Welcome to ZOI

A Zone of Influence (ZOI) is a lesser-used cousin of a common hex and counter board wargaming mechanic known as a Zone of Control. Typically a unit in another’s ZOI has its movement hindered or impaired, whereas the stronger ZOC might prohibit movement altogether, and/or mandate combat. This is a classic ZOI or ZOC diagram:
Zone of Influence

This blog is a zone or space where I think I might be able to exert some influence on game studies. Hopefully people will slow down and take time to read and engage in conversation, if not combat. The blog is also a space where I can combine my interest in boardgames (especially board wargames) as a hobbyist and enthusiast with my academic interests in games, simulation, and technologies of representation.

I intend to try my best to find some interesting and original things to say about board wargames, which were a commercial game publishing genre of considerable popularity and market share throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, and which continue to mark the material and ergonomic extremes of board games as physical and formal systems. (Board wargames are notorious for the length and complexity of their rulebooks, with 32 pages or more not uncommon; a typical game will have dozens or hundreds of unit counters [tokens] in play at once, maps covering a playing area of up to a dozen square feet, and can take multiple gaming sessions, each of many hours, to finish to completion.) Board wargames are also of interest to me as cardboard computers; they are instruments for modeling, prediction, and prognostication, but by their nature they are open source with the algorithms laid bare in numerically expressed outcomes on charts and tables. The only “black box” is the designer’s intentions. Frequently a collector will have multiple games on the same subject, the idea being to examine how well each models the relevant history. (As Greg Costikyan has pointed out, the term “game designer” was first used in conjunction with board wargames.)

Abstract games with martial themes date to antiquity, so in the same way that Jesper Juul asks why play games with computers rather than devices like microwave ovens, one might also ask why play games about war as opposed to games about cooking. I’d much rather be in a kitchen than in a battle, but warfare and gameplay have a long, deep, intertwined history with one another, much as the world’s militaries have a deep and intertwined history with computers and computing.

While I think ludology can learn things by paying attention to board wargames, I also want to look at the games on their own terms—critically—for their mechanisms and material affordances, in ways it’s sometimes hard to do on the various fan sites that I frequent. But I hope some friends from those sites will find their way here, and that there can be some productive dialogue between hobbyists and academics. Finally, board wargames will by no means be the only subject I take up here; Zone of Influence will also be a platform for discussing many other aspects of game studies and new media.

A quick word about politics: given that wargames deal with military history and military themes, one might assume they are played by milititary fetishists and hawkish militarists, a particularly noxious constituency given the current world situation. My own politics are liberal/progressive, as are those of a number of people I’ve encountered in the hobby. The two largest constituencies in board wargames seem to be active duty or retired military personnel, and computer/IT workers. The attraction of the hobby to the former group is obvious but the latter is not surprising either, for reasons I will explore. There is also a sizeable contingent of educators in the hobby (Jim Dunnigan, patriarch of the venerable SPI, has pronounced wargaming the hobby for the over-educated, and Avalon Hill often traded on this image in their ad copy). Anyway, please, no assumptions about my personal politics, or that I harbor any illusions about the reality of warfare, emphatically not a game for far too many in this world.

New here? I also recommend reading Anatomy of a Wargame and Why Wargames?