Further thoughts on @ADragoons “What is a #Wargame?” Mentioned in Dispatches podcast Season 5 Episode 13

Brant over at the Armchair Dragoons was kind enough to invite me to appear on another episode of Mentioned in Dispatches (Season 5, Episode 13) where the topic is “What is a wargame?”

Oh boy.

If you suffer through me stumbling through the first part, we eventually get to the point where I offer a defintion:

“An inclusive and concise defintion may be proposed as: an imaginary military operation, conducted upon a map or board, and usually employing various moveable devices which are said to represent the opposing forces, and which are moved about according to rules representing conditions of actual warfare.”

A Brief History of War Gaming: Reprinted from Unpublished Notes of the Author, Dated 23 October 1956 (AD 235 893, Armed Forces Technical Information Agency, 15 Oct 1960)

As though you haven’t suffered enough listening to my ramblings on the podcast, I’m going to offer a few more here.

Randomizers

One item that many folks might insist is missing in the definition is that wargames need some sort of a randomizer. Most often this takes the form of dice but it doesn’t have to be. In Tank Duel: Enemy in the Crosshairs (GMT Games, 2019) which, if you listened to the episode you can kinda tell that I like, a deck of cards is used to generate the random numbers for results.

Interestingly, the early editions of Flat Top (Battleline/Avalon Hill, 1977) did not have a random die combat resolution mechanic. The outcome of an attack was determined by looking up a cross-reference table. So maybe the randomizer is not actually a requirement but nothing more than an oft-called upon, easy to explain, option to introduce a random resolution element into a game design.

UBOOT & the Charlies

Full disclosure here: I didn’t vote for UBOOT: The Board Game (PHALANX, 2019). I initially backed it on Kickstarter but dropped my pledge because the worker placement and app-assist didn’t attract me. I have already gone on record saying that I feel the Charlies need a different award selection process. Does that make me biased against it? Maybe. So read on if you dare!

Back to the Well – Is UBOOT a Wargame?

We hashed this out on the podcast and said, “No.” Upon reconsideration, do I still think so? As you can probably tell during the discussion, if there is one part of the definition that’s going to trip people up it’s likely will hinge on what they perceive to be a “military operation.” In regards to the Charlies Award sweeper UBOOT:

  • Does the ‘fact’ the game takes place during a combat patrol make it a “military operation”?
  • Does the ‘fact’ the crew (workers) represent a military group make it a “military operation”?
  • Does the ‘fact’ the U-Boat has a military mission to sink enemy shipping make it a “military operation”?

I know that Moe repeatedly made the point that UBOOT is a worker placement game. He is obviously very focused on the core mechanic of the game. A legitimate question is; can a worker placement game be a wargame?

In UBOOT, on every turn the players are responsible for certain crew positions. Moe (or was it Brant?) also made the point that the artificial three-order limit was not very realistic. After the podcast, it struck me that UBOOT in some ways is not unlike the old FASA title Star Trek: Starship Tactical Combat Simulator (FASA, 1983). That game features Command and Control Panels for the different crew positions. It is possible to play the Starship Tactical Combat Simulator as a team…not too much unlike UBOOT. Now, I certainly consider the FASA Trek game a ‘wargame’, so why is UBOOT different?

FASA Star Trek Starship Combat Game Command & Control Panels (Photo by RMN)

I Know a Wargame When I See It

I think if you listen to our discussion of UBOOT and then Root (Leder Games, 2018) you will hear that, at least to me, what makes a game a wargame comes down to a matter of degrees. The question becomes, “when is enough, enough?” To Moe it sounds like the core mechanic trumps theme. I want to agree with that but my own track record is spotty. In the end, I can only say that I think theme can be both helpful and hurtful.

For instance, take a look at Pandemic: Fall of Rome (Z-Man Games, 2018) which gets mentioned but not discussed. In my mind, Pandemic: Fall of Rome is clearly a wargame.

Here is how the ad copy for Fall of Rome reads:

A weakened military has left the borders open to invasion from countless tribes such as the Anglo-Saxons, Goths, Vandals, and Huns. As you march through the Roman Empire, you must recruit armies, fortify cities, forge alliances, and face off against the invading hordes in battle.

In my mind, the fact the game explicitly tries to represent the march of forces, the recruitment of armies, fortification of cities, and even making alliances is all representative of a “military operation.” Fall of Rome does this without almost any use of “classic” wargame mechanics (though I note that Fall of Rome is also the first game in the Pandemic family to have a combat resolution mechanism).

What about AuZtralia (Stronghold Games, 2018)? Billed by the publisher as an “adventure / exploration” game I think it is much more. Again, lets go to the ad copy:

Military units will help you to locate, fight and defend against the nightmarish beings that may be lurking on your doorstep. As well as hardware, you’ll need to recruit some Personalities who have the skills and resources to help you.

Previously I described AuZtralia as a Eurogame for Grognards. The first part of the game is all about exploration and expansion and resource collection but at some point the game becomes a fight against the Old Ones and their minions. Does that make it a wargame? Let’s see:

  • “Real or imaginary military operations” – You need both military forces and personalities to FIGHT the Old Ones – CHECK.
  • “….map or board….” – You actually have two to chose from in the base game – CHECK.
  • “Moveable pieces” – Weak; most of the pieces do not represent ‘opposing forces” until that Old Ones wake up; then again, do your railroads and farms count as your ‘forces’? – Heck, I’m still going to say CHECK!
  • “….rules representing conditions of actual warfare” – There is clearly a combat resolution mechanic in the game – CHECK.

In my mind, and to be fair, AuZtralia is a wargame PLUS. In other words, it is not a “pure” wargame from the start but after the Old Ones awake it certainly BECOMES a wargame. The wargame elements it has in the second half are ‘sufficient’ in my mind to make it a wargame. When I think about it, this same approach is most likely why I consider Root a wargame; it has sufficient wargame elements to tip the scale for me.

So what is is about UBOOT that doesn’t tip that scale for me? Am I simply looking too askance at the worker placement mechanic and refusing to accept that mechanism can have a place in a wargame? How does the fact the crew must work as a team to Find, Fix, Track, and Target (F2T2 in military jargon) a merchant ship NOT make it a wargame? It works in Star Trek: Starship Tactical Combat Simulator; why not here?

Maybe Moe is right. Maybe it’s all about that worker placement mechanic. Maybe I see the emphasis in UBOOT on the mechanic with a theme wrapped around it rather than a theme supported by a mechanic. Come to think of it, that’s a good way to explain how I look at all the games I talked about here.

I’m an old Grognard, So I Can Be Grumpy

Lastly, I’m going to expand a bit on a topic we talked about on the podcast. I fully agree that wargamers, as a niche group of hobby boardgaming, spend too much time defending our hobby. Indeed, the ‘elitism’ of some segments of the hobby boardgame crowd is hugely offensive. I’ll even go so far as to say that even the self-anointed ‘consciousness” of the wargame community can be offensive too. If you don’t want to play wargames, or certain wargames, you don’t have to and I won’t force you. I fully believe in our community good game designs will rise to the top; socially engineered bootstraps are not needed. But don’t you dare pretend you are superior to another gamer and can dictate what they (or I) can play. If a topic is that offensive then reasonable people will avoid it – gatekeepers are not needed.

Playing ‘Four Solo’ wherein the President is a Cylon, the Admiral gets brigged, & Starbuck declares Martial Law – Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game (@FFGames, 2008)

To me, Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game (Fantasy Flight Games, 2008) is a near-perfect example of theming in a boardgame. This cooperative, hidden traitor game captures the tension of the reimagined series pitch-perfectly. Unfortunately for me, it entered my collection at a time the RockyMountainNavy Kids were a bit too young to learn the game. As a result it has sat on my shelf, underplayed, for way too long. I have thought about introducing it to the RMN Boys now that they are older and more experienced gamers but I hesitate because I remember it most for having a long playtime. Sometime in the past few months, I downloaded the ‘Four Solo’ variant from the BoardGameGeek files. This rainy weekend while the Boys were watching their football game I pulled the game box out and gave the rules a try.

It was glorious…

…and I lost.

Characters in play were Admiral Adama, President Roslin, Boomer and Starbuck. In retrospect, I should have taken the Chief for Support but, oh well.

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Early game…that’s alot of raiders….

The first two Crisis Cards were Cylon Swarm and Ambush. The Fleet eventually jumped, but not before losing too much Population and Food. Not helping, the Jump Distance was only +1.

Trying to take advantage of the clear space around Galactica and advancing the Jump Track didn’t work out too well as a Crisis Card revealed President Roslin to be a Cylon! Several more crisis’ followed; a Crisis Card Event landed Adama in the Brig and Starbuck, now Admiral, declared Marital Law. Though Starbuck and Boomer valiantly fought back the Raider swarms, in the end too many Cylons showed up while the Jump Track mostly worked in reverse. The Fleet eventually ran out of Food and perished.

The ‘Four Solo’ variant is generally easy to execute and preserves the core essence of the game. The rules are written in a very clipped, bulleted (very abbreviated) fashion and can be difficult to interpret at times. Most importantly, the solo mechanisms don’t totally replace or even disrupt the most important game mechanics. This makes the ‘Four Solo’ useful for learning the rules. Playtime is maybe a bit quicker than a normal game once you learn the “system routine” and understand the rules exceptions.

After rereading the rules and playing Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game using the ‘Four Solo’ variant I think I can teach this game to the RMN Boys. More importantly, I think they are mature enough to handle the game too. The Boys are not huge fans of cooperative games though we all love the occasional play of Pandemic*. They also can play ‘take-that’ games like Survive: Escape from Atlantis so the hidden traitor mechanic could work. The playtime actually doesn’t look as bad as I remember; BGG rates it at 120-300 minutes (my ‘Four Solo’ game clocked in right around 120 minutes…but I died early). A game this rich in theme supported by a game system that reinforces that theme so well deserves to land on game table…and soon!

* We are impatiently awaiting the release of Pandemic: Fall of Rome which mixes the cooperative game mechanic with an Ancient Rome theme which is a very popular theme in the RMN house.

Featured image courtesy BoardGameGeek.