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Board wargames – an introduction (Part Two)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted October 12, 2015

Here are some "closer cousins" of historical board wargames:

-- "pure-air" and "pure-naval" boardgames can be said to constitute separate subgenres because of the large differences involved in simulating air and naval, as opposed to land, combat;

-- near-future/contemporary, science fiction, alternative-history (such as, "What if Napoleon invaded England?"), and fantasy boardgames are often very similar in basic look and mechanics to historical boardgames, except for the different milieus, but are often played by different audiences -- near-future/contemporary and alternative-history generally played by the wargame crowd -- science fiction and fantasy boardgames might sometimes be played by the Dungeons and Dragons crowd;

-- wargames that are specifically designed to be played solitaire, i.e., without a human opponent;

-- historical miniatures (often a bit snidely called "toy-soldiers"): small, die-cast, painstakingly hand-painted representations of soldiers, usually from the Napoleonic period -- hundreds of them are lined up in rows on a geomorphic representation of battle-field terrain, marshalled and engaged in combat according to an established set of miniatures rules;

-- science-fiction or fantasy battle miniatures: similar to historical miniatures, except that a different milieu is involved (e.g., the very popular Warhammer 40,000 A.D. (or 40K) and Warhammer Fantasy systems);

-- RISK (by Parker Brothers), an abstract, "conquer-the-world" type of game, has given birth to a whole subgenre of similar global games, often involving quasi-fictional alliances and countries, like "Canarctica", in the Supremacy game -- these are usually simple "geopolitical" games;

-- Diplomacy, a multi-player political-interaction game loosely based on the World War I Great Power conflict has attracted a large following, and given birth to a number of such games, e.g., Cosmic Encounter, Machiavelli (politics of Renaissance Italy) -- though historical boardgames tend to be two-player, there are also ones designed especially as multi-player situations;

-- "mass-market" wargames are those produced by major "mainstream" game companies, often having expensive components and very simple mechanics -- an early example is Stratego, and its derivative, Admirals – there was also the Milton Bradley line of wargames, including, among others, Axis & Allies (World War II), Conquer the Empire (Romans), and Fortress America (a hypothetical future invasion of the U.S. by European, Asian, and Central American powers) – as well as the Shadowlord sci-fi/fantasy game (Parker Brothers);

-- the famous Sandhurst Military Academy in Britain produced 5 games that originally sold in an album-book for $20  -- apparently, despite the low price, the publication failed to sell successfully – even in earlier decades, there seemed to be no truly mass-market for wargames.

Here are some less or more "distant relations" of historical boardgames:

--  role-playing games (RPG's) or fantasy role playing (frp) games, especially Dungeons and Dragons (D & D) -- some prominent non-fantasy role-playing game milieus include science-fiction, occult-horror, cyberpunk, Medieval Japan, Star Trek;

-- Sherlockian role-playing / detective games;

-- in earlier decades, there were "campus-craze games" like so-called K.A.O.S. ("Killing as an Organized Sport") – "staking out" and "shooting" people with rubber-tipped darts from toy-guns;

--  the "survival" or "adventure" game -- two large teams with goggles, rough clothes, and paint pellet guns, chasing and "shooting" each other in a large, fenced-off, rugged outdoor area;

-- traditional games with military or strategic aspects, e.g. Chess, Go, and Chinese Chess;

-- tabletop or electronic sports games and simulations.

A large area of interest is historical/battlefield re-enactors, especially those focussing on the American Civil War/War Between the States; the American Revolutionary War; the War of 1812; and Medieval/Renaissance eras.

There is also military and government wargames and analysis:

-- mock-up terrain models of the German countryside shown some decades ago in the media;

-- computer simulations of tactical combat;

-- elaborate computer gaming / modelling of nuclear exchanges and strategic conflict;

-- board-based simulations used as teaching devices (e.g., SPI's FireFight) (SPI – Simulations Publications, Inc. -- was the major game company of the 1970s);

-- "live-scale" mass military maneuvers and training exercises;

-- "gaming" or "playing-out" of operational military plans.

There is also a branch of social science called "game theory and analysis". This is the
scientific study of probabilistic situations and paradoxes, e.g. "the Prisoner's Dilemma".

Finally, there is computer gaming in general. All the various genres above are available on different types of computers and the Internet, and there are, of course, arcade-style military games.

There was an intermediary period when wargame style mechanics continued in electronic formats, before the so-called "First Person Shooter" games took over. For example, there was Conflict: Korea (1992), by SSI (Strategic Simulations, Inc.).  That highly effective game could have been seen as revolutionizing paper wargaming. The regiment and division-sized units were calibrated down to the individual man and individual rifle or piece of equipment. Fantastic detail was possible – for example, when units move in the game, they automatically lose a slight amount of strength due to stragglers and equipment breakdown. Many of the time-consuming and difficult functions of paper wargames were handled by the computer, which also provided an effective AI opponent. For example, there was no need to add combat factors, one simply directed by cursor which units attacked where, and the computer applied the results.

Two renowned computer strategy game series are Sid Meier's Civilization – which combines military conflict and economic/technological development, with diplomacy and variable geo-strategy (and effective game AI) --  and Total War -- which combines turn-based strategic conflict, with tactical "real-time" resolution of individual battles (and elaborate game AI on both the strategic and tactical levels).

However, in future years, there wasn't much of a flowering of computer games with wargame style mechanics. The videogame audience usually preferred the more personalized and more graphic FPS-type experience.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.






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