Friday, February 18, 2011

Hating the haters of "hex and counter" wargames

Every once in a while, you'll see a forum post, blog entry, or other piece of content that takes disparages traditional "hex and counter" wargames. While I can forgive a little bit of adolescent arrogance ("These are a new generation of wargames, old man!"), at some point you have to call BS on exaggerations or falsehoods. Like, say, the false assumption that newer wargame formats can't co-exist with the older types.

Clearly, wargame design needed some shaking up. When I was a subscriber to Strategy & Tactics, I received in every issue yet another treatment of an historical event, always jammed into the same medium of hexes, combat result tables (CRTs), zones of control, and counters depicting combat and movement ratings. Innovation was pretty limited: for example, the "sticky" zones of control in Panzergruppe Guderian inspired far more conversation and controversy than they probably deserved.

Impatience with this very constricted approach started a very long time ago. Courtney Allen, for example, was responsible for two of the biggest divergences from traditional "hex and counter" designs. (It's probably more accurate to call them "hex and CRT" games, but the "hex and counter" moniker is already too well-established to dispute it.) Storm Over Arnhem (1981) shifted to an area movement model, introduced a combat system that did not rely on a CRT, and added a novel activation system that gave a better feel for the ebb and flow of combat. Up Front! (1983) did away with a map altogether, made a deck of cards the mechanism for giving orders, and replaced die rolls with the same deck of cards. Since Avalon Hill marketed Up Front! as "the Squad Leader card game," this radically new design outraged many Squad Leader fans who expected something closer to the boardgame experience.

Courtney Allen is hardly the only designer to have made the move away from the original "hex and counter" paradigm. However, he does show, with just one notable example, of how the shift away from the old paradigm started a lot earlier than some "hex and counter" critics realize.

None of these designers thought that they were abandoning maps with hexes, or combat resolution systems that depended on comparing a die roll to a chart, or counters that contained combat and movement ratings. We The People, for example, created the "card-driven game" mechanics that are now a pillar of modern wargame design. We The People also used a point-to-point map of the American colonies, instead of hex grid, and it replaced die rolling with a combat deck.

We The People was a breakthrough game, but I'm afraid that some observers misread what its innovations meant for the hobby. After We The People, Mark Herman designed games with hex-based maps (Empire Of The Rising Sun), CRTs (Washington's War), and turns that didn't depend on card plays (the continuing Great Battles Of History series, in ongoing collaboration with Richard Berg).

The wargame designers who invented card-driven turns, abandoned hex grids, replaced counters with blocks, or made other important innovations did not think that they were invalidating the old conventions of wargames. Quite the opposite: they felt that they were expanding the palette of design options, not switching to a new but equally limited range of options.

To make this point, I'm including two maps from recent games about the Spanish Civil War. Crusade & Revolution's map is point-based; The Spanish Civil War's map is a traditional hex grid. In no way is one map choice better than the other. The conclusion: Both are maps of Spain. The Spanish Civil War does a fine job of depicting the conflict with its "old school" mechanics. (See this video review for details.) There's no reason to turn up your nose at it, just because its map doesn't look like Paths Of Glory's.

In fact, the "hex and counter" paradigm may be making a bit of a comeback. In many cases, a hex-grid map is a better way to depict geography, or at least an equally good one. For instance, hexes can simplify the task of depicting the area of operations for air power at the operational and strategic level. A CRT can eliminate some of the weirder results that "buckets of dice" mechanics can generate. We're seeing the plus sides of hex grids and CRTs in games like The Spanish Civil War, Corp Command: TotenSonntag, the popular OCS and SCS series, and countless other titles.

So, Junior, before you slam the old order too hard, remember that you may grow up to become the very thing you're now disparaging. That's OK, since recognizing false dichotomies for what they are is a sure sign of maturity.

1 comment:

  1. Nice article, but "Ow! My eyes!" White or bright yellow text on black is terrible for small type.