Does complexity define wargames? And are there any voids in wargame design?

The first part of the title of this post is the topic of a discussion question for my publishers Home of the Wargamers 2015 event.

And in fact it is a very good question and one that should in my opinion be reflected upon by any wargame designer before starting any new project.

My instinctive first reply to the question is to say that there is no such thing as “the” wargame genre or “the” wargamer.

The ideal amount of complexity depends certainly on the personal tastes of the player. Some players are more casual or beer and pretzel lovers, some players are more hardcore wargamers or even grognards.

Reflecting on the complexity of wargames I can distinguish (at least) two important factors that determine the perceived complexity.

The amount of game pieces you have to move each turn is the first important factor. On one side of the spectrum here we find for example chess, while on the other side of the spectrum you would find monster hex-and-counter games like some HPS games or War in the East.

And the detail for the game pieces you control, affect you or that you affect is the second important factor. Does each unit have 2 or 3 variables like in Empire Deluxe, maybe 10-20 variables like in Panzer Corps, or maybe 100s of variables like in War in the East?

Disclaimer: I really put these titles rather quickly on these 2 axis; please allow for an error of a few centimeters ;)

The amount of game pieces you have at your disposal should in general create more strategic and/or tactical options for the player. More permutations of game states. High permutation games are complex because they make it impossible to really calculate what is going to be the outcome of your moves, especially when trying to think a few turns into the future, you have to develop a “feel” or “intuition” to become a good player.

The detail of the stuff you have at your disposal can make each iteration of a piece of the game unique (12th Infantry division versus 45th Infantry division for example). These detailed games add a lot of complexity to the game and time-investment for the player, since everything should ideally be inspected before being utilized to achieve best results. On the other hand they add a lot of immersion, special strategies, management challenges and feel of “realism”.

My analysis here is that the [ level of simulation/detail * the ammount of stuff you control ] in a game results in that games complexity score. On the illustration I put for example Panzer Corps in the more casual wargame quadrant and Grigsby in the grognard quadrant. Panzer Corps has relatively low unit count and low detail, while Grigsby has defenitely high unit count and high detail.

So answering the question “does complexity define wargames?” I would really say yes, but the bar where a game becomes a “real” wargame differs from player to player depending on their preferred level of complexity.

In a way the term “casual” and “grognard” is actually not objective and betrays a bit my own sympathies. The term “casual” or “beer and pretzel” is definitely a term coined by players who prefer games to the high complexity side of the spectrum. My apologies if I offended any-one and feel free to replace “casual” with “strategy” and “grognard” with “I like looking at spreadsheets”. It really depends on your personal tastes and who you compare yourself too.

I think the interesting thing about putting turn based wargames on the two dimensions I chose is that I realized there are two design voids. There are no wargames I know of with very low detail per game piece but very large counts of them, nor are there any (non-tactical) wargames with very low game piece counts, but with immense details to each piece.

I know of other genres who have exploited these voids though… RPG’s for example excel in low unit count but with immense detail per unit (characters are of course the name for units there). And for example some RTS and Total War games field thousands of little soldiers on the battlefields but they often resemble a clone of their neighbor.

Personally I think these relative voids might hold the key to create some cross-genre and entry level games.

Thats it for my brainstorm on the subject for today. Correct me if I am wrong please.

Best wishes,

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7 Responses to Does complexity define wargames? And are there any voids in wargame design?

  1. morvael says:

    Not wargames in a strict sense, but there are games with “low game piece counts, but with immense details to each piece” – that would be any cRPG with turn based combat. As for games with “very low detail per game piece but very large counts of them” I’d look at RTS games, some of which have large amounts of individual units, but these have only some basic stats (range, dps, health), of course they are not turn based. There are also games which have a lot of stats, but hide them from the player. Do these cound as low detail or high?

  2. morvael says:

    Shouldn’t have posted after reading 4th but before reading 3rd paragraph from the end :) I think any wargame going into low game piece counts, but with immense details to each piece would simply evolve to become a tactical simulator for cRPG (like Fallout Tactics) rather normal wargame. And I doubt non-realtime battles of thousands of “pawns” (pieces with similar abilities like the chess piece) would be interesting to anyone. Add real time and it becomes RTS. It seems wargames are only in the upper left and lower right quarter of your chart, other parts of the chart are taken by different genres.

  3. kaldadarnes says:

    I think it was Sid Meier who said“ A game is a series of interesting choices”.

    That to me is the essence of game design. War-games are defined by the choices that you make, and the level at which the game is making you operate, i.e. Who are you in the game? The supreme commander? A Corps commander? A Lieutenant? A pilot? etc. it is how well the game abstracts the choices presented to those individuals in a meaningful way that makes the game interesting. So in a historical “simulation”, such as DC-WTP – you are the army group commander – units are pre-deployed, objectives defined (inevitably benchmarked against historical outcomes) so you are choosing how to use the set of tools presented to you. In Advanced Tactics Gold by contrast, it is much more open – you are the supreme warlord – building the tools themselves.

    As for complexity – it should not define war-game design, rather the choices the designer wants to present should. However the computing power available allows more and more units and factors to be tracked for the sake of it without, on occasion, the question being asked – why does this matter – what are the properties we are trying to capture – what is the choice we are trying to present to the player?

    At root any complexity/additional factors/properties should feed into presenting the choices to the player and influencing their decision by changing the cost benefit in some way.

  4. Jafele says:

    Some people love “wargames” in the same way that some love “jazz”. However there are good and bad things inside any kind of music/game. Quality is not a “genre”.

    The hoy grail of any game is

    1-Balance between realism and fantasy: A game is not reality but on the other hand lack of realism makes a game infantile.
    2-Balance in rules (excess of simplicity vs complexity or micromanagement).
    3-Replayability: The player never get tired of the game. Features like random maps or efficient AI may help.
    4-Enjoyment: To play is a nice experience, you might even learn something new every time you play.

    A game is imcoplete without one of these ingredients. Sadly 99% of them.


  5. dsul says:

    Very interesting look at the hobby. Is there additional Axis(making it 3 d) ? Conflict resolution. In position, does the pawn always take the queen ? Or , is there a further random element to the resolution? Understanding the battle of Midway minute by minute and choice by choice, the outcome makes sense. However, if it were a game result in a weekly turn game, I think the Japanese player would be very upset about game mechanics.
    Conflict resolution is variable. The difference between land and sea results are dramatic. A naval shell with a 5 mile target which misses the exact Target by 30 feet is still an excellent shot. But that 30 feet can be the difference of hitting the enemy magazine or missing completely. Reliable resolutions would make the results of Picketts’ charge, always the same; but the results of Savo Island, always varied. Unreliable results would have Picketts’ men breaking the Union center, and the US Navy always losing 4(?) Cruisers at Savo Island.
    Also along this reliable/unreliable resolution Axis is the ability to recreate historical results. After reading the WW2 AARs in ATG, I don’t recall a Pearl Harbor event occurring in any of the games. The element of surprise is a tough nut in games.
    A note on command control. How nice that I can always get my T34s to go exactly where I wish wish, even tho they have no radios. I enjoy games that offer command control options. Sometimes it’s fun to have units do exactly as I wish, and, sometimes, it’s fun to watch my units wander off to places unknown. I believe the old SSI squad based Panzer Strike had this feature.

  6. vic says:

    “After reading the WW2 AARs in ATG, I don’t recall a Pearl Harbor event occurring in any of the games”

    Good point!

  7. Pete says:

    It’s interesting to look at a chart like that and think about those measures and the ideas you have about them, but I don’t think your “design voids” are really there in the field of all games, I do not think that there is necessarily a meaningful axis to draw along the arrow you drew, and I don’t think Casual and Grognard belong strictly in the upper-left and lower-right.


    * Simulation wargames that have scenarios for only a few aircraft, ships, vehicles, or warriors, but model them in high detail, clearly fill the lower-left “design void” and would merit label as grognard or hard-core wargames.

    * In terms of simple non-simulationist mechanics but many units, Go probably belongs further right. Games such as the old classic Galaxy also fill that design void, where you may have thousands of spaceships at your command, but they have no detail other than where they are and where they’re ordered to go, and can certainly be played and enjoyed by what I’d call “casual” players.

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