Worlds Collide: The Future of Board Wargames

By Bill Gray 01 Aug 2018 3

At Historicon just a couple of weeks past, I had the opportunity to sit in on one of several presentations by some of the original employees of SPI, Simulations Publications Inc, that firm of counter and paper wargame design fame. Those present included designers Al Nofi and David C Isby, as well as chief finance officer Howard Barasch and a full house of attendees. Yes, the place was packed, at a miniatures wargaming convention no less, so all you pewter pushers cut me some slack. I know you play these games just like I do.

To make a long story short, the presenters declined to comment on the future of the boardgaming (as in board wargaming) branch of the hobby but did provide some fascinating information related to it. They noted that SPIs best sellers were all science fiction or fantasy, followed by modern, post World War II conflict. And the all-time champ? That would be Starforce Alpha Centauri, which sold 50,000 copies at the outrageous price tag of $9.00 US. OK, that’s not the whopping 320,000 units of Panzerblitz sold, but it’s a mighty healthy count when compared to today. As but one option, GMT Games’ P500 system helps that firm determine what to print next, the idea that when 500 copies are pre-ordered, the game goes to print. As of the day this article was written, the top dog here was Imperial Struggle covering the 18th Century competition between Britain and France for world supremacy, with 2662 pre-orders. Most other games making the cut had between 600 and 700 promises to pay.

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Damn! Are you kidding me? Over 50,000 copies then vs 2662 copies now? What happened?

What happened was not terminal, but more continuing evolution that guarantees boardgaming of the hex and counter variety will prosper and grow for the foreseeable future. And this salvation ironically comes from the most unlikely of parties.

The Three Ps

Three things have driven the numbers for boardgaming down to rock bottom levels, and they are people, price and PCs. As regards the first of these, when I did my graduate thesis for the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Joint Military Intelligence College, the faculty asked that it cover hobby wargaming supporting military training. As part of my research I conducted several surveys and in one I discovered that boardgame players tended to be exceptionally introverted. In some respects that made sense as even SPI founder Jim Dunnigan wrote that the overwhelming majority of boardgamers play solitaire. The reason this is important is because the same survey indicated that computer (war)gamers also revealed themselves as exceptionally introverted. While this means a platform that includes an AI opponent or a NOT face to face human adversary across cyberspace is a real plus, the bottom line is that with the advent of the PC, computers and cardboard were competing for the same customer pool.

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Now combine this with the need to update graphics and presentation to compete with the inherent glitz afforded by a good Nvidia video card. Well the hex and counter lads pulled it off with absolutely stunning production values in full color with glossy paper. Yes, young Padawan, there were days when cardboard counters came in multiple colors, so long as they were pink and baby blue, and yes, in most cases they weren’t even back printed. Maps were hardboard mounted but bland, the same terrain patterns used in every boardgame made whether it told the story of Gettysburg or Stalingrad. Not any more, but at prices that cause many to consider a second mortgage before purchase.

Consider this, back in 1978 the SPI monster game Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine, on the 1944 Battle of the Bulge) would set you back $20.00 US. Decision Games, the current surviving progeny of SPI, still sells the game in an enhanced edition for $160.00 (and no, that’s not a misprint). You can do the math (and certainly the following comparison is way from perfect) but consider that a barrel of crude oil cost $55.78 at the end of 1978 and the highest its ever been was June 2008 at $161.23.

And what about paper when compared to electrons? Matrix Games’ tactical wargame Pike and Shot Campaigns (which includes the original game plus add-ons to include user produced scenarios) costs $39.99 and has proven so popular that it rarely goes on sale. Its cardboard equivalent has to be GMT’s Musket and Pike series by designer Ben Hull with both games presenting an uber high standard for historical realism. However, to get all of the wars and battles covered in the GMT product vs the Matrix, you will need to buy five games (to include one new P500 dual pack reissue) for a retail total of $332.00. And while GMTs graphics are spectacular, they pale IMHO to the 3D terrain and unit formations (love the massed pikes and arquebusiers of the Spanish tercios) overlaying a square based map used in the computer product. It looks like a battle reenactment, but plays like a boardgame and remember this, $39.99 or $332.00, your choice.

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Then of course, there are the inherent advantages of computer gaming built in to the software. And here we are not talking about Hollywood History fare like the Total War, nor products like VASSAL and its ilk that allow for remote counter pushing without any AI or number crunching. Instead we speak of firms like the Matrix Slitherine Group, HPS Simulations or John Tiller Software who produce solid, full function software that present conflict simulation in a very serious and accurate manner. As such this means an AI that can substitute for a human and provide a competitive alternative to solitaire. This also means software with full mathematics capabilities that allows for extensive record keeping and combat determination. This in turn means complex boardgames that are easier to play on a PC because the software does a lot of the mental manipulation for the player, so he might concentrate on – God forbid – strategy or tactics. This also means the ability to immediately set up (and take down) a game, and to save and leave it 'standing' until next time without the danger of Lollypop the Calico or Chumley the Basset Hound smacking the French Imperial Guard off the board into oblivion. Capisce?

I and folks of my... more 'distinguished' generation still buy and play lots of boardgames, as we grew up with them and are more comfortable with the way they work. Hell, I picked up five at Historicon, two dirt cheap at the flea market, and three recently published to include a Compass Games reprint of the classic Red Star – White Eagle on the 1920 Russo-Polish War.  Also, computer games aren’t entirely perfect for folks like me. For example consider the inability to see the entire game map at a glance. Scrolling, or peering at a small strategic mini-map, zooming, or whatever just doesn’t work. But the new generation of serious wargamers? They don’t seem to have an issue with stuff like this as they grew up with electrons so zooming and scrolling is “I don’t even think about it” natural to them. And then you want to convince them it really is better and absolutely worth it to pay $332.00? Right, tell me how that works for you.

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Death and Resurrection

Yet I remain totally convinced that board hex and counter (or point to point, area or card driven) wargames will absolutely flourish in the future. To do so will require but one simple, yet perhaps difficult, change on both the part of game producers and their customers. The change concerns perception. By default when one hears the word “boardgame” they think of the presentation medium on which the opposing players compete. Since the beginning, this means most people think of paper hex maps with cardboard counters.

Perhaps its time to think differently and redefine the concept of a boardgame as a type of game design and NOT the physical platform where it is played. Right now most serious computer wargames play like boardgames, and in many cases look exactly like hex and counter offerings. If you don’t believe so take a look at some of the images supporting this article or computer games such as John Tiller’s World War I Campaigns Game East Prussia 1914 and Matrix Games’ Operational Art of War IV (with 200 + scenarios yet). Then compare them to similar products from GMT, Compass or Decision Games. They look the same, they play the same except that the digital version is likely easier because of all the behind the hard drive number crunching.

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Indeed many boardgames (old definition) have been directly ported to the PC, with no discernible difference in many cases. In this category we have Matrix Games Guns of August or Empires in Arms, the latter a direct port of the Australian Design Group – Avalon Hill classic. Think also the World in Flames World War II monster strategy game (for $99.00, the equivalent cardboard edition is still made, $369.00). Other games may be original designs but have a very distinct boardgame (old definition) pedigree. For example, and again, the Matrix release of Campaign Series Middle East not only includes all the scenarios from the Avalon Hill game Arab-Israeli Wars, but also the SPI Strategy & Tactics game October War among others. Indeed, the Close Combat product line was originally conceived in 1996 as a computer version of Avalon Hill’s Advanced Squad Leader. Yes, the blood line is there, and it is strong.

Prognostication

One genre not mentioned above is miniatures, and briefly this is because it remains singularly insulated from the issues that plague cardboard. Outside the computer shaming visuals of a Perry Brothers display, the reasons also have their roots in the research I did for my thesis. Pewter pushers tend to be extroverts and when combined with the arts and crafts aspect of the hobby, makes the toy soldier community much more similar to model railroading or even quilting than other types of wargaming. Such games are designed to be group festivals in many respects, so the oldest form of wargaming is also the one less likely to require change.

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For the cardboard community, however, do not despair for all is well. Board wargaming isn’t going anywhere and in my opinion will increase its numbers as firms like Lock n Load Publishing transition their games to digital format and as other companies like HPS continue to produce original designs that mimic classic hex and counter play. The single difference will be redefining this celebrated wing of the hobby as a type of game design, and not the physical platform by which the game is conveyed.

In other words, if it looks like a boardgame, plays like a boardgame, then it is a boardgame even if you use a mouse to move its counters around on your 50 inch monitor. Just wrap your head around that and you will live long and prosper.

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