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CONTRA: “Don’t be afraid of monsters!”

Posted by Andreas Ludwig on May 10, 2010

by Andreas Ludwig

a discussion on Alan Emrich’s article “The Fall and Rise of Wargaming”

PRO Alan’s article CONTRA

Well, after reading Alan’s article on the issue “what are the positive and negative factors regarding trends and developments in the wargaming/historical conflict simulation business”, I have to admit that – although I agree on the whole with his opinion -, I see some points in a different way.

First of all, the reason why we decided to reprint his article on our homepage was the simple fact that everything which is discussing this hobby and the ways how it can be brought back again into the consciousness of a wider audience is something worth supporting.

Furthermore the fact that this article was published many years ago without losing its importance today is certainly an indicator that the situation the author addressed at his time hasn’t actually changed much – as we can see nowadays, because wargaming as a hobby is still shrinking and is still what Alan used to call an “esoteric hobby“.

So the question actually is: what went wrong over the decades from those glorious days when wargaming was an intellectual challenge with millions of sold games? Or better: are the reasons mentioned by Alan actually those which caused what he calls the “decline of wargaming”?

The consumer – digging his own grave?

Alan observes two main aspects which – in his opinion – are responsible for the current situation: that wargaming is a hobby for a minority and is getting more and more expensive:

Okay, to the outsider, ASL may look somewhat esoteric...

First he states that the customers demanded a different way to purchase their games. In the early days all wargaming companies made their money through direct postal sales until the players wished to buy their games in their local stores instead. This quickly changed the cost factor because the companies were forced to react to the now longer distribution chains which eventually made the games much more expensive for the customer who was buying this stuff and who was the one financing the entire market.

The second reason is the change in the very nature of wargames, because according to Alan everything started with games with a relatively low complexity level, until these gamers wanted more realism and more detail. Since companies are usually acting in accordance to the customers’ wishes (to get their money), they started to produce more detailed and more complicated wargames and this was driven over the edge – in Alans opinion – so that a newbie, someone who never played such a game, is completely lost when reading an extensive rulebook for the first time.

Based on these two main points he now explains why it is necessary to step back in this process to give wargaming a new chance again.

The situation today

I agree of course that the situation today is certainly far from being perfect in any way. Wargames are expensive games and the global wargaming community is very small – rough estimates suggest about 50.000 – 100.000 wargamers worldwide with the female part making less than 1%. That’s a guessing from some years ago and although I don’t have any solid numbers at all, I somehow feel that’s even too high a number of actual players for today.

Compared to the good old days we are left with only a few wargaming companies and the once so cheap wargaming magazines are now as expensive as a book. A S&T magazine is usually sold for about 25 EUR!

The situation is even worse when it comes to the reputation of Wargaming as a whole, for today it seems much more difficult to explain outsiders what we are actually doing (and what we don’t do!) and what the thrill factor is which makes this hobby so addictive to many of us. Wargaming is often put into a certain grey-zone together with ego-shooters on PC and consoles, and I think  the only reason why it’s not mentioned in the same negative way or context as ego-shooters (which are often a topic of debate in the mass media,) is because the hobby “historical consim” is widely unknown.

No, playing "Totaler Krieg" IS NOT about "playing Hitler on his march through Poland"!

In my own experience I faced severe problems several times when I tried to explain why I am “playing Hitler on his way thru Poland” etc. which in fact is the kind of language folks – who take only a dim view of it – use when they talk about this hobby. Any answer such as that it has not so much to do with “playing Hitler” but more with a historical study of a certain military event, that it’s not “playing war” because war is so much joy, but because one wants to understand the military background of a specific battle etc. often tends to fail giving the right picture on this topic.

Interestingly some of those folks do have no problems with movies on a war theme and these movies are currently very popular on TV and cinema. So it seems that it’s ok to consume “war” in a passive way as a part of our entertainment culture, but it’s not ok to try to “take part in it” as what is most people think we are actually doing when pushing some counters on the map. As I understand it, this attitude in society is much different to the one back in the 70s and 80s when wargaming was a popular hobby among people interested in history and didn’t have any bad stigma attached to it. Of course one has to confess that this was mainly a hobby in the USA or at least in the anglophone world and not so much in Germany which was and still is a kind of consim diaspora in my opinion.

So, indeed as I said, it’s not the perfect situation to start all over with this kind of hobby – and it’s certainly a situation which deserves some debates on how to overcome and to change it to attract a new generation that is able to and interested in carrying on our torch.

That’s what I mean with agreeing on the topic as such. I disagree on some of Alans other points, though – for at least from our perspective today we have to take a very close look at what we are actually talking about when we mention Wargaming.

Seducing new players

The cost factor is something which is part of the problem, because if there were only games as expensive as A World at War (nope, I don’t mean the Xeno thingy, I am speaking of Bruce Harper’s latest Third Reich monster) with a price of 180 EUR, you would only hear comments like the one we already know: “What? 180 EUR? For a board game? Are you nuts?”

We do need some games that are cheaper and which may “seduce” people to give it a try. But I am afraid the market situation today will allow the companies to produce only a few really inexpensive games – if any. Nothing is really inexpensive today if we take a look around. If I see a new Xbox game for 69,99 EUR which is entertaining for let’s say 15 – 25 hours (the average game!), a wargame in contrast looks really inexpensive – considering the fact that I get much more for my money in terms of replay value, social interaction, historical lessons, intellectual challenge, Alzheimer prophylaxis 😉 etc..

Both are probably too expensive for the individual pocket, but a) the cost is based on steadily rising production costs and b) they are bought by the players anyway.

Good looks ARE important

Blue vs. Gray is a good looking, modern game with great educational and informational value

Alan says that we – the wargamers, the grognards, – are responsible for making these games more and more expensive because we want nice looking graphics: this is becoming more important than a good game. Well, first of all I don’t think the additional 10 or 20 bucks which are necessary to cover costs when I want to have a good-looking game can actually be an excuse for bad gameplay, nor do I think that todays’ wargame companies allow themselves too much blunders. The market is shared by only a few of those companies and because the hobby is so strongly based on the hardcore wargamers, too many bad games produced by one company could easily lead them to disaster and would kick them out of the business on the long run. So, at least the more traditional wargame companies are trying to learn from mistakes and do look very closely at the market and the desires of their customers imo.

Given the simple fact that producing stuff for such a small market is expensive (whether I like it or not), I for my part have to say that I DO WANT good-looking games! There’s no need that we have the same counter style today as we had 20 years ago. There’s no reason why not to make really cool looking maps etc.. Anything that could enhance the enjoyment level should be done. Refusing to comply to modern high level standards won’t make those games that much cheaper. And we have to stand up stronger against other – more modern – forms of entertainment today than we had in former days. Everything gets louder, bigger, better etc. as you can see with video games: they must have a state of the art graphic or no one will play and buy them – no matter how good the gameplay actually is. And then we come with our old boardgames….I don’t think it’s very surprising that the kids look elsewhere as soon as we have left the room…

So, nope, I think we do need very good-looking wargames and that these wargames have to be good ones, too. The high costs for these games are probably necessary to keep up good quality and there are much more hobbies which are not really cheap. Paragliding, surfing, hunting, golf etc. are all rather expensive possibilities to spend your time with. Is that a reason for folks stop doing these things? No. You have to set some priorities for yourself and then it often leads to the insight that wargames are not as expensive as one first thought. These games are often played over decades with increasing fun. With wargames, you don’t pay for a throwaway game as is the case with many video games you buy – played once and off to eBay they go.

The point is that we have to make people aware of the fact that there actually is a wargame culture behind these games and to explain its specific nature to them. People should think about it when they hear that Mr. XY is a wargamer for 20 or 30 years now – still playing his favorite games! People must realize that Wargaming is becoming a lifestyle – once you’re hooked on those games – and this is what we should make them interested into. To give them a hobby which is the opposite of todays’ fast going/short-term pastime could be our chance – and then the question what these games cost isn’t so important anymore, because people are used to expensive entertainment if they are convinced they get some good bang for their bucks. Convince them that 100 EUR is nothing… if you can have fun for 10 years or longer with such a game!

Of course we need some cheap starters so younger ones or generally new players can try it out, but the overall cry for cheap games won’t be something that makes sense in the long run.

ASL module Code of Bushido costs about 250$+ on eBay

I for myself decided to simply accept that it’s what these games do cost. If I have to pay 100 EUR for an ASL module then this is taking my breath at first, for that’s a lot of money and something I’ll have to work for some time. But then I remember what fun this game is and will be for the rest of my life, how much it enriches my free time, so it’s getting really inexpensive on this background. I won’t buy a Rolex for 10.000 EUR, or an expensive car etc.. I see no use in it, but other people do. They simply have other priorities. Because I accept that these games can be expensive I am very critical when it comes to the quality – the game has to be good and especially the rules have to be written clearly worded and making it possible to play such a game without too much trouble. An expensive game that has bad written rules is a no-no for me.

Alan’s other point – that wargames are too complex and so no one is able to get into this hobby – is at least  true in a way.

When I take myself again, I had never played wargames before, I didn’t even know that such things did exist and I never even liked board games! We (Denny and me) started with Axis & Allies which was highly confusing at first, but we soon understood that there were only a few strategies which made sense as winning moves in the context of this game. After this we simply wanted more – strictly speaking, more of the things Alan makes responsible for the decline of wargaming: detail, historical accuracy, possibilities, more elaborate rules etc., more of everything. We came across Squad Leader and quickly became interested in the depth of this game. And after realizing that the rules are poorly worded and the fact that all those gamettes would  just add to the confusion and increase problems, we eventually switched over to ASL – as it was recommended to us by Alain Chabot (who also became our personal rules pope then, helping us a lot to learn the game). Much bigger (but much better written!) Rulebook, much more detail, more possibilities, simply more of everything and therefore exactly what we wanted!

It was the same then with strategic level games: first we tried TWAW by Xeno Games because we thought this to be the next big step after A&A. But we were disappointed by the “one black hole” they called a rulebook and didn’t like the poorly produced playing pieces and the cartoonish map, either. We switched over to Totaler Krieg and didn’t view this as a big step, because the former was completely uninteresting although it was “easier” and the latter gave us what we were after!

Board Gamers vs. War Gamers

So the point is: I think there are boardgamers and there are wargamers. And if you are a wargamer, then

Arkham Horror by FFG is a board game of very high production quality and with great artworks true to the Lovecraft topic. And you don't get this level of quality at low-budget costs, not even in the mainstream board game sector

you are interested in something different from only a cheap funny game you can play while having a beer. Then you are truly after accuracy and history (or an alternative history maybe) and you’ll realize that such things can only be achieved with a lot of rules and/or big maps. Both isn’t something many people enjoy and so the companies are producing for a small bunch of folks, which also makes those games “expensive”. But if it is something you want to have, you’ll pay for it, because you’ve already made your decision. Any other games that are more on the gamey side of things will not satisfy you anymore – inexpensive or not.

And this is where we are today. Wargaming actually has to do with many complicated games, which need time to get into, need a large table sometimes to lay the maps on, often have many counters (3000 or more is nothing special here) and sometimes rule books with 200 pages. But that’s only one side of the coin, for there are other wargames available with only 12 pages of rules, one map and only fifty counters. Because we have a long history shaping this hobby, there are so many wargames on the market (and market also means eBay where you can get almost any wargame that ever existed!) that everyone can find something that suits his or her needs.

We need more complex, good playtested consims!

For instance almost all of those early games published by Avalon Hill are available today and these are often the low complexity level games Alan is mentioning. Therefore I see no need that todays’ wargame companies start producing too many easy level games again. It is far more important that they produce good playtested consims on the base of all the experience the designers, players and companies could accumulate over the past decades. This will lead to wargames which are easier to learn for todays’ newbies than for the newbies 20 years ago, but eventually will enable them to play the same games as the experienced gamers do now. If you take Avalon Hill’s Third Reich and give it to a beginner who never played anything like that, he’s not only lost but will have to cut a way thru all the inconsistencies and black holes of the rules all by himself. You could also give him AWAW, which has much more rules, is much more expensive, and is on the whole looking like a crazy idea for a beginner… but he will probably find all his questions already answered in this large rulebook. The designer received 50.000 emails which were all considered while making this latest version of Third Reich so chances are good that any questions will be answered in these rules. And even if it’s true that more rules come with more errors,typos, errata etc., this is compensated  by  the large internet community of wargaming these days.

"The Rules are quite clear on that: The FP base for a OVR is two FP for an AFV, or four FP for an AFV whose MA is manned and functioning and is not a MG, FT, MTR, ATR or IFE-capable!"

Back in the 70’s you had to write a letter with your question to the publisher and then  the game was on hold for a week or longer while the players were waiting for the answer if they didn’t simply decide the issue for yourself to keep the game going while waiting for the reply (and it wasn’t that satisfying to play on and then seeing the result of the game made obsolete because the reply told you it was played wrongly). Today if you encounter a question you turn on your PC and can ask the question in a game specific  folder on a wargame forum receiving the answer sometimes a minute later. It’s not only so that you usually get very fast answers, but often the designer himself is replying!  You often can even discuss with a designer about his decisions to write a rule this or that way to understand the background of the rules in question. Today you can also partake very easily in the playtesting and design process of a game, so when you actually buy the finished product you are already familiar with the game.  The Net is probably the most important ‘tool’ used by todays wargamers and game designers/publishers alike and it can make things really comfortable for all involved in the hobby. It’s the same with the old SL rulebook and todays 2nd ed. of ASL.

True, the game is much more complex now, but the rules are so much better, too – so you won’t have as many questions playing ASL than playing SL with four different rule books. It’s all relative, more rules don’t necessarily mean more questions or ‘more complicated’ and even if that’s the case here and there, the answers are usually easier to get today than ever before.

There are many more examples of games that were improved because wargame companies didn’t change their way of concentrating on these complex “monster” games and didn’t start producing easy stuff by default. So it really comes down to the simple fact, that what was once a monster, a high complex game, is probably much less daunting for players today than 15 years ago because of the hobbies infrastructure and network.

And Wargaming is not famous (amongst those who do know it!) for easy, simple games, but for military studies on your kitchen table. So if we want to show people how much more educating and enjoyable it is to push some counters than simply watching a movie or reading a book, we can’t change the games too much towards simple stuff. A&A isn’t able to teach you anything on military or historical events, but ASL can give you a feeling of squad level warfare. Wargaming has a message and most Wargamers do agree with this message, which is to teach interesting historical insights in an enjoyable way (this only counts for historical wargames, of course). To cut it down to some simple games which are merely fun is to deny this overall wargaming message and to give up the wargame culture.

Help new players to get into the more complex stuff!

So we should do anything to announce this hobby to interested folks and to do our very best to help newbies in cutting their way thru the first thorny steps. There will be lots of people who show interest but who are unable to allow this hobby the time it needs to master the rules, or people who are interested in a game but not in being educated by it. These persons are simply not wargamers and even if we change the whole wargaming culture – it won’t bring in those folks anyway. If we are after mixing ‘general boardgaming’ and wargaming too much, this only causes disappointment on both sides.

Totaler Krieg by Alan Emrich certainly isn't an easy, introductory-level wargame but a complex consim portraying WWII in the Eastern theatre

As a last point on this: I find it very interesting that Alan’s own game – Totaler Krieg! – is quite the contrary to everything he said in the article. I am glad about this, because we got this wonderful gem of a game this way 😉

TK! has very good-looking graphics, has many rules, allowing many possibilities and is quite “expensive”. The successor TK2 / Dai Sensou will have much more counters, even more rules and will certainly be a bit more complex than vanilla TK. So, while I do enjoy this, it shows that Alan himself is not purely on the easy-cheap-game way today, either. His game has to stand up to the expectations of the grognards first, because they are the ones making his game a success or failure.

It’s a fact: historical conflict simulation is a unique gaming experience, it’s not for everyone and it’s simply not the same as boardgaming as such. It is this uniqueness we should teach the beginners in order to make them eager to be a part of this global community, to get curious about this strange pastime. Once this desire has grown, based on the insight that these games are not complicated for the sake of complexity alone, but because they offer so many possibilities, it will become clear to them that with every rule they learn, their gaming experience will be enhanced. It’s true, even simple games can be fun, but those games are not the core of conflict simulation. They are starters, to wet the appetite and so it would be not helpful to have all those starters and then no complex games to show the ones who dare to go on what the next level – the real thing – actually looks and plays like.

Many have said wargaming is on the decline, dying etc. – but I really think we are indeed living in the Golden Age of Wargaming today. We have all these great looking games, we have designers with experience, we have so many wargames on almost any topic you can think of, we have powerful note- and netbooks to play our beloved board games wherever we want using Cyberboard, Vassal, Zun Tsu and what other GAPs are out there, there are always opponents available for you when you use such a GAP, we have E-Readers to store hundreds or thousands of rule books to be read in the train or whenever you want, we have the internet as an unlimited resource for game and history related information, and a living, strong community. Even becoming a game designer yourself is easier than ever before – Desktop Publishing is what many players do today. Does this sound like the decline of wargaming?

Far from it, The Hobby is alive and will prosper!

PRO Alan’s article

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