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Historical boardgames vs. role-playing games and electronic shoot'em-ups

By Mark Wegierski
web posted August 23, 2004

Summer is the main season for conventions (large, organized gatherings from hundreds to as many as twenty thousand fans) in what could be called the "geek subgenres" of popular science fiction (including Star Trek and Star Wars); fantasy (which was pioneered by J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings); role-playing games (such as Dungeons & Dragons); comic-books; and multifarious types of gaming, including historical boardgames (also called wargames, strategy games, or conflict simulations). Historical boardgames could be seen as a more reality-based alternative in relation to most forms of gaming and fan identifications today.

Historical boardgames have been commercially marketed in the U.S. since the late 1950s. Codified rules for playing with historical miniatures (i.e., so-called "toy soldiers") are one of the origins of historical boardgaming. Abstract military boardgames such as Risk, Tactics II, and Diplomacy are also close cousins.

Advanced Squad LeaderAvalon Hill pioneered the genre in the late 1950s, with its game on the battle of Gettysburg. The company moved through decades of varying success, bringing out such titles as PanzerBlitz (World War II tactical armored combat), Third Reich (strategic WWII), and the Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) system of tactical WWII combat.The firm has been acquired in the late-1990s by toys and games giant Hasbro, resulting in the abandonment of nearly all of its game lines, deemed far too complex for the current-day audience.

Wargaming's Golden Age was the late 1970s, the heyday of its second major company, SPI (Simulations Publications, Inc.). Historical boardgames were heavily undermined by the Dungeons & Dragons company, TSR, which took over SPI in the early 1980s, and let historical games languish, in favor of building up the fantasy role-playing games (RPG's) market. Mostly arcade-style electronic games, as well as collectible card games (CCG's) (now called trading card games - or TCG's) (such as Magic: The Gathering -- and, most spectacularly, Pokemon -- both controlled by Wizards of the Coast) challenged what remained of board wargaming in the late 1980s and the 1990s. TSR was itself taken over by WOTC, which in turn has been bought out by Hasbro.

Today, board wargaming (as well as playing games of the wargame type in electronic format), might be seen as a more reality-grounded alternative to currently prevalent gaming genres. Fantasy RPG's (especially of the newer, darker variety -- such as those in X-Files-type or Vampire settings), might tend to encourage an excess of florid and disorienting imaginings in some people. The mostly arcade-style electronic games (typically, the so-called First Person Shooters such as Doom) are centered around grotesquely individualized, very graphic killing, and are in most cases entirely history-less. While there are of course more abstract, electronic, arcade-type games (typified by the 1980s Pac-Man and Tetris) the addictive element of repetitive hand and eye movements is certainly present in most of them. In CCG's, one finds, apart from the commonly-seen occult aspects, a combination of collecting and gambling impulses (largely derived from the randomized marketing, where only a few strong cards are mixed into sealed packets with more average cards).

The facts of the concreteness -- of the historical situation, the game-board, as well as the counters representing military units -- may help a person playing such a game avoid falling into the overwrought fantasizing sometimes found in RPG's, and the excessively addictive aspects of FPS's and CCG's.

Even when playing ahistorical board wargames (such as those based on near-future, alternative-history, or sci-fi situations, or those set in Tolkien-style fantasy worlds), or when playing strategy games electronically, there might be a certain residual concreteness, a shielding from being overwhelmed by what is in other cases the often highly-lurid "virtual reality" of the game. This concreteness is also present in historical miniatures, but the financial costs of these elaborately-painted historical "figures" are clearly much greater, particularly if one wants to play out such great battles as Waterloo. One should mention, also, the rather lurid subgenre of miniatures gaming represented by the Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000 A.D. systems; as well as the existence of other fantasy and sci-fi miniatures systems.

Chatham Hill Games produces a number of small, simple, inexpensive games, suitable for children (not all of which are strictly wargames), based on American history. Gamewright Games produces a series of mostly young children's games, most of which are not military-related. The main Internet portals for wargaming are www.grognard.com and www.consimworld.com. The major printed historical gaming magazine (which includes a game with each issue) is Strategy & Tactics (published by Decision Games, which has acquired what remained of the old SPI).

In December 2001, the other major gaming magazine, Command, and its parent company, XTR, declared bankruptcy, after having produced fifty-four issues packed with military history (with one or two games in each issue) and several games outside of the magazine. Some other extant boardgame companies include GMT, Avalanche Press, Clash of Arms, Columbia Games, Critical Hit/Moments in History, L2 Design Group, and Eagle Games. There have also arisen companies that produce, through desk-top publishing, games on often-obsure topics, such as Australian-based Schutze and Canadian-based Microgame Design Group. One should also mention the family-oriented boardgames imported from Germany, such as the very popular Settlers of Catan. These games, which typically have very high-quality components, are also less explicitly military. In Europe, there are also, among other enterprises, Azure Wish, Phalanx Games, and the French gaming magazine Vae Victis. The Australian Design Group is known for its massive World War II games.

While they too, can sometimes be very obsessive, historical boardgames could be seen as more grounded in reality and in somewhat useful knowledge (about military history, strategy, and real geography), than role-playing games and most electronic-based games. It could be argued that most board wargames can harness some fairly commonly-occurring "armchair general" desires to relatively positive ends.

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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