Les Grognards

By cruel fate you are the only board wargamer in Kankakee, Illinois. No, make that bored wargamer. You’ve set up all three poster-sized maps of Terrible Swift Sword and laboriously moved its 2,000 cardboard counters – by yourself – scrupulously following all 32 pages of rules – to explore alternate outcomes of the Battle of Gettysburg. It took you a month of weekends to complete the 50+-hour, 149-turn campaign game; the South won. Sure would have been nice to have an actual opponent playing Grant – or Napoleon in Wellington’s Victory – or the Germans in Bulge, Battle of the Bulge, Battle for the Ardennes, Ardennes Offensive or Wacht am Rhein.

And now you, alone, Kankakee-kept, are staring dismally at your setup of Europa. It’s, not to use the word lightly, awe-inspiring. It is the monster of monster games, the mega-monster that drove publisher Game Designers Workshop to its knees, a mad and grandiose attempt to simulate the entire European Theatre of World War II at (oh man! oh man!) DIVISION LEVEL. What with 11 linked games, 32 maps and connecting mapsheets, upwards of 11,000 tiny little counters in towering stacks, and assorted charts and schedules, you couldn’t fit all of Europa in your two-car garage, so North Africa currently fills your living room. You have braced to devote 18 months of weekends to this more-than-simulation, this paper-and-cardboard lifestyle. You sit braced … and waiting…

Is no one else in Kankakee willing? Can you not find someone to drop even four hours on a piddling little game of Third Reich?

For most historical board wargamers, the answer really is, “No, you’re all alone.” These graying hobbyists, who once numbered in the tens or hundreds of thousands, have dwindled to a total world population probably under five digits, and at best a few per city. But now, thanks to specialty software engines like Cyberboard, the VASSAL Game Engine and Aide de Camp, simulation fans can replicate their favorite games as electronic modules and play by e-mail or in real time with opponents worldwide, free.

These electronic “gameboxes” are simple scans of the paper maps and cardboard counters. Gamebox modules don’t incorporate program code or artificial intelligence; they don’t automate setup or enforce rules. Players must do that themselves.

And wargamers wouldn’t have it any other way.

Truth Above All
Historical wargaming isn’t just about the “game,” but about simulation. A wargame can show you more about military history in two hours than a textbook can tell in a hundred pages. Whereas the book may make you yawn, the simulation grips. Players judge wargames as much by historicity as by “fun.” Is a given Bulge game fun to play, but it neglects to dramatize the importance of German supply lines? Pfft! Does that Civil War game trivialize the influence of each side’s generals? Then it’s a mere “beer and pretzels” diversion.

A computer version might automate such effects into invisibility. Wargamers don’t want automation, or at least not much. Wargamers seek understanding. Automation muddies the learning.

Traditionally, too, wargamers have been strongly categorical thinkers, or (to put it less charitably) rules lawyers. Even the simplest wargame has rules of harrowing complexity compared to, say, Risk or Stratego. These men – yes, they’re all males – enjoy mastering voluminous rules and exploiting their superior understanding to triumph over poorly schooled opponents. In an MMOG, such people haunt forums and whine about nerfing in the latest patch. Board wargamers, channeling their mania to the cause of good, design variants and expansion sets.

Most of these old guys – “grognards,” they call themselves, after the nickname for Napoleon’s veteran troops – are holdovers from the Golden Age of Wargaming, the late 1960s and ’70s. Ah, the giants in the earth back then! Avalon Hill stolidly produced one or two lavish games a year: Afrika Korps, D-Day, Stalingrad, PanzerBlitz and PanzerLeader, and many more, including the bestselling king of them all, John Hill’s 1977 Squad Leader.

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And Simulations Publications, Inc., better known as SPI, published hundreds of games, ranging all over the map in subject matter and quality, but always rich in unbridled ambition. Producing dozens of games a year, including a complete game in each bimonthly issue of the remarkable Strategy & Tactics magazine, SPI simulated nearly every major military engagement from the Bronze Age to Vietnam, with side visits to the 1968 Chicago Riots, the Reformation, guerrilla war in Yugoslavia, Canadian separatist politics, speculative visions of a Sino-Soviet war and World War III, and American football. SPI’s Terrible Swift Sword, War in the East and many others continued GDW’s Europa idea of “monster” wargames, multi-map, multi-thousand-counter, hugely complex simulations that take weeks or months to play.

Some highlights, lowlights and sidelights of the copious SPI line:

  • In Russian Civil War, you can sometimes score victory points by firing on your own troops.
  • The Fall of Rome, a solitaire simulation of the entire late Roman Empire, was notorious for errata longer than the original rules.
  • The designer’s notes for Balaclava, one of SPI’s Crimean War games, consisted entirely of Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.
  • Grunt, a 1971 game of Vietnam published while the war was still going, included rules for torturing prisoners.
  • Outreach, a 1976 science-fiction game, is the largest-scale game ever published. Its single map covered two thirds of the Milky Way Galaxy; each hexagon measured 1,000 light years. A big part of the game involved opposing units in the same space trying to find each other.
  • Campaign for North Africa, a monster game presented as a “HIMS” (Heuristic Intensive Manual Simulation), replicated the World War II desert theatre at such length (an estimated 1,200 hours for the full game), with such exhaustive attention – skill ratings for individual pilots, and Italian regiments’ water requirements for pasta – that ten playtest teams bombed out before publication. When the game shipped, no one had played it through. To this day, it may never have been played to a conclusion.

In the 1970s many wargame publishers sallied forth onto the field of hobbyists. Some did well. Top titles could sell thousands of copies, if not the tens or hundreds of thousands Avalon Hill (AH) and SPI enjoyed. The whole field fizzed with vitality.

Today, if you’re a wargamer – in Kankakee or anywhere – you’re probably the only one in town.

Decline and Fall
Future Smithsonian curators will someday display board wargames from the 1960s and ’70s alongside astrolabes and orreries. Each represents a tremendously imaginative and intricate solution, realized through herculean labor, to a problem that later technology rendered trivial.

For example, David Isby’s wargame Air War is played on an entirely blank poster-sized hexagonal grid. Each player may control as little as one single cardboard counter, representing one modern jet fighter. The rules to manipulate these two counters on this blank hexmap comprise 28 pages of tiny print plus 39 charts and tables. Cardboard markers on a separate display track each plane’s throttle, acceleration, turning, altitude and attitude, plus weapons use; there are individual data sheets for each plane and each type of missile. A later Update Kit adds 16 pages of rules and a 72-page chart booklet. A three-minute Air War engagement requires six hours to play, nevermind the labor of mastering rules of fabulous complexity, all so players in 1979 could achieve the same effect today’s X-Plane player can see by launching the game and pushing forward lightly on a joystick.

In 1982, after many years of mismanagement, SPI went bankrupt and was seized and destroyed by TSR, makers of Dungeons & Dragons. GDW shut down in 1996. In 1998, Hasbro bought the Avalon Hill name and game line and let most of its classic titles fall dormant. The company licensed AH’s popular Advanced Squad Leader to Multi-Man Publishing, a hobby operation funded by Boston Red Sox pitcher and longtime grognard Curt Schilling. Over the decades, other wargame publishers have vanished and revived and vanished again like aging garage bands. Greg Costikyan, who was an SPI developer while still in high school, says, “Wargaming is not quite extinct, no; but all that remains are the reflex twitches of a still-warm corpse.”

He’s probably right. But you’d never guess it from the Web.

Just Hanging On(line)
Isolated hobbyists inevitably converge online. Wargamers hang out on BoardGameGeek, the Consimworld forums, WarOnline.net, The Gamers Network and elsewhere. They maintain reference sites like Web-Grognards.com. Strategy & Tactics magazine is still around at its fifth publisher – it’s up to issue #228! – and there’s another game-in-every-issue magazine, Against the Odds. Each August, a thousand hardened grognards journey to Lancaster, Pennsylvania for the Boardgame Players Association‘s grandly misnamed World Boardgaming Championships.

Some wired wargamers create modules. They scan a game’s maps and counters as JPEG or PNG files, and then import them into a game engine. They laboriously create charts, organize the counters in folders, and give individual pieces custom right-click menus. Then they upload the module, or “gamebox,” to fan sites. If any force anywhere in the world can recruit new players to the senescent wargame scene, it is these fan-created modules.

To play a game, both (or all) players need the same game engine and the same module. The engine uses the module to render the map and pieces for that game. Players drag and drop counters onscreen. The engine may either record each turn’s moves in a small file to e-mail to the opponent, or may permit direct online play, with communication via chat or VoIP. The engine rolls dice, checks line-of-sight and handles administrative minutiae, but otherwise doesn’t validate moves or automate anything. Even with a module, you still need the original board game, or at least the rulebook.

Active communities have gathered around three engines:

  • Dale Larson’s freeware Cyberboard, for Windows only, supports only e-mail play, not live, direct connections. Cyberboard has the largest selection of free gameboxes, available on fan sites like Limey Yank Games and Yankee Air Pirates.
  • Aide de Camp II by HPS Sims is the only commercial engine here (US$49.95, Windows only). ADC supports over 350 games, including approved commercial modules not legally available elsewhere. Nick Bell’s site Die Hauptkampflinie (German, “main combat line”) has many ADC modules.
  • Rodney Kinney created a set of Java libraries, VASL (Virtual Advanced Squad Leader), to play ASL online. Now generalized as the VASSAL Engine, the free open-source program supports many board and card games. The cross-platform VASSAL is the only engine that supports direct play over a live connection; it can also record moves for e-mailing or later replay. Ten developers maintain VASSAL on SourceForge. The VASSAL Engine Yahoo group draws 150-200 posts a month. There’s a large selection of modules, though many are works in progress; as you might expect, the ASL modules work best.

Some publishers have persuaded fan sites to take down modules based on their games. This is certainly understandable; every wargame publisher is already in a precarious position without having to worry about piracy. Understandable – but wise? You’d think they’d try anything, everything, to publicize their games. If they give away the gamebox, wouldn’t their hardcopy sales go up? Low-profile bands distribute their music free online and make money selling T-shirts at concerts; why not a similar business model for wargames? There’s so little money on the table anyway, it seems worthwhile to experiment.

It would take a miracle to pull the wargame community back from imminent oblivion. But you know, military history is full of unlikely last-ditch victories. Wargamers should try for one of their own.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay, and Looking Glass.

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