Thursday, July 2, 2015

I've Been Diced! episode 68: Randy Lein (Legion Wargames) and Roger Miller (Revolution Games)

Not just one guest, but two! Roger Miller of Revolution Games and Randy Lein of Legion Wargames take time away from Consimworld Expo to talk about life as wargame publishers, muse about the state of the hobby, give us some previews into upcoming games, and give sage advice to anyone interested in submitting a new design to a company like theirs. Plus, I'm not done talking about space empire games, particularly since there are more stories they could be telling than just another cardboard re-creation of Master of Orion. (c) 2015 Tom Grant

Thursday, June 25, 2015

I've Been Diced! episode 67: Mark Herman

Mark Herman stops by to talk about his new grand strategic WWII game, Churchill, plus oh so many other games he has designed over the years. During our whirlwind tour of Mark's career as a wargame designer, we make brief stops at SPI and Victory Games, and even get a peek into professional Pentagon wargaming. And if you're wondering what comes next after Churchill...Well, it's more than just Empire Of The Sun, 2nd edition (though that's pretty interesting, too).  Plus, be sure to listen to the very end of this episode. (c) 2015 Tom Grant

Thursday, April 23, 2015

I've Been Diced! episode 66: Combat systems

Our panel discusses combat systems in games — many of which we like, and a few that we don't like. Air battles that are genuinely exciting, deck-building games that lead to interesting results, the genius of Dune's commitment mechanic, a defense of hex-and-CRT wargames — all these topics, and many more, in the course of our discussion. Plus, a recently-published game off the beaten path that takes traditional wargame mechanics in an interesting direction. (c) 2015 Tom Grant

Monday, March 2, 2015

I've Been Diced! episode 65: Andy Loakes, designer of Toulon 1793

Andy Loakes, designer of Toulon 1793, takes us behind the scenes of his first published wargame. Why hasn't someone done a game on this topic before? Andy and Tom ponder that issue, along with other questions about Napoleonic history and wargaming. Plus, this episode's Game Off The Beaten Path is a little wargame on a major event in military history, previously thought to be ungameable. (c) 2015 Tom Grant

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

I've Been Diced! episode 64: Richard Borg

Richard Borg talks about everything from the Command & Colour wargames to the X-Men games from Pressman (with a cameo from Stan Lee). We also discuss the Kickstarter for his new World War I game, Mutant Chronicles: Siege Of The Citadel, and much more. Plus, a game off the beaten path that should have an electronic version, but doesn't, really. © 2015 Tom Grant

Sunday, February 15, 2015

I've Been Diced! episode 63: Sandy Petersen

Sandy Petersen, designer of Cthulhu Wars (among many other games), talks about the origins of the Call of Cthulhu RPG, the early days of Chaosium (which also published the Runequest RPG, the original Arkham Horror, and plenty of other innovative games). Sandy also tells us how Cthulhu Wars was almost his swan song as a game designer, how he slipped Lovecraftian references into video games on which he worked (ever heard of Doom or Age of Empires?), and the upcoming Theomachy game. (c) 2015 Tom Grant

Sunday, February 1, 2015

I've Been Diced! episode 62: Our 2014 in review

Our regular panel looks back on 2014 in gaming — the ups, the downs, the pleasant surprises, the grave disappointments. Where do games like Dead Of Winter, Fire In The Lake, Nations, and The Hunters fit into this picture? Plus, the recent arrival of Cthulhu Wars inspires Tom to muse on the value of our games, and why recent developments in the game market is making it even harder to figure out the relationship between the real value to the owner and the price it costs to buy a game. (c) 2015 Tom Grant

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

I've Been Diced! episode 61: Worthington Games

I drop by the HQ for Worthington Games to talk about their wargames, past, present, and future. Forged In Fire, Band Of Brothers, Cowboys, Hold The Line, and others -- what kind of games does Worthington choose to publish? And how does a small publisher find its niche in today's market? Plus, this episode's "Game Off The Beaten Path" is a world-famous fantasy writer's design. (c) 2014 Tom Grant

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Watch the alternate history of Rome evolve

Here are some pictures from our session of Microscope, as described in episode 60 of the I've Been Diced! podcast. You can see, step by step, how the timeline evolved. Listen to the podcast to hear us build this timeline.

I've Been Diced! episode 60: Making history with Microscope, and games that tell stories

Our regular panel plays a session of Microscope, the game of collaboratively building a grand historical narrative. We put our creative powers to the test by writing the history of a world in which the Roman Empire never fell. This innovative game should appeal to anyone interested in epic sagas in science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, you name it.

Plus, we want our games to tell interesting stories, from fighting the Battle of the Bulge to stopping the Great Old Ones. But what's the secret to designing a game that can generate an interesting narrative? (c) 2014 Tom Grant

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

I've Been Diced! episode 59: Jon Compton, modern wargames, and gaming taboos

Jon Compton of One Small Step and the MCS Group tells a gripping story of the trials and tribulations of being a small wargame publisher. We also muse about the popularity of modern wargames. Plus, our regular panel discusses gaming taboos: What behavior elicits gasps of horror from fellow hobbyists? (c) 2014 Tom Grant

Monday, August 25, 2014

I've Been Diced! episode 58: Mike Nagel on Flying Colors and more

Mike Nagel talks about his Flying Colors series of Age of Sail wargames, his new "captaincy" game covering the same era, Sun of York, and what drew him to design a game about the battle of Attu. Plus, Tom lunges headfirst into the subject of what is a wargame. Actually, he talks about when the question is worth asking, and when it isn't. (c) 2014 Tom Grant

Monday, August 18, 2014

I've Been Diced! episode 57: Greg Smith on The Hunters and computer wargames

Greg Smith, the designer of The Hunters and the upcoming Silent Victory, talks about his games, solitaire wargames in general, his work on computer wargames at HPS Simulations, and why boardgame design can be more challenging than computer wargame design. Plus, Tom gives advice to wargamers visiting Paris, and he proves beyond a doubt that he cannot do impressions. (c) 2014 Tom Grant

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

I've Been Diced! episode 56: John Poniske

John Poniske, designer of Hearts & Minds, King Philip's War, and Lincoln's War, discusses the reasons why he developed a different game system for each of these games. Plus, John tells us about some upcoming designs, including games about the Plains Indians Wars and the Haitian rebellion. (Note: Apologies for the poor sound quality during the interview. Skype was not our friend that night.) Plus, a quick shout-out to some other wargame/boardgame podcasts. Copyright (c) 2014 Tom Grant

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

I've Been Diced! episode 55: Jim Day

Jim Day, designer of Iron & Oak and Panzer, talks about these two recently-released games, cross-pollination between miniature and board wargaming, and possible new versions of MBT and IDF. Plus, we look at a key requirement for the success of any tactical wargame. What is it? I'll lay out the scenario for you. (c) 2014 Tom Grant

Saturday, April 5, 2014

I've Been Diced! episode 54: Kim Kanger

Kim Kanger, designer of Ici, C'Est La France! and Tonkin, discusses France's counterinsurgency wars, and how differences between these wars led to different game designs. We also discuss Kim's upcoming game on the siege of Dien Bien Phu. Strap in for another deep discussion of insurgencies and insurgency-related games. (c) 2014 Tom Grant

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

I've Been Diced! episode 53: John Gorkowski on WWI wargames and a future WWI-like scenario

John Gorkowski, designer of WWI-based games like Guns Of August, Guns Of Galicia, Red Poppies, and In The Trenches, as well as the upcoming The Great Game. We talk about what fascinates us about WWI, the need to take a fresh look at a conflict before dropping game mechanics on them, and why a future conflict in the South China Sea might look a lot more like WWI than WWII. (That future scenario is the subject of John’s Game, Breaking The Chains). Plus, your host’s recent eBay purchase makes him wonder aloud, “Is there a better way to keep wargames in print?”  

The storm of wargame designer interviews continues to rage! Kim Kanger (Tonkin, Ici c'est la France!), Jim Day (Panzer, Iron & Oak) and John Poniske (Lincoln's War, Hearts And Minds) are our guests in future episodes, coming soon. (c) 2014 Tom Grant

Monday, March 31, 2014

I’ve Been Diced! episode 52: Steve Kendall of Ragnar Brothers

Steve Kendall gives us a brief history of the Ragnar Brothers and the games they’ve produced. Ponder why Angola may have had more successful innovations than any other single game. Hear about the playtest of a new epoch for A Brief History Of The World. Learn why Viking Fury / Fire & Axe is a more accurate depiction of the Vikings than that History Channel series with Gabriel Byrne. Find out about the careful word choices and interesting design decisions behind Promised Land. Get the news about their new game, Steam Donkey. Plus, we look back on two classic microgames, Melee and Wizard, and wonder, where the heck is anything like them today?

The storm of wargame designer interviews begins! In rapid succession, we will be publishing interviews with Steve Kendall, John Gorgowski, Kim Kanger, Jim Day, and John Poniske. You’ll be getting them as fast as we can edit them! Copyright © 2014 Tom Grant

Saturday, March 8, 2014

I've Been Diced! episode 51: The PrezCon 2014 edition

We're at Prezcon 2014, where we talk about the games we played, such as A Distant Plain, Theseus: The Dark Orbit, Coup, Cosmic Encounter, Napoleonic Wars, and the recent favorite A Study In Emerald. Plus, wargames that give a little extra historical something. (c) 2014 Tom Grant

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

I've Been Diced! episode 50: Joel Toppen

Joel Toppen is our guest this episode, here to tell us how he designed Navajo Wars, and give us a sneak peek into his next game, covering the Comanches. Joel also provides useful advice on building Vassal modules (he's built dozens himself). Finally, Tom gives some recommendations for solitaire wargames. (c) 2014 Tom Grant

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

I've Been Diced! Episode 49: 2013 in review

We look back on our 2013 in gaming. Best and worst experiences, biggest surprises (good and bad), best fun per dollar, best digital boardgame translation...Vicariously share our action-packed year of gaming. Plus, the Up Front! Kickstarter project's woes point to some serious risks for boardgames that start as Kickstarter projects.  The first podcast of 2014, completed in spite of my sound board's apparent demise, and problems uploading the podcast. I will not be defeated!  (c) 2014 Tom Grant

Sunday, November 10, 2013

I've Been Diced! episode 48: The Bobby Lee Kickstarter campaign, and why you should play more wargames about the American Civil War

Tom and Grant Dalgliesh stop by to discuss their successful Kickstarter campaign for Napoleon, and the new Kickstarter for Bobby Lee. Plus, your host has seven reasons why you should be playing more wargames about the American Civil War. (c) 2013 Tom Grant

Monday, July 29, 2013

I've Been Diced! episode 47: Ignoble successes and serious SF games

Remember two episodes, when we discussed noble failures? Now it's time for ignoble successes, the games that were more successful than they should have been. Plus, Tom gives his list of 10 science fiction boardgames for people who are serious about science fiction. (c) 2013 Tom Grant

Friday, July 12, 2013

I've Been Diced! episode 46: Paul Rohrbaugh of High Flying Dice Games

Paul Rohrbaugh of High Flying Dice is our guest this episode. If you're not familiar with this publisher of low-cost, print-on-demand wargames, you should be. Paul and I talk about the company, his game designs, and games as educational tools. (c) 2013 Tom Grant

Monday, May 6, 2013

I've Been Diced! episode 45: Noble failures, and Eclipse on the iPad

Many games come oh so very close to being good, or event great, but don't...quite...make it. That's the topic for this episode, noble failures. Even if they didn't completely succeed, from a design or a market perspective, these games deserve respect. Plus, Tom reviews Eclipse, both the new iPad version and the original boardgame. (c) 2013 Tom Grant

Saturday, April 13, 2013

I've Been Diced! episode 44: Grant and Tom Dalgliesh on Columbia Games and the new, Kickstarted edition of Napoleon

Tom and Grand Dalgliesh of Columbia Games talk about their Kickstarted new edition of the classic block game Napoleon. We also delve into the secret of Columbia Games' sustained success, the history of the company (including Hârn), some possible new games, and the reasons why the real history of Macbeth would make an awesome game. Plus, a game off the beaten track that's the best solitaire wargame you'll ever play that doesn't have any pieces. (c) 2013 Tom Grant

Monday, March 18, 2013

I've Been Diced! episode 43: A Descent into frustration, and a belated best/worst of 2012 list

Tom, TJ, Kevin, and Jason have a therapy session about Descent 2nd edition, with some primal screaming. Why was this game so hard to love? Is it time to break up? Plus, Tom's belated list of noteworthy games from 2012. (c) 2013 Tom Grant

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

I've Been Diced! episode 42: Volko Ruhnke

Volko Ruhnke is our guest, and boy, do we have a lot to talk about. From Wilderness War to Labyrinth, from Andean Abyss to the next games in the counterinsurgency series, we've got it all. How do you portray guerrilla warfare and terrorism in wargames? Why haven't there been more games about the most frequent conflicts of the last century, the internal ones? And what's a Tupemaro, anyway? (c) 2013 Tom Grant

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 41: Jason White, fantasy wargames, and iOS boardgaming

Jason White, formerly of the Point2Point podcast, chats with Tom about the games we've been playing, from No Retreat on the table to Summoner Wars on the iPad. Our game off the beaten path is not one, but two fantasy wargames with a very different backstory. Tom worries that companies porting boardgames to mobile devices might listen to the wrong customers. (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Monday, September 17, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 40: Jason Matthews

Jason Matthews, designer of Twilight Struggle, 1989, Founding Fathers, 1960, and Campaign Manager 2008, drops in for a discussion of his games, the Cold War, and political games. Plus, your host nominates the top 10 modern conflicts that don't get enough coverage in wargames. (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Sunday, August 19, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 39: Martin Wallace

Martin Wallace talks about his wide, wide portfolio of games, when he got the inspiration for many of them, how he starts the design with a fundamental mechanic, why he doesn't get train games, and what to expect in his new Doctor Who game. Plus, why the heck would you want multiple games on the same topic? (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Monday, August 6, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 38: Jerry Taylor

Jerry Taylor stops by to discuss his games, Hammer of the Scots, Crusader Rex, and Richard III. What makes the Middle Ages great source material for wargames? How do subtle differences in Columbia block games translate into major game effects? How do you simulate asymmetric situations, such as the Third Crusade and the War of the Roses, while still making the game fun to play? Plus, some musings on what wargame companies owe us, if anything. (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 37: Adam Starkweather

Adam Starkweather tells us about his collaborations with Japanese designers on A Victory Lost, Warriors Of God, Fire In The Sky, and A Most Dangerous Time. Adam also tells us about the origins of his two mega-tactical games, Devil's Cauldron and Where Eagles Dare, and his upcoming wargames, including a Normandy version of Cauldron/Eagles. Plus, our panelists provide pointers on pedagogy -- or, some tips on teaching boardgames to new players. (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Monday, July 16, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 36: Ed Beach

Ed Beach discusses his boardgames, including Here I Stand, Virgin Queen, and the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War series. We also talk about Ed's work on the Civilization V computer game, including the new Gods & Kings expansion. How similar or different are board games and computer games, from a design perspective? Plus, Tom gives some recommends some Civil War games for the new wargamer. (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Monday, July 9, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 35: Carl Paradis, designer of No Retreat!

Carl Paradis talks about the genesis of the No Retreat! series of wargames, and where they're headed. We also journey into Carl's secret Napoleonic room, and we find out about the challenges designing a simpler, faster wargame that's true to the history. (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Saturday, May 26, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 34: Ben Hull

Ben Hull stops by for an in-depth discussion of his wargames, including Fields of Fire, the Musket & Pike series, and his upcoming operational game of the Thirty Years War. Plus, Ben throws in a recommendation for historical fiction buffs at the end. (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Monday, May 14, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 33: Go east, middle-aged man!

Tom's trek across the continental United States is done, so we're back to blab about boardgames. In this episode, we catch up about the games we've been playing, from fishing fleets in the Atlantic (Upon A Salty Sea) to battling Brits in North Africa (Battle Academy). We find interesting parallels between FFG's A Game Of Thrones and Radiohead. Other games discussed include Mage Knight, Nightfall (physical and iOS), Ascension (iOS), Neue Heimat, Conflict Of Heroes (PC), 1989, Tonkin, and more. (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Sunday, April 8, 2012

I've Been Diced! And now a special announcement

In which your host explains why we're pressing the pause button briefly, as he makes his way from one side of the continent to another.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Hours of fun per gaming dollar

In the latest podcast, I proposed a measure for the value of games, the ratio of gaming hours per dollar. (Let's abbreviate this ration HPD, for convenience.) The HPD for a game like Mage Knight: The Boardgame is pretty high: out of the box, you get a very good game with a lot of depth. A lot to explore, even if there were only one scenario, but the designer provided several scenarios to explore, out of the box.

I'm repeating the phrase out of the box for a reason. The HPD for a game should depend on what you get, prior to any expansions. That's what makes the HPD very high for Mage Knight, and even higher for its granddaddy, Magic Realm. Good gravy, that game provides a lot of different dimensions to master, and a lot of different options to explore. Again, out of the box.

Which brings me to another recent publication, the new edition of Wiz-War from Fantasy Flight Games. I'm not such an old fogey that I swing my cane at any young whippersnapper of a designer who dares tinker with a time-honored classic. The tweaks in the FFG edition of Cosmic Encounter, for example, made sense, and were thankfully limited. Cosmic Encounter might have needed a tune-up, but not a brand new engine.

But some people can't help but open the hood and start pulling out parts. Decision Games has a bad track record of damaging games like Empires of the Middle Ages and Imperium through unnecessary changes. FFG altered the combat system for Dungeonquest for no good reason, and it seems as though Kevin Wilson went a rule too far with the new Wiz-War.  Over at Boardgame Geek, Rusty Ballinger provides a very balanced critique of this new edition, which unfortunately echoed some of my concerns when I started perusing my copy of the game.

Yes, I know, you can easily ignore some of the new rules. It doesn't cost you anything to change the victory conditions back to the classic "capture two chests." But there are other aspects of the new Wiz-War that, I fear, reduce the HPD ratio. Read Rusty Ballinger's review for some examples, and I'll add one of my own:

The old Wiz War might have been underproduced, but you sure got a lot of plays out of it.

The box was small, so it didn't take up too much room in your gaming closet. There were only two expansions, and each was relatively inexpensive. Even without the expansions, out of the box, you'd get a lot of plays out of the basic set. Which makes the HPD ratio even higher than it is with the new edition, almost by definition.

Given the choice, I'd rather have nicer components than uglier ones. But the components don't really add much to the HPD ratio. Sure, it gives you that "good all under" feeling when you first look at it, but how long does that frisson last? Especially when compared to more durable aspects of the game, like its replayability?

Nothing comes for free. You focus your attention on the components, and you invest less in other things -- like the rulebook. As Rusty Ballinger asks, "Dammit, you guys had twenty years to straighten out ambiguities  & questions; how could you leave old ones & add new ones!?" The answer to that question is, the rules were a lesser priority for this edition. Rules problems -- holes, ambiguities, changes, misinterpretations -- are a net loss in HPD terms. You're spending less time actually playing, and more time figuring out the right way to play. Ugh.

I've Been Diced! episode 32: Mage Knight

We heard that Mage Knight: The Boardgame was mildly popular, so we're providing an introduction to the game. What are the core rules, and how do they work together? What are some tips for beginning players? But first, we bemoan the frequency with which many recent games become unavailable. And later, Tom outlines his theory of gaming hours per dollar. Has that ratio gone up or down over time? Are we getting more or less out of the box? (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Monday, February 6, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 31: Three player games

Three gamers walk into a bar. So what do they play? We discuss three player boardgames: which ones are good, and what makes them work. Plus, a quick historical overview of Eastern Front wargames. Which is a history of history, really. (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 30: The games that got away

What are the boardgames we regret not buying, when we had the chance? Which ones do we regret selling? In this episode, we discover how light of heart Dave is, and what a great burden of remorse Tom carries with him. Plus, since we've frequently discussed Martin Wallace's Princes of the Renaissance, Tom gives a quick overview of the game and a recommendation for a related Wallace game. (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The historical pleasures of playing wargames

We've talked about the dual appeal of wargames, as both games and explorations of history, in both the I've Been Diced! podcast and the blog. Here's another great example by Bruce Geryk from another blog, where he explains how he fell in love with an historical Advanced Squad Leader module about an obscure battle on the Eastern Front.

Are iOS boardgames better for new or experienced players?

Yesterday, I had my first crack at the iPad version of Caylus. Amazingly, I've never played the physical version, even during the stampede of enthusiasm right after its initial release. Just something I never got around to, and now I can.

My first impressions are fairly tepid. It may be the game, or it may be the port of the game to the iOS platform. The developer, Big Daddy Creations, did a fantastic job with Neuroshima Hex, which is still one of my all-time moible versions of a boardgame, something I still play when I'm waiting for the subway train or otherwise need to kill a few minutes.

In contrast to my first impressions, people at BGG seem to like it. Reading through this thread, I suspect it might have something to do with their prior experience with Caylus. Where I need to keep clicking multiple times to find out what a building does, they already know.

Or, I could be wrong. So, research nerd that I am, I started a poll at BGG about iOS boardgames generally. Do they have any different level of appeal for people who have played the game, versus people who are new to it?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 29: 2011 in review

Our obligatory but spirited take on 2011. What we liked and hated, what surprised us, what disappointed us. Plus, why Pursuit of Glory is both a great game and a great history lesson. (c) 2011 Tom Grant

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Excavating the Great Escape tunnels

Probably anyone reading this blog will want to follow this link to an article about the excavation of the tunnels that Allied soldiers used for the largest escape from a Nazi prison camp in World War II. You may have heard of the event. What was that movie called, The Big Escape? The Economy-Sized Escape?

Avalon Hill's magazine The General available in digital format

You may have heard me wax nostalgically about Avalon Hill's "house organ," The General. That magazine was a foundation of Avalon Hill's success, since it helped initiate people into the hobby and kept them engage. The series replay articles, for example, showed you how the game worked and what basic strategies one might employ, easing adoption of even the most complex game. They gave you a "See/Try/Buy" moment, as a customer, albeit in a surrogate fashion. And they were fun to read, often including hilarious smack-talk.

Other types of articles in The General were equally good. Designer notes, strategy articles, variants -- all great content. I wish this sort of journal still existed, in printed or electronic format. It kinda does, but the content is scattered all over the place, from the publisher's web sites to Boardgame Geek to Consimworld to blogs to the lost Crusader kingdom of Prester John. (OK, not the last one, but definitely the rest.) In the process, the collection of content around a game list coherence. When Avalon Hill published a new game, you expected to see an article by the designer and a series replay, at the very least. Both are very valuable kinds of content that largely don't exist today, or are very hard to track down.

So, imagine my delight in hearing that someone was digitizing The General and selling it on DVD. I make no recommendations about how to interpret their claims that the content is in the public domain or not. I'll just say that, if you buy these electronic version, or the old printed versions, you'll find great articles about games still played today, such as Titan, Third Reich, Magic Realm, and others.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

I've Been Diced! cameo appearance on The Dice Tower

The first part of the Dice Tower's 2011 in review is up, and I'm one among many contributors to it. Here's a direct link to the MP3. Many thanks to Tom Vasel for permitting me into such illustrious company. (But what happens if you don't join the Dice Tower network? Do Guido and Knuckles pay you a visit?)

You'll hear our own 2011 in review in a day or two. Not only do we provide our usual lively discussion, but you'll hear how boardgames might drive me to a life of crime. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

I've Been Diced! episode 28: Eric Lee Smith

Our game designer interviews continue with Eric Lee Smith. Aside from designing classic wargames like Across 5 Aprils, Panzer Command, Ambush!, and The Civil War, Eric is also the founder of Shenandoah Studio, which is bringing wargames like these to the iPad. Plus, a review of both Titan the beloved boardgame and its iPad version. (c) 2012 Tom Grant

Monday, January 9, 2012

Introductory wargames should teach you something

The introductory wargame is an elusive creature, like the Questing Beast, Nessie, or the informed news anchor. There have been lots of candidates, but nearly all of them have fallen short. For example, Memoir '44 might give someone who has never played a boardgame more complicated than Monopoly a sense of what a boardgame that simulates military conflict might be able to do. Unfortunately, it doesn't do much in the simulation department. If you were looking for a game experience that feels like the landings at "Bloody Omaha," or the slog through bocage country, or any other aspect of World War II that Memoir '44 tries to represent, keep looking.

If you're willing to put the time and effort into a game about World War II, or any other topic in military history, it should provide an experience that feels right. The experience is not a function of detail or complexity; in fact, detail and complexity often get in the way. People who want to experience history in a new way, other than a book or documentary, want to reach that moment when they say one of the following, either to themselves or the person on the other side of the table:
  • Yeah. That felt about right.
  • Huh. I didn't know that.
A single game doesn't need to provide the Yeah or Huh moments across every aspect of warfare that might conceivably matter, from firepower to logistics to political constraints to leadership to God only knows how many other relevant details there might be. Games tell a story, and you can make one or two dramatic points in even the shortest of short stories.

Most of the discussions about wargames, including the "gateway" games, have focused on the Yeah moments. Did this game reinforce our perceptions of what armed conflict is all about? Did A Victory Lost do a credible job of depicting Operation Saturn, or does it have too many "gamey" elements to suspend disbelief? (Which is one of my complaints about Memoir '44, the painfully gamey left/center/right division of the battlefield, which might have made sense for the Civil War or Ancients, but makes no sense for WWII battles.)

As I said, the Yeah factor has to be there for the game to seem credible, and therefore worth playing for the interest in history you share with your opponent and the designer. The Huh factor needs to be there sometimes, too, and not just in games for well-entrenched grognards. At least one Huh moment needs to be in every introductory wargame, to hook the neophyte into the hobby.

Lots of classic wargames of relatively low complexity -- in other words, good introductory wargames-- provide that Huh factor. For example, in The Russian Campaign, Germany's gradual loss of the airpower advantage makes a big, big difference. At the start, you get three counters that you can drop into any battle to shift the odds greatly in your favor. Congratulations, you've just learned why Wehrmacht generals used the word Schwerpunkt a lot in sentences. With airpower, you can blast your way through a critical location in the Soviet defenses, then pour your armor and mechanized infantry units into the enemy's rear areas. This operational advantage gives you a major strategic edge, being able to seize the initiative. Later in the war, you lose airpower, which means you lose the ability to create a Schwerpunkt, which means you lose the initiative. Sure, you might have read that story before in a history book, but words alone are a far weaker way to drive home the importance of air power than experiencing it, even if it's in a surrogate and simplified way.

You'll find another good Huh moment in Napoleon, the classic block game about the Waterloo campaign. Napoleon throws you into the deep end of the strategic pool right away, even if the game has only a dozen or so pages of rules. (Maybe fewer. I don't have my copy available to check.) Most low-complexity wargames leave out fog of war because it's too hard to simulate without adding complexity ot the game. Sure, it'd be great if you could have fog of war in Command & Colours: Ancients, so that you really didn't know how strong the left wing of Alexander's army is, after hammering at it for a couple of simulated hours. However, it's not worth the extra bookkeeping or double-blind rules you'd need to make it work. In Napoleon, the blocks depicting the enemy's units face away from you, at start. Is that column of French troops headed towards Ligny the crème of Bonaparte's army, or just a few weak troops used as a diversion?

Again, a relatively simple wargame includes a detail that makes you say, Huh. You've read about the frustrations generals experienced when they had to make life-or-death, win-or-lose decisions with little or no reliable information. Or, perhaps, you're so new to military history that you've not ready how much limited intelligence played a role in Napoleonic-era warfare. Once you play Napoleon, you'll get the point, usually after blundering into a battle you didn't want to fight.

Experienced wargamers will play new titles, even if they don't add any Huh moments. You might buy your fourth or fifth simulation of the Battle of the Bulge, not because you think you'll learn anything new, but because you think the latest effort might be a more interesting game to play, or a better simulation of the event. Of course, you'll have to have been hooked into the hobby already to have reached that point, which begs the question, what was it in the first wargame you played that excited your interest as a history buff?