10 August 2013

Historical wargaming and realistic expectations

A few days ago I posted my second take on Bolt Action, a review that caused heated discussion on WWPD and TMP - not so much about the review itself but of what people think and expect of historical wargame rules.

Reading the comments one thing stood out the most - the argument that if you find something to be too simple the alternative has to be looking through endless amounts of charts. I kind of have a problem with that. And as I was cleaning some crappy artillery pieces for what seemed forever I took some time to think about player expectations and historical wargaming.

The best solution would be if historical wargames, like alcohol, came graded with percentiles. I'm sure we could come up with a way to grade the complexity of wargames by going for central gameplay features mimicking real life situations, weapon handling, lethality, command & control, fog of war, chaos vs control, modifiers etc.

Depending on how many of those categories you include the higher the percentile (and I guess amount of detail). You would of course need to have all categories lined up in a column so that the chart would be identical for all games. Every "40% historical accuracy" game would include the same features, while games with a higher percentile would add to whatever was covered below their level. The problem would most likely arise from the different perspectives on historical accuracy and realism of the game mechanics. It would be hard but not impossible, there are endless amounts of "industrial standards" that people have accepted in all type of products so why not one for wargaming rules?

Anyway, back to the original topic, realism and historical accuracy in wargames. What can a gamer expect, and what should a gamer expect? Obviously there is a difference between historical gaming and Sci-fi/fantasy gaming - you don't have to be an extreme rivet or button counter to understand that. The "historical" aspect means something or else people would just use whatever random set of rules they got at hand when shuffling around WW2 miniatures on the table. Rule writers take their time to differentiate between all periods of history, all the wars and conflicts.often down to a specific campaign - if you are interested in a particular topic you seek out the rules for that and not something else.

One thing that I find extremely interesting is that everyone shares a common ground, which is the painting aspect. By making the choice of picking up a WW2 rulebook you are already filtering content; what army, period, campaign etc. am I playing? At this point gamers are already either doing research on their own, looking at the cover of a box or ask for help on a forum.It's not like historical wargaming is plagued by purple painted German armies fighting British in white uniforms? People paint the best they can to match a color or look - it doesn't matter if they get the olive green a 100% right - what matters is that they want to achieve that near perfect end result that is as close to  the real color.

Interestingly enough, this attention to historical detail and accuracy is abandoned (to various degree) when playing a game. It's a matter of personal taste what a player think is realistic or accurate, but it is hard to overlook the fact that we are playing a historical wargames. What realistic expectations should one have from a set of historical rules? If you picked a set of rules that are meant to allow players to recreate WW2 battles then surely that must account to something?

Unfortunately, many games are afraid of challenging players  with in depth tactics and difficulties which reflect those that real life commanders faced. Instead the focus of many rules is put on simple and very familiar game mechanics, straight forward fast paced gameplay and the period serves only as a package. These type of games call something a Panzer II, a M1 Garand, a MG34 - but these don't act or work the way they really did - but are instead just placeholders for game mechanics. The MG34 becomes watered down to a class specification shared with other machineguns that all have a different caliber, rate of fire, range and weight. This means that all machineguns suddenly act identically, are equally easy/difficult to disassemble and relocate on the battlefield and offer the exact same amount of firepower or level of suppression. Whatever made the MG34 special in real life is as such lost.

Other simplifications and adjustments of guns and how they are represented on the tabletop may be drastically shortening the range of a gun. This is done not because of the often called upon argument of “effective range” but because of the standard sized tables play upon making guns that can fire across the entire table “unbalanced”. Instead of taking the time to balance the gun with terrain and range modifiers it is a lot more comfortable simply making all guns being limited to the efficiency of a slingshot used by a 7 year old. So we end up with absurd firefights that take place at such short range that much of the tactics are either lost or impossible to apply even if you would want to. Instead of using additional modifiers, dice with more sides or other game mechanics to fix this problem you get served with the overused “we can only ever use a D6 in a game because that is the gaming aid that players are familiar with” (while in the meantime other games use all kinds of dice, cards and other stuff to make things work outside of the box).

Weapons with a blast radius are all combined into using the same template because it would be too confusing to people to use different sized templates depending on the guns firing, or the game may even not use templates at all because it may be too much trouble for the poor gamer who is completely pre-occupied rolling a 4+ to hit on his D6. It seems to me that these type of games patronize the gamers, holding your hand and patting your head as if you were a kid attempting something that you would be unable to do because you are not grown up yet.
But wargaming is not only a visual but also a mental enjoyment. To think about strategy, tactics, how and where to use a specific unit, thinking about enemy counter moves, making a calculated decisions based upon proven fact and combat ability of units – is part of the experience. You should have every right to expect more than just working game mechanics form a historical wargame.

A Sherman tank should have a hard time against a Tiger I when firing at it from the front. Maybe I want that Sherman to have its main gun knocked out but still be able to drive around and firing its co-axial machine gun? What if I want my rifles to have range to cover the entire length of the table – and if they can’t kill anyone at that range they still limit enemy movement?

Wanting more than just plain game mechanics these days feels like being from another planet. The accusations of wanting to consult endless charts to “see how the wind would affect a bullet fired at 5 in the afternoon on a chilly autumn day at the distance of 359 meters at someone peeking out of a foxhole exposing 22% of their body- are of course ridiculous. I don't know if people who throw these accusations around have played many different games or are familiar with the difference of complexity between various rulesets. There are games that don't have you consult chart and which still convey a greater sense realism. These games most often have rules written around real combat of a certain period, not the other way around where the period is just added for the flavor. I’ve played multiple fast paced games that offer both detail and accuracy.

You can write the best flowing game and then when it's finished call it "WW2 the ultimate experience".  But if it doesn’t really reflect the subject well enough, through simplifications or plain ignorance, it will put off historically minded gamers. I do find it interesting that the most recent WW2 game that I have tried out was in fact more limited and simplified in terms of tactical options, equipment and combat abilities than a Weird WW2 game (removing the Weird elements) I used to play a couple of years ago.

I’m perfectly sure no one wants to have a tabletop simulation of each soldier in your squad walking one pace at a time with you consulting a chart to see if the boots are too tight and thus slow them down when walking up a 15 degree slope. But it would be nice if there was a bit of a challenge, thought and realistic drawbacks/advantages to a set of rules being used to replay the battle of whatever you’re playing.

The solution of adjusting everything with house rules also feels a bit half assed since you didn't pay for a finished product in order to fix blunders that should not even be there. If everything is presented correctly, explained and clarified it should not require any house rules. What ticks me off the most though and which I deem as inexcusable is when you get served bad and sloppy research for an army book and you just happen to know that it's bullshit based upon your own historical knowledge. That instantly makes me question the quality of everything else released for that particular game. It's painful to see how writer laziness creates ignorance among gamers that accept fantasy over facts and then use it as arguments in historical discussions. Since many gamers may expose themselves to a new period through a set of rules and not everyone has the time to dig through books and the internet doing additional research on their own - it makes whatever information presented in a historical rulebook quite important and it should be accurate because that is what people expect.

At the very least the writers of historical wargame rules should be straight forward and honest about their product. Explaining design philosophy would go a long way and make picking the a set of rules with the  desired amount of complexity and accuracy a lot easier for both the casual as well as the dedicated wargamer. If we can’t grade things like alcohol, let’s at least strive towards having half a page of design notes explaining the concept of the rules on the back of rulebooks.

21 comments:

  1. Really nice write up. This was an excellent read.

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  2. Great article, Anatoli! Having tried my hand at game design, I agree that everything you brought up is very legit. During the design process, I often struggled over particular mechanics, wondering if they were too much work for the player for the extra level of detail they provided.

    Another consideration is fun vs. historical accuracy. I don't mean to get into the cliche debate that "history can't be fun" but I mean the idea of decision making as fun. A huge amount of the appeal of a historical wargame is being forced to make tough decisions and then seeing how the consequences play out. This is a major issue with many of the more advanced command and control mechanics that limit what units you can control. When playing Hail Caesar, for example, I alway felt as if my tactical decisions were determined merely by which units I would be allowed to activate. Thus, instead of being a true game, HC always seemed like I was just watching a battle simulation play out, instead of being forced into the action.

    For the same reason, I actually think it is good that Flames of War doesn't have a command and control element. The game's appeal comes from having total control over all of your troops and using them as efficiently as possible. In some ways, it's also a means of limiting the effects of luck as units will not be forced out of the game just because they repeatedly fail activation (as happened to me too many times in games of Hail Caesar!).

    The Total War games for computer also allow complete control over your troops for similar reasons. This is somewhat ironic in the sense that command and control is really THE defining feature of ancient and medieval battles, yet is entirely excluded from a historical (computer) wargame. There is a strong argument to be made that the games would carry much more period flavor and would be much more true to history if they did have a command and control mechanic. Yet, it's hard (at least for me) to deny that the Total War games are a lot of fun. In fact, the lack of a command and control element makes them more suitable for competitive play.

    I suppose that leads us to the ultimate question: what makes a historical wargame fun? As a game designer, are you trying to exactly recreate the feel and flavor of a historical period or are you trying to make a competitive game in a cool setting where victory depends almost entirely on the decisions you make. Both strategies have their benefits and flaws and I would be very interested to hear others' opinions on the matter.

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    1. I love most of the Total War games and it seems like they are slowly evolving the command and control by at least having a command radius around your general to increase morale etc. But yeah computer games, that is RTS games, are far too kind on the player. Pure simulators on the other hand have a bunch of options that you as a player can decide to include or exclude. The Silent Hunter series (U-boat sim) has an excellent panel that allows you to include options to make the game play more like an arcade game or more like a real sub.

      Good question about "what makes a historical wargame fun". For me it is being able to play out historical situations and battles, and get a taste of the tactics and abilities of units and combat of a given period.

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  3. I guess what it boils down to is what 'you the player' want from a set of rules and what you find fun. Trouble is I believe most rulesets are usually written by people to play a game a certain way so that is there take/opinion? on how they want to play a game people either like or wish to add more or remove to bring it closer to there vision

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    1. Yes I agree, and that is why I think having design notes of some kind explaining the choices made by the author would be very helpful.

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  4. I really enjoyed your post. I am a neophyte to wargaming but have tried out several Napoleonic sets over the last 5 years. I know less about WWII, but am looking forward to CoC which purports to recreate infantry tactics at the platoon level. Interesting post today on Lard Island News re weapons ranges.

    In Napoleonics, I suppose I am less worried about the mechanics of the fire or combat but more interested in the ruleset delivering a plausible historical result if I am playing a game with two brigades of infantry versus two brigades of infantry with a battery of artillery with these national characteristics and this terrain.

    John

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    1. Naturally expectations about a set of rules differ depending on the represented. I look for different things in a small scale game dealing with platoon actions and am more forgiving about those aspects missing if I play a larger scale on a company level where it may be a lot more important to deal with how larger units, fire support and exploiting weaknesses in the enemy lines work. The level of detail and attention is may be the same but focus on completely different things – and that is alright.

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  5. I do believe most of the popular games are essentially just basic skeleton. And all "can" be made to fit any period - all you have to do is call M16 a mauser for 20th century or lasgun for sci-fi engagements.

    I am one of the people that think you should scale down battlefield to same scale as the miniatures, as this would greatly impact the size of board you'd need. Plus, the point of the game is to make it fun...balance is fun. If you'd want a realistic engagement, you should be throwing dice all the time, spending ammunition and hitting nothing. How is that fun? I'd imagine you don't throw a D6 when you need D7 to hit, if you know what I mean. I agree with those that think it basically comes down to what you want. And from there on, you decide which rules you'd want to play. I myself don't care much about weapons so putting weapons in classes works for me. How is MG42 essentially different from .30 cal in WW2? To me, they're both machineguns, providing suppression. I don't feel difference in volume of fire and weigh have impact that great, that it would have to be specially represented on the board. In the battle game represents, they'd both act similar as people would put in their last atom of strength to achieve something.
    I like tactics myself and this what personally interests me the most - fire and maneuver. This can't be done without some sort of rules for pinning or suppression.

    To wrap it all up, realistic world is just too complex to be accurately presented on the board. You simply can not make an apple pie with pears. It's like people seeking realism in airsoft - there is a certain point to which you can do it and can't do it beyond. Now, for some, simple games that have things named to suit WW2 is good enough. Others want more. But those that want realistic games will quickly be bored - you don't see enemy on the battlefield. Reading war books and watching war films is one thing, but if you just lay down on a grass behind your house, you can see what soldier sees. Nothing. And thats just LOS. Add fatigue to it...you can't run 150 meters in full gear without losing your breath. And then...why open fire if you won't hit anything? I am repeating myself now, but realistically replayed battles really aren't something that a gamer would consider fun, imo.

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    1. That's true. If we played a truly realistic WWII simulation, it would involve lots of hours of digging holes, sleeping in the mud, and walking around all day in a heavy backpack. Even for the most veteran unit, very little of it would be spent fighting.

      That said, there are elements of warfare that can be modeled fairly realistically within a game system. The major question is which ones to include as including of all them would be either a very difficult game to learn or be the most elegantly designed game ever. Additionally, you have to choose which elements of the warfare to ignore as being "unfun". For example, ancient armies tended to break from battle after suffering 10-15% casualties. However, withdrawing after losing a single unit doesn't really make for a fun game. Thus, realism sometimes has to be tweaked to make for a more enjoyable gaming experience.

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  6. I agree with Simon, the ruleset reflects the author's take on a period and what they feel is right/fun. Along with that, the authors should put a blurb on the rulebook or front of their site to give a bit of their game philosophy. I hear people mention "So-and-so designed it, and they did X game so it'll play just like that." That helps a bit but if the person posting that doesn't like "X game" then they ususually give it their negative opinion instead of just leaving it as a statement. It would be near impossible to impose any kind of rating system as each author would feel their rules are fun, not overly complicated, and reflect the period accurately; I couldn't see them jumping up to say "my game is just WW2 in name and really could run just as well with orcs". I listen to Meeples & Miniatures and the TFL guys are great for coming on and explaining how they look at a period. I believe the SAGA guys have been on also (Gripping Beast?). Both have given me a basis to look at their rules. The Historical Wargames podcast gave me a good idea of how Bolt Action ran. With that info I was able to discard or keep in the "buy" column various rules.

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  7. So as long as you and your usual opponents can find a set that works for you everything is fine. There is after all a wealth of choices now in all scales and periods of wargaming. Finding a set of rules that suits everyone is the "Holy Grail" of wargaming.... but possibly harder to find!

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    1. Short and sweet and right on the mark Clint. There is no Holy Grail and nowadays gamers have so many game system options to choose from that I think finding a set of rules that fit you and your gaming group shouldn't be overly difficult.

      Christopher

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  8. Greatly needed clamour!
    too many players, and more despicably, rule writers have abandoned trying to understand and search knowledge on the subject they want to play.
    Simulation and games are a world of compromise, more in mechanisms than in results and tactics which should be accurate to their historical models.
    Beyond utter ignorance, my belief is in a lack of attempts to find the needed results. lazy. Players and writers.
    Having started playing more than thirty years ago, I never cease to wonder at the wealth of information for research handily available nowadays.
    Jc

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    1. I also think it comes down to "design philosophy" - i.e. what is the author trying to achieve?

      Two Fat Lardies tend to focus on what they view as key elements of warfare of the period - "play the period not the rules", but tend to have a jumble of random mechanics to achieve that.

      On the other end of the scale, we have FoW and Bolt Action, whose goal is to "use as many 40K/WFB mechanics as possible" in order to attract fantasy and sci fi gamers to historical gaming - with less emphasis on the period flavour. The focus is on game balance and prescriptive (and not necessarily accurate) army lists

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  9. The extremes are do you like your art finely detailed to a photographic level or do you prefer Pecaso. There is room for all the varieties and you can enjoy realism and abstract art without compromising your taste. Wargaming is no different. I like both however when playing a more abstract game I tend to opt for fantasy and sci-fi where the realism is countered by the need to play what is by historic standards unmeasurable. When I turn to historic wargames it is because I want to play a more accurate representation of the subject. But here there is another question to ask, what is it that you want to represent in play. Is it the daily grind of the individual infantryman slogging through trenches and jungles or the problems of commanding small level tactics at squad or platoon level or at divisional command etc? You can play a very realistic game using a divisional rules set that never refer to the individual at all or a completely abstract system at man to man level that reflects no reality at all. Both could be very enjoyable or not at all.

    I think that the important point especially with the great number of games out there is as Anatoli states in the original post that we as buyer have some way of gauging the level and type of game that we are buying into. A rating would not work without some regulating body but the simple expedience of a clear and reflective design philosophy would go along way to providing that.

    There are days when I want to be challenged by the rules and the historical situation they represent, there are days when I just want to blow things up, that's why I have different sets of rules and play different types of games. There is no right or wrong in any of it.

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  10. Interesting post. From a personal perspective the reason I play historical wargames is for the history and so not being able to use the proper tactics makes the game simple an abstract one with nice pieces (i.e. not what I am looking for - if you want that there's fantasy and SF).

    Of course there is a spectrum along which all rules need to fall between simulation and pure game. For me the best rules find a balance between the two - deciding which elements to abstract and choosing the right mechanisms for those they want to represent. Weapon ranges fall into the same category as if you want a true ground scale the same as the figures your 6'x4' table does actually represent much ground in 28mm; however, if you squeeze them to the point that you can't represent the tactics properly it's not going to work for me.

    The one thing I find really frustrating is the lack of designer's notes or commentary in a lot of rules so you can understand why they made the choices they have and what elements they have decided to abstract or adjust and why.

    Of course it is all a matter of personal choice but I'm always going to go for rules which present me with problems which are meaningful historically and allow me to use the proper tactics for the period and not those which just play to the lowest common denominator.

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  11. Thanks for the wrap up... to be honest.. I simply as a beginner on playing like it to be kept short and simple. Others may laugh, but the short rules e.g. on Perry ACW or Victrix Napoleonics as a start is sufficient for me.

    After some time gaming with these I considered that this cant be all and so I upgraded myself from a Level 1 to a possible Level 2 gamer and bought some rule systems e.g. FoW, Bolt Action and Black Powder... So now its like getting to know the same game in a different world to me... :) But hei.. keep it short and simple and have the most fun out of it :)

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  12. The statement about ranges is bang on. An arbitrarily short range is also ridiculous because you can sit you figure 5mm outside the range and know your safe. The best WW2 game I have come across recently (in fact, ever!) is Fireball Forward. It ticks so many boxes for me at company level. For platoon level I'm definitely looking forward to Chain of Command.

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  13. There are companies like Matrix Games, Slitherine Software, HPS Simulations and Paradox Interactive who do make games aimed at historical accuracy and tactical depth. There are also board games, such as that from GMT Games, which do the same. However, these are niche products because 1) most people don't know or care about history; 2) most people are dumb; 3) most people have a short attention span; 4) most people prefer graphics to strategic demands.

    Basically, shallow games for shallow people. The same is true of roleplaying games - all the good ones are Indy jobs that have terrible graphics.

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  14. No matter what, a historical wargamer will never have the actual battle like the real thing. I think ya'll missing the point in playing! It is simply to have FUN!

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