Introduction and basic concept:
It cannot be denied: everybody new to the Hobby “Wargaming” faces some problems at first. There is an apparently infinite number of wargames out there (or so it seems) which portray every battle ever fought in history. Even games which portray the same battle often differ within their game levels, complexity, unit size, or focus.
On the one hand, the great number of games available ensures that everyone will find a game that suits his/her personal needs regarding taste and special interest, but on the other hand, this also causes some real problems for newcomers who get lost easily – there are simply too many games out there and newcomers don’t know where to start.
They will probably find games allowing them to re-play a certain battle they are interested in, even on the desired game level, but nevertheless this game may be the wrong choice for them. Besides the differences in-game level, there’s also the question of the complexity of a given game, and this is of high importance because a game which is too complicated can easily demoralize new players, and in the worst case, these games can cause beginners to quit The Hobby altogether in a very early stage.
If I am interested in the battles of the Pacific in WWII, for example, and have never played a wargame before (besides Risk), it doesn’t make much sense for me to buy the games Flat Top or Empire at War – consims which allow me to play the desired topic, but which are far too complicated for a newbie who is still learning the first steps in wargaming and who would be completely satisfied with Axis and Allies Pacific or Fire in the Sky.
Likewise, there’s a chance of getting a wrong picture of a game because the rules appear to be rather short – and so someone interested in battles between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army will probably buy the game Fire in the East from the Europa series. It’s true that the rules are not very long (compared to other consims) but the player will soon find out that several large maps and about 3000 counters are not something which could be considered to be an easy start into this hobby.
Or a player may get the wrong impression while playing a fun wargame like Axis & Allies because he thinks that what this game offers in terms of strategy and tactics is already the end of the line.
In order to avoid confusion and problems, it’s important that players choose games that do not only satisfy their personal interest in a specific topic, theater, or era but that will also fit to their personal circumstances and their gaming experiences. A monster game won’t make much sense if I can’t provide the table space to play it over months, a very complicated consim is a waste of money if I still don’t know the differences between ZOC and TEM, and a “Fun-Wargame” probably isn’t very entertaining for the Grognard who has already been playing consims for 20 years because he will be bored by the lack of strategic options.
That was our experience, too…
We started our wargaming career with Axis & Allies and other games of that style (who didn’t?), and we were rather impressed by the “strategic depth”. The chaos on the board was a real challenge to us. The rules weren’t as clear as we wished they were, and we ended up playing our first game with a completely incorrect combat sequence: instead of conducting all movement first and then resolving all given combat situations, we mixed that up and did move some units here, then fought some battles, mixing those actions up in a very relaxed and uninformed manner.
The rules weren’t even confusing about that point, but we simply got them wrong nevertheless because we weren’t used to this kind of games with a strict Sequence of Play, and we were stunned when somebody told us how to play correctly. After we realized that Axis & Allies was just the tip of the big iceberg known (or rather unknown, which is the main problem of our hobby) as historical conflict simulations and we tried to become part of the community, our first wrong purchase happened.
We had read that Third Reich was a “hell of a strategic level game” and we bought it because we thought it would simply add more choices to the game experience we made with A&A – because we supposed that 3R would be the same kind of game as A&A, just on a somewhat “higher level”. That’s correct, of course – but nevertheless we were completely lost. We read the rulebook several times, asked questions in various forums, got the OOP PC conversion of the game via Underdogs, and had the maps on the table ready for play several times. But the fact was – we simply didn’t understand it and never pushed a single counter.
Things like Year Start Sequence, Basic Resource Points etc were meaningless for us and we were even unable to set up the starting position of the forces of a scenario because we didn’t understand what the instructions on the scenario card actually meant and how to “translate” them into the gaming situation. At some point we got tired of this and we had to admit that we were not ready for this kind of games yet, so we sold the game.
We had a similar frustrating experience with the game Triumph and Fall of the Desert Fox by UGG. The game was hailed as a “good introductory game” to the “Morse code” series. It looked very good, the rules did not appear too complex, and so we had no reason to be sceptical. One weekend, we sat down at our game table, opened the ziplock bag, put the map on the table, pushed the counters into starting positions, and tried with a cool beer in hand what Gerd Fröbe did so convincingly in the German movie “Die tollkühnen Männer in ihren fliegenden Kisten” (English title: “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines”) – he started the engine of his plane and after taking off and reaching a comfortable height, he began to study the manual about how to fly such a thing…
The allied player was ready to do the first (!) move – transporting a cavalry unit with a ship – and we were facing our first problem. How to do this? The rules said something about “transporters being abstracted in the game’s movement system”. To make a long story short: We were sitting for about 6 hours, pouring over the rules, and discussing how to move with transporters not being present. We don’t have to mention (and the reader already knows, we suppose) that this cavalry unit never left the city, and we never made it beyond this first move (which wasn’t actually done, either). As a result, we were angry about these “dumb rules” telling us something about abstractions without explaining the damn game at all. We put everything back into the ziplock bags and again sold the game…
What went wrong? Isn’t it allowed to use abstractions in wargames? Is a transport not actually portrayed in a game a bad joke by the designer? Is Third Reich so famous in the wargame community because no one ever played it – since it’s unplayable? Hardly so… 3R is already superseded by its successor “Advanced Third Reich” in terms of complexity, and even this successor is not the latest version – “A World At War” is already published, based on A3R. What was once a game with a small map, a few counters, and about 25 pages of rules that gave us real headaches, is now a monster consim with several maps, thousands of counters and a 250 page rulebook!
By the way, abstract transports are something we can handle quite easily today…
The point is that these wargames didn’t correspond with our game experience. The jump from Axis & Allies to 3R was far too big at that time because we were not used to even the simplest game mechanics of consims. Therefore “abstractions” were beyond our understanding. Consims presume too many things newbies don’t know and take a certain knowledge for granted, so it’s not easy to start with these games without a basic understanding of how such games work. We were really interested in the topic and stubborn enough to make it through those frustrating experiences.
We were lucky to meet some nice folks from all over the world who patiently helped us with any (sometimes very dumb) questions we had – so we learned a lot that way. But many other players are disappointed, give up early, and are lost for this great hobby simply because they played the “wrong” games.
In order to help folks with the problems they often face when starting with wargaming, “complexity ratings” were introduced into the wargaming community. It was again Avalon Hill who created something really new: The company started utilizing a specific rating for all of games published by them. That made it very easy for the customers to see how complicated a given game was and how suitable it was for solitaire gaming. This rating was part of the overall evaluation of games, which was published every month in the AH “house magazine” The General, as the “Readers Buyers Guide”. In this column, games got several different rankings by the readers/players, e.g. about Overall Value, Playability, Completeness, Authenticity etc., and each month this ranking was updated with new statistics.
Over the time this complexity rating became a very trustworthy statistic due to many years of collected readers’ / players’ opinions on various games. In the beginning it was the designer who rated his game in terms of complexity in comparison to other, similiar games, and later the opinion and experiences of other players were added to “fine-tune” the ranking.
Initially Avalon Hill had a rating system starting with “Introductory” up to different tournament levels, but later they changed it to a specific rating from 1 (simple) up to 9 (very complex), changing it again after that to the final system which rated games from 1 – 10. After some years they changed it back to a more rough rating (Low – Medium – High – Very High) and after Hasbro took over the company, giving more room to lighter wargames, this rating was simplified even further to a Low – Moderate – High classification. Other wargame companies followed this example and introduced their own game rankings, so there are different systems out there now.
So, why do we need another rating in addition to the ones already existing (where almost all games ever published are recorded)? Do we have any use for the HFC Game-O-Meter? Well, complexity is a relative term, a matter of subjective impressions – not every player has the same gaming experiences and background, or the same abilities to get easily into a new game etc.. The internet offers many complexity ratings, but sometimes the classifications are hard to understand when you don’t have some wargaming experience under your belt. You can find ratings that put Squad Leader in the same category as A&A Europe, or where Totaler Krieg! is seen as complex as ASL or A3R. Other ratings say that Axis & Allies is a “very complex game” and the “extensive” rules need 3 hours to be read to completion. These are ratings not all wargamers can agree upon, of course, but they say much about how subjective complexity ratings really are.
We discovered that our changing and growing game experience has much influence on deciding what we considered to be a more or less complex game, so there’s a good deal of uncertainty when trying to rate a game. But such a rating is very important when one has to decide which games suit the various experience levels of new players – which could be newbies in wargaming (for example, former Euro gamer) or just players new to a particular game, but with solid wargaming experience. So we tried – as many did before us – to find an “objective” standard, a formula that allows us to rate a game in a useful way.
It didn’t take much time to find out that this was not an easy goal. There was no agreement about which aspects are responsible for a game’s complexity. A rulebook with 100 pages with clear wording may be easier to understand than a sloppily written 15 pages booklet. A game that lasts 50 hours is not necessarily more complex than one with short scenarios lasting 1 hour. Many counters don’t mean higher complexity, either. The challenge of a specific game can consist in difficult rules, in an extensive rulebook, or in the mechanics used in the game which are not easy to grasp at first etc.. Some games even intended to be suitable for beginners fail because the rulebook consists of black holes and errata – thus (unintentionally) enhancing the complexity instead of lowering it by avoiding too many redundant rules, examples, and explanations and by using flippant wording.
Eventually we had to find a compromise in order to bring together the two elements of the given task – providing useful information for those who are interested in a specific wargame but have never played it before, and having a consistent way of determining a complexity rating and of presenting such information.
The HFC Game-O-Meter is based on the old TAHGC Complexity Rating that offered reliable information and rankings due to the participation of many players over a long time. Although this appraisal wasn’t done by newbies (rather usually by veterans), we could ascertain over the years that the given rating very often corresponds to the feelings a new player has when starting to learn one of those games.
Of course this rating can only to be seen in relation to other wargames and is not considered to be an absolute measurement. In order to allow for the inclusion of more games into this AH rating pattern (games which are new, were not published by AH, or were ranked based on a totally different systems), we decided to use a “rougher” structure than the rather specific 1 – 10 ranking. The new AH ratings from “moderate” up to “High”, on the other hand, are too imprecise to offer a reliable information for players. We agreed upon a letter system ranging from E (Entry Level) – A (Advanced) and color-coding for easier reference.
The message of the Game-O-Meter therefore is only “that game X is more or less complex than game Y” – like the relative chronology used in archaeology – regarding the complexity, the overall playability and how easy it is for someone to get into it. So the main focus isn’t on whether someone finds a game actually difficult or not, because that can’t be said without taking many subjective aspects into account. Instead we concentrate on how accessible a new game is for an average player with average gaming experience. The advantage of our classification, using 5 steps over the more narrow 1 – 10 scale, is that each step covers 2 rating levels of the old AH scale. So the HFC Game-O-Meter level “E” corresponds roughly with games that were divided into two different ratings by AH – “1” and “2”. Level “D” corresponds with the AH rating of “3” and “4”, level “C” is covering the AH steps “5” and “6”, level “B” is “7” and “8” and level “A” corresponds with AH ratings “9” and “10”. Due to this, it is much easier to include new games or games from different publishers, and to rate these games on the basis of our experiences and the information we get from the international gaming community.
Based on these ideas, we developed the letter / color system which shows the general complexity of a wargame. In addition we created the bullet icon which provides information about the entry threshold or barriers to entry for a newcomer, ie the accessibility. Despite the fact that more experienced wargamers with many games under their belt would judge the entry threshold of a given game to be much lower than the casual player, it doesn’t make our bullet system obsolete. On the contrary, it’s important to keep an eye on how easy or problematic it is to learn a new game and to think about the average new player and which problems he would face while trying to learn the game.
We had a look at “our” games and checked out how easy it was (for us) to get into a game. Then we evaluated the overall playability in regard to a new player. Eventually we developed the 6-bullet system you find below (1=easy access, 6=hard to learn). Consims like A World At War or ASL will always be at the top of any complexity rating scale, no matter how the ranking is structured. This doesn’t change even if an experienced ASL player sees fewer problems in learning and playing the game than a newbie. Introductory games, on the other hand, will always be on the easy side of the scale, and most others games on the market will be somewhere between these two levels in such a relative complexity ranking (which is why we chose to call the “medium complexity” C = “Core Games”).
This way the ratings given in the HFC Game-O-Meter are based on long-term experiences from many players, current evaluations from the wargaming community, and our own experiences. Therefore they should give reliable and useful information for new players about which game actually fits his (or her) needs, and which one will more likely lead to problems. That’s what this rating is all about!
It’s important to stress, though, that the HFC levels and the AH scale are not always congruent because we sometimes rate games with a specific AH rating as more or less complicated than they did. For example, The Russian Campaign (TRC) was given a “4” on the AH rating scale and that would be level “D” in the HFC Game-O-Meter. Because of our own experience with this game, we saw it more as a level “C” game on the HFC scale. The old rating scale is more of a useful indicator and not so much a direct guide or fixed statement. One shouldn’t forget that there was a trend in wargaming towards more complex consims over time, so today’s ideas about “complex games” may vary from those of 15 or 20 years ago.
On the other hand, games which were intended to be easy to learn (e.g. War of the Ring or Lock’n Load) and which actually ARE easy once you understand the rules, got a relatively “high” C-Rating because the rules (or, in the case of War of the Ring, the German translation) were written in quite a sloppy , ambigious, unprecise or flippant style, were full of black holes and undefined terms, or they even missed paragraphs or included wrong rules (leftovers from playtesting which should have been deleted in the final version), demanding the inclusion of errata. It’s problematic to play these games “out of the box” – at least, if you want to play them correctly, and you will have to search FAQs and internet forums in order to get a full grasp of the rules. War of the Ring or Lock’n Load definitely are not “difficult games”, but it’s sometimes difficult to understand the rules in the first place – this is why some games got a “C” rating for their difficult approach rather than a “D” for their demanding, but quite simple gameplay.
Note: This complexity rating is only meant for board and card games and NOT for PC or video games. PC or video games cannot be judged with the same criteria because players often need manual skills in addition to a complex or simple gameplay.The more video games you play, the more routine you get in controlling your characters or armies. The Game-O-Meter could be adapted to judge a purist PC Consim such as the HPS games because they are quite similar to traditional board wargames. A game such as the original Operation Flashpoint, though, may be a realistic tactical level consim, but it is played from a first-person-shooter perspective which you don’t find in a traditional board or card wargame. Players who are accustomed to playing shooters with mouse and keyboard would fail on a console when using a gamepad and vice versa. You have to learn the controls of a game before you can deal with the game mechanics and complexity, so transferring the complexity rating to PC and console games doesn’t make any sense.
Here’s a short description of the different Game-O-Meter levels:
|A(dvanced Games)||Difficult Consims which need intensive rules studies to get into the game, and where the player can fully experience the strategic/tactical possibilities only when playing regularly. Such games can be big monster games (that is they often (but not always) need large table space, and they can have long setup times because of their many counters).||Advanced Squad Leader, Imperium Romanum II, Vietnam 1965-1975|
|B(rain Teaser Games)||Consims with rule books less extensive than the games in level A, but which nevertheless need more work and dedication than “normal” Core-Consims. The intellectual challenge is the main factor in these games, and they offer a complexity that makes them a less good choice for people who only want to play them once in a while, or who are not seeking a deep gaming experience. This group of games can also include monster games which need both room and time.||Totaler Krieg, Empire of the Sun, Squad Leader Series|
|C(ore Games)||Consims in this group form the vast majority of wargames available because they are a good compromise between a demanding game system and playability. You get all qualities of a consim, although some
aspects are less detailed than in the aforementioned group of games. The games often are good portrayals of reality and historical events without going too much into detail. It’s relatively easy to get into the game because the rules are much shorter than in the higher level games, and the games require less space and time to be played.
|The Russian Campaign,Blue vs. Gray, Up Front, War of the Ring|
|D(emanding Games)||Wargames that are more concerned with having fun – regarding the time you need to learn the game system – than with detailed studies of events or complicated mechanics. But these games already give a good picture of what can be achieved in using gaming models of actual military operations, and they can be rather exacting for the players. Usually such games don’t need much table space, and they can be played in a shorter time (although even such games can take long time, but that is because wargames usually need more time than normal board games – but exceptions are possible on both sides, of course). You won’t forget all the rules when you stop playing these games for a while.||B-17,
|E(ntry Level Games)||1. Easy consims that use mechanics typical for these games, but without going into too much detail. Simple gaming sequences, easy combat procedures, and quick gameplay. These “Lite Consims” can be historically accurate within the possibilities they offer, but most of the time have to make many compromises. These games are typical introductory consims.
2. Fun-Wargames, having very simple game mechanics, easy to get into, fast to play and stressing fun and playability more than anything else. Short rules, often with many illustrations to help the players to understand the game. These games are not very accurate in portraying historical events, don’t have complicated mechanics or math models, and can be explained in a very short time even to newbies.
Battle of the Bulge,
Afrika Korps, A House Divided, Richard III, Julius Caesar
2. Axis & Allies, Memoir’44, Conquest of the Empire
The bullet icon shows how easy or difficult it is to learn a game, if you can play it without referring to the rulebook all the time, how easy or complicated it is to memorize the rules, and how problematic it is to get back into the game after a longer gaming break. Do you have to relearn the game from scratch? Is the rule system supportive enough so that you can get back without much trouble?
A “1 Bullet“game is a game which can be learned quickly and without much trouble, which doesn’t require much rules study before or during play and which can be played even after a longer gaming break without re-learning everything. A “6 bullet” game is a game which is hard to learn and hard to play without rulebook at hand because you have to look up rules permanently, or a game which needs significant work before it is playable, which has to be played on a regular base because you will certainly forget many of the rules if you play it only from time to time, and which needs much re-learning after a gaming break.
The Bullet Icon supplements the letter and color system (=general complexity) and shows the accessibility for new players for and seasoned players after a long break.
More categories used on our website:
Games we generally don’t rate (for example video games), because we cannot judge objectively how difficult it is to get into these games for all types of players. Mostly these games need additional abilities, such as motoric skills that can be improved with video games experience, but some people are more talented for quick shooting controls than others by nature.
Games which are in the “HFC test lab” at the moment. We are currently playing and testing them. A judgement about the complexity of a game will be shared once we test the game thoroughly, but we don’t want to give any statements regarding the complexity level yet. We will add this once we have finished testing this game.