Why Wargames?

Why should the contemporary academic ludologist, especially one interested in video games, bother with board wargames? I would argue for at least the following reasons:

  • Several thousand titles have been published. Collectively these represent a distinct commercial and design genre for the board game hobby, one which enjoyed considerable popularity and market penetration. For example, Avalon Hill’s Squad Leader (1977), earnestly glossed as “the game of infantry combat in World War II,” sold 200,000 copies. In obvious ways, such games are essential context for the current crop of military- and conflict-themed computer games, as well as ongoing debates about violence, militarism, and gaming ethics.
  • The sheer size, scale, and scope of many wargames places the genre at the formal, physical, and ergonomic limits of board gaming. These extremes can serve to test or challenge certain assumptions about game theory, usually tested by way of simpler rules systems.
  • Board wargames function as paper computers. The abstraction of combat, movement, supply, and other basic military considerations into a numerically expressed spectrum of outcomes, randomized by die rolls within the parameters of a situation, makes the genre a rich source for anyone interested in the formal and procedural representation of dynamic, often ambiguous, literally contested experience. Because wargames are embodied in cardboard and charts rather than algorithms and code, they are by their nature “open source.” That is, the quantitative model underpinning the game system is materially exposed for inspection and analysis.
  • Finally, while most often understood in terms related to either gaming or simulation, board wargames can also function as powerful narrative agents. Players routinely discuss a game’s capacity for “narrative,” meaning whether the discrete die rolls and events allow them to suspend disbelief and create a believable storyworld that accords with their sense of historical plausibility. “Game fiction,” as the term has been defined by Jason Rhody, is therefore a salient feature of board wargames (a “genre of game that draws upon and uses narrative strategies to create, maintain, and lead the user through a fictional environment”).

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