Actually, WARGAMING'S DEATH HAS BEEN GREATLY EXAGGERATED13 Jul 2016 1
Yesterday wargamer.com published an interview with Richard Bodley-Scott in which he frankly and with good reason predicted the demise of historical miniature wargaming, or as he calls it, 'tabletop gaming'. (ED: Well it IS played on a table top, Bill) The assassin, he claims, is PC-based videogames. So after a quick trip to the drinks cabinet, I continued to read about his bleak and dire prediction. Though I also play PC and counter based wargames, tabletop gaming is my first and greatest love. Bodley-Scott is not just anybody, however. We are talking about one of the legitimate greats of the hobby, so when he speaks it’s time to get real serious and sadly I came to realize he was absolutely right.
I would argue the reports of wargaming's demise have been greatly exaggerated. If Richard had never gone into videogame development, he would forever be enshrined in the hearts of many as the co-author of De Bellis Multitudinis 3000 BC to 1500 AD in 1993, along with Phil Barker of Wargames Research Group (WRG). Barker, with Bob O’Brien and Ed Smith back in 1969, founded WRG as a purveyor of tabletop rules and reference materials for many different historical periods, particularly Ancient and Medieval warfare. The company not only came to epitomize Ancients tabletop gaming, but to define exactly what all topic gaming was and how it worked.
Here we are talking small, one-on-one games with armies fielded off an historically inspired point system where each player purchased different types of troops for his army within specific parameters. The rules were quite complex, with such things as keeping track of casualties on a per soldier basis until 20 were killed and then a figure could be removed. Morale checks not only considered casualties lost by a unit, but also the tactical situation around it. Games were necessarily played on small tables with small forces due to cost, low figure ration and the fact that, like most of Europe, space was at a premium in most homes. Given that recreating the 1809 battle of Wagram was out of the question at this scale, a tournament system evolved as the primary means by which most tabletop games were played.
When RBS talks of tabletop gaming, it's clear that he's talking about a very specific, mostly European form of the hobby. It does make sense when you consider this was his wargaming world for so many decades. But even taking all this into account, I’d still have to say that he has a point, especially when you consider his most recent miniature fare, the Slitherine-Osprey collaboration Field of Glory (or FOG). The game is a tabletop system primarily, but not exclusively, for tournament play and as such is the ultimate advancement of the WRG technique and philosophy. Thus while it is an excellent game (I've reviewed the Napoleonic version), it is still quite complex and thus tough to play outside of a one-on-one tournament environment.
For many gamers this complexity is often a time consuming non-starter, a reflection of the rapid lifestyle many lead today. To that must be added the traditional downsides to miniature gaming, primarily a huge investment in time and other resources. There are figures, rules, paint and terrain to buy, and then one must prepare the figures for play as well as research various scenarios and orders of battle, just to set up one game. Richard contends that the well-known eye-popping spectacle of miniature gaming has also been matched, even exceeded, by digital games, but I’m not so sure about that. Traditional PC wargames (such as Pike & Shot, which remains my absolute favorite PC game) concern themselves more with accuracy than spiffy graphics, while “Hollywood History” games such as the Total War series seem to deliberately dumb down the games and accentuate the eye candy to make it familiar to the masses.
Yet there are cultural differences to consider as well. Several years ago, I finished up a wargames related thesis to get my graduate degree from the DIA Joint Military Intelligence College. That research, along with data collected by the US based Historical Miniatures Gaming Society (HMGS), allowed me to develop a profile of various types of wargamers, and I think it still holds true today. What I found was that when compared to PC and video gamers in particular, tabletop gamers did seem to be older. The two top reasons were people moving away from the fantasy side of the table (so Warhammer) to the historical branch as a part of the maturing process. In other words, then it was all about beer and parties, now it’s about budgets and politics. From elves, to the Coldstream Guard. Related to this finding, I found due the expense and research requirements for miniatures, most players only gamed in one or two periods of history, but easily had graduate level knowledge about that period as a matter of course. Finally, tabletop gamers had to be further along in their careers so as to have the monetary resources and leisure time available for participation. Thus a gaming community where the low end of the age pool is 30-40 does make sense and is not necessarily a sign of concern.
But perhaps the biggest piece of data to reveal itself was that American tabletop gamers, by a huge margin, considered themselves to be extroverts. While PC games are often played solitaire against an AI, or if against a human on the internet, miniatures and even one on one tournament play can be very social settings. Games can halt on a whim to discuss what might have happened if Confederate General Thomas J “Stonewall” Jackson was on the field; all while grabbing another beer and piece of pizza as reinforcement. True, this arrangement is easier to pull off in the Colonies where residences often have the ample space that European homes do not, but this part of the hobby shouldn't be underestimated. That's not to say PC games don't have their uses - Like many of my colleagues in the hobby, I actually use games like Pike & Shot for tabletop scenario support or to try out a new period before I plunk down shekels for figures.
Yet there is one more aspect of American tabletop gaming that must be considered as particularly unique, and it all boils down to three words – Flames of War (or, FOW). As background, Colonial wargaming pretty much followed the trends of the mother country until the 1990 timeframe or so. Around then Avalon Hill published rules called Napoleon’s Battles and Richard Hasenauer penned a set of American Civil War (ACW) rules called Fire & Fury, the latter in full color glossy format. Both sets made the player a corps commander and the basic unit brigades, not battalions as had been traditional. As such an historical design decision was made to drop a lot of detail from the game, simply because real corps commanders don’t worry about whether artillery is 6 or 8 pounder, or whether it fires canister or round-shot at any particular moment. It forced the player to manage a corps, because other lower level options found in other rules, were removed. This made the system both simple and elegant, not to mention easy to learn and fast playing. As in example, FOG Napoleonics had no less than 16 tables across four pages to consult during play. Fire and Fury had five. FOG Napoleonics had light artillery, heavy artillery, 6 pounders, 8 pounders, 12 pounders and so on. Fire and Fury had Union and Confederate artillery. There was no light, no heavy, no Napoleons, no 3 inch Rodman’s, no Parrot Rifles... instead, there was a combined sales figure of 43,000 copies. Go figure.
In 2002, Battlefront Miniatures, Ltd out of New Zealand got the hint and produced the first edition of Flames of War. Geared towards one on one play and tournaments (but with a VERY hefty multiplayer platform as well), the game covered company level combat in the most popular historical wargaming period out there - World War II. The rules were (are) drop dead simple. Per Wikipedia:
Gameplay takes place over a series of turns, with players alternating movement, shooting and close assault. This simple sequence of play, often called "I-Go, You-go", helps people who are unfamiliar with wargames or who are familiar with other games with a similar structure to quickly learn the rules . . . Flames of War provides players who are interested in World War II wargaming but lack an in-depth knowledge of the period with a "one-stop shop".
The game proved unbelievably popular, and is now in its third edition, with its own expanding miniatures line and no less than 48 sourcebooks. It is also a permanent fixture at HMGS conventions where its gaming population has a decidedly under 40 flavor.
Richard makes a strong argument, and I really get his perspective. I can't help but feel though that when he says the hobby is dying, he's talking about a very specific, some-what antiquated definition of wargaming. I simply think it has evolved, and while it’s a bit different than the cherished gaming traditions of the past, in this case, change seems to work. Simplicity is King, and by going streamlined so it has secured the love of playing with toy soldiers for many decades to come. It's easier to add complexity than it is to take away.
I hope Mr Bodley-Scott makes it to this side of the pond to see why we’re optimistic. We’ll have a seat and a good stout ale waiting at the table. En avant!