Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Dusting

One of my New Year's Wargaming Resolutions was to shake the dust off of some number of games that were in my collection that I'd never even gone so far as to set up. When I made the resolution, I was a bit surprised to find out later that the criteria I'd set (ten years since publication, never set up, never read the rules) was a fairly small subset of my wargame collection, not counting the Command magazine games. In fact, I believe the total number of games that fit the criteria was less than ten.

Interestingly, the common thread among all of these games - more than one map. Well, no *wonder* - I haven't had a place where I could set up multiple map games for ten years, and being a host once a month for a eurogaming group I can't really leave anything that doesn't fit in a poster frame up for more than four weeks at a time even now. I do have a couple of side tables that are currently holding up a record player (yes, an actual record player) to transfer a few disks for a friend of mine, but they are only 2.5' wide and as such won't hold anything that has too much girth, which constitutes pretty much every one of the "dusty" games other than The Legend Begins, which has the additional problem of missing two Italian artillery counters. In fact, that map is at this very moment set up underneath said record player (and an old receiver that has phono inputs, and the laptop, and some other stuff).

I did set up June 6, one of the early chit-activation games that GMT put out in the late 90's. The game has a lot of errata, and while the rulebook has a "living rules" version on the GMT website, the playbook (which has a lot of rules for the invasion turn) has not. I'm also finding that there are some really basic elements that were somehow missed in playtesting (according to the errata), such as, and I am *not* making this up, whether you round a 7.5:1 attack up or down. Really? You never had an odd number of combat factors attacking two combat factors? Ever? I had it in the first combat I had to deal with! The fix? Randomize which direction it goes. Great. I should mention this game was designed by Richard Berg, who is if nothing else fairly prolific in his game designs, even in 1999. And this got *missed*?

However, I have been determined to try to do what I can to learn this system, and at the very least the invasion sequence is not that onerous (as in, say, Battle for Normandy, where it takes a couple of hours to reduce every Allied battalion down to companies, run through four mini-turns, and then build them back up again. As my experience with The Legend Begins, where I read the rules in detail ahead of time only to have more or less forgotten them by the time I got to setting the game up, has taught me that perhaps I should learn as I go instead, I've been doing just that - getting to another set of rules I need to know, reading them, and then moving forward.

My experience is showing that there are some interesting changes in the hobby over time. For one thing, the level of graphics quality, while still being the product of DTP, is improving quite a bit. I know that extensive examples of play have been a big part of wargame rules from the beginning, but there are almost none in the June 6 rulebook *and* playbook, which I take as more a function of both a desire to limit component costs but also because there was almost certainly a lack of playtesting/development (as there was on this game's conceptual ancestor, Battle for North Africa). That seems to happen a lot with Berg's games...

The map and counters, on the other hand, are about the same as they are in current games, certainly they look just like more modern GMT games.

One particularly interesting rule, taken in contrast to how things are done in The Battle For Normandy, which uses the same scale of units if not of the map, has to do with activation. In BfN, which is *not* chit-pull based, units can move and fight but at greatly reduced effectiveness if they can't trace a supply path of six MP to their divisional HQ, which must in turn trace to a corps HQ and then to an off-map supply source. In J6, getting supply to the HQ, regardless of corps HQs, is the only question. This makes a little more sense in BfN, as part of the problem the Germans had in getting their resistance going was that their units were so spread out across the area. Both games have rules to attach corps units to divisions as well, although BfN's rules are very "on the fly" which I actually like, while in J6 it's based on an entire turn, which is four times as long as in BfN. Given that BfN is by *phase*, that's quite a difference, and one that's a lot harder to remember in J6 without markers.

The main lesson for me is that the principal bugaboo in wargames has and will (sadly) always be the development process. So long as games are driven by component limitations (you must have maps of this size, you must have rulebooks with multiples of four pages, you must use countersheets of a set size with x numbers of counters of y dimensions), we're going to have developers who are more interested in getting the game into a box instead of getting a *good* game into a box, one that we'll play over and over instead of hoping the next wargame out of the gate is "the one".

And that's where I'm hoping that the move to digital wargames starts to move to the fore. Not on desktop computers, which prevent what I consider to be the best element of wargaming, which is to say your opponent (and I know that for many, this is the biggest *problem*, whether it's a lack of opponents or the guy who makes little machinegun noises every time they roll for combat), but rather on table-top systems such as the upcoming MS Surface (or the iPad, were it about four to eight times the size it is now). Personally, I'd love to see something that you could roll up, that would lay flat when unrolled, and generic counters that would be passed information for every game (and as their state changes, as in many well-coded VASSAL games).

At this point, it becomes a lot easier for people to create distribute playtest copies. Counter numbers aren't critical, other than you'll need X counters to represent X units in a given game, and those can be sold generically by the maker of the surface (or a third-party). Rules are rules. Examples of play can be built *into* the game, where you can see them play out on the board in a pop-up window to the side.

One of the biggest problems I've had with computer-based wargames has been that the mechanisms tend to be hidden, so that you fight a combat without knowing what factors went into that combat. I recently got a cribbage game for my iPad that allows you to compute your own points for each meld, and if you want to know why the meld was worth X points, there's an Explain button that you can press. Why not have this for wargames as well?

I think that one of the other problems I've had with computer-based wargames is that they try to be something else, more like video games than paper wargames, and that's been an issue for traditional wargaming companies - trying to take a paper wargame and tart it up for those who get their gratification from twitch based gaming. That and trying to come up with useful AIs. Not necessary. Just transfer the game as it exists to a surface-based system, and we'll do the rest. Most wargames already come with scenarios that allow you to ease your way into the game, usually by limiting scope but also by limiting the ruleset, so learning can be quite a bit like it is for a video game, and in fact you can build the tutorial right into the game. AIs are great, but by far the most difficult element to code in a wargame, and most companies resort to cheating. Make the surface so that it allows you to use the VASSAL log mechanism. In this case, you could have the side you're playing use physical counters, while the opponent has their counters in the screen instead of on top of it, just like VASSAL.

BTW, I only suggest that you have physical counters because it's such a big part of what makes wargaming such a satisfying experience. Since these would be generic with information imparted to them, setup is relatively easy - the game shows you exactly where each counter should go, you put any counter down, and it becomes the unit. Push a button, and the information transfers to the screen and you can remove counters. Put a counter on your unit later, and transfer the data back. Setup and storage become much quicker.

The best part?

Storage. Think of your CD collection, now in boxes after you paid your teenager to rip them. In five years, that will be your DVD collection. In five years, that will be your book collection. I don't know about you, but these (and games) are the four media types that require the most storage in my house, especially books. I love books, but when you consider that every time you move (and pay someone to lift all of those boxes, as I do) that it costs somewhere between $5 and $15 per box. I had over 20 boxes of games, 20 boxes of books, 12 boxes of DVDs and CDs, and another four boxes of LPs (which I just can't quite part with). And then I have to buy bookcases to put all of this stuff into. And then I run out of places to put them (we are at capacity for all of these media types as I speak, and I am *far* past having enough space for my games).

We are getting very close to sheet-based smart paper. We are even closer to people recognizing the value of digitized versions of music, video, and print, even with the compromises these formats generally bring (one being that you can't use them if there's no power). That means when the infrastructure goes down, we lose all of that. Of course, when the infrastructure goes down, we lose pretty much any free time to enjoy media for leisure as well, so who cares about that. And there is definitely something to be said for the material that was such a big part of recordings in my youth that has largely been lost in the iTunes world (not entirely, but to a large degree).

Still, I think it's time. No more dusty games, no more hoping that counters get updated with correct information, living rules on the fly, need-based information at your fingertips... there's a lot to love here.

And maybe, just maybe, it will look cool enough to attract a younger generation of wargamers. And wouldn't *that* be great?

1 comment:

Mike said...

> We are even closer to people recognizing the value of digitized versions of music

Except Prince.