Where is the Digital Wargame Renaissance?
For several hours over 150 people watched a gentleman wax poetically on the state of table top war games, and occasionally clip the corners on counters. It’s almost routine to watch someone un-box a board war game and loving display the counters, map, even the manual. Twitter is filled with folks gushing over game design, board layout, and how well Verdun is modelled on the table top. So where is the digital equivalent of this? And why is the board wargame seeing such a resurgence?
I enjoy table top games, but I suffer from living in the absolute middle of nowhere. There are no opponents near me and while I can play a PC Wargame all day long I loath using Vassal or Tabletop Simulator to play wargames online. Yet even in the midst of a pandemic the tabletop wargame industry looks to be flourishing.
Gaming in general is booming like never before; all kinds of games, especially video games, are exploding into the mainstream. Video games are in many ways leading the way but much of video gaming lacks the traditional social and interactive aspects of analog games. So a lot of that new attention is spilling over into traditionally niche spaces; board games and card games but also tabletop RPGs and wargames. The rise of social media has made it even easier to connect with people sharing those interests, and online tools such as Roll20, VASSAL and Tabletop Simulator facilitate that interaction even with people on the other side of the planet.
As to why digital wargames still seem comparatively moribund, consumer-grade computers running consumer-grade software still aren’t sophisticated enough to simulate human interaction with complex game systems; in other words, the AI just isn’t there yet. Another reason, I think, that computer wargames have so little penetration into the wargaming space is that it’s a tiny, tiny corner of an industry closing in on a quarter of a trillion dollars in size. The big money is out there but doesn’t want to chase that tiny niche, and so computer wargames are comparatively strapped on development dollars and talent, and unfortunately while a lot of them have sophisticated game systems, the penny-pinching shows when it comes to UI and AI. So while progress has been made, computer wargames all feel a bit last generation.Ardwulf via Twitter
Would probably need to think about it a bit, but initial gut reaction is 2 things 1. Kickstarter has had a much bigger impact on tabletop gaming than digital gaming. There’s all sorts of ways to crowd-fund digital games, from Steam greenlight to patreon to kickstarter, but none of them seem to have taken hold as much as KS has for boardgaming
2. Digital gaming trends away from big/long/complex games, especially tethered to a computer for hundreds of hours, and more toward smaller, mobile, quick-playing digital games. People are already parked in front of screens for multiple hours on end for work and now starting to realize that occasionally going for a walk, or standing in line at the bank, or sitting on the porch, isn’t a ‘waste’ of time. There’s probably a “2a” that has something to do with gaming as a social activity (witness the explosion in TTS usage during the pandemic) but that’s much more involved discussionBayonetbrant via Discord PM
Both of these are interesting takes from folks in the tabletop space. Things became more nebulous when I reached out to computer wargamers. I realized there is a very big mental difference when one sits down for a tabletop war game. Not only must you have invested in times in learning the rules, but there is a down payment of attention and time just in setting up the game. Before you’ve even moved a single counter you may have an hour, or many hours just in setup.
Now follow that up with a desire to actually play the game. There is an anticipation, a build up of expectations, and finally a reward as you see your strategy unfold.
In comparison I can load up Wargame Design Studios Stalingrad ’42’s Uranus Scenario and have the entirety of the 6th Army’s operating area in under a minute. My investment is virtually nil, I can now spend my time moving counters about without even bothering to read the rules. So, in a few short minutes, I’m playing (albeit badly). My emotional investment at this point is much lower.
A Variety of Variety
Another interesting point is variety. Want a PC game that focuses on B-17 bomber management? It is slim (modern) pickings. However there are multiple board games, some with quite lovingly done artwork, and clever rules that focus just on B-17’s. Not many people get excited about PC wargame artwork, and even less so about the rules. (Caveat, Unity of Command 2 does a great job looking good and playing well.)
But a board game? Hoo boy. Folks will eat up that rule book and get excited about how a mechanic shifts a zone of supply, or changes a combat modifier. Then someone else “borrows” that same mechanic to improve their own game. It’s an open source model of sorts, you aren’t plagiarizing, you’re “borrowing”. And just like open source code, each of those borrowed snippets grows the richness of the game and the state of the gaming technology.
Such is the excitement for new table top boardgames that folks will eagerly plop down money for a game to get it published. The P500 program from GMT is a great tool for bringing niche games to market along with generating buzz. You know exactly how close you are to getting your game, and when to rib your friends to pitch in so you can all play.
Concept to Construction
To make that boardgame you need a pen and paper. To add some polish you might use a program like HexDraw or InDesign or Photoshop. Someone can cleverly adapt various mechanics into a Jewish counter insurgency game from the bronze age using nothing more than what you have at home. Grab a talented artist, plump it up on Twitter, add a dash of Kickstarter, and voila, you’ve got a game.
There is, unfortunately, no borrowing of mechanics from a Grigsby game. Everything is inside of a black box. You as the player have a decent idea how combat works, but there is a magic box of formulas that can obfuscate exact results. You may love the way that the Command Ops AI works but there’s no way to adapt that to your darling of a game.
Even with free(ish) tools like Godot or Unity, the barrier to PC wargame entry involves programming that is beyond most people. Not only that, but you have to polish a UI experience and UX that makes for engaging gameplay. If your game doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. You can fudge a table top game if a rule feels weird, if a PC game feels weird you’re just stuck with it. Vassal or Tabletop simulator have no problem with you doing whatever you want, regardless of the rules.
So right off the bat we need a talented individual to make the game. Our potential pool of game developers involves way more than pen-n-paper tabletop designer. A good comparison is how many tabletop wargames were published in 2021 according to Boardgamegeek, by my count it’s over 150. By comparison I’d be surprised if we saw a dozen computer wargames in that same time span.
Developer wise there are some very prolific war game designers. For example Ted Raicer, of Paths of Glory Fame, has designed and published 35 games in his career. One of the most prolific PC war game designers, Gary Grigsby, also has 35 computer wargames in his career. Of his games only the last dozen or so are probably still in play.
But other than Gary, it’s tough to name a prolific PC war game designer. Norm Kroger is known for the Operational Art of War. Vic Reijkersz for Advanced Tactics and Decisive Campaigns Series. John Tiller for Panzer Campaigns, Panzer Battles, and more, but that seems to be about it? (Yes, I’m sure someone will point out a glaring developer I’ve missed.)
Even from a publishers standpoint a giant like SSI only released 100 or so titles. Compare this to GMT games with over 500 published titles. Though an interesting question is how many total hours are spent on each game? I’ve spent several thousand hours in Command : Modern Operations alone, I can’t think of any other board wargame that has captivated me for that length of time.
I can hear my ASL Friends who counterpoint this, and I agree that there is some serious time to be spent, but ASL was the original DLC release model. Steel Panthers, while not an ASL clone, was definitely a continuation of that line with thousands of player made scenarios.
Kickstart my Heart, Erm Marketing Machine
Board games have Kickstarter down to a science. Flashy miniatures, big name designers, killer artwork, and maybe (or maybe not) a decent game. What was once for one-off small creators has turned into a multi million dollar cash funnel that directs buzz into marketing cash. Look at something like Kingdom Death ($12.4 mil) or Frosthaven ($12.9 mil).
What’s really interesting is seeing AAA video game titles turned into Kickstarter board games. Bloodborne, Monster Hunter, Dark Souls, Darkest Dungeon, and The Witcher just to name a few. Is this a case of corporations following the money? Or is there a special mojo of marketing hype that builds into “scarcity” to drive a purchase now? It feels more like something you stick on the shelf for nerd cred rather than an engaging gaming experience.
Actual War Game publishers are a distinct minority with Dan Verssen Games raising $127k for Warfighter followed by Lock’n’Load Publishing with $116k for World at War ’85. A successful PC wargame Kickstarter looks to be pretty thin, the recently announced Arms Trade Tycoon is sitting at $38k with 8 days to go. There is absolutely a short list for PC wargames. Arms Trade Tycoon looks to push all the right buttons but just can’t hit that groove like the big name board games. My hunch is this area is laser focused on the table top experience.
One interesting example is the resurgence in military / professional wargaming. There is some real growth in interest and designs that are pushing boundaries in the tabletop wargame eco system. A great example is Sebastian Bae’s Fleet Marine Force. The concept to construction time on a tabletop game just requires less resources than sourcing a computer wargame. FMF can have a systems modifications that is just a rules re-write of a single paragraph where that same change in a PC wargame could take days or weeks.
A counterpoint to this is the rapid growth of games like Command Modern Operations Pro Edition, Combat Mission PRO, and Flashpoint Campaigns Pro. There are also very specialized tools from BAE Systems or General Dynamics that us civilians aren’t allowed to play with. I’ve sat in on some discussions that MORS puts out and it’s interesting to hear the wargaming professionals who prefer tabletop games to PC wargames. It seems they like PC games when it fits the niche exactly, but they prefer the free-form of what a wargame may teach that isn’t on rails from the game designer. I think rapidity of design, from concept to table top, may be days for a tabletop game and not months or years for a PC product.
My New Invention, The Wheel!
At the core we still have the issue where every new PC wargame designer has to start from scratch and determine what is the best way. That “borrowing” of mechanics is present to a basic level, but you won’t see the excellent AI from Decisive Campaigns : Ardennes ported into Panzer Campaigns : Bulge ’44.
Unfortunately, each new designer has to re-invent the wheel and re-learn lessons that other developers have already solved. Whereas the board game folks can enhance features, advance rules, and see what is engaging in the game space for the benefit of everyone. I totally understand why from a business standpoint, you’d hate to give away your hard earned technology, especially to a competitor. But from a player standpoint it’s a bummer.
It’s a Search Engine, aka Exposure
One curious point is the search engine conundrum. Amazon is not a store, it’s a search engine for a store. If you have a single board game on that store the search engine only has one point to forward to. However if you have a hundred products, not only will they feed into each other, but the “also boughts” will drive other products to you, and yours to other products. An isolated developer with an archaic web store is not growing their market, the market is looking elsewhere. (I’m looking at you Shrapnel Games.)
The more entry points you have for your product, the more places someone can stumble into them. On the ComputerWargames SubReddit we routinely recommend what we consider to be popular games that always get responses like “Great! I’ve never heard of that game before.” This might be War in the East 2, or a Tiller/Wargame Design Studios game, or Combat Mission. If you assume your niche is closed, then it may well remain so. Look at Crusader Kings, it’s a feudal relationship simulator that requires familiarity with medieval inheritance law. It’s wildly popular. Don’t box yourself in with assumptions.
Board games have not only Amazon, but a site like BoardGameGeek. In case you’ve never visited it’s well worth it. You can browse, see reviews, playthroughs, and get a ridiculous amount of information. There is no single point for PC wargaming in the same vein. There are a dozen different forums, one focused on Tiller titles while another caters to Combat Mission. Discord, as great as it is, also Balkanizes the diaspora of wargamers.
Steam has a BGG like feel in the Community Section, but depending on the game this can be filled with amazing creativity or just grumpy trolls. There is a place to see similar games, but this is hit-or-miss depending on how many sales their is. As odd as it sounds, success breeds more success as the search engine exposure grows.
From Commodore 64 to Windows 11 via DosBox
There is an interesting trend lately where older games are being re-released. Microprose just did this with the B-17 titles, but other than some nostalgia I can’t recomend it, modern UI and UX expectations have moved on. But there is serious potential to “re-master” an old wargame for lack of a better term. The V for Victory series for example is ripe for a re-do, not just a DOSBOX port.
To Infinity, and Beyond!
As to what will drive the same explosion in growth? Excitement. If the players are engaged and excited enough to share, then a critical mass of interest will drive more excitement. If the product is easily purchasable, damn your niche Steam arguments, then more people will buy it. GMT games doesn’t restrict board game sales to just their website, or only military history websites, you can buy it damned near anywhere, including Amazon (and Steam) or the corner game shop or some random internet store.
So where does this leave us? I think we are at the beginning of a PC wargame renaissance. Matrix-Slitherine has a robust field of incoming products as well as Microprose reborn. With the Tiller catalog now in the hands of WDS we will hopefully see polish and growth there too. Games like Unity of Command are shaking up the old guard and driving innovation. With Godot and Unity we see tools that allow anyone with some skill and desire to make what could be the next great wargame. (See Armored Commander 2 or On the Western Front)
The niche has solid demand and a potential for growth, I’m excited for what the next couple of years will bring. Do all of us a favor, if you know someone who might be interested, share the hobby with them. MilHist nerds are great folks to start with, even that guy at work who is really into DCS. Maybe the Hell Let Loose guy in Shipping and Receiving would be interested in Combat Mission. Rather than squabbling over a shrinking pie, maybe we should all work on growing that pie?