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Dudes on a Map Board Games: Chess to Root

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There Will Be Games
Expressions of self through unchanging simulacra.

"Bishop to King 7. Checkmate, I think."

That was the shy and introverted Sebastian in the film, Blade Runner, stating a move in their running chess game to his boss, the far more self-assured Eldon Tyrell. Chess is a game about many things, but the most prominent among them are area control and asserting the dominance of position of one set of pieces over another. While any one piece can capture any other, there is a presence exerted by the mobility of the more valued pieces that makes their moves more personal to the typical player. That is a pawn. This is MY queen or MY bishop. Their moves are an outward expression of who I am as a player. They are simulacra of me, the person. The subtle message in the film, of course, is that Sebastian is being guided in his moves by an actual simulacrum of Tyrell, where the overarching question is whether a replicant is an object or a human and who is playing whom.

Dudes on a Map games are typically wargames. They're contests between nations/races/civlizations or representations of any of those to determine who is the best; who is preeminent; who is the ascendant civilization of the galaxy or the world or a corner of medieval Europe or a tableau of 64 squares. The apocryphal story of the creation of chess is that of a vizier tasked by his king to find a way of settling a dispute between kingdoms without bloodshed, on pain of his own death. Discovered sitting in the mountains carving small figures from soapstone and ivory, the king felt that his wisest vizier had failed; that there was no way of solving disputes without violence and his advisor had been reduced to idling the time away while he waited for his own execution. But maybe that guy had an idea...

It's often said that games are "idle pursuits" and that a society's choices of entertainment reflect who they are as a culture. Perhaps more accurately, each person's choice reflects who they are as an individual. How does their "idle time" (when not out being a highly productive member of society and contributing to the economy!) demonstrate their approach to life and relationships? What does moving pieces of plastic around on a sheet of cardboard reveal about you, if anything?

Dudes on a Map games

Does color play a role? I favor black or red, most of the time. But I'm a Marxist and a Liverpool fan, so those are the colors that I tend to think of as "me". My friends have commented on the ominous nature of the growing sea of black pieces on my side of the board in Twilight Imperium games. But we're programmed to think of black as a daunting color or situation (see: Darth Vader.) Is that an expression of inherent advantage? People won't think to mess with the angry red guy or the threatening black tide. But white is generally considered to have the advantage in chess, since it gets the first move (Wait. The white guy has been given a step ahead? That don't seem right...) So, whose advantage is being expressed here? I've spent a good chunk of my life as a political activist for peace and social justice. But ask me what I do in my off-time and I'll usually say: "I play a lot of wargames." My favorite faction in Runewars is, by far, the demon-serving Uthuk Y'llan. Playing DoaM games gives room for that kind of expression that other types of games don't. You won't generally see that kind of identification of players as aggressive or defensive in Tigris and Euphrates, although it may become obvious in their play that they are. Playing the Daqan in Runewars means sheltering your resources and preserving what you got while being the Uthuk means sacrifice of your own guys for the greater good, so who's the noble one now?! Yeah, yeah. You and your fancy yellow Eldar and your shiny blue Ultramarines are the "good guys" but red Chaos is a representation of change! Of the new! And I am an agent of chaos...

Your dudes are a visualization of what you're trying to accomplish in your game and how you're attempting to enjoy what you're doing. Certainly, there are many other types of games. DoaM is kind of a nebulous definition, anyway. Most people don't consider Avalon Hill's hex-and-counter classics to be dudes on a map. But they can be. Your dudes just happen to be almost identical squares of cardboard. You don't have a vision of your orcs standing in the fields of Gondor so much as a tactical readout of your Panzer division on the banks of the Volga. Block games are a closer approximation, but they're still more concerned with the numbers on their labels than the embodiment of their true identity (You? Or the creature?) Are you the mummy-priest of Kemet or a block pretending to be William Wallace?

Similarly, DoaM games tend to be wider in scope. It's all well and good to be a kill team of Blood Angels poking through some fancy styrofoam terrain, but in most DoaMs you're usually striding across globes or star systems or some larger field of play. Remember, this is a cultural statement, right? You're not skirmishing. You're inflicting long lasting transformation that will thunder down through the aeons! Or you could be just a pile of plastic, Roman numerals being pushed from Kamchatka to Yakutsk. Those are still dudes. They're just not the most expressive dudes and it's an open question as to whether they're embodying the concept any more than those squares of cardboard. There's a lot of nuance and room for plenty of argument.

Dudes on a Map games

But alongside that wider scope comes that spectre of violence. Almost without exception, DoaMs are wargames. Grand societal change is typically accompanied by bloody upheaval. Chess was supposedly developed as a way to avoid that violence. No one ever got injured playing a game of Cyclades (without a really serious table flipping incident) but there are still people that shy away from that type of game because they're not interested in conquest or head-to-head combat with friends or relatives. Certainly, more modern examples of this type of game have lost the abstraction that chess embodies and are often quite visceral. It also doesn't matter when you dress it up as a Hallmark card. Root is a DoaM and Root is a wargame. Most people recognizing the mass armament production of the Marquise, the fierce attacks of the Lords of the Forest, and the severed paw symbol of the Woodland Alliance have figured that out. But it still seems like an attempt to be ironical on the designer's part. Do people still get the same visceral feeling when imagining themselves leading an army of cute, green mice as they do when moving Bloodletters of Khorne around?

That moment in Blade Runner is demonstrative. The withdrawn Sebastian is doing what he's told by Roy, as he typically does, but you can hear in the tone of his voice that he's also exercising a decision-making power of his own in his challenge to Tyrell on the chess board. In that way, he's doing exactly what chess and other games like it are, at root (ahem), designed to do: play out a scenario that won't lead to a confrontation away from the cardboard. It's an expression of personality. It's an expression of ambition. It's a type of experience that other games often won't provide, unless one gets the same level of satisfaction at being the best art auctioneer or the best sheep farmer as one does when conquering the galaxy. Those effigies on the board are your people and you're going to lead them to their destiny. Even if it is just 50 victory points.

There Will Be Games Dudes on a Map games
Dudes on a Map games
Marc Reichardt  (He/Him)
Associate Writer

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.

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Articles by Marc

Dudes on a Map games
Marc Reichardt
Staff Board Game Reviewer

Articles by Marc

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hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #291513 05 Feb 2019 09:32
Fantastic article, thank you!
Ken B.'s Avatar
Ken B. replied the topic: #291538 05 Feb 2019 11:18
*Removed non-helpful comment* *I'll just be off now.*
GorillaGrody's Avatar
GorillaGrody replied the topic: #291561 05 Feb 2019 15:18
Great article! I can totally tell you from the communist/capitalist hybrid called China, and appreciate the personal approach you’ve taken. Thanks.
quozl's Avatar
quozl replied the topic: #291563 05 Feb 2019 16:35
Excellent article, Jack!
DukeofChutney's Avatar
DukeofChutney replied the topic: #291565 05 Feb 2019 16:53
Fantastic article.

I agree there is something unique about true dudes on the map games embodying something about the player. I play hex and counter and block games etc, but in those games i never really feel like the pieces are me/my dudes. In games with plastic wee men i always feel like they are an expression of my personal will a lot more. I'm not sure why. Although perhaps it is that they are fictitious/non historical and not the pieces themselves. In the Ares project, which isn't a DOAM i feel like my chits are an expression of my will.


two other thoughts;

-The articles on this site are really knocking out of the park as late. I always loved the Fortress but TWBG is really ace.

-I don't think this a political article as it does not read to me as grinding axe or pushing the writers political angle. Rather it is a personal piece that Jackwraith has put part of his personality and background into. I don't see any value statements on Maxism in the article. I guess you could argue it is very mildly pro pacifist in the observation about the origins of chess.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #291569 05 Feb 2019 17:10

DukeofChutney wrote: In the Ares project, which isn't a DOAM i feel like my chits are an expression of my will.


That a good point about Ares. The factions play so differently that you end up getting that "identity" feeling because you're playing the same game in a different fashion, like so many more modern DoaMs (Root, etc.) Man, it's been way too long since I've played that. I should go dig it out.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #291587 05 Feb 2019 20:59
Great article, and I think there's something to explore here about what role games serve in allowing us to explore stuff that would otherwise not be good. One of my favorite mechanics in a game is gambling, but I'm emphatically not a gambler in real life. In situations like that I feel like games provide a way for me to satisfy an urge that might otherwise be destructive.

Violence could certainly fall in that category, but I will confess some concern about its effect broadly. Does it change outlooks and attitudes, etc.? I'm not sure that's the case in board games at any rate, because by nature they are a lot less immersive than a video game or a movie. Still an interesting question to me.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #291589 05 Feb 2019 21:18
I think that's a great point and something I tried to touch on when I mentioned the people in my group that don't tend to like wargames or other kinds of direct conflict. A lot of people don't even enjoy fantasy violence, but I think you're right in that there's a line somewhere between what happens in one's imagination on a piece of cardboard and what is more vividly depicted on the computer. I don't tend to believe in tracing a line between what's seen and what's acted upon by kids or anyone else, but I do believe that the saturation of violence in entertainment has had some impact on the culture, in general. It's a fair question as to whether board games are part of that.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #291590 05 Feb 2019 21:31
I do think immersion is part of the equation there. I love table games where I get to kill me some monsters, and I like video games where I do that too. But I don't particularly love first-person perspective because past a certain point I find it too immersive to be fun. My favorite first-person shooter is still Unreal Tournament because it is very clearly a video game on every goofball level. Removing the HUD, making physics more realistic, those things have all made me enjoy the genre less. Compared to something like Warcraft III or Starcraft (to take two games from my youth) I don't have any problem killing way more dudes than I ever would in an FPS.

Then again, if there was a board game about methodically killing a person it would probably be viewed as really tasteless, and justifiably Maybe that violence is a matter of how zoomed out it is, and board games have only ever been able (or chosen) to zoom in so far.

I don't know where I'm going with this exactly, but it's a fascinating thread to tug at.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #291592 05 Feb 2019 21:48

san il defanso wrote: Then again, if there was a board game about methodically killing a person it would probably be viewed as really tasteless, and justifiably Maybe that violence is a matter of how zoomed out it is, and board games have only ever been able (or chosen) to zoom in so far.


I suspect that the modern popularity of zombie movies/tv/games/etc is a collective and subconscious response to human overpopulation. It isn't acceptable for people to fantasize about committing mass murder, but swap out the people with zombies and the idea becomes appealing. Most zombie concepts emphasize that normal humans can be turned into zombies, so that makes everybody potentially fair game for the zombie-killing fantasy.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #291593 05 Feb 2019 21:53

san il defanso wrote: I don't know where I'm going with this exactly, but it's a fascinating thread to tug at.


Which is exactly why I wrote what I did and how I did. I like tugging at those threads, too. Gaming is a culture thing. It's entertainment just like books, movies, and music are. It's fair to look at them, from both a design and play standpoint, and ask: Why?

That a good question about human-to-human violence. At what point do the realities of war become too detailed? I know some grognards who'd love to have rules detailing specific effects of trench warfare and the psychological effects of being in the killing zone. There are some games that address those types of things, albeit obliquely. At what point does it pass "cool game mechanic" and become problematic? Hard to tell. Even more directly, at what point would you stop enjoying the faction you're playing if they became too brutal? Like I said, I love the Uthuk. In Battlelore, 2nd Ed, there is no more thrilling unit to me than the Uthuk Obscenes because they're so good on the battlefield. Their lore is also extremely visceral and savage. There's a detachment when dealing with the fantasy elements, but if you look at the Daqan Lords- those are humans, pretty close to you and me. I can see where that would be problematic to some game players. It's not, however, for me.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #291595 05 Feb 2019 21:56

Shellhead wrote: I suspect that the modern popularity of zombie movies/tv/games/etc is a collective and subconscious response to human overpopulation. It isn't acceptable for people to fantasize about committing mass murder, but swap out the people with zombies and the idea becomes appealing. Most zombie concepts emphasize that normal humans can be turned into zombies, so that makes everybody potentially fair game for the zombie-killing fantasy.


That's a possibility. I've long had a bit of a pet theory that humans still have a lurking dependency on conflict. Not necessarily violence, but conflict of some kind. You see it in relationships that need conflict for the excitement of one or both parties. You see it in the attachment to sports teams as a replacement for the tribalist instincts that aren't being fed by warfare or survival. I think there's some of that buried deeply in the human psyche that just needs some kind of expression for most people. That brings us back to the whole apocryphal chess story...
ThirstyMan's Avatar
ThirstyMan replied the topic: #291610 06 Feb 2019 07:22
More offended about him being a Liverpool fan than anything else.
RobertB's Avatar
RobertB replied the topic: #291620 06 Feb 2019 09:13

Shellhead wrote: I suspect that the modern popularity of zombie movies/tv/games/etc is a collective and subconscious response to human overpopulation. It isn't acceptable for people to fantasize about committing mass murder, but swap out the people with zombies and the idea becomes appealing. Most zombie concepts emphasize that normal humans can be turned into zombies, so that makes everybody potentially fair game for the zombie-killing fantasy.


My take is that zombies have floated up from contemporary politics. Zombie horror isn't just that random people turn into zombies, it's that your neighbors, friends, and family turn into zombies. In real life you see it and live it on both sides of a highly-polarized political spectrum. "My mom turned into a libtard!" "My dad watches Fox News 24/7 and has lost his mind!" So what floats up out of the depths of our collective id? Zombies.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #291634 06 Feb 2019 10:31

ThirstyMan wrote: More offended about him being a Liverpool fan than anything else.


YNWA
Erik Twice's Avatar
Erik Twice replied the topic: #291641 06 Feb 2019 10:59
I think a large reason of the modern popularity of zombies and other "survival" stuff is the idea of having this opportunity to take justice by your own hand and come out on top while those that had success in normal society die or struggle.
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #291645 06 Feb 2019 11:10
Going back to color choice in games, I tend to gravitate to Red, but it's a pretty popular color, so sometimes I'll just go by whatever color shirt I happen to be wearing that day, or I'll pick whatever the least threatening color is, like White or Yellow, hoping to be ignored and messed with the least.
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #291646 06 Feb 2019 11:12
I pick yellow just because I usually find it easier to read. A lot of games will put blue text on black, for example, and I have to strain to read it.

Many games also do a poor job of differentiating blue and purple.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #291648 06 Feb 2019 11:23
My color choice depends on the game. My favorite color is green, but it's not a strong preference, so I often let everybody else pick their color first. In some games, the color is tied directly to a specific character or faction, and that choice matters more to me than color. For example, I'm not a big fan of the color yellow, but I prefer to play yellow in Cthulhu Wars because I like the strangeness of the separate mythos surrounding the King in Yellow.
Ken B.'s Avatar
Ken B. replied the topic: #291665 06 Feb 2019 12:43
Mmmmmm...Cthulhu Wars. That game basically killed all other Dudes on a Map games for me. I'll still play it, anytime, even to this day.

It's essential design as a Dudes on a Map game is just sublime. Asymmetry like few other games have managed, to the point where you feel the identity of each faction without an overflow of flavor text forcing the issue. Threaded turns keeping everyone involved and active at all times. The Power resource management means you have to not only be thinking about your current move, but *all* your moves for the rest of the turn (yes, this is stolen from Chaos, but hey, steal from one of the best). Buckets of dice but controlled randomness. A combat system that refuses to be "all or nothing" and allows you to accomplish your goals and bully people around without eliminating them entirely. I could go on and on.

I suspect the genre's near-and-dearness to our hearts is because so many of us gravitated into the hobby on the backs of one of these titles. Whether it was Samurai Swords or Risk or Axis and Allies, our brains were trained to see this as a default game type, a familiar face and shape to guide us from game to game. It provides personal identity in the game space by way of factions/abilities. We get something visibly "ours" and suddenly we're very keen to defend and expand it. Our best friends get to be our worst enemies, worthy of destruction, if only for a couple of hours. The physical layout and spacing of armies and territories leads to dealmaking and alliances not always specified in the rules but makes us all manipulators and brokers of promises (and sometimes, lies.)

There is something magical in the genre, and it will always remain my gravitational force that keeps me tethered to the hobby.
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #291666 06 Feb 2019 12:47
I'll never own Cthulhu Wars because it costs too much for pieces that I don't want. It's too over the top in it its production. And the people I know who own it aren't people I play with often enough to really earn it. I'll keep Nexus Ops and even Small World around though.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #291670 06 Feb 2019 12:53

Ken B. wrote: Mmmmmm...Cthulhu Wars. That game basically killed all other Dudes on a Map games for me. I'll still play it, anytime, even to this day.


Great points. I've only played a couple times, but I get this. Petersen did a great job of keeping the factions distinct in function, so that even without the gigantic garish "minis", you still get the flavor of Black Goat or King in Yellow or whoever.

I still have my copy of Shogun/Samurai Swords. I will never part with it. That Battlemaster series is one of the best things that MB (not that MB) ever did.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #291672 06 Feb 2019 12:55

Jexik wrote: I'll never own Cthulhu Wars because it costs too much for pieces that I don't want. It's too over the top in it its production. And the people I know who own it aren't people I play with often enough to really earn it. I'll keep Nexus Ops and even Small World around though.


Small World is an interesting case. It's clearly a DoaM game, but because your faction only exists for a couple of turns before you pick up a new one, I never quite get the attachment that I do in other games of that style. That impermanence pervades the gameplay, as well, so I always felt I was going back over the same ground that I took two turns ago, not because of my actions or my opponents' but simply the game, and it never felt satisfactory to me.
Ken B.'s Avatar
Ken B. replied the topic: #291673 06 Feb 2019 13:02

Jackwraith wrote:

Jexik wrote: I'll never own Cthulhu Wars because it costs too much for pieces that I don't want. It's too over the top in it its production. And the people I know who own it aren't people I play with often enough to really earn it. I'll keep Nexus Ops and even Small World around though.


Small World is an interesting case. It's clearly a DoaM game, but because your faction only exists for a couple of turns before you pick up a new one, I never quite get the attachment that I do in other games of that style. That impermanence pervades the gameplay, as well, so I always felt I was going back over the same ground that I took two turns ago, not because of my actions or my opponents' but simply the game, and it never felt satisfactory to me.


I agree with this assessment of Small World to a point. It's fun, but feels like empty calories at times. I've never celebrated a win nor taken a loss particularly hard. It's appeal is primarily in the "let me see what I can do with THIS combination for a few turns."

Nexus Ops though is also one of the gems of the genre. I'd also never get rid of it. I even own both the old school and FFG vomit-nightmare-factory version. That to me is the genre distilled into its barest elements without losing so much of what makes these games sing.
Joebot's Avatar
Joebot replied the topic: #291676 06 Feb 2019 13:10
Small World seems like a DOAM game in name only, not in spirit. It lacks a lot of the characteristics of a DOAM game, in that you have no real affinity towards your armies OR your territory. Everything is so transitory, that you never feel a sense of ownership or identity. I've never seen anyone try to broker an alliance, or backstab a neighbor. Nobody is ever emotionally invested in anything that happens to make those sorts of alliances worth the effort. "You took my mountain space? Oh well, I'll just get it back next turn." The tension in the game comes from trying to max out whatever goofy race combo you get, which makes it more of a Euro point-optimization game, and less like a true DOAM game.

Likewise, I've been playing Bunny Kingdom with my kids. I guess you'd call it "Rabbits on a Map" (ROAM). It's a fine game, but again, there's really no sense of ownership or identity because your bunnies, once placed, never move. There's no combat, no threat of losing your bunnies or your territory, and therefore no need for alliances. In fact, you really can't do much of anything to impede the other players, other than taking a card that they may want.

I guess just becomes something looks like a DOAM game doesn't mean it really is a DOAM game.