@LudologyPod on #Wargame Complexity – Really?

A recent episode of the Ludology Podcast talked about complexity in games (Ludology 238 – Unraveling Complexity). Wargames got some special attention from Emma, Gil, and Scott. Frankly speaking, while their conversation about complexity was good, their treatment of wargames was far from flattering. I want to respond to them, but instead of just complaining about them like they expect an aged Grognard to do I want to take a broad look at wargames as viewed through the lens of complexity the Ludology gang provides.

The Ludological Six Types of Complexity

Ludology 238 discussed six types of game complexity:

  1. Spatial Complexity
  2. Arithmetical Complexity
  3. Zone Complexity
  4. Planning Complexity
  5. Rules/Mechanism Complexity
  6. Component Complexity

I want to look at each of these, but from the perspective of a board wargamer. However, before I start I will warn you that I am going to treat wargames here in very broad and general terms. Wargames come in many varieties and flavors and as a result have a wide range of complexities. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to focus mostly on the classic perception of a board wargame (since that is what the Ludological gang indirectly does); a game using hex & counters, a Combat Results Table (CRT), and six-sided dice.

Hammer’s Slammers (Mayfair Games, 1984)

Spatial Complexity

Spatial Complexity is the arrangement of game components in space. Some examples given in the podcast are tile-laying or movement of pawns like in Star Wars: X-Wing (Fantasy Flight Games, 2012+). It also is the arrangement of the components and how accessible they are in play as well as any strategy that requires visualization of the game environment.

X-Wing in play (Photo by RMN)

Generally speaking, I contend that wargames have less spatial complexity than many boardgames. I attribute this lesser-complexity to the common use of hexes. Take for example the very first edition of Ogre (Steve Jackson Games, 1977+). Here the hexes:

  • Form the game board
  • Regulate movement
  • Describe terrain
  • Measure distance
Ogre Pocket Edition courtesy sjgames.com

The mapboard in Ogre is great example of how wargames use hexes to simplify complexity. Even the use of area or point-to-point systems generally provide the same advantages as hexes. Some of the more unique wargames out there actually ‘break the rules’ and use a very different spatial orientation to challenge the players to look at the subject differently. The best example I can think of here is Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s Wing Leader series (GMT Games, 2015+) with its side-view of the battle airspace.

Wing Leader – Supremacy (GMT Games, 2017) – Photo by RMN

Another kind of spatial complexity in wargames comes from stacking. When counters stack, the information below the top unit becomes hidden. Most wargames have some sort of rule for stacking but when more than one counter is allowed in a space some degree of spatial complexity is inevitable; even if it is only hiding the map below.

Monster wargames are another type of spatial complexity. I will never get to play my complete Operation Mercury: The Invasion of Crete (MMP, 2017) for no other reason than I will never have the space to play it. In many ways though this is little different than a heavy Eurogame. Thankfully, we recently bought a new dining table which is better sized to support sprawling footprint games like Terraforming Mars (Stronghold Games, 2016) or Scythe (Leader Games, 2016).

If there is a genre of wargaming suffers from spatial complexity it is most likely those games associated with 3D movement like some air combat or submarine games. I will note that wargames that dig into 3D spatial complexity also often invest in tools to help ease the same. Look no further than flight stands for minis or tilt blocks.

Courtesy Ad Astra Games

Bottom Line – Wargames by their nature often strive to simplify spatial complexity.

Arithmetical Complexity

Arithmetical Complexity is basically the amount of math required in the game. Ludology seems to focus on point scoring or tracking points. To me, arithmetical complexity in wargames most often comes from the dice and those classic combat odds. But even so the math is often quite simple.

The use of dice in wargames adds an unavoidable form of complexity often through the use of the d6. Although many role-playing games went with the d20 (which is an easy way of expressing percentage success/failure in 5% increments) many wargames use the ubiquitous d6. Figuring the ‘odds’ of a particular roll on a d6 or 2d6 is not as intuitively obvious as a d20.

Photo by Matthias Groeneveld on Pexels.com

I personally find it interesting to look at those ‘special dice’ from the Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars RPG system that use different multi-sided dice with unique symbology. At the end of the day there is math behind those dice and the range of results possible; it just gets hidden behind the symbols. Wargames with special dice, like the Commands & Colors family of games, are actually not that different.

Given the relatively small range of results on 2d6 (11 possible outcomes) it is inevitable that Die Roll Modifiers are used. However, a good designer will realize that the classic 2d6 is very sensitive to shifts so the DRMs are often kept small. Any math required here is the most basic of adding / subtracting small numbers.

The classic odds-based Combat Results Table may be seen as a source of arithmetical complexity. Yes, a bit of ‘higher’ math is required – if you consider division and rounding ‘more advanced.’ For myself, I think I figured out how add, subtract, divide, and round numbers playing wargames before I really understood those concepts in school!

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Many wargames also include Victory Point tracks or other mechanisms to help keep track of scoring. Certainly there are a few math-heavy games like Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games/Amarillo Design Bureau, 1979+) aka ‘accounting in space’ but even then the Energy Allocation Forms are basically a fill-in-the-blank sheet and little math beyond addition or subtraction is needed. Honestly, the plot sheets in SFB are NOT arithmetical complexity but component complexity (which comes later).

Star Fleet Battles Energy Allocation Form

Bottom Line – Wargames use arithmetical complexity in core mechanics but also often rely on mechanical or component design to simplify dealing with that complexity.

Zone Complexity

Dr. Scott Rogers addressed Zone Complexity in Ludology 209 and I talked about my views on it here. Rogers’ Six Zones of Play are best though of as distance from player to game and is shown this way:

Courtesy Ludology

Let’s take a look at each of these in order with a wargame-eye.

Dominant Hand – In wargames, the dominant hand is most often used to move components. This is the physical interaction with the Main Board (Zone 4).

Non -Dominant Hand – I don’t know about you but unlike the illustration above I usually roll dice with my dominant hand. The non-dominant hand is often not a major factor in wargames with the most common exception being wargames that include cards where the non-dominant hand can be used to hold them. Depending on the game, wargamers may use their non-dominant hand to bring player aids or rule books from Zone 5 or 6 closer.

Tableau – Again, not a very common wargame zone unless we are talking about plotting moves or mechanically very different games like Tank Duel: Enemy in the Crosshairs (GMT Games, 2019) which does away with the board (Zone 4) and instead uses tank tableaus in front of individual players.

Tank Duel courtesy GMT Games

Main Board – Wargames almost universally use some sort of map to portray the area of the battle. This makes Zone 4 the primary zone for wargames.

Iron Curtain (MMP, 2020) – Main Board with tracks and Side Boards (Photo by RMN)

Side Board – Often used in wargames through player aids to arrange reinforcements or maybe handle a subsystem. In the recently published Iron Curtain: Central Europe 1945-1989 (Multi-Man Publishing, 2020) each side has a Player Display for tracking air units and special reinforcements. Sometimes, space permitting, the sideboard is part of the Main Board such as when the tables or tracks are put on the map.

Rulebooks – Wargames, being analog models of potentially complex interactions, often need the Rulebook close at hand. A more recent innovation has been to also produce Player Books with extensive Examples of Play to facilitate learning.

Bottom Line – Wargames focus on Zone 4 and work their way outward from their. Wargames also have long recognized that in order to overcome perceptions of complexity, good Zone 5 aids are required. This same need has now extended into Zone 6 with the publication of Play Books or the like.

Planning Complexity

Planning Complexity is the amount of ‘thinking’ that is required to play a game. It is an attempt to measure the amount of strategy needed to play. To me, when I am asked how ‘complex’ a game is the degree of strategy needed is what I actually think about. This is different than mechanical complexity; a very mechanically simple game may require much deep thinking (planning) as much as the opposite applies too. For example, look at Table Battles (Hollandspiele, 2017). Mechanically, the game really is nothing more than rolling dice and placing them on cards. But if you roll and place those dice without thinking about it, YOU WILL FAIL. That’s because Table Battles is actually a very deep game of moves and forced countermoves.

With regard to planning complexity, wargames and many strategy boardgames have much in common. Wargames, by their very nature, rely on planning because a good wargame at heart is a game system that challenges the players to develop and implement a strategy to achieve victory.

Bottom Line – If you’re not playing a wargame with a plan then why are you playing a wargame?

Rules/Mechanism Complexity

At this point in their podcast the Ludology gang took the obligatory swipe at wargaming. When discussing rules complexity they started out by naming Advanced Squad Leader (Avalon Hill, Multi-Man Publishing, 1985) as an example of rules complexity (quickly followed by The Campaign for North Africa and the infamous Pasta Rule). Here I doth protests for Gil himself admits he never played ASL and is only passing along the common perception. He does redeem himself (slightly) by explaining that he has been told that, with some effort, ASL can be easily understood if one plays regularly. Even so, Gil and the gang eventually go so far as to dismiss ASL as a ‘simulation’ meaning that, of course, simulations require more rules that ‘just games.’

Courtesy BGG

[Sigh] Where do I start?

I’ll contend that here the Ludology gang confuses Rules/Mechanics Complexity with their later category Component Complexity. The fact that ASL (or even my beloved Star Fleet Battles) requires rulebooks in binders is NOT an automatic mark of rules complexity. I think the Ludology gang would better served us all by focusing this part of their discussion on just Mechanical Complexity. Yes, some wargames can be quite complex, especially with many rule interactions, but just as often (maybe more often?) wargames use a simple core mechanic or set of mechanisms that make learning, and playing easy. To me, complexity in ANY game comes from rules EXCEPTIONS or too much ‘chrome’.

Mechanical complexity is how hard it is to operate the game system. Like every other niche of the hobby gaming genre, I’ll admit that there are certainly wargames that are way too mechanically complex for what they are doing. In some ways the Ludology team is correct that when games veer towards simulation they can get very complex very quickly. My poster child wargame example here is Birds of Prey (Ad Astra Games, 2008) and the nomograph used for movement.

“Kinda complicated….”

Bottom Line: Wargames run the full gamut of Rules/Mechanism Complexity no differently than any other segment of the hobby gaming market. Indeed, ‘simple’ boardgames are under appreciated (if not outright disrespected) by large segments of the hobby boardgaming community (which I term ‘Vassalizing’ – see later).

Component Complexity

Component Complexity focused on the ‘usefulness’ of components. This complexity can range from functionality to aesthetics. Here is where I think the classic design approach to wargames again has its advantages. I already discussed how hexes simplify movement or range determination. Counters often use symbology (the most famous being NATO symbology) to help identify units. In wargames, perhaps to a greater degree than in other segments of the hobby boardgame market, many game execution and adjudication systems are reduced to tables.

South China Sea (Compass Games, 2017) – Photo by RMN

That said, wargames are not without component complexity. Wargame designers and publishers are notorious for having poorly arranged player aids (just where is that table?). Those small 1/2″ counters are a great example of component complexity because they are often hard to read and hard to handle (how many Grognards own tweezers for counters?). As an aging Grognard I appreciate publishers like Canvas Temple Publishing or Academy Games that make bigger counters for their games.

Rulebook size can also be a form of component complexity. Wargames with binder-sized games are complex to read and assimilate, but they often strive to overcome this complexity with a useful arrangement (and those that don’t get rightfully lambasted). Look at the discussion in the hobby boardgame world over the rule books (both of them) for Root (Leder Games, 2018). The first rule book, Root: Learning to Play, is written in a very boardgames-like conversational style. In many ways this narrative approach is similar to Play Books that GMT Games often add these days. The second rule book, The Law of Root, is numbered and generally arranged similar to the classic SPI rules layout. Frankly, the SPI approach is more appropriate to referencing rules than it is to learning.

Photo by RMN

Unlike the trope that wargames rules are bloated and complex (which the Ludology gang leans into) I would point you to nearly any title published by Tom and Mary Russell at Hollandspiele. Tom and Mary know how to make a tightly written set of rules. I swear, they do more in eight-pages than many games do in dozens. C3i Magazine Nr. 32 even helped them present the rules on a single double-sided, full-page card.

Bottom Line: Component Complexity in wargames is often assumed because of the classic reliance on hex & counter and a long history of using certain symbology as a short-hand language.

Vassel-izing Wargames?

I found the Ludology discussion of complexity in gaming somewhat enlightening. However, I also perceive a bias of the hosts against wargames. Their treatment of wargames demonstrated to me that they ascribe to the common perceptions that wargames are complex simulations of conflict with high degrees of complexity. For what claims to be “A podcast about the “why” of gaming” that this is, frankly, a very unenlightened position. Looking back over the history of the podcast, I see few attempts to understand the wargame segment of the market, the notable exception being way back in Episode 110 – The Battle Begin in August 2015 where then-hosts Geoff Engelstein and Mike Fitzgerald interviewed Richard Borg and discussed the Commands & Colors family of games.

Indeed, the Ludology gang comes very close to ‘Vasselizing’ wargames. Tom Vassel of Dice Tower very unfairly and disrespectfully dismissed Brave Little Belgium (Hollandspiele, 2019) simply because it didn’t have a mounted mapboard and came with simple chits and a short rulebook – and a d6. Given the example wargames the Ludological team sites and their own testimony that they have little familiarity with few wargames titles discussed, I think they need to expand their horizons if they truly want to be respected for their gaming views.

So here’s my challenge to Gil, Emma, and Steve: Rather than just passing along “what I heard from friends,” why don’t you try to play ASL Starter Kit #1? When doing so, look at the game (not simulation) in terms of your six types of complexity and give us an honest evaluation. Tell us, just how spatially complex the small hex maps are. How much arithmetical complexity is there in both executing actions as well as tracking points? How do you rate the need for planning in ASLSK#1 versus a heavy Eurogame like Food Chain Magnate or even Power Grid? How does ASLSK#1 employ the different zones; and when it does so do they facilitate or hinder game play? In terms of mechanical complexity, just how complex are the game mechanisms and do you see any abstraction in what you have already termed a ‘simulation’? Finally, how complex are the components to manipulate and how are they are conveying useful game information? Love it or hate it, this aged Grognard would be very happy to listen to your comments and engage in a conversation with you.

Yeah, as that aged Grognard I’m biased (somewhere the Ludology folks took a swipe at Grognards in this episode too) but I also try to be fair. The Ludology Six Types of Complexity is a useful tool for looking at ALL games. Wargames, like all games, can be complex but they are not automatically so like the Ludology gang projects.


3 comments

  1. I did not listen to the original podcast, but I would like to see/hear the discussion between you and the podcast hosts which you proposed. There’s really something to be gained from open dialogue on these matters!

  2. What an excellent post! Great rebuttal (though I didn’t listen to the original podcast so I can’t say how well it addresses their issues).

    Well-written and definitely making the case that they slighted wargames a bit unfairly.

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