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.