Saturday 31 January 2015

Game Design #26: Wargaming - The Out-of-Game Experience

I was looking into Magic the Gathering as a easily-transported game to play with my wife, and while researching it a bit, it triggered a few random thoughts, relating wargames to CCGs:

*Warmachine has, for me, a real card-game mentality. With its emphasis on special attacks and combos is certainly not my favourite wargame, but if I view it as a card game with minis it is pretty cool. 

*MtG has a "collectibility" that Games Workshop would envy - players seem to obsessively spend hundreds if not thousands on pieces of cardboard* (*an even better return than finecast!), and talk casually of "budgeting" x amount of $/week to stay "competitive."

*Skylanders has mixed miniatures and videogames; admittedly only in a shallow, gimmicky way (you scan your miniature and 'import' it into the videogame as a playable character.) Could this be expanded on in a more meaningful way?

*Most CCGs have a resource management aspect, which seems to be filtering through into wargames (I'm certainly seeing an increase in the number of wargames that have it).

*The fun of "deck building" can occur even when you are by yourself, and it is an outlet for creativity and competitiveness - a game-within-the-game, of sorts. Players hunt down bargains of special cards on eBay and trade amongst themselves. You can discuss and share deck ideas online - it even has a social aspect.

It's the latter point I'd like to focus upon - the concept of having fun outside of the actual 'sit down' gameplay of a wargame. 

Painting & Modelling
Obviously most wargames share the painting/preparing of miniatures. I'd point to this as a key differentiation from boardgames where everything tends to come "preprepared" in box ready-to-go; which is why I find it mystifying when players field completely unpainted metal armies week after week.   The modelling aspect is quite important - nearly every "big" rules set has heavy reliance on selling shiny toys, and the shiny toys themselves help "sell" the game system.  Though the increase in prepaints and the presence of "clix" style games blurs the line a bit, and you perhaps rename this category "cool toys".  Assembling them, painting them, or simply "having" them. (Remember the wargamer's litany: he who dies with the most toys, wins)

....Army Building - aka "List Warriors." Made popular by Warhammer but arguably perfected by Warmachine (where finding broken combinations of units/abilities is actively encouraged).  This occurs where players have an army builder. An example might be each army can have x points (say 2000).  Each unit is worth a set amount of points - for example, a squad of 10 grunts might be worth 10, and a uberwtfbbqpqwn mech-of-doom might be worth 200.  This army building usually further refined by "capping" certain types of units. For example, this might restrict an army to 1 HQ unit, 1-3 "core"(standard), units, 0-2 support (heavy/vehicle) units, and 0-1 "special/elite" units.

Players are then free to exercise their creativity within these strictures to "maximize" their army to create the optimum combinations, and "build" their armies toward a specific strategy.  In more extreme examples, this can create a situation where games are won and lost in this "list building"stage; there is an obvious winner before a dice has even been rolled.

Unit Building aka "Stat up your random models".  This tends to be a points system allowing you to create stats for a specific model or group of models. Ironically, although the potential for min-maxing is even greater, this tends to be less likely to be abused.  The reason is that as the models created are not "official" it's harder to claim players are taking a legitimate strategic advantage rather than simply being a powergaming douche. This is far more common in indie games (Song of Blades and Heroes comes to mind as a prime example) where they are not trying to "sell" a specific miniature line.

Historical Interest.  Obviously this is particular to historical games, but learning about a particular historical period can be very enjoyable.  Wargaming can inspire historical reading, and historical researching can inspire wargaming.  For example, I bought some 1:600 PT boat models, and while reading a rulebook came across reference to "The Battle of the Narrow Seas" (Peter Scott) - which is now one of my favourite books.  In the reverse, reading the historical novel The Religion (Tim Willocks) inspired an interest in wargaming the Ottoman empire.  You could perhaps lump this whole category together with....

....Fluff.  In the more extreme cases, this can spawn a publishing house (The Black Library) with hundreds of titles, or perhaps consist of few novels alongside RPGs (The Iron Kingdoms). Sometimes it is simply included as a section of the rule book - or even as an "art book" (Infinity).  In some cases, the 'fluff' is historical - WW2 games like Bolt Action/FoW can draw on a colorful selection of factions and units.

Anyway, I was thinking that most successful "games systems" tap into most of the above points. (The usual suspects - Warhammer, Warmahordes, FoW, Bolt Action, Infinity, etc). Even the most rabid 40K fan seldom holds up scintillating gameplay as the main attraction of the game - rather they praise fluff, army building and cool models.  Even indie hits tend to follow aspects of this formula.  For example "Tomorrow's War" and "Gruntz" are tapping into the increasing growth in 15mm sci fi to source their  'cool models.'  Gruntz does 'unit building' well and kind of relies on the different models lines and the players themselves to generate "fluff." Tomorrow's War is more directly developing fluff in concert with independent 15mm mini manufacturers like GZG.

Looking at the "most popular wargames" I'm wondering - is deep, interesting gameplay even necessary for success, as long as you have a good "out of game" experience?

Anyway, I was thinking - are there other ways to create a better "out of game experience?" - since this seems a key factor behind popular wargames.  I can see "e-rulebooks" with inbuilt video being useful, but wonder what place mobile devices (like smartphones) might play in  the out-of-game experience.  I've seen a few games with "apps" but so far, mobile devices seem an untapped resource.  It's almost like they are a solution in search of a problem.  

Anyway, are there any other "out of game" aspects that are enjoyable? 

And more broadly - What else could wargames  learn from CCGs?  Are mobile devices a way forward?


  1. Space for people to make their own home-brew additions to the game seems popular. Lots of games, like Battletech, have rules for extending the game by building new units, as well as armies of units.

    1. I'd say that falls under "stat up your own models" to a degree. A lot of spaceship games seem to focus on this area I've noticed.

  2. I agree with all of the above, and think that people's preferences differ (often with maturity also). Yet even games with the minimum 'off table' experience (DBA?) remain popular to the gamer with no time perhaps.

    There is also the *online experience - blogging your models, chatting about rules and scenarios in forums and searching for the new shiny (just take a look at BOLS for an example of that). We take it for granted now but none of that was there when I was a new gamer and I think the ability to find new gamer 'buddies' to chat about the game, list building or whatever really adds to the hobby.

    1. True. The "online experience" kinda encompasses most of the others, but it's worth a category on its own. There are other things, like "discussing rules" - but that's a niche reserved for the true weirdoes!

    2. Having thought about it now a bit more, some gaming genres are more open to different 'extra' experiences also. For example SF is ripe for unit design (like Gruntz) and nothing generically modern (WW1 and beyond) is ripe for lists and organisations.. Ancients and Historicals (like ECW I'm getting into with a friend) are far less so and more reliant on 'Fluff' aka History :-)

      Perhaps this is where the campaign comes into its own between table top encounters, wether it be 'war band' management, map moves or whatever. It also is part of the extra experience.

  3. I am an hardcore historical player, and I play the game more for the history than the game itself, heck, I design games based on the insights they can give rather than the actual competition. For the the fun is in the learning (and in putting off a decent operation).

    said that... I found designing scenarios for historical games even more exciting than playing them. Doing the research, looking at the forces involved, make sure everything could be done... I am dipping my toes a bit on Sci fi more for the ability to write stories and characters.

    I think that for ancient/medieval warfare you are attracted or by the history or by the killer combo of some rules. XVI-XVIII century for the history, Napoleonic by the uniforms, WW1 usually because you are interested in the period, WW2 by the tanks. So usually there is a mix of ingame-off game.

  4. I'll add that Skylanders seem to have hit how to do DLC right, at least for kids.
    In addition to adding another character or whatever, you actually get the toy to play with.

    My kid plays it and he'll bring his figures to his friends place and vice versa so they can each play their own critters.

    Sort of intriguing though not terribly applicable to wargaming I guess :)

    1. I admit, I got into Skylanders Swap Force at my nephews' insistence, and yeah, the DLC is appealing, even to a bumbly adult.

    2. Hah, right?

      The swap force stuff is apparently compatible with the trap team stuff too. They're pretty clever.

    3. It's honestly that backwards and forwards compatibility that I enjoy with Skylanders. a new 'edition' of the rules doesn't invalidate my existing figures.

    4. Hmm. I wonder what miniatures company with the letters G and W in their name could learn THAT lesson....

  5. Hey there,

    You have no email listed -- I just picked up on this blog a week or so back, and we seem to share a lot of the same tastes/ideas when it comes to books, wargames, PC strategy, etc.

    One game you don't seem to have ever mentioned but I think you would enjoy immensely is called StarDrive -- it is, in my opinion, the finest 4x game ever made, and despite having very little interest for most games these days, I've managed to sink dozens of hours into it.

    It got released a year or so back with a bunch of issues/bugs and more or less buried (at the time) by reviewers, but (in my opinion) completely without warrant. It seems as though most of them put about an hour's worth of time in, called it a day, and proceeded to say "it's the same as every other 4x"

    It is a 4x game -- more or less in real time, with a zoom feature that extends flawlessly from "entire galaxy map" to 'single ship" without so much as a loading screen -- every feature you could wish for in a 4x, but the best (by far) mechanic is the almost lego-like ship building system. Each race is given (through research) eight or ten blank hulls, made up of basically blank pixels/squares. From this you fill in/design your ships piece-by-piece, with careful attention paid to things like physical armor plating, weapon arcs, shield generators, having power close enough to systems (or connected via. power conduit cables), internal bulkheads, and so on.

    The thing that sets it apart from every other "customization" 4x is that the ships are not just "abstracted" from your choices and given arbitrary hit points and so forth. Each ship floats around/inhabits the game world in its original form, which means something like a beam weapon cutting into a very specific point of your ship for a prolonged period of time will very noticeably melt through that specific point of your ship, destroying systems as it goes, and wreaking havoc if your power lines, ammunition stores, etc. are hit.

    It doesn't sound like much on the surface, but it makes for some of the most incredibly cinematic game battles (and a lot of carefully considered ship design). (example of a 'Titan' class) (you can see the individual pieces that have either taken damage or been completely knocked out)

    Give it a look if you're into this sort of game!

    1. Lol. I went to have a look and realised I already own it. I have a unplayed Steam game collection that rivals my unpainted lead mountain - I tend to ambitiously buy half a dozen games on special over the Christmas holidays and only play one of them....

      I'll install it now. Last 4X I enjoyed was Sins of a Solar Empire but I always ended up zoomed out so much any eye candy was wasted.

      I see they have remastered Homeworld with modern graphics - much excite!

      I'd be interested to see how they port these to mobile games, as I have only recently shown interest in smartphone games (I hate touchscreens).

    2. You are also welcome to email me at maj_lovejoy [at] however I do not display it prominently on the blog as I dislike being swamped with penis enlargement ads or offers from Nigerian refugees who want to make me a millionaire in return for my credit card details....

  6. Haggling. One of the key aspects to deck-building in CCGs is swapping the cards you won't use for those that work better with your chosen deck/strategy. My son spends a pretty good chunk of time just talking with other guys, bargaining and trying to get the best trade possible. We do a bit of that with miniature wargaming, but not nearly to the same extent.