Tuesday 3 November 2015

Wargames: how much "war", how much "game"?

In previous posts I've touched on some of the different reasons wargamers wargame. It's come up in my ramblings about the appeal of models, and about victory conditions, and about what makes for a High Quality Gaming Experience. Today I want to approach it from a different angle: how much "war" do we want in our wargames, and how much "game"?

Sometimes wargamers talk about this as two opposed sets of elements. In the red corner, "war":  history, accuracy, realism, simulation, detail, serious. In the blue corner, "game": contest, competition, entertainment, excitement, fun. But within those two sets there are obvious tensions. A dour tournament contest/competition can be at the expense of excitement/fun. Disproportionate obsession with detail can detract from the overall simulation (think of the (in)famous boardgame, Campaign for North Africa). History doesn't have to be serious.

So I think it is actually more like a triangle than a simple spectrum between two extremes. The three corners are military history, game mechanics, and winning/losing. Or more abstractly: context, process and result. Most wargames combine all three in differing degrees. The relative importance of these major ingredients determines where a game sits in the triangle.

The Wargame Triangle

At our club there are usually three different groups, each exemplifying a different corner of the triangle. Half of the hall is taken up by tournament games where - to characterise simply - history is largely irrelevant, game mechanics are deliberately fiddly and laborious, and result is everything. (Don't get me wrong - they're good people, and we wouldn't have a club without them - it's just not my thing.)

Then in the corner nearest the door is a fun group with eclectic tastes in games. They might do a big ACW or WWII battle one week, some medieval skirmish the next, and the week after that could be dwarves vs lizardmen or competing ants' nests. There the emphasis is on fast, clean, fun game mechanics - usually with rules that use squares, so no measuring and no arguing - and it is first and foremost a game. Those boys have fun!

And in the other corner you will find the BBB games. These are geared towards producing a result, of course, and the rules are sufficiently swift and simple to enable that. But what distinguishes our corner from the others - for better or worse, all a matter of taste, etc - is the focus on history and on recreating actual battles.

Where does your game fit in?

Of course just because a particular game or type of game sits in one corner, that doesn't mean we as players can't stray across the boundaries. We want different things at different times. After an intense day of historical action at Historicon, a few drinks and a Western gunfight or pirates tavern brawl may be what's required.

Contrasting cases in point were our recent games. Our Waterloo at SOFO was a very serious affair, as close as we could get to a realistic portrayal of one of the most famous of all historical battles.

But then at the club, for light relief, we did something less historical and more generic: "Bzura Breakout". This was a WWII 6mm game set in Poland 1939 and used the Kampfgruppe Commander rules. Although it was based on a historical situation, we used an invented map. Forces, deployments and reinforcement schedules were based less on historical OBs and more on getting the interesting toys on the table. Thus the scenario was designed primarily to make for an open, free-wheeling game in which the situation would change every turn and generate maximum decisions, maximum swings of fortune and maximum fun.  A bit of historical context, but nobody really minded who won - it was all about play. Happy warriors!


  1. Sir, I have no idea if you are still active, but a fellow on Reddit used your blog to illustrate why I felt like I was so frustrated with my local gaming club and wargaming in general lately.

    Your post cleared up so much for me, did so clearly and concisely, and I now understand how I have to shift my thinking in order to no longer find wargaming a chore. I’ve priotized context for so long I didn’t realize that my clubhouse mates, almost all process or result gamers, could not understand me at all, or I them.

    What I enjoyed in wargaming simply isn’t what group finds enjoyable, and now I have a much clearer understanding of why.

    Thank you, stranger. It all makes sense again.

    1. Hello Teh! And thank you for your message. I'm really glad you found my post so helpful. Yes, wargaming is a collective social activity, and the critical ingredient is like-minded souls to share it with. Good luck with finding the right group for you. Btw, I'd be interested to see the Reddit post if you could point me to it. Cheers! Chris

    2. http://notbystrengthbyguile.ca/2024/05/25/let-go-of-systems-or-confessions-of-a-bitter-grognard/

      This is a link to my blog; I don’t think you can fully grasp what a weight this is lifted off of me haha. Sometimes you need a nice convenient graphic to instantly realize what the problem is!


      This is a link to the Reddit post I made. A fellow there pointed out your post; reading it….dude, it’s wild how much I was missing the forest for the trees in my wargaming endeavours. I’ve been such a jerk about this lately too….its putting a lot into perspective.

    3. "Happy wargaming" - good man, that's the spirit. Best of luck to you in gaming and in real life.

    4. Aha! It is I, author of the reply to the Reddit post that linked your blog. I swear I haven't been stalking you, I just found your big compilation of links to ruminations on rules one day and read through most of them.

      I actually just finished writing my own, rather circuitous and arguably tangential addition, not knowing that Tehlulzpare was here as well:


    5. Hi Jeremy! Yes, I did spot that it was you. Thanks very much for bringing my musings to the attention of a wider audience. I like your Rumination as well.


Comments welcome!