Transcript of our podcast from 20 September 2008

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Problems in Wargames: Exceptions

by Moritz Eggert

In the next couple of episodes I am going to rant about things that make wargames inaccessible and cumbersome and therefore work against the hobby in a way. Everybody of us has come across things that are annoying in wargame rules, and one of the things that annoy me the most are....exceptions. Or rather: exceptions that can’t be looked up easily.

Exceptions in wargame rules are special rules that only apply to specific circumstances or specific situations and are otherwise non-apparent. This is what makes it easy to miss or forget them. Exceptions are close to the term “chrome”, but not exactly the same. “Chrome” describes mechanics that add to the flair or the realism of a particular game but don’t necessarily add to the gaming experience if they are deemed “unnecessary chrome”, whereas “exceptions” are very often essential to a game’s mechanics, even if they apply only very rarely.

Wargame rules tend to be long anyway, and it is virtually impossible to remember all of them even after several readings if the game is challenging and detailed. I challenge any ASL player to know all exceptions and special rules applying to any given situation by heart – I think even the most hardened veteran will have to look things up from time to time, I’m sure. ASL is known to be very detailed, it has rules for different LOS obstructions of cornfields in the winter or the summer for example, but the advantage of ASL is that the scenarios are all relatively short and feature only a handful of the necessary exceptions that you have to memorize, so in a way you can prepare for each scenario by rereading only the pertinent rules, which is possible with the well-organized ASL rules.

But there are other, more sprawling wargames like Advanced Third Reich, which use numerous exceptions and special rules for different countries to achieve something that wargamers call “realism” but which in fact means tweaking rules so that the game more closely follows history. So you have to remember that this and this is not possible until Fall 1940, but then suddenly it becomes possible, and then it is suddenly not possible again from 1943 on. So you have to look up rules, and a lot of page flipping occurs. The problem is that most rules lack clear indexes, and if you don’t want to have a laptop with a .pdf of the rules next to your gameboard it is incredibly difficult to check on certain keywords, and even then finding the special rule that you are looking for is difficult.

To give you a more recent example: “Shifting Sands” has a rule that if the Tobruk space is lost to the Allies and then subsequently reconquered by the Axis, the Axis gets a bonus number of Replacement points any time this happens. This rule is mentioned only once in passing in the rules and is easily forgotten during the game. This is because there is absolutely no mention of this rule neither on the game map nor on any playaid. Once you are reminded of this rule like me you will not forget it, but I would assume that 50% of new Shifting Sands players completely forget about this rule during their first play of the game. But that wouldn’t happen if aforementioned play-aid would exist.

“Barbarossa to Berlin” first edition was another negative example, which actually lowered the initial ratings for this otherwise excellent game. Also here certain rules applied from certain datelines on, and the turn track made a point of mentioning SOME of these, but sadly not all of them. Which meant that you were looking at the turn track and reminded of some rules, while forgetting the other rules, which you could only find in one single paragraph somewhere in the rulebook.

An especially negative example of confusion through exceptions is the otherwise excellent “Triumph of Chaos” which has extremely complicated special rules for ALL the factions in the game. Dozens of spaces on the board have special functions or abilities, but not a lot of them are marked accordingly. Even the information on the cards of this card-driven game is not complete as the info is so abundant, and it is virtually impossible to get everything right on your first play of the game.

If you are researching Boardgamegeek you will find that fans of many a game have created extensive play-aids for popular games, correcting the things that have been overlooked by the designers, offering flow-charts, corrected turn tracks and maps. The most frustrating thing is that most rule books lack any kind of centralized info on exceptions, you have to assemble them from the whole of the rules. It is very common for example to have special rules for a single space or country that appear all over the rules, but not in one collected paragraph. You might have certain units that are forbidden to enter a certain space, a special rule in the movement section. Then later, in the rules for combat, certain units will get a bonus in the same space, whereas later, in the production rules, ownership of this space will give a boost in production for this and this country.

But nowhere in the whole rules you will find a single paragraph that REPEATS all these rules together with a reference to this space, like for example “special rules for the Leningrad space”.

“Wilderness War” is another frustrating example, even though the game is actually very elegant and relatively simple. The crux in “Wilderness War” are the different abilities and designations of units. There is a distinction between Regulars, Coureurs, Rangers, Militia and Provincials, with exceptions littered throughout the game rules. But nowhere does the game list all these distinctions ordered after these units, instead they are only found piece by piece throughout the rule book. Of course fans of the game have corrected this omission and have produced play-aids that do exactly this, but how difficult must it have been to foresee this very easily to understand demand to have everything listed “where it belongs”, even if info is repeated?

I have very often assembled these special rules myself out of frustration, and have spent countless hours ordering rules on various topics, like “special rules for units” or “special rules for places”, etc. But I always wonder why this hasn’t been done in the first place, the designer must have listed this stuff somewhere for himself to reference when he was designing the game, so why doesn’t he provide this info to the gamers? I find it extremely frustrating to play an otherwise exciting game only to find out that you did a serious mistake in turn 2 by overlooking special rule number 0815 that only applies in one out of 100 games.

Cards are of course an easy way to remember exceptions, many card-driven games create their exceptions through the play of cards, which is of course elegant, as you don’t have to memorize stuff to understand it, you have the cards in your hand to remember. A very good example for exceptionless design is “Combat Commander:Europe” where the rules really don’t need to be referenced at all after a certain point and absolutely all information that brings variety and chrome into the game is apparent on the counters and the cards and instantly accessible. “Here I Stand”, a game with many exceptions and special rules, is for example also very well organized ruleswise, it lists all special powers for countries again ordered by countries even if that same info was used beforehand in the rules. It even repeats whole sequences in the text - like the reformation and counter-reformation procedure - even if they differ only in one tiny aspect. This of course increases the accessibility of this game which would otherwise be very difficult to understand.

Another handy device is to have one set of basic rules and then have each player have a “power card” that lists the exceptions and special abilities for this power in a handy format, examples for this would be games like “Twilight Imperium” or “Cosmic Encounter”, where you constantly look at the info pertinent to you as it sits directly in front of you.

But games that come across as clear as this are really much rarer than I wished them to be – many great wargames had to go through several iterations to achieve a certain amount of perfection and still come across as convoluted and overburdend with exceptions. Even worse, very often exceptions are only valid in extremely specific situations that happen very rarely, which makes one wonder why they have been included in the first place if it might very well be possible that you never encounter them even if you play the game 20 times. Were they so important that they had to be included to start with? Another bad kind of exception is the one that was only included because the designers got one particular aspect of the basic game design wrong and wanted to correct the mistake by including exceptions that somehow work around this problem. For example the designer might have messed up the combat strength ratio system, so he has to include a special rule for unit x that gets a bonus for fighting unit y, but only if it’s in turn 11-13 and you enter from the south side of hex 1409 while wearing a pair of pyjamas and leader Z is exactly 4 spaces away and recuperating from a combat that has to have happened in turn 10, but only then.

I exaggerate of course, but there really are games that have weird exceptions like this, only they are worded differently. So very often exceptions are lazy, lazy game design.

Please don’t misunderstand me – I don’t have anything against complicated games. Most wargamers have to be relatively intelligent and obsessed to actually play wargames at all to start with, but I can completely understand if potential newbies get turned off by games that are virtually unplayable out of the box. Things are improving nowadays, but we still encounter the one or other clunker, so, dear wargame designers, please go easy on the exceptions, and if you do use them, make them as visible as possible to the players of the game, reminding them as much as possible of them: On the map, in the rulebook and on playaids.

Thank you for your attention – may all your hits be crits!

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2008, Westpark Gamers