What Do We Want From Our Wargames?

Welcome wargamers once more to my little corner of Creative Twilight, where I ponder the intricacies of the universe. And play with toy soldiers. Gods help me I am tired of batch painting Marauders!

The recent debates ongoing regarding the current lack of points based army building structure in the Age of Sigmar game, and the various solutions people are either asking for or are trying to compose themselves have brought me back to a line of thinking that I have pondered on intermittently for some time:

What do we want from our wargames?

It might be a good idea for me to expand on my thinking a little, because what seems clear in my own head space often needs some clarification before it is released into the wild. What I have been wondering about for some time is the comparison between what we think we want from a wargame, and what people are actually asking for. In my mind, what I want from a wargame is something that is enjoyable to take part in, is sociable and engaging, and offers a challenge that allows us to take the part of a military commander in a simulation of war.

My question to all wargamers is this: Do we know what this even means? I am happy enough that we have a clear idea of what we are thinking when we talk about having fun and being sociable – simple enough concepts, even when individuals have varying feelings on what they personally find fun, but when it comes to the idea of what we want from the game itself, this is what has burned out a great many of my brain cells thinking about so far.

I believe that the essence of the issue is that when we say ‘Wargame’, what we actually mean is ‘Battle Game’. Is this distinction alone enough to base a blog post about and spark a discussion about the bedrock of our hobby? I hope it is.

Let me start by talking briefly about what it is I think people are really asking for when they say they want a guide to how to build fair armies in Age of Sigmar, or fair armies in any other game for that matter, and certainly what event organisers spend inordinate quantities of time wrestling with. People are saying they want to be able to pit two or more military forces against each other in a balanced and well matched engagement, so that all the players involved have the same chance of emerging from the battle victorious, at least at the point where army selection has ended and before the game proper begins.

Kolin-Map

Now of course we all know that there are two factors that influence the outcome of a battle once the game begins: the form of the players on the day and their ability to drive and react to the unfolding engagement, and the element of chance, whether that is the dice, the drawing of cards or whatever other system the game you are playing uses to introduce an element of uncertainty to the game.

I know that some people prefer a game that simply pits two minds against one another in a test of skill that cannot be unduly influenced by the whims of the fates, and there are games those people can play that hopefully fulfil that need – chess for example. Apart from the fact that White always plays first, the sides are identical, and there is no random element at all. This is not typically what we want from a Wargame however. We need the random element in our games, however much some players rail against it or curse it to the depths of the seven hells when things go against them.

I for example recently played a small game of Warhammer 40,000, only 500 points per side, as a refresher of the 7th edition rules for myself (as I hadn’t played 40K in a year, having been focussing on Fantasy) and for my opponent, who is a few games into getting back into the hobby after a lengthy break. When an Aspiring Champion of Chaos defeats an opponent in a challenge and ascends to daemon-hood on a result of ’66’ in a game of that size it does, as you might expect, have a considerable impact on the game.

Belakor by Silver March
Belakor by Silver March

Even with the chance for such craziness, we really do need the random element, because without it we may as well just select army lists, judge the relative skills of the players involved and declare a winner, there would be no need to bother messing around with models and scenery, all that would be superfluous. We may have differing opinions about how much randomness is the correct amount, and that is an interesting debate to be having, but we certainly don’t want to be eliminating the randomness altogether.

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Anyway, let’s get this article back on track before it skews off on an irretrievable tangent. Where were we? Ah yes, battle games vs war games.

I think what most competitive gamers want is a fair and balanced ‘battle game’. I say this because a single stand alone engagement does not a war make. It can’t be a war game if it isn’t part of a war in my opinion. We should call the hobby ‘battlegaming’ instead of ‘wargaming’. This alone takes what we are asking for a step away from what we really want, and it then leads on to my second point.

Anyone who has ever studied military history even superficially (hell, anyone who is a watcher of ‘war films’ will know this as well) will know that a ‘fair fight’ is not a common occurrence in history. If a commander gets their forces embroiled in a battle that is evenly balanced without having exhausted all other options first has probably had their hand forced or made a blunder somewhere, be it underestimating the strength of the enemy forces or over estimating the quality of their own or something else entirely. Suffice to say that if you are commanding an army in the field and intend to engage the enemy in battle, you want to have the odds stacked as solidly in your favour as you can: you want to have a distinct advantage in numbers, quality of troops, advantageous terrain, sky high morale and the gods smiling on you. The last thing in the world you want is to walk into a fair fight. This is not something that gels well in a competitive tournament style gaming environment.

All this being said, why do we think that what wargamers say they want is anything at all like being a real military commander? In doing what we do to try and turn the military command simulation into a game that can be played by evenly balanced forces, we are making it less and less like the genuine military challenge we thought we wanted in the first place. The more we gravitate towards the style of play and kinds of rules that make something like a competitive event viable, the less like a war the game becomes. Heck, if we really want to make a fair fight of it, we should take away the choice altogether and make people take lists pre-selected by a panel of professional list balancers, which would do as much as possible to make sure that everyone has the same shot at winning the event, whether they are playing Daemons or Beastmen. Now wouldn’t that be a sight? Probably wouldn’t attract many players though, and might be quite boring, but it would be the epitome of what gamers think they want in my view: balanced, fair.

However…there is another way. The other side of the coin you might say.

Ever since the release of Age of Sigmar, gamers have been clamouring for some structure. In 40K, gamers bemoan the tidal waves of new rules and units, ‘there’s too much!’ we cry, and ‘we can’t keep up!’. Keep up with what I say? With all the choice? Will all the options? With all the freedom to play our games the way we want to, with whatever models we like, and whatever rules we like? Goodness me, what a calamity!

Now is the time to take what we have been given and make it something great. If we want a war game, we should play a war game. War is about overarching strategic objectives, resource management, and out manoeuvring the enemy on a grand scale. Imagine a competitive event where the winner wasn’t the player that managed to defeat the most opponents in a clinical and well balanced contest, but the player whose army did the most to win the war for his or her faction. Imagine armies that, having relied too heavily on the cream of their elite units to win their battles all of a sudden have to do without them for a game after they were obliterated by their natural counter in the last battle. Imagine one of the fondly remembered global campaigns Games Workshop ran in years gone by condensed into a two day event, with a victorious faction at the end of it, not because they net-listed their way to victory with the latest hotness, or even because they led the elite of their forces to victory over the enemy’s greatest general. It might just be because they were the commander that managed to slip their small force unnoticed around the enemy flank and cut off their fuel supplies, stunting their entire war effort.

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This isn’t a time of uncertainty, it’s time to decide what we want from our games, from our events, and from our hobby, and just do it. Though I see the merits in having as many people as possible using the same set of rules amendments as possible, is it really all that necessary? It would certainly save time not having to re-establish the ‘house rules’ or ‘comp’ any given game is to be played under before every game, but does the set of rules you play by have to extend outside of your own gaming group? What difference does it make to me if someone on another continent is playing the game differently to how my club plays it? If you go to an organised event you know what the comp is months beforehand, and some players choose events based on the rules that will be applied, so what’s the difference? We aren’t all playing the same rules anyway!

There are games out there that play well as competitive games, or were designed to be balanced and make tournament play a focus, but for me, war is not about balance or fairness, it’s about excitement and the bigger picture, and I don’t need permission from the game designers or even the wider gaming community to do whatever  like, I just need an idea that is cool enough to get my immediate gaming compatriots on board. I want to worry less about what others are doing and concentrate more on how me and my buddies can get the most out of our games of toy soldiers.

A quick look online will reveal dozens of sets of rules for most games you might want to play that allow you to use simple or complex resource management rules, and I am sure you could just as well generate your own. You can look at all the models in your collection and decide where they fit into the story, even the ones that seldom see outside of a storage box. There are maps, events tables and cards, and a myriad other aids to allow you to make your game whatever you want it to be. Scenarios galore. We don’t need to wait for anyone else to tell us how to do it, we just cherry pick what we want and fill in any gaps ourselves.

Once they are released into the world, the games don’t belong to the designers and publishers anymore, they belong to the players, to you and I, and I for one am not going to wait around to be told by someone else how I should play my games or whether I am right or wrong. All you have to do each day is decide: Do I want to play a battle game today, or a war game?

Each option is equally valid, but in my view the best one is the one that holds your interest, the one that sees the greatest variety of models and scenarios being played, and the one that makes you feel free to play your chosen game the way you want to.

I feel that I have said enough for now. I am off to plan a war…

Thanks for reading,

Eternal Wargamer.

  • I agree 100% with this. It reminds me of an article I wrote in a similar vein about players defining the game and its balance: http://creativetwilight.com/players-define-the-game-and-its-balance/

    One of the big draws with most wargames is the amount of customization available. Having lots of unit choices, weapon choices, even army choices, is what draws many of us in. You don’t get that level of freedom without a cost and very often that cost is a lack of perfect balance. However, a perfectly balanced game lacks that fun you find with games that aren’t. It’s that inherent lack of balance that creates those awesome stories we tell of the time some Grot killed a Daemon Prince or something. Memories are made when there’s randomness involved that just wouldn’t exist otherwise. I’ve played a lot of chess but I’ve told zero chess stories to gamers. However, 40K stories? Yeah, I’ve got a ton of those.

    Campaigns, if done well, are a great place to play out that war. We’ve done a bunch at my FLGS for 40K and campaigns are always a huge draw for us. People come out of the woodwork to participate in them. Our campaigns aim to give all battles some value in the outcome of the event. We have done some where you carry units throughout the series of games if they survived and gain veteran abilities to boost them. Having a previous victory give you some bonus going into the next game is another we often incorporate. Basically, making it a true war game. Those campaigns are a blast and where I feel a game like 40K, WHFB, Age of Sigmar, etc., all excel.

    • Frank Ford

      Cheers for the comments Thor. I think one thing holding gamers back is that people don’t want to be too restricted in which toys they can play with, but they also want someone else to provide structure. It can be a fine balancing act to find a common ground where we have enough freedom to take what we want in a list but still make it fair and interesting.

  • My that is a lengthy article. But the most important part I think people should take away from it is in the first paragraph; toy soldiers. That is what we play with. It is a game, it is a hobby, now just enjoy it.

    • This line of thought comes more-so with age I find. There are exceptions to the rule but in my experience this view is shared mostly by older gamers. We’re all competitive by nature but the youth shows it more. As we get older, often with less time because of work and family, we just want to have fun when we find that time to play a game. The younger crowed tends to have free time in spades and so what they want from the game can vary from those of us who use it as an escape.

      • Frank Ford

        I think this is true. I used to be able to play several times a week. Now once a fortnight is the norm, and I want to make every game a satisfying experience, win or lose.

      • Hence why I won’t go looking for tournaments when I have my army ready to fight.

        • If you can find the right group then tournaments are great. I play in local ones at the shop I go to and it’s a good time. Laid back people who aren’t netlisting. It’s a good way to get in a bunch of games in a single day.

          • I will just need a few games to figure out what I am doing at all first ;)
            Third edition was a long time ago…

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  • Bremyr Feirfaust

    Round of applause for you sir. Well done. Well done.

    • Frank Ford

      Thank you?

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