The Future of (Tabletop) Wargames?
Getting out of the wargame ghetto . . .
“I didn't realize how out of my element I was until I had to listen to guys talking about their retirement and/or how they were retiring soon. Made me wonder if the hobby as I know it is going to slowly evaporate over the next decade or so.... (But no wonder I couldn't find players for wargames all those years...!)?”
- Jeffro Johnson (who is approaching 40 himself, as I recall) about his experience at PrezCon ’14
(Lest anyone have any doubts, I am one of those Baby Boomers who grew up with Avalon Hill games, and am more or less retired. )
I was asked more than once during my PrezCon talk (by a publisher of hex-and-counter wargames, no less) where the future of wargames lies. The Charles S. Roberts/Avalon Hill originated hex-and-counter game style is a Baby Boomer hobby, and Baby Boomers are a shrinking group. Tabletop wargames now sell 1,000-2,000 copies, typically, whereas in Avalon Hill’s heyday they could sell over 100,000. Even in 2004-5 when I came back into the hobby it was easy to see that there was a wargames ghetto (as I call it). People in the ghetto were okay with that but it did not and does not appeal much to people outside. And it gets smaller over time.
So what is the future of hobby wargaming? Practically speaking, the traditional market is disappearing. What can replace it?
Tabletop wargames not only have to survive vis-à-vis other tabletop games but vis-à-vis video games. We always have to keep in mind the greater popularity of video games when we talk about any kind of tabletop game. Video games are easy to play, with the tremendous advantage that you don’t need to read the any rules, and video games are also becoming quite cheap with vast numbers of free to play and $.99 games available. Most video games that appear to be about war are actually closer to sporting events, as top RTS (Real-Time Strategy) game players must execute 200 actions-per-minute to succeed. But the capability to make two-player games primarily requiring thinking to succeed is there, and there are turn-based video games involving war (most notably, Civilization).
Yet the future isn’t video games, at least not the kind of simulation-like video wargames that have been produced so far by companies like Matrix Games. These sell hardly better than tabletop wargames (3,000 is a number I’ve seen, minuscule for video games requiring that much effort to produce). I don’t think video games are a threat or a salvation for tabletop wargames.
Multiplayer (Multi-sided) Games and “Losers”
The future of all kinds of tabletop games is in multiplayer (more than two player) games, because a great attraction of tabletop games that video games cannot reproduce is the social interaction. Whether that interaction occurs within the game rules or not, it comes from people being in one place seeing, hearing, and sometimes smelling and emotionally (and sometimes physically) feeling other people.
Another advantage of multiplayer games is that they don’t put “the loser” on the spot, they don’t involve the ego nearly as much. In a two player wargame, there’s a Loser with a capital L. In a game for five, there are four losers, but an average player is only going to win 20% of the time anyway (assuming there are no draws), so you can lose and not feel “failure” - you’re in the same boat as almost everyone else, and “I’ll get ‘em next time”. You can also feel that you were the best player but people ganged up on you. At some point, there’s nothing you can do about that. (In the case where both/all the players are against the game, that’s OK - the humans are all in it together, essentially a single player game, and all lose or win together, no stigma involved.)
Video games achieve this through single player games/campaigns that are often puzzles that you will sooner or later solve if you’re persistent. With save games and respawning there is no way to Lose.
SPI’s surveys indicated that 50% of play of their games was solo. People who are inclined to solo play often like two-player, detailed wargames. I think the solo player is much more likely to play video games these days. Solo play is a mostly-dead-end for tabletop games.
So games that allow for the social aspects of face to face gaming, and don’t put the loser on the spot, are where wargaming has a chance to succeed.
Games that allow for the possibility or even likelihood of war but recognize that peace is a better way to succeed are more broadly appealing than games that are out-and-out, cut-throat war. These games can be less directly confrontational. For example, a game about the Italian city states in the era of the Crusades can allow players to prosper if they can peacefully take advantage of the trade from the Far East and develop influence in foreign places, but can provide the ability to go to war. If a player can stay out of a debilitating war, or win a war very quickly, he or she will have a good chance to win the game. (I speak of this as though hypothetically, but my prototype Seas of Gold does just this.)
Sometimes games of this kind are given funny names that imply a cross between Eurostyle and wargame. But there’s a big difference between wargame and Eurostyle that I think needs to be preserved in the semi-wargames, as they might be called, that many wargames allow for great differences in playing style, whereas many Euro games assume a formalistic style where certain paths to success are well-known and blocking those paths is a common activity, where there are “generally accepted moves” that you’re expected to make, that you may even be criticized if you don’t because “that’s not the way to play the game!” (I have to interject here, those who have decided that “Euro” only means certain heavy-strategy games that they like are going to disagree with me, because I use the older, broader meaning of Euro.)
To my mind, good multiplayer wargames are like open world video games, and Eurostyle games are more like closed world or linear video games. That open style is often lost in “simulations”, but simulations that force certain outcomes as the old SPI games often did are not going to survive on the tabletop - if only because they’re boring to most people and anathema to historians, like myself, who believe that what happened in the chaos of history is often not what was most likely to happen. (And also because that kind of simulation is almost always a two-player game.)
Grand Strategic Wargames
I think we’ll see more grand strategic wargames rather than tactical games. First, grand strategic games are more believable for more than two players than tactical games. You can easily think of entire nations as competing in a multi-sided way, whereas battles with more than two sides are almost unheard of. Second, tactical games in the wargame tradition are littered with nuts and bolts and details that hold much less interest for people in our fast living, imprecise century than they did in the glory days of Avalon Hill and SPI. There are lots of tactical games involving fighting, but they are individual skirmish games like Heroscape and many RPGs, not “nuts and bolts” games. Another aspect of grand strategic games is that ultimate success usually depends on building up your economy, as it does in almost any war. Games that build up have proved to be more attractive to many people than games that tear down. A grand strategic wargame can be one that combines the tearing down that’s involved in taking economic value from another player along with the building up that people seem to like, a combination of negative and positive. In contrast, a battle game, one without an economy, where the objective is terrain-based or simply killing lots of the enemy, is purely negative.
Visual and Tactile Appeal
It almost goes without saying that wargames need to be more visually appealing. Wargames with traditional half-inch counters aren’t even a starter except in the wargame ghetto. If you must use cardboard counters, they need to be a lot larger. Three-dimensional pieces provide a tactile pleasure and feedback that you cannot get from video games, but it’s hard to get that from half-inch counters. Some larger counters feel and look (and even sound) more like tiles, and that may work - I have in mind the FFG Britannia pieces. 3-D pieces and cards provide a visual appeal that standard wargames do not. (I was told that Command & Colors was getting no traction for GMT, before publication, until they introduced the use of blocks as 3D pieces (not for “fog of war”). Then it took off, and has proved to be very popular.)
Games with multiple numbers on each piece don’t have much appeal. Players don’t mind having lots of information on cards, but not on pieces. (NO lookup tables, either.) 3D makes it harder to put numbers on pieces, as well.
Stacks of counters are also a bad idea, though less so if only the owning player is allowed to look in the stack. A good decision I made decades ago in Dragon Rage (which is a hex-and-counter wargame) was to prohibit stacking. With the larger pieces in the 2011 edition, I’ve avoided the old problems of stacks of half inch counters.
Perhaps a reason for the popularity of “block games” beyond the fog of war is that they avoid counter stacks, and often have less information on them than do traditional counters.
Fewer Significant Decisions
The fundamental experiences people want in games have changed, too. People are much more interested in variety than in gameplay depth. They like lots of choices but they don’t like many difficult/significant choices. They tend to rely more on intuition than logic, a reliance that’s often encouraged in the schools and society (“use the Force, Luke”, don’t depend on the computer to aim that torpedo). So a game with lots of choices but few decisions that make a significant difference tends to be preferred to the older kind of game, where there is not only lots of choices but lots of decisions, and decisions within decisions. (I’m sorry if that’s not entirely clear but my spiel about gameplay depth and other kinds of depth in games is something like 10,000 words. This will have to do.)
This trend is already enormously clear in video games. Players want to be rewarded for participation, they don’t want to have to earn their rewards by making good decisions.
Hobby wargaming often involves studying the games. People don’t study games much anymore, especially casual gamers. Between cheap or free video games and the proliferation of many hundreds of new tabletop games each year, people are accustomed to playing a game only a few times before they move on to the next one in a kind of “Cult of the New”. I know people who have played Britannia more than 500 times, but nowadays you’re going to find few newly published games that anyone will ever play 500 times, especially not one as long as Britannia.
I think wargames are still going to be a haven for people who want old-fashioned gameplay depth as opposed to simple variety, but if you want to reach a larger market you need to recognize that the number of significant decisions has to be reduced. I’m put in mind of a young lady who used to attend our university game club. At age 18 she was exceptionally intelligent and focused, and when she played games she really put her brain to work (more than most), but because she was playing games to relax she did not want to play anything like a standard wargame where you have bunches of pieces to move in each of your turns. That was far too many decisions to make. She liked tactical video games, where you have just a few characters to control. That’s the kind of person who can be attracted to strategic multiplayer games that involve war, but only if they are designed to be broadly appealing.
Be sure your wargame doesn’t have a player moving dozens of units every turn!
Gamers are also much more interested in personal stories and avatars in games than they were 40 years ago. RPGs are an example, and many kinds of video games, both just coming into existence back then. Wargames by their nature tend to be about nations and large units, though there are many games with individuals as the primary units (squad level games). The word “story” is in “history”, but the history of warfare tends to be impersonal. The kinds of personal stories people like aren’t about the Military, by and large. I’m not sure how this is going to pan out, as the grand strategic games I recommend are not well-suited for the “you are there” mentality (think History of the World or Diplomacy).
People Games, not Math Games
What wargames need to focus on is the other people playing the game, rather than on the details of the game system. Britannia has some detail in it but it’s essentially a simple game to play, and the really good players are playing the other players, not the game system. You have to master the game system but that’s not the ultimate mastery, as opposed to chess and so many two-player wargames where mastery of the system is all that matters. (Oddly enough, mastery of real generalship is much about psychology, but wargames rarely reflect real warfare.) That’s the kind of game we need, though Britannia is not the best example because it’s much too long for most players. One of the new versions of Britannia I’ve created can be played in 90-120 minutes and has been played in 84, even though the players were not hurrying. Yet it is still clearly Britannia.
Games where “Yomi” is needed, discerning the intentions of other players, reading their minds, are popular for many reasons (think poker, Werewolf, Resistance). Wargames need to make Yomi more prominent, and the details of mechanical play less prominent. Multiplayer, of course, immediately puts Yomi to the forefront in highly interactive games.
On the other hand, you can’t remove a fairly high degree of interaction from a wargame and still have a wargame, instead you have something that begins to approach a puzzle or multiplayer solitaire. I don’t see this as a route wargames can take because then you have a major disadvantage of a wargame - the tearing down - without the compensating advantages of high interactivity.
Where there’s a place for two player wargames is on tablets and PCs, so that those who like this kind of ultimately confrontational math-like game can find opponents, and can play in short sessions even if the game itself is quite long in aggregate. For examples, see http://www.shenandoah-studio.com.
Shorter and Simpler
Finally, all games are noticeably getting simpler and shorter (especially video games). Wargames must as well. That’s quite a challenge for multiplayer games simply because the more players you have, usually the longer the game. I have pursued a quest for a “one hour (multiplayer) wargame” for many years, and while I usually end up with 2+ hours I do have one game that has been played in an hour by three players. But that will remain exceptional, except in wargames that use cards rather than a board.
Card-based wargames are another possible route out of the “ghetto”, but when you use cards you usually (though not always) abandon maneuver, which is one of the salient aspects of war.
I’ve briefly alluded to where “simulations” are going. The kind of simulation that values the model before the game, that tries to force a particular outcome to match history, is rapidly going down the tubes. The kind of model that Phil Sabin calls a simulation - though I wouldn’t - that helps one understand history will still be around. If you’ve read Sabin’s book Lost Battles you’ll know that his simulation to help understand what really happened to during ancient battles is pretty simple, not at all the kind of highly detailed simulation we used to get from SPI.
On the other hand, wargames can never approach the abstraction of the typical Eurostyle game. Wargames have to be models of some reality, and anything that happens in the wargame ought to correspond to something that happens in reality. That’s rarely the case in Eurostyle games, which are frequently abstractions with some kind of atmosphere tacked on (yes there are exceptions). Eurostyle games are designed to have particular paths or actions that can be easily blocked by the opposition (without any actual destruction), and that’s not even close to the nature of warfare.
Will the “grognards” of the ghetto like these wargames? Maybe not, but it doesn’t matter, because they’re gradually going out of the market for games and publishers have to look at younger markets.
Having said all this, I’ve described one of the kinds of games I like to design, so maybe I’m prejudiced. Or maybe I saw the need years ago and have been working on it ever since.
When I started this I intended to write something fairly brief, but many of the trends in games in general have come into the question of the future of wargames. I’ll stop here before it grows any further!
I will be a speaker at the East Coast Game Conference, April 23-24 in Raleigh, NC. Exact time or day as yet unknown. The topic will be “On the Horns of a Dilemma” (Game Design).
I now host (through Fedora) my online audiovisual courses at https://courses.pulsiphergames.com . They are still on Udemy.com at higher prices. They include “Learning Game Design”, “Brief Introduction to Game Design”, and “Get a Job in the Video Game Industry”. I will very soon be opening a course “How to Design Levels/Adventures for Video and Tabletop Games”. Some time after that I’ll open “How to Write Clear Rules (and Game Design Documents)”.
YouTube Game Design channel: http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHWWViIuBsOrSm2HXeBj2kA