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?

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