A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Computers in Wargaming - 3 - What Makes a "Good" Game?

I received an email from Matriculus in response to the second part of this series of posts on computers. It was very affable in tone, and made a couple of very useful points, but it also asked a question which bothered me a little. It bothered me to the point where I wish to take a brief timeout to reconsider what it was we were trying to provide a solution for - just where is the swamp we came to drain?

Why, asked Matriculus, are you trying to sell the idea of using computers in wargames? Remember that many people have to use computers every day in their work, and many people do not enjoy their work, so the idea is bound to be unattractive to many.


He is, of course, absolutely right, but I fear that my interest in the subject has been interpreted as evangelism, and that is bothering - I never meant to sell anything of the sort. My standpoint here is that a game (of any type) needs a certain number of characteristics to make it "good" for me. For a number of reasons, miniatures wargames can become so complex and require so much off-line information that it is hard to keep them "good" without some additional help or equipment. A computer is one of the things which might help - I'm sure there are others - but I fear that computers are, in general, viewed unfavourably or "not fancied", not least because inappropriately designed game-management programs have given them a bit of a bad press in the past. A number of people have mentioned to me that they have seen, or taken part in, a wargame with computer support, and thought it was distracting. At best it caused delay, at worst it spoiled the game.

So I think I should back right up at this point, and re-examine what it is that makes a game "good". As always, this is going to be very subjective. I like games which are simple enough to allow you to carry all the rules in your head (with, maybe, some minimal additional reference for special occasions). I like the game to be compact and self-contained, and to have nice, high quality equipment. Green baize is good, shiny crystallite components that feel right and make exotic clicking noises are good. The game should also offer a strategic challenge, and a bit of luck to spice things up and balance the form book is fine. Not least important, the game must be capable of being played to a conclusion within a sensible timeframe, and the conclusion must be understood by the players.

Chess is a good game - it looks and feels terrific, its rules are self-contained, though the player will require an encyclopaedic knowledge of moves and strategies to progress to a decent level. It is a bit heavy to be classed as pure fun, and (as discussed before) it contains no luck at all, which can be severe - humiliating - for weak players like me.

Draughts (checkers) is a less threatening relative of chess.

Backgammon is good, though I never really understood the use of the doubling cube(!), and our infrequent games always have to start with a rules refresher course. Backgammon is a game which really benefits from high quality, box-style equipment. Throwing the pieces effortlessly into the corner point makes you feel like Omar Sharif. Playing on the backside of the kids' folding draughts board is just not the same.

I'm very fond of dominoes. My son (he is 8) and I play a lot of dominoes, including its noble Sebastopol variant, and it always goes well. The rules are simple, and it is especially enjoyable played with our best Jaques domino set (look, feel, sound). If the game goes well and you win, then you are a genius. If it goes badly then you were unlucky with the draw of the dominoes. Perfect.

Scrabble is a pretty good game, but it has irritating interruptions when someone has to break off to consult the dictionary. It's OK, and it's necessary, but it spoils the flow of the game.

Monopoly doesn't do it for me. The equipment is fun, even pleasantly surreal, and the rules are OK. Personally, I find all the counting of money tedious, and the game invariably reaches a point where some of the players have no chance of winning, and really only keep playing at all out of decency, to allow the potential winners to check out. Losing a game of Monopoly is not necessarily a stimulating use of time.

Snakes & Ladders is a terrible game (fortunately my son has now grown out of it), simply because the games are interminable and it contains no skill at all.

My earliest, shambolic ACW wargames were excellent - the equipment, including the troops, was fun, and the rules were simple, though even at that stage there was a lot to remember. The main problem was dissatisfaction with the poor simulation of real warfare, and with elements of the rules which gave paradoxical results, or required improvisation to cover holes. You don't expect holes in the logic of a good game. But the spirit of the battles was spot-on - all the points of attention, everything you needed to look at, including the tape measures and the dice, was right under your nose. The social heart of the occasion was right on the table. When, as proved increasingly necessary, we had to break off for a moment to consult a wall chart (or, even worse, the rule book) the game dipped a little - momentum was lost, the collective vibe was lost, and the less involved players might start to discuss football or their holidays during the interruption. These things are fragile - as often as not, the excitement did not recover from this point.

As my miniatures games got bigger and more ambitious, the interruptions to the spirit of the game became lengthier and more unsettling - especially as we got more frequently into the classic Death Position of arguing over what the rules meant.

I've already expressed my dislike of sheets of paper on the table. On the face of it, the presence of a computer seems like an extremely bad case of rule book. If we have to stop looking at the soldiers, and break off to look at, or do something to, that machine over there, the flow is spoiled. Not only that but it is often hard, when you go back, to find the piece of action on the table which you were considering before you broke off. Dice are fine - if you can avoid wrecking too many bayonets, you can resolve the action right where the combat is taking place. This preserves continuity, makes the outcome seem more natural and more immediately relevant, and - for anyone with short-term memory problems - makes it easier to remember where you were up to! Also, as has been pointed out elsewhere, dice are tactile, fun things to use.

In an ideal world, my miniatures wargames would be simple and compact enough not to need computers or any other sort of support devices or paperwork. I believe that my interest in the new Commands & Colors game is exactly attributable to the hope that it may get me closer to what I enjoyed in my earliest wargaming, with those exotic Battle Dice, and without a sheet of paper or a damned computer anywhere in sight. That is the key point here - if I have got into the habit of using computers over the years in my wargames, it is not because I was looking for another excuse to use the computer, nor because I am especially deranged. It is because they have helped to simplify the games I used them with.

Since this has been something of a stock-take rather than development of my main themes, I'll go on to consider design and (a little) technology, and what I describe as "fitness for purpose" in the concluding fourth part of this trilogy of postings. If Matriculus emails me again, the trilogy may go up to five parts - we'll see.


  1. Two thoughts, 1st off is that it is rare enough for everyone reading something to get the same impression but, for me at least, the computer posts came across as sharing your experience as opposed to evangelizing, or more narrowly perhaps, as sharing your positive experience of something not widely accepted.

    2ndly, on the whole, and allowing for differences of taste, etc etc your criteria for what makes a good game are well chosen. Interestingly, I had never really added compactness or quality of components as criteria for myself, but on reflection of course quality matters and I am becoming increasingly aware of a certain satisfaction to being able to put bounds around various projects. Not quite the same thing as being compact but certainly related.

    Ross Mac

  2. As usual, another interesting and thoughtful post. Well done! And it has certainly left me with much to think about with regard to computers and historical miniatures as well as several of the boardgames you mention. Used to play backgammon with my mother and sister as a boy. We had delightful, expensive set that was always a tactile and visual joy to use. Must try to replace it one of these days.

    Best Regards,


  3. Gentlemen - thanks for your comments. This thing about the attraction of the equipment is surprisingly important, I find. I adore casinos - I never gamble for money stakes (I spent too many years studying probability for that), but I just love the bright lights, and all that wood and baize and shiny kit - even the punters - all dressed up and excited. I can happily saunter around watching all evening, though the security guys sometimes get nervous...

    Mah Jongg is a scary example - I know little about it - I've even been told that it is not actually a brilliant game, but I've come very close to buying an expensive set on a number of occasions, simply because it has more exotic kit than almost anything else I can think of. The saving point has always been remembering that it needs 4 players, which would be a problem. If it doesn't need 4 players, please don't tell me, or I'll have a set here by Saturday.

    I'll get to the actual computers next post, honest (maybe).


  4. Someplace out there, on the computer, I was reading a blog about someone using Command and Colors with 2mm figure blocks, which did make it compact. It was someone wanting to combine good things about boardgaming with good things about miniatures. But I'm not familiar with the game.

    I've gone down from Airfix to 15 to 10 to 6 to 5 to 2mm in my miniatures, and steadily in the direction of compactness. Maybe even too much so, but something is pulling me hard in that direction.

    In board wargames, after many of them, my favorite is still the small WWI from 1975, SPI, which may have all of 40-50 counters to cover all of WWI--extraordinarily compact for those type games, but balanced enough to feel almost accurate.

    There's little movement, mostly horrible attrition, but favorite is a strong word. It did seem odd at the time, smaller than we were used to and, being trenches, stagnant unless you achieve the breakthrough, but this is
    after many years the most likely one I'd pull out for a solo or think I could play someone else in an evening visit.

    It's the balance of it. Pieces are Armies, so the Germans start with 8, etc. Turns half a year, so 1918 does roll around and there's a limit to how much time and resources you can use.

    You do what you can to get ready for The Tank, the Stormtroopers, the Americans, and those are only around for a few turns.

    Only when there are no resources left are the defenders forced to retreat, so you can do a Verdun, a Somme, trying to attrit them worse than yourself. (Of course it's horrible). Your 'point' of resource may be 50,000 men, when you risk losing three to make the Germans lose one, because when they run out then they must retreat. So you do it, if you can afford it.

    Unable to move much, you are free from gamey moves being the thing as in other games, to focus on strategy about using the resources most effectively.

    The Germans can focus west, or east, or south, or both; they have to score enough points to beat the allied blockade's automatic points, so there's a challenge to achieve that, or prevent it, in just 10 turns, with what you've got. So there's scope to try it differently next time.

    And it remains after now 35 years since I paid 4 dollars for it, my best boardgame for those reasons, and the compactness of it is a big part of it.

    But I learned to appreciate those things, the game was unpopular with only a few pieces, which are mostly stuck, and it's all die rolling for futile attack after attack, over and over, seeming never to get anywhere.

    On chess, my opponent the past few years repeatedly beat me into giving the game up cold turkey for three years, and just a couple weeks ago got me to sign up at chess.com, so we can play computer to computer at any distance. He then beat me again seven straight or something, to welcome me back to chess.

    He's challenging me now to the version where you can take up to three days by email. Let me know if you join up there, as I need someone I can beat!

  5. I like nice kit, but I'm more taken with simple rules. The huge advantage of the Command & Colours series is that my group have been playing them for so long that they have been thoroughly internalised. This now means that when playing team games, the commander often finds one of his key decisions is where to put each player. Some players are renowned for their defensive ability, others for their technique and there are one or two who are simply favoured because they have the luck of the devil himself.