Opinion: Does Technology Represent Wargaming's Salvation?

By Jeff Renaud 21 Jul 2016 6

Wargamer has recently been discussing the future of table wargaming, especially in regards to miniatures. Field of Glory legend Richard Bodley-Scott (RBS) postulates that its demise is “inevitable”, while Bill Gray (BG) counters that view as overly pessimistic. Foremost in his reasoning, RBS argues that PC games will be to blame, along with the lack of younger people taking up his hobby. BG, on the other hand, has research that reveals a transition of youth ‘graduating’, in a sense, from fantasy games such as Warhammer™, toward historical genres of Napoleonic and the like.

In my opinion, the distinctions between the PC and tabletop gaming are perhaps merging; an example given in the aforementioned articles is Field of Glory™, a miniature rules set adapted to the PC. For several reasons, including such ‘melding’, I predict a future for both genres. Yet, allow me to digress a moment.

Although I have barely dabbled in miniature gaming myself – early on I realised I lack the skill and/or patience to paint figures – I have been wargaming now for several decades. Since the heyday of Avalon Hill™ (AH) in the ’70s and ’80s, I have seen board game adaptations and original wargames emerge on the PC shortly after the birth of the PC itself – which, for me, began with the Radio Shack/Tandy TRS-80 (complete with its cassette deck; no such thing as a floppy drive back in 1977, let alone a hard disk).

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Alongside Monopoly and other mainstream titles by various publishers, Strategic Simulations, Inc. soon released Computer Bismarck, Computer Ambush, Baltic 1985, and many others, followed by the Panzer General series in the early ’90s (by this time for the Commodore 64 and Apple II). Doubtless, many readers will recognise the latter, its inheritor being Slitherine’s own Panzer Corps series. Now, we have myriad titles, but there is one that I will mention which, in my opinion, represents a ‘traditional’ board wargame format: Gary Grigsby’s War in the East.

If one compares the graphics alone of those ‘precursor’ games – ignoring for now the depth of game play – one can easily see how far the PC wargaming hobby, at least, has come. I predict it has even farther to go, in part, because of how far it has evolved, but also due to the advent and evolution of new technology – virtual reality (VR), for one. According to Michael Abrash, co-developer of the Oculus Rift, VR is only “about 1% of the way [to its potential]”. [Source: PC Gamer #279, June 2016]

Early on I also envisioned computers relieving players of a majority of board wargames’ complexity and tedium, including dice-rolling and endless referencing of charts, tables, and rules. I even wanted to programme it myself; I recall my brother and I making grandiose plans to get the TRS-80 (or was it the Apple II?) to set up and play the aliens for AH’s Starship Troopers; but, alas, our (admittedly meagre) efforts went nowhere. According to RBS, that technology has yet to advance sufficiently to, “Cut out the middle man [and the table]”.

But what about the advent of touch-screen and the aforementioned VR technologies?

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I invite the reader to check out the ‘Anatomage’ machine. A recent TV episode of FOX’s Bones demonstrated that the images on this device can be manipulated via touch-screen, the same as a smartphone. Now, I hesitate to take for granted anything I see on TV or the internet, but I think it can be safely inferred that this machine exists and allows users to interact with it just as if it were a giant smartphone.

Could these technologies, then, not eventually supplement the tabletop wargaming hobby by (re)creating a virtual battlefield, without all the set up and preparation involved, not to mention the expense, (most of the) space requirements, and the commitment to building your own army? Especially for miniatures, but I’m also thinking about board games and those hundreds of little cardboard counters that cats love to play with, and dogs and toddlers love to eat. What about loading the machine with ‘rule sets’, similar to how games are currently installed on a computer or console, thus removing the rules-mongering and endless referencing of charts, tables, and, well, rules?

I hear you thinking, or echoing RBS, “Why bother? Computers already do that…” And you might be perceiving some circular logic by now. But wait! Can you imagine being able to see a 3D tabletop with VR; setting up virtual battlefields, move virtual units, then press ‘End Turn’ and let the machine execute your orders? Then see the figures animate, attack and fire at each other, blow up and die – without actually ruining your collection or filling your basement with smoke, and neighbours calling 911 to report explosions and gunfire. (Or your Mom to ground you for life because you thought it would be fun a realistic simulation to toss firecrackers at your toy soldiers…)

I can see it, just as I have seen terrain and computer animation of replicated humans and animals become more and more realistic-looking; witness how far recent RPGs have come in modelling facial expressions, etc., from a few pixel-dots. I read not too many years ago that we would supposedly ‘never’ approach reality in that area, but I beg to differ.

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Technology and machines will never replace the hobby for people who actually like collecting and painting figures; making paper maché castles and cardboard trees; holding them in their hands and setting up ‘real’ battlefields; moving the pieces they so lovingly finished themselves; arguing with their opponent and throwing those precious pieces at him… Nor will it necessarily replace the face-to-face (F2F) experience for players who enjoy the social aspect. Although opponents using a virtual tabletop could theoretically just as easily find one another on the internet as they do now on the PC, they could still meet at one or the other’s home, plug in their VR sets, either to a computer or virtual tabletop, and boot up a game. Setup would then either be automatic or accomplished via the touch-screen – e.g., by selecting a scenario. Similar to how a hotseat game works, each player could take their turn, but the IGOUGO system would be redundant if each is wearing a VR headset and turns are timed or action is simultaneous, as with current RTS games or WEGO. (Although there may be an opportunity to cheat by removing it and looking at the tabletop, I’m sure that could be prevented by what is actually displayed on the tabletop.)

I am not suggesting that VR and another technology like 3D printing need be combined in order for this ‘merger’ to succeed. I have not tried VR myself, but my understanding is that it can display a much larger field of view – 360 degrees! – than the largest computer monitor currently available, or even several of them, thus even precluding the need for some kind of virtual tabletop as well.

That leads us to holographic imaging; perhaps, in the not too-distant future, we can have 3D virtual battlefields without a VR headset; the tabletop will project your game as a hologram (with optional neural feedback).

let the wookie win 2560x1600 by stevenbinion d31kf2o

Richard Bodley-Scott may have a point – face-to-face ‘miniature’ wargaming may more or less die out, but the hobby of collecting et al. will go on; I have known several collectors who seldom, if ever, actually gamed with their figures. Furthermore, PC wargaming will continue to evolve, for reasons given above, while the distinctions continues to blur.

At £45,000 (US$59,375), the above-mentioned Anatomage machine is probably out of the reach of most wargamers, for now. Yet, think of how far computers have come, from filling several rooms – and just as prohibitively expensive – to holding them in one hand (two for texters). Even so, if you buy one when they come down to around $1000 – the cost of a decent PC system – and then suddenly tire of the hobby or find it too time-consuming, at least you’ll still have a nice (possibly very expensive) coffee table. Perhaps it could play Pong?

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