“Is anyone in the tabletop space writing critical analysis or is everything still a buying guide?”
That question popped up in my Twitter feed* just as I was trying to write an introduction to this latest video. And it’s the same question I asked myself when I first started doing videos.
Ever since Internet video became widely available and then affordably producible, I’ve been excited about the possibilities for expanding the discussion about not just boardgames in general, but wargames in particular. However, the overwhelming majority of the videos I’ve seen have been of the “check out this game” variety, with stream-of-consciousness talk accompanied by unedited camera work, or the mystifying (to me) “unboxing video,” and even the well-produced game videos have been firmly in the review genre (with the “review” part being a brief, “I really liked the epic feel” comment after a clinical description of the game mechanics). And I found this tremendously disappointing.
Boardgames, and especially wargames, don’t lend themselves to easy analysis, almost entirely for the reason that in order to have any intelligent comments to make, you really have to play them. Which isn’t any different from a video game. But unless the game is specifically designed as a solitaire game, I feel you really have to play them against someone else. That takes a lot more time than just sitting down at the computer and playing 60 consecutive hours of Bloodborne. This disrupts the traditional flow of game information because as quickly as we move on from one game to the next, really sitting down to play and appreciate a game takes longer than the particular window of attention a game might be afforded by the public before it moves on to something else. So you’re stuck making videos in the short time those videos are relevant to much of your intended audience. And that leaves you with just about enough time to describe how the game works, and whether you like the idea of how it works. Balance? Please.
I did some written game analyses a few years ago in which I tried to incorporate gameplay with historical and systems analysis, but always butted up against the fact that they lacked the “how it really is-edness” that can only come from playing the game, or at least seeing it played. That’s the missing element I was hoping video could provide. So I decided to make my own videos. And I quickly found out just how hard this is to do, and gained a new appreciation for those who are able to produce videos of any sort and get them posted for other people’s enjoyment.
If you’ve watched any of my previous videos, you’ll know that my primary goal is to look at game design through the lens of history. And when it comes to the history of the ancient world, I don’t personally know anyone who is more knowledgeable than my longtime friend and colleague Troy Goodfellow of Flash of Steel and Three Moves Ahead. Troy and I talked last year about a way we could collaborate on a project about ancient warfare, and came up with the idea of looking at how different ancient battles are portrayed in wargames. We started out with a list of Marathon, Gaugamela, and Pharsalus. Troy wrote up a great framework to start from.
Marathon (490 BCE, Athens vs Persia): The Problem of Information
A small Persian force lands on the beach of Marathon, northeast of Athens. Pleas for assistance from Sparta fall on deaf ears and the Athenian citizen hoplites must march out to face a larger force. The Greek victory is seen variously as a triumph of citizen armies over levies, Western democracy over Eastern despotism, and heavy organized infantry over mass untrained missile armies.
The battle is best known from the account of Herodotus, but his description doesn’t make a lot of a sense. Could hoplites really charge downhill for a mile? Where were the Persian horses he describes as being near the battle, but not in the battle? – this was a decisive weapon for the Persian military. Historians and game designers have to wrestle with what they know about Marathon, the physical and tactical limitations of ancient armies.
Gaugamela (331 BCE, Macedon vs Persia): The Problem of Command
After routing one army at Granicus and destroying another at Issus, Alexander the Great faces his third and largest Persian army at Gaugamela, a plain that King Darius III had ordered flattened so he could stretch out a long and deep line of soldiers, allegedly numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Alexander’s cavalry charge on the right wing shatters the Persian left, but a lagging Macedonian phalanx opens a gap in his lines that the Persians take advantage of, threatening his camp. Awareness of this problem on a distant wing and his rapid response to it secures not just a decisive victory, but the end of the Achaemenid empire.
So how did Alexander know what was happening? Why were the Persians so unable to simply overwhelm the Macedonians with huge odds? How do game designers cope with the widely varying numbers of the Persian force and how do choices about command and frontage systems dictate the “proper” size of the Persian foe?
Pharsalus (48 BCE. Caesar’s Rebels vs Pompey’s Loyalists): The Problem of History
In a first hand demonstration of why generals should never let the Senate travel with them, Pompey the Great is goaded into fighting a battle he can easily avoid. Preferring to starve a Caesarian army that he can easily deprive of forage with his cavalry superiority, the Roman Senate pushes for a quicker resolution, thinking that if Caesar is truly done for, best to finish him before he can get reinforcements from Italy. Pompey gambles everything on a solid strategy of placing all of his cavalry on one wing, which will then sweep around and overwhelm the outnumbered Caesarian legions. Pompey needs to avoid his own infantry coming to blows, since he knows his raw Syrian and Greek recruits have little change, no matter their number. Caesar hides a few cohort of elite troops behind his own cavalry where they surprise the advancing Pompeyan horse and drive it from the field. Caesar’s army charges and the Senatorial force is routed.
The problem for game designers is that both sides already know the Caesarian infantry is there. This tactic worked because it was a surprise. Also, Pompey refused to let his infantry charge the Caesarian infantry – losing any momentum. Models of this battle have to either overrate the Caesarian skill level to give them a chance against an unsurprised, aggressive Pompey or accept that Caesar was simply lucky to get away with fooling one of the greatest soldiers of his age.
In response, I came up with the following list of games:
SPI’s Phalanx (1971): includes Marathon and Arbela** scenarios
AH’s Alexander (1974): Arbela
GDW’s Pharsalus: Clash of Legions (1977)
GMT’s Great Battles of Alexander (1991): Marathon and Arbela scenarios (from the Deluxe version 2015 reprint)
Decision Games’ Four Battles of the Ancient World (1992): Arbela and Pharsalus are two of the four (same system used below in S&T’s Marathon)
GMT’s Great Battles of Caesar (1994): Pharsalus scenario
Decision Games’ Battles of the Ancient World: Marathon and Granicus (2003) [magazine game from Strategy & Tactics – uses Battles of the Ancient World system]
GMT’s Command & Conquer series: whatever this has for scenarios
We decided to play them against each other and discuss them, and make a video out of it. Troy would come to visit for a few days, and we’d immerse ourselves in wargaming.
He did, and we did, and we quickly realized we had no chance of playing 15 games of anything, or even learning all the rules. We regrouped, and chose Gaugamela as the most important battle with the most varied game list, and narrowed the list to five different games.
And then we played them all. It took five days.
Afterward, I was left with a ton of video and audio, and a long editing job. This is the first video in that series. There will be four more, for which all the video has been shot, and is sitting on my hard drive, waiting for Premiere-ification. But more than anything, this is the next step in how I envision video game design discussion developing. I’m lucky that in this project I have as erudite a partner as I could hope for, who also has a deep love for and knowledge of gaming. I’d like to take this kind of discussion further, and get the designers themselves involved. Technology has opened the door to a new critical discussion of wargames, and I’m eager to participate.
*credit to @andrewdoull