Theory: Every Designer Should Play a Wargame

Once every so often I see a list of “board games every designer should play.” They’re often very good, with lots of quality games that can teach valuable lessons. However, I’ve noticed that they rarely include wargames—and that’s an important oversight. Love them or hate them, wargames have a long history and have had significant influence outside their genre. New designers should play at least one.

Fundamentally, wargames are board games. Hex-and-counter affairs played on a map are obviously so—a physical board to play on comes in the box! Miniatures games are as well; their tables serve as the board, the minis as the meeples. There’s no definitional reason to treat wargames as their own separate thing.

Given that they’re part of board games, we might ask: are they important enough that every person interested in board game design should have to spend time with one? They can be long, after all, and demanding to learn. One could get through most of the games in this very good list in the time it would take to play D-Day.

The answer is a resounding “yes, it’s worth it.” For both historical and mechanical reasons, a designer needs to understand at least the broad strokes of how wargames operate.

Historically, for a long time wargames were a huge part of “grown-up” board gaming. If you were a tween or older, in the United States, and were interested in board games, your options were pretty much chess, trivia/party games, and wargames. Any designer who wants to be a student of the art, to understand where we’ve been so as to better see where we can go, would benefit from exploring such an important force in board gaming’s history.

That exploration is particularly important because wargames have had a tremendous influence on other genres. Dungeons & Dragons, for example, was directly inspired by squad-level wargames, and through D&D wargames continue to have influence on the RPG industry. One sees their guiding hand particularly clearly in the many RPGs that have much more extensive rules for combat than for social interaction, even though at least one experienced industry figure argues that simulating the real- (or fictional-) world behavior of different weapons shouldn’t matter when role-playing. Without knowing wargames, a designer can’t recognize the places where other types of games imitate them.

Mechanically, ideas from wargames are at the core of lots of board games. Area control, perhaps the quintessential wargame goal, is now a routine and broadly employed design tool. Up Front was building tableaux with cards in the early 1980s. There’s some wargame in lots of board games’ DNA.

Of course,wargames exert some of their influence by teaching how not to do things. Rolling a single die, with the flat probability distribution that implies. Tiny, hard-to-manage pieces. Unattractive counters. Heavy, motivation-sapping rulebooks.

Still, a game—or a genre—need not be perfect to be foundational. Wargames have been, and continue to be, important to designers. Lists of vital games for them to try would benefit from including one.