Board Games and Wargames

Two months or so ago, I was interviewed by Joachim Froholt for his rather excellent piece (in Norwegian) about how wargames are evolving from the tabletop onto computers. The whole piece is worth braving Google translate IMO, however as I still have my original answers in English, you can read them over here.

A very general question I know, but… what do you personally think is the big appeal of computer wargames?

To me the appeal of any historical strategy game is the stuff you learn by being in decision-maker’s shoes. If the game is any good, you get to look at what it takes to prevail on a given battlefield. The lessons can be profound, or simple and brutal, or just totally unexpected… they’re always real though and maybe I’m just a person who likes their gaming to be about things that are real.

For example, in Unity of Command we try to make sure that you execute pretty much textbook Blitzkrieg (where appropriate, obviously) otherwise you lose, plain and simple. We do get some complaints from people who think this makes the game too hard, but I feel it’s worth it. Each time I read someone post “ahh, so you’re supposed to punch a hole and then push your panzers through like a madman”, I count that as a design win.

Do you know anything about what kind of people the main audience consists of, or are they just «normal» gamers?

To the best of my knowledge our audience is mostly guys, and they’re fairly well spread across all age groups. Anecdotally, they’re perhaps a touch better educated than your average gamer. I must say that the wargaming community is very civil and a joy to participate in. I mean, there is no shortage of wargaming drama if you go looking for it, but it’s downright tame in comparison to most other places in gaming I could think if.

Another potentially very broad one, but what are the most important principles for you when you design a wargame?

My most important rule is: if a game mechanic does not represent well in the UI, then it doesn’t get included in the game.

With that in mind, I try to take some simple mechanics and get as much out of them as possible. For example, the supply mechanic is central in Unity of Command, which is historically fair. However, I decided not to include other things, like morale, or an explicit flanking mechanic (credit frederick). Instead, we “fake” those by combining supply and suppression effects, and then tweak the game so that it still produces broadly realistic battles.

A small number of mechanics serves to effectively underline the most important elements of warfare (supply, maneuver, etc.) for our chosen period. The game is easier to learn and, going back to that first principle, it’s much easier to put together a user interface that doesn’t suck.

The modern genre’s roots are in tabletop games, which is obvious with many games such as Unity of Command. Do you think these tabletop-like elements will continue to shape computer wargames in the future as well?

I think yes, to the extent that you’re talking about Unity of Command type games. The abstractions used in tabletop games were developed to deliver a battlefield feel, on an “interface” that consists of just a map and some cardboard counters. What a computer adds in value here (other than AI, playing as your opponent) is that it serves as a kind of staff officer. You don’t have look up rules, the game will draw maps for you, keep stats, etc. This is the “tabletop plus” base that we start with, and then we’re trying to build new and exciting things on top.

There is a whole other direction in wargames, where you take a more simulationist approach (CMANO is a recent example). These games are well served by today’s powerful computers, and there are enormous possibilities in this space, especially given the recent craze for simulators of all kinds. That said, not everyone has the time, patience or frankly, the inclination to acquire the kind of in-depth knowledge required to enjoy these simulators.

I feel that both types of games have their place, and will continue to develop along these diverging lines for the foreseeable future.

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