Sunday, July 16, 2006

THE COMING TRIUMPH OF THE WARGAME-EURO HYBRID

Once again, this is the last reader submission in the queue. Surely you have better things to do at work than work. Write an essay on the evolution of Meeples, we will post it. Your boss will understand.

Got a 5000 word essay on Mancala that's been kicking around in the back of your head trying to get out? Edit it down to 75 words and 3 pictures and we will post it.

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What's the state of boardgaming in Debuke, Legos, or your town? Tell us.

Surely someone games with some goofballs they want to tell us about?

Have an idea for a boardgame contest, such as the standard "Can you identify which game these pieces come from" contest? Got a better idea?

Once again, here is Kris Hall. Click on the title for the link to his group, the Appalachian Gamers.
Enjoy.



For a lot of strategy gamers, Sid Meiers’ Civilization is still the gold standard of computer games. Much of the fun comes from the game’s ability to accommodate an enormous range of playing styles. Players can win as Genghis Khan-style conquerors or as Gandhi-like peacemakers. Science and religion are as much a part of the game as armies and fleets. It is often more thrilling to complete a favorite Great Wonder than to smite your annoying neighbors. In short, Civilization seems to be as much the computer equivalent of a Eurogame as the computer equivalent of a wargame.

Boardgame designers may finally be catching up to Sid Meiers. Although wargames have been around for decades, and Eurogames have increased rapidly in popularity in recent years, the wargame-Euro hybrid (WEH) is still a sub-genre in its infancy. But it is an infant that is growing swiftly. These hybrid games have the potential to appeal to both the large wargame community and the larger Eurogame community, but too often their popularity has been limited by rules complexity and long playing times.

Here are some obvious wargame-Euro hybrids:

Civilization/Advanced Civilization/ Age of Renaissance. These are the grand old men of the wargame-Euro hybrid trend. These were (of course) civ-building games with some simple warfare rules. These games had a solid base of fans, but the long playing times kept them from being mainstream hits. These games may be due for redesign and reprints.

Warrior Knights. In Fantasy Flight’s new redesigned game of medieval conflict players send armies to lay siege to each other’s castles. But they also vie for control of the national assembly, and gain faith points that could make them the head of the church. They can invest in trading expeditions to the far East, and pay to improve both the defenses and income from their cities. This game still leans more to the wargame side of hybrid spectrum, but it is a prime example of the evolving genre. Perhaps the biggest problem with the game is that once players finish grabbing the neutral cities the game is almost over. A good variant would allow each player to start with one or two low-level cities to help speed inter-player conflict.

Twilight Imperium 3rd addition. Twilight Imperium is Fantasy Flight’s eternal labor of love. The latest version of this galactic conquest game contains a choose-a-role mechanic straight out of Puerto Rico. Add a tech tree, trading options, and victory conditions that don’t force every player to be a galactic warmonger all the time, and Twilight Imperium comes closer to the center of the hybrid spectrum than almost any other game. Three drawbacks to the game are its high price, long playing time, and intimidating rules book (although the example-laden rules book is much easier to learn than its 45-page count would suggest). Twilight Imperium has inspired more player-designed variants than any other boardgame I’ve seen--indicating a healthy community of fans (and some frustration with the Imperial Strategy Card, a card that rewards players big victory points for doing nothing more than choosing the card). Until some other game company decides to challenge Fantasy Flight in the galactic empire arena, Twilight Imperium will remain the sole in-print boardgame equivalent of the popular Master of Orion series of computer games.

Twilight Struggle. Not an expansion to Twilight Imperium, but a wildly-popular GMT game of cold war conflict. This card-driven area-majority game comes from a company known for its complex wargames, but TS also appeals to open-minded Euro-gamers. Reportedly, this is one of Alan Moon’s favorite games.

Byzantium. Martin Wallace’s game of medieval near-eastern strife would seem to be pure wargame at first glance. But some unusual design decisions (players control armies on both sides of the conflict) and the wooden-cube management aspect of the game give it the feel of a hybrid.

Serenissima. You may be scratching your head and wondering why I’ve included this game of Renaissance merchant trading in a list of wargame-Euro hybrids. But that’s only because we’re used to hybrids being wargames with some Euro chrome grafted on. Serenisima is a Euro game with some wargame chrome grafted on. Give this game to some mellow Euro-gamers and all you’ll see is a lot of cube shuttling. Give it to some rabid wargamers and be prepared for constant pirate action.

Mare Nostrum. I know less about this civ-building game than any other game I’ve mentioned, so I will just note that it seems to be a low-complexity hybrid game about the growth of ancient Mediterranean nations. It reputedly has some game-balance issues, but it was successful enough to warrant an expansion.

Sid Meier’s Civilization—The Boardgame. This Eagle Games boardgame version of Sid Meiers’ classic had the near-impossible task of trying to recreate the computer game experience. Not surprisingly, it did not take the gaming community by storm. The long playing time was one factor that limited the game’s appeal (players seem to be more tolerant of long computer games than long board games).

There have also been quite a few games over the years that borrow some of the characteristics of the WEH without fully qualifying. Some are:

7 Ages. This civ-building game from Australian Design Group has an epic feel to it, but the complex rules and long playing time have limited its appeal. And the cardboard counters make it seem more like a wargame.

Here I Stand. In this new GMT game of Reformation military and religious conflict, players can rack up points by sponsoring voyages of discovery, converting regions from one religion to another, getting the Queen pregnant (if you play Henry VIII), building Saint Peter’s in Rome, or even translating the Bible into the vernacular of various regions. The main reason this game fits the wargame profile more than the WEH category is the game’s high complexity and long playing time.

Princes of the Renaissance, Struggle of Empires, and Conquest of the Empire (with the Martin Wallace rules). These Martin Wallace games stand at the edges of the WEH category. Princes of the Renaissance doesn’t qualify because of the lack of conventional conquest in the game. Struggle of Empires and Conquest of the Empire allow players to develop their nations in non-military ways to a limited degree, but are still basically wargames.

War of the Ring. There have been several games with this title over the years, but the Nexus/Fantasy Flight version is the champ. Although this strategic treatment of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is almost all wargame, the hunt for the Ring adds an all-important sub-system that gives War of the Ring some of the feel of a hybrid.

Empires of the Middle Ages. This Decision Games reissue of the old SPI game has many Civ-building aspects to it, but is too dry and complicated to fit comfortably in the WEH category. And the pieces are still cardboard chits.

Conquistador/New World. This old SPI game and its Avalon Hill redesign are as much about colonization and plunder as combat. But the complex rules and cardboard chits make the games feel more like wargames than true hybrids.

Supremacy. This out-of-print game featured economic development as well as military combat, and plenty of toys. But it was still more wargame than hybrid, and the infinite number of expansions made the rules increasingly unwieldy.

Why do so many designers like to design wargame-euro hybrids? I believe there are several factors at work.

1) Wargame hybrids mirror history and the real world better than pure wargames, at least when we consider long periods of time. Most nations fight wars at one time or another, but the successful nations are good at a lot of things other than military conflict. If you want to make a strategic game about World War II, you don’t have to give your players economic or production decisions. But if you want to make a game about the whole 20th century, your game had better have more in it than armies and warfare.

2) A lot of gamers aren’t interested in games that concentrate solely on military conflict. Some gamers find war so distasteful that they avoid pure wargames. But some of these gamers will tolerate some military conflict in a game if there are other aspects that appeal to them. By increasing the breadth of the subject matter, game designers can make their games appeal to a wider audience. For example, I can occasionally get my wife to play a Euro game of moderate complexity, but I wouldn’t bother trying to get her to play a wargame more complicated than Risk.

3) Adding non-military sub-systems into a game with warfare gives the players more layers of decisions. Even a devout living-room Napoleon may realize that games can be more interesting if there is more to decide than which unit should go in which hex.

4) Layers of sub-systems mean that games don’t have to be zero-sum contests. In other words, different players can be succeeding in different aspects of the same game. In a tight game of War of the Ring, the Shadow will be on the verge of conquering Middle Earth even as Frodo is scrambling up the slopes of Mount Doom. In Warrior Knights, one player may have the most cities, a second player might have the largest armies, a third might have the most votes in the assembly, a fourth might be the head of the church, and a fifth player might have a fortune invested in trading voyages which will result in enormous profits. Much of the conflict comes from each player trying to make his advantage in one area create dominance in other areas. The inter-play of the various sub-systems of hybrid games often creates fun in ways that purely military games can’t match.

I believe that someday a game company will design a WEH game with the right balance of military conflict, civ-building, accessible rules, and fun toys, and that when they do, their sales will shoot through the roof. A comparable example might be the success of Caylus. There were plenty of resource conversion games before Caylus—such as Goa, and Princes of Florence. But the Caylus mechanism of placing workers to activate buildings created constant direct competition between players, and the large menu of building tiles meant a huge number of options for players at all times. With Caylus everything clicked together to push the resource-conversion game genre to a new level, and the sales figures increased to reflect this. Someday something similar will happen with the WEH genre.

Let me make some fairly safe predictions about this future hit game.

1) I believe it will be strategic rather than operational or tactical. Military operations fit better with non-military elements at the strategic level. This is another way of saying that it will be a Civ-building (or at least an economic-development) game as well as a wargame.

2) The basic rules will be of simple or moderate complexity. There may be advanced, optional, or expansion rules which will push the game’s complexity into the high category, but the basic game’s complexity will be tolerable to most Euro-gamers. All other things being equal, the more complex the game, the fewer copies that get bought.

3) The basic game will be played from start to finish in under four hours. Maybe under three hours. Again, there may be options for longer games, but only moderate game length leads to big sales figures.

4) The non-military aspects of the game will be of at least equal importance with the military aspects. This hit won’t just be a wargame with a production mechanism grafted on. Non-military paths to victory will be viable options. Players will rack up points by growing their cities, developing their technology, exploring their world, or improving their culture.

5) The game will have great toys. Along with plastic military pieces, the game will have miniature cities or cathedrals or universities or factories or trains. At the end of the game, the board will look as colorful and developed as the board at the end of a game of Railroad Tycoon or Mexica.

This future hit could be a game of competing fantasy empires, galactic empires, gangster empires, alternate history empires, or a slice of real history that lasts only a century or two. The nations of the game might not be generic empires, but actual countries with lots of historical abilities and limitations. Cards might throw large amounts of historical events and detail into the mix and root the game in a specific time period. (Card-driven wargames have shown that one way to limit the complexity of rules is to shoehorn the history onto cards rather than into the rules).

Finally, let me point out a few WEHs coming soon to a store or internet site near you:

Shogun. This re-themed version of Wallenstein from Rio Grande Games is due out in August.

Tempus. This new Martin Wallace game is reputed to be Civ-building made simple. The 20 or so copies available this year at Origins disappeared in a twinkling. It’s from CafĂ© Games and is due out in August.

Conquest of Paradise. This GMT game of civ-building in the South Pacific may have traditional cardboard wargame-style counters, but the game mechanics may help it appeal to Euro gamers. Due out later this year or early next year.

Age of Empires III. This game of New World colonization and conquest from Eagle Games inspired rave reviews from those lucky enough to play it at Origins. It’s due out in August or September.

All of these games are reputedly of medium complexity. It will be interesting to see if any of them become breakout hits.

Wargame-Euro hybrids are one of my favorite sub-genres of games. I am convinced that we will see more and better hybrids in years to come.

8 comments:

DWTripp said...

Nice article.

I'd put my money on Age of Empires III being the one that bridges the gap between real gamers and casual gamers. Axis & Allies did exactly that in the 80's and proved that if you added the right mixture of elements you could get tens of thousands of casual gamers to sit down for hours at a time and play a real board game.

Chris Farrell said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
huzonfirst said...

An interesting perspective, Kris, in that it seems to be one arrived at by a wargamer. As a eurogamer, my first thoughts were of some of the games you said didn't qualify, like Struggle of Empires, War of the Ring, and Princes of the Renaissance, as well as a few you didn't mention, like Wallenstein, A Game of Thrones, and Richard Borg's Command and Colors designs. I guess I tend to think of the category as eurogames with some combat, rather than wargames with some euro mechanics. But good catch on Serenissima--I think this design was well ahead of its time in bridging the gap between the American and German ideals. Actually, most of my eurogaming friends who play it think the endgame has TOO much fighting at the end, and have come up with a scoring variant to discourage that. I haven't found the need to use it. Great game--just wish it didn't take so damn long (yep, I'm a eurogamer!).

And I guess I'm really going to have to venture to the Dark Side and pick up Eagle Games' Age of Empires when it comes out. Any game that can have D.W., Rick Thornquist, and Valerie ("I leave the wargames to my hubby")Putnam raving about it needs to be checked out!

Gerald McD said...

Excellent article. Glad to see it posted here.

As a younger man, I preferred wargames. Today, I game with a family of three generations, so Eurogames reign. Three of our seven players have no interest in wargames, and a fourth hasn't played a wargame more complicated than Risk. However, the group is competitive and might consider WEH games in which military action is one option, but does not overshadow non-violent winning strategies. I would certainly enjoy such games, except for one caveat -- length. For a game to be purchased and played by our group, its listed playing time must be no more than 90 minutes, and preferably no more than 60 minutes. That will probably eliminate the best WEH games, based on your description, from our table. In addition, we need games that can be played by at least six individuals (not in teams).

Again, nice article, and well-written.

Chris Farrell said...

Interesting article, but without a working definition of what a wargame-eurogame hybrid actually is, other than "I'll know it when I see it", it's a bit of a fudge. Let's see: under four hours, strategic, nice bits, simple to moderate complexity, non-military elements at least as important as conflict ... that's what, about a million games?

(As an aside, have you seen the Caylus sales figures? I haven't. I assume they're still pretty tiny by the standards of classic medium-weight eurogames like Settlers, El Grande, Ra, Modern Art, Lord of the Rings, etc. Even Goa. Caylus has been a huge hit, but like Age of Steam, it's been a huge hit in a comparatively small niche. Or at least that's my impression until I get access to some propriotary information).

To me, what you're labelling as a wargame-euro hybrid is just a certain spot where the games are more involved than euros, but the complexity is still comparatively modest; where the theme drives things more than it does in euros, but it isn't as all-encompassing as in high-end wargames; and where direct inter-player conflict is not taboo. I think calling out this spot may in fact not be particularly interesting, given the difficulty of defining it, and we can just talk about the games in the same way we talk about every other game - theme, conflict, balance, complexity, etc. Regardles, this is a very old genre, a lot older than euros, and one that already has a lot of very good games: I would have liked to have seen classics like Dune, Republic of Rome, Titan, Gangsters, Guerillia, and Cold War on your list. Likewise, I think a number of Columbia's wargames (Rommel in the Desert, EastFront, Napoleon) are wargames with strong euro sensibilities ... is multi-player a requirement for your list? It also seems like you're missing games that are more euro than war that would meet your (implied) criterion, like Cities & Knights of Catan, El Grande, Friedrich, Wallenstein, or Starferers of Catan (hey, it's got guns you use against your fellow-players).

ReXwoo said...

Chris : about the sales numbers

- Settlers is in the 5-10 millions zones (closer to 10 now, I suppose)

- Knizia's Lord of the Ring is over 1 million

- Age of Steam has been printed 2x10000 so 20000 is about right

- current Caylus sales are around 30-40000

pirateyar said...

Kris,

This is my favorite style of game also, and despite Chris' protestations above, I think it is deserving of genre status. A few months ago there was a Geeklist on this topic that described the genre as "Atlantic games". Perhaps it could use a stricter definition to satisfy the likes of Chris, but by highlighting it in this way, you serve to promote more of these games in the hobby, which is fine by me.

Anonymous said...

The key thing about wargames (of the board type) and their appeal is the history and the simulation thereof. If you move to euro-style you have to take great care that the history is not sacrificed at the expense of a nice mechanic, playability, or balance. Plus most wargames have two sides only - once you try to simplify them to Euro level, then you reach the converging point where most Euro Games fail - the simpler systems will not support two players only, most of the fun is from interactions and shifting alliances of several players.

DK