Friday, 5 August 2022

Modern Table Top Games are Broken

 

I was playing yet another new set of wargaming rules recently published by Osprey and after a handful of turns I realised I could predict the outcome of the game; the next two hours were merely an exercise in rolling dice.

Modern wargaming rules are frequently well written, include many illustrations and use clever game mechanisms to help model the period and above all, they are simple. Simple is the problem.

In the early days of table top wargames, the wargamers such as Tony Bath, Don Featherstone, Charlie Wesencraft etc. had simple generic rules such as infantry move 6 inches, cavalry 12, guns fire 24 inches, roll to hit and roll to save etc… However, the simplicity of the rules was not an issue. Wargaming involved the non-trivial task of historical research in what was a desert of tactical and operational military history source material. Buying figures was expensive; basing and painting them time-consuming. Scenery was not cheap if from model railways; alternatively took many hours if homemade. Finding opponents and travelling to meet them also took effort. Actually playing a wargame was the culmination of the many man hours; no-one was that worried about the simplicity of the game. They were just pleased to get the toys on the tabletop.

Wargames gradually increased in complexity in the 1970’s and 1980’s, with the WRG rules being classics of the era. The latter took time to study and table top battles were complex events that precluded simple mathematical projections or generalisations that could predict the outcome. The soundest strategy with such rules was usually to apply historical tactics. Of course, the complexity of the games meant most players played a limited number of sets of rules that they gradually became masters of.

The simplicity of modern rules means that there are certain winning tactics, that seem to apply to many of these sets, such as:

  1.  More dice- the essence of winning is to get into positions to roll more dice than your opponent e.g. attacking an enemy unit coming around impassable terrain by two or preferably three units.
  2. An extension of the above is to attack from the flank, whilst also attacking from the front.
  3. Massed artillery batteries work in all periods. Rules allow single pieces of artillery to have an impact, but if you have multiple batteries firing at one target, the enemy unit routinely becomes combat ineffective in a few turns.
  4.  In games that give a player the number of dice for their actions based on the number of units, the strategy is to generate a few really low points cost units just to get more dice than your opponent. More dice for movement makes your army more agile.
  5. In games where an army routs when it looks x number of units, the aim is always to attempt to kill the enemy’s weakest units, as they are the easiest to kill. Avoid the guards or elite or veterans, aim for the militia or novices.  
  6. There seem to be simple game strategies that work irrespective of historical period, scale of figures or set or rules.

Of course, the more dice that are rolled in a game, the more chance of the law of averages applys and the easier it is to predict the outcome. If rules are too simple, is easy for players to project the likely outcome of the game after just a few moves, reducing the excitement that is an essential part of engaging players in a wargame.

Perhaps I am approaching the games with the wrong mindset. Instead of crunching the maths, I should view the toys as real, the battle as history and consider how a historical commander would approach the problems. Don Featherstone said you do not need rules to recreate history, just a player who plays historically.

13 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. I think the crux of this issue is that modern wargames are games first and foremost. And just like any game, it can be "gamed" - best strategies can be found and abused. Some games even encourage it with "optimal builds."

    On the other hand, older wargames aimed to be more of a simulation representing the period.

    Those two different approaches to game design also make players act (consciously or not) differently. If there are systems to be gamed, they will be gamed, but if there is no system to "game" players stop focusing on mechanics and focus on actual tactics.

    A similar discussion happened in the RPG hobby few years back and started the FKR (Free Kriesspiel Revolution) movement that is neatly summarized with a sentence that can also apply here:

    Play the world, not the rules!

    edit: fixed typo, couldn't edit so deleted and re-posted.

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    1. I had not considered your interesting point about the use of free kriegsspiels. I like the quote "play the world, not the rules"

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    2. I believe Too Fat Lardies' slogan is similar "Playing the period, not the rules" and while I don't play their rules (probably should give them a read one of those days, but their rules feel more complex than what I enjoy) I do share their mentality.

      There's was a good amount of discourse about that core idea and the hobby in general coming from the FKR movement - a lot of it about topics similar to your post. In fact, I got into wargaming from RPGs because of it. It showed me that this hobby can be more than just the dice feats I've seen in the mainstream/popular wargames. This is also how I stumbled upon your books and blog...and I'm glad I did.

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    3. I haven't until now - looks interesting, will dig into it this week.

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  3. I agree with Don, but then, the players need to know something of the history. Simple but rewarding historical tactics is my ideal. Not sure any commercial rules do that these days. A favourite example of that principle was a convention game a decade or so ago. Two older gentlemen who were well steeped in the 7 yrs war were matched with 2 younger gamers who had grown up playing Charge! which their opponents had never even read. Imagination the shock when the older gamers routed them.

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  4. I think your criticism is too sweeping, generalizing from one set of wargame rules to all wargame rules. As for WRG I think rose tinted glasses have hidden the terribleness of the rules.

    See here for a retrospective game by two mature wargamers (https://bleaseworld.blogspot.com/2022/08/wrg-moderns-oh-war-it-has-been-long-time.html).

    Saying all that, I do think the Osprey rule books suffer the problems you described, and Bolt Action from Warlord games, or Battlefronts Flames of War are no better, being reskins of science fiction and fantasy rules sets that have no aspiration to create games that simulate the period.

    As the late Paddy Griffiths would lament, it's all about the toys.

    However, there are other publishers like TooFat Lardies that provide rules that recreate the period. So not all is lost.

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    1. You are right to highlight my generalisatons, there are some very good games that are simple, but complex enough to make it hard to just game the rules. As for WRG, the rules were played at almost every wargaming club, almost every week for a very long time. Most clubs managed to find a way through the rules to produce a realistic(ish) game. Paddy Griffith was right about the importance of the toys to some players

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  5. Personally, when I wargame, I try never to think in terms of the rules (until I actually have to apply them to determine shooting or combat) or calculate the probabilities of making the desired score with whatever number of dice, but to make the sort of decisions a commander might make, given the tactical situation on the tabletop. I don't want to engage in a lot of mental arithmetic trying to calculate how to win, which will only spoil the atmosphere of the game for me. Simple rules enable me to do this, whereas complicated or complex ones would tend to force me to think in their terms.

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    1. I think your strategy is the correct one, play a historical battle, just arbitrate the outcome with the rules.

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  6. posted on behalf of Peter Perla

    I think your diagnosis might be accurate, although as you know I’m not much of a figure gamer. I’ve played mostly when someone else knows the rules and runs the game, which means I focus on my understanding of the historical setting rather than the detailed rules of the game. This is certainly not the attitude of a player trying to exploit loopholes and games tricks to win the game.

    Spending a bit of time thinking about the issues you raise, the question becomes how do you create a game system that rewards historical understanding and tactics but does so by illustrating those for players who have initial understanding of anything outside that game system. Here is, in a sense, the attraction of free Kriegsspiel—akin to my own playing with an expert running the game. The problem I have with free KS in general is the need to accept the judgment of the umpire, who may not be someone whose expertise I accept. Hence the boardgamer’s desire to know that the outcomes are well defined and consistently applied. So even if I don’t know the details of the rules, I want the umpire to use them as written, not make them up as they go.

    For those who may be more casual players, with limited grasp of actual history and tactics, playing a game with simple rules that they can understand easily must be attractive. Thry don’t have to research history, they only have to learn the simple rules in order to play the game.

    For too many game designers—and I include myself in this criticism—creating complex and detailed rules to “simulate” our understanding of historical or future combat dynamics is what we like to do. Ruthless simplification to retain historicity while creating elegant mechanisms for the players takes a lot of time and talent to do well. And sometimes it is simply too hard. So simple game rules are, not surprisingly, popular for players. But that doesn’t mean that the rules should different from the problems you describe. Roll to hit and buckets of dice may be fun and have some useful characteristics but when they are used only because they are fun and players like them, the game loses something important—at least to those of us who care about the representation presented by the game.

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  7. I don't think this is a particularly novel problem, and I do think the original post is a bit hyperbolic, although the issue it highlights is a real one.

    From the opposite perspective, it's been extremely common to see overly complex systems that focus on the detail above all, and end up with the sum of the parts being like nothing on earth, even if all the uniforms are correct and the buttons are in the right place.

    As ever, I think it's a question of intent. Ignoring trite comments like "games are supposed to be fun", I think it's reasonable that anything worth discussing that has the title of "wargame" has simulation at it's core, whether that has analytical or educational goals.

    In that context, it's more than possible to imagine a simulation that's extremely light on detail, but manages to capture the essential elements of a scenario in a useful and insightful way. That certainly won't be true for every situation where there will be complexities and detail that are of vital importance to the questions being answered.

    I don't think I've played too many game where it's "easy for players to project the likely outcome of the game after just a few moves", and certainly anything that matched that description wouldn't be much use at providing insight - I do believe that it's important that a constructive game has the ability to provide answers that you weren't expecting, otherwise there's probably not much point in doing it to begin with.

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