Some months ago I wrote about the death of the hex-wargame hobby and the subsequent evolution of the Eurogame. In that posting, I expressed the hope that the popularity of Commands and Colors: Ancients and Memoir ’44 might herald a revival of the hex wargame.
There have been some encouraging signs since.One, local to where I live, is that CC:A has become quite popular at my local Friday night gaming group. I bring in my tacklebox full of the base game and all three expansions every week and can generally count on a game with at least one of four people I’ve turned on to it. This is in a group that had been pretty strongly focused on non-combat Eurogames.
Another is that GMT Games, the publishers of CC:A, shows every sign of prospering. While they produce some games at the low-complexity, “family” end of the market, the bulk of their line is crunchy, historically rich games like CC:A. The fact that they have a viable business selling these at $40 and up a pop seems an indication of a lot of pent-up demand for high-quality wargames.
I was introduced to another of their games last week: Maneuver, themed on the set-piece battles of the Napoleonic wars. Like CC:A it’s a clever, minimalist design that uses simple card-driven mechanics, leadership rules, and variable maps to capture the feel of its era rather effectively. Stratego for grown-ups, one might say.
But one healthy company does not an industry make, so it’s good to know that they’ve got competition from the likes of Decision Games. If anything, DG seems even more focused on hex-gamer grognards than GMT is. It even appears they’ve resurrected Strategy & Tactics, the wargames magazine with a game in every issue whose rise and fall was almost synonymous with the health of the entire genre in the 1970s and 1980s.
Some readers may be wondering…in a world full of computer games that can simulate in greater detail, and MMORPGs that can offer a richer social experience, why games like these still have a place. In truth, nothing quite matches the contest of minds you get in face-to-face play with single opponent. Old-school hex wargames peserve some of the virtues of playing chess. And, like chess, they can have a depth and richness that more elaborate simulations don’t, necessarily. There is virtue in the fact that you and the opponent are running the simulation yourselves, and can see all the way down to the bottom of the game’s simulation model.
The remarkable thing about 21st-century wargames, compared to the old-school ones I cut my teeth on 30 years ago, is how much simpler they manage to be to play while preserving a sense of period verismilitude. Part of this has been enabled by huge decreases in the cost of producing custom components. Whereas back in the old days it was all black-and-white printing and cascades of result tables for 6-sided dice, modern designers can express a similar degree of simulation complexity with a much wider range of playing aids that package it in a simpler user interface – polyhedral dice for differing normal distribution curves, custom dice like CC:A’s with the results right on the faces, big decks of tactics cards as in CC:A and Maneuver.
At the extreme of this is games like my friend Ken Burnside’s Attack Vector: Tactical, a space-combat game that manages to package 3D Newtonian kinematics in such a way that players can simulate physically realistic spaceship movement without mathematics! But most of the new-school games owe more to the mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons than to Newton; in Maneuver, for example, the combat power of a group is represented by a number of polyhedral dice to roll – more dice for more power, larger dice for an increase in variation between best possible and worst possible results.
The most prevalent theme in the new games, however, may be card-driven mechanics. Where old-school wargames resolved actions by comparing dice rolls, new-school ones are likely to supplement or replace this with mechanics involving action cards – attack cards, defense cards, instant modifiers that can be played after a combat has been declared to change the odds, etc. This style of course owes much to Magic: The Gathering and other collectible card games, but games like CC:A and Maneuver show that wargame designers have naturalized the idea.
One significant effect of the new-school mechanics is that today’s wargames tend to play significantly faster than their ancestors. Typical playing time for an SPI game from days of yore was in the 2-3 hour range; modern equivalents often speed by in 90 minutes. And it’s not that they involve fewer turns per game, either, but that the turns take on average about half the time they would have in older games. Since humans haven’t changed their thinking speed, what this means is that setup and combat resolution have become much faster.
It’s an interesting question whether the new-school wargames will ever achieve the kind of mass-market traction some of the old ones did. At the height of the first wave around 1977, Squad Leader could sell 200K copies. It is doubtful any of the new-school wargames have yet sold at even a tenth of that volume, and there are many more forms of entertainment competing for discretionary dollars today. Still, it makes me glad that outfits like GMT Games and Decision Games are trying.