Access to miniatures was still limited at the time, so he also wrote a book on how to cast figures, including those manufactured by others. Copyright laws have changed somewhat since!

I have a sizable number of Featherstone's older works in my collection, and I love all of them. Faced with limited resources, he devised clever solutions to problems that still face wargamers today. Best of all, you can see throughout that his focus was on having fun, and realism, while desired, could be had in an abstract way that didn't have to diminish playability.

But of course there were those who clamored for more realism. There are some in every group, and while they can make persuasive arguments, over-burdening a game with "realism" almost always results in games that are ponderous at best or unplayable at worst. There was a trend for some time in board gaming to become more complex (see the original Squad Leader and many other contemporary productions), and that started to reflect in miniature wargaming. In fact, gamers were talking less about "games" and more about "simulations".

It was an interesting time in the hobby. In the mid 1970's designers were putting out Herculean efforts, such as Bowden's "Empire", and "Tractics" by Reese, Tucker and Gygax (?!?), incredibly complex rules systems that were long in learning and even longer in playing. Games like these, while good sellers, ultimately appealed most to the anal-retentive crowd. I can personally relate that I gave Empire my best shot. It took us 6 hours to play the first turn of the battle for the Borodino redoubt and we barely got through the second before we called it a day. The rules went to the flea market a couple of years later. No disrespect to the author - it was an awesome effort in every sense of the word - but it was just not any fun to play.

It was after this era that you started to see a reversing of design style in wargames. Designers were realizing that detailed minutia might be okay for a small skirmish game (and even then it's questionable), but for anything larger it detracted from the playing without adding anything of substance. People started writing rules that were less and less complicated, putting an emphasis on playability and enjoyment and returning to a sense of abstracted realism. In other words, if the final outcome was realistically plausible, then the means by which you got there were ultimately not as important.

De Bellis Antiquitatis is a great example of this line of thought. Published by the good folks at Wargames Research Group, it is perhaps the ultimate in abstracted rules that give plausible results. Better yet, they do it in a reasonable amount of time, with games lasting an hour or so.

Of course, a lot of gamers find that level of play to be a little too simple, and the current trend is to produce games that lie somewhere in the middle, between the ultra-detailed and complex, and the super-simple. Games like Warhammer Fantasy Battles and it's retarded cousin WH40K (aka "World War I in Space with Muskets") and their contemporaries are good examples of games with enough substance for most people, but with core rules that are ultimately very simple and therefore accessible to a much wider audience.

Another big issue driving wargame design are the figure ranges themselves. There is a trend these days to design a range of figures and write a set of rules to go with them, in lieu of the other way around. This method has its drawbacks, however, as you can end up with some intriguing figures that have a really terrible set of rules to go with them.

As for me, I find myself turning back to Featherstone more and more as I get older. A game is most fun when you can play to a conclusion, and that happens most when things are kept relatively simple. And what fun is it to go to the trouble and expense to collect and paint large armies, only to never deploy them on the tabletop battlefield? I find my attention span and endurance for gaming has diminished over the years, and now I like a game that takes 3-4 hours at the most. The current trend in gaming certainly accommodates my needs nicely.


- Rod

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