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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Birds of Different Feathers

Recently, Jodie got a new job (in fact, she started it yesterday - congrats, hon!) that will allow her to telecommute a couple days a week. There is nothing quite like being able to work at home where you can avoid the constant interruptions and distractions of cubicle life.

However, Jodie's idea of the ideal home office environment is rather different from mine. So we need to reorganize and rearrange our two "extra" bedrooms. This is leading to a necessary, overdue, and voluntary culling of my stuff. And yes, it's my stuff that gets culled as I'm the pack rat. Jodie has an almost freakish lack of "stuff" outside of cookbooks.

It was while going through the contents of a bookshelf that I realized how different the euro and wargame worlds really are.

First, the requisite disclaimer: Yes, there's a growing number of crossover games that could be argued to fit in both categories. I'm leaving any discussion of those for another day.

Production value

We're used to rather lush production quality in our typical eurogame. There are exceptions, of course, but games such as Puerto Rico, Carcassonne, and Power Grid are made from quality components with lots of art.

Wargames, however, have fallen behind. Maps are usually sturdy paper, occasionally backprinted. Counters are smaller, more numerous, and thinner than euros. Color rulebooks are nearly unheard of. Artwork, however, runs the gamut from the incredible stuff Craig Grando is doing at Against the Odds to rather pedestrian, uninspiring efforts from Decision Games (yes, I'm painting with a broad brush here, but their graphics work doesn't do a thing for me.)

Now there's usually good reason for this. Most wargames include either multiple battles requiring at least a map each or single battles that span multiple maps. Including mounted boards for each map would be rather expensive. Under the Lily Banners from GMT, for example, has five battles in the game. That would be one hefty box if everything was mounted. Also, print runs tend to be significantly smaller – economy of scale isn't usually an option for your typical hex-n-counter wargame. The 3500 or so (personal estimate) copies of Under the Lily Banners retail in the US for $59, higher than 95% of the euros out there, but in the lower middle of the pack for a wargame.

The only company I know of that's really tried to ramp up the production value of a wargame is Phalanx, and they're not really doing anything like Waterloo or A House Divided anymore.

Rules Quality

Here's a double-edged sword. Eurogames tend to have short, well illustrated rules. The quality of writing really varies, but I'd venture less than a third of all eurogames have to issue errata after the fact.

Wargame rules tend to be longer. Anything under 12 pages (and these are usually letter-sized, sparsely illustrated pages) is considered "short." The latest edition of the Operational Combat Series rules that I've printed (3.1.0) weighs in at 42 dense pages plus 10 pages of notes. And that doesn't count the game-specific rules needed for each game in the series. Granted, OCS is a heavyweight, but 42 pages is an AWFUL lot to digest, no matter how well written.

That phrase above, "latest edition" brings me to the other major point I want to make about wargames – they're works in progress. Nearly every game I own (with the exception of Avalanche press who refuses to do so) has had a rules update in the form of "living rules" uploaded to either the publisher's or designer's website. Some of these updates are significant. Now, it's hard to write a game of this complexity that covers every possible scenario.

(Note - if you checked the Under the Lily Banners link above, you'll see that there's errata up there - for a game system in its third iteration, and one of the cleanest systems I've seen...)

Which begs a question – wargames have been like this for thirty years. Why? Even the most "euro-ish" wargames I'm familiar with (Hammer of the Scots and Bonaparte at Marengo) have had rules updates. Is it quality control? Poor development? Insufficient playtesting? Conditioned response?

15 or more years ago, we didn't have the internet to go to for the latest and greatest gaming information – so magazines like the General thrived. And there was definitely a fair share of errata printed in those magazines. A quick scan through the listings at Web-Grognards shows many, many links to errata.

I'm not sure how, but wargames have almost reached the same point as computer games – patches are released shortly after (or even simultaneous to) game release. While the support is great, I really don't like the trend. As I begin the middle stages of writing my own set of wargaming rules (an urge fueled on by years as a miniatures gamer – another future subject) I hope I can avoid the living rules trap.

But what about...

...wargamers moving to euros? This is the far more common direction of migration given evidence I've seen on the Geek and ConSimWorld. Typical complaints about euros from wargamers don't involve production quality or anything else in the box. The complaints center around the games themselves. "Boring," "dry," and "pointless" are some of the terms I've seen used by wargamers to describe euros. Those comments seem to be in the minority, however, and many (if not most) wargamers are happy to play euros - it's better than not being able to play anything given most peoples' time constraints. Some, however, just can't enjoy themselves if the game doesn't attempt to recreate some conflict in excruciating detail.


As we've seen over the last year or so, there's growing crossover between the euro- and wargaming communities. But the people who primarily count themselves in one group or another have vastly different expectations when it comes to the quality they get when they crack that shrinkwrap. It's something to keep in mind if you're looking to cross that divide.


  • At 11:19 AM, Blogger dave said…

    "Phalanx [is] not really doing anything like Waterloo or A House Divided anymore."

    I saw The First World War at Rainy Day Games the other day. It certainly looked like it was along the same lines, although maybe a bit more streamlined. Also, there was Age of Napoleon.

  • At 11:59 AM, Blogger Eric said…

    You know - I forgot about First World War. I guess they are still doing the occasional light wargame. They were definitely moving away from that for quite a while.

    Age of Napoleon was released right about the same time as Waterloo and AHD, so I lump it in with those.

  • At 4:05 PM, Blogger Chris Brooks said…

    I'm not a wargames expert, but I think the reasons might be related to the following:

    * Many wargames are in fact "systems" that get applied over a wide range of scenarios (ASL). Generic systems are harder to design and balance than self-contained games.

    * Most wargames attempt to be simulations so have a fiddliness about them that creates more opportunities for rules weakness. Euro games strive for a degree of simplicity/streamliing that USUALLY leads to more concise rules.

    * Wargame enthusiasts tend to be more critical (rules lawyers) than a typical Euro gamer. They demand errata and clarifications to be formal and blessed by the designer/publisher.

  • At 6:14 PM, Blogger Dug said…

    I picked up First World War, and I can tell you that this is not a title I would consider a wargame. Units can be in one of several "fronts", there are about 20 of these on the map, and the units have a single rating on them, from 0 to 3.

    There is some historical flavor in that you are trying to conquer specific cities, but since each front is linear, it's more like checking items off of a list. Also, the combat modifier chits, which are available over time to simulate political and economic events, are very generic.

    The rules are about four and a half pages long, comparable to We the People without any of the chrome.

    I think that Revolution (Phalanx's Dutch Revolution game) is closer to a wargame than this title, and it's Frank Tresham's design! This isn't to say that FWW isn't a good game: I have yet to play it. However, it strikes me as much closer to a high-end euro than a "proper" wargame.

  • At 10:28 AM, Blogger Eric said…

    Good point about generic systems. As new scenarios are added in, more interactions need to be handled. In my ongoing Great Northern War project, I'm anticipating exactly that - base set of rules that handle the first four scenarios, then things will be added in as appropriate in future installments.

    Much of the "fiddliness" of wargames comes from chrome. Sometimes it's needed, many times not. And it's not uncommon for this chrome to be what leads to the errata.

    Also, I think it's this accustomness to chrome that leads to being a rules lawyer. Eurogamers are used to simple mechanisms - there isn't usually much room for nitpicking.

    Of course, poorly written rules don't help here. And both camps have numerous examples of that.

    I'd be willing to bet that the average eurogamer will consider FWW to be a wargame. It involves conquering cities. That's generally enough to qualify, from THAT point of view. You and I tend towards the wargamey side of things, so we see it differently.

    Wallenstein is the classic example of this dichotomy. I'd be willing to bet that 80% of the people that say it's a wargame are eurogamers, and 80% of the people that say it's a euro are wargamers.


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