This is the first in a two-part series where I talk about the virtues and sins of wargame series. For better, and for worse, our hobby is built upon the foundations of series. They attract gamers to the hobby, they sustain purchases for publishers, and they ease the transition from one game in the series to the next. Games series carry baggage from release to release though and end up succumbing to their own rules weight over time with very few exceptions. So, why do we love series? If they weren’t popular and profitable, then publishers wouldn’t bother. Today though, we’re going to be looking at the nefarious side of wargame series and why you should think twice about buying into a new series!
5 – The series creator doesn’t always stick around
Series games start with incredible promise, but most series require fresh design talent to sustain them and that leads to the series creator moving on to newer and better things. Unfortunately, that leaves the series in the hands of folks who may have very divergent ideas about where the series should head. This doesn’t always just include new topics, but also the addition and revision of core rules to suit each subsequent designer’s vision. In some cases, this has proven wildly successful because the series was more of a framework (COIN), but in other series, it has created oddball outlier games. This can be seen in the Downtown series of games which originated with the Vietnam Era game Downtown covering the air campaign of that conflict. Since then, series creator Lee Brimmicombe-Wood has not been involved and we had a similar-era game from Terry Simo about the Arab-Israeli wars that more or less works in Elusive Victory, but the series has been ported to World War I (though technically not a Downtown game it CLEARLY draws many mechanics from it) in Sim’s Bloody April and soon in the Cold War Era game Red Storm from Douglas Bush.
Another series that lost its designer mid-run was the Grand Tactical Series (GTS) over at Multi-Man Publishing (MMP). Designer Adam Starkweather and MMP parted ways, but now two series with a common ancestry exist in the marketplace. MMP is continuing on with the Grand Tactical Series under new leadership while Starkweather has moved over to Compass Games and is at the helm of their Company Scale System (CSS) which has released two pacific theater games already (Guam and Saipan) and one that’s due to release in May 2018 Montelimar – Anvil of Fate. For fans, that potentially means an uncomfortable choice between design or series loyalty. Some folks will buy both and that’s great, but this introduces fanbase dilution for both series into the mix which is unfortunate since it will likely mean the longterm viability for only one of those series. In effect, fans of one series will lose out.
It’s hard to pass blame on series creators for any of this of course. Is it realistic that Richard Berg and/or Mark Herman should be directly involved in every Great Battles of History game released? In a December 2017 interview I conducted with Mark Herman (coming soon!), he indicated a proclivity to avoid getting drawn into series. For one, they’re not purpose built and therefore require compromises on what the game can and cannot do for the sake of preserving the underlying core rules. Secondly, Herman suggested that his interests aren’t linear and that sometimes a great idea or another design in the market catches his eye and seems to match with a specific topic or game mechanic he has in mind.
As a result of that conversation, it was clear that the design alchemy of topic, mechanic, and history don’t favor series. This leads me to my next point.
4 – Series favor breadth instead of depth
Series do a great job of presenting a wide variety of topics from an era, but they do so without the depth necessary. The two series that seem most guilty of this are the Standard Combat Series (SCS) from MMP and GMT Games’ Great Battles of History series. Between those two series alone, I own 25 titles. I can say, almost without exception, that they are fun games. Both provide a taste of the historical era they are trying to represent in an approachable format that makes buying the next one in the series a near automatic (see #2 below). That said, they favor breadth of topics.
Great Battles of History, at least, has an era to which it has largely remained true. Even within that series though there are outliers. Lion of the North, for example, gets into the Musket & Pike era of warfare in the 17th century. Another outlier is War Galley, which really shares very little with the rest of the series other than ancient Mediterranean conflict. These broad strokes make it challenging to give the depth of treatment that a purpose-built game might provide on any one of the topics or even scenarios. While scenario specific rules, found in nearly every series, help to add dabs of color appropriate to the scenario, they don’t fully embrace the how and why of the battle or conflict.
My case in point here is the inclusion of War Elephants. While they were employed in battles throughout the ancient world as everything from morale busting shock units to siege weapons and beasts of burden, their utility and effectiveness are completely situational. Add to that the complexity of moving them, keeping them alive, and training them and the War Elephant stands as an avatar of excessive indulgence. Include them in games and I’ll appreciate that they were there. After all, one of Zama’s defining features were the Roman’s letting the things charge and allowing them through their lines only to destroy them with javelins. Romans also adapted their tactics to favor an ax over the gladius when facing these creatures. In India, when used as siege weapons, doors were equipped with spikes to deter this kind of action.
In short, breadth of series topics will reduce the depth at which any topic in the series will be covered. The ancient Mediterranean world games from The Great Battles of History stand on their own and are strong games with a decent amount of depth. In spite of that, the outliers in the series can be head-scratchers to some degree.
More guilty of this is the Standard Combat Series. On the one hand, I understand the lack of depth because the game’s core rules are around 12 pages with series specific rules often confined to a few pages. The goal was specifically not depth, but breadth with the series. It certainly achieves that providing everything from specific battles in World War I to the invasion of Europe on the beaches of Normandy to the 1944-45 campaigns of both Russian and the Western Allies against Festung Europa. These varying scales and eras create the hit or miss gameplay that’s often determined by title. A great example of this is the ease with which an allied advance after D-Day to capture ports in Northern Europe can stall out completely in the bocage of Normandy in The Mighty Endeavor 2nd Edition. The way combat factors are calculated and combat is resolved, it’s difficult to bring sufficient forces to bear and if the allies don’t keep on the move they will fail. That leaves the advance largely dependent upon die rolls. While I accept that luck is a part of all wargames, when an entire game comes down to a handful of unavoidable die rolls, then it’s time to just flip a coin and call it good. The lack of depth and the scale conspire against providing players with meaningful choices and opportunities for maneuver once the landings have occurred.
3 – Echo-chamber playtesting
How does something like this happen?
It’s my belief that series tend to attract a common core group of playtesters. Locally, the same guys are playtesting the same games for the same series and publishers year after year. More broadly, when I’ve playtested, it’s tended to be for series or games that I already know and love! This is, again, a double-edged sword for designers and publishers. By inviting in folks who are naturally fans of the game you’re going to ensure that your game can stand up to the hardened veterans who know exactly how the series plays and will understand how a veteran might break it. The downside is that it largely forces out competing opinions about the series or the topic.
As someone who has played Great Campaigns of the American Civil War or GCACW for the past 15 years, I can say that when I had a chance to playtest Atlanta is Ours I brought a very specific set of knowledge about how the game should be played to the table even though I didn’t bring sufficient historical knowledge of the campaign it covered. I read a book on the topic Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign, but that was it for my historical knowledge. As I’m beginning to learn, playtesting is as much an art as it is a science. As such, overfilling the cupboards with playtesters who are familiar with and passionate about your series can be toxic for the series growth.
In fact, if you couple this problem with series creators not sticking around, it can lead to battles within the series for edition changes, odd rule interpretations, and a sense that new gamers and their ideas aren’t welcome. I know I would have trouble with someone coming in and suggesting major changes to GCACW! While I wouldn’t go so far as to name it “Gatekeeping,” I do think there is a large degree of series loyalty. After all, many fans of a series have been fans for a decade or more and have played hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of their favorite series. The chance to shape the next one in the series is a fantastic and attractive opportunity, but it carries the risk that designers and publishers only hear from their most ardent supporters.
2 – Series Acquisition Disorder (SAD)
This loyalty can be tricky because it takes time to learn a series and, once learned, many gamers get hooked! The problem then really begins. How do I get more of this great series of games? Since our hobby is a niche within a niche, publishers are rarely able to keep all their series in print all the time. Combat Commander even suffered from this for quite a while at the peak of its popularity. This drives up the third-party market for games and profiteering sets in amongst gamers who are looking to clear up space on their shelves.
I think back to the first GCACW game I got Grant Takes Command which was, I believe, the first released under MMP’s control of the series after Avalon Hill went to Hasbro. I was immediately hooked. I scoured eBay and found copies of Stonewall Jackson’s Way and Stonewall’s Last Battle. This was great, I thought to myself. Three games from this awesome series. Then it hit me, I wanted to see how the series tackled Gettysburg! I looked online and was shocked by the prices. By the time I was truly invested in the game and had shelled out the marked up prices for games, I knew it was time to look for On to Richmond! which was selling for $200 or so at the time.
I call this Series Acquisition Disorder while others might call it Completionist Syndrome. Again, it’s a blessing and curse because you’re getting more of a great system that you love. That said, you’re missing out (or last I was) on other games and series because I was spending gaming dollars completing a series. Life is about choices, but series encourage this kind of purchasing behavior and it’s exactly why series make up a large number of titles released by publishers today. It’s really no different from Hollywood to be fair. We’re inundated with unoriginal three-act structured superhero movies because they feature popular actors in franchises that folks have already bought into so people will go and see them. This spring’s two biggest original adaptations failed miserably at the box office. Ready Player One and A Wrinkle in Time showcase that popular topics and books don’t necessarily cross over into commercial success.
Series in the cinema and in wargaming are pretty much a sure thing. Whenever MMP throws up a pre-order for an ASL product, that game will meet its goal in a day or two. The All Bridges Burning COIN game P500 from GMT Games met its goal in a single day! Series are winners which means other games are going to be losers. Sometimes those games deserve to be losers because of poor design, an unpopular topic, or a game system nobody “gets” (I’m looking at your Variable Combat Series…). There are many games from smaller publishers that aren’t getting the appropriate time and consideration from a broader audience though because there is such a glut of series content from large publishers who built their reputations on a stable of successful series that release a new title every year or two.
1 – Edition Dysfunction
Finally, and most troubling are the editions of popular series. As much as we’d love for our favorite game designers to take the approach of “do no harm” when going from version 1.0 to version 2.0 for our favorite games that’s becoming less and less common. I do NOT recall such a creature as an “upgrade kit,” but I’ve purchased and P500 pledged for every COIN one, Unconditional Surrender, and Butterfield’s D-Day at…series like crazy in the last month. This is a function of #5 on this list I suspect. Creators want their games to feature the last chromey-bits and goodness offered by subsequent titles in their series. They want to give players the opportunity to play the game as they envision it kind of like George Lucas’ special edition Star Wars trilogy re-release…with fewer farts and burps.
I call this Edition Dysfunction because it forces series fans to make finite choices. Am I out or am I still in? If I’m still in, will I keep the old versions separate from the new versions or will I upgrade? What if there’s a version 3.0? How frequently should I expect to buy both a game and a bunch of upgrade kits for prior games in the series? Did the publisher or developer push the designer hard enough to try to maintain fidelity with the originally released and great playing game? Do I continue to trust this publisher/designer?
I’ll call in my personal experience here with the Conflict of Heroes (COH) series from Academy Games. I was ALL IN on that series when it was released. I bought everything there was to buy for it and I printed out player aids and third-party scenarios. I made a binder that contained those scenarios and player aids. I laminated the flimsy player aid cards and loved those games. Then Price of Honour came out and suddenly I was learning that the information on the counters was changing. Then a 2nd Edition was released without an upgrade path for an already expensive game within a few years of the release of the original game. We weren’t talking about a game that had been on the market for like 5 years or 10 years. It was out for 3 years and suddenly the game was getting an overhaul that made past games incompatible with new editions. I sold the games and never looked back.
I could absolutely have continued to play and enjoy those games. A second edition did nothing to change those experiences. Designers always have the right to change their games and publishers should do everything possible to make money while not alienating customers. However, there is a humane way to change editions and designers should feel obligated to provide at least a plausible explanation for why the changes are happening to their game’s fans. Responsible publishers, like GMT Games, are offering upgrade pathways for the people who care to do so. In effect, there’s a right way and a wrong way to handle edition changes. Academy Games got it 100% wrong and GMT Games is working on finding a way to make it right which goes a long way.
No series creator should feel beholden to a game they created if it means their alienation from it. After all, they created the game for folks to have fun and if there is a new and better way to achieve that, then isnt’ that what I argued for by avoiding echo-chamber playtesting? However, wholesale changes that require massive component swaps should always come with an upgrade path that isn’t simply “buy a new copy of the game or quit whining.” Series attract fans to publishers, designers, and historical topics. It’s important to handle this well both as fans and as publishers to meet in the middle in a way that facilitates innovation and sustained support rather than stifling those things.
Next time, we’ll be looking at the 5 reasons wargame series are awesome!