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Games Domain

The contradiction of computer boardgames

[This is another article rescued from Games Domain Review in 1998. I still feel essentially the same way, although I think the tide has turned a bit.]

Computers have long since passed boardgames in their appeal to wargamers. Once upon a time, gamers dreamed of being able to transfer their beloved paper maps and counters to the computer, where they would be freed from the need for large amounts of table space and free time which kept many from enjoying their favorite wargame. Huge maps could be kept within the nearly infinite virtual space of the computer, and a game inconveniently interrupted by the end of a long weekend could simply be saved and retrieved days or weeks later without the need to clean off a layer of dust. Perhaps most importantly, gamers yearned to be rid of the yoke of huge rulebooks, and anticipated the day when tremendously complex games could be played under computer moderation without the need to enforce every rule manually. Fifteen years ago, all we had were wishes and desires. It may be terribly cliché to say so, but the saying here seems incredibly appropriate: be careful what you wish for …

GDR readers who have followed these pages for the past year will be familiar with my long association (and some will say unreasonable fascination) with board wargames. There is no doubt that computer wargaming got its start by following the example of its board predecessor. At the beginning, computers were seen as a solution to various problems that plagued boardgames, rather than as a separate hobby. As a result, early computer wargames were such poor cousins of the “real thing” that I remember looking at my Tigers in the Snow screen all those years ago and wishing, “If only I could have unit counters with combat values on them! If only I could stack more than one unit in a hex! If only, if only …” Such sentiments seem laughable today, but in 1981 they were real concerns. Over the years, computer games have developed to the point where it is now boardgame designers who wish they could emulate the aesthetic appeal of computer games. After all, Clash of Arms may make nice counters for their Napoleonic games, but isn’t it much nicer to look at imposing ranks of blue-clad grenadiers in Prelude to Waterloo ‘s 3D mode? This is even more true when the game allows you to switch back and forth from 3D mode to a traditional 2D-counter view. (For this reason, it will be interesting to see what comes of Grognard Simulations’ planned release of Clash of Arms’ Napoleonic title La Bataille de Preussisch-Eylau as a computer conversion.)

Unlike the historical boardgame hobby, which is in definite decline, computer gaming is flourishing, and if wargaming is to survive as a hobby (which it certainly will) it will be in its computer incarnation. Well-designed, sophisticated games such as TalonSoft’s The Operational Art of War will continue to extend the computer’s repertoire in appealing to the old school set, as well as giving newcomers a taste of what historical wargames can do without forcing them to memorize a book of rules. The way to draw more gamers into the computer wargaming hobby is not to publish more straight wargame conversions of games whose only appeal is that they present a period or battle not previously covered in a computer wargame. Whereas boardgamers love seeing multiple games in the same series covering dissimilar battles with nearly identical rules (like The Gamers Standard Combat Series), computer gamers see this as a sign of a rip-off. Why? Because boardgamers need to learn and implement the rules of each game they want to play, so if a game uses rules they already know, the need to study a whole new set of rules is minimized. Also, in a boardgame, all the capital investment is in the materials themselves, so a recycled game system isn’t seen as an attempt by the publisher to save money. A computer game’s costs are in the development time, so if a game engine is re-released under a different title with different combat units, people howl. How strange.

As I was going through my collection of wargame disks and CDs recently, it struck me how there seemed to be a fair number of releases that were directly based on boardgames: Wooden Ships & Iron Men, Third Reich, Great Battles of Alexander, and Axis & Allies, Achtung Spitfire, Computer War in Europe, and Over the Reich. Several of these are titles that I played quite a bit in their board incarnations, and which I found to be excellent games. This got me to wondering why none of these games (with the exception of the Great Battles series) ever took off on the computer. I then started thinking about boardgame conversions in general. What were they lacking?

The market for computer games still contains such a large population of current and former boardgamers that boardgame conversions are going to be around for a while longer. The recent purchase of Avalon Hill by Hasbro might even accelerate the current rate of such releases because of Hasbro’s purported reason for doing the deal (a desire to secure the computer rights to AH’s catalog) as well as Hasbro’s recent spurt of “classic” boardgame releases for the computer. Unfortunately, when boardgames are “converted” to computer games, the result seems to be something less than ideal. The games often seem to be lacking some unspecified element, and this empty feeling nags at the player’s mind, causing him to think to himself, “is that all there is to this?” Games which in their board format seemed elegant suddenly seem almost trivial. (Wooden Ships & Iron Men is a perfect example of this.) Some people see this as proof that board wargames are, at heart, shallow playthings, and no match for their computer counterparts. What is going on, here?
My belief is that the way in which people see boardgames and the way in which they see computer games are completely different, and it is this fundamental difference in perspective when viewing these separate products which creates a barrier to successful game “conversions.” The problem lies in the fact that computer games and boardgames have widely divergent strengths, and when one medium is converted to the other, it can’t help but show its warts.

When a player loads a computer wargame, his expectation level is extremely high because he doesn’t perceive many barriers to achieving what he sees as a “realistic” depiction of a particular subject. Rather than really seeing a “game,” the player sees instead a microcosmic re-creation of the battle being presented. All the things that would be present in a “real” battle are expected to appear in the computer game. After all, why shouldn’t they? The mechanics necessary to achieve this should be attainable by simply leaving them to the computer to deal with.

Boardgames, however, are limited by the fact that the players themselves needed to implement the games’ mechanics. This meant that an increase in the complexity of the rules results in a concurrent increase in memorization for the players. While some games do exist whose players seem to actually desire as much complication as possible (in other words: Advanced Squad Leader), most gamers have some threshold of memorization which, if exceeded, causes drastic reductions in game-playing enjoyment. This is why ultra-complex boardgames will always have only cult followings: the population of gamers with a taste for the peculiar twists and turns of ASL is inherently very small.

In addition, the appearance of “real-time” games has shown that gamers really want the “simultaneity” of the battlefield to appear in their computer constructions. Unfortunately, the best that boardgames can do is achieve a “faux simultaneity,” wherein a system which is not itself simultaneous in execution gives the “impression” of being more than just another variation of “I go/you go.” Great Battles of Alexander is a great example of this, where players are never sure if it will be one of their leaders who gets the next phase, or the opponent’s. The problem with systems like this is that too many “interaction” points destroy the suitability of the game for PBEM, which is a mode of play favored by many gamers who lack the time or ability to play networked games. Ideally, a player should have lots of things to do in a PBEM turn, or the return on time investment just won’t seem worth it. After all, one has to download the turn, possibly unzip it, start the game program, and load the move for each turn. If there isn’t much to do, more time can be spent “preparing” to play the game than actually playing it.

Occasionally, one will see a release which is little more than a board wargame designed and produced on the computer. SSG’s wonderful Decisive Battles of WWII: The Ardennes Offensive fits squarely into this category. (Incidentally, I wish someone over at SSG had simply paid 3W whatever it would have cost to get the rights to the name The Last Blitzkrieg, as the game was originally titled, since the boardgame with that name is pretty flawed and not really worth preserving.) While the computer interface allows for things like the fog of war and easy calculation of movement points according to an “operations points” system, the whole thing is really nothing more than a “computer boardgame” of the Bulge based on tried and true boardgame concepts. Nothing in the movement or combat system is strikingly new, and the combat results table is straight out of the SPI step-loss/retreat school of design, such as one might have seen in Wacht Am Rhein way back in 1977. Nevertheless, the game is probably the closest thing I have ever seen to the ideal that I had in my head fifteen or twenty years ago when I was playing Nukewar on my TRS-80 and imagining what it would be like to have a real board wargamegame on the computer.

Computer War in Europe is the best example of a game which has been ported to the computer almost unchanged in any fundamental respect. Furthermore, the game retains the “feel” of its board counterpart, as dice are rolled and a CRT can even be displayed for the player before he decides whether or not to attack. In keeping with the enormous size of the game, the rules set is rather lengthy. However, the game mechanics are not actually that complicated, and for this reason players can act as though they really are playing the board version, only on a much more convenient medium. CWIE is an example of a “convenience conversion.” However, because it contains none of the innovations made possible by computers (especially the lack of any AI), it can’t hope to please computer gamers who are looking for something within the computer paradigm. In short, it has no chance on its own, and can only cater to those who had played the board version and who approach the computer edition with a mindset that reflects boardgaming conventions.
One thing I haven’t mentioned is the ability to improve a boardgame very simply by adding more “realism” in the form of a “fog of war” model. I haven’t addressed this here because a well-balanced boardgame can be thrown completely out of balance through the injudicious imposition of information limits such as fog of war would dictate. This is obviously one of the most frequent criticisms of board wargames: they give the players too much information about enemy units. However, I haven’t gone into that argument because I don’t think it bears on the considerations described above. Perhaps I’ll comment on fog of war in a future article.

Computer wargames and board wargames, then, are designed according to radically different criteria. This does not mean that there aren’t things about good game design that are common to both types, but it means that in order to take advantages of the things that are peculiar to each medium, computer games and wargames must emphasize different things. The problem is that often this emphasis runs completely in the face of the strengths of the other medium.

An excellent example of good boardgame design is the “impulse-based” game system that Courtney Allen pioneered at Avalon Hill with Storm Over Arnhem and Thunder at Cassino, and which Don Greenwood continued and refined in Turning Point: Stalingrad and Breakout: Normandy. The basis of the game was an area-movement system in which players alternated “impulses” that consisted of moving and attacking with some or all of the units in a given Area. (Among other things, this was an attempt at achieving “faux simultaneity,” as defined above.) The mechanics were very simple, but the games were generally great (although Storm Over Arnhem suffered from a static historical situation). What made this so?
This system follows some rules which makes it extremely enjoyable. It is highly interactive, in that every action by a player requires his opponent’s input, if only to roll dice. Each impulse is short enough that players don’t get bored waiting for their opponents to finish their moves. (As opposed to, “OK, let’s get together on Saturday. I should be able to finish moving Army Group South in one day.”) However, the games are anything but trivial. Turning Point: Stalingrad (and its successor game in the system, Breakout: Normandy) boast a tremendous depth of gameplay because of the player being in a constant state of needing to do more than he can. Games are incredibly tense affairs because each move has implications for the overall situation on the board. An impulse can only be spent to activate one Area, but a player will literally have dozens of moves he will want to make, so he will have to choose carefully and decide exactly what he wants to accomplish. Executing a sound strategy involves the use of many impulses, so he will have to evaluate not only his possible moves, but the moves his opponent could make which could make life difficult. Both players will be parrying and thrusting with each move. One word describes the gameplay: superb.

In addition, the game is based on very simple mechanics which can be picked up in, at most, half an hour of instruction (probably less). Once learned, the rules are extremely easy to implement, and the combat system requires nothing more than the comparison of two numbers. Players spend their time evaluating moves rather than trying to remember if a given action is legal.

At this point, you may assume that Hasbro will be releasing a computer version of this game at the earliest opportunity in order to capitalize on a system which provides such rewarding gameplay. Several readers have commented to me that they could think of nothing better to release for the computer than TP:S. Unfortunately, I’m here to tell you that such a release would undoubtedly sink like a stone. Why? Because the two strengths of boardgames on which this design capitalizes are the ones which turn into liabilities in the computer arena.

First of all, simple mechanics are death to a computer game. I have been arguing for some time that computer wargames need to return to their roots in terms of simpler mechanics, but this is apparently not what most gamers want. In fact, it seems that most gamers want a game’s mechanics to be as complex as possible. They just don’t want to have to worry about it. If the computer can use an algorithm to keep track of every gallon of fuel, then it should, but the gamer should be spared the knowledge of how this works, and only be told when his panzers’ fuel gauges are getting dangerously close to “Empty.”

I’m not going to reiterate why I don’t necessarily agree with the above; I have already covered that territory. What I don’t think I have to argue is the fact that because gamers have such a desire for computer-handled mechanics, they see simplicity as a design cop-out. Wooden Ships & Iron Men is one of the best examples of this that I can think of. While the original boardgame is a favorite of boardgamers everywhere due to its elegant design, reaction to the computer version was typified by that of our own reviewer, Craig Strachan, who essentially said, “that’s all there is to it?” Never mind that the computer was actually slightly more complex than the boardgame had been. The fact was that once the computer started taking care of the details, many of the decisions a player had to make disappeared. For example, the game doesn’t even reveal the combat table used to resolve gunfire. So whereas boardgame players had to make some calculations just to see what happened with their broadsides, a computer gamer just clicked on the gunnery parameters and the computer took care of the rest. What was left didn’t seem to be all that substantial. What players fail to realize is that once they stop internalizing a game’s mechanics, they subconsciously stop making a lot of other decisions.

Imagine what would happen with a hypothetical Computer Turning Point: Stalingrad. The game mechanics, while at a comfortable level of detail for people who have to commit them to memory in order to play the game, are absolutely trivial for a computer. For example, combat consists of the attacker and defender taking, respectively, their single highest Attack or Defense Strength present in the Area under attack, and adding a variety of simple modifiers. These numbers (Attack Value for the attacker, Defense Value for the defender) are added to a roll of two dice. The numbers are then compared, and if the attacker’s final AV is greater than the final DV, the difference is taken by the defender in “Casualty Points.” Units can be eliminated, or “Disrupted” for a variable number of turns (not just impulses) which makes them unusable except for (reduced) defense. That’s all. No “58% effective” rating with different values for anti-armor, anti-aircraft, and anti-personnel effectiveness.

The great thing about this for boardgamers is that a player can quickly calculate his relative chance is of taking or defending a certain Area. The terrible thing about this for computer gamers is that while they can make quick calculations regarding various moves, there isn’t some incredibly detailed formula that takes into account all of the underlying factors in the combat. Gamers expect an invisible, more detailed level of abstraction beneath the visible abstraction in their games. Because of this, they often discount the first abstraction level. What am I talking about? To put it succinctly, most players in computer games don’t “count hexes” even if they have the ability to do so. They just move their units to what seem like reasonable positions, attack, and see what happens. Very few people playing the Battleground series look at the combat tables when planning their attacks. They don’t do so because they don’t need to: the computer is going to calculate everything as soon as they hit the “Fire” button. The fact that they could probably get better results if they did doesn’t bother them: they’re playing the game differently than they would if they were actually picking up and moving counters, with nothing to stop them from exceeding a unit’s movement allowance besides their knowledge of the rules.

Many readers are thinking to themselves at this point, “Well, a battlefield commander doesn’t have the option of ‘counting fire factors,’ so I shouldn’t, either,” but this misses my point. I’m not interested in debating whether this is “good” or “bad,” since this has been done elsewhere. The point is simply that because of this tendency of people to ignore information in computer games, games which are simple enough to allow the gamer to make easy calculations like the ones above end up seeming shallow because most people just don’t make them.

This phenomenon isn’t restricted to wargames. One of my friends is particularly good at Heroes of Might & Magic II, which I will freely admit is one of my favorite computer games of all time. He is especially good at the tactical battles, where he always seems to get just a bit more out of his units than his opponent. He does this by carefully assessing the probabilities of each attack and judiciously casting spells so that they give him the maximum benefit. He can tell you exactly what the expected hits are for a given attack he is going to make. This, of course, requires him to memorize the combat algorithm (which is freely explained in the manual) and to do calculations in his head when he fights such battles. I would say that this puts him in a small minority of HoMM2 players. Why? Because even though people have access to the mechanics of the game engine, they see a computer game as “freeing” them from the need to worry about it. So they simply internalize some qualitative understanding of the game and have fun without worrying about whether they could have gotten n % more hits had they done some math.

Once again, I am not denigrating people who play this way. My only point is that once people stop memorizing the game mechanics, they stop using them in the same way they would in a boardgame. Consequently, games which stop at too low an initial level of abstraction end up giving the gamer too little to look at. If Turning Point: Stalingrad were ever made into a computer game, the system would immediately be criticized for not allowing units to take partial losses, or for keeping track of unit fatigue, or for not having more weapon differentiation, or whatever other level of detail players wanted to see. Of course, instituting such changes would utterly destroy the game system because it is based precisely on the notion that it should be simple enough for players to make accurate calculations of their chances for success. Because most players will ignore these calculations, nothing will be left for them to do unless the game is made more detailed. If more detail is added, the original premise is destroyed. The two are incompatible.

The above argument ignores an entire category of gamers: those who want direct boardgame ports for the simple reason that they need a computer opponent to make up for the fact that they don’t have any human opponents to play the boardgame with. This is not an insignificant group of people, but it pales in comparison with the number of people I described above. And the number of people in the smaller category is not increasing, for the simple reason that, given the choice between a computer game requiring a detailed knowledge of game mechanics and one which doesn’t, people will most often go for the latter.

In addition to the boardgamers out there who lack face-to-face opponents, there are plenty of people who don’t have any opponents for any kind of game, be it board or computer. For these people, the game mechanics take second place to the quality of the AI. Since game AI is generally abysmal, game players who fall into this category end up being disappointed in one game after another. I hear this quite often, and I can only say that I would have been far more sympathetic to this complaint a couple of years ago than I am now, for the simple reason that multiplayer gaming over the Internet has just exploded over the past two years. I was once quite envious of the Quake community and its virtually unlimited pool of potential opponents, but with the proliferation of wargaming sites on the Web I’m now finding no shortage of PBEM on TCP/IP opponents for all sorts of games. Of course, the best games are with your friends, and thanks to the Net, I can play with anyone I choose to. In fact, Net play (both live and PBEM) has radically changed my view of AI in games, for the simple reason that I am playing less and less against the computer these days. For example, SSG’s excellent Warlords III: Darklords Rising, which has become sort of a favorite among my GDR Strategy colleagues, has gone from a solo-only game on my hard drive to a PBEM/live-only game in the space of a month. Why? Because once I got a taste of how good the game was against a real opponent, the solo game lost its lustre, even though the game supposedly has fairly good AI. I haven’t played a single game of solo Warlords III since I started my first PBEM game. Which, oddly enough, leads me to my last point.

Multiplayer capability is the one enormous strength of boardgames that is not diametrically opposed to the strengths of computer games. Computers allow for two or more people to play easily (assuming the game is stable) for as long as they want over the Internet without having to get everyone into a single room to look at a board. Games can be easily saved without having to record every unit’s position, and can be re-loaded for an hour’s play some evening when both players are available. Can’t spend all weekend trying to finish a Three Days of Gettysburg scenario? Start one via TCP/IP, play for a couple hours, save it, and re-load it when it’s convenient.

This kind of game would appeal to those gamers who aren’t bothered by the need to utilize the game mechanics in order to play the game to its potential. A conversion of this sort would be a “convenience” conversion, since the point would be to eliminate physical concerns such as game space and ease of setup/storage rather than to improve the gameplay. In fact, trying to “improve” the gameplay of a boardgame through a conversion would be a mistake, since the gameplay issues involved are completely different. This is the whole point of the preceding discussion. The problem is that (1) the potential market for a conversion of this sort is simply a subset of the (small) number of people who own the original boardgame, and; (2) people might not be willing to pay a high enough price for such a product (which would, after all, simply be an electronic duplicate of something they already own) to turn a profit for the publisher.

There is one type of boardgame, though, that I think could benefit tremendously from conversion to computer format, and that is the large, multiplayer “non-wargame” which is nevertheless not a beer-and-pretzels game, either. I’m talking about games like Age of Renaissance, Advanced Civilization, and Titan, which take a long time to play to completion but are not inherently terribly complicated. I feel that Avalon Hill flubbed the Advanced Civilization port because it did not have any TCP/IP capability. PBEM is not really an option for games like this because of the constant interaction between players. An improved effort for Age of Renaissance by now-owners Hasbro, if it featured the beautiful graphics of Axis & Allies and a robust multiplayer mode, could be a killer product. Titan is a game that might be even more suited to computer enhancement, especially since its “monster slugathon” subject matter could be greatly enlivened by some 3D graphics. Conversely, the real failing of Third Reich PC was not its AI, which I don’t care about, but its indifferent PBEM function. Once game companies start focusing on providing full multiplayer capability in wargames that is geared toward the type of play best suited to the game (PBEM or live), wargamers will be better able to overlook poor AI, which is the most complained about but least remedied feature in games today.

A vehicle that provided me with the ability to play these fantastic boardgames over the Net on a stable platform, or over a LAN (or with PBEM features like full replay in the case of PBEM-able games), with professional graphics, would be worth at least the price of the original (to me). I have a strong feeling that many people feel the same way. The fact that people out there are writing their own Net-play utilities for popular boardgames (a very nice one exists for the German classic Settlers of Catan, not to mention VASL) means that people are willing to go to great lengths to find opponents via the Internet. The question is whether something like this is worth $45 when it really adds nothing except multiplayer Internet capability. My feeling on this is a definite “yes.” Many of these multiplayer games are so stellar (such as 1830, another example of something crying out for TCP/IP play) that they could garner a serious look from people who haven’t seen the original. The designs are that good.

The reason for this is that even though these games are relatively simple mechanically, this doesn’t show up as a drawback when playing games against several other human opponents. I think this is because people play differently when playing against the AI than when playing other people. Against a faceless AI, players are somehow seeking that “immersion” experience where they’re putting themselves in the place of the historical commanders. When you get a bunch of people together for multiplayer Warlords III, though, players are interested in … well … beating the other players. Consequently, they’re not much amused when some little-explained rule foils their carefully considered strategy and hands their friends bragging rights. I think multiplayer games with relatively simple mechanics can be successful because players will naturally revert back to the “do the calculations, count the hexes” model, even if on a computer, in order to get an edge on their opponents. Their approach just changes when compared to how they play against the AI. Also, multiplayer games such as these which require player-to-player negotiation add another level of involvement not present against the computer.

What this whole discussion amounts to is that the ultimate irony of boardgame conversions lies in the fact that while computers can easily solve most of the most nagging problems of board wargames, converting games is a losing proposition because once they make the shift to the digital medium, they become something else entirely, even if not one single rules subcase has been altered. To illustrate my point, I recently received my copy of GMT Games’ latest installment in their Eastern Front series, Barbarossa: Army Group Center. Clocking in at $65 (although by pre-ordering through their “Project 500” I was able to get it for $45, which is about the cost of a new computer release), the game will eventually be linkable with the already-released Barbarossa: Army Group South and the still-on-the-drawing-board Barbarossa: Army Group North to make a huge regimental/divisional-scale game of the Eastern Front on the scale of GDW’s old Fire in the East, only with the benefit of Vance von Borries’ exceptional operational-level game system which is greatly superior to the aging Europa engine. Unfortunately, such a linked game would be far too large and unwieldy for any gaming table to which I have access, and would require much too much time, which is something I find more and more scarce. Of course, transferring the system to the computer, without alteration, would solve both of those problems. Sadly, it will never happen, for the reasons described above. (Although a beautiful Aide de Camp 2 gameset, done by Benoit Larose, is available for Barbarossa: Army Group South for those who wish to PBEM this great game.)

Kevin Zucker, noted designer and head honcho of the resurrected Operational Studies Group, made a comment to me at this year’s Origins convention which, although simple enough, made quite an impression. As he was handing me my just-purchased copy of his new 1806 game, he said, “Make sure you play this.” It was a straightforward enough statement, but it gave me a little bit of a jolt in that I suddenly realized that although I would love to play the game extensively, I really wouldn’t feel that my money had been ill-spent if I were only able to read the rules, set up the game, and admire its research and design. Isn’t that sort of sad? Buying a game with the realization that it might very well never be played? Spurred by Kevin’s comment, I made sure to spend one weekend this past summer engrossed in a pair of games of this wonderful product. Playing the game itself, against my friend and aforementioned Heroes of Might & Magic II aficionado who always carefully counts his combat odds before clicking anything, reminded me that I’m perfectly satisfied with the compromises boardgames make in order to remain playable. It’s not more realism or detail that I’m looking for: I’m much more interested in trying to use every inch of the game system to out-think my opponent, and I carefully counted hexes in 1806 and sent out “dummy” stacks in order to confuse him. Wouldn’t I much prefer some more complex system where the computer dealt with it all for me, leaving me to “command?” No, thanks. Unfortunately, once you put a game on the computer, it’s considered a failure unless it forces you into exactly that situation. What a horrible shame.


One Response to “The contradiction of computer boardgames”

  1. I honestly don’t know how I ended up at this website, reading this article (nearly twenty years after it was originally posted!), but I’m so glad I did. This is one of the most insightful pieces of writing I’ve read in quite a while (and though I have very little interest in wargaming, I’m tempted to read more from this author).

    I find the conflict described by the author between the “dumbing down” – relinquishing responsibility to a calculator – and thinking for oneself – and plotting one’s own course to victory is a fascinating one that I have read little of before.

    Posted by A Palmer | January 18, 2017, 12:28 pm

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