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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Calculus of Wargaming

Last week I went into great detail as to what I think about when purchasing a euro, with a few notes about wargaming. Since they are completely different calculations, I thought I'd cover wargaming in more detail this week.

I should qualify what constitutes a wargame, I guess, at least for the purposes of this article. The basic litmus test is that a wargame is attempting to, on some level, simulate a historical (or fictional, in come cases) conflict. In meeting this criteria, the game tends to have "chrome" (the rules that reflect the specific nature of the conflict - the Winter Offensive rules in We The People are a good example), more extensive rules, greater expense (due to a much smaller market), and a pretty standard set of bits that, aside from the cards, are often much different than those found in euros.

Some games seem to fall in both the euro and wargame camps, such as War of the Ring or Axis & Allies. For the purposes of this discussion, I shall leave out games that use miniatures as they are really in a separate category (the "shiny" category), and I tend to check my brain at the door when it comes to lots of little plastic figures. However, I will include non-traditional wargames, such as GMT's Down In Flames series and Lost Battalion's Battlelines games that use cards rather than a map and cardboard counters.

While I'm generally willing to drop $50 on a wargame, I'm finding that the economies of scale (not on my side) make this price point essentially irrelevant. Even a relatively small game like Columbia's Crusader Rex costs $60. Most wargames these days are priced between $60 and $80 retail, with some monster games like Europe Engulfed well over $100. Paper costs in the numbers that these games sell in (most print runs are around 3000 units) help drive up the price as well. I do tend to pre-order these days rather than purchase retail, so my costs are around 20% less than retail once shipping is added in.

While I used to make my purchasing choices based on the conflict and/or period being simulated, I've discovered that a good game is a good game, and who cares what the battle is? An excellent example is the old AH classic Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage. I was never much of a student of the Punic Wars, but after getting and playing what is perhaps my favorite wargame, I found myself buying books on the subject, to the point where I gave a 5-minute capsule of the three wars to a friend's son that another friend complimented me on. As such, I like to get wargames on subjects I know little about to springboard my interest. Paths of Glory did this for the First World War for many people in the hobby.

Playing time has become more and more of an issue for me, and I rarely buy games that will take more than 10 hours to play. That translates to 8 hours "box" playing time, at least for me. Even with the explosion of on-line and pbem wargaming going on, I'm just not that interested in anything I can't play in a single (long) day. I still buy the occasional longer game, and in fact I'm a sucker for WWII ETO and PTO games such as World In Flames, even though I will almost certainly never play this beast.

Map size has become increasingly important too, as I really only have room on my table for a standard 22"x34" map. Of course, some of my games exceed this limit (WiF has four maps of this size!), but in general if I'm purchasing to actually play, it's really only going to happen with a single map. Interestingly, maps in wargames are almost always unmounted to save cost, while almost all euros are mounted. I've found different solutions to the problem of getting the map to lay flat, including many maps that I laminated in the 90's. These days I use poster frames for the standard map, a sheet of plexiglass for Europe Engulfed or if the map is too big (Monty's Gambit comes to mind).

Complexity does play a role in my choices, although it's a smaller factor. The amount of chrome is definitely a factor as well. For example, Triumph of Chaos has an incredible amount of chrome just to regulate replacements, and it's different for not only the two sides, but for all of the various factions involved. Of course, the subject matter almost requires it, but there is definitely a level of chrome that will start to turn me off. Sadly, this is usually something I discover after the purchase... WWII monsters, as in every category apparently, break this rule as well.

I find that the basic mechanisms of a given wargame are the primary factor after price (perhaps even before price). For example, I really like card-driven wargames such as Hannibal because of the relatively short downtime between player moves and the general high level of interaction. Cards also help give a better insight into the conflict away from the field, allowing for political and economic factors to play into the simulation aspect without extra rules. I also tend to prefer area-based maps to hex-based maps, and combat systems that eschew the old odds-based CRT and counting factors. Chuck and I pulled out Mighty Endeavor, the latest in Clash of Arms' popular Standard Combat Series line, and I found the added math to be fairly onerous after not having to count over 15 in Barbarossa to Berlin.

Oddly, component quality has not been a huge factor for me. Cards go into protectors as a rule, counters are clipped and trimmed if necessary, maps go into poster frames. Play aids are widely available online in many cases, Living Rules are published, and many times I play the game online, so what comes in the box is increasingly trivial. It's all about whether the game is any good. A game like Battlelines that has perhaps the worst components and rules ever still gets a pass as long as it's a good game (bad example; Battlelines seems to be have horrible play balance issues, which is a shame for such a unique and playable system). In other words, where the Shiny factor is huge for euros and plastics, not so important with wargames. Very strange, considering that one of the best part of a well-built wargame is the tactile experience, but there are so many ways to improve that experience that it becomes moot.

In some cases, I will avoid wargames from specific companies. Avalanche Press has such a history of weak rules and getting huffy when anyone suggests that errata is needed, not to mention poor designs, that I only have five or six of their games. These days I tend to look to GMT, Columbia, and Multiman for pre-orders, not so much with other companies. I'll still look to other companies, but there is enough consistency with these companies that I generally know that I'm getting a good product. However, I am more likely to

Note that all of these factors are what go into my decision to buy, not whether or not I will actually play the game. In fact, I often buy a wargame that I'm quite aware that I will never play because of miserable rules, play balance issues, time to play, map size, or even just complexity. I have three of von Borries' Barbarrosa: Army Group games, and am likely never to pull these out because of size and complexity. The same goes for the Great Battles of History series, which I have eight or nine of, not to mention the various expansions. While I have to wonder what I'm thinking in purchasing these games, I also know that I am far from alone in this trend in the hobby. There are an incredible number of wargames published that are never played, indeed never punched, by their owners. I guess we're all optimists! I know I'm much less likely to sell a wargame, despite the higher eBay prices of some titles, than a euro - wargames simply feel more like family to me.

Enough of that. Next week, something completely different.


  • At 8:55 AM, Anonymous Sean said…

    Great Article. I am getting more interested in wargames, especially from Columbia and Worthington games. Just curious, do you buy a poster frame for each game and keep the map in the frame all the time? Or do you switch in and out? I have a piece of plastic from an old frame that I use to hold down my Wizard Kings and HotS maps. Thanks again.

  • At 8:57 PM, Blogger Dug said…

    I've bought five poster frames, as there tend to be five games that I've got in "rotation" at any time. Note that they aren't necessarily set up and being played, but the map is in the frame ready to go.

    I finally pulled off the hanging hardware in the back of these, as it tends to damage the table if I'm not careful. I guess I thought I might hang some of these things up on the wall, but I guess even I'm not that geeky.

    Glad you liked the article.


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