Monday, May 08, 2006

Wargaming

Well, I certainly never expected to be writing a post quite like this one. A few months back, I stumbled onto the Point2Point podcast. I listened to their first show and decided to send them some feedback.

My question was basically this: Why aren't wargames more euro-gamer-friendly? Surely, more people would play wargames if the publishers made more of an effort to make the rules read a little less like VCR instructions, and the components a higher quality. I was aware of my own personal standards about rules, so perhaps I was the only one who thought this way. Recently, more posts with this same question have shown up on BGG.

Since then, I have done a complete 180. What could possibly cause me to do this? Did some burly wargamer stand over me with a baseball bat and say, "That's a nice euro collection you've got there. Shame if anything was to happen to it."? Not quite.

Before getting into this, I need to define ASLSK#1. It stands for Advanced Squad Leader: Starter Kit #1. It's basically a subset of the original ASL. It includes a set of simplified rules for Infantry and Terrain--all in 12 pages (including charts). It has a sheet of counters, 2 map boards, and 6 scenarios. It is the first in a series of Starter Kits so you can learn the system one step at a time. Kit #2 adds light ordnance. Kit #3 adds tanks and other vehicles.

I have had the extreme pleasure of being taught ASLSK#1 by Kevin Moody. To give you an idea of the magnitude of this task, let me say that I have never spent more than 20 minutes teaching any euro game without starting to play. I also feel that I learn very quickly in most cases--not that I necessarily play the game well, but that I internalize the mechanics easily.

Over 3 Skype sessions, Kevin spent 10-12 hours going over the concepts and the phases of a turn. Of course, there was quite a bit of intermixed chit-chat (no pun intended), but I would say at least 8 hours were pure rules.

Since then we started a game using Scenario 1. We played 2 turns (out of the full 5) in about 3 hours. We ended up not being able to hook up again for over 3 weeks, so we decided to start over. We've now played 3 turns of the same Scenario in about 3.5 hours.

What have I learned from this?

One: I am so glad I decided to give ASL a shot. I don't think I would have made it on my own, but being taught over Skype is awesome. Kevin is a very patient teacher, and a pleasure to talk to. ASLSK#1 is on my want list, and I am eagerly awaiting the reprint. I can't speak to the rules as I don't have them yet.

Two: I am willing to teach any euro game to anyone who is interested. However, I would not try to teach ASL to someone unless they were able to show that they were willing to commit to learning the game. It would take too much effort to have the person go, "Ok, thanks. This doesn't sound very fun after all." In other words, they would have to meet me half way either by having tried to understand the rules on their own, or having tried other wargames. In this respect, I think Kevin took a big chance with me.

Three: ASL is not simply a complex euro game. In fact, just having learned ASLSK#1, I don't even think it belongs in the same BGG weight system with euro games. Alhambra's weight is 2.07. ASLSK#1's weight is 4.00. Is it really twice as complex? No. It's about 50 times more complex. This is not wargame snobbery or elitism speaking. It simply is a lot of work to learn it. The only comparison in my experience would be trying to understand every card from every expansion of Magic: The Gathering--and how they interact--all at the same time.

So what does all this mean?

Say you go to the doctor and get a blood test. The result is a chart with perhaps 20-30 numbers on it. You ask the doctor to explain. He notes that all the values are in the expected ranges and tells you everything is normal. Then you ask if he will explain what a specific number means. He can say, "That helps us detect problems in your liver," but he can't really get into the science of it. He doesn't have the time to give every patient a lesson in remedial medicine. The only way you will really be able to completely understand is by going to medical school, or minimally looking it up on your own and learning as much as you can assimilate.

Also, my original question to Point2Point was kind of like going to a Mexican restaurant and saying, "I like Chinese food. Do you have anything that's less Mexican and more like Chinese?" I shouldn't be insulted if they say, "Why don't you just go to a Chinese place?" This is exactly what is happening when a wargamer says, "Maybe wargaming isn't for you." If you want to try it, you have to dive into their world, and not expect them to bring their world to yours.

ASL is full of acronyms like PTC, NMC, DM, CX, FFNAM, FFMO, DRM, FP, LOS, TEM, FG, MG, PBF, IFT, MMC, and SMC. It's not at all sufficient to simply have a glossary to define these terms. What's important is to see the acronym and immediately think of the concept. After having learned the little I have, I am already able to conceptualize FFNAM long before I think of what it translates to (First Fire Non-Assault Movement). They might as well be symbols. What this means is that your first pass through the rules is going to be gibberish. When the acronyms start to translate to mental concepts, then the paragraphs in which they appear (which is pretty much all paragraphs) will start to mean something.

I am not making excuses either. Sure, the rules and components could be better. That is true of any game. But wargaming is a different world. When the boards for Railroad Tycoon warped, many euro gamers started to circle the wagons. Even I took the game off my order. I get the feeling this just doesn't happen with wargames. If the game is playable and provides the appropriate historic-theme-to-mechanics representation, then wargamers are happy.

Wargame publishers are small-time. They try to cut costs in a big way just to stay alive. By comparison the euro-game industry is massive. The flip side of the coin is that there really are lots of wargamers. They don't really care to bring in thousands of euro-gamers most of whom don't really care about wargaming other than perhaps as a curiosity.

The complexity of the wargame rules is natural not artificial. They are complex because they try to cover a variety of interesting aspects of the game's period. They are not a fence keeping you out, but more like a scary house with an open gate. If you are willing to walk up and ring the bell, you will be welcome inside.

[The image is a screenshot of VASL with ASLSK#1 Scenario 1 loaded. It is Axis turn 4. The stars show the 4 buildings that the Allies (greeenish-yellow counters, played by me) are trying to defend. The Germans (in blue, played by Kevin) are coming from the North, South, and East. Additional Allies entered from the East, and are trying to put enough pressure on the Germans to keep them from being able to effectively advance on the buildings. The 3 DM counters are showing units under Desperation Morale. This means that they were subject to enough firepower that their will to fight was temporarily broken. In ASL, you cannot force units to commit suicide (eg Risk). They will behave like soldiers do when their lives are threatened. Sound fun?]

5 Comments:

At 12:18 AM, Blogger Steve Janecek said...

good stuff - I have always been interested in games of this style because of the tactical requirements - but like some I know have been overwhelmed by the sheer obsessiveness of those who play the game.

I guess maybe I'm one of the rare breed that can have fun playign this game for its mental attrition without taking it too seriously. But havign never played it I cannot be sure.

Let me ask yuo this - is there a particular "game" that you would put into this sentence. "If you like _______ you would almost certianly enjoy ASL"

 
At 1:20 PM, Blogger ekted said...

I can think of no Euro game to put in there. There are no Euros that have such complex criteria for being able to move and/or shoot.

Star Fleet Battles has a similar degree of complexity, but has nowhere near the amount of "terrain" to deal with.

 
At 7:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dude...

Your going down in flames. ASL has captured you. You will never be the same.

Foob

 
At 7:33 PM, Blogger ekted said...

You would be right, foob, except that my only local opponent can't play that often. That should keep my obsession at bay. Of course, there's plenty of online opponents...

 
At 8:05 AM, Anonymous Luke said...

This is an amazing essay! I really liked how you clarified the distinctions, and what it takes to get into wargaming. I've tried introducing people to wargaming before, but usually people give up once they realise just how complicated wargames really are--even though they are hooked on the initial concept.

 

Post a Comment

<< Home