Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Chit-and-Board Wargames Still Live

I don’t often talk about chit-and-board wargames (or “traditional” wargames for brevity’s sake). Although the adventure gaming hobby evolved from this sector of gaming (and from its miniature wargaming cousin), it seems the prevalence of roleplaying games, board and card games, and more visually appealing miniature wargames have eclipsed their popularity. We don’t always hear about these through the usual buzz on the internet. News covers the latest OSR games and supplements, Euro-style games, major releases from publishers with pre-painted miniatures and numerous collectible powers to enhance tournament play, Kickstarter juggernauts, licensed games, and a host of flashier products.

Regrettably the days of traditional wargaming’s popularity have long passed. Giants like Avalon Hill and SPI have faded, though the former lives on under the auspices of Wizards of the Coast and focuses primarily on proven brands (such as Axis & Allies). Rare are massive bookcase game boxes with cardboard-mounted maps and hordes of half-inch, die-cut unit counters. Traditional wargaming has given way to the more visually appealing miniature wargaming hobby and to lighter “battle games” like Memoir ’44, Battle Cry, Wings of Glory, and the Axis & Allies Miniatures Game which incorporate more elements from board gaming with a wargame theme.

Yet that extremely niche portion of the hobby still remains active, with a handful of companies still producing new titles to satisfy this aspect of gamers’ interests. Some remain minimalist efforts, thin rulebooks with a half-sheet of counters (at best). Others revel in the massive boxed games packed with components, frequently financed by crowdfunding efforts like Kickstarter. I’ve come across a number of traditional wargame publishers who remain active; the list below is by no means comprehensive, but offers a relatively current glimpse at this sector of the adventure gaming hobby:

Columbia Games: Perhaps best known in the roleplaying game field for its lavishly detailed Harn setting, Columbia Games also pioneered the use of wooden blocks in traditional wargames. Printed cardboard chits usually contain all stats on one side, with “damaged” stats occasionally shown on the reverse; but with blocks the stats change along each side, those facing upward representing the current strength all while maintaining a wonderful fog of war mechanic as the blocks stand on their ends, showing details toward their player and showing the blank back to the opponent. Columbia Games’ catalog showcases many excellent block wargames across numerous historical periods including Civil War, Napoleonic wars, and World War II. The prices remain high for the casual dabbler in traditional wargame – typically between $50 and $100 – but cover high quality maps, wooden blocks, and unit stickers (to apply to the blocks). I can’t speak to the complexity of gameplay, though the units seem to pack in a good deal of information. I came very close to backing Bobby Lee during its Kickstarter campaign a few years back, but held off because $75 was a bit steep for a game I’d probably play solitaire. I own a few decks for both the Dixie and Eagles card games (Civil War and Napoleonic wars respectively) which I believe use some of the battlefield mechanics from the more traditional wargames, so I’d venture to say the mechanics for the block games (at least the horse-and-musket ones) aren’t as hardcore as some other titles.

Dan Verssen Games (DVG): The game company headed by award-winning game designer Dan Verssen, whose first game designs were produced by other wargaming publishers before he himself decided to start his own company in 2002. DVG currently offers a number of traditional wargames, some standard chit-and-board games and others relying heavily on card play. I’ve not played any of his games, just wandered around the company website; yet he covers several historical periods including modern military, World War II, Napoleonic era, ancients, and, oddly enough, Cthulhu and zombies. (Okay, now I realize I have played one of his games, though not a traditional wargame...delightfully solitaire and insanity inducing The Cards of Cthulhu.) Their price tags seem fairly hefty (between $50-$100) and the rules relatively complex by my own, limited standards, though the production values (quality maps, full-color rules, and counter sheets) seem high. Many DVG games were specifically designed for solitaire play. The entire Field Commander line (with a solitary Fleet Commander title) look very tempting for solo play as Alexander, Rommel, or Napoleon. (As an aside, I vaguely recall receiving a prototype Star Wars fleet battles wargame Dan created and pitched to West End Games in the mid-1990s, though I believe – and so did management – that it seemed a bit too complex for the brand’s core gaming audience at the time.)

Decision Games: The company that acquired rights to many of SPI’s wargame titles and the iconic Strategy & Tactics magazine continues producing traditional wargames and offering innovations to keep them fresh and appealing to gamers. Although the company produces the more traditional chit-and-board wargames with the commensurately high price tags (starting around $25 and reaching upwards of $200 for the truly comprehensive offerings), it also produces a diverse host of smaller “folio” games in regular and mini sizes (starting around $9.95 to $19.95 respectively) that satisfy the traditional wargaming urge without the high price tag and monumental components. The folio approach seems ideal for keeping the traditional wargame hobby fresh, with lower price points, less complicated rules, and a wide-range of periods, from ancients and Renaissance to American Civil War, Napoleonic wars, both World Wars, and later 20th century conflicts. Mini folio games come with an 11x17” map, no more than 40 counters, and a rule sheet so gamers can start playing within minutes; regular-sized folio games include a 17x22” map and 80-100 counters with the rules. Either size seems perfect for folks dabbling in traditional wargames set during their favorite periods. I picked up the mini-folio game Eagle Day: The Battle of Britain but haven’t yet found time to sit down, immerse myself in the rules, and give it a try solitaire...but the $12.95 price tag and the size of the game (in terms of both it’s physical qualities and rules complexities) seems just right. I already have my eye on two more I might pick up at a convention this summer: Caesar’s Wars: The Conquest of Gaul, 58-52 BC and Salem Church: East of Chancellorsville, both relevant to secondary interests in my adventure gaming activities.

Steve Jackson Games: While known primarily for its GURPS roleplaying game and ubiquitous Munchkin game, Steve Jackson Games began with some core chit-and-board wargames, most notably Ogre. One player controls the “Ogre,” a monstrous cyber-tank with numerous weapons, while the other player deploys infantry, tanks, and artillery to defend their command post from the lone yet powerful assailant. The company recently made the original Ogre game available as it was when released in 1977 (with a few updates) for the same price...$2.95. Although it isn’t a conventional historical wargame and incorporates some departures from traditional mechanics, Ogre remains one of the earliest such science fiction games and arguably one of the most popular. The Kickstarter campaign for the Deluxe Ogre – including a huge hex board, custom pieces, and tanks built from punch-out cards – raised almost $1 million with $100-each mega-boxed sets. The original Ogre Pocket Edition still contains all the maps, rules, and counters to play five engaging scenarios; it’s worth picking up not simply because it’s a great traditional wargaming experience but because it’s a piece of adventure gaming industry history.

As noted above, this is by no means a comprehensive list, nor am I familiar with many of the other players on this vast field, merely a small niche in the greater scope of the adventure gaming hobby.

Why Chit-and-Board Wargames?

Some might debate what kind of a life traditional wargames sustain today and whether such products remain relevant to the greater adventure gaming hobby. I think James F. Dunnagin nicely summarized why gamers play traditional wargames in The Complete Wargames Handbook: How to Play, Design & Find Them and pointed out some of their merits, particularly to the solitaire player:

Playing wargames solitaire is by far the favorite mode for most wargamers. The most common reasons for playing solitaire are lack of an opponent or preference to play without an opponent, so that the player may exercise his own ideas about how either side in the game should be played without interference from another player.... For those players who do like to play with opponents, solitaire play is valued as a means of perfecting tactics and techniques in a particular game that will enhance the chances of success.”

Traditional wargames offer players a chance to explore a conflict without having to draft a host of friends to play...though they can do that, too. Multiple scenarios provide additional play value with or without an opponent. They also require very little preparation; gamers can start enjoying them right out of the box. Sure, players still have to immerse themselves in a rulebook, but they don’t have to paint hordes of miniatures and craft a table filled with the correct type of terrain like those engaged in miniature wargaming. They also take up less room than all the accessories for the more visually appealing minis games.

Certainly a host of publishers still strive to produce traditional wargames, many developing innovations to refine the mechanics and make their offerings more appealing to the old guard and newcomers alike.

My Hope for Traditional Wargames

I’d love to see traditional wargames make a comeback. That’s an overly optimistic view in light of our digital Internet Age drawing newcomers from analog, tabletop games to electronic diversions; and with games overall transitioning to flashier, more appealing formats packed with plastic pieces, amazingly designed boards, and other extravagant components.

I think the companies mentioned above have done a good job maintaining interest in traditional wargames while infusing them with enough innovations to engage modern players. Many use key elements I see as advantages: smaller games with more manageable components and more affordable price tags (from the beginner or dabbler’s perspective ) complimented by game lines offering more traditional “big box” games at correspondingly higher prices; innovative gameplay developments (like blocks instead of chits, or solitaire game engines) that emerge from and compliment traditional wargaming elements; and, of course, games covering a vast range of periods, from those currently enjoying popularity to more esoteric subjects of interest.

Ideally I’d love to see shorter, simpler traditional wargames with engaging themes (historical or otherwise), and larger pieces (¾-inch or 1-inch) for an aging player base. I’d expect fewer than 40 counters; although I realize that limits options for players, it also allows for a faster game. Solitaire rules always represent a bonus for me, whether for playing an otherwise two-player game alone or solely designed for solo play. If all this came in an affordable package – say in the $15-25 range – the traditional wargame field might retain some experienced gamers and attract some newcomers willing to experiment with a new aspect of the adventure gaming hobby.

Want to mention a traditional wargame publisher I’ve overlooked? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.