Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Groping for the New Paradigm, Part I: The Indictment

Almost fifty years ago a fellow named Charles Roberts began designing and publishing games. They were revolutionary in concept: board games representing warfare in a fashion much more specific and tangible than anything in the past. Unlike Chess, these games offered very specific historical events to choose from, offering the player the opportunity to rewrite history. In fact, they laid the foundation for an entire industry, from which sprang almost all the other game genres that are popular today.

The first efforts quickly evolved. Square movement grids became hexagonal, Zones of Control were invented, as well as the Combat Results Table, Terrain Effects Chart, et al.

Then, right about there, creative thinking pretty much stopped.

Since then we've seen expansion and refinement of those designs, but no real, or perhaps a better word would be successful, departures. Today, an innovative game is one where someone has come up with a new way to determine in what order the pieces will move. Wargame designers have become complacent in their acceptance of the hex/ZOC/CRT model, and apply the same principles to monkeys with sticks as giant robots with nuclear tipped missiles. There is no real creativity happening.

It is startling to realize that almost every era, every scale, and every conceivable style of combat has been represented using the same mechanisms. Hexes, combat factors and movement factors, zones of control, and odds ratios have been applied to almost every conceivable form of combat.

This method has become dogma; a doctrine of design that assumes a one-size-fits-all form of evaluation and application. The Wargame industry has straightjacketed itself with a purely derivative model from which it refuses to evolve or deviate.

It is little wonder that a once thriving and lively industry has shrunken to print-runs of under 5000, and a static customer base that howls for severed heads whenever a wargame company reaches for a new audience by delving into other genres.

Conventions offer some eye-opening grounds for observation. Who has not attended a recent gaming convention and witnessed the paucity of board-wargames being played? Or witnessed the eye rolling and grimacing of other gamers when witness to the hex and counter ecclesiastics?

What do they know that wargame designers and players do not?

Take role-playing games (RPGs) for example. RPG’s have been around almost as long as wargames. In fact, they sprang from the loins of the wargame industry. Why have they managed to maintain popularity, as well as penetration into mainstream sales outlets? There are many answers, but the one that concerns us is that RPG designers have routinely thrown the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to their game systems. RPGs are about the story, or the world they take place in. The system isn’t really a part of the equation when it comes to the player’s enjoyment of the game, other than to facilitate the realities of the environment or story. Therefore, RPG designers create role-play systems that are appropriate to the environment that they are designed to support. Key word here is support.

Meanwhile, the belief in the traditional wargame design model has attained canonization. And the swine are laughing at the pearls. In a nutshell, most games are designed as concept in search of an appropriate system, while military based board wargames are a system ever in search of events from which to extract new names to paste upon the components.

Game Vs. Simulation?

I recently posed a question to a close friend of mine, Vince Blackburn (those of you that have read Competitive Edge magazine will be familiar with his column A Word in Edgewise), for whose opinion I’ve always had great respect. In all the years I’ve known Vince, he has always been ready to play a hex and counter game with me, and frequently had a sound understanding of the historical situation. In spite of that, he never instigated the play of, nor owned any traditional wargame titles. I asked him why, and here is part of his response:

“The key factor, though, is that it is all fantasy to me one way or the other. No game is an ideal simulation of reality, because men will never behave like pewter models, nor will they ever be as predictable as even the most complex morale chart. Even if you could design a mathematically perfect board game, you would still be sitting around a table with friends rather than wiping your radio operator's brains off of the latest communiqué to learn whether your column will be relieved or whether your widows will collect your medals. I don't think I would make decisions the same way in the two different circumstances.

“I regard historical games the same way I regard historical fiction or the ‘alternate history’ genre. You never really re-fight the Battle of Hastings, you fight it as it would have happened with a different set of personalities in command of the armies-of armies that are only approximations of the original anyway. Once we have an approximate simulation like that, I like to tweak the variables. What if King Harold had cavalry? Swap some figures around and you see a different battle emerge. What if William had more advanced armor when he crossed the Channel—or what if half his ships had sunk? For that matter, what if ancient Merlin came out of his crystal cave to lend a little of his powers to his Anglic brethren? What if William's forces were actually Orcs, and referred to Normandy as Mordor? I think the line between ‘historical’ and ‘fantasy’ games is an artificial one, and I find that fictional settings allow me to create something new. I enjoy creating, so that is the way I tend to design scenarios.

Vince’s reply reveals some important points, but chief among them to my mind is the lack of understanding in historical wargame designers of just what it is a we’re about. The point he makes about historical vs. fantasy is well made. Is it really just history that we’re trying to portray? If it is, how does the notion of game integrate into the historical construct? If it really is impossible to recreate a battle (and it is), does that render the idea of realism academic? In actuality, wargame designers stopped asking those questions some time ago.

Many industry “insiders” like to call these games simulations, but the term simulation has never really applied because what is being simulated has never been adequately defined.

For example, the most common advertising gimmick used in the industry has been some variant of now you are in command. So is command what is being simulated? If so, then why do players know the exact disposition of their enemy's forces? Why are players mucking about with the local skirmishes through manipulation of ZOCs in a game that is supposed to be strategic in scale? Why are any of the challenges of command we’ve been taught to expect from war theorists such as von Clausewitz or Sun Tzu absent from any actual game decisions?

Is it the actual mechanics of battle that designers are after?

Is it just the feel of panzers rumbling across the ground?

Taking an objective look at wargames will fail to yield an answer. Ultimately, wargame designers have been designing games, and nothing but games. And sadly, it’s been the same basic design over and over.

Worse yet, war games have become complex, unwieldy, unpopular, and in many respects, a cliché relative to other venues of game design such as card games or RPGs, or especially computer games where some real innovation has actually occurred, which in turn has kept those industries somewhat fresh.

If a person were to pick up a wargame 30 years ago, then time warp to the present and compare it to a wargame of today he could legitimately ask, “what has changed?” The creativity of the 1950s and 60s has turned into the dogma of the present, which has transformed the industry that started it all into a redheaded stepchild.

A rejuvenated military wargame industry requires a complete rethinking of how we design games. A designer must stop using the hex and counter model as a starting point, and begin with the topic and its unique realities. Then the designer must carefully consider just what it is he wishes the game to represent and what perspective does he want to present to the player, i.e. in what representational position does he wish to put the player in. That position must be consistent and well defined before any thinking can be done on design mechanics. Then, chose or invent mechanics that support that player position, and discard irrelevancies.

The wargame industry cannot hope to grow or, in the long run, even survive if this sort of methodology does not soon creep into the thinking of designers, and consequently into the pipelines of publishers.

Understanding the Player and the Ramifications of “Gray Matter” Marketing

A well-known wargame designer recently asked for my thoughts on expanding the wargame market. My response was simple: it cannot be expanded. It must be reinvented.

Attempting to reclaim the audience that TSR destroyed is folly [for more information on this, see A Farewell to Hexes by Greg Costikyan]. They're gone. Attempting to compete with the gaming offshoots of computers, etc. is similarly impossible. A paper wargame will never be able to compete with the visceral affect of seeing the target explode on the computer screen. We must seek our audience elsewhere.

Jim Dunnigan has often described his audience in the old SPI days as "over-educated." A more objective evaluation may show that the audience was actually something else. In fact, the statement was probably as much a marketing ploy as anything else. In fact, Avalon Hill used to employ an identical marketing tactic. Inserted into all of their games was a "do your friend a favor" reply-card where they asked for the name and address of a friend with sufficient "gray matter" to play their games to which they could send their catalogues. Although they were talking about intelligence rather than education, the intent was the same. Thus was born the idea of wargaming as an intellectual pursuit, and the perceived notion that wargamers were more educated, more intelligent, more insightful, etc. than other forms of gamer.

Thanks to such marketing, many wargame customers were taught to think that they were smarter or better educated, which is clearly specious. And in truth this marketing had a lot to do with the decline of the industry. Who wants to hang around with someone that thinks they're smarter than you are, or insists on wearing their doctoral robe every time they sit down at the gaming table?

More to the point, the audience was not over-educated, nor any smarter (if wargame sales and proclivity toward market reduction is taken into account), and one could even go so far as to say that their interest in history may have been superficial at best. Generally speaking, there's lots of Dr. So-and-so PhDs (the names of whom can actually be seen in the design credits of many modern wargames; whatever their doctorate may have been in, it certainly wasn’t English usage (see usage of honorifics in any reputable manual of style; Dr. Joe Gamedesigner, PhD is not a proper title usage, and in fact, use of Dr. or PhD is only appropriate to demonstrate authority on a topic to which the doctorate specifically relates, while use of both Dr. and PhD together is never appropriate and considered arrogant)) who may argue that point, but to do so would ultimately be self-serving, counter productive, and finally self-defeating (by actually demonstrating the point).

So what are wargame players really seeking if not self-aggrandized historical enlightenment?

A hint exists in the marketing banner of many early wargames: Now You are in Command. It is this opportunity, more than anything else, that attracted the early fans of wargaming. It is the feel of being in command, the opportunity to see if one can out-do the generals of history.

Unfortunately, anyone that is genuinely interested in the challenges of command cannot help but be ultimately disappointed by the wargames being published today or even at any time in the past.

The first wargames offered a tantalizing glimpse, a promise of a future of gaming experiences where the feel and the problems and the challenges of command would become systematized and granulated into playable games that would be representational of a given historical or potential event.

Somewhere along the way that vision was lost. The system became the element of interest rather than the event itself. So instead of a vast library of games uniquely representative of their topic, we have a single game system of questionable merit troweled across the entire spectrum of the art of warfare. And so the industry reaped the harvest of a single idea trampled into paste through endless repetition and derivation into ever more complex designs of no more relevancy than their progenitors published in the 1960s.

And in the course of transforming the craft of wargame design into the art of bricklaying, the core of players has been reduced to the most inertial element, frequently penning letters of complaint over the printing of SS Panzer units in some other color besides black. (A more recent example of this sort of behavior occurred to the folks at Strategy & Tactics magazine. They had the remarkable audacity to move the FYI portion of the magazine from the front to the middle. This seemingly trivial adjustment to the layout generated multiple complaint letters.) That such trivial matters should generate complaints at all, let alone a significant volume of them leads one to truly ask: over educated?

Something to Think About

Wargaming doesn’t need expansion. It needs a complete redefinition. All of the assumptions that have been made about the audience, the market, and the method of design need to be completely reevaluated and reinvented. Publishers must make room for creativity once again, and overcome their fear of losing what little audience they have left (because it is that very audience’s desire for endless immutable repetition that prevents the industry’s much sought after growth). Designers must discard their marriage to the hex and counter model, and begin thinking holistically about their topic and what it is they want to represent. And finally, players must begin demanding new ideas and original thinking from what few viable publishers remain.

There are still people out there receptive to the challenge of out-doing historical figures, of testing their decision-making abilities against others in an historical context. In fact, playing at war is as popular as it ever was.

What is lacking is an interesting paradigm to do it in. Hexes, ZOCs, CRTs, et al are clichés now. They never really worked properly to begin with, but they have taken on the air of dogma, tablets of wargame design law handed down from Mount Avalon by the prophet Roberts. In the eyes of the faithful it is intellectual elevation; in the eyes of others it is the stuff of ridicule.

The industry needs to shake loose misconceptions and think about how it could change, or rather, transform itself into something new. Where designers start taking radical departures from previous design doctrine. Where the industry magazines no longer run articles about how John Doe started gaming at age 13 with PanzerBlitz and collected every piece of drivel published thereafter, only to have an epiphany at age 45 in which he discovers that he wishes he were a child again; but instead have articles on real creative thinking, new ideas, and genuine criticisms and discussions.

That is what the hobby once meant to many and is where they departed it when it could no longer fulfill that need.

To reinvent itself, wargaming must fulfill that need for a new generation of intellectuals. And when I say intellectual, I firmly subscribe to the definition provided by Aldous Huxley: "An intellectual is a person who's found one thing that's more interesting than sex."