In recent weeks I've experienced opposite ends of the game duration spectrum. Last month I had a wonderful long weekend in which I played three 9-hour games, two of which were still far from finished when we had to stop. I reported that here: "In praise of loooong games".
Then the last three Mondays were regular club nights in which it was back to my usual fare of <3 hours for a BBB battle: Trautenau (Austro-Prussian War, 1866), Sepsi-Sz.-György (Hungary 1849) and Soor (1866 again). This last was remarkable in that we fought the same scenario to conclusion twice in just over two hours' play.
This set me to thinking about all the many times I have read other wargamers' game reports (and indeed written a couple of my own) that conclude with "At that point we called it" - i.e., "we ran out of time and had to just make an educated guess as to who would have won". I've been in that situation. Sometimes it's OK. Other times it's not: it's frustrating, disappointing, unsatisfactory.
My question for today's post, then:
Does it matter if we don't finish the game?
The answer to that will vary from player to player and from game to game. Some of my previous "Reflections on Wargaming" have touched on this. One in particular, on "how much 'war', how much 'game'?", teased out the relative importance of the result as opposed to the context and the process. In that, I suggested that those most interested in the result tend to be the tournament gamers, whereas our BBB games are nearer to the "historical context" and "(fun) game mechanics" corners of the triangle. The further your preferences are from the "result" corner, the less important it becomes.
Interestingly, when I wrote about "The Quest for the High Quality Gaming Experience", I notably didn't say anything at all about needing a result. Rules and scenario were both listed as important factors, though. I could argue that "good rules" implicitly means a ruleset that enables you to complete a game. Likewise, a "good scenario" would be one that you can fight to a finish and that enables you to determine who has won. But I managed to avoid making it an explicit requirement that a game should reach a conclusion in order to provide the HQGE.
You might think that reveals that I do not really care whether we finish a game. That's not quite right: I do care whether we finish, I just don't much care who wins. (Though as I have said before, "It's not about winning - it's just losing I can't stand".) I suppose that means that, of the three ingredients - context, process, result - I attach less weight to result than to the other two.
The result does interact with the other two, though. My overarching interest in the history behind a battle means I want to see how it plays out on the tabletop, including what effect different plans might have had on the outcome. To be able to gauge that really requires an outcome to be reached. An unfinished battle is therefore unsatisfactory in that respect. As for game mechanics and the entertainment they generate along the way: whether we mean just the die rolls, or random events, or cunning manoeuvres etc that the game mechanisms enable, all of these fortunes of war are only significant insofar as they contribute towards victory or defeat. Yes, when the disordered raw troops inflict an embarrassing repulse on the guards, we can find that hilarious as a single incident in isolation. But it becomes much more entertaining if it proves to have been the pivotal moment that decided the battle - which we can only know once the battle has been decided.
My simple conclusion, then: for me and for many likeminded gamers, it is not crucial to finish a game, as most of the pleasure comes from the journey rather than the destination. However, it is much better if the game can be completed, since that enhances the pleasure to be had from the other elements.
This of course is in line with the philosophy behind "Bloody Big BATTLES!" When we set out to create BBB, we wanted to fight entire battles, not fractions of them; and we wanted to be able to do so in the course of a regular 3-hour club night, on a regular 6'x4' table, with manageable amounts of troops and typically 4-6 players. The fact that BBB has now been our staple diet at OWS for over a decade - bringing together competition gamers, history devotees, modellers who just love the aesthetic, and the guys who don't mind what happens so long as they get to launch a charge at some point - is testimony to the successful application of that philosophy.
Now that's a result!
Updated 20 February 2022:
This has proved to be one of my most popular “Reflections onWargaming” to date, generating scores of comments. I am grateful to everyone who took the trouble to respond, whether at thoughtful length (like Steve J in his comment at foot of this blog post itself) or with pithy brevity (OSHIROmodels, “Nope!”, on LAF). It seems only right that I should in turn summarise all these responses.
Finishing when it’s “obvious”
A number of people remarked that they would stop when it was obvious that one side would win, rather than “finishing” the game. My post did refer to “calling it” as meaning “running out of time”. As etothepi said on TMP, “If the outcome is obvious, then you did finish the game”.
Carrying on after it’s “obvious”
Hobgoblin on LAF reported often playing on beyond the point where nominal victory conditions had been achieved, and indeed with the “defeated” side often ending up winning – and that such games were among the most enjoyable. A twist in the tail like in some of the best movies? (See movie-related point below.)
The value of a permanent venue
Some lucky respondents are in the happy position of having a permanent venue, whether a dedicated clubhouse or their own “war room”. Consequently, games never end unfinished, as they can just run over multiple sessions until completed. This can bring additional pleasure between sessions as one savours the prospect of the resumption.
On a related note, Steve J’s blog comment points out the value of campaign context in determining when a game is “finished”. The campaign element was mentioned on the Pendraken forum as well.
Value or otherwise of scenario parameters
Views were expressed both pro and con tight scenario parameters in terms of turn limits and victory conditions. As Dragon Gunner noted on TMP, “Scenario design is critical” to finishing a game on time. However, UshCha on TMP was strongly against “polished” scenarios with turn limits and specified victory conditions, suggesting these tend to be “stereotypical”, “sterile”, “repetitive”, and that they constrain players’ options too much.
Robh and Polkovnik on LAF joined the chorus against “tournament style” fixed turn limits – “Real battles didn’t last for a set period of time” – though Polkovnik is in favour of clear victory conditions such as take and hold a village.
For myself, while I accept the point that victory conditions create a pre-defined and limiting set of ways to win, I still favour them. The only way to do away with constraint entirely is surely some kind of role-playing Kriegsspiel, isn’t it? So long as we’re talking about tabletop games with toy soldiers, the limited-turns game with victory defined by holding objective locations is an excellent formula for generating exciting games that are nevertheless plausible as historical simulations. For fuller discussion of this question, see my Reflection on Victory Conditions in Wargames. (Turn Limits deserve a blog post of their own.)
Down the rabbit hole
The Pendraken forum provided the largest number of comments. Unsurprisingly, it also provided the most digressions into other topics, each worthy of a “Reflections” post of its own:
- “Fighting retreat games”, and how these are “an element of warfare that most rules handle poorly” (Steve Holmes & Stewart Gibson). Permit me merely to note that in the last two months I have enjoyed two excellent “fighting retreat” games, Vác (1849) and Soor (1866).
- Fatigue as an important factor in battle, and one that computer-moderated rules handle best (Stewart Gibson & John Cook). Great point. Lots to say on this, but some other time, I think.
- Reserves as an important factor in battle, and one that many rulesets handle poorly (Steve Holmes). Another great point worth future discussion.
- Why there is such a plethora of rulesets and no perfect “One Ruleset to Rule Them All”.
- Whether Napoleon could/did beat Russia …
The book/movie/sporting contest analogy
One of my favourites was Thuseld’s comment on TWW on the narrative nature of a game and how it needs to reach a satisfying conclusion, just as a book or movie should. That is a great analogy and one I have used myself in the past, suggesting each game turn should be like a chapter or episode that offers new developments or plot twists. The analogy might be extended by likening it to a sporting contest: a football/cricket/rugby/[insert your preferred sport] match. In all these cases, it is possible to enjoy an excerpt, be it for the quality of the cinematography/writing/athleticism, or for the convivial company sharing the experience, and the ending/result is rarely the be-all and end-all; but a satisfying conclusion surely adds to it, especially if it is a close-fought/surprising nail-biter.
But in the end
Let’s close with the sentiment expressed by Warwell on TWW(among many others): ultimately, “all that matters is having fun”.