The Regiment over at the Armchair Dragoons in their Mentioned in Dispatches podcast recently discussed, “Is Wargaming Dead? Or only mostly dead?” (Season 5, Episode 9). It’s a good discussion so I recommend you take the time to listen. At the end Brant asked for community discussion and feedback. As I wasn’t a guest I’m going to use this chance to give you my two-cents.
No, wargaming is not dying, but is is changing. This is a refrain that several of the guests harped on. I’m going to expand a bit on their thoughts. As I see it, there are two major changes in the wargame hobby; demographics and mechanics.
Actually, I take that back. What’s changing (or not?) is the our own perceptions of demographics and (belated?) recognition that wargaming is, and indeed always has been, more than ‘classic’ hex & counter.
What you see is not what you always get – Grognards
Looking across the hobby boardgame community and more narrowly at wargamers, a common stereotype of a wargamer is that of a Grognard; an old soldier who refuses to die and lives through recalling the glory of the past. More than anything else, I think this stereotype not only is untrue but also damages our hobby. I can tell you that in the RockyMountainNavy house there are three wargamers with an average age of 30 years old. When I attend CONNECTIONS, the professional wargaming conference of the DoD, there certainly are ‘old hands’ but there are also many, many more “younger” wargamers. Back when we could walk into a FLGS and look at the Flames of War or Warhammer tables it was not all old farts. Yet the perception persists that wargamers are all old. Regardless of why the perception exists, the truth it that the hobby is not as old as the perception tells us.
Fighting this perception is challenging. Part of the problem is that the conversation about the ‘future’ of the hobby tends to be dominated by those very oldsters who are fighting against it. In order for the perception to change, Grognards have to embrace the change. I mean, look at the name of the podcast episode, “Is Wargaming Dead?” A much more useful conversation might be, “How is Wargaming Changing and What Can Be Made Good About It?”
What’s Old is New Again – Wargame Mechanics
The ‘classic’ defintion of a wargame often appears to be a hex & counter game using an odds-based Combat Resolution Table (CRT) and dice as a randomizer for combat resolution. I think this comes from the dominance of Simulations Publications, Inc.. (SPI) in the 1970’s and books like Jim Dunnigan’s Wargames Handbook that uses Drive on Metz as the exemplar game. Even during the podcast episode, the speakers all seemed to use Advanced Squad Leader as an example of a wargame. I’ll say it once and say it again; ASL is a very recognizable wargame, but it is hardly the defintion of a wargame, much less what we should be using to ‘define’ our hobby.
I started wargaming in the late 1970’s. My first wargame was actually Panzer designed by Jim Day published by Yaquinto Games in 1979. Panzer is basically a historical miniatures game with a relatively detailed combat system transferred to hexes. I also played Star Fleet Battles (Steve V. Cole, Task Force Games, 1979), a highly thematic and process-heavy game system, even investing heavily in metal(!) miniatures to play the game on a ping-pong table in my basement. My friends and I also played alot of Rise and Decline of the Third Reich (John Prados, Avalon Hill, 1974). All three of these wargames used hexes (or optionally miniatures in two cases), all three used counters (or miniatures), and all three had some form of a CRT (but only one was attacker-defender odds based). I would be hard pressed to call any of them just a plain hex & counter wargame (maybe Third Reich, maybe).
As a matter of fact, for as many hex & counter games I have in my collection, there are just as many games that don’t fit the classic definition. One of my earliest area control (no hexes) games is Victory in the Pacific 2nd Edition (Avalon Hill, 1981). I have a first edition of both For the People (Mark Herman, GMT Games, 1998) and Paths of Glory (Mark Herman, GMT Games, 1999) which are the games that started the Card Driven Game phenomenon. More recently I acquired Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater 1775-1777 (Tom Russell, Hollandspiele, 2017) which is one of the best examples of taking Eurogame-inspired mechanics and using them in a wargame. And as much as people want to proclaim David Thompson’s Undaunted series as innovative, a card wargame is nothing new with roots going at least as far back as Up Front (Avalon Hill, 1983).
In the RockyMountainNavy house, the most popular wargame is 878 Vikings: Invasions of England (Academy Games, 2017). This game uses area control, figures (‘dudes on a map’) and specialty dice for combat resolution. There is nothing ‘classic’ about the game. Another popular wargame is Undaunted: North Africa (Davis Thompson & Trevor Benjamin, Osprey Games, 2020) which is a tile map, counters, but no CRT. The RMN Boys also love playing Tank Duel: Enemy in the Crosshairs (Mike Bertucelli, GMT Games, 2019) which has no map, no counters, and no CRT.
A few years back, I actually categorized some of my wargames as waros; wargames with Eurogame-inspired mechanics. I don’t do that anymore because the truth is wargames have long used inspiration from other part of the hobby in terms of mechanics. Area control? Tile laying? Set collection? Diceless combat? Card-driven? All can be found in wargames going back several decades. So when people say “wargames are dying” and then point to the ‘classic’ hex & counter games, they actually are finally recognizing that our hobby has always mechanically been more than hex & counter – we just for the longest time tried to identify ourself with that classic definition no matter how much (or not) is was actually not applicable.
Bored to Death Yet?
Hopefully not. Hopefully you are as excited about the wargame and hobby boardgame hobby as I am. No, it’s not dying; we just need to accept that our hobby can change.
Like it always has.
Feature image Death of A Loyalist Soldier, Cordoba (Robert Capa)