The Wargamer's Guide to Computer War Games 201831 Dec 2018 1
One of the unwritten rules of wargaming is that the hobby is relatively conservative, particularly when compared to other computer gaming genres. I don’t mean conservative politically, although the wargaming audience does sometimes skew in that direction - we’re older, we tend to be interested in military history, and often have military backgrounds ourselves, so it’s no real surprise. But looking back on 2018 in wargaming, I’m talking about a certain conservatism in adoption of new technology and ideas. Wargames are distinct from mainstream games, and it’s not a hobby that has us rushing to download the latest graphics card drivers every couple weeks, or installing new CPU coolers and power supplies to keep the polygons flowing. That’s not a bad thing, and in fact it’s something I find very appealing about the hobby. But this year, that conservative outlook on new concepts has resulted in a lot of games that just feel too safe.
Consider our 2018 reviews index: You might notice that this year we covered a lot of DLC. And some of these were among the year’s best releases - Steel Division’s Back to Hell expansion represents the best the game has been to date, and it’s made some of us even more excited about Eugen’s upcoming sequel. CMANO’s Silent Service and Commonwealth Collision offer even more value for the preeminent command-level simulation, even if the latter cuts a couple puzzling corners. We’ve also seen two strong DLCs for Order of Battle in the form of the exciting Sandstorm and the large campaign capstone Endsieg.
But DLC has often played it safe this year, too. I was a bit disappointed with the Royal Marines expansion for Afghanistan ‘11, which I felt failed to add much meaningful to Johan Nagel’s otherwise extremely interesting COIN game. CMANO’s LIVE scenario Kuril Sunrise let Bruce Postlethwaite down with its poor mission design and limited options. Bill Gray enjoyed John Tiller Software’s latest title, The Seven Years War, but here again he found that other than a welcome update to some visuals, the title did very little that’s particularly innovative.
Where games have tried new ideas this year, they haven’t always been successful. Panzer Strategy attempted to bring modern graphics to the Panzer General formula, and the result was primarily off-putting and frustrating. Victory at Sea: Pacific is an impressively ambitious naval RTS, but it shipped in a disappointingly unfinished state, rendering it nearly unplayable for all but the most forgiving of players - which is a group that does not include this writer.
In 2018, we did see some re-releases of proven classics, which just goes to show that sometimes a conservative outlook isn’t a bad thing at all. It was nice to see The Operational Art of War IV turn up on Steam, and I’m hoping that in the new year we’ll see the Steam Workshop populate with new user-created scenarios. And speaking of Steam releases, the newly repackaged Strategic Command Classic: Global Conflict and Strategic Command Classic: WWI foreshadowed the launch of the absolutely lovely Strategic Command WW2: World at War, which doesn’t so much reinvent the wheel as set a lot of very pretty wheels spinning just as they should.
For me, the most pleasant surprise this year came in the form of Armored Brigade, which I think does a fantastic job of emphasizing the real in real-time strategy. It feels much more like a proper wargame than any RTS I’ve played to date, and that’s down in a large part to the fidelity Armored Brigade has to using time in smart, authentic ways. Sure, there’s still a level of abstraction and I’d never call it a simulation, but having time-related penalties and bonuses associated with decisions you make during the planning phase of a battle struck me as brilliant, and I’ll be playing a lot of Armored Brigade in the new year thanks to the four massive maps that come with the game.
Returning to our reviews index momentarily, I’d be remiss not to point out the great tabletop coverage we’ve featured here this year. Bill found more innovation during his deep dives into this space than the rest of us turned up on our digital battlegrounds, with some standout titles including On to Paris, the Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871, At Any Cost: Metz 1870, Cataphract: Reconquest of the Roman Empire, and Quatre Battailles en Espagne.
This year, we’ve spent some time pulling together and updating our lists of the best wargames about a wide range of major conflicts, and none was on our minds more than the First World War. This Remembrance Day marked the 100th anniversary since the Armistice, and we put together lists of the best digital WW1 games, the best tabletop games, and even some book recommendations about the war at sea. For players interested in learning more about the Great War through games, these should prove to be valuable resources.
If there’s one trend I’ve seen in 2018 that stands out, it’s accessibility. While there haven’t been any major paradigm shifts in the way wargames work, there has been a fairly constant push to make games easier to play and friendlier to newcomers. Developers are recognizing more and more that the days of the thick paper manual and DOS-friendly interface have come to a close, and wargames coming out today increasingly let players learn on the go. And while I’ll miss putting those big instruction books on my shelf after excitedly leafing through them, I’m glad to see wargames embracing this kind of change. None of us are getting any younger, and if our hobby is going to survive, it’s going to have to open itself up to a generation of players who have learned about play in different ways than we’re used to.
And meanwhile, I think we’ve proven by now that ease of use doesn’t have to mean any sacrifices when it comes to depth or complexity. Field of Glory II has gotten excellent DLC packs this year that help round out its detailed antiquities battles, Armored Brigade makes whipping together a NATO/USSR shooting match in the Fulda Gap a breeze, and Strategic Command WW2: World at War is one of the nicest-looking strategic-scale games ever made. Each of these games is simple enough for a newcomer to pick up and fiddle with, learning their systems without getting caught in the concertina wire of obtuse interface decisions or indecipherable buttons.
Talking with Editor Joe about this year-end wrap-up, we discussed a couple of our standout games and what this year has felt like. “It feels like wargames are on the cusp of something,” he said, and I agree. 2018 may not go down as one of wargaming’s most innovative years, but there’s a widespread sense of refinement in many of the titles we’ve seen, and the genre is primed for a revolution. When it happens, we’ll be ready.
Here’s to a happy new year to the entire Wargamer community. Do you have any favourite moments from 2018 you'd like to share? Let us know in the comments!