An exchange on my #wargame Twitter feed got me thinking…
I (mostly) agree with Mike Siggins when it comes to publishers, and designers. I usually follow publishers only enough to see what their schedule is. I sometimes track designers just to see what they are working on…if I am interested. As far as “content creators” go I tend to look at boardgame reviews more than wargames. More often than not, I end up looking at a review of a game AFTER I play it.
I also generally agree with Mike S. on historical notes. I too try to be well-read, and very often if I’m going to play a wargame I will already have some historical background. Like Mike, if I don’t have any background I will seek it out elsewhere; any historical notes in a game rule book should be the LAST place I look! I used to read the historical notes in wargames first and every time, but as my library and knowledge grew I do it less often. Many times I end up not enjoying the historical notes as it often tells me less about the history and more about how deep (or not) the designer actually explored the topic. It can be very useful for revealing any biases and assumptions behind the design, which I would rather read after I experience the game so I make my own judgments without them being clouded in advance.
What I do like to read, after my first play, is Designer’s Notes. The most enlightening designer’s notes are those that explain how they are trying to use the game to show/model/simulate/evoke an idea, concept, or event. I really enjoy seeing how game mechanisms work to create the story. The games I like most are like a Cirque du Soleil show—a combination of circus acts (game mechanisms) assembled in a creative way to tell a story (game). Above all else, like Mike I recognize that games are games; while some may border on simulations they should not be.
THIS weekend I put Konigsberg: The Soviet Attack on East Prussia, 1945 (Revolution Games, 2018) on the gaming table. One of the reasons I traded for the game is that I really like the chit-pull mechanic in the game that makes it very friendly. I also was interested in the topic as I don’t have many late-war games set on the Eastern Front. I certainly have many early war titles (or even full war) but my late war games tend to be set on the Western Front. So I picked up this game to learn more about the period. Unfortunately, what I discovered is I need to teach myself more than I expected.
Some background for Konigsberg is found on the Revolutions Game website for the game:
Covering the Soviet attack in East Prussia in 1945. The game handles the 20 first days of the attack starting on the 13th of January 1945. The 3rd Belorussian Front under command of Cherniakhovsky launches an attack into the northeast of East Prussia while the 2nd Belorussian Front, commanded by Rokossovsky, one day later starts an attack from the south east. However, Army Group Mitte, under the command of Reinhardt, puts up an astonishing defence desperately pushing the Soviets back.
The time is however on the Soviet side and when the defence finally crumbles there is nothing left to withstand the Soviet troops to ravage the country.
I totally understand that the ad copy on a publishers website is to ‘whet your appetite’ for a game. In no way is it meant to be a comprehensive study of the subject. However, as I studied Konigsberg I discovered that, surprisingly, that is all the background given in any of the game content. I guess I’m spoiled because I ‘expect’ wargames to include some sort of historical background. Alas, Konigsberg does not. The game does include Players Notes which are a strategy guide to playing the game but they don’t include any historical comments.
Does that really matter? Well, yes.
Wanting to learn more of the history of Konigsberg I consulted my library. I found a few works that presented a broad narrative of the events of January 1945 (a date, mind you, that only appears in the website ad copy but never in the rule book or player aids). I discovered that even pinning down the start date of the game was a bit, uh, dicey. I ‘think’ Konigsberg starts somewhere around 17 or 18 January 1945 because Warsaw was cleared by Soviet forces on 17 January. Tilsit was taken on 20 January which fits with what the Soviet player might achieve on Turn 1 (each turn is 2 days).
Reading the history helped me understand why some of the Random Events in Konigsberg may have been included in the game, like “Soviet Atrocity” or “Stalin Interferes.” Indeed, some of my library works, like Max Hastings’ Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945 heavily emphasized this issue. But even after reading some of the history I still struggled to play the game.
Looking a bit further, I recalled a 2011 Russian TV series, Soviet Storm: WW2 in the East, and went looking for the relevant episode set around Konigsberg. Maybe this would be helpful; approach the history from the Russian perspective. Watching the episode I was struck by how similar it was in many ways to what Max Hastings wrote.
Then it hit me – it’s not that I don’t understand (or miss) the history in Konigsberg, it’s that I don’t understand where the designer is coming from.
Konigsberg has no Designers Notes. Without such notes I don’t understand what perspective the designer comes from and what they are trying to present to me. Designer’s Notes are the perfect place to tell players not only what inspired the game, but also to tell players what the “message” the designer is trying to deliver. It might be something as simple as “another Eastern Front tank game, but with cards” or it might be something deeper like “a game that reconsiders the role of indigenous peoples in a foreigners revolution.” Whatever the message is I find it helps me understand the game more. Not the rules, but the “meta” of the game.
I’m not saying I can’t play or understand games like Konigsberg if they don’t have Designer’s Notes. Sometimes one can figure it out. But having those notes certainly helps me to see what I am exploring and guides my learning, whether I agree with the message or not.