Reports of #wargame death are an exaggeration

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.

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)

#RPG Thursday – Reappraising the Cortex Prime Game Handbook (@CortexRPG, 2020)

LAST week I was harsh upon the arrival of the long-delayed Kickstarter campaign for Cortex Prime Game Handbook. After waiting nearly three years for the book to deliver I opened it up to a SJW dreamscape. In an effort to be fair an impartial, I set the book aside for a few days then picked it up again, this time carefully trying to avoid the obvious SJW pitfalls and look at the GAME. In the late 20-teens my RPG reading covered many games as I become something of a “system freak” and tried to study the core mechanics of different roleplaying games. Here I tried to do the same for Cortex Prime. What I found in the Cortex Prime Game Handbook is a very robust toolkit and many “systems” crammed together.

New New is Actually the Old Old

Cortex Prime is the latest iteration of the Cortex System. My first exposure was in the late 20-oughts when I picked up the Battlestar Galactica Role Playing Game (Margaret Weis, 2007). This version of Cortex, later called Cortex Classic also was used in the Serenity Role Playing Game (Maragret Weis, 2005). The system kept developing into Cortex Plus which came in several flavors; from relationships-based Smallville Roleplaying Game (Margret Weis, 2010) to the superhero heroic Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (Margaret Weis, 2012) to the evolved and highly narrative Firefly Role-Playing Game (Margaret Weis, 2014). The evolution of Cortex took the system from a somewhat traditional dice-pool RPG to a highly narrative RPG system.

Here’s a little secret; Cortex Prime is nothing new. If you want to know what flavor Cortex Prime is maybe the best answer is “all of the above.” That’s because the Cortex Prime Game Handbook is a toolkit that can me used to make ANY of the previous versions of Cortex, or a new version that used modules of previous work. It does this by directing you to Prime Sets, which are different combinations of the six trait sets. As the Handbook points out, for a Grim Fantasy setting maybe use Distinctions +Attributes + Skills to describe your characters. Or for a Superheroes setting try Distinctions +Affiliations + Powers. The core mechanic is always available, but the Handbook provides many Mods which can be used to tune the rules to better match the setting you want.

Ready, Set, Build

Although Cortex Prime Game Handbook has three sample settings included, they are not very fleshed out and used more so as examples of the different design combinations available in the tooklit. The toolkit here is very powerful and can create almost any setting.

Which is the strength and weakness of Cortex Prime. Strength because the system is very versatile and can literally create any setting or genre of roleplaying your group may want. A weakness because to do so will require a very good GM with vision and aptitude to build the setting. Both of which I personally lack.

Set Your RPG

As I look over my collection, I actually see that Cortex Prime is but the latest RPG set-builder to enter my collection. I have several to choose from with different approaches to rules complexity (“crunch”), realism (“simulationist”) or narrative play. The question as always, is “Do I have time to make this happen?” Or do I just default and buy a ready-made setting?

Well, we’ll see.


Feature image courtesy https://fyxtrpg.com/rpg-meme-gallery/

#Wargame Wednesday: Save Me! Nations at War: White Star Rising (@LnLPub, 2010)

“Your turn.”

“Let me reach into my magic bag here and see what I get. Oh, will’ya look at that?”

“Yeah for me.”

“OK, first I roll for morale. I need a 7 or less. (Dice rolling). Heh heh.”

“You just got lucky.”

“Well, now I’m going to move like a hellcat through these woods, stopping at the edge and attack at point-blank range. So….I get to roll 3d6 and any 4 or more is a hit, agreed?”

“Short range is -1, but moving is +1, right? So they cancel out. OK.”

“Alright (dice rolling). Well, look at that! Three hits!”

“Lucky….but I still get my saving roll. Lets see…Mr. Tiger defends with 3d6 and any 4 or better blocks a hit. Good odds….(dice rolling)….Well, frak.”

“Oh, darn your bad luck – nothing. So my three hits get through. Lets see, first disrupts, second is step 1, third is step 2. You’re dead!”

“Well blast. And here I always thought Tigers were powerful.”

This (somewhat) dramatized exchange was not taken from a roleplaying game session. It describes an actual engagement between an American M18 Hellcat tank destroyer and a German Tiger I tank in the wargame Nations at War: White Star Rising from Lock ‘n Load Publishing (2010). What I hope stands out to you is that very non-classical, no odd-based combat resolution system. Indeed, the combat mechanics of Nations at War: White Star Rising is what sets the game apart to me.

Another Tactical WWII Game?

I recently acquired Nations at War: White Star Rising (hereafter NAW:WSR) in a trade. The copy I got is a ‘players copy’ in relatively good shape. A previous owner took it upon themselves to clip most of the corners on most of the counters. I traded more out of curiosity than to get another tactical World War II game; one of my favorite wargames (of all eras or types of conflict) is Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel 3rd Edition (Academy Games, 2019) and I was sure this would not replace that game in my pantheon of wargame heroes. That said, the Nations at War series struck me with a bit of a PanzerBlitz-vibe and I thought it would be good as a simpler, quicker-playing wargame for weekday nights against my battle buddy RockyMountainNavy T.

A Systematic View

I admit it; I am a bit of a game mechanics freak. I love playing wargames to not only explore the history of the situation, but to also explore how different designers approach an issue. When I got NAW:WSR to the table I quickly discovered that the initial PanzerBlitz-vibe I got was purely from scale and looks. As I explored the gameplay in NAW:WSR I discovered a very different approach to depicting conflict in World War II. The system integration of Chit-Pull, Command & Morale, and a different Combat model make NAW:WSR a unique game that captures the essence of the fight in a very streamlined set of rules

Well, Chit

Each turn in NAW:WSR is very straight-forward; Pull a Formation Marker from the cup and execute actions with that formation. Once two End of Turn chits are drawn, the turn ends and play proceeds to the next turn. Yes, NAW:WSR uses that favored mechanic of mine – chit pull. This makes the game both very-solo friendly but also introduces some ‘friction’ into play since players can never be sure just when they are going to activate.

Command & Morale

The second element of the design of NAW:WSR that I really enjoy is the simple command rules. Each formation has at least one Headquarters that is rated for Leadership, Command Range, and Morale. When the formation is activated all units check to see if they are in command range; if yes they activate normally. However, if a subordinate unit is NOT in command range, they need to pass a Morale Check (each hex rolls equal to or less than the Morale Level) in order to activate normally. If the unit fails the Morale Check, an Out of Command marker is placed on the unit that limits what it can do during the turn. This simple mechanic nicely captures the essence of the C2 problems forces on the battlefield faced – again using a relatively simple mechanic that plays quickly without bogging down the turn.

Combat Saves

As you can see from the narrative at the beginning of this post, combat in NAW:WSR is somewhat different than many wargames. Although this title has been available since 2010, this was the first time I can personally recall seeing this sort of system used in a wargame I own. But does it work?

NAW:WSR is a platoon-level wargame which places it in an interesting area on the spectrum of conflict simulations. Platoon-level games are simultaneously detailed and abstracted. The detail is often found in the order of battle for at the platoon-level you can easily depict the many elements of the combined arms fight. Thus, you don’t get just a Sherman tank, you can get an M4A1 or an M4A3E8 (aka “Easy 8”). To tactical gaming purist out there, those are two very different beasts!

The problem is that the detailed order of battle in turn demands a way to differentiate units in terms of their capabilities. Traditionally, hex & chit wargames use the classic Attack-Defense-Movement triumvirate of ratings to describe units. This simplification sometimes has difficulty keeping up with the detailed order of battle because unless you get more detailed the abstraction of triumvirate often fails to differentiate between units. The lack of differences can be made worse by the use of a traditional Combat Resolution Table (CRT) that strictly compares odds. A greater part of this issue is the classic use of 2d6 for games which limits the range of results and can be very sensitive to modifiers if not used carefully.

NAW:WSR takes a different approach to differentiating units by using five descriptive ratings:

  • AP Firepower rated by Range-Firepower-To Hit#
  • HE Firepower rated by Range-Firepower-To Hit#
  • Assault Factor rated by Assault Factor-To Hit#
  • Armor Value rated by Armor Value-Save#
  • Movement Factor

Taken together, these ratings can be used to describe a finer grade of differences between combat systems without becoming too detailed. One can capture which weapons reached further than others; the combination of Firepower and To Hit# gets to now only who throws more ordnance downrange, but how likely it is to do something if it hits. Then there is the Armor Value and Save# which not only describes how much armor there is but how likely it is to actually do something.

It’s easy to see that the designer of NAW:WSR tried to avoid an odds-based Combat Resolution Table (CRT). To attack, the player selects the appropriate Firepower ensuring that the target is in Range (Extended and Reduced Range is possible) and then rolls a number of d6 equal to that Firepower. Every die that is equal to or greater than the To Hit# scores a Hit. If the target is a ‘soft target’ (non-armored) they roll a number of defensive d6 equal to the terrain defense bonus. For every defender die that rolls five (5) or greater one hit is ignored. In a similar fashion, ‘hard targets’ (armored vehicles) roll a number of defending d6 equal to the Armor Value plus the terrain defense bonus. Each defense die that rolls equal to or greater than the Save Number offsets one hit.

This is how you get a US M18 Hellcat Tank Destroyer (AP Firepower 6-3-4) attacking a German Tiger I (Armor Value 3-4) at range 1. The Hellcat has a Special Scenario Rule (SSR) that allows it to move up to three movement points and still shoot but at a penalty of +1 on the To Hit#. During the turn in question, Kamfgruppe Beck (the Tiger I formation) had already activated and the Tiger I moved resulting in an Ops Complete marker being placed on the unit. When the 507 PIR formation was activated (the M18 being cross attached) the Hellcat player recognized that since the Tiger I was Ops Complete it was not eligible for Opportunity Fire. Using the SSR the M18 moved through a hex of woods and pulled up one hex from the Tiger I. The M18 then took the shot at range 1 (Reduced Range) which is -1 on the To Hit#. The Hellcat here rolled 3d6…and each was a 4 or greater scoring three Hits. The Tiger I attempted to save itself and rolled 3d6 (Armor Value) but got no additional defense bonus die because it was in open terrain. None of the three die rolled were equal to or greater than 4 meaning all three Hits scored. This was enough to outright destroy the Tiger I. That was by far the best outcome for the Hellcat because if the roles were reversed it is doubtful the Hellcat would survive. The Tiger I would attack at 7-3-3 whereas the Hellcat defends at 1-6. At Reduced Range that AP Firepower becomes 7-3-2 meaning any of the 3d6 rolled that come up at 2 or more is a hit. The poor Hellcat would get a defense bonus die for being in the woods but even so that’s only 2d6 rolled…and each needs to be a 6 to offset a hit!

All of which is a long-winded way of saying the Save Number works. Even in a wargame. When it comes right down to it, the combat model in NAW:WSR is not really all that different than the traditional odds-based CRT, it just uses a different randomizer model to deliver similar odds. The real difference is that the NAW:WSR model “operates faster” because there is little need to “math it out;” instead you simply pick up dice and roll comparing to a number on the counter.

What’s Old is New Again

Nations at War: White Star Rising will get to the table against my battle buddy. The relatively small footprint and quick-playing nature of the game along with just enough ‘detail’ helps to create an immersive, narrative gameplay experience. The different mechanics are just that, different.

My 2019 Golden Geek Award Challenge – The (lack of) story behind Zooloretto (Rio Grande Games, 2007)

IN THE PAST I HAVE TRIED TO BE A EUROGAMER. I have not done very well. Maybe it’s my wargame roots. Maybe it’s because I can be stubborn. Sometimes it’s because Eurogames fail to engage me. That’s surely the case with Zooloretto (Rio Grande Games, 2007). In 2007 Zooloretto won the Golden Geek Award for Best Family Game/Best Children’s Game. I think I bought Zooloretto that year or next based on this award. The oldest RMN Kids would have been between nine and 12 years old so this should of been an enjoyable game for them.

It wasn’t.

I recall playing the game a few times and the RMN Kids not engaging with it and telling me, “it’s boring.” Surely, a colorful game with animals and a zoo should of appealed to them, right? Why not?

For my 2019 Golden Geek Challenge I pulled Zooloretto out and gave it a spin. At it’s heart, Zooloretto is a simple set collection and tile placement game. That’s it. Draw tiles and place them on the truck. Collect truck. Place in your zoo. Use money to open up new enclosures and get money for sets of animals. Rinse, repeat until all tiles used. Score. Dead simple. That’s the game described mechanically. Hearing the game described in this manner is B-O-R-I-N-G.

I think that was my mistake. The game is really a story about zoos competing against each other. Each player wants to have the full enclosures with vending nearby to earn more money and attract more visitors. Animals in the barn don’t earn money; in fact, they lose money. The more visitors you have, the more points you earned. Most visitors win!

The box back has a little narrative blurb to sell that theme:

Each player uses small, large, wild and exotic animals and their young to try and attract as many visitors as possible to their zoo.

But be careful – the zoo must be carefully planned. Before you know it, you have too many animals and no more room for them. That brings minus points! Luckily, your zoo can expand.

The box back sells the theme, but no mechanics. That connection should be in the rule book. Unfortunately, a connection between theme and mechanics doesn’t really come through. The closest is the introduction:

GAME IDEA

Each player is a zoo owner. Players score points by attracting as many visitors to their zoos as possible. To accomplish this, they must collect matching sets of animals. If a player manages to obtain very many animals for his zoo, then he will find it worthwhile to expand. Because once the enclosures are full, the animals need to go into the barn and the player loses points again. Small vending stalls near the enclosures guarantee a minimum number of visitors. The player with the most points wins the game.

There is so much wrong with that little blurb:

  • Each player is a zoo owner (Check)
  • Players score points by attracting as many visitors to their zoo as possible (but nowhere else does it say points are people)
  • …they must collect matching sets of animals (well, it is a set collection game)
  • If a player manages to obtain many animals for his zoo, then he will find it worthwhile to expand (actually, you need money to expand)
  • Because once the enclosures are full the animals need to go to the barn…. (technically a player can place animals in the barn even with empty enclosures)
  • …and the player loses points again (wait, where did it tell me I lost points the first time?)
  • Small vending stalls near the enclosure guarantee a minimum number of visitors (guarantee is a bit of a strong word here)
  • The player with the most points wins the game (you mean visitors, right?).

I shouldn’t have to work this hard to connect theme and mechanics.

That said, I may try to bring this one out again on a game night. At ages 8+ and 45 minutes playing time a few of Mrs RMN’s students may be candidates for play. Next time though I am going to try to sell them on the theme before I explain the game mechanics.