Reading for Roleplaying…or #Wargame? – The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity by Jon Peterson (@docetist) – or – I’m a Munchkin Grognard (#RPG #TravellerRPG)

My first role-playing game (RPG) was Traveller from game Designers’ Workshop back in 1979. In the same little store where I discovered my first wargame, Panzer by Jim Day from Yaquinto Publishing (1979), I found a small, very plain black box with three Little Black Books inside. So started my RPG adventures which would parallel my wargame experiences. As I was a solid military history reader and generally avoided fantasy science fiction in those days I never felt the urge to play Dungeons & Dragons like a few of my friends. But that was OK; we played the heck out of Traveller for RPGs and Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games, 1979+) for wargaming back in those days. All of which means I entered the world of RPGs without realizing that I was amongst defining moments of the hobby. The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity by Jon Peterson provides a “lost” history of how Dungeons & Dragons and other games came to define a new genre of gaming – the role-playing game.

As Peterson points out, Dungeons & Dragons (1974) did not call itself a role-playing game. Indeed, the cover stated it was, “rules for fantastic medieval wargames campaigns” (Peterson, 15). Starting from this observation, Peterson in The Elusive Shift takes the reader on a historical survey of how role-playing games came to be defined; or, as Mr. Peterson says:

It is not the ambition of this study to settle on a tidy dictionary defintion of role-playing game but instead to show historically how the game community came to grapple with agreeing on one.

Peterson, The Elusive Shift, p. 19

A Munchkin Grognard Traveller Perspective

Like I already stated, my first foray into RPGs was through Traveller, not D&D. At the same time I was entering the wargaming hobby. Forty years later I consider myself a wargame Grognard, that of an “Old Guard” of players who have been involved in the hobby a long time. So it was interesting to realize that in RPG terms of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s that I was a “munchkin.” As Peterson relates:

It was around this time that the pejorative term munchkin entered the role players’ vocabulary. The Wargamer’s Encyclopedic Dictionary (1981) defines a munchkin as “a young wargamer, generally under 14 or 16 years of age,” in contrast to a grognard, “a wargamer who has been in the hobby a very long time.”

Peterson, The Elusive Shift, p. 232

As I was 12 years old when I got my first wargame and RPG, I was actually a very young munchkin which is probably why I missed out on so much of the background fighting over what the RPG hobby was; I simply did not have the money to subscribe to all those newsletters or magazines where the discussion was taking place! Even if I did subscribe, as a sixth-grader the discussion may even had gone right over my head (figuratively and literally).

Through reading The Elusive Shift I also came to discover just how much of an influence Traveller has on my definition of an RPG. Peterson goes so far to call Traveller a “transcending design” (p. 173) and devotes an Intermezzo in his book to the game. Since Traveller was my first, and for several years my only, RPG* when I read the “rules” I accepted them as “the way” without question. Peterson points out that how one plays Traveller is a matter of player preference; “There are three basic ways to play Traveller: solitaire, scenario, and campaign. Any of these three may be unsupervised (that is, without a referee; the players themselves administer the rules and manipulate the situation” (Traveller Book 1, p. 3). To this day I have no problem playing an RPG solo; it has always been an option from the beginning. I also have no problem setting up a one-shot scenario or digging into a campaign. Again, that has always been “just the way it is.” I also was very happy to see Jon Peterson call Traveller, “perhaps one of the most adaptable of the designs of the 1970s” (p. 173) though he says that because the game exemplifies the extremes of both open-ended (with a Gamemaster) and close-ended (no referee) systems. Without trying to ignite an “Edition Wars” argument discussion here I’ll just say that these days I am very happy with the Cepheus Engine version of Traveller which is very similar to the original Little Black Books Classic Traveller from decades ago.

In The Elusive Shift Peterson shows how Dungeons & Dragons grew out of both the wargaming and science fiction fan communities. Again, as I entered both genres of hobby gaming at the same time I didn’t really see any “legacy” issues . All of which means I never really got into the whole “D&D is a wargame” controversy discussion because RPGs and wargames were always two related-yet-distinct facets of hobby gaming to me.

To this day, the wargame community constantly grapples with the age-old question “What is a wargame?” Heck, even I took a stab at answering that question in an episode of the Mentioned in Dispatches podcast for the Armchair Dragoons. Peterson’s The Elusive Shift shows us how a closely related community grappled with a very similar defining issue. This book won’t give wargamers an answer to their question but it certainly can promote understanding of how the RPG community came to some agreement.

Coming together. In agreement. What a novel concept!

Citation

Peterson, Jon, The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2021 (Apple Books electronic edition)


*I’m not sure what my second RPG was, but it may have been Commando by SPI (1979) which Peterson notes is both a wargame AND and RPG. I know my copy has marked up charts where we tried to convert Commando tables for use in our Traveller activities. Behind Enemy Lines (1st Edition, FASA 1982) is clearly my next RPG after Traveller, though some might argue that it is more a skirmish-level wargame adventure guide than a “true” RPG.

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)

Is this a wargame? – or – A grognard’s foggy thoughts on #FogofWar (@StrongholdGames, 2016)

Fog of War by Stronghold Games (2016) is marketed as a “two-player grand strategic game covering the European theater of World War II.” On its surface, Fog of War looks to be a “wargame” but, to this old grognard, I am unsure it really is.

The BoardGameGeek wiki glossary defines wargame as,

n. A game in which players put military units or military-type units in direct or indirect conflict with each other. The goal of these games is typically annihilation of opponents and/or the attainment of certain strategic conditions. These types of games will often have high thematic content and a varying degree of abstraction. (See also miniatures game). Wargames are subdivided into three general scales: Strategic, Operational and Tactical. (See also simulation)

By this definition, Fog of War qualifies as a wargame as it has military units (cards) in direct conflict and victory is through the attainment of strategic conditions (control of various provinces).

But I disagree.

Fog of War is superficially a wargame, but at its heart it is a game of Bluffing. BoardGameGeek defines bluffing as, “Bluffing games encourage players to use deception to achieve their aims. All Bluffing games have an element of hidden information in them.” Now, I recognize that wargames often have an element of Bluffing in them, but it is not the core mechanic as in Fog of War.

To be fair, Fog of War is not marketed as a wargame. Let’s look at how Stronghold Games describes Fog of War:

The game does not have units that move around a map; instead the game focuses on the planning and intelligence aspects of the war. Each player has a deck of cards that represent the army, navy, and other assets of their nations. A map shows the 28 land and sea provinces over which the players are battling.

You defend a province by placing cards face down on the map. If you wish to attack a province, you must plan an “operation” to do so by creating one on your operation wheel. The wheel is a unique way of forcing players to commit to operations in advance, while giving opportunities for intelligence gathering and bluffing. An operation consists of a province card that shows the target of the operation, plus one or more cards to conduct the attack. All of these cards are placed face down, so your opponent does not know the target of the operation or the strength of the cards that are taking part. Each turn, the dial on the operation wheel is rotated by one position. This controls when an operation can be launched and any attack or defense bonuses that apply.

In addition to combat forces for attack or defense, you may also spend Intel tokens to look at your opponent’s operations and defenses.

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Operations Wheel (Courtesy BGG)

Hopefully, you see that the core mechanic of the game is focused on the Operations Wheel where players secretly plan attacks. Defense of provinces and attacks on the Operations Wheel are secret but players can use Intelligence Operations to try to discern the defense or attack plans. The use of deception and hidden information, and not military conflict, is at the heart of Fog of War.

 

But does that make it a bad game?

BGG User TimSmith wrote a long review of Fog of War where he praises the game. In a final assessment he declares:

This game is an absolute must for every wargame designer with any interest in the theory of war, in Clausewitz and SunZi, or the works of Michael Howard, Michael Handel and Edward Luttwak. Even the deans and doyens of our discipline will find that FoW deepens their conceptual insight into some of the non-obvious causal factors that govern war, not just in the military sphere such as attrition versus maneuver, but in the wider context of strategic interaction described by game and decision theory.

For similar reasons, it is a must for all grognards interested in studying warfare through simulation modeling. It might prompt one to contemplate how incomplete the standard wargame framework is, and perhaps to introspect into whether we have been sufficiently aware of this.

FoW is a great addition to the repertoire of those who enjoy stimulating, challenging strategy games. For all its Boogy-Woogie Bugle Boy artwork, it’s a cerebral game. The Anglo-Allies cannot blame the dice if they get booted off the continent!

And finally, for any wargame coach or teacher who uses wargames to teach history or strategy, this game offers a highly valuable and unique insight into the challenges historical figures face in committing their nations and forces to great endeavors during conflict. The game conveys a sense of plunging into the unknown that few games can match.

I know Tim (professionally) and have great respect for his opinion. I can see many of his points, but I personally think he gets a bit carried away. Fog of War demonstrates the role of planning and intelligence in war – STOP! When I keep this (narrow?) perspective I find great enjoyment in playing Fog of War. It is when I try to “read more into the game” that I find my enjoyment dropping off as I (sub?) consciously start questioning design assumptions and doubting the design. For instance, combat is resolved through a straight comparison of attack versus defense strength. The attacker automatically wins if they have a ration of 2:1 or better, seemingly ignoring the historical maxim that 3:1 odds are needed to assure victory. I think I see the design assumption behind the 2:1 decision (driven by a limited number of cards in the game) but as a grognard I found myself doubting the “validity” of the game.

Fog of War is a good game and I am glad to have added it to my collection, but it is best enjoyed with a narrower set of expectations than I started with. As a long time grognard, Fog of War challenged my definition of a wargame, but as a gamer I can enjoy the Bluffing in a military conflict setting.

Featured image courtesy Stronghold Games.

 

May 2017 – My Geek Hobby Year-to-Date

Traditionally, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer for the RockyMountainNavy family. That is until we moved to the East Coast. Now school for the RMN Boys goes until mid-June. However, I still want to use this occasion to look back on my geek hobby year-to-date.

Wargaming

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Courtesy BGG.com

According to my BGG profile, I played 10 games in January, four in February, four more in March, none in April, and only two in May. For a year that I wanted to play more I certainly have dropped off! Summer may change as I have several new games inbound. Arriving tomorrow is Conflict of Heroes: Guadalcanal – The Pacific 1942 (Academy Games, 2016). I also may be getting closer to my Kickstarter delivery of Squadron Strike: Traveller (Ad Astra Games, ??) which after many delays (unwarranted and unacceptable in my opinion) finally opened the BackerKit this week. I also pledged for Worthington Publishing’s Mars Wars – but it cancelled. This month I pledged to support Compass Games’ new Richard Borg title Command & Colors: Tricorne – The American Revolution. To be honest, I am buying this title as much for myself as for the RMN Boys – which is both a blessing and a curse. I am certainly blessed in that I have boys who love gaming, but cursed in that they are not a hard grognard like their old man. The titles also reflect a change in my gaming interests as I struggle with the closure of many FLGS and the movement of my purchasing online or (shudder) to Kickstarter. I also have several games on P500 at GMT Games and hope to see that production schedule move forward this year.

Role Playing Games

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Courtesy RPGGeek

Whereas my grognard-fu has been weakening, my RPG play has been one of steady growth. Mostly this has revolved around the Cepheus Engine RPG system and products from Gypsy Knights Games and their The Clement Sector setting or products from Samardan Press, Zozer Games (especially their SOLO supplement), and Moon Toad Publishing. I have to tip my hat to these third party publishers which are doing so much to breathe life into my RPG adventures. For this summer, I also have a Star Wars: Edge of the Empire (Fantasy Flight Games) campaign at-the-ready. Here too I have dipped deeper into Kickstarter and pledged support to Cam Banks’, Magic Vacuum Studio’s Cortex Prime: A Multi-Genre Modular Roleplaying Game.

Books

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Courtesy Amazon.com

I started off at Christmas with a good collection of books that I am whittling down at a much slower pace than I wish. This is not because I have ignored them; on the contrary, I am probably reading more than I did last year – just not reading off my list! Science fiction books have taken up much of my reading time. I have found myself lost in rereading the Charles E. Gannon’s Caine Riordan series from Baen Books. I also turned to Kickstarter again for content, this time in the form of Cirsova 2017 (Issues 5&6) and its short stories.

Plastic Models

I didn’t get time to build much but the RMN boys got many kits completed. We even found a YouTube channel that we love, Andy’s Hobby Headquarters. He not only shows great models, but the boys are studying his techniques for better building.

Education Support

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Courtesy goodreads.com

I also have to do the Dad-thing and boast a bit about my youngest RMN Boy. This past quarter he was studying World War II and had a project to complete. The project supposed the student had found items in the attic from grandparents accumulated during World War II. The student had to put together a scrapbook of a newspaper article relating a battle (writing assignment), a letter from a soldier/sailor to home describing another battle (writing assignment), a letter from home describing the home front (writing assignment), a letter from the mayor to a local boys club thanking them for supporting the war effort (another writing assignment), notes from Grandmother about key personalities (short biographies), and a propaganda poster (art assignment). We had fun doing this project as together the youngest RMN boy and I prowled my shelves for sources, watched movies and documentaries online, and even pulled out a few games to better visualize the battles. A very proud moment for this father as the New Media and my book and game collection came together to teach a young man history.


Feature image courtesy 365barrington.com

#WargameWednesday My 2016 Wargame Revival

I have been a grognard wargamer longer than I have played roleplaying games or family boardgames. However, in recent years I have fallen off in buying new wargames, partially because of the prices (generally expensive) and partially because I have spent more time and money on RPGs and family boardgames. With the rise of the online publishing industry, RPG games and supplements are way more affordable, and my family boardgames included game series like Star Wars X-Wing, Star Wars Imperial Assault, Memoir ’44, and more recently Tanks: Panther vs Sherman. These “light wargames” favor playability over complexity/realism, and in the case of X-Wing or Tanks are more akin to manual video games. These games sorta scratched my wargaming itch, mostly because I used them to introduce the RMN Boys to the hobby.

But although I was scratching the itch, I was not making it go away.

So in 2016 I made a concerted effort to return to true grognard wargaming. Looking back, my modest effort appears to have paid off.

pic1559499_mdBreaking the Chains: War in the South China Sea (Compass Games) [Naval Combat/Modern-era/Operational-level]. My effort to explore modern naval combat. Moderately successful; the game is a bit too simplified for my taste. Looking forward to the next (upgraded?) version the refines the combat system.

pic3090467_mdDawn of the Battleship (Admiralty Trilogy Group) [Naval Combat/Pre-WWI-era/Tactical-level]. A continuation of the Admiralty Trilogy-series and the first published after the break-up with Clash of Arms.

pic3163917_mdEagle of Lille (GMT Games) [Aerial Combat/WWI-era/Operational-level]. Expansion for Bloody April, 1917: Air War over Arras, France. I personally love operational-level air combat games but the prior planning and time needed to play is immense.

pic2958247_mdMBT Second Edition (GMT Games) [Ground Combat/Modern-era/Tactical-level] Jim Day‘s  Panzer (1979 Yaquinto Press) was my first-ever wargame. Love this implementation of his armor combat system to fight the Cold War.

pic2999397_mdPacific Fury: Guadalcanal 1942 (Revolution Games) [Naval Combat/WWII-era/Operational-level]. A unique game that got to my interest in WWII naval combat.

pic2838345_mdPlan Orange: Pacific War 1930-1935 (RBM Studio) [Strategic Pre-WWII-era]. Aligns with my interest in alternative naval war in the Pacific. Great use of the card-driven game (CDG) mechanic.

pic3236903_mdWing Leader: Supremacy 1943-1945 (GMT Games) [Aerial Combat/WWII-era/Large-scale Tactical-level]. A different, and very interesting, look at air combat. A nice mix of tactical and operational-levels of aerial combat.

Breaking it down, of the seven wargames purchased this year:

  • Plurality are Naval Combat (3 of 7)
  • Majority are Operational-level (if one counts the large-scale tactical of Wing Leader as “operational” (4 of 7)
  • Plurality are are WWII-era (3 of 7)

Interestingly, I bought no space/science-fiction games this year. That is, unless one counts my pledged

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Courtesy Ad Astra Games

Kickstarter for Squadron Strike:Traveller (Ad Astra Games) that was to deliver in July but I am still waiting on.

I have to say though that my biggest wargaming achievement of 2016 was introducing Little I to miniature-style naval combat using my old copy of pic253396_mdBattleship Captain (Minden Games, 2007). This is the game that really started Little I on the path to grognardia. He had played, and enjoyed, Memoir’44 but with Battleship Captain he started seriously studying the history behind the game. This Christmas season, his attention has been seized by  the Gale Force 9 Tanks game and he is seriously studying WWII armored combat now.

Here’s to hoping 2017 is a year of many more wargame experiences.

All images courtesy BoardGameGeek except where noted.