Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Cooperative Wargames...for Beginners?

I was talking with someone about historically themed wargames a while back and was asked if there were any cooperative wargames in which players worked together to defeat a common adversary. We were also talking about how to introduce the concept of historical wargaming to kids in fourth through eighth grades, their parents, and interested adults. We both knew the core cooperative board games like Forbidden Island and and Pandemic (oddly relevant in today’s situation). Although I know several very good wargames for solitaire play (and adaptable for group cooperative play), I admitted I couldn’t think of any that were both cooperative and suitable for a beginner audience. So I started looking for suitable solo or coop wargames and, barring that, seeking ones I might modify to fit my parameters of something cooperative for a newcomer audience.

I started by looking at solitaire wargames. Roleplaying games have a long history of solo adventures (and even solo gamebooks). Board games more recently developed solitaire and cooperative designs. But wargames have never quite warmed up to the solitaire play model much beyond a single player running both sides (and cooperative wargames seem somewhat of an oxymoron). I can think of several good solitaire wargames, but most I’ve experienced first-hand have a complexity well beyond the patience and comprehension of absolute newcomers, including kids. RAF and B-17 Queen of the Skies remain classics of their time yet rely on procedures more suited to veteran wargamers. Decision Games’ series of solitaire mini-games – titles like Long Range Desert Group: Special Operations Against Rommel 1941-1942 and Rogers’ Rangers: America’s First Commandos – offer basic experiences but still require some wargame experience to grasp the rules presentation and concepts. Minden Games publishes several aviation games with solitaire options, though they’re somewhat abstracted from other aerial combat games like Wings of Glory (which I’ll discuss shortly...). Zulus on the Ramparts and Empires in America from Victory Point Games might seem like interesting candidates, but I never managed to get copies before the went out of print and therefore can’t comment on their suitability for beginners or possible adaptation to other historical situations.

Certainly one could take a traditional board or miniature wargame system, strip it down to the essentials for beginners, and “program” one side to act independently against a solo player or allied group. For instance, a Wings of Glory scenario where the players each fly RAF planes intercepting a single German bomber; while the players maneuver for attacks the bomber simply proceeds on its straight course toward its target, with the bomber’s gunners shooting at planes that wander within range of their fire arcs. Recently released apps intended for solitaire play can turn both the World War I and World War II versions of the game into cooperative experiences. I’m not a huge fan of games reliant on apps to play, but these seem to have solid potential for solitaire and cooperative play. Although I haven’t yet tried them on the tabletop (they just released this past week), the apps allow players to select adversary planes and input data such as bearings and range. It then generates moves for enemy aircraft and keeps track of damage conditions. While intended for solitaire play, it would also work for cooperative experiences where live players flew planes from one side against those controlled by the app. I already have experience adapting the Wings of Glory game for kids (see “A Game that Will Live in Infamy”) so this seems like a good strategy to pursue.

Other non-historical games provide useful formats and mechanics in crafting cooperative historical game experiences. I recently tried Space Marine Adventures: Labyrinth of the Necrons. Granted, it’s based on the Warhammer 40k universe, the basis for an entire series of popular science fiction wargames; but I’m sure seasoned grognards would heartily debate whether it was a wargame or simply a board game with miniatures. Nonetheless, ambitious gamers can adapt it’s basic, malleable core mechanics to other, similar situations within a historical context. I’ve already considered retooling elements from Space Marine Adventures for the French Indian War. Instead of Space Marines making their way through a Necron labyrinth, American rangers would have to pass through a treacherous forest, avoiding ambushes from Native American warriors and their French allies. I’ve considered adapting other cooperative board game mechanics to the wargaming genre, though it requires a lot of extra work. Many have good escalation mechanics well-suited to individual game themes. Castle Panic comes to mind; in the past I’ve dabbled with using its mechanics in a cooperative game simulating the Battle of Britian, though I’m sure it could serve to represent other historical situations.

Much as I’d love to have a ready made, newcomer-friendly cooperative wargame to purchase right off the shelf (COTS, or “commercial off-the-shelf”), in the end I expect I’ll have to craft my own cooperative wargame experience from mechanics cobbled together from other games...further adapted to the level of kids and newcomers interested in exploring history through games.

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