What Makes a Wargame?

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What are the essentials that make a game into a "wargame".

I've been thinking about this since the site redesign, when some discussion was had about the reasoning for getting away from the label "Ameritrash." The Eurogame vs. Ameritrash argument instigated the original blog's founding, from which followed the F:AT site, and now TWBG. Over the course of years, many of the ardent Ameritrash fans became just as enthusiastic fans of games like Tigris and Euphrates or Ra as they were of something like Dungeonquest, leading many to question why there had to be a division at all. But even stepping past that, there are still labels assigned to games in the same way that there are to music or films or books or most other kinds of entertainment media that humans normally engage with. There are abstract strategy games (chess, Go, etc.), auction games, party games, storytelling games, cooperative games, negotiation games, etc. And there are wargames, which encompass a wealth of variety within that label.

So, what makes a wargame? Are there a certain set of factors that make them distinctly "wargames" as opposed to other types of games? Is defeating your opponent via combat an essential aspect? Most 4X games (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) are often considered to be wargames because a primary method of winning is military supremacy that reinforces what may be systemic supremacy of another kind (economic, territorial, etc.) However, Star Trek: Ascendancy is considered a 4X game in which it is entirely possible to win without ever committing a hostile action. In fact, it's even encouraged to try to do so for two factions in the game (the Federation and the Ferengi) that are far more capable at exploration and economics, respectively, than warfare. Similarly, a game like Twilight Imperium can also be won by accumulating points off agendas that may have nothing to do with warfare, but rather technological or economic advancement. On the other hand, Runewars, which also carries many of the aspects of a 4X game, seems specifically slanted toward being a wargame (it's in the title, after all), since victory is based on territorial acquisition that can't really be done except by using armies. Most of these could be categorized as "civ builder" games, since building civilizations quite often does involve armed combat, but not exclusively so.

Are wargames based on theme? Most of the 4X games mentioned above aren't specifically themed around warfare. But what about a game like Twilight Struggle? The theme of that game is the Cold War, which involved widespread warfare, as well as cultural factors, despite the two antagonists rarely engaging each other directly (hence, the title.) But there is no direct combat in Twilight Struggle at all; no armies, no die rolls for clashes of steel and fire. Most wouldn't consider chess to be a "wargame", but the origins of one of the best known abstract strategy games do lie in the concept of putting pieces on a board to represent soldiers at war, no different from Stratego.

Are wargames based on mechanics? Many games are defined by their pieces and rules as wargames. Block wargames, for example, aren't usually considered to be anything else but. They're usually based around a single battle, campaign, or war and their pieces are meant to convey the movement and action of armies in combat. Similarly, Avalon Hill's venerable series of games like Panzerblitz are always labeled wargames simply because of how they play (hex-and-counter.) But a lot of older adventure games, including many produced by Avalon Hill, used a hex-and-counter system but were adventure games, like Magic Realm.

Is it just personal preference, like so many other classifications of media (Is Tom Waits blues, pop, jazz, or all three?)? From my perspective, Sekigahara will always be a wargame. Twilight Struggle, not so much. Runewars will always be a wargame. But Twilight Imperium is something else. Cyclades, to me, is a wargame. But Here I Stand...? Mechanics say wargame (counters on a map.) Theme says wargame (the Reformation wars.) But there's something else going on there. Perhaps a more complex wargame?

Obviously, since I'm asking so many questions, I'd be interested to hear opinions on what defines a wargame. Or whether there should be any definition at all.

Marc ReichardtFollow Marc Reichardt


Marc started gaming at the age of 5 by beating everyone at Monopoly, but soon decided that Marxism, science fiction, and wargames were more interesting than money, so he opted for writing (and more games) while building political parties, running a comic studio, and following Liverpool. You can find him on Twitter @Jackwraith and lurking in other corners of the Interwebs.


What Makes a Wargame? There Will Be Games
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Posted: 13 Jun 2018 05:19 by Sagrilarus #275274
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Gwynn Dyer defined a soldier not as someone with permission to kill, but as someone with permission to die. That's what binds all combatants on the battlefield.

After years of reading people try to define the genre, I've boiled it down to one abstract concept -- stepping into harm's way -- which meshes with Dyer's observation above. In a wargame you step into harm's way in order to advance your agenda. That's the only concept that seems to unify all the titles I put into the category.
Posted: 14 Jun 2018 06:03 by Malloc #275366
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Personally I prefer a more classic narrow description of a war game.

Its really got nothing to do with a game having combat in it. May games do but i wouldnt call the wargames. It has to do more with how a game plays.

Ultimately this is why categories exist, I know right away what to expect when one of my game buddies say “this is a war game”. Or “this is a eurogame”. It doesnt help anyone if we lump ASL into the same category as kemet. Sure both have combat but they are different play experiences.

Maybe the term watgame is outdated, sorta how most of the “kids” out theee dont really get what Ameritrash means or was about. But its the term we have.

Sure not everything will fit neatly. I would argure the Twilight Struggle is more of a war game than not, but thats not really the point. The important part is that i can convey to someone who has not played a game what the experience will be like.

So call me old school, but i like to be able to wuickly categorize a game. Even if at best its an 80% accurate description, its a place to start.
Posted: 14 Jun 2018 07:19 by Jackwraith #275374
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I get that. And I'm not wedded to classifications, either. In the example I gave about music, I wouldn't classify Waits as any of those things, because he's all of them. He's his own thing and so are many games. But I certainly understand the desire like you've expressed: to be able to give someone an idea of what they're getting into in a convenient fashion. I think Twilight Struggle is a kind of wargame, too, but I'd only introduce it that way to a specific audience: one that I know already likes wargames. I wouldn't call it that to my Euro-loving girlfriend, because then she'd never play it.
Posted: 14 Jun 2018 08:11 by Sevej #275376
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Well, personally I agree with Malloc. It's a rather specific thing. But it's not really an exclusive term. I can use the jargon with casual ameritrasher, tabletop wargamer, and of course the nards, and they will take the word with different meanings (which, when I'm saying it, I understand what I'm trying to convey).
Posted: 14 Jun 2018 08:42 by the_jake_1973 #275378
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I think Sag has the right of it as far as defining a wargame. If the path to victory is directly through your opponent, it is a wargame to me.

I cut my teeth on old AH and West End games, so the concept may be too concrete in my mind and I automatically assign my internal definition to the word when it comes up in conversation.
Posted: 14 Jun 2018 09:42 by Shellhead #275383
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Obviously a wargame is a game about a war, or at least an individual battle within that war. Beyond that, most wargames favor accuracy in simulation over mere playability. That leads to many other things that I associate with wargames, such as lots of components, complex rules, long setup times, and even longer play times.

As a teenager, I spent almost as much time playing wargames as role-playing games. Then my best friend moved away, and the rest of my friends were primarily into rpgs, so I just abruptly stopped playing wargames. So my observations about wargames may be out of date. At least I didn't insist that wargames include CRTs, hex maps, and lots of cardboard chits.
Posted: 14 Jun 2018 11:52 by Jackwraith #275398
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Shellhead wrote:
Obviously a wargame is a game about a war, or at least an individual battle within that war. Beyond that, most wargames favor accuracy in simulation over mere playability. That leads to many other things that I associate with wargames, such as lots of components, complex rules, long setup times, and even longer play times.

OK. Since you and Jake both associate the term "wargame" with the Avalon Hill style, even if they don't use CRTs and hexes, does that mean that Runewars, for example, isn't a wargame? It fits Sag's definition, but it isn't an historical simulation so accuracy isn't an issue. The rules aren't that complex and setup is pretty easy and it usually can be played in three hours (as opposed to something like, say, Siege of Jerusalem, to mention one of my favorite old AH titles (and one that I still own.)) Runewars has the rules for the heroes which brings in the "adventure" side of it that you'd never find in one of AH or Columbia's block releases. Does that remove it from your definition?
Posted: 14 Jun 2018 12:02 by Shellhead #275401
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I have only played Runewars once, but it didn't feel like a wargame to me, more like a hybrid of a wargame and an adventure game, only too zoomed out to really satisfy in either category. Maybe some euro in the mix. I don't think that a game needs to be based on a historical conflict to qualify as a wargame. Starship Troopers (AH) goes into considerable complexity to simulate a fictional conflict from a book by Robert Heinlein.
Posted: 14 Jun 2018 12:03 by the_jake_1973 #275402
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My overarching definition definitely includes the fantasy and adventure genres. If one force is in armed conflict with another force, it's a wargame. My basis stems from AH games and the like, but it does include other settings.
Posted: 14 Jun 2018 12:18 by Shellhead #275404
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I think that there is a level of scale involved with whether or not a game is a wargame. Conflict between two dudes is more like a boxing or fencing match than a wargame. Conflict between several dudes can be a tactical wargame, if they are organized in military units. But normally I think of a wargame as featuring armies in conflict, and individuals are only relevant if they are leaders.
Posted: 14 Jun 2018 12:23 by Jackwraith #275405
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So, Titan, for example, wouldn't qualify as a wargame?
Posted: 14 Jun 2018 12:32 by Shellhead #275409
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Jackwraith wrote:
So, Titan, for example, wouldn't qualify as a wargame?

I suppose you could have individual monsters or heroes that are powerful enough to fight an army. But I hesitate to agree with an overly broad definition of wargame. If everything is a wargame, then wargame means nothing. Maybe Titan is a wargame, but I wouldn't consider Magic: the Gathering to be a wargame.
Posted: 14 Jun 2018 13:10 by Erik Twice #275414
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I'm also of the opinion that wargames are of a simulationist nature. There was this old definition back at Boardgamegeek where you guys said that Eurogames seek elegance, Ameritrash seeks drama and wargames seek to represent reality and I think that's a good starting point.

Hence, I would say Runewars, like Twilight Imperium, is Ameritrash. Titan is also Ameritrash, despite the wargame minigame. Which makes sense, since it was originally an expansion.

Of course, there are no airtight definitions of any genre, they are always cultural things with no clear meaning. If you go to video game forums you see a lot of debate and back and forth over what is a "RPG" and it's actually kind of hilarious what is and isn't considered a train game because it's not intuitive at first glance (Power Grid is a train game, Russian Railroads is not) and seems to boil down to "How likely are 18XX players to play it".
Posted: 17 Jun 2018 10:54 by Sevej #275617
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Yeah, in the board game realm it's kind of "I know it when I see it".

It's funny how I'm trying to find differences about Euro & AT, but Wargames always escape my attention, due to it having such a fixed, and "narrow" definition.