This is one of those annoying and hotly debated topics that has waxed and waned over the years across our hobby.  After all, definitions help bring order to chaos and make sense of expectations.  When I say that I’ve traveled a mile, in English units we understand that to be 5,280 feet.  There is is a philosophical tidiness to definitions.  After all, if we’re to enjoy these games together shouldn’t we understand where each other are coming from when we discuss wargames?

Here’s the rub though.  I don’t believe there is one definition of wargames.  In fact, I suspect that the greater scrutiny put to any individual person’s definition of wargame the more flexible it may become unless they’re inclined to entrench when faced with opposition.  So, as you read this article, understand that I both come in peace and that my definition isn’t meant to invalidate yours.  Further, and perhaps more importantly, I only intend for it to apply to my discussions so when you read my blog and see me refer to wargames you know what I’m thinking (regardless of how wrongheaded you may find it to be).

So, let’s put some additional caveats in place.  This blog, and therefore this definition, are intended solely to cover tabletop board wargaming.  Wargaming on different sides of the gaming world whether topically or geographically means different things.  To most outsiders, I suspect they immediately jump to Warhammer 40,000, Warmachine, or a historical miniatures ruleset.  In the truest sense, those are without question wargames.

Let’s put another caveat in place…I am referring solely to historical and hypothetical conflicts.  After all, War of the Rings is a wargame, but it falls outside of what I’ll be discussing.  The same is true of Jim Krohn’s excellent Talon and Space Empires 4x series from GMT Games.  Again though, these are speculative Science Fiction rather than hypothetical conflict.

Finally, one last important caveat, there are aspects of war so critical to understanding its conduct that I fully support the inclusion of games on these topics as wargames.  For example, Churchill is largely a game about a series of Conferences during which the national and strategic alliance strategy for the allies is set forth and executed in the most abstract terms militarily.  To me, this is a historical wargame.  The same would be true of a variety of other games like Quartermaster General, Supply Lines of the American Revolution, and yes even Twilight Struggle.  There, I’ve said it.

Our Three Rules

So, with our three rules in mind:

  1. Must be a tabletop board wargame
  2. Must be historical or hypothetical in topic
  3. May include topics considered crucial to the conduct of a war

What is a wargame?

Wargames are “conflict simulations,” but not all conflict simulations are wargames.  After all, I could have a game about competing railway barons who struggle for the territorial rights to build their rail empires.  While a conflict, this would not necessarily be a wargame.  If that’s the case, then we must examine what are eligible conflicts and what about those conflicts makes them materially different from our railway baron problem?

First, I would contend that the end goal must be for some sovereign, though typically national. entity to achieve a strategic goal.  The game itself can be a subset of any layer related to that problem.  In our railway baron problem, it is unlikely that two competing national or sovereign interests are engaged in conflict that largely benefits a baron of industry.

Second, I would suggest that a conflict that is covered by a wargame must include coverage of the use of arms at some level regardless of how abstract.  Arms may be a resource that is consumed as we see in an economic or logistical representation of conflict or it may be explicit as it is in hex & counter wargames.  Further, those arms may be something that’s a means to an end such as the Coup action in a game like Twilight Struggle.

Third, the conflict must have a measurable winner or loser, but not necessarily both.  For example, a winner may be determined but even at great cost.  In effect, the opportunity for Pyrrhic victories may be possible.  So, in our railway problem we see an economic victor and loser, but do we see a national winner or loser?  Is there a sense that the outcome of the economic struggle has affected a larger international or civil internal conflict?

These criteria and explanations may well be imperfect in your eyes.  I hope they challenge your assumption at least to a small degree, but if you find them lacking I hope they push you to consider what conflict is and its relationship with a wargame.  In the end, it is important to find those cellular levels of definition where we can agree or build agreement.

So, if we’ve solved the problem of conflict vs. wargame for my definition and we’ve narrowed our scope what other burdens must we undergo for the purposes of this definition?

In my opinion, none.  Components, size, complexity, scale, scope, and era are immaterial to the rest.  As I said, my definition is broad and is intentionally so because over the past 10 years or so I’ve begun to re-evaluate what it is that makes up a wargame and why I think it fits the definition I’ve built for myself.  In terms of this blog, and maybe even for your own thinking, my hope that this primer gives some clarity and sense to what I’ll be talking about.

As always, if you have other criteria or just completely disagree, please share below!

 

Without question what tabletop board wargaming and miniature wargaming are different creatures.  Aside from the decidedly…”flat” appearance of traditional hex & counter wargames there is the time that goes into painting, prepping terrain, researching rulesets for different eras, and of course, tape measures! Both styles of wargaming, in my experience, are a lot of fun, but not a lot of outsiders realize just how many tools can be used in traditional paper and cardboard-based wargames to make the experience better.

Today, I’ll address five of these accessories that make my life easier.  Realize, that this is a personal listing and that I look forward to hearing about the accessories you simply cannot live without in the comments below.

  1. Plexiglass – You know that stuff you buy when you want to make bird-feeders with a visible seed chamber or for other construction jobs requiring durable transparent materials?  Well, wargamers use that to keep their maps flat and hold them in place.  I have about 5 different sheets to use depending on the application.  The two largest are 72 inches by 30 inches and I use them when I have a 4 map game on the table like The Battle for Normandy or Last Chance for Victory.  Plexi is a cheap solution and a lot of wargamers find it to be fantastic.  There are some downsides…it is hard to get in exact sizes when pieces of plexi need to be large.  It is reflective beyond belief and makes photography without glare a challenge if you have overhead lighting.  When you bump the plexi not only the plexi moves but also the map and sometimes the pieces.  I would be lying if I said I didn’t have a good game ended early because we just couldn’t bear to put the the proverbial Humpty Dumpty back together again.
  2. Reading Glass / Tweezers – I’m going throw this little combo in there for the fun of it because while these are two distinctly different tools they are related to overcoming some kind of physical limitation from either ham hands or what I’ll just call experienced wargamer syndrome.  Tweezers help move those tiny counters around the map when they’re in tight spots.  Not necessary for all games, tweezers are a lifesaver for something like Advanced Squad Leader where you have counter density that exceeds most other games.  Reading glasses, can assist in reading those tiny numbers, pips, slashes, and dashes that litter an almost inconceivably small area that fits on a counter.
  3. Counter Trays – I won’t get into the holy wars of Plano vs. GMT vs. DVG vs. your system of choice.  Suffice it to say that beyond removing counters from frames and whether/how to deal with corners there’s little to nothing that’ more divisive!  Personally, I use GMT Games trays because they’re cheap, sufficiently sized, and stack well.  Why use them?  Well…what kind of barbarian would just leave their 1,680 counter monster wargame without some kind of easy to use organizational structure?  In reality, there are a lot of ways to organize games, and I’ll go into that in a future article, but for now I’ll just leave it at storage is as important as the games themselves.  After all, some games can take upwards of 2 hours to set up because of the number of counters that need to get laid out prior to play.  Imagine if there was no organization!
  4. Hobby Knife – You can, of course, separate counters from frames pretty easily with just your hands.  That dry feeling of the cardboard snapping in your fingers is delightful.  However, you can also save yourselves some serious work dealing with dog-eared corners by cutting out the counters from the frames.  In effect, the more you tear and rip, the more likely you are to start separating the layers of paper that make up the cardboard you’re going to use in your games.  You could go as far as I did, at one time, and spray counter-sheets with matte varnish prior to cutting out of the sheets but…that’s a bit overkill, to be honest.  Counters from the 1960s still look great even after hundreds of plays.  That loving wear and tear on a game is a trophy, not an unsightly mess.  What’s more unsightly is someone who has dog-eared their counters and the top printed layer is half-peeled due to muscling the counter off the frame.  If you’re neet enough with it, you can even leave those corners squared if you so desire!
  5. Tablespace – Most strategy games are design to be played on a typical table maybe 30″ by 60″ for the game and the folks who will be sitting around and playing the game.  Wargames, in some cases, will work great for this.  No Retreat, most COIN games, and every one-map wonder can do it for the most part.  However, wargames can have 4+ maps.  When I play The Battle for Normandy, I have to use 3 banquet tables and a little side card table top do the whole thing.  It’s a massive burden for home gamers or for a game store that wants to host such a game because you’re taking up 2 tables at a minimum and at times 3 or even 4.  These monstrous games offer players an experience that falls well outside of a normal wargame and is the place where legendary play sessions are often born.

I hope these 5 (maybe 6…) accessories are something you can find in your game room or home.  Again, having the right tools for the job can be important to supporting a positive play experience.  Too cramped of a table is a mess as is knocking about all the counters when you just want that ONE stack in the middle!  What are your favorite tools that should have made this list?

 

Gettysburg 125th Anniversary Cover

Gettysburg 125th Anniversary Cover

The box cover showed two soldiers locked in battle with swirling smoke and a tattered Confederate battle flag in the mix.  The Union soldier smaller, but hanging in there and the Confederate soldier with the upper hand, but clearly losing the upper hand.  When the flat box was opened, the representation of a hand-painted Gettysburg with the hex overlay was a revelation.

 

“You get to re-fight the battle!” my friend Chuck casually explained. To a 10-year-old kid who was addicted to reading about military history that phrase opened me up to a hobby that 29 years later I’m still enjoying as much as that first rainy afternoon in the September of 1988.

WargameHQ is an opportunity for me to help share that passion and love for wargaming.  There are so many fantastic games, designers, and publishers right now that I can’t imagine a better time to get into the hobby.

WargameHQ houses a library of the games I own, news from publishers, interviews with designers and other wargaming community members, as well as this blog which will also be cross-published over at BoardGameGeek.com.

So, why wargame when there are so many other games on the market?  Wargaming, after all, is a part of a broader golden age for boardgames in general.  Simply put, wargaming offers something unique that other boardgames rarely offer: the opportunity to learn about and more deeply interact with history.  I’ll even set aside historical boardgames like Freedom: The Underground Railroad from Academy Games or An Infamous Traffic from publisher Hollandspiele.

Games like Puerto Rico, World’s Fair 1903, Russian Railroads, and Steam offer a look at history, but you’re not engaging in an appreciable way with the history that surrounds those games.  The history is window-dressing to service the game mechanics and often provide a plausible reality for game sub-systems to exist in the design.  Kanban Automotive Revolution has about as much in common with Kanban lean manufacturing as La Granja has with the challenges of farming on Mallorca.  That’s not their intent, and great games like these don’t demand players care that much about the topic.  In effect, the topic can only serve to alienate rather than to recruit interested players in these non-historical strategy games that have a historical setting.

Wargaming, on the other hand, offers players an opportunity to experience the challenge of history.  There’s a wealth of great games covering well-worn roads in the historical world like the campaigns of Napoleon and World War II to lesser known and simulated topics like the battle of Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana during the Boer War.  Wargames also allow you to experience history from multiple perspectives.  Sometimes you’re the soldier on the ground trying desperately to take an objective in the next street.  Sometimes it’s the next town and you’re commanding a regiment.  Sometimes, it’s the next country and you’re acting as the strategic leadership for a country.  Sometimes, it’s a combination of these things or even more uniquely acting as a single person in a strategic role as we experienced in Mark Herman’s Churchill.

To that end, there’s a little something for everyone.  After all, the last five years have given us atypical wargames that cover historical conflicts with a different focus.  Supply Lines of the American Revolution, Churchill, Pericles, and the incredibly popular COIN series games like Fire in the Lake are all examples of an evolutionary step in wargaming.  Smaller publishers are focusing on topics not often gamed like The Battle of Adobe Walls.  Large publishers are getting in on the action as well with The Dambuster’s Raid or Comancheria.

So, the main question remains…what’s holding people back from playing these games?

The issue is thorny enough that I can’t possibly cover it with any depth of fidelity here, but I will point out a few generalizations that I think work against wargaming having a wider audience:

  1. Access – Wargames are not typically sold in many online or brick & mortar stores with any depth or breadth to truly get eyeballs of casual games on the products.  I am thankful that The Gamer’s Armory is my local store and they carry a great variety of depth of wargaming products.
  2. Complexity – Though this has become far less of a barrier in an era with YouTube tutorials, great bloggers showing off the games, and a focus on refining overly complex rule-systems it remains daunting.  Most non-wargamers consider rulebooks of over 15 pages to represent a “complex” game.  The typical length of a wargame rulebook is around 25-30 pages and its three-column layout can be intimidating.  Even lengthier rulebooks in the non-wargaming world, like Twilight Imperium 4th Edition from Fantasy Flight Games, clocks in at around 21 pages.  Those pages are full of graphics, examples, and a 2 column colorful layout with plenty of white-space.  Add to this the complexity of then teaching someone who doesn’t want to read the rulebook the rules and it can be daunting for both the teacher and the learner!
  3. Player Count – It’s not too hard to find someone who is into history and is willing to give a wargame a try.  For that person to then go and snag another person can be the stumbling block though.  Even for lighter fare, getting someone who wants to sit down across the table from just one other player during a game-night at an FLGS and play something like Commands & Colors: Ancients can be difficult which leads me to my next obstacle.
  4. Setup & Play Time – Most non-wargames take anywhere from 2 – 3 hours for setup and play with 3 – 4 players.  Longer games, like the aforementioned Twilight Imperium, take ~8 hours.  Folks tend to shy away from lengthier games.  In an episode of the popular “The Secret Cabal” podcast, the hosts were talking about classic Avalon Hill titles when The Campaign for North Africa briefly topped the BoardGameGeek “Hotness” list in 2016.  Their takeaway was, “I don’t see how anyone can get another person to play one of these games.  Just the time it takes to play them is enough of a turnoff.”  I don’t disagree and think their audience probably largely feels the same way.  Consider that in the last issue of Special Ops from Multi-man Publishing had an article for the Operational Combat Series (OCS) games that included how many maps, units, setup and play time each scenario in each game would take.  It was one of the coolest things within the issue and yet, to a huge group of gamers seeing a scenario with a 3 hour setup time would likely have them running for the hills!
  5. Hobbyist Misconception – Though I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone willing to admit it, the perception that wargamers are warmongers or are some kind of fringe militant is tricky to shake.  I’ll be the first to admit I’ve participated in some odd discussions around the gaming table at my FLGS about things like when German optics remained the superior optics throughout World War II in tanks or just how many Shermans would be necessary to take down a Tiger.  To outsiders, these conversations might sound like glorifying Nazi warmachines or even to the less savvy, a celebration of World War II.

So, how do we overcome this?

I think the answer is easier than it might seem at first.  Be visible.  Be accessible.  Show don’t just tell folks about wargaming.  The wargaming community has so many fantastic voices, bloggers, video creators, and reviewers that at this point we should be getting near the tipping point of showing off the incredible games being put out on a nearly bi-weekly basis.  I look forward to being one of those positive voices and hope you’ll subscribe to this blog and check it out as new content gets added!