Why Wargame?

Wargames are “paper time machines” according to one of the great hobby founders and innovators Jim Dunnigan. Wargames offer a fresh way to engage with history in a meaningful, social, and competitive manner. This combination of competitive play not so unlike Chess or Go gives wargamers a fun way to explore the history that most people only watch on TV or read about.

The interactivity of history can lead some to believe that this is about glorifying the horror of war. In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth. It has, almost without exception, presented a way of understanding the challenge borne by military leaders. Though dice, cardboard, miniatures, or pixels can never place a wargamer under the true burden of command…it does a believable job of creating that tension.

Recent Articles

The 2010’s – A Few Acres of Snow (2011)

A Few Acres of Snow published in 2011 by Treefrog Games is our most influential game from that year. I can’t lie. I did not want to select this game. In fact, I originally wrote the whole post about None But Heroes from MMP because it launched the Line of Battle series which I love. However, that would be self-serving and ignore a game that appears to have been more influential than many at the time would give it credit. A Few Acres of Snow (AFAS hereafter) was a unique deck-building game centered around the conflict between France and England in Canada. It won the 2011 Golden Geek Best Wargame and was recognized as a 2011 Charles S. Roberts Best Ancient to Napoleonic Era Board Wargame Nominee. Many games win awards. Most of those games are influential in the year they were published from a hype, player interest, or marketing standpoint. Few games set the tone for things to come and coupled with our 2010 game Labyrinth: The War On Terror 2001 – ? it is evident why AFAS still matters today. Your Deckbuilder Got in My ConSim! Your ConSim got in my Deckbuilder! In fact, it was a bit of both in this eternal debate. A Few Acres of Snow provided much more than a look at just the military conflict between England and France, particularly in Canada. Players were tasked with building an empire that also included Euro/4X tasks such as establishing colonies. The Dominion-esque card-builder mechanic was still the rage in 2011 and Martin Wallace brought it out of the painted on theme world most deckbuilders had relied upon and tried to plant it within the context of a historical conflict. The game went beyond that though and established a Card Driven Game (CDG) component as well that layered multiple actions/choices upon each card which upped the wargame street-cred as well with a familiar looking point-to-point map. Without question this was an animal not so much of a different stripe, but of a totally new species which demanded study and attention. The Halifax Hammer The game wasn’t problem free by any means. Fairly quickly, players began to notice an unbeatable strategy dubbed “The Halifax Hamer” that chased players away from the game (in may cases before they’d even played it). The game subsequently received a 2nd Edition that fixed these issues. This was done namely by removing one of the essential cards that facilitated the Hammer strategy. A Few Acres of Snow’s Legacy Critically, the game has left a significant legacy for gamers. Most obvious are the pseudo-descendants of this mashup that include: Hands in the Sea Time of Crisis: The Roman Empire in Turmoil, 235-284 AD Less obvious is the formidable breach the game made in the invisible wall between ConSim and Euro. Mechanically, this game proved that there was a broader world to explore in the way we consider conflict simulations. This has been proven out time and again by designs such as the Counterinsurgency (COIN) series, Nevsky, Churchill, Pericles and Ft. Sumter for just the GMT Games that come to mind. Pigeonholing Games? We don’t need to pigeonhole ConSims. People are going to play the games they like the most. The debate over the perceived link between mechanics and the ConSim title are frequent, fierce, and inconclusive. In 2011, however, this was still quite fresh. The whole semantic argument about what constitutes a ConSim seemed like a weekly or monthly debate on BoardGameGeeks’ forums…whereas now it’s only bi-monthly(?)… The truth is that A Few Acres of Snow demonstrated the power of blending ConSim aesthetic and topics with unqiue Euro-centric mechanics. It would be easy to gild the lily as we look back nine years. The game was flawed, some would say deeply, but this series of articles isn’t about priceless gems. It’s about innovative games that stand the test of time and 2011 was a jam-packed year. Other Contenders I mentioned None But Heroes in the introduction, but the reality is that as good as Line of Battle is and as many great detailed monster games as that series has produced in the past decade, it’s really only a very good game. har har Instead, I would say that a game like Sekigahara that also came out in 2011 deserves at least mention in this article. Sekigahara took a unique approach to block games and to a historical conflict only rarely seen in ConSims and made it universally accessible. The game was easy enough to do a tutorial video and relevant enough in 2019 that Watch it Played dedicated a video to it! We also got Space Empire 4X which marked a significant return to Sci-Fi wargaming after it was long relegated to the Amarillo Design Bureau games of the world by 2011. Other notable titles included another Jim Krohn game Band of Brothers: Screaming Eagles from Worthington Publishing which launched a refreshing new tactical wargame look at WW2. The most niche, but notable of the bunch would be Phillip Saban’s highly prized Lost Battles: Forty Battles & Campaigns of the Ancient World. The niche nature of these games, though each is notable in its own right, fails to live up to the foreshadowing of what the remainder of the 2010’s would become for ConSims like Martin Wallace’s A Few Acres of Snow.

The 2010’s – Labyrinth: The War on Terror 2001 – ? (2010)

In this series, we’ll be taking a look back at the most influential game of each year of the past decade starting with Labyrinth: The War on Terror 2001-? from 2010. The last decade saw a true resurgence of wargaming that some have called a second golden-age. While I think that designation probably falls into the late 2000’s, there’s simply no denying the breadth of incredible wargaming titles from the last decade. Labyrinth was designed by Volko Ruhnke and released in 2010 by GMT Games. It was instantly a hot topic for wargamers. It seemed, on the surface, like a retread of the incredibly popular Twilight Struggle. Upon closer inspection, however, any notion of this game being a 21st century descendent of the Cold War focused Twilight Struggle flew out the window. The game focused on the conditions of the War on Terror giving gamers a petri-dish to understand how terror cells grow, spread, and influence larger global events from thousands of miles apart. Initial Reception The game was almost instantly a success in terms of sales and interest in the topic was definitely high. Within a few weeks of publication Labyrinth had entered the top 300 boardgames on BoardGameGeek. The initial response, though positive, did have some questions raised about the content and its simulation value. (SOURCE: https://bgg.cc/thread/585823/how-fairly-does-it-reflect-conflict-islamic-extrem) These discussions were largely born out of a reaction to topical material that was recent enough not to be fully understood. It makes sense and, in hindsight, seems inevitable. The heart of many debates had to do with the notion of “good governance” and what that meant. Volko Ruhnke, the designer, responded in his typical even-headed manner explaining that “Second, as to the US side’s objective of good governance, that is express US strategy (read, for example, senior CT official John Brennan). That objective is not out of the goodness of US official hearts, but rather out of US strategic interest in undoing the basis of extremism.” This debate, seemed to occur on a number of topics again and again, and with Volko, at times, entering the fray to logically and soundly respond to well-meaning but false narrative critiques of the game or system. The audacity to carry out a game with such a complicated ethical and world-view dependent narrative was brave to the say the least. The game did prove it’s detractors wrong as time went on though and highlighted the significant influence of both Pakistan and Indonesia as havens for terror that have far-reaching terror implications. Rarely do games presage real-world events, but when they do it’s a testament to the expertise and deft understanding of fluid situations. Consequently, Labyrinth did win a massive audience through the careful stewardship through an early rocky period by both GMT Games, Joel Toppen, and Volko Ruhnke. Lasting Influence It’s clear, in hindsight, that this game is the most important conflict simulation of 2010. Cataloging the ways in which it has been influential goes beyond the subsequent two expansions and its central role in framing the Counter Insurgency (COIN) system that Ruhnke also designed. Labyrinth’s crowning achievement is proving that well-considered and humane treatments of contemporary conflicts have an important place in the hobby. I’m not entirely certain that prior to Labyrinth there were many games that fit this bill. Certainly Herman’s Gulf Strike and Karp’s Vietnam 1965-1975 come to mind, but few widely consumed projects beyond this seem to do so with the same level of care and thought-provoking gameplay. Ultimately, the system proved so successful that multiple print runs and fan-generated interest lead to expansions that cover the “?” duration of the Global War On Terror that continues a decade later. The question that deserves to be recognized and answered by Labyrinth is whether conflict simulations serve as an effective means of education on emotionally charged contemporary topics. The answer, at least to me is a resounding yes. The other aspect of Labyrinth, as a result, is that companies have subsequently tackled ethically complicated topics as gaming topics. Whether that is This Guilty Land from Hollandspiele, A Distant Plain from GMT Games, or even games like An Infamous Traffic or John Company both from designer Cole Wehrle. It is irrelevant whether Labyrinth was a direct inspiration for these titles. It is relevant that the game was successful and that it marked the tipping point in the hobby when games like this could get published and be well-received. Labyrinth is the singularly best game to both start the decade and to represent 2010 for all these reasons. If you’ve not had the pleasure of playing this game, I cannot recommend it enough!

Tactical Genius: A Look at Fields of Fire

Wargaming has an existential crisis each time a player sits down at the table. Fields of Fire is one of the few titles that doesn’t suffer from this existential affliction. Players must ask themselves, “who am I?” In many cases, as the case of Normandy ’44 I am the operational and perhaps the battalion commander by turns. The answer is more evident in a game like Churchill or Pericles. Tactical wargames are less clear. A game like Advanced Squad Leader puts you in the role of the titular squad leader. You’re also a company and sometimes regimental commander. In other cases, you’re a sniper. Sometimes, you’re the radioman trying to secure radio connection to get a fire mission. At other times, you’re a single man charging heroically down the road. In short, you’re everything and the kitchen sink. The ASL rules surely have rules for the kitchen sink now that I think about it! This identity crisis isn’t limited to Advanced Squad Leader. It plagues nearly every tactical World War II wargame on the market! What is tactical? First, we have to set some parameters here for what tactical might be considered for the purposes of this article. We’ll be looking primarily at World War II tactical games though the focus will be largely on Fields of Fire. The WWII tactical wargame genre has some serious scope creep. A game like Soldiers from West End Games or Ambush! from Victory Games put you at the soldier level of a scenario. At the other end of the spectrum are games like Panzer Grenadier or Devil’s Cauldron. They are considered “grand tactical” because the map scale and unit sizes. Part of the problem here is that there’s no “right fit” for all tactical games! Instead, each designer tailors the system to the taste. They decide to present the tactical puzzle to the situations they want to showcase. Inherently, there’s nothing wrong with this. That’s how games get made after all! However, it creates some odd trade-offs as the common rule elements and sequence of play expectations largely rely upon a core set of expectations from players. What are the commonalities? Most tactical wargames feature the following rule elements in common: Hex by hex movement Generous stacking Detailed representation of line of sight and terrain features Objective hexes, body counts, countdown timers, or exit conditions Detailed melee and fire combat rules that are equipment dependent In effect, most tactical wargames offer granular control to players at the expense of requiring significant rules overhead necessary for these “sub-systems.” Of course, ASL is the most guilty here. Other titles like Lock ‘N Load Tactical Series games and the Adam Starkweather Company Scale System (CSS) and prior game system Grand Tactical Series (GTS) are both guilty of this as well. It’s important to note that complexity and enjoyment are not inversely proportional concepts. In fact, many tactical wargamers feel just the opposite in fact. They want the granular control because it deepens the appreciation for the tactical situation. It also gives them as many choices as possible to solve the problems presented. The complexity gets as close to blurring the lines between a referee mediated game like NATO Division Commander from SPI and a competitive two-player title. The New Wave There are trade-offs, however, when a game becomes more complicated. The time to play, management of status markers, tracking “points” for command or other concepts, and the time to learn and master the game all significantly increase. A wave of games, beginning with Combat Commander: Europe from GMT Games attempted to rectify this complexity stagnation. CC:E was fast playing, easy to learn, fit well for tournament situations, and developed a rabid following! Consequently, many other games hit the market over the next few years that also attempted to take this approach. Some examples include the Conflict of Heroes system from Academy Games and Band of Brothers from Worthington. To the extent possible though, these games yet retained the hex and counter approach that favored granular control. Each of these “new wave” tactical wargames took the approach that they found something in ASL that they either wanted to focus on or throw away. They effectively condensed the WW2 tactical experience which was widely popular. This is a fantastic approach, but it limits the game-play in service of showcasing this “central truth” about the genre. In the case of Jim Krohn’s fantastic Band of Brothers games, the focus is on suppressive fire and a nuanced approach to the relationship between morale and fire combat. I thought this was about Fields of Fire???? It’s important, as I make this argument about Fields of Fire, that you the reader both understand my deep appreciation for the breadth of tactical WW2 titles. I also bring it up to set the stage as I gush about Fields of Fire. It is one of the most revolutionary tactical WW2 game systems ever released. A word about the initial release I fought it for a few years…but there’s no sense fighting it any more. The original rulebook was a complicated mess. For tactical wargamers weened on the very concepts I outlined above…there’s almost nothing familiar against which to set an anchor and learn. Further complicating the learning process are the many different ways the rules interact with each other and finding quality support early in the release cycle was sometimes difficult and contradictory. The second edition rulebook is a major step forward. The re-released version of Volume 1 offered a superior experience in every way. It also eased the learning curve so anyone can learn this rewarding and infinitely replayable system. Back to our regularly scheduled gushing… I was gifted Fields of Fire during the 2008 BoardGameGeek Wargamer Secret Santa. I didn’t have it on my wish list, but whoever got me as their target was a straight up genius because the game has been a part of my life since that time. At the time, I had no idea what the game was and it sort of flew under the radar because I was deeply in the throes of trying to re-acquire all the ASL goodness that I sold 9 years prior. I was instantly deeply confused. The game was nothing like what I expected! It also lacked any familiar concepts for me to base my understanding of the game. I was aware of Up Front! and its card based tactical system. This was nothing like that. I was aware of area-based movement…and this had some of those features. Additionally, I was tangentially aware that Ben Hull was active duty military and was bringing a warrior philosopher’s approach to the game. I had no idea what any of that would mean though or how to understand the game. I started to get more acquainted with the title as I played. There are some excellent YouTube videos and as I kept trying to crack the code of why I enjoyed this oddball release so much, everything started to come together for me. I had a better conceptualization of why this game was so special. I have no clue how this game was sold or how it was ever even identified for publication! It’s just a radical departure so I will always feel like Gene, or whoever brought this one into the GMT Games family, was visionary to say the least to recognize the awesome innovation of this game. Same & Different We already touched on the common rules across tactical WW2 titles. So, let’s take a crack at Fields of Fire and see how it stacks up… Hex by hex movement – NOPE. Card and card location based movement system. Generous stacking – NOPE. You can quickly overwhelm a location with units. Detailed representation of line of sight and terrain features – NOPE. The LOS rules are pretty straight forward and terrain is also straightforward. Objective hexes, body counts, countdown timers, or exit conditions – SORT OF. Objectives are set by the player based on the mission setup and scenario type. Detailed melee and fire combat rules that are equipment dependent – YES. The thing is, it’s not even so much what’s common that separates this game as it is what’s wholly and radically different. Going against my best judgment I’m going to come out of my corner swinging and say that the single most innovative and impressive thing about Fields of Fire is its approach to C3i (Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence) as the central driving force of the game. C3i in practice In Fields of Fire you spent points to issue orders, those orders are carried out by in-communication squads through a chain of command that must be activated in hierarchical order to maximize the use of limited activation points. The squads then move across cards which act as areas with a general descriptor of the terrain on the card and the relative line of sight to and from that card depicted by the border of the terrain card. The enemy is represented as potential contacts until you have the chance to spot them…or…in a lot of cases…they have the chance to get the drop on your unsuspecting squad or advanced team element you sent to scout forward. As your company moves further away from the line of departure they must remain inside their area of operations and link back to rear echelon command elements via wired or wireless radios. Cuts to these key communication lines must be addressed and there are limited phone line markers so maximizing mutually supportive positions on the board is not only rewarded bu demanded. That’s the game in a nutshell! Of course it’s far more complex than that, but everything your squads do comes back to their state of communication, access to commanders who in turn control the units who must obtain intelligence on the disposition of enemy forces in their area of operations. This is accomplished by selecting from a pretty robust menu of commands laid out in a tabular style. If anything, I think one of the reforms for this game might be creating two player decks that would ease the new player experience. There’s something tactile about having command cards in your hand that reference the relevant rules sections and let new players really explore the variety of commands at their disposal. That said, the 2nd Edition release of Volume 1 and the upcoming Volume 2 release have significantly improved rulebooks and player aid cards compared to the 1st Edition releases. Solitaire as an Advantage While many wargamers have no problem playing a two-player wargame solo, these games aren’t necessarily tuned for solo play. For many who haven’t experienced a quality solo wargame, the distinction may not be apparent or relevant to them. It’s hardly my place to tell people what kind of fun they can have after all. Fields of Fire offers the best solitaire tactical ww2 combat since Ambush! nearly 20 years its predecessor. It speaks volumes about: the quality of BOTH John Butter field AND Ben Hull as solo game designers. the depth of experience that both game systems offer. the difficulty in pulling off a solo-specific tooled WW2 tactical wargame! There are plenty of WW2 tactical games that offer a solo experience. Advanced Squad Leader offers what amounts to a mini-game played with ASL rules that offers a solo opponent in a fairly convincing fashion. Both Lock ‘N Load Tactical and Conflict of Heroes share a card-driven solo system envisioned by the legendary John Butterfield. These systems layer a solitaire component on top of a system that’s designed from the start for opposed play. Consequently, the “AI” has to attempt to act as an opponent might act given their forces and tactical disposition (defensive, offensive, meeting engagement, morale, etc.). In effect, you get a checklist of things to complete that attempts to act as a proxy opponent. More recent systems like the Butterfield designed ones mentioned here do an admirable job at something that’s wildly complex. Fields of Fire, on the other hand, is a solo-first design. Consequently, the “AI” is baked right into the way the game works from the very start. There’s no “and also” feeling to the rules. Instead, Fields of Fire presents a competent and deadly enemy that often capitalizes on mistakes and sets the tactical tempo against which the player must operate. In this way, every resolution of a Potential Contact marker can be literally life or death for your forces…often the latter. This is further enhanced by the simplified location based system and line of sight rules which facilitate dramatic encounters. We’re Not in Call of Duty Any More! Fields of Fire requires players to carefully consider the way they deploy their forces because the combat model is based on volume of fire generated by squads. Bringing maximum firepower and focusing it on an enemy position is how the enemy is most affected. The micromanagement of ammo selection, target selection, tedious string or laser-pointer line of sight calculations found in most other WW2 tactical games is absent. Instead, players must rely on superior positioning, timing, command availability, and ensuring a superior volume of fire. The closest thing to this is probably Band of Brothers from Jim Krohn which looks at the power of suppressive fire and morale as the key element to fire and movement in tactical WW2 conflict. Fields of Fire uses the primary direction of fire and the volume of fire based on broad categorical definitions of WW2, Korea, and Vietnam combat weaponry. Players are forced to consider where they can hold, maneuver, and fire instead of the minutia of managing fire combat. Units are magnetically drawn into a firefight. The elegant dance of a game like ASL or Conflict of Heroes where units opt when and when not to engage is thrown out the window. The run and gun tactics of many micro-management heavy tactical games that feel like EA’s Call of Duty are missing. It’s refreshing to know that you’re commanding, not fighting. This distinction is what helps to drive home the answer to the question of “who am I?” when playing Fields of Fire. The knowledge that much is out of your control and that your units respond in very particular ways to situations as they arise means that you’re trying to gain positional advantage without over committing. Enemy Forces Ahead! Any discussion of Fields of Fire would be remiss without a discussion of the the “enemy force packages” that are unique to the campaign. Again, this concept serves many purposes, but it is a key differentiator between Fields of Fire and its tactical wargaming peers. Like other solitaire peers, “not knowing” what enemies might exist serves as the dual-role of design challenge and player command obstacle. Games that add on a solitaire mode do this in a number of ways, but typically they rely on chits or use existing unit counters. The demigod mode continues to exist. A further weakness of others designs is that the challenge rarely adapts to how embroiled in the conflict the player becomes. With these existing designs as a template, Hull crafted a system that responds to both concerns. First, enemy units are simply an array of likely enemy force packages that run the gamut from a machine gun nest to a mortar attack to an infantry or armored unit. Additionally, as the number of Volume of Fire (VoF) counters increases on the map, the likelihood and enemy makeup of the forces changes to adapt. This maps, especially patrol scenarios, so critically important to understand the command tools at your ready and to not simply dive in head first with all your forces. This system results in punishing combat that will end a scenario pretty quickly if you’re not paying attention to getting your squads into cover. The exposed modifier is horrendous and given that Line of Sight (LoS) can potentially extend all over the map. This can be particularly punishing when enemy units pop up in hard to dislodge locations like modified terrain such as hills or jungles. In effect, there’s no simply skirting the combat focus of this game and the way in which enemy unit engagement tends to compound the player’s problems things go from well-in-hand to out of control with a single card draw at times! Wrapping it Up I could continue to opine about the brilliance of this design. Ben Hull has created one of the most underrated games of all time. The approach is truly innovative. The execution is nothing short of brilliant. It is with great appreciation that GMT Games has stuck by this design to do a second printing, a second edition, and now releasing Volume 2: With the Old Breed which adds new urban combat scenario types to the Vietnam-era game. Solitaire designs are incredibly tough. The balance between giving players choice and letting the system “play” the programmed opponent is tricky. Too much control in either direction unbalances the game or makes it a yawn-fest where players don’t feel engaged. Further complicating these design challenges are ensuring that players have a good “puzzle” to figure out. Fields of Fire layers on the challenge by tackling a beloved scale and era. Though the initial reception was lukewarm for a variety of reasons, Fields of Fire persists because players can appreciate the significant step forward in solitaire game design as the original approach to tactical command that Ben Hull brings to the table with this game. I cannot encourage you strongly enough to pick up this game as soon as you possibly can and give it a shot!

Scramble for Identity & The Struggle to Control the Past

This past weekend, I wrote a blog post about GMT Games’, now removed, P500 title “Scramble for Africa.” In it, I bemoaned the poor marketing copy and highlighted concerns based on the combination of topic and game description. I further suggested that GMT Games consider the Hollandspiele approach to rolling out games on difficult topics as they did so well with This Guilty Land. Within 12 hours of the publication of that article, GMT Games issued a statement that addressed people’s concerns and restarted their core values as a company. While I encouraged people to both give space for such a statement AND to accept an earnest apology…the storm continues unabated. That’s all I have to say about the conversations, whodunnit, whataboutism, and vitriol being spewed by the most opinionated on all sides of this issue. I will, however, dedicate this article to a broader and more deeply troubling theme that has emerged during the conversation about “Scramble for Africa.” It’s one that the United States, and many other countries for that matter, have been grappling with for some time. I don’t anticipate resolving anything, but I want to at least make the case for civility. Who gets to control the identity of the past? To quote Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, profound speech on race while addressing the city’s removal of Civil War general statues: There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it. Mitch Landrieu I think this summarizes perfectly the work of historical wargamers and of our hobby as a whole. The abject mischaracterization of a game as a glorification of a troubling episode in colonial history doesn’t suggest a moral shortcoming on the part of the designer, developer, publisher, or people who want to purchase such a game. Remembrance is allowed and cannot be shut out. It’s a far different cry to celebrate the era through nostalgic eyes for some bygone colonial myth self-told to generations of Europeans who felt that colonial territories were somehow their land as much as the native soil under the empire’s capital. Historical wargaming does not in any way, shape, or form intend to glorify, gloss over, or revere historical tragedy or horror. This misunderstanding seems to be at the heart of the conflict around Scramble for Africa since some people felt as though insufficient information was provided to fully pass judgement given the weak marketing copy while others felt that it pointed toward a celebration of colonialism in Africa that ignored indigenous populations. History is Complex & Horrible History is rarely a serene river flowing and carrying humanity along its gentle currents. Instead, it is a raging and untamed exploration of some wholly dark episodes punctuated by bright beacons of achievement. Even those achievements are often won on the backs of others who were broken to achieve it either figuratively or quite literally. So, where does that place the hobby? We owe it to designers and publishers to trust their core values. Don’t mistake this trust with blind trust. When a company or designer needs constructive critique, it should be freely offered and accepted. Though, the offering doesn’t imply any obligation on the part of the designer or publisher to accept such critique. It merely suggests a sentiment that may exist. Our hobby, after all, tackles morally difficult terrain and for people who want to explore their history more completely, then there are awesome rewards to be gained. For people who want to take simple-minded and moral absolutist positions, there is no room in the hobby for that kind of attitude. We are constantly learning, unlearning, and reshaping the lens through which history is viewed. But, that’s the point…history exists in a dual dimension. The current view and the historical era’s view. Publishers, designers, and gamers need to recognize the interplay and non-binary roles these two dimensions play at all times. German Armor in World War II Let’s take a look at German armor in World War II as a quick example. The German Tiger lived up to its fearsome reputation on the battlefields of World War II. As such, historical wargames have given the armored fighting vehicle the respect it is due. To some, this sounds like the glorification of Hitler’s war machine and it is a symbol of Nazi reverence. This couldn’t be further from the truth and such a simplistic interpretation unmasks a person’s single-minded obsession with simply making a point that conveniently fits their perspective. Instead, we must on the one hand acknowledge the loathsome way in which these war machines were employed while still remaining detached (like a historian) to make an unemotional evaluation of them. This ability to understand and respect history while simultaneously being interested in the unique analysis and “simulation” of it is at the heart of the hobby. You can’t have one without the other. To do so would come off as hollow or too simplistic to be worthy of exploration. In a hex and counter wargame, we need to know that the Tiger’s main armament was superior to that of the Sherman. We need to know factors like optics, armor composition, and gun stabilization were important components that made the Tiger a formidable enemy. This provides even more context on the bravery of those who would look down the sights of an anti-armor vehicle or weapon facing the Tiger. It provides an opportunity to understand history and see that sometimes things aren’t easily digested or black and white. Reality regularly fails to conform with our expectations. Tanks Schmanks… What about colonial oppression? You can’t deny the factors that made the Tiger tank uniquely powerful. Similarly, you can’t deny that colonial oppression occurred and that human rights violations were par for the course as a part of that oppression. There is, however, a vast difference between a game focused on mechanics that asks, “How strong is a Tiger tank?” versus something as complex as “How can I embody a colonial power and exploit the resources and land of an indigenous people?” These things are simply not equivalent. That said, they are BOTH valid historical topics that are worthy as gaming topics. To understand why, it’s important first to differentiate games designed solely for fun from games for learning and understanding. A game of Apples to Apples with friends is intended to be lighthearted and social. That’s it’s core design and output. Based on sales, I’d say that it did a great job of that! Hollandspiele’s game A Guilty Land, on the other hand, is designed to ask questions and present an experience that challenges the players. It too should be fun, but that’s a byproduct of the learning and experience not its sole intent. A core question about these kinds of games is whether you’re the kind of person who derives fun from an “a ha!” moment about history or not! It’s okay to be on either end of that spectrum or anywhere in between. However, when we talk about historical wargames…we’re typically leaning pretty heavily toward the end of the spectrum of folks who find fun in the exploration and deeper understanding of history. That’s one of the best parts of the hobby. I’ve learned so much from opponents about every imaginable historical topic. Not a day goes by on my Twitter feed where a wargamer isn’t sharing an interesting historical article, video, or book recommendation. Wargamers are deeply curious about the past. With this groundwork laid, then, it’s important to recognize that historical wargames aren’t intended to be marketed like other boardgames. People are going to read the history and bring a wealth of context to the game. As such, it’s critical that the game facilitates gameplay that is equal the gravity of the subject matter. It is unreasonable to expect that people will approach wargame topics as they did 30 or 40 years ago. The world has changed. It’s equally unreasonable to suggest that people can’t enjoy difficult or complex topics that grapple with unpleasant history or social norms. That’s not a reverence of the past…it’s a remembrance when done well! A game covering the historical Scramble for Africa deserves to be made. There’s a wealth of ground to cover that remains undiscovered because the history can be inaccessible or intentionally repressed because of the shocking nature of it. When researching my last article, I learned an awful lot and my hope would be that others get to do the same thing. Games can absolutely do that. Look at Volko Ruhnke’s Labyrinth: The War on Terror from GMT Games. Not only did this game explain some of the power dynamics in the Global War on Terror, but it also successfully modeled why Pakistan and Indonesia were critical centers of terrorism. Had people simply dismissed it by saying, “You can’t make a game about this because of 9/11 and the widespread deaths of Iraqis following the US Invasion of Iraq in 2003.” then we would have lost an important way to engage with recent history. We would have lost an opportunity to explore contemporary problems. We would have lost the many rich observations and difficult truths uncovered by this game. The difference between GMT’s Scramble for Africa and Labyrinth? Marketing. Let’s not forget that Volko spent many frustrating hours providing direct support for this title. People disagreed with him on fundamental issues in the way the Global War on Terror was portrayed in the game. Instead of shying away from the complexity, it was brought to the forefront and defended. Gamers either moved on and dismissed the title or gained a greater understanding of the deep respect and scholarship that Volko brought to the title that might not have been evident at first blush. The Ruhnke-Russell equivalency. This equivalency says that the more complex or sensitive the game topic is, the more time that must be invested in the pre-publication, and post-publication support. An equal amount of direct market support and care in the wordsmithing and support of a game will be required in these instances. Obvious right? Not so fast… The complication here is that you need to know how controversial the game will be PRIOR to any marketing taking place. It’s more art than science unfortunately. Market Misbehavior I think it’s also important to note that while GMT Games made a business decision based on whatever their behind the scenes calculus looks like to determine how a games gets onto and stays on the P500…the market misbehaved in a way that’s somewhat unique to the past 3 – 5 years. Outrage culture reigns You may think…Hey…didn’t you write an article blasting Scramble for Africa? I wrote an article that blasted the marketing copy for Scramble for Africa and I presented an example of how it could have been better handled. I also presented three concrete recommendations for GMT Games that didn’t include outright pulling the game. So, please lower your torches and pitchforks. What I witnessed, and why I wrote the article are critically important to understand. I felt like GMT Games was: not getting the space to make a statement going to get even more negative coverage regardless of what they said next in a difficult position with a game that was still in development getting wildly unfair treatment Boardgamegeek’s forums were a mess to be generous about it. At one point, a poster suggested that because two photos of the playtest kit being played by the developer and his wife along with another couple showed only white people playing the game that it was clear evidence of the game’s racist intent. That’s an unreasonable and unfair allegation. On Twitter, because the developer noted that his wife also enjoyed playing the game, that was taken as an indication that GMT Games was misogynistic. The arguments quickly derailed into ad hominem attacks on GMT Games fans, designers, and even on Gene himself. Apology Not Accepted After GMT Games published their response and removed Scramble for Africa from the P500 list…people were still incensed about the game. Supporters of the game felt betrayed and began attacking anyone who said a sideways word (myself included). Understand that GMT Games is not controlled by an angry mob, twitter feedback, bgg forum posters, or bloggers. Instead, they make their own business decisions and can weigh for themselves whether it’s a good business decision to keep a game on the market. To paraphrase The Godfather … it’s not personal…it’s business. The world IS difficult. Put another way…the world is a complex and difficult place. Affording that complexity a modicum of respect and the expectation of both giving and receiving the benefit of the doubt underpins civil society. To judge absolutely is to KNOW absolutely and I hardly think anyone is in a place to do that… Honest critique is open to both being proven wrong and not taking a stance that is unsupported. What happened with the outrage following the P500 of Scramble for Africa demonstrated none of that charity or an attempt to come to understanding or even the space to issue an apology that was respectfully heard. What is even more disheartening is the deafening silence from the most vocal critics to either applaud GMT Games for doing what they perceived to be the right thing or to simply apologize for the borderline slanderous commentary they spewed. Back to the beginning Historical wargames must always aim to remember rather than revere. That is the work of honest historians who see the layered complexity of the past. That’s is the joy of wargamers who revel in the nugget of truth being presented to them in a pseudo-simulation. This remembrance takes the good with the bad in equal measure as appropriate. The entire Scramble for Africa episode revealed a passion that I suspect GMT Games had not envisioned. They said as much in their missive regarding removing the game from P500. The good news is that there is clearly a hunger for a complex game that tackles the colonial race to claim the interior of the African continent. It is an essential history to understand as the new race for Africa has already begun with new players this time around including an globally expansive Chinese empire. My sincere hope is that people can move forward and if (when?) this game is brought back to market…give it an honest chance. Give the designer and developer an opportunity to cure what they’re interested in to the degree that they’re interested. Give GMT Games the space to provide a pro-active marketing campaign that helps to address concerns before conjecture and name-calling dominate the discussion. Finally, my hope is that publishers use this as an opportunity to recognize the ugly side of social media for what it is and calibrate games to their core values. Strong Values = Strong Following This article is a bit of a mishmash of thoughts at this point so I’ll throw in one last nugget. Every business, wargaming publishers included, must operate first and foremost from a their core values. The stronger these core values are, the better the company will perform and connect with their followers. Apple Computers value design simplicity and, in the words of Steve Jobs, an interface that “just works.” Coca-Cola sells a soft-drink that evokes good times, nostalgia, and personal connections. Ford Motor Company sells cars that work as hard as the people who drive them. How do I know this? Their advertising, product focus, and the way they communicate expresses this over and over again. You may hate these products and love Dell, Pepsi, and GM more than the examples here. They too operate from core values that connected with you and converted you into a follower! GMT Games should be applauded, loudly I might add, for sticking to their core values when they pulled Scramble for Africa from P500. They admitted there was a misalignment there and hopefully they can work behind the scenes to correct that. That’s what core values are all about. That’s what makes businesses strong. I’ve seen plenty of folks saying, “I’ll never buy another GMT Games release again because they were cowards and caved!” Great. Don’t. You are 100% a customer than they can afford to lose because you aren’t buying into their core values and you don’t respect it when they stick to their core values. These are not customer conversions that are going to happen for GMT by chasing the values of people on EITHER side of the issue around Scramble for Africa. The only winning move is to stick to the values that built the company. For GMT Games…that core value seems to be: We make high quality, opinionated games, with a focus on helping our customers understand the history of the world. That opinionated games part is critically important because it highlights the complexity that GMT Games has to struggle with every time they put a game on the P500. There are going to be times when they get it wrong and have to re-evaluate. Aside from Mike Nagel, I don’t think anyone was as bummed about Captain’s Sea getting dismissed from GMT Games P500 as I was. I didn’t “abandon ship” and leave GMT Games! I respected their decision and continued to buy into their core values as a company. Ultimately, this episode was pretty ugly on all sides of the issue. Though a strong core group continued to debate the historical merit and approaches, the lengthier the debate the less related to the actual marketing copy that existed. As such, it diverged from informed debate well into the territory of pure speculation. There’s a passion here that’s been revealed and hopefully it will lead to a game about the Scramble for Africa that people seem keenly interested in based on the productive parts of public conversation.

Scramble for Africa: A Lesson in How NOT To Launch a Game

THIS ARTICLE HAS BEEN SUPERSEDED AT THIS POINT AND I WOULD RECOMMEND YOU CHECK OUT THE LAST ARTICLE I’LL BE WRITING ON THIS TOPIC: https://wargamehq.com/scramble-for-identity-the-struggle-to-control-the-past/ UPDATE: GMT Games issued a statement today (4/7/19) that indicated they would remove Scramble for Africa from the P500 program. Their response provided a framework for respecting the designer/developer team while also recommitting themselves to their core values. They admitted to the concerns expressed and acknowledged the constructive conversation (though there were many who were not…) both publicly and privately. KUDOS to GMT GAMES! The Belgians mutilated the bodies of the Congolese, largely slaves or slaves in everything but name, who couldn’t keep up with King Leopold II’s rubber demands. How did Leopold II manage to secure Belgian Congolese interests? You probably remember the quote, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Well, that was said by Henry Morton Stanley, a Welsh explorer thrust into fame when he found David Livingstone a Scottish missionary and Victorian era hero whose motto “Christianity, Commerce and Civilization” are now remembered on his statue at Victoria Falls. Livingstone would make a few missions to Africa and famously, at least by hobby gamer standards, was his try to find “the source of the Nile.” Later, this expedition would inspire a game by Avalon Hill that drew upon many elements of these Victorian expeditions into the heart of Africa. A similar game from Legion Wargames has been on their Customer Pre-Order (CPO) called “Heart of Darkness” which focuses on the single explorer experience like “Source of the Nile.” More recently, GMT Games has thrown their hat into the ring with a Victorian era game about Africa called “Scramble for Africa.” As the website indicates, players: explore, build, and compete economically in Africa from around 1850 to 1900. In this game, you will take the role of one of six European powers with an eye toward exploring the unknown interior of Africa, discovering land and natural resources, and building economic infrastructure to rival and exceed that of your fellow players. https://www.gmtgames.com/p-746-scramble-for-africa.aspx Where “Source of the Nile” focused on enriching yourself as an explorer by leveraging exploration strategies that might include cooperating with local guides, “Scramble for Africa” focuses on European colonial exploitation of Africa. As you can imagine, stories about the atrocities of this period were quickly remembered by the gaming community at large. After all, photos of children with their hands cut off, or the heartbreaking photo of a father staring at his daughters hands which had been chopped off for not meeting rubber production are potent reminders of the savagery of colonialism in the not too distant past. The hurt remains contemporaneously accessible in our 21st Century. After all, it was only 2005 when the Belgian government formally called by the British House of Commons to recognize the atrocities of the Congo Free State as genocidal and to issue a formal apology. What Went Wrong? Given the backdrop of a colonial multifaceted race to exploit a continent, how can a “game” be sensitive to this topic? Frankly, I’m not entirely sure I can. That said, I know I could do a better job than what’s going on with this title at GMT Games right now. Don’t minimize genocide, human rights abuses, and a dark unethical colonial past with marketing copy like “The random events include penalties for atrocities and rewards for discovering natural wonders and ending slavery.” A few points here, because this needs to unpacked a bit. First, this game minimizes the Berlin Conference’s slavery suppression mandate to a random event despite the fact that it was included in the conference because it was clear that European powers were raiding central Africa for slave labor well past when many of their nations had outlawed slavery. Second, atrocities are something that “just happens” in this game. This implies that atrocities were somehow deterministic in their occurrence. This is revisionist hogwash that effectively takes the possibility of trying to play morally out of the player’s hands. Another bad piece of copy here that misses an opportunity to live up to the “Scramble for Africa” game title is ” You may also have your Explorers build facilities on an explored terrain tile, thus claiming control over that part of Africa.” Again, even a cursory review of the era would establish the actual historical setting and context for how powers would secure rights. These were hugely exploitative and were intended to carve up Africa while minimizing continental tensions. This method implies that if you build it, you bought it. What might you build? According to the site, ” Like your late-19th Century counterparts, you have the strategic choice between exploring for mineral wealth (gold, diamonds, or copper), and building plantations (cocoa, coffee, rubber).” So, effectively, you must recommit the crimes of the past to gain points in a whitewashed “economic success” final victory condition. The Designer Diary that was recently posted adds more context to the native African population’s options, ” The active player pays money to the bank and then rolls a die to see if they can place a Revolt on an opposing player’s tile. If successful, the opposing player removes ALL facilities built on that tile! To help prevent revolts, players may want to use a Build Action to put Garrisons on their tiles.” So, this game doubles down on exploitation by implying that tribes would be used as weapons against other colonial powers, but their success can only even be so limited that it never gains any form of independence. This also doesn’t remotely jive with the history. Ethiopia was able to drive Italy out and self-rule with the exception of 1936-43. This was self-led, as were other coordinated and organized revolts across Africa. These are only a handful of the concerns I have. Others have posted concerns on the Developer Diary, Board Game Geek game page, and Twitter. The Hollandspiele Model Unfortunately, GMT Games has done nothing to respond despite ample opportunity. Neither the developer, designer, nor anyone from GMT Games themselves have commented in any of these public venues about the game’s initial reception. This is a far cry from the way that Hollandspiele handled the pre-release diaries and marketing communication for their game “This Guilty Land.” That game pits players against each other as abstract ideas of justice and oppression. The marketing copy is clear and to the point. In this game, each player acts on behalf of an abstract idea – Justice and Oppression – with one player working for abolition and the other working against it. It seeks to treat the subject matter with sensitivity and respect. There is no piece that represents a human being – no action that replicates the horrors and the lived experience of slavery. Instead, this is about the framework that allowed that evil to exist, and the moral cowardice that enabled it to continue to exist. https://hollandspiele.com/products/this-guilty-land Tom Russell even did a lengthy interview about the game with the Low Player Count podcast on September 3rd, 2018. In this interview, he lays out the struggle to design with compassion and nuance. Russell presents the game in the context in which he wants it to be seen and gives far greater credit to gamers for being able to “game” such a serious and complex moral subject. The heart of Russell’s work is compassion. A Way Forward I Presume? It’s this compassion that’s so dearly missing from the GMT Games pre-release of “Scramble for Africa.” Instead of nuance, the copy on the website reads like the giddy marketing-speak on the back of a 1950’s Milton Bradley game. It’s tone deaf at just the wrong time on the wrong subject. Instead of finding a way to create a complex and nuanced way to experience history, we’re being given a simplified colonial fairy-tale intended to whitewash (or at least ignore) the actual painful history of European colonization in Africa. That’s not what GMT Games is known for and, bluntly put, I expect a whole lot more of them out of this situation both in terms of clarifying and in terms of taking common-sense steps to correct the first-impression people are getting. Everyone deserves the right of an honest acceptance of an apology or clarification. Good faith must be granted, especially for a game so early in its marketing cycle. The P500 system exists to test the waters. I have deleted my P500 order for this game after some additional thought. I back nearly everything GMT offers as soon as it goes on P500 and own close to 200 of their games and expansions. I cannot, in good conscience lend my support to “Scramble for Africa” in its current state though. What is sad, is that this game has more P500 orders (297 for Scramble) than St. Omer to St. Crispin: Tactical Battles of the Hundred Years War from designer Mike Nagel which is sitting at 281 after much longer on the P500 list. Nagel is a proven designer with some of the best Age of Sail fleet combat games on the market to his name (Flying Colors). I know what you’re saying, “Keith, that’s a wargame…and a niche one at that. Scramble for Africa is more of a strategy game.” I would say…great! Then why does “Mystery Wizard” a capture the flag fantasy battle game ALSO not have as many pre-orders? In effect, it’s not just that “Scramble for Africa” is a lighter game that makes it more attractive. So, what are some common-sense next steps for GMT Games? Encourage the designer to get out there and defend his work. Revise the marketing copy if there is a more nuanced game here than is being represented currently. Defend your choice of placing this game on the P500 and explain how it fits in with GMT Games’ view of topics that it wants to publish. More Information For those of you who would like more information on this time period, I suggest looking at the following resources: http://originalpeople.org/scramble-for-africa-par/ https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/1999/may/13/features11.g22 https://15minutehistory.org/2012/10/24/episode-3-the-scramble-for-africa/

Lessons in Creating Wargame Valuation

I offered to help a new Boardgamegeek user a month or so ago with selling his collection. The first step was creating a market valuation for his games. Today, we’re going to be looking at how I created a wargame collection valuation and what we can learn about the perceived versus actual value of the games on our shelves. Wargames are not investments Repeat after me: Wargames are not investments! Seriously, the market tends to fluctuate and just in the past year we’ve seen many longstanding “grail” titles with outrageous prices show a steep decline in value. Notably, the reprints from Compass Games LLC for the Fleet series and 1985: Under an Iron Sky helped drive down prices on the Victory Games Fleet series and Next War titles. Hobby prices always fluctuate and collectibles, unless truly rare with decades of established value tend not to retain their longtime value. This is particularly true for nostalgia based hobbies. Things like Watt Pottery and many collectible toy lines have all had dramatic price inflation and sudden deflation over the years. Consequently, it’s important to separate what we WANT these games to be worth from what they’re actually worth in the marketplace. But I see a copy going for $100! Far too frequently people evaluate the value of a game based on how many are for sale and for what price they are listed. While this provides a general sense for how many copies are in the market (supply) it does not evaluate demand in any way shape or form. Demand is reflected most easily in how desirable the game actually is right now. There are many factors that drive the price of games down related to this desirability: New versions getting released People who wanted the game already have it Prices have chased people out of the market for that title New game with a similar topic is available and better liked These are, of course, just a few of the factors. Critically, there is no way to underestimate the influence that desirability has on the market value of a game. Other factors might include condition, edition, publisher, or even whether the owner was a smoker or non-smoker! What did it actually sell for? While there may be a game that’s on the market for $100 or even a few others hovering right around that price, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Games can easily be worth $100, $200, or even significantly more. That the prices in the marketplace advertise these rates does not signify their value! Instead, we have to look at what the games actually sold for and there are many ways to do this. BoardGameGeek offers buyers and sellers a look at the price history of a game in the marketplace. This serves a few purposes such as showing when the lost copies were purchased (desireability), how many are currently for sale and at what price, and finally what the price range was for sold copies. I frequently see games that sell for half of the price that marketplace sellers are trying to get. Many of these sellers have abandoned their listings. New sellers, not investigating this, simply list their games for slightly less than what they see thinking they’re being competitive. eBay, offers the ability to see SOLD listings as well. This serves as a potent negotiation tool and should be used in conjunction with BGG’s tool to calibrate pricing for the savvy boardgame buyer market and for the general boardgame population who may be more or less informed than your average BGG user. How motivated are you? The next question a seller has to ask themselves is how motivated they are to sell. They can, of course, undercut the price on every game in order to unload games quickly. This works surprisingly well on BGG and generally results in sales times of less than 30 days in my experience. That said, you aren’t going to get what the game is actually worth. Instead, consider floating a starting price and and including quality photos. People like to see what they’re buying and will often pay more for a game they’ve seen the condition of from a reputable seller. This is a great way to create a market differentiation or advantage for yourself when selling. Sales ARE a function of valuation Games on your shelf have only the sentimental value you place on them until someone else hands over cash. That’s just how it works. Your motivation and sales strategy are as much a part of your collection valuation as the games you’re selling. This won’t upset the value of games, but it has maybe a 20% effect overall on your sales strategy and total collection value. In my case, I’m willing to take 20% less in some cases for tough to sell games in order to get them into the hands of someone else. In other cases, I like to hold firm on high value games that are in demand right now. Either way, I’m making a judgment call on each title that will affect the total collection valuation. The same is also true of bundling games for sale. You can pair a game that’s less desirable with a more desirable game or attract a certain type of buyer (vintage collector, publisher fanboy, etc.) using this strategy. Be creative in the way you look at how you want to sell your games in order to find buyers for tough-to-sell games and to maximize profits on the true gems of your collection. So…what does this look like in action? Here is a basic collection valuation I did for Michael on BGG after he provided me with the games he had to sell. As you can see, this collection is about 50 games. The total value of Michael’s collection is about $1,300. So, roughly $26 per game. That’s probably about right. The problem, however, is that many of Michael’s games have low desirability from the standpoint of demand. There are a few gems in there to be sure, but overall this is a collection that’s going to appeal most to a vintage wargame collector. The valuation notes I provided, give Michael a sense of what he might do and the ranges in which these games are most likely to sell. A word on insurance riders… You can work with your insurance company to get an insurance rider for a valuable collection. There’s even some dude selling his own insurance for wargame collections I believe. The biggest thing you need to do whether or not you actually buy such an insurance rider is document your collection. You will want to get photographs of the games, condition, any proof of ownership (something showing you own the game compared to just snagging a photo from the web). You can do this in a variety of ways, but you want to do it however your insurance agent provides! Make sure you speak with your insurance to get the right kind of documentation and that this documentation is safely stored. My only final thought here is that our wargame collections mean a lot to us. They don’t define who we are, but our hobbies are an important part of our leisure time. The value of your collection should never be solely about the dollars and cents that they represent either in the amounts you paid or the value the games hold now. Instead, it’s the memories and time spent with friends, books, or alone enjoying the games that matters most. There’s no way to put a price on that!

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