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Opponents wanted

Any discussion of wargaming these days usually starts with Greg Costikyan's essay SPI Died For Your Sins, which comes about as close as you can get (without attractting lawyers) to accusing TSR of killing off the boardgaming hobby. Greg discusses the various reasons why boardgaming has imploded as a hobby: the advent of newer and shinier computer games, role-playing games, collectible card games...but in the end, it really all comes down to the fact that SPI provided the axis upon which the boardgaming world turned, and when it finally succumbed to a lack of business acumen in 1982, things gradually fell apart.

There are still wargaming companies around, of course, though all the "big" companies I knew in the 70s and 80s are dead and gone. Even Avalon Hill, the first of the big wargaming companies, eventually went under and was bought by Hasbro, which keeps a handful of titles active - none of them the historical games that the brand was once famous for. Steve Jackson Games, best known back in the day for its $2.95 microgames, is still in business, but most of their time and energy seems to be spent on the massive GURPS RPG and humorous card games such as Munchkin and SPANC.

For that matter, you can still find gamers around...certainly the prices games command on eBay says there's demand for games. So why hasn't the hobby rebounded, especially since the Internet makes it so much easier to get hold of other players? Maybe it has, and I'm just far enough out of the loop so that I don't know what's happening. Another thing to put on the to-do list...but for now, I'm going to settle for taking redmartel up on his offer to roll the bones and push the counters around a bit.

A lot of the energy in the hobby that used to go into wargames has gotten drained off into the other parts of gaming that Costikyan talks about, but there are still people out there playing Magic and Exalted and HALO and Civilization who would probably enjoy sitting down and thrashing their way through a good historical or SF boardgame that could be played in a couple of hours, but the folks who make that kind of game don't have the resources or the marketing savvy to get their games out there in front of people who might be interested in playing a 21st century remake of Oil War, or a slimmed-down Gulf Strike that didn't take a week to play after spending another week reading the rules and sorting out the counters.

There's a continuum in games, and back in the day when SPI was cranking out six magazine games a year and at least as many boxed games there was a lot of ink spilled about the distinction between games and simulations, with (as I recall) the Civil War gamers being some of the most snotty when it came to "accuracy" of games such as Terrible Swift Sword and the other Civil War games it spawned. On the one hand, "games" had fairly simple rules, not too many units, and could usually be played after a quick perusal of the rules. Thus the nickname "beer and pretzel" games. On the other hand, "historical simulations" like SPI's memorable Campaign for North Africa might well have thousands of counters and markers, complex rules covering seemingly every possible eventuality, and obsessive attention to detail. I particularly recall one playtester of the game, J Matisse Enzer, being cited for locating POW camps in intermittent streams so as to be spared the logistical burden of feeding and watering them...which no other wargame before or since even had the mechanics to allow, and that pretty much says it all, doesn't it?

Somewhere in the middle were "monstergames" such as the aforementioned Terrible Swift Sword, a game on the battle of Gettysburg where all units were individual cavalry/infantry regiments or artillery batteries, with a scattering of leaders and supply wagons. Monstergames were usually sizable - at least two maps and several hundred unit counters plus markers - but the rules usually weren't too complicated. There were exceptions to this general rule, but even the enormous Europa series games from GDW (starting with Drang Nach Osten, later renamed Fire In The East) had fairly simple mechanics; much of the Europa games' complexities involved the ever-evolving air combat and replacement system, the armor effects rules, or special rules covering unique situations peculiar to a specific campaign/game. The monstergames were rather popular and very profitable, but the amount of design and development required kept their numbers down. I've owned a fair number of them myself, but for obvious reasons haven't played any in years.

It strikes me that a lot of people who take a "gearhead" attitude toward RPGs, the kind who see an evening of role-playing as somewhat of a waste if no fighting breaks out, would be the kind of people who would also be interested in wargames. The same goes for people who play the various mutations of Command and Conquer or The Operational Art of War. The big question is, how do you get those people interested in boardgames? How do you attract people who are sort of interested in miniatures gaming but don't have the talent, time or money to paint a regiment's worth of miniature soldiers? What we need around here are some boardgaming evangelists from the ranks of grognards...the alternative is to breed opponents, and that just takes too damn long. ^^


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 14th, 2005 01:35 am (UTC)
Hey, if you're gonna start wargaming again, drag me along some time. It's been a long time since we battled it out on a hex map.
Oct. 14th, 2005 01:36 am (UTC)
Oct. 14th, 2005 02:20 pm (UTC)
Actually, it strikes me that wargaming is experiencing something of a resurgence lately, albeit filtered through all that has come between during the lull. Look at WizKids - Mage Knight, HeroClix, Pirates of the (Spanish Main/Crimson Coast/Revolution/Barbary Coast). It's wargaming, as seen through a CCG.

Then there's the longtimers of Warhammer and Warhammer 40k (and the late, lamented Blood Bowl. And before you point out that Blood Bowl is still in print I point to the fact that everything past the first edition sucked the life out of the game.)

Now, I've heard people dismiss these games - but these are the games you should be fostering. These (especially the WizKids games, not so much Warhammer) are the entry level to the next generation of wargamers. Once the limits of battle strategy wear thin they will gravitate to something that challenges on a higher level - probably something like Axis & Allies, because what other campaign games are being published these days? (Okay, publshed and can be found easily.)

And while there is some merit to the arguements against computer games, Costikyan is overly dismissive of the potential which has been more and more realized as not only the hardware becomes more impressive, but as the programmers behind it become more l33t. One only has to point to blizzard's track record - especially Starcraft - to see the amazing abilities that computers allow wargaming, PLUS with the majority of computers now being linked to this thing, you may have heard of it, the 'internet', the solo experience is not something most people accept anymore. Indeed, many games live or die by their multiplayer components.

Anyways, I'll step back from my little rant now.

Oh, one more thing....

Oct. 14th, 2005 06:05 pm (UTC)
Well, as I say, I may just be out of touch and not clued in to the fact that there are a lot of entry-level games out there that people are avidly playing. Still, there's a lot of difference between Axis and Allies and (for example) the type of boardgames that Costikyan and I were so heavily involved in twenty years ago.

Computer wargaming has definitely advanced, and for that matter there are playing aids such as Aide de Camp, Cyberboard and Vassal that allow you to play many of the old (and not-so-old) games online against opponents, though I think most of those are designed to be played via e-mail as opposed to live head-to-head play. You have to keep in mind that Costikyan's essay describes the hobby as it was ten years ago, after SPI died and GDW had sold off most of its boardgames to concentrate on SF titles and RPGs, so the advances in software and hardware that make games like Warcraft possible hadn't happened yet.

Still, most of the games that are big sellers in the PC market are SF and fantasy games. Historical simulations don't tend to do very well or last very long, and that's really the genre that Greg and I are talking about.
Oct. 14th, 2005 07:30 pm (UTC)
But that's the problem - historical wargames take a hit and suddenly wargaming is dead. That's like saying they don't make Frankenberry so no one eats cereal. Whether historical, fantasy or sci-fi they generall set pieces that analogue to each other, so it's just a matter of which system of underlying mechanics you like best. Granted, again, many aren't as fine-grained as SPI's were. Also granted, most people want to be able to finish a game in their lifetime. ;)

And as for PC historical wargaming - check out 'Total War'. They're several flavors out right now - Shogun, Medieval, and now Rome.
Oct. 23rd, 2005 04:37 pm (UTC)
A pleasant surprise
Well well well, you never can tell. This is Matisse Enzer (no OpenID yet...)

The story of my being cited in Campaign for North Africa, (listed in the credits as "Court-martialed and convicted") is exactly as you describe. And your posting, along with Greg's article arespot-on in my opinion.

I'll add this:

As a young wargamer in 1974-1982 a huge part of the attraction for me was the creativity - the ability to create a model of the universe, or a slice of it, and to play that model out.

My first job was as a feedback keypuncher for SPI, and later as a junior game designer - (one of the Crimean War quad games, and Canadian Civil War - perhaps the only PSI game to be seized at a border crossing as "treasonable or seditous").

My career so far has included political organizing, game design, construction, architecture, software development, etc. All of these, to me, involve shaping the world, understanding how things work and making something new that works.

As Greg's article points out, even playing a wargame involves attempting to excersise a particular stratgey (or set of tactics), which is in itself a creative process.

It occurs to me in reading your post, and Greg's essay that among other missed opportunities, a big one for SPI was in not doing a better job of helping people find human opponents - finding people to play with, which is of course a never-ending aspect of human relations.

And a last note - I found this posting bcause I currently am working with Technorati.... and intersting circling of events and interests.
Oct. 23rd, 2005 07:09 pm (UTC)
Re: A pleasant surprise
It's a small world indeed! I did my best to get the quote regarding your playtesting experience on Campaign for North Africa right, because as Ken Layne has said, this is the Internet, and people will fact-check your ass.

I wonder if the failure to get people together to play wargames FTF was part of what contributed to the collapse of the hobby that Greg described - surely, if there had been a network of SPI grognards, some alternative to S&T might have been set up as the antipope, so to speak. On the other hand, Avalon Hill had always been proactive about networking people who wanted to play Panzerblitz, Third Reich and so on, and this may have been what kept them around so much longer. I do recall that SPI made an abortive attempt to get SPIGroups together, but don't recall offhand whether the incentives were too minimal or whether the gamers with the desire to organize had already formed their clubs and weren't interested in being affiliated with one or another of the major game companies.

I think you're right about gamers being interested in shaping and changing the world, either in the design end (I was tremendously impressed by Greg's memorial to Redmond Simonsen, which discusses that at length) or the play end. Clunky and difficult though it is, I still like After The Holocaust: somewhere near the bottom of my "When I get time" list is a redesign to make it more flexible in technology levels and less paperwork intensive, though I fear that would all be done better using Sid Meier's Civilization software.

The Internet has given us an easier way to hook up with other wargamers either FTF or at least through e-mail, and I'm hoping to do my small part in trying to get the hobby back to where it was in the 1980s...or, hopefully, find out that it's already there and get some good gaming time in.

Thanks for responding - I remember your name from the credits of quite a few beloved SPI games, and it was good to see that you'd gone on to do cool things after the company died.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )



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