I enjoy strategy games. I’ve been playing them since the heyday of the elaborate hundreds-of-tiny-counters hex-map historical-simulation wargames in the 1970s and early 1980s. But those games don’t get played much any more, largely because they took so long to set up and
learn; after 1985 or so younger gamers moved to computer simulations instead, and as the hex-wargame genre stagnated many old-school gamers eventually abandoned it in favor of military-miniatures gaming.
Ace game designer Greg Costikyan (coincidentally, an old friend of mine) has a different theory about what killed old-school wargames. He tells a lurid tale of mismanagement and blunder; I have little doubt it’s true, but I also think he understimates the impact of computer gaming.
Be that as it may…in the late 1990s we started to see a new wave of fresh, innovative game designs in a different style. Settlers of Catan in 1995 was the harbinger. This game of trade and civilization-building featured an elegant combination of simple mechanics with tricky, relatively deep strategy. There are several possible routes to victory in Settlers, all requiring both positional tactics and careful management of constrained resources. The game is made more attractive by colorful, high-quality physical furniture and tasteful artwork. It can be played lightly and socially or in an intense minimaxing mode, and (importantly) is really designed for three or four players though it can be played one-on-one. It rewards repeated playing.
These became signature traits of a huge freshet of new games that hit the U.S. market in the new century. Other standouts have included Puerto Rico, Domaine, Power Grid, Alhambra, Shadows Over Camelot, and Ticket To Ride. Most of these games are imports from Germany, republished in English; the style is generically known as “German games” or “Eurogames” and I’ve heard it alleged that in Germany these games are a mass-market form of family entertainment rather than being confined to gamer-hobbyists, science-fiction fans, and technogeeks as they still mostly are in the U.S.
I’ve long thought that the Eurogame is in part a response to competition from computer games. Computers do the detail-crammed historical-simulation game better than you can with counters and a board, so they got steamrollered. Eurogames, on the other hand, do something computer games are poor at — face-to-face multiplayer games — and they do it with furniture that’s pleasant to look at and handle. Silly as it sounds, Puerto Rico would lose some of its play value without the colorful wooden barrel-tokens it uses for commodities.
The newest wave is Eurogame-like designs that are aiming to retake some of the territory the old-school games lost to computers. I got to play two of these recently, Commands and Colors: Ancients and its sibling Memoir ’44, and was favorably impressed.
Commands and Colors: Ancients does what old-school ancients games like the old SPI PRESTAGS (Pre-Seventeenth Century Tactical Game System) aimed to do — reward players with a good feel for ancient-period tactics. If you know how Alexander or Scipio Africanus used missile troops and skirmishers; if you know how Hannibal used cavalry differently from infantry, and why; if you understand the difference between phalanx and manipular tactics — then these games will give you the sorts of results period commanders got.
In C&C Ancients, for example, I was able to use bowmen to disrupt my opponent’s formations and goad him into entering the engagement range of my heavy infantry just as a period commander would have done. I used to do stuff like that in PRESTAGS too — the difference is that C&C Ancients gets the feel right with far simpler and cleverer mechanics. Two bits of business that stand out are the use of multiple blocks per unit to simulate attrition steps, and the special symbol-marked dice (rolled in groups varying in size with the unit’s combat strength) to replace lookups on a combat results table.
Simpler makes a difference. It made the game faster to learn and play; and, because I wasn’t spending as much mental effort on the mechanics, I could think about tactics more (and that’s the fun part). Overall, I’d say this game is an excellent design and a clear improvement over the old-school ancients games I remember.
I wasn’t quite as impressed with Memoir ’44, a variant of the same system applied to WWII-era gaming. I don’t think the C&C mechanics work as well for modern warfare. Still, it’s a respectable effort; I’ve played many WWII games that weren’t as good. And if your figure of merit is how much realistic tactical feel one can get per paragraph of rules text, it scores pretty high.
Some of these differences are down to technology. In the old days, thick rulebooks full of tables full of numbers were the only kind of presentation we could imagine. But the kind of manufacturing and printing needed to produce Eurogame-style pretty pieces and custom dice is far less expensive than it was, and that suggests possibilities that are just beginning to be exploited.
I hope these are the beginning of a trend. I miss the old-style hex wargames almost as much as Greg Costikyan does. Is it too much to hope that that experience might be coming back, with simpler rules, in brighter colors?
I sure hope so. I’d never give up the railroad games and the colonization games and the trading games I’ve learned to enjoy. But they’re…bloodless. Sometimes you want to send your panzers rumbling forward on a misty morning north of Kursk, trade broadsides with the French fleet off Trincomalee, or orbital-insert your drop troopers on an Arachnid hive-city. Eurogames, as we’ve known them, wouldn’t get you there. Maybe, now, they’re growing into a genre that will.