Gaming Thoughts: Scale in Wargames

Or, why being good at 40k doesn’t make you a good general.

This really interesting post over at Gaming All Areas got me thinking.  What is it that we want our wargames to do exactly?  What do we think they do?  When it comes to Games Workshop’s (and to a lesser extent Privateer Press’s) big fantasy and sci-fi games, I think I have an answer to the second question.  And I think these games don’t actually do what we think they do.

Right.  Assuming that made sense to any of you so far, I’ll explain a bit further.  In general, we want games to be enjoyable, and we want them to measure some ability we have so that the winner is not just randomly determined.

Many of us I think assume that a table-top wargame is meant to be, in some sense, a simulation of being a commander on a battlefield.  Different games do this in different ways.  Before I get to the main point I’d like to divide wargames up into three broad categories and quickly describe what skill sets they test.  These aren’t officially recognized industry categories or anything – they’re just my categories.

Strategy games:  These are games like Risk or the Avalon Hill games.  They deal with the movement and placing of whole armies and resource/territory management.  They test our ability to plan to the big picture.  Terrain is unlikely to play much of a role, if at all.

Squad-level games:  These include many historical games like DBA and DBM, and also some sci-fi games like Games Workshop’s Epic.  They test our ability to command a battlefield full of troops, maneuvering and placing units to support each other and attain objectives.  They are more detailed in describing the troops and terrain than strategy games, but they don’t often get down to the individual soldier’s level.

Skirmish games:  These games do get down to the individual soldiers, sometimes even to the point of keeping track of every grenade and clip of ammo.  I include games like Mordheim, Necromunda and Infinity in this category.  These sorts of games place us in the position of a squad leader.  Terrain will most likely be integral to these games, and troops have a wide variety of movement and maneuvre options available to them.

Obviously these games all have things in common.  They’re all wargames after all.  But the three types test our abilities in different ways.  For the purposes of this article I’ll ignore Strategy games and talk about the other two.  You also might notice that 40k and (to a lesser extent) Warmachine don’t fit neatly into either of the two latter categories.  This will be important later.

The difference in scale between squad level and skirmish games requires different ways to realistically immerse us and create the experience of being a commander.  After all, Montgomery at El Alamein has a pretty different experience of being a commander from Lt. Blogs going door to door in Afghanistan.  If we expect our games to create the feeling of being a commander and test our abilities in this area (in an abstract way of course) we are going to need different mechanics for these different command experiences.

Squad-level games need to gloss over minute details of individual models and terrain to create broad scenes.  Montgomery needs to know that it’s risky to send his tanks through boggy terrain, but that he needs to take that hill so his artillery have a better vantage point.  It’s better in games like this to have simple, intuitive rules that create an ebb and flow on the battlefield.  If you go into too much detail you run the risk of testing nothing more than the player’s ability to play the game, not their actual potential as a commander.  Rules can never simulate reality properly, so in many ways less is more.  It works better for squad-level games to deal only with those things a commander at this level actually has to deal with: the lay of the land, who’s fighting and who’s running, where everyone is, and what needs to be done.

Skirmish games on the other hand benefit greatly from descriptive rules that get right down to brass tacks.  Lt. Blogs knows that Pt. Jones has guts but can get carried away.  Cpl. Chang has a cooler head, and is a good shot, so maybe he should be placed to give covering fire.  Pt. Ox is a big fella, so give him the HMG.  These games also greatly benefit from detailed terrain.  Ox needs to break in that door before he can take up a position.  Done well, a skirmish game is (or should be) a pretty good representation of being a squad leader, testing our split-second decision making and courage more than our cool ability to overwhelm the enemy’s positions.

This brings us to the big sci-fi and fantasy games like 40k, Warhammer Fantasy and Warmahordes.  Here we see a bit of a problem emerging.  These games all started as skirmish games, but have evolved into half-arsed squad-level games (the PP games less-so, but they’re definitely on their way).  Since when does a commander have to be concerned both with the individual equipping and placement of his troops, and with overall objective seizing?  Lt. Blogs is not normally responsible for controlling an infantry battalion, air support and three squads of tanks.  General Montgomery shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not Cpl. Chang has a clear line of fire to that enemy flamethrower.  That’s what the chain of command is for.

I think that these hybrid-scale games do not accurately recreate what it is like to be a commander in any real sense – what they do is recreate the feeling of being a kid playing with your army men.  You shift between taking on the role of Lt. Blogs and being Montgomery, co-ordinating a bigger picture.  You get to be the gritty heroic Lt., resolving each individual model’s fire, and you play with all the big cool toys.

The problem with this is that the rules have to do both, and they can’t.  Like I said, less is more rules-wise for squad-level games, but detail is key for skirmishes.  40k doesn’t really test your generalship like Epic does because there’s too much micro-management and worrying about the exact effects of terrain on individual weaponry and squad members.  There are lone bad-asses running around everywhere for fuck’s sake.  It also doesn’t really test your skirmish ability like Necromunda, because you have multiple squads, tanks, and now flyers to co-ordinate.  This means terrain rules and individual troops have to be abstracted beyond a level that allows realism to deal with these big things.  Imagine if you had to keep track of exactly which windows were blown out in a 2500 point 40k game.  I also think this hybrid scale explains why the big fantasy and sci-fi games are convoluted and take AGES to play, compared with a pure squad-level or skirmish game.

So my point is, these hybrid-scale games don’t actually test our command skills in anything like an accurate sense.  I’m sorry to say this, but if you’re good at them you aren’t a good squad-leader or general, you’re good at that particular game, which is, if anything, most like an extremely formalized version of playing with your toy soldiers and going “pew pew!”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing – as I said at the beginning, the first thing we want from our games, before anything else, is that they are enjoyable.  These games – 40k, Warhammer Fantasy and Warmahordes – are cinematic and fun.  I do think we need to stop pretending that they somehow measure our command potential though.

I’ll leave you all with a quote from the great Miyamoto Musashi:

The Way to do battle is the same for man to man fights and for the clash of armies of ten thousands. You must appreciate that the spirit can become big or small. Big things are easy to see: small things are difficult to see. In other words, it is difficult for large numbers of men to change position, so their movements can be easily predicted. An individual can change his mind so quickly that his movements are difficult to predict. You must appreciate this.

You’ll notice he doesn’t say anything about having to command ten thousand men at the same time as fighting one.  Because that would be silly.

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13 responses to “Gaming Thoughts: Scale in Wargames

  • Von

    This makes extraordinary amounts of sense, especially considering the game-cludging effect that units have on the Privateer games (they’re fast and furious and fun… as long as it’s warnouns and solos only). Inflating the size of games as a device to sell more models, rather than just writing a game that needed a large number of models in the first place… a fool’s errand?

  • David Stillberg

    Good post, sirrah! I wish I had more time to write an intelligent answer, but here goes anyway.

    There’s a big difference between simulations and games. Trying to be both generally ends in disaster – see many early paper RPGs. Instead of fighting the abstraction we should embrace it. Rules should be flavourful, not realistic. Magic the Gathering is great in that aspect. Just the name of a mechanic can add a lot of feel to the card-shuffling.

    Your point about enjoyment also has implications for how games are built, and for whom. Which reminds me I have a post about the “three pillars of wargaming” that is long overdue …

  • James S

    @Von, yep, I can’t help thinking how much more fun WHFB would be if instead of rolling for each model you rolled a couple of dice per unit, and all the models were made dynamically posed and fixed on bases of six or something like in historical games. So basically I think WHFB would be better if it was a squad-level game, and 40k and Warmahordes would be better if they stuck to actual skirmishes.

    @David Stillberg, thanks! You’re right I think about embracing the abstraction. Games could probably, by using more abstract rules, create more immersion and actually make the player feel like a general instead of a game-player. Tenzing at Gaming All Areas agrees with you too – it was his post that got me thinking about this.

  • Frontline Gamer

    James S its a real shame you haven’t had more people comment on this, I think I’ll post a link from my blog to see if anyone who reads my blog is interested.

    However I think the role of the CIC in modern warfare is changing somewhat. I was amazed to see for instance that in the Fallujah campaign in 2004 the US CIC had video links to EVER squad leader and his team were dealing with real time video streaming and command. Including live satellite feeds and drones. Perhaps that is why the attempt to retake the city failed because of the amount of control and information that the command center received. But nevertheless that command of vast resources down to the individual level is now happening in modern conflicts.

    Hell the President of the US of A sat in a sofa watching the killing of the worlds most wanted man recently and was in contact with the teams on the ground. Warfare is changing and its changing rapidly. Where I think games like 40k and fantasy get it wrong is in trying to replicate movement on mass and the individual at the same time, which is the point Von is making I believe.

    The issues is you move individual members of a squad, as a squad in GW games either as a lose skirmish squad with coherency or as a block of rank and file infantry. These individuals though then operate as individuals in effect for combat, be that ranged or close. However in terms of resolution of this combat it is once again done at squad level. There isn’t an internal consistency to the core rules and this changing of the level of detail leads to some quite shockingly bad inconsistencies in the rules.

    I could go on and on, but I’d probably bore you half to death. Suffice to say I agree with you almost entirely. I wouldn’t have labelled the level of the games as you have, simply because skirmish refers to unit formation not size of conflict, but the definition I wholeheartedly concur with, I would have labelled them, Global, Unit and Individual, but that’s just me. I’m also not too sure all people are after being a commander, leader or general either in their games. Some games I am in others not so much, in some its more about the individual or the overall narrative generated. However your central argument about scale or more importantly a lack of consistency with scale is something me and my friends have spoken about for years now. Nice read James.

  • James S

    @Frontline Gamer, thanks for the insightful comment. I love long replies! Hmm, how to respond . . . maybe point by point.

    The video-link up extreme control scenario you describe in modern warfare is how battle is represented in Infinity. All of the troops are assumed to be in constant communication with each other and relaying intel to the staff officers. I guess it explains in fluff terms the game mechanic of being able to see everyone on the table.

    You said: “Where I think games like 40k and fantasy get it wrong is in trying to replicate movement on mass and the individual at the same time, which is the point Von is making I believe.”

    I hope that’s the point I was making too! It’s certainly what I was trying to get across, so I’m a little disappointed in myself if it wasn’t clear 😦

    I also agree with you that not everyone wants to feel like a commander or have their command skills accurately tested, and I did say that I think that’s cool. It’s fun just to smash your guys around too. I do think though that a lot of people assume without thinking about it that what 40k does is recreate command on some level, and I think the problems with mismatched scale prevent this. Perhaps I came on too strong with the generalship thing, you’re not the first person to read it as me saying simulation is the most important quality of a wargame. What I was trying to say is that simulation is almost impossible in hybrid scale games.

    I like your category names. I couldn’t think of a good one for what I called “squad level.” The reason I used the word “skirmish” was not in the sense of skirmish formation, but in the sense of a skirmish as a small conflict. I’ve seen the word used both ways, to mean a formation and a conflict size. The second definition was used when I was younger to describe types of wargames that deal with small conflicts. I like your “global” and “unit” terms though, nice.

    Thanks again for commenting. I’ll add your blog to my roll 😀

  • Frontline Gamer

    Jams S I think your point about games trying to replicate group and individual dynamics at the same time did come across really strongly in the article. I mentioned Von because sometimes I love reading his comments because you can almost see the cogs whirring in his brain when a topic has interested him. I think he’d be an interesting chap to sit down and have a beer with and talk wargames with!!!

    Personally I think the people left behind at the GW have completely lost sight of what 40k and WFB originally were, it happens. They’re now left with rulesets that are there that are too antiquated to get away with the upping of complexity levels and just don’t play smoothly. 8th Ed WFB has the added problem of massive imbalances between army books and entire types of troops now being useless. Not to mention the shear level of randomness the game now involves meaning skill has very little to do with it.

    I lament that other games appear to be going this way too. Warmachine and Hordes are a very, very odd mix at the moment. The vast majority of the game is played on an individual scale, even the units can be moved as individuals because coherency isn’t really important in either game. Yet they are still purchased as units and are described as such in the rules and sometimes get benefits for being in coherency. I’m not too sure, which way Warmachine and Hordes will go if I’m being honest with you.

  • SirTainly

    Nice post, what you’re describing the “2 down” rule..i.e. a commander only has to worry about things 2 levels below him. He orders the guy one level below him, and then has oversight on the level below that.

    i.e. Lt Blogs has to worry what Sgt Smith is doing, and to a lesser extent that Pvt Ox is in the right place.

  • hotpanda

    I play table tops games not to try and test my generalship but for the narrative. In no way can a table top or even the most realistic video game come close to the battlefield. A lot people in western culture have a strong urge to win not matter what the topic is. Both GW games were never made for competition but rather for the sheer enjoyment of playing a game with a friend.

  • James S

    @Frontline Gamer, oh OK, I misunderstood you – easy to do on the net. Yeah Von is good isn’t he? I’m glad he comments here.

    As for your second point I totally agree. GW can’t really change their rulesets too much because they’re institutions, and so they’re stuck with old-fashioned skirmish rules. While these rules still work well for what they were intended for (old doesn’t necessarily mean bad), they’re not so good for larger scale battles with even several squads, and they want you to buy more than several squads 😉

  • James S

    @SirTainly, interesting, thanks for the insight.

    A friend of mine told me that psychology research has shown that there are strict limits on how complex a situation the human mind can track and respond to. This 2-down rule probably reflects that, as the military tends to have learned from experience what works and what doesn’t when it comes to doing their job!

  • James S

    @hotpanda, I actually agree with you, although it may not seem it. I also play GW games for the narrative. I just think a lot of the community mistakenly thinks they’re playing some super-tactical wargame, or at least behaves as if that’s the case.

    Of course no game can capture what being in battle is like. Skirmish games are only games after all, and ultra-realistic computer simulations I think are no more likely to capture the actual experience than playing Infinity or Necromunda is. No matter how detailed and “realistic” these games get, one thing missing is the sense of it actually happening to you, and that’s a big thing!

    I suspect though that what I called strategy and squad-level games come pretty close to simulating what a general in the 19th century or earlier may have felt like, pushing dudes around on a map from the safety of your tent.

    Your point about western culture is interesting. I think many young western men are unsure about what being a man means, and feel like winning at things has something to do with it. Games are the perfect opportunity to win at something without taking any actual risks, so they’re popular dick-measuring devices for younger guys 😉

    Cheers for taking the time to comment.

  • Frontline Gamer

    @James S, I am actually a trained psychologist and your friend is actually right there is a limit to what the human brain can cope with in terms of complexity of situation. However it does vary significantly between person to person and the type of situation. However this relationship exists in all organisms and indeed all objects where resource is finite, i.e. computers. What is interesting though from studies is that what appears to limit a humans capacity to comprehend increasingly complex situations isn’t necessarily there brains raw processing capacity but our limited understanding of how we perceive our world via our limited senses, in particular auditory and visual. It seems there might actually be head room (excuse the pun) in terms of our mental capacity to process the information, but that our senses can’t give us that information quickly enough in a structured and coherent way.

    Also there have been some really interesting studies into whether or not having the information fed verbally increases the cognitive ability of the brain to deal with information and situations. Most studies seem to cancel each other out though on this one. Also there is a significant change in speed of response and comprehension in younger people more used to computers and more specifically video games. Yeah that’s right video games might be good for something after all, because you see video games actually feed the brain an awful lot of information in one screen / shoot. Health bars, ammo, timer, squad members health, narrative via sound etc. and ask you to process this quickly and respond. They are actually very good at ordering complex information in a digestible manner and it seems increasing an individuals capacity to perceive broad spectrum information.

    @HOTPanda Getting back to the crux of your discussion, I think to an extent you’re right, but on my Blog you’ll be able to find an article on the rise of the phrase Beer and Pretzels game:

    http://thefrontlinegamer.blogspot.com/2011/08/just-what-hell-is-beer-and-pretzels.html

    and I also did a series of articles on game balance starting here:

    http://thefrontlinegamer.blogspot.com/2011/08/can-any-game-system-ever-truly-be.html

    that cover the main thrust of why using its a ‘fun game’ as an excuse for poor balance, rules and design isn’t acceptable. Also I’m a real crusty old gamer and I actually remember the very first WFB and trust me it was design to be played competitively, because there is an element of competition in the games DNA right from the start with talk of campaigns, leagues and oh yeah a little something called victory conditions!!! That’s the biggest give away. 😛

    Competition isn’t just a Western thing either so please dispense with that notion. Its a symptom of the human condition to be competitive, we all owe our very existence to our ancestors will to survive and be competitive. Does this mean that competition can’t be fun though? No it doesn’t, most of us will enjoy a bit of competition, I mean would you be happy knocking a tennis ball back and forth over the net for two hours, or would you actually rather play a game of tennis and test your ability? We’re hard wired that way and yeah some more so than others. It doesn’t make it a bad thing though.

  • Privateer Press Announcements – The Frugal Perspective | GAME OVER

    […] for one thing. The scale of Warmahordes is creeping up and up – more than ever, it’s an army-scale games with skirmish-scale mechanics.  Bigger, more expensive, harder-to-store-and-transport models** are becoming the norm.  […]

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