Monday 26 February 2018

Is Wargaming Getting Too Easy?

Over the weekend, I came across this interesting article on The Times website. In a nut-shell, it talks about how 'convenience' is shaping our world, our lives, and potentially stripping us of something important. Near the end of the article, it talks about how we've had to turn to our hobbies to find challenge and express our individuality.

I started to think about this in terms of my own hobby of wargaming. Are we not seeing 'convenience' take over here as well? Now, I am not advocating a return to the days where everyone had to cast their own miniatures in lead, but think about this. Twenty years ago, if you were into wargaming, you had to:

Read and decipher the rules yourself (or find someone to teach you).
Paint your own miniatures.
Construct your own terrain.
Write out all of the important information about your army/warband on a piece of paper.
Create your own scenarios.
Roll dice, refer to charts, and occasionally perform simple feats of mathematics.

Now, many of us who wargame still do many, perhaps even all of these things, but you don't have to. Just for the sake of example, let's look at the mega-popular X-Wing game from Fantasy Flight. If you bought the game today, you could watch numerous 'how-to-play' videos online to learn the rules. The figures come painted (much better than most of us can paint) so you don't have to worry about that. The game doesn't need any terrain, but if you want there are a few ready made things you can buy, like asteroids. All of the information you need about ships is on handy cards (and more cards, and more cards). Even the 'characters' of the game, are right their for you on the cards. The game has plenty of scenarios you can play, but usually people just go for a straight shoot-'em-up. You still have to roll dice, although they are special made-for-the-game dice which means you don't need any math beyond simple counting and their are no charts to refer to.

This is not to berate X-Wing. I think there are a lot of positives to be said about the game. And, it is not even the 'worst' in these terms. A lot of wargames these days are taking convenience to an even greater extreme and becoming board games, so that you get everything you could ever need in one box (well, until the next expansion box makes parts of it obsolescent).

Again, I am not advocating a return to the 'good old days' of lumpy figures and children's blocks for terrain (although, I suspect there is just as much fun to be had that way). I am advocating that we keep some of the difficulty in the hobby.

I've been painting minis for around 30 years. I've gotten pretty good at it, and now it is one of the great, meditative pleasures of my life; but would I have ever started if I could have bought really nice looking pre-paints? I used to make a lot of scenery. I was pretty good at it, but for the last 10 years I have bought most of my scenery pre-made. I love using paper and pencil during wargames. Seriously, I take real joy in using a sharp pencil to make notes, and have developed good handwriting partially because of this. It's probably one reason I wrote a wargame where every figure has lots of Health that is slowly degraded through a game (a very un-modern wargaming element) - more excuse to use my pencil.

I know, for some people, all they want to do is play the game, and the rest is just an annoying distraction. It's your hobby, do what you want. However, if you don't try some of these things, if you don't invest the time it takes to work on them and develop the skills, you will never know if there might be more enjoyment to be gleaned.

Start small. Buy a few figs. Paint them. Come up with their story. Design a scenario that is specific to your figures. Write it all down. Build a small piece of terrain that features in that story. Then play the game. Afterwards, write about it. Blog about it. Decide what happens next in the story and see if you need new figures or new terrain. Let it spiral upwards and onwards out of control. To me, that is the joy of the hobby. But even for me, it is often easy to forget all of this...for the sake of convenience.

As a final point, I am not saying we must all enjoy or even participate in all aspects of the hobby. If you don't like painting, that's fine. What I am saying is that we should take our time to find the parts we love, and when we do, invest in them. I believe today's market place makes it easy to forget this.

Note to self: make some terrain.


  1. Also, tin cans make awesome sci-fi scenery. Right?

    1. None of my group has ever owned a drop pod but bean tins regularly grace the table, loaded with deadly warriors and protein.

  2. Good read! May I share this on my podcast's Facebook page?

  3. You have some points, but I beg to differ on some other ones.

    When I first tried to get into the hobby I bought some 6mm Heroic & Ros miniatures. I had previously built model kits (not very good at it though) and painted some miniatures to use in roleplaying games. I also had a model railroad layout that I had played war on with my airfix soldiers but I wanted something more rewarding.

    So there I was, a handful of shermans and tigers, some strips of vague infantry shapes and no clue how to progress. I found a ruleset -- Firefly I think it was called -- that listed weapon ranges, had lots of charts, and confusing mechanics. It was the epitome of user unfriendlyness, written by and for serious grognards.

    Then a friend bought Warhammer -- then in it's second edition. We played mostly with the cardboard markers provided in the box and scenario sets, but started to buy regiments of figures. It was either a blister with four or five figures or a regimental box with twelve figures. You always seemed to have a couple too few figures, and you were too poor to splash on a blister that contained more than the number of figures you wanted. It wasn't perfect, but it was a lot friendlier than Firefly.

    With each iteration of the Warhammer game things became easier. You bought a boxed set. Or you bought a plastic kit. The rules were dumbed down, or streamlined, depending on how you look at it. More accessible.

    Some fifteen years ago I got back into WW2 gaming with the TFL rulesets. Still my mind boggles at the fact that it's hard to buy a unit of figures. Some manufacturers have unit bundles, some have squad packs, but you still get leftover figures.

    Things are easier now. I don't think it's a bad thing. Things weren't always better in the old days.

    1. Good response, Lief. I think you have a very valid point, and I certainly don't want to role back the clock. I think the current system contains a lot of good and bad.

    2. Oh, I do agree with you on the subject of dice. Specialty dice can be used for some nifty effects if used properly, but usually they only confuse the matter and as you say, makes us forget about basic math!

      I suspect that FFG owns a dice factory or the dice manufacturing mafia has infiltrated the wargames community. Now even GW has started with specialty dice in their gateway boardgames.

    3. "I think the current system contains a lot of good and bad."

      I think this is reflective of the amount of choice more than anything. I remember in the late 90s (when I first found wargaming) there were a couple of prepainted systems who never took off, whilst GW flourished over the years. Right now you can buy prepaints, single-play boxes (which have always existed), unpainted minis, generic or system specific kits, army boxes, regiment boxes, singles, home casts - the list is much greater than the eighties, which, to me, means there's convenience in access to materials but not at the expense of the traditional aspects of collecting and constructing.

    4. Some forms of modern convenience have actually pushed up standards. Thanks to GW's plastic kits, creative conversions are now more common than ever, for example. Or compare modern paints with the enamels some people started in the way back when. They've really helped people in painting better.

  4. I do love everything around wargames. You know, writing the fluff for your warband (and thinking a lot about it), building scnery, creating characters/units cards... I don't really like painting (maybe a spare model from time to time, but painting an army isn't fun), but I want to see my models finished.

    ...But I know there is people who just likes to play. Maybe they are not talented painters, maybe they don't like to paint, maybe they got no time to paint.
    I've been painting for years, I got tons of painted miniatures around me, but I do not currently have free time to paint. Well, I got time, for sure, but I just don't want to spend it painting because I'm tired (and I want to spend that few free time with other less demanding occupations).

    X-Wing has turned into a manageable way to keep me in contact with wargaming. It doesn't requires so much dedication and I can repaint/do some weathering on a ship in half an afternoon.
    It is expensive as hell, and it is a product way too criticizable in too many ways. For sure.

    Personally I'm more and more into "easy" wargames. I'm not talking about dumb games, but I think simplicity is a virtue. I also would say keeping a place for the payers imagination is a good issue too. Well, I am talking about such nice games like yours.
    At the end of the day a game is meant to be fun; if it's not fun maybe it isn't a game.

    1. Endakil - your last point is certainly the most important. If the hobby is fun, it works. If it ain't, it doesn't. And we are all going to enjoy different aspects and in different ways. No one is going to love every part of the hobby. (I tend to hate converting!).

  5. I think the old school / old guard type gamer defined wargaming as 'good old fashioned wargaming' with massed armies and a copy of the latest Wargame Research Group rules and then those rules from Tabletop Games. Doing research, terrain building, hand drawn maps and home grown scenarios etc and with that 'image' of wargaming embedded in our minds, it becomes our benchmark.

    But big changes have morphed things to the point that that benchmark has been under pressure for many years. Points I think relative;

    All those who game in whatever way, generally seem to enjoy their hobby.

    We are 2 generations on since the good old days, that itself brings change.

    wargamers who play X-wing are Wargamers, not all X-wing gamers think of themselves as wargamers.

    A huge number of people are wargaming on their X-box with things like Medal of Honour, they by-en-large do not seem to think of themselves as wargamers.

    Old school generation (there never was much money) had to either make something themselves or do without - This has become significantly less true over time.

    The internet allows the player to contact the designer with a question and there is an expectation that an answer will be forthcoming within 24 hours - has this encouraged laziness to working it out yourself or having the confidence to have a stab - I think so.

    Kickstarter encourages cash-cow designs, so no sooner is the new self contained 'everything in a box' produced, than the next kickstarter is there to draw away your cash and attention from the game you have just received and will not spend enough time to get into, because the the next shiney thing is just around the corner.

    there has been an explosion in rules systems that require few figures to be bought and painted, many are skirmisher games, but DBA, working at the army level, was a master of this.

    Our homes are getting increasingly small(new build) where the space to store and play is a real world constraint.

    We are less hands on than we have ever been. We don't fix our own cars, do crafting, build models, for many jobs we 'get a man in' and he drip, drip, drip impact has been that we are losing both the physical and mental connection with 'doing stuff'.

    A lot of people claim they have less time. I think this is only partly true. On the truth side is that many people have higher work demands, work through their lunch period, check their phone at home and are tired by time the evening meal is done. The lie side is that we have generally slipped into a behavious of just sitting in front of the computer screen and being entertained (here we are now, at this very moment). That is probably the biggest robber of time. time in which we could be more pro-active but that we have chosen to surrender.

    I must admit, my 'older brain' finds it harder to cope with big rulesets, my ability to flit from game to game and system to system means that I no longer get proficient at anything, so the rulebook is always in my hand, so I want shorter rules and aches and pains means that I no longer want very long games or to stretch across to the middle of a big gaming table. I go into my local game store and I see to people sitting across a small table with a 3' x 3' or less set-up in front of them and suddenly that feels eminently sensible, not attractive to me, but sensible never-the-less.

    I go to wargame shows and I think I am seeing a greater mix of age range than ever before. Whenever I see people playing, whatever hey are playing seems to be making them happy and it is hard to say that that is anything other than good.

    If we were to go to the doctor with my problem, they might say, 'get off the internet and go and do your hobby'! I have just put paste down on 7 bases, so I am of course feeling very pleased with myself. :-)

  6. Interesting observation. I would certainly agree that these things need thinking about and discussing.

    However, I would say that one man's "chore" is another man's "fun". Personally I find writing scenarios, making army lists and other "outside of the game" aspects of the hobby to be boring and a chore. I would even include the typical things that are involved in bookkeeping for a campaign as "boring" too. However I am aware that lots of people absolutely love those aspects of the hobby, and good on them. My younger self would have been 100% in agreement.

    Conversely other aspects of the hobby I love - such as painting and collecting models. My younger me, my teenage son, and many fellow hobbyists find it a complete chore and not fun at all.

    Who's "right"? Who has the "Moral high ground"?

    Of course the answer is all/none of us.

    The point I am trying to make is that of course our hobby's should be a source of challenge, and in meeting that challenge and conquering some discipline or some opposition is where we find our enjoyment. But there's no point in getting all "hair shirt" about it. I love the hard work of painting armies so that's what I concentrate on. Others will concentrate on list building or making terrain but avoid painting by outsourcing it, playing with prepaints or models others have painted for them (my son seems to see me as his private painting service!), and good on them. No one I know likes it ALL!

    So go with the flow, a hobby is about enjoyment and satisfaction, not "easy fun", sure, but lets not get all hung up about it.

  7. I think there has always been a division in this hobby (as in every hobby) between tinkerers and consumers.

    You'll find tinkerers in boardgaming - we're the folks who create variants, pimp our games out with custom components, and design and build print-and-play games. And digital gaming has its tinkerers, too: they're the one who design skins and mods and entirely new games.

    Clearly, you're a tinkerer - and we thank you for giving a game so amenable to tinkering!

  8. Let me "old man" one better because you're lamenting a *particular* style of gaming from a company that's done as much harm as good to the wargaming hobby.

    For example, terrain? You remember sand tables, right? Actually you probably don't. Just use your hands to craft the hills and valleys you need. Then reset with an arm sweep. No need to spend hours crafting up a house you can only use in one scale and one time period.

    The old lead figs held less detail than these pewter figs so painting had a lower bar.

    Thinking up a scenario? Grab a history book, and what's with all this fascination with balance and point values? Just run the game twice and switch sides.

    And board game wargames? One word, Yaquinto.

    There was math, but it was about ratios. But that becomes memorization quickly.

    1. Just to clarify, a truly old school wargamer, would be excited that wargame boardgames are making a *comeback* after PC games killed them off.

      If someone thinks this is a new thing, they don't know the depth of their hobby.

    2. Sand tables are fantastic, but also perhaps not easy if you live small or play at temporary away-locations. Hmm, maybe I should build a small one for skirmish games that can be put away, with sand poured back in plastic containers...

  9. Very interesting read Joe.......I have lived through many of these changes (just) the best thing of all is a pint of beer and the ability to discuss the hobby we love. The imperative for me is to have the hobby I want and not challenge those who want something different. Variety is in my view the most important thing as if we all did one thing it would be very boring. I love to paint and make and research and game and now blog 😀

  10. It's ok if you have to do math or check a chart. I like varying complexity among my games, but I'm afraid AoS and the newer iterations of 40k just aren't my bag.

    Ever play Tomorrow's War? I handed out a few manuals to my old club and got them turned back in quickly, as veteran gamers thought it was written in an alien language.

    1. Interesting. What were the veteran gamers preferred rules?

  11. I'm not sure what you are talking about is necessarily a "convenience" thing. I think it's a "usability thing".

    As my day job is a UX/UI designer I find the "onboarding" process of wargaming incredibly difficult for the average person and just a little less difficult for the average gamer. Which inevitably only aids in giving wargaming more of a niche "bad-name" to the general gamer. While many of the things you describe I think are very positive things about the hobby as they let you express yourself. The clunky "user experience" of it all can only be detrimental and I don't think it's a convenience thing.

    I think many people that create tabletop games of all kinds don't take into account 2 important experiences for those learning their product. First, that daunting but important learning curve that all people must go through to play your game. Secondly, the "refer back to the rules" user.

    Luckily, there has been some progress in the direction of lowering these two layers of complexity. For the learning curve complexity I've seen solutions come in the form of "Intro" or "Co-op" scenarios. In term of the post first time user experience referring back to rules I've seen that given much less attention. And the attention is given is usually quite subpar. Your reference to X-wing is interesting because I think Fantasy Flight tried very hard to focus on these pivotal user experiences by making cards as reference points instead of giant rulebooks. Making pre-measured sticks instead of tape-measures. To a degree this has been successful. Though the rulebook is still quite difficult to return to. I think as a company they recognize this issue with many of their boardgame releases as I see them coming with "Quick Start" rules and "Manuals" that act more life a reference. They are still stumbling through it but its good to see someone recognizes this problem.

    To bring in new blood wargaming needs to take more hints from this approach.

    Crafting terrain, painting minis, writing stories. These are all the big draws of wargaming. The things that make them unique and orders of magnitude more immersive for me, than a board game.

    It just needs to be a little easier to get into and to play while you are in it. Making it that way will inspire more people to take the dive and keep more people around longer.

    1. Thanks for posting, Elia! I've always thought that wargaming could use a good dose of UX design.

  12. Sometimes I think we old timers forget the learning curve we went through and the new products that exist... look how far just the paints have come! However, this also comes with a cost to young gamers who don't go buy and mix red, green, blue, yellow, black and white, but see a "need" to buy the right 5 colors of red. (Don't get me wrong, I have 4 different companys' colors of red, because I collect stuff and like color.)

    I'm a middle school teacher (grades 6, 7, 8 in the States) so I see that age group struggle to purchase a squad, a paint scheme, etc. So anything that makes it "easier" to start, less figs, pre-painted, etc. removes barriers for people to get into the wargaming hobby. However, this doesn't limit the hobby. How many of us oldtimers have repainted, touched up, or added some flair to their x-wings? I think many of the "easier" parts of modern gaming have made it more accessible to more types of people...

    "Frostgrave only takes 10 figures? And they're not in a uniform ,so I can paint them however I want?" ... and my wife is working on her first Frostgrave warband!

    1. I don't play it, and I know it has a couple of glitches, but I reckon Frostgrave gets an awful lot right!

  13. I have my doubts about the distinction some people make between shorter rules which are automatically assumed to be "simple", and therefore also superficial, and "proper" old school rules which have lots of detail and complexity and therefore supposedly more depth, realism and whatever other qualities a hardcore wargamer would value. A lot of "big" rules are filled with churn and administrative overhead that adds little to the game. If you strip that away, you're often left with a surprisingly simple and tactically dull core. Sometimes you already know how things will play out right after initial deployment, but the padding ensures the game will last an hour or two. I guess the churn (including the pre-game chore of armylist accounting) is part of the attraction for some people. For me the ideal is still and has always been something like chess: elegant, easy to learn and hard to master.

  14. Games aren't getting simpler, per se, just eth tools that allow you to play them are improving. Star Wars X-Wing may have lots of handy reference cards and special dice that make the game easier to play but that is probably more a reflection of better presentation within the hobby and the fact it is worth investing more into making the game look better to generate more revenue. I don't thin the game is any easier to play, you just get to spend more time thinking about the game rather than working through rules and looking up charts. Complexity does not equal depth or ease of play, it just means more time playing the rule and less time playing the game....

  15. True to a certain extent - I still play Rogue Trader rather than modern 40k because I like the complexity. Also play necromunda and chain of command as I like the narrative style of those games. I also like painting the figures and terrain as well - so I guess I am more "old skool" - never bought a repainted mini!

    I'd love to have more Games of General De Brigade too - that is the right level of complexity for me. But my gaming time is limited these days so narrative skirmish games are what I focus on for now

  16. Hmm if your focusing on one particular genre or period then yeah I can understand fully immersing yourself in it. Time I fear is the big factor there are so many more things requiring your attention now. Men in particular are more family orientated now than back in the day. I have two beautiful girls whom I love spending time with. For me complicated rulesets require my full attention (The Batman Miniature game for example) and takes up more time than you would like.

    I have sort of moved on from that and dabble in various games/genres all much simpler in comparison to batman. We still like to through up big multiplayer games focusing on a narrative and having fun from time to time. For me I enjoy painting figures but not terrain which I enjoy building but dislike the painting part. So recently when the opportunity has come up pre painted terrain made by someone else has been bought as I see it as invest of time I can spend painting more figures or actually playing games.

    1. That's an excellent point about family time.

      I live in the sticks (South Devon) - an hour away from any gaming group - so I only get to play once or twice a month, but many of the others at the clubs, I realise, are either single or divorced or have grown-up children. I marvel at their ability to play 3-4 times a week or even *shock! horror!* at weekends, when even if I didn't live so very far away I still wouldn't be able to (wouldn't want to!) be away from my young family.

    2. Yes indeed same here. I try and game with a friend once a month but even that has been a struggle over the winter months. I am trying to get a monthly game in on a Friday night.

      There is a cracking local club that is every fortnight but is on a Sunday during the day. Weekends are always family orientated.

    3. Hey, I never said getting too a wargame is easy! I don't play nearly as often as I like. However, no matter how many products are available, I don't think anybody can help with this issue!

  17. It sems to me there is a confusion in this article between a Low Barrier To Entry and Ease. Making something more accessible to a larger number of people is not necessarily the same as making the hobbies/games themselves any easier. The curve is smoother for sure, but its the same slope.

  18. The one thing that bothers me is that some new(er) war gamers seem to think that if they switch rules, they have to buy new miniatures e.g. when moving from Flames of War to Chain of Command. A related issues is a lack of awareness that one can purchase figures from many companies and this is a strength rather than a weakness.

    That said, anything that gets new blood into the hobby is a good thing.

    1. Yes, there is a degree of company encouraged ignorance in the hobby, which we older players can help wiht.

    2. Not sure it's ignorance. My impression is that a lot of fantasy & sci-fi players simple enjoy the "complete package" approach companies like GW, Privateer or Wyrd offer.

  19. Nice use of tin cans.

    1. Thanks - pulling out this old picture made me remember what great terrain they make for sci-fi battles. Now eating a lot of beans to build up my collection again.

  20. I love this post. I reminds me of what I love about this hobby. Thank you.

  21. Pertinent to this exact discussion:
    Warhammer 40k Conquest -

    GW is starting to recognize that onboarding is important.