January 23, 2008
This is part of a new sequence of posts shuffling ideas already expressed into a genre taxonomy. All taxonomies are utterly useless, of course, except as an inspiration for discussion, but it should be fun all the same! What I shall term “wargames” is intended to correspond with what the eclectic French intellectual Roger Caillois termed agon. I’ve written a great deal about this subject before, and so to some extent I intend to skip over the details and simply work on the basis of the definition. New readers to this blog are invited to check the posts on agon and fiero if unfamiliar with these terms – visitors and new players are always honoured guests here on Only a Game, but you’ll have to get used to my custom vocabulary and quirky ways. Now read on...
Wargames are those play experiences in which the player is expected to enter into competition or violence with other players, whether computer-controlled or player-controlled. There are many different kinds of wargame, depending upon the nature of the competition or violence involved, the medium employed, and so forth. The characteristic emotional states induced by wargames are anger, generally expressed as frustration and fiero, the feeling of triumph over adversity.
So endemic are wargames to the culture of gamers that we often forget that there are other ways to play (which we shall look at another time) and indeed the impression of non-gamers is often that this is what the hobby is all about.
We will look at four different kinds of wargame, based on four
categories of skills that are required for play to be enjoyable, and that can
be learned from playing this kind of game (which is to say a very similar thing). We will also look at some of the ways in which these forms can be combined.
The oldest wargames are all strategic wargames, combining competition and strategic play. These early games were necessarily abstract, for instance, Go and similar variants (between 2,500 and 4,000 years old), Chess (about 1,400 years old), and Mancala games (about 1,300 years old). I have a lovely carved wooden set for playing some kind of Mancala game played in Ghana on my office shelf, given to me by my father and presumably purchased while he was in that West African nation in the early 1980s.
The real flourishing of this genre, however, could not come until electronic computers; indeed, one can argue that the facilitation of new and more elaborate games was one of the subtle yet influential cultural changes that began with computing. In fact, computer strategy games as a genre have been hugely influenced by earlier developments in tabletop games using dice and tables not directly influenced by computing, and even now there is a market for competitive strategic boardgames as well as a niche market for their videogame equivalent.
The boundary characteristic I shall use to define a strategic wargame is that the player has time to make a decision. This time may be limited in some way (it need not be indefinite) but most usually the player has as much time as they choose to make a decision, or at least as long as the other player has patience! A more common description of this is a turn-based strategy game, and to some extent this analogy is sufficient. These are games about pondering complicated problems at each point, and deciding on a course of action that will not generally pay-off immediately.
wargames require on-the-spot thinking, a characteristic of tactical play.
The oldest is probably pugilism (boxing) and similar combat sports (at least
5,000 years old, and probably older). The most popular modern form is the
first-person shooter videogame, which at its heart is a sequence of battles in
which a certain number of opponents must be defeated in a particular
environment, although fighting games are closer in form to their historical antecedents.
What might be called “true” tactical wargames do not produce exactly the same situation in the same circumstances, such that it is necessary to make on-the-spot decisions each time, but the tiniest amount of variation between similar iterations can be sufficient to produce fresh tactical situations, provided the game paradigm is sufficiently expressive. An example can be seen in the way the outcome of a match of Counter-Strike (less than 10 years old) changes according to the eventual ramifications that result from the early decisions of the opposition.
It is perhaps impossible to eliminate some strategic element from tactical wargames, but since both first person shooters and fighting games are dominated by tactical skills and not strategic skills (and since players preferring strategic play generally look elsewhere) they represent a fair representation of the modern form.
Games in which the success of competition depends upon managing economies or resources can be considered logistical wargames (although in my discussion of logistical play, I also use the term to describe play that is highly repetitive, teaching one particular pattern by re-iteration). I am uncertain how to trace the first, but the first successful modern game of this style was Monopoly (about 70 years old), and a recent success of this form can be found in the RTS (real time strategy) genre which as a result of market forces tends towards logistical play (although it need not).
If a logistical wargame is turn-based, it is impossible to eliminate strategic elements, and if it is realtime it is impossible to eliminate tactical elements.
Diplomatic wargames are probably more recent in origin, although the balloon debate (in which speakers compete to win over the audience) perhaps represents a nascent form. They are usually more intrinsically narrative than other kinds of wargame, since they are focussed more on motive than the structure of the contest. Despite the name, the tabletop game Diplomacy is a better example of a strategic wargame than a diplomatic one, although it does have diplomatic elements.
The kind of play represented – diplomatic play – remains mysterious. Probably, it involves working towards ideal situations, but the meaning of ideal can change radically from player to player; this makes it difficult to find competitive versions that would qualify as wargames. It is possible that the storyplay of a tabletop role-playing game (which also occurs in multiplayer online games, albeit more rarely) is a form of diplomatic play, and when these games are competitive or violent (which is exceedingly common) it could be considered a diplomatic wargame of some kind, but these kind of thoughts are largely speculation.
If this kind of play goes on at all in the modern games industry, it does so within role-playing games with human players – either tabletop or massively multiplayer. Even here, the play tends to lurch deeply into logistical territory. Broadly speaking, I would say the perfect diplomatic wargame has yet to be made, but will certainly involve other players or extremely convincing artificial intelligence.
Battlefield Games (Syncretic Wargames)
Of course, most games contain more than one of these elements – the games industry cross-breeds successful ideas much as any marketplace or evolving ecology might. Of particular note are the what might be called battlefield action games, which synthesise strategic and logistical play with a tactical wargame. The archetype for this is arguably the 1985 Midway arcade game Gauntlet, since two of the most striking examples – the Dynasty Warriors franchise and the Star Wars: Battlefront franchise – bear a certain resemblance.
Essentially: enemies appear at generators (which are usually abstracted into narrative terms – a camp, a fortress, a gate etc.) and flood around a battlefield space to engage with forces in the player’s control, or allied with the player. In Gauntlet, there are an unlimited number of foes rendered in top down 2D and no allied forces other than other players, and play devolves to a mindless real-time affair.
However, in Dynasty Warriors 2 etc. (2000 onwards) a more complicated virtual world facilitates both more tactical play, and more strategic play, with simple logistical play represented in the economy of troops that flow from the gates (generators) – troops which are ultimately limited in supply. Later Dynasty Warriors games use bases that can change hand (aping a popular multiplayer FPS style) instead of gates that could be permanently closed like the generators in Gauntlet, a form copied or independently developed (the distinction is largely irrelevant) for Star Wars: Battlefront. The strategic element of these games is extremely limited against AI opponents, but can become critical in multiplayer.
Also of note is Battlefield 1942 (2002) which also uses the base-capturing mechanic, but as the basis of player respawn and not the delivery of reinforcement troops. Because of this distinction, play is much more akin to other multiplayer tactical wargames (with strategic elements), and economic elements are reduced to ammunition and health considerations, as in most tactical wargames. There are strong reasons for the success of this game over others that are similar, however, including (but in no way restricted to) its use of the most popular implicit license available for any wargame: World War II.
In fact, all three of the games discussed above as examples of battlefield games rely in a great part on their licenses for success (the Three Kingdoms setting being the most popular implicit license in much of Asia, and Star Wars being perhaps the most popular science fiction franchise in the world). This underlines a much overlooked point in the videogame industry: you may want to make up your own setting, but the vast majority of players are more likely to buy something familiar – something they already have an interest in. Of course, there is also a niche market for inventive content, but it is of a considerably smaller scope in part because of the trickier marketing problem.
These are just a few examples of syncretic wargames, which use a more detailed virtual world to
provide choices allowing many different types of play to be supported. The trend is almost certain to continue in this direction.
Wargames are a genre of videogames that are inherently competitive, and usually (but certainly not necessarily) depicted within a virtual world by means of violence. There are several key forms currently being significantly exploited:
- Strategic wargames, which are time-limited or turn-based and involve problem solving.
- Tactical wargames, which are real-time and involve “twitch” play.
- Logistical wargames, which focus upon resource economies of some kind, and must involve some strategic or tactical elements depending upon whether they are turn-based or real-time.
- Diplomatic wargames, which focus on motive and are presumed to be non-violent.
- Battlefield or Syncretic wargames, which combine elements of the others (particular the first three) in different degrees, but which are almost exclusively based upon an underlying tactical (and thus real-time) interaction model. (Strategic elements in such games are not strictly turn-based, but rather time-limited).
These forms of games present challenges in the form of opposing forces to be overcome in some way, through which the player earns the emotional reward of fiero – the feeling of triumph over adversity – which has been the backbone of the videogames industry up until the dawn of the 21st century, and will probably always provide a sizeable component of its income.
I was hoping for some commentary on DOD wargames, particularly the one about planes flying into buildings conducted on 9/11.
Posted by: Patrick | January 23, 2008 at 10:46 PM
Sheesh, Patrick, is there not enough political content already this week? ;) I felt the Games piece should remain on topic, and that linking up the title with the theme of the week would suffice as a transition.
Posted by: Chris | January 24, 2008 at 12:43 PM