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A Brief History of War Gaming: Reprinted from Unpublished Notes of the Author, Dated 23 October 1956 (AD 235 893, Armed Forces Technical Information Agency, 15 Oct 1960)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

Fangs Out!* #FirstImpressions of #Talon (@gmtgames)

pic68997_md
Courtesy BGG

Way back in the day I was a Star Fleet Battles (Amarillo Design Bureau/Task Force Games 1979+) player. My first game was the pocket edition in the half-size plastic baggie. In junior high and high school my friends and I obsessed with SFB. One of my friends designed the original TK5 destroyer. I even got into the strategic game, Federation Space (Task Force Games, 1981) that eventually evolved into Federation & Empire (Amarillo Design Bureau/Task Force Games 1986+). When I pack all my SFB stuff together it overflows a medium-cube moving box (that’s 3 cubic feet of stuff).

But time changes things. Whereas in my younger years I absolutely loved the excessive energy management required in SFB, and the long scenario play times, I gradually moved away from the game. I tried other games, like the FASA Star Trek: Starship Tactical Simulator (1983) or Agent of Gaming’s Babylon 5 Wars (1997). In the mid 2000’s, I tried to get into Federation Commander (Amarillo Design Bureau, 2005), the SFB successor, but it just didn’t click. Indeed, my game of choice for starship battles became Ground Zero Games’ Full Thrust (1992) or a derivative.

pic2661579_md
Courtesy BGG

In 2017, GMT Games offered a reprint edition of Talon, originally published in 2015. My interest was peaked by a series of post in the Castiliahouse blog where they were playing Talon. So I pulled the trigger on the P500. The second edition game delivered not long ago.

Upon unboxing, the first thing that struck me was the large, coated counters and the wet-erase markers. You mean I am going to write on my counters? Then I started digging into the rulebook.

And I am in love.

The basic rulebook is a slim 16 pages. The game mechanics are very straight-forward and explained in just 9-pages of Basic Rules. What I love is that energy management still is important, but instead of allocating everything (aka SFB) or several things (FC), in Talon one chooses “power curves” which are in effect “presets” for Power/Speed/Turn Radius. As a general rule, as a ship’s speed increases, the Turn Radius likewise increases while Power decreases.

Simple…Fast…and Fun!

Moving away from the SFB Power Allocation sheet, or the FC Ship Status Display, to info on the counter also helps with the fun. This makes the game easy to teach, an important consideration these days as I my main gaming partners are the RockyMountainNavy Boys.

pic3007572_md
Courtesy BGG

My plan is to get Talon to the table, probably in the next few weeks, using the Advanced Rules (just gotta have rule 15 THE BIG GUNS). I think the RMN Boys will like Talon; they like Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game and I know this will be a step up in complexity, but not nearly as much as Federation Commander or (shudder) Star Fleet Battles. Maybe someday I will play those games with them, but I am not so sure it will ever really happen. My taste in gaming has changed in nearly 40 years (go figure). In my early days my craving for simulationism was fulfilled by games like Star Fleet Battles. These days a more player-friendly game, like Talon, is welcome on the gaming table.

*Fangs Out:  Aviator-speak for when a pilot is really hot for a dogfight.