Friday, November 17, 2006

A Return to Wargames

A few weeks ago I played a genuine wargame. Man, it’s been a long time.

Sure, I’ve played quite a few games of War of the Ring, and wargame-Euro hybrids like Struggle of Empires. But everyone knows that real wargames have cardboard counters or wooden blocks, not plastic orcs. Yes, Struggle of Empires has cardboard counters, but somehow it doesn’t have that 100% wargame flavor. I’m not knocking the game, mind you, just being pedantic about categories.

What was the wargame, you ask. Hammer of the Scots. A true gateway game into the wargaming world.

I discovered wargames when I was a boy and found a copy of Avalon Hill’s Tactics II in the closet. Someone had given a copy of the game to my father and he had never played it. I was soon pushing cardboard chits over a cardboard landscape with my cousin. And then I discovered the SPI game factory which seemed to crank out games like Hershey bars. I subscribed to the original Strategy & Tactics magazine, and I was thrilled when I got games like Plot to Assassinate Hitler in the mail (I was less thrilled after playing the game).

Flashforward thirty years. I’m living in Los Angeles and the only gamers I know are computer geeks who work with my wife. They introduce me to games like Settlers of Catan and Lord of the Rings. I pick up Hammer of the Scots cheap at a gaming store’s going-out-of-business sale, but I have no one to play it with.

Flashforward to last month. Dave, one of the newest members of Appalachian Gamers keeps bringing Commands & Colors: Ancients to our gaming sessions. I can see that he is a wargamer, but I feel sorry for him. Two-player games seldom hit the Appalachian Gamer table. But when he mentions Hammer of the Scots, I suddenly remember that I actually own a copy.

A couple of weeks later, we make time to try it. And in spite of winning the majority of the battles, I get my butt kicked. I realize that great tactics don’t do me much good if I’m ignoring the strategic situation. This makes me realize two additional things: 1) The game is a good one if it punishes poor strategic thinking so readily, and 2) I’m pretty damn rusty at this whole wargame thing.

Hammer of the Scots certainly doesn’t need me to sing its praises; I think the gaming world recognizes it as a modern classic. So I will merely suggest that any Euro-gamers out there who have been contemplating sticking a toe into the wargame pool could do a lot worse than trying Hammer of the Scots. It’s simple, elegant, and plays in two to three hours. Maybe even faster if you’re familiar with the game.

And then last weekend, I dove into the deep end of the wargaming pool: I participated in a three-player climb of the Here I Stand mountain. For those who are GMT-challenged, I should mention that Here I Stand is a multi-player game of warfare and religious conflicts in the age of Renaissance and Reformation.

I think the mountain-climbing metaphor is a good one. Unless you’re a hardcore grognard who plays Totaler Krieg or Paths of Glory every weekend, Here I Stand is going to be a serious challenge to learn and play. You’ll probably need to read the rules, play the game, re-read the rules to learn all the things you missed the first time, and then play the game again to let it all sink in. Here I Stand is not a leisurely hike up a hill; it’s a serious assault on a summit that has avalanches and storms to repel the careless and foolhardy. Yes, I know that the rules may be a paragon of clarity. Yes, I understand that many of the sub-systems aren’t that complex in isolation. But they’re not in isolation. They’re sitting in the middle of forty pages of small type. If you’re a guy like me who’s had Caylus as the marker at the far end of the complexity scale for quite a while, Here I Stand is going be a challenge.

But once you get to the summit, what a view. The achievement of learning the game makes you appreciate the greater achievement of creating the game. One soon suspects that Ed Beach must have read every book on Renaissance politics, religion, art, war, seamanship, piracy, exploration, and economics as well as maybe twenty or thirty biographies of leading figures of the era. And he processed that information and came up with a game that embodies it all while still being playable within a single weekend.

My favorite moment of the game came when the reckless King of France foolishly attacked my Hapsburg army, counting on a combat card to give him victory. But I had a combat card of my own, and the French reeled back with heavy losses. My Hapsburg counter-punch destroyed the rest of the French army and captured foolish Francis I. The fact that this game event roughly simulates the historical capture of Francis by the Hapsburgs only added to my delight.

Twilight Struggle has captured most of GMT’s awards this year, and it is certainly a worthy game, and probably deserves every accolade it gets. But I can’t help thinking that Here I Stand is an equally deserving game, but one that is handicapped by it’s high entry fee of complexity and playing time. Twilight Struggle seems like a popular musical that’s a hit show on Broadway, and that then gets turned into a terrific Hollywood movie. Here I Stand is a brilliant five-hour opera. It may be an equal or superior artistic achievement, but there ain’t no way it’s ever going to be as popular.

I just hope that Here I Stand inspires other designers to head down the path toward hybrid wargames. Games that let players compete economically, culturally, artistically, religiously, and scientifically as well as militarily can often be much richer than games that simulate military conflict alone.

I don’t think I’ll be playing Here I Stand again with the Appalachian Gamers. The rules are too complex and the playing time too long for our group. But if I may switch metaphors once again, I think Here I Stand may be for me one of those great gals that I never got a chance to date. You know the situation: you’ve been going steady for months with a great girl, and you’re perfectly happy. But then you meet someone special, someone with beauty and brains, someone who is just a little bit different from the ones you’ve dated before. But the timing isn’t right, and you’re not the kind of guy who’d cheat. You have one conversation with Ms. Special that confirms all your expectations. And you’re left thinking…if only…if only

P.S. I realize that some of you are saying to yourself “Doesn’t the jerk realize he doesn’t have to play games in person? There are people playing Here I Stand every day by e-mail and computer.”

Yes, I realize this. But I have resisted the whole playing-boardgames-on-the-computer phenomenon. Partly, this is due to my techno-phobia that makes me nervous doing anything new and different on my computer. And partly this is due to my suspicion that I don’t need anymore aspects of the hobby sucking away my time. I’m not afraid that boardgaming-by-computer won’t appeal to me. I’m afraid that it will.

3 comments:

hacksword said...

:thumbs up: Nice post. My intro to wargames was the old Shogun game by Milton Bradley. Unfortunately, the Gamemaster series was the only exposure to wargames I had during high school and university, I missed all the hardcore hex and counter stuff, as well as the block games and card driven games. I didn't really get into wargames until about a year ago, and I've been hooked ever since.

Dr. Matt J. Carlson said...

I like wargames, but haven't played them in a long time due to the heavy time committment to play them (and usually to teach the rules.) That is one reason I've been eyeing some of the lighter wargames out there (C&C, Twilight Struggle).

Great to hear you liked Here I Stand. I've been eyeing that for a long time but have been waiting to try to get it at the same time as Twilight Struggle, which was just reprinted.

I also love the historic background of the game, and how alliances in the game sort of ebb and flow a bit with the political and religious control issues sort of overlapping. I've been plotting for months to try and figure out ways to play it due to its length.

I'm willing to play board games online, but I much prefer to play games with people I know. And for really long games like this, I find it far beter to play in person. Stretching a game like this out too far will consume too much of my non-gaming thinking and be too big of a distraction

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