Google+ Followers

Friday, 31 July 2015

The Quest for the "High Quality Gaming Experience"

I had the privilege earlier this week to be an invited guest at a wargame of Koeniggraetz (1866), the huge climactic battle of the Austro-Prussian War. Our host Andrew had based his game on my Koeniggraetz scenario from "Bloody Big European Battles!", but doubled it in size: twice as many troops and units, on a table twice as long, and twice as many game turns. With Andrew's beautifully painted armies on an attractive layout, this made for a magnificent spectacle, and he had assembled a convivial team of players and provided generous hospitality. Six hours of driving for 9 hours of entertainment proved to be time well spent as it was a most excellent day all round.

This set me to musing on the ingredients required for what a buddy of mine describes as "the High Quality Gaming Experience". Or as he has also been known to say, life's too short to waste playing lame games with jerks (or words to that effect). This is a philosophy I fully embrace, and I'm happy to say that most weeks I manage to live it. Here's my recipe for the HQGE:

The Terrain
The Troops
The Venue
The Rules
The Scenario
The Company

The Terrain
Under which heading we may also include paraphernalia - all the markers, tools, charts, dice etc the game requires. Terrain and paraphernalia must first and foremost be functional, enabling us to play the game we want to play. But above and beyond the functional aspect is the aesthetic one. A few $$ on terrain can go a long way: hills, trees, buildings etc are more versatile than the armies themselves, as you can use most terrain items bar the most specialized for a very wide range of battles. I see too many games at the club, or even at conventions, where the effort devoted to terrain is perfunctory at best: an unadorned piece of green felt serves as a forest, another token bit of cloth with some crest lines drawn on it gets called a hill. These do the job, of course. But realistic scenery brings the game to life. I have made it a rule to buy some terrain items every time I attend a convention. Invest in terrain!

The Troops
These are what presumably attracted most wargamers to the hobby in the first place, aren't they? The reason why we're here: model soldiers. Most of us love to see a finely crafted diorama base of lifelike miniature figurines, faithfully representing some or other famous regiment or incident. As with terrain, so with troops, function comes first, and many's the wargames table that has been contested by lead soldiers painted shoddily or not at all. Does it matter? In one sense, no - we can fight battles with blocks of wood or bits of cardboard and they will work just fine - but attractively modelled armies add so much to the spectacle.

The Venue
We all use what space we can get. It may be a village hall or similar multi-function venue. It may be a cloth thrown over the dining table to stretch the tolerance of one's significant other. But every wargamer's aspiration should be to have their own dedicated War Room, large enough to accommodate an extensive table, a lavish collection of armies and terrain, and a number of generously-proportioned wargamers. This room should be replete with military-themed decorations - paintings, maps, medals, headgear and other militaria. Martial music in the background doesn't go amiss. Ready rations for the troops and a beer fridge also enhance the experience.

The Rules
As another wise friend once told me, our games are primarily about making decisions. A game in which options are very limited, in which actions have to be resolved slowly and laboriously, and in which each turn feels much like the last with no interesting decisions to make is a poor game. A good game is one where the situation changes and presents players with significant new choices every turn, and where the game mechanisms are sufficiently easily grasped and memorised that it can be played at 2am by tired dyslexic innumerate wargamers who have had a few drinks. Many many games fail these tests. This was a major motivation to develop "Bloody Big Battles!".

The Scenario
Similar considerations apply here as for the rules. A simple line-'em-up game is fine as far as it goes, but if we seek the High Quality Gaming Experience we can do better. Whether historical or invented, a scenario should offer some distinctive challenges, and should give all the players interesting things to do and some choice of ways to do them. I have cited Bob Mackenzie's fine essay on "Scenario Design" before, and here I shall do it again. I took Bob's lessons to heart, and I hope this shows in my scenarios in BBB and BBEB.

The Company
In wargaming, as in life in general, we all need friends. To have just one regular gaming buddy is a good start. But if you rely on one friend, then there may be many weeks when because of holidays, or work, or family commitments, or all the many other possible distractions, you can't get together. Far better to have a group of like-minded enthusiasts, large enough that you can always muster a quorum, even if a few of you are away. For the past five or six years I have been blessed with a really great circle of friends who share my interest in C19 wars and my approach to games - fun first, history next, and winning or losing being of only minor importance. Because we fight multi-player games, our corner of the club is very welcoming, and many a passing visitor, ignored by the tournament players, has joined in a game of BBB; if a player or two has to drop out at short notice, the game still goes ahead and nobody is let down; multi-player games are also less confrontational than one-to-one, head-to-head clashes, and tend to defuse the chance of personality clashes and rule squabbles.

As well as my excellent home team, I also periodically have the pleasure of hanging out with Scott's high-caliber crew in the US. That's where my High Quality Gaming Experience philosophy derives from. I suppose it's an American approach, that willingness to pay a premium price for a premium product, etc, by contrast with the parsimonious attitude I used to have, of making do for the least cost. And as of this week, I now know yet another circle of erudite and amenable wargamers, a little closer to home than Virginia, and with whom I hope to have further wargaming opportunities in future.

The Key Ingredient?
So of our six ingredients, which is the key one? Terrain, troops and venue are all important, of course, but the first two can be improvised with simple pen and paper if need be, while anywhere with a table could be a venue. Rules and scenario are more significant, I suggest, as these are The Game, and a poor choice of rules can be an all-too accurate simulation of war (in the oft-quoted sense of being "95% boredom, 5% sheer misery"). But the vital ingredient? Solo wargamers may demur, but I believe it is the other guys (or gals) round the table who will ultimately determine whether yours is a High Quality Gaming Experience. Choose your friends carefully, and cherish the good ones!