Wargame Thoughts and Commentary

Break Through Designs

I’ve been in wargaming for over 45 years, and in that time I’ve played many boardgames and table top miniature games in all periods, though mostly historical. During that time, I’ve seen hundreds of games played, and read dozens of commercial wargame rules. Just as in everything in life, most of these games have been unremarkable in their design, derivative in their mechanics, and often downright copies (and totally uncredited) of other designs.

But every once in a while a truly innovative and unusual design comes along. It often changes the paradigm for games, and offers new challenges and insights into both the history of battles, but also in the way it is portrayed in the artifice we call a wargame.

In my mind, a few stand out over the years; Cosmic Encounter by Eon that first introduced the game with different rules for each player, Quebec 1759 that introduced the “Block” game, Ace of Aces that wonderful little flip-book design of WWI combat, and Avalon Hill’s Up Front! Card game, as well as Richard Borg’s Battle Cry and its derivatives, all stand out in the board game arena.

In historical gaming, one looks to Empire as the first “Big” wargame, boxed and more comprehensive that any that preceded it. It set the physical form for many games that followed. I think my own Piquet was, and is, a new and inspiring design that led to many supplements covering all of military history as well as FOB and Zouave. It opened the tabletop game to the unique use of the sequence deck. Certainly Fire and Fury’s treatment of large divisional battles is another memorable design that has also led to many derivative rule sets in other periods, both earlier and later than F&F’s Civil War focus. The skirmish approach of Crossfire is, to this day, a real testament to creative design.

The telling characteristic of all of these designs is originality of mechanics, fun and enjoyment by the players, and unique insights into combat and the how and why of armed conflict. They were all originals, fresh ideas, quite apart from the ”norm” of their day. Several invoked controversy and strong reactions. All were financially successful for the publisher.

But the most telling impact was on the designs that followed. In a sense, all of these unique designs were offered that most sincere of compliments-being copied in part or whole by later game designs. In some cases the lineage was openly recognized, but all too often attribution of ideas, and honest accreditation were woefully absent.

It is a curious quirk of wargaming that its history is so sketchy and full of myth and low on fact. If ever a hobby was in need of a scholarly history it’s wargaming. Because it is lacking, we have unchallenged regional biases as to that history: great designers, such as the man who designed that fine WWI air game, Sopwith, who go largely unknown and uncredited, and many a bad design whose sole attribute seems to be a large number of people that play it. Rule critiques often not only lack any historical perspective, but any intellectual rigor, honesty, and, more than is openly admitted, are rife with self-interest and undisclosed relationships.

So, we muddle on in a sea of banality and “latest” fads in rules. Thank heavens for that occasional break-through wargame, that illustrates everything that is missing in wargame design, comes along and, against all odds, injects new life into the hobby of wargaming.