Wargame Thoughts and Commentary

It's the Wargames That Got Small!

After 45 years or more in the Historical Wargame hobby, and having written 15 sets of rules over those years, and founded three wargame publication companies, I was musing this week about Historical wargame rules. What are they the most like? What is their perfect metaphor as a creative work, and as a business?

I concluded it was the movies. The parallels are astounding. Both film and wargame rules are creative works where the rule writer, or director, is an auteur. Just as movie directors attract fans and followers, so do rule writers. Some of my customers have been buying rules from me for nearly 40 years- and have a complete collection! This is true of other rule writers as well. Some rule creators acquire almost cult-like followers.

Some rules are “Popular” films in the manner of the fare at the local cineplex, each week. Very formulaic, predictable, and aimed at an adolescent audience (either in age or maturity). These rules sell well, are often produced in flashy color, and have a distressing tendency to be fantasy or sci-fi with a lot of impressive figures, and a Gee-whiz factor, but no discernible plot, and don’t really make sense if you think about it. Other rules are produced by small indy producers that, though limited in special effects, are often more sophisticated in content, use innovative techniques, and actually have a narrative thread! Just like the movies!

Just as with film, the “audience” is easily attracted to the newest set of rules, the latest release, and the largest grossers seldom “rock the boat” or try to do much more than give the customer a predictable, familiar, unchallenging, and “safe” entertainment experience. More often than not, if you want something more than the usual, you end up buying rules from a small independent producer-just as the small movie houses tend to get the films that don’t appeal just to sub-21, male, suburbanites. Both rules and films have companies that cynically exploit this audience demographic.

All rule writers share other similarities with films-to survive a studio must crank out a new feature as frequently as possible-especially prior to the big shindig in Cannes or Hollywood, so, too, is the case of miniature rules writers at Columbus and Valley Forge.. New product keeps the revenue flow and the “buzz” going strong. This voracious demand for new product leads to sequels abounding. Just as there was a Rocky IV, Star Trek V, and a Batman XXXIV, so there are supplements and editions of established rules with high numbers of sequels as well. It’s always cheaper and more successful to sell a familiar brand and product to the same audience, than to break new ground.

Both Films and Historical Wargames suffer from the very poor quality of critical review. The quality of criticism is abysmal-especially the local reviewers and bloggers whose writing skills are often worse than their insight and critique. Just as with film, there are , maybe, 2 or 3 critics worth their salt-that provide insight, understanding, and perspective in their reviews. Rules and films suffer from this inadequate critique as crap is too often saluted and quality overlooked. The influence of the “Big” guys on the trade press and critics often distorts critical reviews in both areas as well.

One significant difference is the press itself. The film press is strong and ever growing, but the historical wargame press has greatly diminished in number, especially in the US, and also in ideas. 30 years ago there was MWAN, The Courier, Wargamer’s Newsletter, The Wargame Digest, etc in the US-now there is nothing. The only national outlet is TMP-which, for various reasons, is typical of many on-line forums which have more contention than sharing, and more locker-room towel snapping silliness than ideas or extended and thoughtful concepts. Internationally, there is Vae Victus, which has limited effect in the US because of being in French (it is challenge enough for many US citizens to read and write English), Wargame Illustrated, Miniature Wargames, and Battle Games. Of those three, Battle Games may be the only magazine that seems to have consistently provided excellent content and an openness to new ideas-especially in digital publication.

Both films and historical wargame rules provide an archive of past classics that keep being seen or used-just as Casablanca and the Wizard of OZ play on, so does Column, Line and Square, Empire, and Tactica-all made long ago-but still popular with some. It would pay some gamers to do a little research and find some of the older rule sets. In many cases, the new gamers may never have seen these rules-some were invented before the gamers were born, but they might find something very good in the past. (Warning! Earlier Rule Sets were often in B&W-not color, and special effects and pictures were less used-just as in film)They will also be given a lesson in how many “new” ideas are not very new-but the few that are can change everyone’s enjoyment and expectations as to what a wargame may be. Though there are many film histories-there are few meaningful works on recreational wargaming, and especially Historical wagaming’s, history and development.

So, the next time you buy a set of rules-think of it as a ticket to a good entertaining film, but don’t make the mistake of inviting a date-that’s not the same-at all!

Dice, Figures, Action! (“Ready when you are, Mr. Wells!&rdquoWinking