by James Dunnigan
December 14, 2003
December 14, 2003
Commercial wargames began in the late 1950s as much simplified versions of systems used by professional soldiers for over a century. Unlike the professional games, those first commercial designs from Avalon Hill were actually historical simulations. The professional wargames concentrated on fighting tomorrow's battles, not yesterdays. Moreover, the professional games concentrated a lot of effort on tactical and operational level operations, while the first commercial wargames were largely strategic level.
There was a reason for this, and the reason was simplicity and accessibility. The professional wargames were complex beasts, requiring many hours of work to master, and equally long hours to play through. The commercial games had to be much more accessible. Even though these games were being bought by an upscale market of well educated men and teenagers, no one would have bought a game done to professional military standards. It was quickly discovered that commercial success meant a game that could be learned in less than half an hour, and played in two or three.
The early game designers were not concerned so much about complexity as they were in making the game historically realistic. This was not as easy as it looked, but most of the development effort went into creating a simulation that could, with reasonable (or at least convincing) accuracy reproduce the historical event it represented.
But then something unexpected happened. As gamers played more of the early games, they became adept at easily handling game procedures that scared off most of the population. Gamers trained themselves, by simply playing a lot, to a level where they could easily handle more complex procedures. Designers, being experienced gamers themselves, also became adept enough to create more complex games that did not collapse under mountains of procedures. The more complex games could thus cover more detail in the historical situation, but too often the more complex games were, well, simply more complex.
Then something less unexpected happened. The more complex a game was, the fewer copies were sold. Many experienced gamers who were capable of dealing with the more complex games decided that, for them, life was too short and they would just stick with the simpler games. Thus, after the first wave of complex games appeared in the mid-1970s, there was something of a backlash as gamers snapped simpler games in large quantities.
I always preferred to add as little complexity as possible to a design, in order to achieve additional (or necessary) realism or play value. I've designed a few complex games, and don't remember the process, or the results, fondly. It always seemed much ado about not much. But I was in the minority among game designers, and after I left the business in 1980, the designers of more complex games predominated. Many went on to design rules for miniatures games, an area that concentrated on detailed simulation of tactical operations.
The point of a historical simulation is to replicate the decision making process of the two commanders. This has more to do with things like decision cycles (which vary from army to army and period to period) and customs and habits among commanders (ditto.) One reason people preferred games that featured outstanding military was that these guys had, in effect, "special powers." They didn't play by the rules historically, so you had to invent new game procedures to replicate the additional capabilities these Great Captains brought to the battlefield. Wellington simplified this effect somewhat when he said "Napoleon was worth 40,000 men." Napoleon was more than that, but it's true that his skills often had the same effect as giving a less able general an extra army corps or two. But a good designer would want to capture those specific skills of Napoleon (insight, speedy decision making, inspiration to troops and commanders alike, and so on) in his design. Other Great Captains would bring a different mix of magic to the battle, although I have found that there is a limited menu of skills for Great Captains to choose from. Still, players enjoyed seeing that kind of specialization.
Through the 1980s and 90s, designers concentrated on items that had previously been hidden from view. But this was often at the expense of simplicity. The details, real or imagined, of mechanized operations, intelligence play and psychological warfare became popular items for designers to spotlight. A game that paid a lot of attention to things logistics was a hard sell, even to the most experienced grognard.
The collapse of the wargame market in the 1980s gave designers an incentive to be even more creative, and they were. There was a lot more in game design, and close attention paid to the shrinking pool of customers. Complex procedures were simplified and new game mechanics were used to keep players involved, without losing them in a morass of procedures. Card based games often dispensed with the map altogether. Random events became more common, and realistic. As the 80s went into the 90s, designers became, quite naturally, more skilled and resourceful.
With the appearance of the Internet, it became a lot easier for designers and publishers to be in regular contact with their customers. BBS systems and email, which proliferated in the 1980s, were limited by the relatively small number of people who were online. This changed in the 1990s and wargamers quickly became a vibrant online community. Wargames, including the manual ones, went online as well. Programs like Aide de Camp and Cyberboard allowed gamers to play their favorite manual games on a PC, and with opponents anywhere on the net. It was no longer a major chore to find live opponents.
When I started StrategyPage in 1999, part of the impetus was the proposition; what would a 21st century "Strategy & Tactics" look like? There are no games on StrategyPage, because wargames are a mature industry. This was not the case in 1999, thus there was no opportunity to do the same thing we did in 1969. Actually, we do have a unique type of wargame planned for StrategyPage, but we like to stay in the black. It's much more time consuming and expensive to create and publish a computer wargame than it is for a manual one. So it will be a while before we get the game element online.
Manual games were turned into a niche market by PCs and role playing games. That is not likely to change. Even computer versions of manual games do not have a large market because of the much greater popularity of fantasy and Science Fiction type games. This has created a situation where many of the best designers develop new game concepts for a very small segment of the game market. Stranger still, few of these make it over to the more popular market segments. In the 1980s and 90s, many of the computer game developers had a background in manual wargames. But this changed as more young designers came into the business who had cut their teeth on video and PC games. Gamers who have been playing manual and computer games since the 1970s have noted that many of the earlier computer games had more meat on them (in terms of game value) than current efforts. A lot of this has to do with the appeal of eye candy (snazzy graphics), which is where a lot of the budget goes. Most current games provide more work for novelists (scenario writers) than for game designers.
Which reminds me of what I used to tell the folks at SPI during the 1970s, "these are the good old days, enjoy them while you can."
This article is ten years old, but still rings true. I'm a small time wargamer myself, I have about a dozen war-games of varying complexities and scenarios. In the 80s war-games really did get massively complicated. Compare Sixth Fleet to 3rd Fleet. Same series, ten years later and the game is massively more complicated. The emphasis on the minutiae of war can at times be a plus or massive negative. Now, with the advent of the Internet we have wargames like World of Tanks (which is a lot of fun, if you have a good computer), or War Thunder which allow platoon level combat on the ground or in the sky. There is no multi-hour set-up for games like 7th Fleet or SPI's Third World War, nor do online games take upwards of 24 hours to play to the end.
Unfortunately, there will probably never be a return of wargaming with the massive community, large number of publishers, and large selection of games that there was back in the 80s. Part of this has to do with the collapse of the USSR which removed a great deal of fodder for war-games back then. So many games were based on a U.S. vs. USSR war, with variants for all theaters. From Western Europe to the Balkans, and the Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific. Perhaps someday there might be return of wargaming with a potential U.S. vs. China war or China v.s. Russia war, but I doubt it. There simply isn't the high demand for physical war-games any more.
And that's a shame, because there is a unique feeling after you set up a big war-game, play it out and finish it. It's hard to explain, but it's something along the lines of that you know the time spent wargaming was time well spent.