Return of the hex-crazed wargamers

Is the Net breathing new life into an endangered hobby -- or just postponing the inevitable?

Topics: Gaming,

In the world of computer wargames, each new release is pinned to the promise of state-of-the-art goodies: the best graphics ever, the most realistic explosions, the most challenging artificially intelligent opponents. The paper wargames of the past — with their hexagon-laden maps, die-cut cardboard units, and insanely detailed rules manuals — seem at best obsolete, doomed by relentless technological advances.

The business of board wargames certainly isn’t flourishing, by anyone’s standards. It reached a peak in the late 1970s and has declined ever since — thanks to the rise of computer games, the mismanagement of leading wargame companies or the increasingly formidable complexity of the games themselves, depending on who you ask. While the computer gaming market, overall, continues to explode, the number of people willing to shell out cash for the chance to relive the Battle of the Bulge or Gettysburg via “paper-and-dice” simulations has steadily plummeted.

But some fans aren’t yet ready to wave the white flag — and they’re pointing to the Internet as a potential savior. By giving hard-core gamers a means to find each other and the tools to play their favorite games online, the Net, some gamers argue, is turning the tide.

“The Net has very definitely saved board wargaming,” says Alan Poulter, Webmaster for the premier wargaming Web site, Web-Grognards. “When SPI [Simulations Publications, a major wargame company] crashed in the early ’80s, the rot set in. The production of new board games collapsed. People grew up and drifted out of the hobby, because of job, family, etc. The Net has turned all this around.”

“The Net has saved the board-gaming hobby, which was/is under attack on at least two fronts,” says game designer and veteran board wargamer Dave Casper. “Obviously computer games have absorbed a lot of people who might otherwise be playing board games. Also, several years ago came the collectible card game craze, led by ‘Magic: the Gathering.’ A few years ago there was a very real fear that these two interlopers would spell the end of board gaming as we knew it. I think it has not come to pass because the Net has allowed board gamers to stay in contact and meet other like-minded gamers. There are still long-term concerns about getting new people into the hobby, but at least we have survived the initial onslaught.”



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The wargamers who cluster on mailing lists like Consim-L (Conflict
Simulation) or debate the finer tactical details of the Thirty Years War on Web
sites like the Virtual Wargamer Discussion
Board
cite two main reasons that the Net has, in their words, facilitated
a “renaissance” for board wargaming.

First, there’s the age-old wargaming bugaboo: the “lack of an opponent”
problem. Not only can games like Gettysburg or Advanced Squad Leader or
Panzerblitz require many hours to finish, but it’s not always easy to find
someone who is versed enough in the intricacies of your particular game in
your own neighborhood. The Net solves that problem by making it easy for
like-minded individuals to find each other.

“To me, this is better than even in the ‘boom years,’ as there was no
chance then for such easy, open, global communication,” says Poulter.

Of course, just knowing that there is a gamer in Brisbane, Australia, who
shares your love for North African desert tank warfare isn’t quite enough; you
still need a way to play the game. Again, the Net comes to the rescue, albeit in
a charmingly low-tech fashion. Online board wargamers swear by “PBEM” –
playing by e-mail.

Just in the last couple of years, there has been a surge in the availability of
software programs — some freeware, some commercial — that allow gamers
to translate their board game positions into e-mail friendly formats. Used in
conjunction with Net-based “dice servers” that impartially produce random
die rolls for gamers and chat rooms for concurrent live communication, PBEM
software programs are, according to some gamers, a major reason why board
wargaming has been injected with new life.

Not everyone agrees.

“The Net has certainly been a boon in some regards,” says game designer
Greg
Costikyan.
“Rec.games.board and sites like www.grognard.com have
certainly helped to build and sustain the community of board wargamers. And
the existence of the Net has made direct sales more feasible, which is an
important lifeline for an industry whose distribution net is in the throes of
chaos at the moment.”

“However, play-by-e-mail has always been clumsy, and remains so; I
doubt many people actually play that way,” says Costikyan. “Board
wargaming continues to require you to find people in your local area to play,
and the Net doesn’t always help you do that.”

Jim Dunnigan, former president of SPI, which for a brief moment in the
mid-’70s reigned supreme as the largest publisher of board wargames, is even
more blunt. In his view, the board wargaming business is on its last legs, and
the Net can do little to help it.

“I get my market numbers from the publishers, not the players,” says
Dunnigan, who has written a book
about wargaming.
“That’s because the players you are likely to talk to
are the most enthusiastic and atypical. In the last few years, board game sales
have really tanked. The average sell-through per title is sinking toward the
point where the smallest break-even printing is not practical.”

Dunnigan argues that the “lack of an opponent” problem was never a
problem at all: He cites statistics compiled while he was at SPI that indicated
that “90 percent” of all wargamers “were always content to play the games
solitaire. Remember, board wargaming was always the hobby of the
overeducated.”

One can argue over whether wargamers really were “content,” or
whether they were just accepting a status quo they had no chance of changing.
But there’s no doubt that the Internet has always shined as a tool for creating
communities
of solitaire players. There is strength in numbers — even if the numbers are
small.

But what difference, really, is there between paper games and their
digital equivalents? Some gamers question whether the distinction matters at
all.

“I think that there is no difference between paper-and-dice games and
computer strategy games — in fact you’ll sometimes find direct conversions,”
says Greg Lindahl, maintainer of the Play by Mail
FAQ.
“While some of these computer games only play multiplayer
face-to-face, others have play-by-e-mail options. All one hobby, and it’s
growing.”

But to many board wargamers, the new computer games are no match
for their forebears in terms of complexity, attention to historical detail and
possibilities for real strategy. Computer-based artificial intelligence is no
replacement, yet, for human wiles, they argue. Thus, fear of the death of
board wargaming isn’t just a nostalgic longing on the part of middle-aged
gamers for the pleasures of youth: To the hard-core hobbyists, overproduced
computer games offer a hollow future.

While the Net may do little to save or revive the old-fashioned wargame
business, the play-by-e-mail movement offers tantalizing possibilities for
transferring its best aspects into digital form.

To successfully play a wargame by e-mail, one must first use one of the
available software
programs
to move the game from paper to screen, creating individual
“gamesets” for particular games. Some of the more advanced
gameset-creating programs, such as Aide de Camp II, are virtually game-development tools in their own right. Indeed, established wargaming
companies like Avalon Hill have eyed these new programs with no small
amount of suspicion, worried about the potential copyright violations of such
electronic reproductions.

Perhaps these software programs will evolve into tools for transferring
the knowledge and experience embedded in board wargaming into online and
other computer formats.

“Game designers have found that the Web is a great medium for
play-testing,” says Todd Zircher, the author of V_MAP,
a freeware PBEM tool. “With free tools like V_MAP and Cyberboard, it’s
possible to build and play a wargame without having to go through the
tedious process and expense of making paper and cardboard components that
need to be mailed off.”

“I’ve been buzzing the Aide de Camp guys for years to expand their
product to make it more of a game design tool (an AI tool kit, for one thing),”
says Dunnigan. “It was a technological breakthrough like that, desktop
publishing, that kept paper games alive into the 1990s — i.e., brought down the
production cost of games.”

So let the established board wargaming companies founder, as it appears
all too likely they will. The Net may not save them, but it could save the
knowledge and history embedded in wargames already produced, and
midwife them into new formats.

“The Net has fostered an amazingly fertile ground for the wargaming
hobby — the amount of information passing around is astonishing when
compared to the major hobby outlets of a decade ago — paper magazines,
mostly,” says Walter O’Hara, who maintains the Play by E-mail
Emporium.

“I think the potential is there for a new future for wargaming in this keen
new electronic format,” O’Hara says. “However, we have to grow a critical
mass by networking our individual efforts into a Web of
gameset/gamebox/whatever designers and players.” Given the passion of the
hard-core wargamers, that’s not such a far-fetched scenario.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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