Transcript of our podcast from 23 July 2008
by Moritz Eggert
Hello my friends, I'm back with a non fantasy themed episode, and a more generic talk about what I perceive as a problem with wargames. Hey, you all know that I love wargames, and not only fantasy and SF themed ones. I wallow in huge rulebooks, I love detailed historical research and I'm also not afraid of tables and charts.
But when all is said and done wargaming is by far the most conservative and slowly changing genre of all game genres. It is full of strange conventions that many designers adhere to, and I sometimes wonder why. I know that Scott and Jason ramble on about the badness of Euro games (while secretly playing them - I know it, my friends, I have witnesses!). But of the many things that one can throw at Eurogames, missing originality and a lack of will to always explore new pastures aren't among them. Of course most new games in a year will be treading the path of other games, but each year has Eurogames that introduce really new features or ideas, whereas this is not the case in wargames. Eurogames have come a long, long way since Hare and Tortoise, whereas a majority of wargames are still pretty similar in approach to the very first wargames by SPI.
In fact one can always pinpoint exactly the few games that created a new direction in wargaming history, for example "We the People".
But let's face it: The huge majority of wargames published every year is still hex and counter wargames of a very, very traditional kind, where you have counters, some combat tables, and some kind of game sequence. Now don't get me wrong - I don't have anything against hex-and-counter wargames, I enjoy playing them, but I also have to say that I enjoy the old classic hex-and-counter wargames more than their new incarnations from today, which just seem like a rehash. I have to say that I sometimes get bored when looking at the announcements for new games at the always excellent consimworld. So much of it just sounds like same old, and I can't believe that people still think it's revolutionary when they take a little known battle that hasn't been done yet and use the exact same principles of wargaming that have been with us for more than 30 years now, like ZOC's and Strength Differentials. Yawn, Yawn, Yawn is all I can say...
When I play new hex and counter wargames I will very probably play games like "Combat Commander", which throw in new elements by transferring ideas from card driven games, which I personally perceive as one of the most important revolutions in wargaming. "Combat Commander" is certainly one of the better games of late, it really is up there with the best of Eurogames in conciseness of rules and elegant design. Hey, even Tom and Sam from the Dice Tower were able to play it!
I can exactly tell you which 2 games were the most innovative in wargaming in recent years, and these 2 games are "Bonaparte at Marengo" for trying something completely new regarding the look, feel and play of a battle, and "Twilight Struggle" by taking some wargame concepts and using them for a very different and unique theme that really works well and still feels like a wargame, opening up the road for other good games like "1960 - The Making Of The President". "Friedrich" also has many merits, but is probably more of a Euro Game introducing wargame concepts than vice versa. Still, a very good game, and one of the few wargames that I can always convince my friends from the Westpark Gamers to play.
I also find that the games I enjoyed the most in recent times, games like "Pax Romana" or the super-super-excellent "Here I Stand" try to be MORE than your usual run-of-the-mill wargame, they try to make a whole period come to life, something which hasn't been attempted with this kind of elegance ever before.
But folks, we need so many more of these games. I'm not a soothsayer of the hobby and I don't think pessimistically about the future, but classical hex-and-counter - or let's just call them "classic" wargames, because there are certainly good new hex-and-counter wargames -have dominated the market 30 years ago, and now time has moved on and 95% of the games published are STILL hex-and-counter wargames. My friends - if it's Japanese it's not necessarily original. I think "A Victory Lost" is a very well-balanced game, but the reinvention of the wheel it certainly ain't. Does anybody really expect that suddenly sales will rise again and that people will suddenly be turned on by these kinds of designs in huge numbers? That's like expecting that just playing old songs from the 50's continuously will at some point create a new era that is just like the 50's. And yes, I know that there are radio stations that do nothing but play the old songs, but will you turn to them when you look for the future of music?
You know I come from a scene that has very similar problems. As some of you know I write contemporary classical music, which is not at all commercial or pop music. And classical music by its very nature is not music that you would listen to when you need easy listening. It needs some kind of attention and care, just like a good wargame. Care by its performers and creators and care by its listeners. It can't be consumed quickly in-between. And that is ok I think - there will always be people who turn to something more refined, who are not satisfied with run-of-the mill stuff. So the problem is not the genre, but how some people INSIDE the genre perceive themselves. And if I look at my scene, the contemporary music scene, I see many similar phenomenons like in the wargaming scene. There are many people who actually enjoy it being a niche thing, and they don't want anything more than that it stays this way. So they write extremely inaccessible and complicated pieces of music that can only be understood if you studied music or read pages of program notes beforehand. This kind of approach leads to an extremely elitist behaviour - you're either inside the circle or outside. And it makes it extremely difficult for newbies to get into it.
I have been to many, many contemporary music concerts, and from 10 people going in there who have never been in such a concert before, only 1 will come back - the other's are scarred for life. All the clichés they had about contemporary music - that it is nerdy music that is boring and inaccessible - have been confirmed. Of course there are exceptions, and I myself do what little I can do to fight against these clichés, sometimes with more, sometimes with less success, but I just wish more people would fight for that.
Many wargamers are similar, they sneer at Eurogamers like contemporary classical composers sneer at pop music, which is their equivalent of Euro Games, they feel they are above them. They are against change; they want to keep their status quo. They like to be a cultish, elitist little clique. But hey, as Scott correctly said last episode - it will get a bit lonely there after a while - our hobby has its own birth and death statistic, and our birth statistic has a combat value of 0.
To be clear - I think there is a huge difference when Jason and Scott from Point-to-Point podcast make fun of sissy Eurogamers. I know that both have played and know many Eurogames, and that they would also be willing to try out something new all the time. For them it has more to do with the theme and personal preference than with mechanics, and that is the important difference. Hey, their favourite game is Napeleonic Wars, which is certainly not your run-of-the-mill wargame.
But there are so many wargamers out there who just wish it would all stay that way.
You know, we already had that kind of divide. It's not that long ago. There was a time when there was basically only miniature wargaming and no board wargames of note. Then the hex-and-counter guys were actually the new kids-on-the-block, the revolutionaries. They tried some new stuff, they were getting bored with the conventions of miniature gaming, with the tape measuring and the arguing about ranges and distances. One of them was Gary Gygax, who created role-playing. Others created games like Panzer Leader or later Squad Leader, games which were very revolutionary at the time. At that time wargaming was full of energy, willing to try something new. This is the time when many very experimental games were published, games that still have followers today. Take Titan - definitely a wargame but so unlike any other wargame that it's fascination is strong until today. And these pioneers succeeded as we all know, they created the hobby we love. But this energy has to be revived and even though many people realize this and create new concepts and games I just wish that more of our ranks would follow them and create even more games that just blow our minds and go into totally new directions.
It's ok to be a niche hobby, but let's be a FASCINATING niche hobby. A hobby that welcomes newcomers and produces games that will really hook people. There has been a lot fresh air in our hobby lately, I am not lamenting, all I say is: let's continue that road and dare even more, and wargaming will never be a thing of the past.
©2008, Westpark Gamers