Theory: Essential Wargames for Designers

Following up on last Wednesday’s post, here are five wargames that have something interesting to teach designers. Playing any one of these represents time and money well-spent.

Wargames As Exemplars of Board Game Design: Twilight Struggle

Defying the notion that board games and wargames are separate entities, Twilight Struggle is, as of this writing, both the #1 rated board game and the #1 rated wargame on Boardgamegeek. It features a superb marriage of mechanics and theme; complex but intuitive rules that fade into the background during play; rich strategy that continues to be interesting over many plays; and quality components (especially in later printings, when the game’s success allowed for a nicer board). In other words, Twilight Struggle has the things one wants any good board game to have.

Perhaps the great lesson of Twilight Struggle is that the fundamental rules of board game design are more powerful even than we thought. One might reasonably question whether principles often stated in terms of deck-builders and worker-placement games are applicable outside the subgenres that are currently prominent in the market. Twilight Struggle demonstrates that some rules of design really are applicable to the full range of board games, and that adhering to them (or at least, breaking them only consciously and for a specific purpose) consistently leads to good results.

Incomplete Control: Memoir ‘44

Most board games assume away problems of communication and coordination. Cave-people in Stone Age always go where players tell them to go and do what they tell them to do. Pandemic’s medic never has to worry about whether his support staff will fly to the wrong city, or quit their jobs rather than entering a country where a dread disease has taken hold.

What if a designer seeks to capture realistic human behavior, where misunderstandings, mistakes, and outright refusals are part of the experience? It’s time for that designer to look toward wargames. They have been finding ways to introduce uncertainty and the fog of war into the open-information environment of a board game for years.

Memoir ’44 presents one such solution: rather than moving any piece she wishes the player uses randomly-drawn cards to activate units. If no card in hand can move a unit, that unit is conceptually out of control: maybe its radio has been destroyed and messages aren’t getting through, or the soldiers are panicking and won’t come out of their foxholes. It’s an easy-to-learn, elegant system that shows how modeling the human element adds to a design.

Solo Gaming: D-Day at Omaha Beach

Requests for a “solitaire mode” and questions about whether a game works with only a single player are seen in many board games’ forums. That’s not surprising; we’ve all had games we loved that our playgroups weren’t keen on, or been hankering for a round of something long after all opposition has gone to bed. Sometimes it’s nice just to be able to give in to analysis paralysis, really thinking through the complexities of a difficult decision without feeling guilty about making others wait. Being able to play without other people is a valuable feature.

Wargames have long been a hotbed of solo gaming innovation. The tradition can easily be traced back to 1973 with The Fall of Rome; miniatures games were doing it even earlier, and doubtless these are only the tip of an iceberg hidden by the mists of time. For designers who want to tap into this deep vein of knowledge, D-Day at Omaha Beach is considered a shining star, a brilliant game constructed from the ground up as a solo experience.

Learning by Doing: Squad Leader

Squad Leader has a tutorial so good that it’s a worthy game unto itself. Anyone who’s designing a game complex enough to warrant an introductory mode or scenario should play it, just to see what a really good one can do. You can find more discussion about why SL’s tutorial is amazing here.

Asymmetric Multiplayer: Fire in the Lake

Historically many wars have involved nations (players) with widely disparate economic and military capabilities (starting positions), available technologies (powers), and objectives (victory conditions). Wargames have had to model those asymmetric situations, and in the process wargame designers have put a lot of thought into how to do it well. The results go far beyond a certain species being better at propulsion technology, or a character having a really good fireball.

Fire in the Lake is a stand-in here for the entirety of GMT’s COIN series of games—Fire in the Lake, A Distant Plain, Cuba Libre, and Andean Abyss. Each of them is a game about four different factions. The factions all have their own abilities and goals—but every faction is on a team with another, whose interests only partially align. Far from treating asymmetric powers as simply a way to introduce some diversity and keep the game fresh, the COIN series thus uses asymmetries to create vital gameplay dynamics: the tension between the international coalition and Afghanistan’s government in A Distant Plain, or the I-need-you-but-you’re-bad-for-me relationship between the dictatorship and the crime lords in Cuba Libre. Playing these games is an eye-opening experience that shows what asymmetry can really do.

Getting the Goods

I’ve tried, in composing this list, to stick to reasonably available games. Wargames often have short print runs, and their prices can ascend toward the level of collector’s items very quickly. Even when in print they can cost close to $100; low volume means each unit has to carry a high margin, after all.

Nevertheless, I would urge designers to seek these games out. They all offer valuable lessons. What’s more, they’re all good games that deserve a spot on your shelf. You might find them engaging, or frustrating, or informative, or difficult, or any of many other things. You won’t find them to be wastes of your time or money.

Theory: The Power of a Fun Tutorial (R.I.P. John Hill)

Earlier this week John Hill, designer of the classic Avalon Hill wargame Squad Leader, passed away. Squad Leader should be of interest to every game designer, because it includes what might be the single greatest learn-to-play scenario ever devised: The Guards Counterattack. The Guards Counterattack did not stop at teaching the rules; it was a fascinating exercise that advertised the depth of its game and the fun to come.

Squad Leader is certainly a game that needs a tutorial scenario. Like many wargames of its day, Squad Leader’s rules were so numerous and complex that only someone with a photographic memory could master them just by reading. “Programmed instruction”–the then-current term for “peppering the rules with scenarios that reinforced what the player just read”–was vital.

Most of us hear about programmed instruction, think of video game tutorial levels, and sigh. Do this, then do this, then do this. Instructive, but joyless. The incentive to play the game is the promise of fun to be had after completing the tutorial’s lessons.

The Guards Counterattack turned all of that on its head by being a learn-to-play scenario that’s also a challenging tactical puzzle. The Guards in question are Russian infantry trying to retake buildings from the Germans during World War II. Each side has an advantage over the other: the Russians enjoy the weight of numbers, but the Germans begin with strong defensive positions. Leveraging those numbers and finding ways to hold back the tide are still compelling problems almost 40 years after Squad Leader was first published.

Simply by being fun (though, to be fair, it cannot have been simple to achieve such fine balance), The Guards Counterattack completely changed the role of the tutorial. It became an advertisement: if the game is this awesome with only the most fundamental rules, imagine what’s in store in the pages to come! Rather than being daunting, the many pages of reading to follow suddenly began to look full of promise.

I’ve spent a great deal of time over the past weeks working on a basic version of Lines of Questioning, one without special rules for off-topic witness answers and the like. That’s because I’ve never forgotten playing The Guards Counterattack, and how motivated I was to work through Squad Leader’s rulebook afterward. A great tutorial scenario, one that goes beyond teaching the rules to showcase the game’s depth and fun, is an irreplaceable source of player engagement.

Here’s to John Hill, and to his contributions to wargaming and to game design as a whole.