|Geryk Analysis: Wargaming|
Brooski - Columns - Comments - 10/03/05
A couple of months ago, I found myself trying to rationalize my understanding of the word, “game.” That’s because I read a review by one of my fellow CGW writers of Gary Grigsby’s A World At War. He repeatedly beats me senseless at most wargames we play by mail, so he knows what he’s doing. But in his review, he made the following comment:
… many of the initial moves are almost pre-ordained. If one doesn’t follow the optimal path of prescribed moves, defeat is almost assured.
He then gave the “game” three and a half stars.
I’ve always been of the opinion that games have to give players choices. If there is only one best move, then it isn’t a game – it’s a puzzle. Figure out the puzzle and you’re done. That’s fine, I guess, for puzzles. But not for games. If there is part of your “game” that is obvious and has only one possible solution, it shouldn’t be in the game. Unless you made a puzzle by accident.
By contrast, if you play Breakout: Normandy, the last of the amazing Courtney Allen/Don Greenwood impulse games from Avalon Hill, you have interesting decisions up the wazoo every single turn. Moving a single German flak battalion may be the most important thing you want to do that turn, but each impulse you have to keep doing something else because your opponent keeps threatening other parts of the board. In another game, that flak battalion can sit on its ass all day. Because of genius game design.
There are only really two game design axioms I’m sure about. One is that anything below the player’s level of control should be abstracted. The other is that anything that has one and only one solution should be omitted. If you are making a game of World War II and there is one single best way to invade France, you should just start the game after the invasion of France. Or quit game design entirely.
Instead, computer wargame designers seem to have embraced the idea that because the computer can make things infinitely complex, all you really have to do is bury your game in so much detail that the answer to whatever puzzle you’ve created takes so long to figure out that you get the necessary replayability simply out of trying to deduce the solution. It’s the easy way out, because balancing wargames is a difficult prospect if not impossible.
One reason is that by definition, a historical wargame is supposed to recreate historical conditions, and there just aren’t a lot of famous battles (or wars) that could just as easily have been won by either side. The over-modeled German offensive that comprised the Battle of the Bulge was doomed before it started, and many games that try and recreate it overstate German capabilities, presumably to make a decent “game” out of it. Strategic World War II games have the same problem.