INTRODUCTIONConsimWorld Expo 2010 and the WBC Convention Tournaments will both be coming up before too many more months. And the approaching dates for these two major tournament conventions got me to thinking about an aspect of the wargaming hobby that has bothered me for some time: the growing split between the steadily-shrinking fraternity of ‘old-line’ traditional gamers (people like me), and the rapidly-growing number of younger ‘alternative’ wargame, ‘Euro’, card game, and nontraditional board gamers that increasingly have come to dominate the hobby’s biggest tournament conventions. I believe that this change, although a little disconcerting, represents an excellent chance for older gamers — by mentoring less-experienced, younger players — to rekindle broader competitive interest in some of the great classic games that have, sadly, slipped farther and farther into the convention background over the last few decades.
THE GREAT HOBBY DIVIDE: OLD VERSUS NEW
Every now and then, usually when I am feeling particularly ambitious, I will invest an hour or so and methodically work my way through the accumulated comments on one or more of the various ‘Game Forums’ at the Boardgamegeek web site. Almost every time that I perform this exercise, I am reminded of the widening split between the shrinking number of gamers who maintain their affection for traditional wargames from the hobby’s distant past — even for titles that were not really classics in their day — and the growing pool of players who seem to reflexively reject these long out-of-print games in favor of the new. Of course, these BGG posts are really not much of a surprise; they just offer additional evidence of a trend in the gaming hobby that I first began to notice at major conventions almost three decades ago: a growing divide between the original ‘first wave’ wargamers and the ‘new wave’ players who entered the hobby later via an alternative, non-wargame pathway.
The first type of gamer, not surprisingly, is typically a lot older and, when posting at one of the BGG Forums, almost always prefaces his or her comments with a bit of personal history tinged with nostalgia. The second (usually younger) type of player, on the other hand, typically dismisses most of the classic older Avalon Hill, GDW, and SPI games as being ‘out-dated’, ‘unbalanced’, ‘historically inaccurate’, and ‘grossly inferior’ to any of a number of newer design treatments of the game’s original subject. Even the few older (ex-first wave) members of this second group are often harshly critical, if not completely dismissive of these early games. Interestingly, the arguments and biases of both groups of gamers actually have at least some merit; however, despite their several areas of agreement, the gap between the two camps appears to be pretty much unbridgeable and growing wider. This is unfortunate because I suspect that the differences between the two groups are more psychological than generational. So, what exactly are the main differences, anyway?
The players who typically argue in favor of the newer, more contemporary titles — whether conventional two-player, multi-player, or card-driven games — all seem to display a number of distinctive traits: an appreciation for ‘state-of-the-art’ graphics; a taste for ‘freshness’ and ‘innovation’ in game design; a preference for spontaneity and variation in play; a bias towards historical color, even at the expense of playability; and a clearly-articulated distaste for games that show themselves to be overly vulnerable to in-depth analysis. On several of these points, I think almost all gamers would agree. There is no doubt in my mind that more than a few of the newer titles are so visually striking as to almost count as legitimate art; many of the contemporary board games, in fact, I would argue are truly a feast for the eye. Moreover, even among my own graying circle of long-time players, genuine design innovation and creativity are widely-admired, whatever the game format. We may not play the new game, but we can nonetheless appreciate the designer’s creativity. For this reason, none of the players that I know would dispute the idea that many of the new concepts to emerge from the last few crops of game designers have genuinely enriched the hobby for everyone. There is no doubt, for example, that colorful multi-player games like CIVILIZATION and KINGMAKER and their various off-shoots have introduced the hobby of historical board gaming to a fresh group of socially-oriented players. Moreover, card games like MAGIC, UP FRONT, or ATTACK SUB have brought new participants into the larger gaming hobby.
Unfortunately, newness, despite its obvious appeal, also has a downside. Not always, but too frequently, the innovation that emerges from the on-going flow of newly-published game designs seems to come at a fairly steep price. And that price shows up, more often than not, in poorly-organized, obtuse, or badly-written rules. Of course, to be fair, it should be noted that poorly-worded, incomplete, or incomprehensible game instructions are hardly new: try figuring out how to play GDW’s SEALION after only one or two careful readings of the rules, if you don’t believe me. Nor is this the only problem with many new designs. Although ‘novelty’ has many benefits, the constant pursuit of ‘newness’ and innovation by contemporary designers also results, much too regularly for my taste, in layers of quasi-historical ‘chrome’ that — while seriously bogging down play with lots of additional busy-work and die-rolling — ultimately contribute little, if anything, to the actual simulation value of the game. In addition, I would argue that the continuing penchant of designers to layer more and more time-wasting randomness onto their game platforms (with die-rolls for unit initiative, movement, morale, defensive fire, and offensive fire, for example) has, in most cases, actually contributed very little to realism, but has cost a great deal in playability. This trend towards increased operational complexity, however, has had another unfortunate effect, as well. It has almost certainly contributed to a wide-spread prejudice among many of today’s ‘new wave’ players against those classic older games that, when compared to many newer titles, they now view as being too basic, too predictable, or too repetitive for serious competitive play. Thus, virtually all of the classic older games — because they are typically described by their critics as being ‘unbalanced’, ‘over-analyzed’, or too ‘chess-like’ — are regularly dismissed as being uninteresting, overly rigid, or even boring. This, I think, is where the two camps of gaming enthusiasts really part company.
Of course, the (typically) younger, ‘new wave’ players are not totally wrong in their ‘thumbs-down’ appraisals of many of the older titles. Having personally been in the wargaming hobby for almost half a century, I confess that, while I am usually squarely on the side of the (first wave) defenders of traditional classic games , I am now and have always been realistic about the obvious limitations and defects of many of the older, sometimes overly-lauded game titles. Nostalgia, in and of itself, is never enough to salvage a truly bad design no matter how old it is. KREIGSPEIL, 1914, ORIGINS OF WORLD WAR II, SCRIMMAGE, or most of the wretchedly-executed titles published by the deservedly short-lived Rand Game Associates are all irredeemable despite their antique status or their place in gaming history. They were awful games when they were first published many years ago, and they are just as terrible today. Still, I would argue that scattered among the many indisputably bad games from the long and growing list of now-defunct game publishers, there are also a number of titles that — while admittedly a little primitive and even drab by today’s standards — are nonetheless well worth owning and playing. And these are the ‘gems’ that, whatever else happens in the hobby, I and my friends return to time and time again.
For ‘first wave’ grognards like me, colorful graphics, clever design innovations, simulation realism, and historical accuracy are all nice; but, when everything is said and done, the game itself, is the thing. And a truly good game doesn’t come with an expiration date. Sadly, there are a surprising number of really great ‘old’ games that most contemporary players have not really even examined, much less played. “Too ugly or too simple or too imbalanced” are these players’ most common excuses. Frustratingly, the very design characteristics that tend to turn-off many younger ‘novelty-loving’ gamers are often precisely the same ones that I and my fellow ‘old-timers’ find most appealing. However, all that being said, there still remains an obvious question: what are the main issues that actually separate the ‘first wave’ and ‘new wave’ types of gamers?
The first major area of disagreement between the two camps is probably on basic game structure and turn-to-turn predictability. For the fan of ‘classic games’, the design platform should at least be both consistent and stable enough to permit a player to precisely know and control the movement, positioning, and combat values of his own units, and to assess these same factors for the enemy force. This is where the oft-criticized ‘chess-like’ quality of older games is usually most apparent. Game mechanics, by the way, that incorporate some form of the ‘fog of war’, while quite popular with many ‘new wargame’ fans, are not necessarily unwelcome with traditional players: most naval games and even quite a few land-based simulations make at least some attempt to incorporate ‘limited intelligence’ into their game systems. The PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN Game System, for instance, is an excellent example of a ‘fog of war’ design platform that nonetheless remains very popular with most ‘first wave’ gamers. Thus, this type of game mechanism is usually perfectly acceptable to the ‘grognards’ faction of the hobby, but only as long as this single design element does not completely dominate the flow and tempo of the game. Interestingly, most ‘first wave’ players would also agree with their ‘new wave’ counterparts that a certain amount of dynamic variability is both reasonable and even worthwhile in a game system; if there is too much, however, then advance planning becomes extremely difficult, if not completely pointless. This means, for instance, that the variable outcomes represented in a traditional combat results table or in the AFRIKA KORPS supply table — because they are known in advance — are perfectly acceptable to a traditional player; but a game format in which either the actual combat odds or the statistical likelihood of various combat results are hidden by the game system from the players prior to a battle’s resolution, would usually not be.
Second, game mechanics that incorporate spontaneous and random events or sudden unexpected restrictions on a player’s range of options are usually far more popular with ‘new wave’ players than they are with the fans of the older classic titles. For this reason, many of the ‘card-driven’ board wargames tend to be more popular with the younger crop of players than they are with the ‘grognards’ in the hobby. This does not necessarily mean, by the way, that any game rules that place movement or other limitations on a player are necessarily unacceptable to traditional players. A lot depends on the internal logic of the simulation’s basic design, and whether such limitations make sense within the context of the larger game situation. For example, both PANZER ARMEE AFRIKA and DRIVE ON STALINGRAD can, and often do, impose onerous restrictions on a player’s scope of action; yet, because these restrictive rules make sense in terms of their respective game systems, both simulations still remain popular with a sizeable contingent of the ‘first wave’ fraternity, nonetheless.
Third, the ‘new wave’ player, to his or her credit, is invariably much more open to completely new game systems and design concepts than many of the ‘first wave’ players like me. These more adventurous younger players’ taste for experimentation and innovation will, with very few exceptions, almost always lead them to try out radically-new or unorthodox designs before their more conservative counterparts in the hobby. Naturally, there are many traditional players that are eager to try new games. But, speaking from experience, there are also many ‘first wave’ players, myself included, who are a little bit slow to adapt to dramatic changes within the hobby. In my own case, for example, it took nearly ten years from the time of its Avalon Hill product launch for me to finally get around to trying a few games of UP FRONT. Nothing, of course, was wrong with the game; I just had a deeply-ingrained mistrust of, and prejudice against, the whole concept of a conflict simulation resolved through the use of a deck of playing cards. The same thing can be said about my feelings towards computer wargames: I still own a number of the early titles, but I never really came to enjoy any of them. And despite the dazzling realism of contemporary computer graphics, I still don’t.
Fourth, if the ‘new wave’ player is quick and even eager to try new games, the traditional ‘first wave’ player is much more willing to stick with a title until he or she has at least achieved a moderate level of expertise with the wargame’s mechanics of play, and with its basic offensive and defensive strategies. This is, perhaps, the biggest difference between the two types of players. The ‘new wave’ gamer tends to hop from title to title; hence, he rarely sticks with a game long enough to achieve any real mastery. This leads many, but not all ‘new wave’ players to shun games against experienced opponents because such contests, in their eyes, tend to lose their spontaneity and excitement. In short, the appearance of certain successful ‘lines of play’ in a game will tend to intrigue the ‘first wave’ player, while dampening the interest of the ‘new wave’ gamer. This is also why the reactions of the two types of players to defeat are typically so different. The more easily bored ‘new wave’ gamer will often abandon a title after a few matches, particularly if he or she loses, while the ‘first wave’ grognard will hunker-down over his game table, often alone, and attempt to analyze the reasons for his defeats. In both cases, of course, the two types of player are interested in furthering their enjoyment of gaming; they just enjoy very different aspects of the same hobby. And this is probably also why cross-over from ‘new wave’ to ‘first wave’ gaming is much rarer than the reverse.
In the end, of course, both types of players are equally justified in their different approaches to wargaming. For the seasoned classics player, winning is always good, but not nearly as good as winning against an expert opponent by planning and then executing a ‘better’ campaign. The ‘new wave’ player, needless-to-say, also wants to win; however, he or she prefers to compete in a dynamic game setting in which there are far more ‘unknowns’ than ‘knowns’. This is also why, my ‘new wave’ friends tell me, they find it so fruitless to try the older games at conventions: anytime they enter a classic tournament, they know that, in all likelihood, their opponent has probably been playing the tournament game for years, if not for decades. In short, my novelty-loving friends argue that the experience gap is usually too wide to close, so why should they even bother to try? This argument really is difficult to rebut, particularly when there are always plenty of exciting new titles coming along in which no one is likely to have a marked advantage in experience. So, does this mean that both groups of players should continue on their separate ways? I, for one, sincerely hope not. Instead, a real effort, I believe, should be made — particularly by veteran classics players — to introduce any interested ‘new wave’ gamers both to the intricacies of classics play and to the many subtle strategies that have allowed some of the best of the old Avalon Hill, GDW, and SPI games to maintain their small, but loyal followings for all these years. Not to dwell on the obvious, but none of us who have been in the hobby from its inception are getting any younger. Therefore, I think that it would be genuinely worthwhile, both for the wargaming hobby and for ourselves, to make a concerted effort to share our accumulated gaming experience and knowledge with interested younger players while we still have time. After all, they will soon be the ‘grognards’ of tomorrow.