I’m what people in the strategy-gaming hobby call a grognard. The word is literally French for “grumbler”, historically used for Napoleonist diehards who never reconciled themselves to the fall of L’Empereur even after 1815, and nowadays refers to guys who cut their teeth on the classic, old-school hex-grid wargames of the 1970s.
As a grognard, I’m expected to grumble dyspeptically about the superiority of the huge, heavy, elaborately simulationist two-player wargames we used to play back in the day, and bemoan how fluffy and social the modern wave of multiplayer Eurogames are. Sure, they’ve got four-color printing and unit counters you don’t have to use tweezers to pick up, but where are my pages and pages of combat resolution tables? Where are my hairsplitting distinctions between different types of self-propelled assault gun? O tempora! O mores!
But you know what? Times change, and game designers have actually learned a few things in the last forty years. In this essay I’m going to revisit two games I’ve reviewed previously (Commands and Colors: Ancients and Memoir ’44) and take a closer look at two others: War Galley, and Conflict of Heroes. These games exemplify how very much things have changed, and how little point there really is in pining for the old-school games any more. Yes, I may forfeit my old-fart credentials by saying it, but…I think the golden age of wargaming is now.
So we know what we’re talking about, I’m going to start by laying out some metrics by which you can judge the quality of a game design, then evaluate these for the games we”ll be looking at.
First: Realism. A historical game is “realistic” to the extent that if you do correct period tactics you will get the results that historical commanders got. A highly realistic game should also not reward doing things that are ahistorical. That is, for example, if you find a corner case in the game rules that makes some unit type vastly more effective than it was in period and that distorts the outcomes of battles, this is a realism bug.
Second: Playability. How difficult are the rules to learn and remember? How much setup time is required? How long does the game take to play? Simple rules engines, minimal setup, and rapid play are good, but these virtues may have a cost in simulation realism.
Third: Depth. A game is “deep” when it offers lots of behavioral space to explore, multiple paths to victory, and surprising turns which proceed naturally from its logic. Deep games reward repeated play and careful study.
Fourth: Thematic appeal: A game has thematic appeal when it covers a subject that is intrinsically interesting. Of all the metrics I’ll describe, this is the one gamers are likely to disagree about most, simply because tastes in “intrinsically interesting” vary so much. A game can have thematic appeal by revisiting a well-known arena (Pirates on the Spanish Main! Arrr!) or by shining an interesting light on an obscure corner of history (The second Roman siege of Jerusalem? Cool!)
Fifth: Presentation. Is the physical furniture of the game appealing? Are the maps, tables, and counters easy to read, pleasant to handle? Do they package the game’s mechanics in a way that minimizes the effort of play?
There’s one thing everyone, grognard and newbie alike, can agree on: the average quality of presentation in games has improved spectacularly since the 1970s. Part of the reason for this is technological: cold-press technology has made four-color and specialty printing far less expensive, and economical at much smaller print runs, than it was back in the day. Wider use of game counters with tactile interest (wooden blocks and figures as opposed to thin paper squares) has contributed as well.
Another part of the reason is that game designers have techniques they didn’t in the old days, and fully exploit good ones that were formerly rare. An excellent example of this is the broad shift away from combat based on die rolls followed by a table lookup. This has frequently been replaced by faster-playing, less tedious mechanics using cards or chit draws or unit block losses.
I don’t think there’s much case that the average level of thematic appeal has changed since the olden days, if only because judgments about that are so idiosyncratic.
But now to the grognard’s complaint: where old-school games emphasized realism and depth (sometimes to the actual exclusion of playability), modern designs trade away all that for playability and presentation. And for *grumble* social gaming.
There’s some truth to the charge. The archetypal mega-failure in old-school wargames was Campaign For North Africa (CNA). As the Wikipedia entry correctly notes, “Even gamers who were initially fascinated with the idea of an extremely detailed war game might have been chagrined when they opened the box to discover 1,800 counters, maps large enough to cover several tables, and a three-volume rulebook of considerable weight and density. The rules cover logistics in extreme detail…”.
By contrast, rather a lot of modern games are pretty but shallow and easily solvable. I’ll give one extreme example, a multiplayer card game called Straw about loading stuff (including magic carpets with negative weight) on a camel’s back. It was easy to learn, cute, we laughed a lot while the game was going on, and I never want to play it again because it would bore me to tears the second time.
But these extremes are not symmetrical. These light, fluffy games are popular, much more so than CNA ever was. They have lower development budgets, too. And a game publisher doesn’t care much if you only play a game once, as long as you bought it before that first time. From the publisher’s point of view, replay value and depth are mainly marketing tools to improve the brand; if they can pump out lots of silly, appealing, shallow “family” games for more profit they’re generally going to do just that.
Even forgetting the grognards with extreme views on the subject, this looks like a setup for tragedy from any serious gamer’s point of view. Is everything truly interesting about the hobby doomed to be swept away in a tide of fluff?
Thankfully, no. For one thing, the fluff is incubating a market for more challenging games. Among serious gamers, we recognize a category of games we ironically call “gateway drugs” – brightly-packaged, appealing games of light to moderate complexity that are both worth playing in themselves and tend to arouse a taste for higher-complexity experiences. Puerto Rico, a now-classic Eurogame of trade and development in the 16th-century Caribbean, is a well-known gateway drug. So is Carcassonne, a tile-laying game in which players compete to build medieval cities. An excellent recent example is Castle Panic, a fun little game in which you must fend off waves of monsters besieging your fantasy fortress; I’ve met the author of that one and he smilingly admits to having designed it to be a gateway drug.
For another thing, as I’ve previously noted, there’s a new wave of designers trying to revive the traditional simulationist hex wargame, but in a more modern and playable style. These publishers are finding a market not just among grognards like me but among newer gamers who have passed the gateway-drug stage and are hankering for more challenging fare.
The question all these designers and publishers are facing, now that everyone takes good presentation pretty much for granted, is: Must realism and playability be forever at odds? Can we achieve both in a game that both appeals to newbies and gets the grognard seal of approval? To address this question, I’ll evaluate four recent designs that have tackled it in different ways and with differing degrees of success.
I’ve blogged about Commands and Colors: Ancients before. It’s an excellent example of new-school design applied to a very old-school subject, tactical ancient-period warfare with hoplites and barbarians and legionaries and war elephants and all. It keeps the classic wargame hex grid, but fits over that a light, fast-playing rules engine that mostly replaces lookup tables with results read directly off specialized dice. Another new-school trick is the use of an action-card system to simulate fog of war and the difficulty of unit coordination.
I liked this game when it first shipped in 2006 and have only grown more fond of it since. The designer, Richard Borg, did a superb job of creating highly authentic tactical feel with a very simple rules engine. The game is easy to teach to newbies and has excellent depth for its weight. Each of the four expansions to the base game has broadened and deepened it, to the point where it does a decent job of covering nearly a thousand years of military history – from the early classical Greeks through the wars of Alexander, the post-Alexandrian succession wars, the Punic wars, the Roman civil wars, the career of Julius Caesar, the Roman wars with the Parthian Empire, and the beginnings of the barbarian invasions that brought down Rome. When I compare it to older, heavy-simulationist ancient-period games like the PRESTAGS system, they look absurdly overcomplicated for the degree of realism they deliver.
The realism, playability, depth, and presentation of this game are all good to excellent. Importantly, it proves that realism and playability don’t have to be antagonistic qualities fighting each other in a zero-sum way. But C&C:A doesn’t quite address the grognard’s complaint by itself, and there are several reasons for this. The most superficial is that it lives off in a specialty corner of thematic space, not competing with the modern-period classics of the wargaming form.
But there are deeper problems. C&C:A does yield realism in the sense that one can recognize things that happen on the board as accurately mirroring surviving accounts of ancient formations and tactics. But those accounts are fragmentary, and it is often difficult to separate what we actually know from the results of modern imaginative reconstructions. The orders of battle in the game scenarios use historical facts (such and such a general was present, there were cavalry in this battle and elephants at that one, etc.) but are largely invented because we lack the facts to be definite about them, and they invented are so as to balance sides and create an interesting game.
C&C:A is also evasive about the details of its own simulation. Just how many men does a unit represent? – it never says. The apparent scale of a map hex seems to vary a great deal among scenarios. It treats weapons types and doctrines as interchangeable over very long periods. For example, it is not actually very likely that all skirmishing missile troops from classical Greek slingers c.500BCE up to late Roman bowmen c.260CE could actually be treated as tactically interchangeable – too much variation in weapons, doctrine, morale. Yet for C&C:A purposes they’re all just light troops with four attrition steps, a two-hex missile range, and identical movement and combat power.
In sum, C&C:A, though an excellent game, is open to the charge that its “realism” is only skin-deep, a product of artful vagueness. It is possible to at least imagine a better game, one which would not merely feel realistic in play but justify that feeling by not handwaving away so many details.
Memoir ’44 makes an interesting contrast, because it’s from the same designer as C&C:A, deals with a period that is very well documented, and does compete directly with those modern-period classics. It applies a minor variation of the C&C:A rules engine to a different topic, yielding very divergent results. In doing so, it lends additional point to the grognard’s complaint.
M44 is an operational-level World War II game. Like its ancient-period sibling C&C:A, is both highly playable and has excellent presentation; accordingly, it is highly popular (lots of people like WWII games) and the hobby equivalent of a runaway bestseller.
The trouble with this is that Borg’s rules engine doesn’t apply nearly as well at operational rather than tactical scale, nor to a period in which (a) mobility is higher, (b) units have radios, and (c) ranged weapons are much more important. The system of action cards and field zones that worked so well in C&C:A feels ahistorical here, leading to unnatural tactics. The game makes a good first impression (I was more positive about it back when I first reviewed it), but these flaws – invisible to newbie gamers unfamiliar with the period – become more obtrusive over repeated plays.
I’ve also found that M44 scales up poorly. C&C:A works well whether you have only a handful of units or large armies on the board, but in M44 realism degrades badly as unit counts go up. At this year’s World Boardgaming Championships I spent about five hours as one of eight players refighting Operation Market Garden as an M44 scenario. It was not really a happy experience; command errors combined with the flaws of the M44 system in unfortunate ways.
I’m not going to say M44 is a outright bad game, but overall it’s…disappointing. Mediocre. Doesn’t deliver on its initial promise and surface gloss. It makes a decent gateway drug to get people interested in more realistic WWII games (one of which I’ll review later in this essay). Other than that, though, it exemplifies the grognard’s fear of mediocre but popular lightweight games driving out better designs. Realism poor, playability and presentation excellent, depth medium, thematic appeal good.
Well, if that’s a problem, why not try doing the old-school thing bigger and better with 21st-century production values? That’s the tack taken by War Galley, a game of ancient naval fleet warfare clearly aimed straight at hard-core historical-wargaming grognards. Hundreds of counters, rules for everything – oared movement, sail movement, ramming, board fireships, a gallimaufry of critical-hit types. You want combat resolution tables, it’s got ‘em by the dozen. It’s the kind of game where you need a reference chart just to keep track of the turn sequence.
I wanted this game precisely because it promised a crunchy simulationist experience in the classic style about a topic that has strong thematic appeal for me. Alas, what I got was a chore and a bore. My wife and I started the first scenario, stalled out, and it’s been sitting on the big dining-room table for two months, mocking us.
Maybe it would get easier with repeated plays, but I think the lesson for me is that you can’t go home again. Thirty years ago I would have screwed my courage to the sticking point and played this thing through, because the payoff – immersion in an exotic puzzle with interesting connections to military history – wasn’t attainable with any less effort. But the competitive landscape has changed now; it includes both computer games that do heavy simulationism with much less user effort, and elegant lightweight games with good historical feel like C&C:A. In today’s environment War Galley is a dinosaur. Huge, slow, magnificent from a distance, and doomed.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. When I last touched on the subject, four years ago, there was a tentative renaissance in hex wargaming starting to happen; the launch of C&C:A and its impressive early success could be seen as part of that. Since then, designers have been groping forward, trying to match both the realism standards of the heavy, old-school simulationist game and the playability of contemporary Eurogames. I’ve seen any number of worthy attempts that didn’t quite make it…and now, there’s at least one that does.
Conflict of Heroes is that game. Properly, it’s a game system like C&C:A; the first two installments cover Russians versus German on the Eastern Front from 1941-1943, and more are plausibly promised. It’s a tactical-level game; you’re maneuvering squads of soldiers and individual tanks. This setting is probably the single most popular one for wargames ever, and CoH enters it begging for comparison with Panzerblitz/Panzer Leader, Combat Commander and other tactical-scale classics of the old school.
In some ways it’s like them. The hairsplitting distinctions of old are back; differences between 5cm and 8cm mortars, or Panzerkampwagon model II and IV tanks, are actually significant. Line-of-sight rules for direct-fire weapons; check. Special mechanic for close assault; check. Options for hidden deployment; check…et cetera. This game scores so high on realism that if you get good at it, you’ll actually have internalized a better grasp of modern small-unit tactics than many professionally-trained military officers have – I know this because my main playing partner used to be one of those and so reports.
But it’s also different from those old-school classics in significant ways. There isn’t a combat resolution table in sight; instead, hits are rolled for with a saving-throw-like mechanic using various simple modifiers, rather obviously lifted from the fantasy-roleplaying tradition. There’s a chit-draw system for allocating damage after a hit. There are no movement points as such; rather, all unit actions (movement, firing) are paid for from per-unit action-point pools, optionally topped up with scarce Command Action Points representing officers’ exertions on the spot.
Where older games sometimes had reaction fire and overwatch bolted on as a sort of afterthought, it’s fundamental to the CoH rules engine. Each time a unit moves into a new hex, the enemy has an opportunity to react if they have the action points remaining to do so. This makes play more fluid and means each player actually has things to do during the opponent’s turn. Additional flavor and some unpredictability is provided by special action cards which can allow you to bend the rules a bit and pull the occasional nasty surprise.
The result is a system which matches the tactical realism of games like Panzer Leader but with a much simpler, faster-playing rules engine. It’s like what C&C:A does to old-school ancients games like PRESTAGS – but in CoH there’s no vagueness and no handwaving of the details; you can see down to the bottom of the simulation. Fights that might have taken three hours of mechanics-heavy slogging in older systems collapse to 45-minute joyrides. It’s almost too easy.
Academy Games, the publisher, is marketing this thing well beyond the comparatively small group of grognards like me who would normally be drawn by a detailed tactical game, as a “wargame Eurogamers will want to play”. Their marketing, reacting to the headache-inducing reputation old-school wargames have among younger gamers, emphasizes the lightness and accessibility of the system. But I think this is almost unfair, because I’ve played those classics and I say this game can hold its own just fine in all other ways, too, including realism.
The naked truth is that a lot of the heavy simulationism in early old-school games was a barely functional or even anti-functional way to impress players with the seriousness of what the designers were doing – a sort of blitz of corroborative detail meant to obscure the fact that, hey we’re playing with paper counters and dice here, not real infantrymen and tanks. Once this sort of self-validation by weight of rulebook became the accepted form, it turned into an evolutionary arms race that eventually produced monstrosities like CNA.
The archetypal grognard’s complaint about new-school games is in part an unwillingness to give up those signifiers of seriousness. But I’ve got thirty-seven years of grognarding right here that says to hell with that; the lessons that Eurogames have taught the designers of C&C:A and CoH – and other wargames that will come after them – are valuable. The hex wargame is back, and it’s better than ever. The golden age of wargaming is now.