Wargame series are the bedrock upon which wargame publishers have built their brands. Few wargame publishers that have seen growth and increased following have ignored the power of at least one series in their stable of games. Wargame series are double-edged swords though and in my last article, I started with the negative by examining five reasons wargame series are awful. Now that I’ve gone to the dark side in this two-part analysis it’s time to return to the sunlight of why so many of us love wargame series!
5 – Easier access to opponents
One reason I think series are so powerful is that its often easier to find opponents for series games. This is a part of what I’m going to coin as the series hype-cycle.
The first phase of the cycle is the announcement of a new title and the initial promotional rollout. Most series start with a great title on a popular topic. Few series start with some little-known topic in a corner of the gaming world. In fact, the only one that comes to mind readily is Comancheria from Joel Toppen and it’s uniqueness was one of its greatest strengths! The built-in audience for that topic is recruited and they begin to start the buzz amongst their network as influencers.
The second phase is the playtest photo and session reports. These typically come in the form of articles from the publisher, posts to popular gaming sites like Board Game Geek or ConSimWorld and help expand the audience.
The third phase is the pre-order and final component posting. This is often accompanied by a rulebook draft or player aid card draft floating around with it and drives pre-orders for the new game. The rulebook, especially if it’s the first in the series, is scoured and people typically support it with questions and observations that are enthusiastically comparing it to other series. If the series design fills an empty niche with an audience this will further propel interest and broaden the audience.
The game’s release is the fourth phase and this is where the rubber meets the road for most gamers. Not everyone is into the whole pre-order rat-race and they are patient enough to await word from local gamers. If the game is good, not even an unqualified classic in the making, then it will attract folks who are ready to use this release as the entry point for their participation in the series. After all, local gamers or VASSAL opponents are now starting to show themselves!
The review and early topic preview for the next game is the final and fifth phase of the hype cycle that links it back to the first phase for the new title. As reviews are coming in, the question is inevitably asked, “So, what’s the next title going to be?” The designer hints at it a few possibilities and finally lands in the coming months. People, now assured by a track record of a solid release and game series, start thinking about the next title and get a case of the FOMO or Fear Of Missing Out so they buy into the hype cycle and get ready for the next release.
Over the course of even two of these complete hype cycles, a series has built a solid foundation of players who are actively playing the game face-to-face or online and are talking about the game to give it sustained “buzz” in the community so that even new converts to wargaming have a well-discussed entry point with a topic that probably piques their interest.
As the European audience for wargames continues to grow, the topics that will pull people into wargaming will continue to be less United States-centric which is also exciting for those of us who have been around long enough to get our fill of the typical series chestnuts like Bulge, Stalingrad, D-Day, and Gettysburg.
4 – Systems provide a means for common analysis
Well designed games, as I’ve said before, have an opinion about their subject-matter. Series games provide an opportunity to track a designer’s thesis about the era(s) that they’re covering with multiple games attempting to showcase some core design values. The Great Battles of History take big stock in the concept of unit cohesion and the way that interacts with various formations, weapons, and leadership. As a result, gamers who invest in this series have a chance to see how this take on ancient Mediterranean combat tracks across a dozen or more titles.
At the core of a series’ long-term success is whether gamers also buy-in to at least some degree to the statement being made in the series rules booklet. We’re not talking about whether every gamer loves every release in a series, but the core belief’s of a game series are critical to its long-term success. As such, it’s more important in series games that the core design be opinionated and easily accessible for gamers. This can be a blessing or a curse, but it provides the designer with an opportunity to say more about an era than any single wargame could offer.
I don’t suspect most gamers are doing era modeling and study based on wargame series, but at some level, we are evaluating the game against its design each time. When that design is repeated, as in the case of a series, the structure must be strong enough to sustain interest and critical evaluation repeatedly. Some people might just describe it as a “gut feeling” or “intuition” while others can specifically cite the reasons why the series rules break-down upon repeated play, but the bar for sustaining a decades-long game series is more challenging than designing individual games across that decade if only from the standpoint that a poorly received game in a non-series environment won’t necessarily threaten the subsequent games.
3 – Springboards for new designers
Series offer opportunities for new designers to try their hand at game design. They can get their foot in the door, so to speak, with a known series and then springboard into new ventures. Ed Beach, Mark Simonitch, Joel Toppen, and Marc Gouyon-Rety all come to mind as these folks who had started working within existing series games and have all either designed stunning non-series games or are in the process of doing so.
Wargame series provide a baked-in audience, era(s), and ruleset from which a new designer can build. Since series games provide the core rules and the individual game in that series requires modification in some way to meet the new topic’s criteria it’s a perfect proving ground for a designer. Fans of the topic and/or series end up getting a great new game from an up-and-coming talent that tends to shine through the injection of new blood.
I mentioned in my prior article that echo-chamber playtesting was problematic for wargame series and that when series creators leave the gap is rarely filled with fidelity to the original design. The positive potential though is that a new designer takes the reins and builds something equivalent or innovative in a new direction that breaths fresh life into the game. I think Ed Beach’s work on the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War series is a fantastic example of this in practice. In a non-wargaming world, I would say that Mike Mearls of Wizards of the Coast has done this for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.
Personally, I would love to design a wargame. One barrier is my comfort-level and designing a title or even co-designing a title in an existing series would certainly lower the stress-level a hair. I suspect, the intimidation of creating an original design in the face of so many great games already on the market and a deep bibliography of existing historical materials to distill your design philosophy is a challenge for just about everyone. The old SPI “guild” model for creating designers doesn’t have a neat corollary in the current environment. A goodly chunk of games produced today are still being created by a cadre of designers who were doing this 30+ years ago as well. Series offer an excellent springboard to infuse the ranks of designers with the necessary new blood to sustain quality design in the hobby.
2 – Learn it once, play for a lifetime
Let’s face it, there are too many games for any one person to play in their lifetime. Assuming you could learn a new game and get in at least 3 plays of it every two-weeks the released games in 2017 would keep you busy for almost SEVEN years. That’s just one year of wargame releases excluding expansions for existing wargames according to Board Game Geek! That means that series games can occupy a permanent spot in our memory as we experiment with non-series games. Then every other year, or every year depending on how many series you follow, there’s a new game that takes advantage of the existing rules knowledge already semi-current in your brain.
Series offer the opportunity to come back time and again to well-loved classics or to go to a convention and sit at the table of anyone playing these series. They offer a great conversation starter with a new gaming partner. They provide a basis for the evaluation of non-series games. Series provide the potential for being a monogamous gamer who loves only one series. There are plenty of Advanced Squad Leader fans who have done just that and because of the volume of quality content released every quarter seemingly, they sustain and expand their love for the series. This is how games get the reputation of being a “lifestyle” game because they require this kind of devotion. Another series that comes to mind is the La Bataille series or the 18xx series of games.
This bleeds over into mechanically related families of games. Card Driven Games and the COIN games come to mind here. Though no two games play exactly the same and aren’t necessarily a true “series” they share enough common design heritage and rules that it makes the transition from one to another easier. As a result, designers have adopted some core mechanics that help define many of their games. Richard Berg, Richard Borg, Uwe Rosenberg, Mark Simonitch, and the like have a strong similarity between many of their games that keeps gamers loyal and ready to move from one design to the next.
There is value, from the consumer’s perspective, to learning a system once and playing it for a lifetime!
1 – There’s always something fun on the horizon
By their very nature, wargame series are typically somewhere in the series hype-cycle (I’m going to make this a thing…). That means there is always something new even if it’s not a new game at that moment. It might be a great session report, a rules clarification that can be tested across prior games in the series, teasing the next title, or introducing a new designer into the mix. This constant stream of new is fun and keeps the downtime between playing games fun.
It can be easy to forget about fun for some reason. It’s obvious why we play these games at least on some level…to have fun! That said, a lot of the conversation around wargames are tangentially related to the concept of fun. We enjoy the historical discussion, the comparison of designers and rules. We like the articles that support our viewpoints on game topics and are challenged by those that change our minds. It’s a part of the contextual environment of loving this hobby, but it must all contribute in some way to our enjoyment and fun with the games we play.
Series games provide that fun in enough ways that it seems like there’s always something new to reignite interest.
I sincerely hope you’ve enjoyed this series and have some new ways to think about why you love (or hate) wargame series. Let me know in the comments below what you love about wargame series and what your favorite series is right now!