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  • In Defense of Lighter Wargames

    I used to be a realism junkie, but maybe I've outgrown it. I dunno, but nowadays my favorite and most-played wargames are all relatively simple and low-frills.

    An example of what I consider a great game is Lost Admiral Returns. If you're not familiar with it, take a quick look:
    http://www.lostadmiralreturns.com

    What's so appealing about a "light wargame" like this? Well, for one thing it's short enough to easily play in one sitting (and I mean about a half hour, though I often sit for an hour or more and play a few games). It's also simple and straightforward enough that you can focus on strategy and tactics instead of reading or referencing a whole book full of detailed rules.

    Judging from what I see wargamers talking about these days, the big complaint most people will have is that these light wargames don't look, feel, and sound much like real war. In appearance, they're more like old-fashioned, intro-level board wargames. So, they must be "kids' stuff," right?

    Well, that depends on what you think a wargame ought to be.

    Me, I think a wargame ought to be a chesslike game that's designed to provide players with valid exercises in military strategy and tactics. Even chess itself affords lessons in strategy and tactics that could indirectly be applied to real-life operations; but admittedly chess is pretty abstract, and it'd require a strong imagination to see how chess tactics might translate into battlefield tactics. So, for less imaginative players like me, light wargames like Lost Admiral Returns are just the ticket. LAR shows just enough detail to get me picturing mid-twentieth-century naval warfare; and so as I play the game, I also get some sense of how naval warfare works.

    Not that I take everything in the game too literally. It is just a game, after all. And in a wargame this "light," there's no way aircraft carriers, battleships, destroyers, and submarines are going to behave just like their real-life counterparts. One doesn't expect that. To find out the real-life facts and figures, I'll turn to history books or video documentaries. But even in LAR, one gets the feel of how PT boats are cheap and fast but weak; how transport ships are vulnerable; how battleships are tough but capable of being outwitted, outmaneuvered, or overpowered; and so forth.

    I started wargaming in 1968, with the Avalon Hill board game Waterloo. Before long, I was lusting after more and more realism, via the likes of 1914, PanzerBlitz, and eventually--years later--Advanced Squad Leader. The more realistic detail a game had, the better I liked it, no matter how complicated it was to learn and play.

    But eventually I burnt out on that. ASL overwhelmed me at just about the time home-computer games started getting good. So I left board wargaming behind (along with the miniatures wargaming I never quite got into, as much as I wanted to sometimes) and turned to PC games.

    At first, I was so engrossed in these magnificent time-wasters that I could indulge in them for hours on end, dedicating whole weekends to playing a favorite game. But I find that experience wears thin after a while. One game starts to seem a lot like another, and the level of detail only engages the imagination until some more graphically intense wargame comes along. This kind of "realism" is like the flavor in a stick of chewing gum: it goes away, and then you have to go looking for new taste sensations.

    And in my opinion, that kind of "realism" is just illusion anyway. Is a richly detailed wargame necessarily a more true-to-life simulation than a wargame light in detail? It depends on how well the designer got all the detail (and the underlying game engine) right. Even the best military historians disagree on how things really were; so how can we be justified in believing wargame designers are delivering true models of how war works?

    Of course in the end it's all just a matter of taste. Some like tons of immersive realistic detail in their wargames; others can do without it.

    Personally, FWIW, I've come to prefer wargames that I can play the way I play chess: in a single (~1 hour) sitting, focusing on the salient strategic and tactical points without being forced to jump through numerous hoops of fluff and detail. Books and movies give me plenty of realistic detail; I don't necessarily need that from games. And indeed, some kinds of war-related detail (e.g., all the stupid and gory stuff) I can easily do without!

    Besides Lost Admiral Returns, there are other "light wargames" to be enjoyed. Matrix's Tin Soldiers series, for example. Or Battle for Wesnoth (http://www.wesnoth.org). Any others I'm missing out on?

    Just thought I'd try making a case for lighter wargames, in the face of all the commotion I see over Combat Mission, Harpoon, Medieval II Total War, and other detail-heavy games.

    Comments welcome.
    --Patrick Carroll


    "Do all you have agreed to do, and do not encroach on other persons or their property." (Richard Maybury)

  • #2
    I still like to sit down and play an occasional game of Blitzkrieg (the computer game), which I consider wargaming lite. Nothing too involved or time consuming, just sitting down and blowing stuff up.
    If you can't set a good example, be a glaring warning.

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    • #3
      Generation Gap among Wargamers?

      Originally posted by freightshaker View Post
      I still like to sit down and play an occasional game of Blitzkrieg (the computer game), which I consider wargaming lite. Nothing too involved or time consuming, just sitting down and blowing stuff up.
      Hmm. I think I may be detecting a generation gap in this discussion group. Maybe I'm unwittingly advocating old-fashioned wargames, not just "lighter" ones.

      When I think of wargames, I think of big, elaborate chess variants which re-create the strategic and tactical aspects of military engagements in an abstract-yet-realistic way.

      But it seems there's a big crowd of wargamers nowadays who grew up on video games. And they invariably emphasize the "cinematic" aspect of wargames. To them, a wargame is sorta like a movie you can step into and participate in.

      My wife gave me a copy of Medieval II Total War for Christmas, and I've played at it a little bit. It's impressive in its way, but for the most part I've avoided the tactical battles precisely because they're too "cinematic" for my taste.

      One of the things that greatly appealed to me about wargames when I first discovered them (in 1968, when I was thirteen) was the way they take something as dynamic and potentially chaotic as war and turn it into a nice, structured, orderly game. That gave me hope of gaining an understanding of warfare--a mental comprehension of how it's organized and how it works.

      I don't feel I can hope to get that kind of understanding from a real-time wargame where everything is happening too fast, as it does in real life. Even hitting the Pause button doesn't help much, because as soon as I click it again, all the simultaneous action resumes.

      I guess there has always been a desire for that among wargamers, though. I remember people in the 1970s suggesting that players of board wargames like PanzerBlitz be limited to taking, say, two minutes per turn, to simulate the fast-paced decision making that's required on a real battlefield. My friends and I never bought into that, though. On the contrary, we'd do the opposite, taking a lot of time for each turn. (We couldn't believe it when the Avalon Hill Game Company said a typical wargame takes about 3 hours to play. The way we played, a single turn could sometimes take an hour.)

      So, I guess I've got a now old-fashioned attitude about wargames that tells me they're supposed to be like slow, thoughtful games of chess. That attitude clashes with the whole idea of "cinematic" wargames.

      Thus, when I was advocating "lighter" wargames in this thread, what I meant was that a wargame ought to be streamlined enough that players can focus on strategy and tactics and make the well-reasoned kinds of decisions one makes when playing chess.

      As a change of pace, though, I've enjoyed real-time shoot-em-ups. In the 1990s I kept Red Baron on my computer for a very long time, and even bought a joystick just for that game (though I also ended up using it for Wolfenstein 3D). I can only take a small dose of that, though, before it's time to go back to some real strategy gaming.
      --Patrick Carroll


      "Do all you have agreed to do, and do not encroach on other persons or their property." (Richard Maybury)

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      • #4
        Oh the gap isn't that big.... I started with Squad Leader around 1980 and then went to Panzerblitz/Leader. From there I took the dive into ASL when it finally came out. Although I still have all these games I've fallen from the table top game to computer games. I still like the occasional game of The Russian Campaign and enjoy The Gamer's Tactical Combat Series but computers offer much more convenience in both space available to set up a game and time it takes to play out a scenario.

        As for "lite" board games, I like to play Avalon Hill's Tac Air and The Russian Campaign. I would consider them both light on rules but still offering quick, interesting game play. Command magazine also has some great games that can be played in a single sitting.
        If you can't set a good example, be a glaring warning.

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        • #5
          I consider wargame design to be like tank design.

          A successful tank is the marriage of firepower, mobility and protection.

          A successful wargame is the marriage of fun, playable, and accurate.
          Life is change. Built models for decades.
          Not sure anyone here actually knows the real me.
          I didn't for a long time either.

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          • #6
            After months of doing games like Forge of Freedom, I need a good simple game like Empires...amd nobody's older thhan me.

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            • #7
              Regarding "light" games... I am just now getting into wargaming and am finding that the games that some folks consider "light" are more or less what I am looking for. Or at least, what I can handle at this point.

              Wargaming is about the strategy and details -- I have a copy of Battles of Napoleon (SSI) that I bought back when I was in high school. Supposedly a great Napoleonic (obviously) wargame, but the level of detail is way too much for my novice sensibilities. It's not even a matter of learning by losing and trying again; I am able to lose so spectacularly at that game, that I sometimes can't even figure out which details I have overlooked.

              On the flipside, I have been having a lot of fun lately with Panzer General (also by SSI). Setting it to easy and turning off things like hidden units, weather, and whatnot... I am finding that I have an easier time not losing terribly. This, for me, enhances replayability -- if I am able to *almost* win, or at least see where I lost, then I am more likely to give it another go. I am also looking at the old boardgame Napoleon at Waterloo and it looks to me like it's very simple and straightforward. This allows me to focus on the strategy and tactics at a very base level -- what types of attacks/defenses work in different situations.

              Maybe one day I'll suck less at wargaming and move on to more detail-enriched games. For now, though, lighter wargames tend to work out better for me (also schedule-wise, since I have two small children who don't want to sit and watch me thumb through a thick operations manual trying to learn a new game!).
              "I am not an atomic playboy."
              Vice Admiral William P. Blandy

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              • #8
                Originally posted by mirrorshades View Post
                Regarding "light" games... I am just now getting into wargaming and am finding that the games that some folks consider "light" are more or less what I am looking for. Or at least, what I can handle at this point.

                Wargaming is about the strategy and details -- . . . but the level of detail [in Battles of Napoleon] is way too much for my novice sensibilities. . . .
                Funny thing about details: they're relatively easy to pack into a game, making it look sophisticated. But if the underlying game system isn't true to life, all that detail is resting on a shaky foundation.

                Take the board wargame Advanced Squad Leader, for instance. It's rich with detail, and I was wowed by it for several years, supposing it to be the last word in tactical WWII ground actions. Then one day I looked at the scenario I was playing, and I said to myself, "Wait a minute. There's no way a commander could ever possibly have this kind of control over his units, or even the amount of exact information players enjoy in this game." In short, the game is nowhere near as realistic as I once thought it was. I'd been suckered in by all the detail (and the fact that it's a very exciting wargame to play, once you get the hang of it).

                You can spend a lot of time learning all the ins and outs of a detailed, complicated wargame and end up learning false lessons from the game about how war really works.

                Or you can spend a little time learning a "lighter" wargame and end up learning valid lessons about how war really works.

                And then there are the other two possibilities: getting true lessons from a detail-heavy game or false lessons from a light one.

                After some forty years of wargaming and reading military history, I've decided nobody knows for sure how war really works. Thus, the real workings of war can never be incorporated into a game. The best we can hope for is a game where the basic principles of war seem to hold true. If, in addition, the simulational details can approximate real-life facts and events, so much the better, as long as the game remains playable.

                The trouble with many wargames, IMO -- and this applies to both heavy and light ones -- is that there's too much emphasis on simulational detail and too little on the underlying "game engine." Even Panzer General has more detail than is really justified by the ludicrous game engine, where units move and fight one by one, and where rifle-armed infantry can damage attacking bombers.

                Of course a game has to be fun. If it's not, it won't be played, and then it's a moot point how true-to-life it might be. But once you've got fun and playability, I think the next thing to look for is whether the game teaches valid lessons about the principles of war: i.e., on the whole, does what works in real life also work in the game, and vice versa? And do unsound real-life military decisions also show up in the game as unsound decisions?

                I think some principles of war are nicely illustrated in as abstract a game as chess. Mobility is advantageous; timing can be everything; control of the center (interior lines) is of value; a local preponderance of force is required for a successful attack; and so forth. Even though few, if any, of the details in chess can be said to simulate anything military, on the whole the game teaches some valid lessons in strategy and tactics.

                I much prefer that to the opposite: a game where there's an abundance of accurate simulational detail but the game as a whole teaches false lessons in military strategy and tactics (e.g., fails to reward mobility, shrewd timing, combined attacks, interior lines, and so forth).

                In short, a military engagement can be modeled in a simple way or a complex way. A simple model can be just as accurate as a complex one. And any amount of simulational detail can be layered onto either kind of model.

                IMO, it's easier to get things right in a simple model (as long as you don't oversimplify). And in any case, it's all too easy to lose sight of the underlying model once you start layering on lots of simulational detail.

                "Lighter" wargames generally start with a simple model and only add enough simulational detail to engage the player's imagination. Furthermore, the details need not always be 100 percent accurate, since they're mainly just "chrome" anyhow.
                --Patrick Carroll


                "Do all you have agreed to do, and do not encroach on other persons or their property." (Richard Maybury)

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                • #9
                  Two of my favorite "lighter wargames"...

                  Avalon Hill's Victory in the Pacific and Luftwaffe...Simple, strategic level wargames with a tactical feel to them.

                  AH's Tobruk was pretty light too, if you played the armor-only scenarios.
                  Watts Up With That? | The world's most viewed site on global warming and climate change.

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                  • #10
                    My first post was rushed (kids will do that to you sometimes hehe).

                    Anyway to touch on Patricks comments on ASL, it is a truely complex wargame, and so absolutely the wrong game for someone without deep pockets or a total obsession in letter of the law game design hehe (is the unit in the hex or IN the hex hehe). But at the same time, NO wargame is actually utterly realistic.
                    ASL suffered from being a physical wargame though, where as Steel Panthers is just a computer program and thus not limited by being physical. You can do fog of war sooooo much easier with a computer program. Thus, HIP (hidden initial placement) is not even an issue with Steel Panthers, while it's a headache with ASL.

                    ASL is best played with scenarios where the sum total of ALL counters whatever they may actually be, is kept very limited. The second we are talking about Red Barricades (a historical module) you have gone RIGHT off the deep end of ASL

                    There are sooooo many rules to ASL, but they are not always in usage in a game. On the other hand, with the average board game, the manual is the manual, and you usually use the whole manual, or close to it the moment you play the game.

                    That is why ASL is a "game system" while say Panzer Leader is just a "game".

                    But as I have mentioned in my first post, it's about combining the three core game design elements well.

                    Up Front has no board, thus a lot of atypical wargaming habits, elements, and qualities are not even relevant. No perfecting how to make a hex grid work with zones of control for instance.
                    Up Front uses cards to control the flow and pace of the game. You have a hand of cards and you have to make use of what you have. It's mentioned in the game rules I think, that being a good poker player is actually a benefit.
                    Up Front makes use of fog of war in a cool fashion, you can't even study the board and "wonder" if your opponent has a unit in a specific hex, as in real life, a squad leader isn't going to be able to know the lay of every last square foot of the battlefield.
                    Command and control is done well in Up Front. You will have an idea of your expected level of performance from your troops, but in the end, they probably won't do exactly what you expected.

                    In every way that actually counts, Up Front portrays warfare at the squad level so completely better than almost any other squad level game in existence. It's just amazing that MMP has not MADE this game reappear on the market, and it's for this sort of reason that I am quite frankly not interested in gushing on about how much they are doing for wargaming. They are just the guys that scored the priviledge of being the official source of ASL. And they are a hobby business at best.

                    Up Front SHOULD be on sale right now. That it isn't is just incredible.
                    It's likely the easiest wargame I ever learned, likely the most worn wargame I have ever owned, and it is definitely the only wargame I was ever able to get to housewives to play against me
                    Hey, if you can get to atypical 30 something housewives able to capably play a real wargame, you are either a frickin genius, or the wargame is near perfect.
                    Life is change. Built models for decades.
                    Not sure anyone here actually knows the real me.
                    I didn't for a long time either.

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                    • #11
                      Up Front

                      Originally posted by Aries View Post
                      In every way that actually counts, Up Front portrays warfare at the squad level so completely better than almost any other squad level game in existence. It's just amazing that MMP has not MADE this game reappear on the market. . . .

                      Up Front SHOULD be on sale right now. That it isn't is just incredible.
                      It's likely the easiest wargame I ever learned, likely the most worn wargame I have ever owned, and it is definitely the only wargame I was ever able to get to housewives to play against me . . .
                      I agree--up to a point.

                      The year Up Front was first released, I resisted buying it for a while. I was thoroughly immersed in the Squad Leader system, and I suspected UF was just an experiment riding on SL's coattails. But when I finally became overwhelmed by SL's ever-increasing complexity (ASL hadn't yet come along to restore cohesion to the system), I decided to give UF a shot.

                      My first impression was negative, but then the game quickly grew on me. After several playings, I put all my SL stuff away and declared UF the new leader in tactical wargames. (Indeed, I even got a housewife to play it with me. Well, not exactly--but she was a woman friend who'd been a housewife at various times in her life.)

                      I played UF solitaire about 90 percent of the time, though, which is the case with all my wargames. I've never been much of an interactive gamer (though I did run a wargaming club and put on small conventions for a couple years in the early 1970s).

                      Anyhow, yeah, UF is a great game; it was one of my favorites for a long time. Nevertheless, I ended up selling my copy last time I moved.

                      Why? Well, because I doubted I'd ever play it again. I sold all my wargames, because they were just taking up closet space.

                      There are a number of reasons why I'd never play UF or any of those games again, but the main reason is the home computer. Once I got used to the computer, it became unthinkable to spend a half hour or more just setting up a game, or leaving a space-consuming wargame set up on a table for the next time I wanted to play a turn or two. Furthermore, the computer had become a ready opponent; it meant I no longer had to play both sides against each other--I could find real competition (hidden movement and all) without having to talk anybody else into playing.

                      Of course, UF is pretty quick and easy to set up; and it's short and fast-playing enough that it usually gets finished in one sitting. So, it doesn't have any of the above-mentioned problems.

                      The problem it does have is "relative range." While I loved most things about UF, I could never get used to those stupid relative-range chits. They're supposed to tell you how close one of your groups is to the enemy. The cards don't actually move; the relative-range chit just changes numbers as you close in on an enemy group. That requires some visualization, and it pretty much spoiled the game for me. (IIRC, even the developer, Don Greenwood, said UF should have had a map and would have become more popular if it had had units moving on a map.)

                      In some newer card-battle games, the cards actually do move across the tabletop. I haven't tried one of these, but it sounds like a good idea. Here's one example (in the fantasy genre):
                      http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/18985

                      I do have fond memories of Up Front. It would've been nice if the game had caught on like ASL did and been expanded beyond Banzai and Desert War. And if it had had a good solitaire system. And if it had some alternative to those annoying relative-range chits.
                      --Patrick Carroll


                      "Do all you have agreed to do, and do not encroach on other persons or their property." (Richard Maybury)

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                      • #12
                        Originally posted by Patrick Carroll View Post
                        Take the board wargame Advanced Squad Leader, for instance. It's rich with detail, and I was wowed by it for several years, supposing it to be the last word in tactical WWII ground actions. Then one day I looked at the scenario I was playing, and I said to myself, "Wait a minute. There's no way a commander could ever possibly have this kind of control over his units, or even the amount of exact information players enjoy in this game." In short, the game is nowhere near as realistic as I once thought it was. I'd been suckered in by all the detail (and the fact that it's a very exciting wargame to play, once you get the hang of it).
                        There are very few wargames that doesnt give you a godlike command structure. The only one that is realistic in that aspect is IMO Panther Games HTTR and COTA. There you have a real command structure where orders has to filter down alot of levels before the reciving units starts to execute them. In that time the situation of course has changed so that new orders need to be given. Those game are clear and unforgiving in when they teaches the lessons of initiative and planning when in command.

                        Me and a friend recently picked up ASL and finds it very realistic. It holds alot of dynamic fluent actions (alot is happening at the same time all though the game is turn based) and the detailed rules are partly responsible of that. I am sure that ASL very well can be used to teach the principles of warfare its just a matter of how you play it. We are both in the military and that of course influence our playing style, but if you are using alot of gamey tactics then you could ruin just about every game and make it unrealistic and pointless in a military sense.
                        "The secret of war lies in the communications" - Napoleon Bonaparte

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                        • #13
                          What do I like about ASL?

                          It isn't the detail or the accuracy, actually, I just like rolling the dice and watching the action. More stuff can happen in a game of ASL than most wargames (physical ones that is).
                          Life is change. Built models for decades.
                          Not sure anyone here actually knows the real me.
                          I didn't for a long time either.

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                          • #14
                            Originally posted by Aries View Post
                            What do I like about ASL?

                            It isn't the detail or the accuracy, actually, I just like rolling the dice and watching the action. More stuff can happen in a game of ASL than most wargames (physical ones that is).
                            That's a pretty good way to put it.

                            One of the great highlights of my forty-year wargaming life is sitting down to teach myself Squad Leader by playing "The Guards Counterattack" for the first time.

                            I went into it with kind of a negative attitude; I was burnt out on complicated wargames and really wanted something simpler. But I'd heard so much about SL that I just had to give it a try.

                            Halfway into the game, I sat back in my chair, astounded. I said to myself, "This is the most exciting wargame I've ever played!"

                            And that was only the beginning.

                            Indeed, a lot can and does happen each turn in ASL, and the vagaries of the dice do keep it exciting. It held my interest for a long time.

                            Some fifteen years later, though, I found myself griping about the lack of command-control rules in ASL (even wrote up some house rules for it). But I was complaining even louder about something else: the fact that if I left the game sitting on a shelf for a couple months, I'd have to relearn all those rules next time I picked it up. After doing that a few times, it became too much work. I made an agreement with myself never to play a game that takes more than a half hour to set up, refresh my memory on, and be ready to play.

                            I still pretty much go by that rule today. As far as I'm concerned, you ought to be able to just sit down and play a game; you shouldn't have to put in an hour or three of studying and housekeeping before you can start. If game preparation takes much longer than chess, bridge, Scrabble, or Risk, I'm not interested.
                            --Patrick Carroll


                            "Do all you have agreed to do, and do not encroach on other persons or their property." (Richard Maybury)

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                            • #15
                              Things Les would fix if he could snap his fingers and make it so.

                              All the myriad cool counters that never existed for Squad Leader, suddenly have all the post Cross of Iron design elements stripped off and made into Cross of Iron based versions.

                              I have always believed, the only thing missing from Squad Leader, was everything that wasn't American Russian or German.

                              Imagine 52 boards available for Squad Leader, not 4.
                              Imagine ALL the current nations open for Squad Leader, not just 3.
                              Imagine the rules are no more complicated than Squad Leader plus Cross of Iron.

                              Yeah sure, along the way ASL has been refined and tweaked and altered and evolved, but sometimes perfection is nothing more than a person in your life that is just such an anal nitpicking little prick too
                              Life is change. Built models for decades.
                              Not sure anyone here actually knows the real me.
                              I didn't for a long time either.

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