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PRO: “Introductory Wargames to revive the community!!!”

Posted by Denny Koch on May 10, 2010

by Denny Koch

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

PRO Alan’s article

Despite the fact that Alan Emrich wrote his article some years ago, I think it is as relevant today as it was then – perhaps even more, because his predictions have come true by now. Especially video games and PC games, which had an explosive growth since the end of the 90’s, finished the job which was started by colorful and easy-to-play role-playing games in the 80’s: lack of new recruits is more than evident these days.

Generation videogame

If you take a close look at today’s consim scene you can easily recognize that the average age is even higher today than it was when Alan wrote his article (and even then the 28-45 year olds were the largest part of the community), while it doesn’t attract players younger than 22 years. The same people who were active in the consim scene in the early days are growing old together with their hobby, while the attraction for younger gamers is constantly diminishing. In my opinion the strongest rival in this race are attractive, spectacular videogames (for example the Call of Duty and Battlefield series), which offer more action and more of the feeling of being “within the game” than perhaps an ASL scenario – or at least this is what the unexperienced newbie may think when comparing these two. Besides this, videogames are always “introductory” and can be learned within a few minutes to a maximum of one hour by every player, no matter how unexperienced he is.

Call of Duty MW2 is one of the most intense and driving front experiences you can get in a videogame

All we can do is promise that learning a complex consim and working yourself through a monster rulebook is worth all the time and effort – because once you get a grasp on the game system, you’ll get a very deep feeling for tactical and strategical situations – deeper than any videogame can offer.

Learning the circumstances of a historical battle, about the importance of a seemingly unimportant island or hill, the importance of securing supply lines, of morale, of leadership, answering “why didn’t they do this and that” and other “what if”-questions gives very fascinating historical insights into war. This doesn’t mean that games like Call of Duty don’t deliver an “authentic” front feeling, but it’s more of a spectacular, roller-coaster, fast-food type which is intense for a few hours, but forgotten when the next game launches. It doesn’t answer any questions or give deep insights into strategical and tactical decisions and problems.

But what is this promise worth? We will get nothing but a pityful look and a patronizing comment that we could enjoy our dusted counters and pages of tables and ballistic calculations if we want to. But why should today’s youth bother with calculating the combat odds for themselves – software and videogames do this superfluous background work and all these little calculations and all what’s left for the player is the mere gaming experience and fun!

Even if you have the rare lucky moment in finding a young person interested in history who is also after simulation and authenticity and a very accurate presentation of a specific event or combat, you will have problems in fighting your “evil rival”: there is no fight, no era, no battle you won’t find in a PC based simulation. By the way, PC games offer a huge advantage over boardgame based simulations – they almost always include a multiplayer modus over the internet which replaces the face-to-face gaming which was typical for gaming groups in the 90’s.

Even fans of roleplaying games tend to switch over to the Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games which allow them to dive deep into a virtual world without wearing out their fantasy too much and without the need to read heavy rulebooks or to calculate combat effects on tables (the only exception are Live Roleplayers, but this type of RPG cannot be compared to a “boardgame” but more to Gotcha or Reenactment as contrasted to a Wargame).

What was only starting to become evident in the future – as described in Alan’s article -, has grown into a serious threat for the hobby today.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to condemn videogames, especially not realistic tactical shooters: I love to play them myself and we enjoy the cooperative Spec-Ops mode in “Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2” or the Conquest mode of “Battlefield Bad Company 2” together with our friends… the point is: today’s youth – tomorrow’s wargamers – simply don’t know of the existence of different kinds of strategical and tactical gameplay, because the wargaming scene, the games, the magazines, the forums, the mailing lists etc. are not present in the eyes of the potential wargamer.

Historical Wargames – hidden on shelves behind Fantasy games

You need some dedication to ponder 50+ hours over a huge map of Vietnam...

Even in local game stores, especially over here in Germany, historical wargames are hidden in a dusty corner behind walls full of boardgames, Fantasy miniature games and  Collectible Card Games. In the rare instance when the hobby is realized by the public, this happens only by accident and is considered a pastime for freaks then – I remember my first contact with the wargaming scene many years ago, when I read in my local newspaper (!) a report about the World in Flames-Convention which was written in a humorous style – the players were presented as quite friendly, harmless people, but definitely had a freaky image as a small, secret and weird community that doesn’t allow outsiders access to their world. So we return to the esoteric hidden and mysterious groups described in Alan’s article.

The question is: how to reach people revelling in a paradise full of colorful games, dealing with each and every conflict and war imaginable? People who cannot be reached even if they have a distinct historical interest, because wargaming doesn’t have publicity and thus doesn’t exist… especially not here, in Germany.

It’s a fact: something important must change, otherwise the hobby “historical conflict simulation / wargaming” will die. Once the players from the beginning days of Avalon Hill are gone, only a few people will carry on the torch. Of course, sometimes a few gamers – like us – discover the vast wargaming universe, but this must happen by own efforts. An active searching reveals this fascinating underground world, but how to search for something if you don’t know of its existence?

Another fact is that the few wargames which are more popular and which can also attract younger players, are mostly  simple, colorful games, e.g. Axis & Allies and its relatives from the Gamemaster Series or Memoir ’44. These games attract beginners even today, even in Germany. You can argue about the strategic depth of those games – they are nothing more than large boardgames dealing with a war topic, but this doesn’t matter – they are serving their duty: they motivate to take a closer look at this hobby.

We are the best example for their value as introductory games:

Our long and winding road into the wargaming world

Our first step into the wargaming universe was Axis & Allies

Axis & Allies was our first contact with the wargaming scene. We were historically interested, we played tactical videogames such as “Hidden & Dangerous” and “Conflict Desert Storm” and one day we decided to try out a strategic boardgame. Andreas surfed the internet and discovered something which sounded like a “strategic relevation”, an accurate simulation of the entire WWII as a boardgame, with tiny little tanks, planes and ships. In our newbie’s illusionary world we imagined ourselves standing at the table like old generals, pushing armors from one country to the other.

Axis & Allies was available in our local comic- and gamestore, so we bought it – and were thrilled by the colorful plastic figures, the small armies, the tanks and all the other secret stuff. We wanted to start playing right away and became euphoric, searched the internet for clubs, for strategies, and discovered the scene connected to this game. In addition, there were some attractive expansions, more fronts (Pacific, Europe), more rules (World at War), so that we had the feeling of discovering a stargate to another gaming universe.

Okay, we went back down to Earth very fast, because we were disappointed by the limitation of strategic depth – but this didn’t matter anymore. We were hooked, we wanted to simulate battles on a board. First we rejected the idea of playing with small die cut counters (“I don’t want paper counters, I want plastic armies, I want to push tanks!”) and we would have run away from Avalon Hill games. In the good old times students may have enjoyed this old fashioned design; we, as members of the videogame generation and boardgame-newbies, wanted colors, wanted visual impressions, wanted spectacular games – in this we were not that different from today’s generation in their 16-28s who should become tomorrow’s wargamers. Maybe today this attitude is even stronger.

So perhaps the old Avalon Hill classics, being yesterday’s introductory games, convinced students to join the wargaming community back in the 60s and 70s. And of course these games are still available at ebay. They are as brilliant now as they were yesterday – they just cannot convince today’s MTV- and videogame generation anymore. The youth will be disgusted with the design of the 1977 version of “The Russian Campaign”  – as we were when we bought “Third Reich” “by accident” on ebay while searching for more “strategic challenges” similar to Axis & Allies.

An Avalon Hill classic from 1974 can be a quite shocking experience

Andreas read that “Third Reich” was considered as the ultimate strategic challenge by some – exactly the kind of game we (in our naive opinion) were looking for. But you cannot simply step over to Third Reich from Axis and Allies, it was too much for us, we were shocked that we didn’t really understand the system and sold the game on ebay after futile attempts to get it going. We needed a “next natural step” to keep us playing and to lead us further into the hobby. Axis & Allies was the classic beginner’s drug.

Many people would have turned their backs on the hobby after this, but we were stubborn enough to search our path into the wargaming heaven and eventually discovered the world of consims. But we also realized (by watching a friend of ours who was thrilled by Axis & Allies immediately and who bought all expansions on the instant) that our experience couldn’t be compared to other people’s experiences. Andreas’ and my interest in more complex consims grew steadily and our friend simply couldn’t follow us because he didn’t have the time and desire to read rulebooks with hundreds of pages.

The experiences we made in the wargaming scene over the last years convinced us that we were a rare exception indeed. Most A&A players stay with their game, happy and satisfied with their own small universe, but sometimes some of them want to take the next step – and crash into a wall, because the wargaming scene is far too unclear and too “invisible”. You often read questions posted in various forums by A&A players searching for “light consims, such as A&A” – and often they return to their game, because they fell into traps called Advanced Third Reich, World in Flames or Totaler Krieg and couldn’t get access to these games. These games require prerequisites and knowlegde of concepts which are new to the beginner. I remember our own flop with “Triumph & Fall of the Desert Fox” which confused us with concepts like ZOC, Supply and “abstract transports not shown on the map” which was absolutely strange and incomprehensive to us then (today these concepts are basic to us, but it was a steep path on which the majority of today’s young people will turn around on half the way and head back to easier gameplay).

To me there is only one conclusion: in order to recruit more people for the wargaming hobby, more modern, attractive but nevertheless tactically or strategically challenging introductory wargames must be designed and published.

Money isn’t the main problem anymore

In contrast to Alan I don’t think the costs are the main problem (even a regular family boardgame nowadays costs 30 Euro and more). Today’s youth has a lot of problems, but money isn’t one of them. People who pay 69 Euro for a videogame will pay the same amount for a board wargame if they are convinced by the product. It is more important to offer them an argument why to spend this money on the product in question. They are accustomed to colorful images and don’t want the dusty design of the 70s. This is why an old product – the wargame – must be styled in a new way and must be advertised in an aggressive manner.

The counter design in Mark Walker's games is very modern and very attractive even to videogame players

A good example for attempting this was Mark H. Walker’s Lock’n Load: Forgotten Heroes – Vietnam, which exactly wanted to attract this generation (his series proved to be a great success and many similar games followed).

It offered modern 21st century design and promises “more game, less guff”, fun oriented, fast gameplay, heavy firefights, action – combined with tactical opportunities and maneuver. The advertising of this game was penetrant and aggressive – and who doesn’t like colorful, animated banners with helicopters? The former publisher, Shrapnel Games, produces PC games, so this was exactly the right method to address the classic PC wargame customer – and it worked!

Despite the fact that Lock’n Load is a problematical game in some respects for “old-fashioned” wargamers (for example, the rules are written in a lax and inaccurate way in order to allow the bloody beginner a more easy access), the game managed what the old monster games couldn’t do: It drew new players and was attractive to young people who love the modern counters and fresh design und who dislike 70s design and immense rulebooks.

Another good example is the Smithsonian Edition of old Avalon Hill classics, for example the new version of Battle of the Bulge (1991). Although this game is a few years old by now, it still works fine when introducing young people to wargaming. The design is still quite modern and attractive, the map which shows Belgium is familiar to most European gamers. The box design is spectacular and even funny (“Nuts!”). The basic rules are printed on 1 (!) two-sided sheet of paper and you can step into the action immediately without endless rules studies. If you like the game system and the challenge of re-creating the Ardennes offensive, you can use the Battle Manual provided with the game which explains the historical context and offers optional rules which can be integrated step by step and which provide more chrome and realism. The speed in which you increase the game’s complexity is entirely up to you.

The Smithsonian Series offers introductory consims with an easy access and wants to teach basic historical knowledge – which works great. The fact that some grognards dislike this series or make fun of it doesn’t matter – this is just the proof for Alan’s thesis that the old grognards accept only monster games and condemn “simple consims“.

We need a step-by-step-series of introductory games

...while counters from the "classic monstergames" can be quite repellent to young gamers

I think there must be a step-by-step-series of introductory games which lead beginners from basic mechanics up to the complex consim world. There is a need for such games, as you can see in the A&A forums and the repeating questions for “light consims”. You can see it in the success of newbie-oriented games such as Lock’n Load or the new ASL Starter Kit. People sometimes blame that the Starter Kits are “ASL light” and don’t offer a real feeling of “what ASL truely is”. But this isn’t relevant! It is important that it brings in new gamers who once heard of this “secret esoteric ASL” and who lick blood by trying out the Starter Kits. It doesn’t matter if an experienced ASL player thinks the Starter Kit is but a castrated version preventing players from the authentic ASL experience. It is more important that it works!

I don’t think it to be accidental that more young people revive the scene today. Forums such as Consimworld flourish with beginner’s questions – and this is what should be supported by each experienced grognard. Strange and arrogant comments such as “sell your Smithsonian Battle of the Bulge and buy the ’81 Avalon Hill classic, the real stuff'” show that grognards are afraid that their hobby eventually loses its exclusive and secret touch. Whether they admit it or not, many hardcore-consim players are quite aware of their supposed elite status, equal to members of a degenerated secret magical order who are desperately trying to protect their insider status. These players don’t realize that it is exactly this attitude which will let the hobby die with them in the end.

There are some exceptions, of course. In fact, most long-time consim players gladly share their knowledge with newbies and introduce them with great patience into “their” games. In order to allow newbies to play ASL, A3R, Totaler Krieg or World in Flames some day, it is not helpful to simply refer to an old, simple, ugly Avalon Hill game and leave them alone with this shocking experience.

Once you arrive at ASL, you know it was worth the trouble

It may sound superficial, but I think the world needs visual appealing, dramatic wargames which offer good and well-thought rulebooks which are accessible for beginners and which are good appetizers. One shouldn’t laugh about “Fun-Wargames” such as Axis & Allies; their players are tomorrow’s potential consim players.

Once an A&A player wants to play a more complex game and tries out a light consim, he must have the chance to find it without much difficulties – these games must be advertised offensively. We in the HFC realized that you cannot offer the ASL or Totaler Krieg rulebook to someone who recently just made his first A&A experiences. This was the reason why we created the HFC Game-O-Meter – it gives an orientation about the difficulties of getting into a new game and offers a comparison (“I like game X with complexity E, now I want to play another game of the same complexity level”). In addition to this, we explicitely recommend and support so-called “Introductory consims” such as the Smithsonian Edition of Battle of the Bulge.

You have to face reality – you either cloak yourself as a member of the secret consim elite or you search for new gamers and help them to get into the wargaming scene – even players from the Call of Duty generation!

No one wants to abolish monster games (we love them, too) but much has to be done in the field of introductory wargames – we need more up-to-date, graphically appealing and stylish introductory games with enough “meat” and depth to lure new players deeper into the world of board wargaming.

PRO Alan’s article CONTRA

2 Responses to “PRO: “Introductory Wargames to revive the community!!!””

  1. David Hughes said

    The Emrich article was nonsense in 1987, and it is even less relevant today.

    The notion that simple games attract new recruits is an attractive fallacy; In fact, simple games appeal to those who like simple games. And ours – thankfully – is not a hobby of simple games, despite the efforts of VPG to drag it down to that level.

    As for the angst about demographics, if you peruse any of the many surveys on this topic on BGG, you will find that the most common age bracket for wargamers is 40 to 49 – prime age for partipation in many hobbies – with roughly equal numbers in the cohorts above and below. If we are greying, it is less slowly than the merchants of doom would have you believe.

    And if there is no demographic time bomb, I would say, “Crisis? What crisis?” Games – good games – are published every month, opponents abound, and vibrant communities of players exist online.

    So let’s not invent a problem where none exists.

  2. Denny, this is a great piece. Thanks so much for writing it. As a self-professed grognard, I’m not too proud–indeed, I am eager–to play AXIS AND ALLIES: D-DAY and AXIS AND ALLIES: BATTLE OF THE BULGE if I think I can bridge some younger folks into “more serious” boardgames. CONFLICT OF HEROES and the LOCK ‘N LOAD games certainly come to mind, but there’s also MEMOIR ’44, TIDE OF IRON and other games to slowly draw them in if they want those plastic figures. One of the best games I think to help bridge people into wargaming is Lost Battalion’s SERGEANTS MINIATURES GAME with the ROAD TO CARENTAN expansion. I’d think that set well characterizes your requirement that “in order to recruit more people for the wargaming hobby, more modern, attractive but nevertheless tactically or strategically challenging introductory wargames must be designed and published.” Experienced players get just as much out of the game as newbies.

    Here’s hoping this article convinces more publishers to do as Mark Walker, Lost Battalion Games, and other companies in creating those visually appealing and enticing games that nevertheless contain a good bit of intellectual “meat.”

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