The surprising ways wargaming is like playing an instrument

Surprising Ways Wargaming is like Piano
Surprising Ways Wargaming is like Piano

“Am I doing this right?”

That’s the question I find myself asking more than any other when I wargame. My hobby doesn’t set off some kind existential crisis, but wargames can be complicated either in the structure and length of rules or in the intricate ways in which the systems of a game interact. Regardless of the cause, I’m struck by how frequently I’m doubting either what I’m reading (or re-reading) in a rulebook as I play the game.

I don’t think my experiences are so unique to myself. In a recent post on Boardgamegeek.com a user raised a very similar question and I thought it was such a good question that I wanted to take some time to address it.

A little night music…

When I was 6 my dad bought my mother a piano for their anniversary. Both of them wanted to learn to play an instrument and 34 years old is as good as any time to learn to play an instrument so they began getting lessons. I was captivated by this instrument and soon learned to pluck out the melodies of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and other John Williams scores by ear. After a few years and some begging, my parents relented and I began taking piano lessons.

There are a few hard and fast rules you learn early on when you’re taking piano lessons:

  1. Keep your fingers curved like you’re loosely holding an orange.
  2. The composer wouldn’t have put that mark on the sheet music if they didn’t want you to follow it.
  3. Practice the left hand and right hand separately and then bring them together if you’re running into problems.

These simple rules underscore much of learning to play music and I still follow these three simple lessons when I’m practicing and playing as an adult even though my time is much more precious these days!

What does this have to do with wargaming?

Simply put each of these lessons should be followed AND broken when wargaming.

Keeping your fingers curved and over the keys is critical for the dexterity necessary to playing complex rhythms with fidelity. In wargaming, of course, having the right tools for the job are key and sometimes that means breaking out tweezers, a piece of string or laser pointer, and more directly organizing the game pieces in such a way that you can quickly set up and tear down a game when necessary!

What about the sheet music?

Again, the designer and developer presumably spent a significant amount of quality time in front of a word processor to bring these rules to you. They are each important and they each contribute to the enjoyment and fidelity of the game’s resolution.

However, like sheet music, everyone develops a musical style and sometimes you get the same results with “close enough” and learning to fudge the notes in such a way that allows you provide a close-enough approximation without damaging the integrity of the piece you’re playing.

The same is true of wargaming as well, as much as I’m sure publishers, developers, and designers are cringing right now as they read this. The bottom line is that all these folks are trying to bring a fun game to your tables that allow you to explore the historical, hypothetical, or fantastical topic covered by the game. There’s a level of trust and implied contract that when you buy a game you’ll try to learn the rules in order to bring that game to life as the designer originally intended.

Mistakes were made

The problem, of course, is that we’re humans and rulebooks do not program our brains like a computer programmer can write the code of an application. Instead, designers are relying on an imperfect machine, our brains, which make substitutions, interpret things differently, and are full of the non-hobby information we need to live our lives and perform our work.

As a result, we’re bound to make mistakes and how we deal with that is at the heart of our relationship with games.

Improvising for fun and profit

Repeated plays almost always evolve our understanding of the rules, but the payoff of improved rules understanding doesn’t always correlate with an equivalent appreciation or sense of fun in playing the game.

As a result, I’ve grown to approach wargame rulebooks more like sheet music and less like dogma and more like the lead sheet for a jazz session.

That doesn’t mean I’m throwing away all interest in playing by the rules or demanding my improvised way is THE way the rules “should” have been written. Quite the opposite actually. When I was learning Battle Hymn Vol. 1 from Compass Games, for example, I struggled mightily with the combat resolution systems for the first few games. I knew it wasn’t quite right and I kept asking questions online and re-reading the rules and eventually I got it. My enjoyment was in playing the game, though improvised at first, as I moved toward greater understanding.

Danger Ahead!

There is danger in this cavalier approach to wargame rules that, critically, needs to be taken into consideration. First and foremost, if you’re not following the rules AND you’re not having a good time with the game…please don’t go online and throw out your opinions as though you’re well-informed.

As we learn from Steven Covey in his work around The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, seek first to understand and then to be understood.

In short, ask questions about WHY you might not be enjoying the game and only after you find answers render a more informed opinion.  The trick here, of course, is self-awareness that you’re not following the game’s rules. I’ve been tricked by my own faulty sense of self-assurance on more than one occasion, but asking questions like, “The combat isn’t working out like I thought it would, does anyone else feel this way?” or even more aggressively like, “Applying these values BEFORE the odds determination seems dumb, wouldn’t it make more sense if they were die roll modifiers instead?”

On multiple occasions, I learn that I’m doing something wrong and being open to that rather than getting defensive has lead to more wargame and piano breakthroughs than I care to admit!

Practice makes perfect-ish

The more we play, both an instrument and a wargame, the better we get at it. Bad practice, with both, however, makes for bad play which is why I leave this as the final caution and is another way wargames and playing piano are similar.

It can be tempting to fall into an easy sense of “this is close enough and I’m having a good time!” Fight this urge, I can tell you that I fell into this trap with the incredible Fire in the Lake from GMT Games and only after playing it opposed against a few different folks did I learn just how much richer this game was than I ever would have realized on my own.

That’s not to suggest that solo play is inadvisable, but definitely take it with the biggest grain of salt until you’re tested both strategically and rules master-wise by another player.

When I was a kid, my mother would always remind me to practice. I wanted to be outside playing. I wanted to be doing pretty much anything other playing piano. When I was at my most defiant, she would remind me that this was a skill that could be applied across all areas of my life and would serve me well in the future. I’m certain she didn’t realize that might include in wargaming, but I’m glad she was right and I hope this has provided at least a little fun diversion for thinking about wargaming.

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