What Grognards Grumble About In Their Games--And How It Changes Over Time

Reposted from Board Game Geek here.

Everybody has their pet peeves about what they don't like in games, even some of their favorite ones. I always find it interesting to listen to, especially when I don't know or am not familiar with the wargame in question as I'm a bit more free of my own personal biases. This is more than the usual AH versus SPI or playability versus realism versus complexity type debates and arguments. No, I'm talking about what we consider to be important in our games and why. 

I think a lot depends on what kind of gamer you are. I'm a historian-gamer first and foremost, so those considerations tend to rise to the top for me. Sure, I am a social gamer at times and there days long ago when I was more of a competitor than I am now (playtesting sure changed me regarding that).

But I reflect back on the kinds of complaints about games, variants we liked (or didn't), house rules and other "fixes" me and my friends went for, and it's interesting to see how this changed over time.

Here was my "grumbling" experience, arranged into sequential "phases"--other historian gamers might find something parallel or very different, and it would be cool if the competitive players and social gamers could devise their own like this.

THE HARDWARE PHASE: When I started playing MIDWAY, FAST CARRIERS, RICHTHOFEN'S WAR, and PANZERBLITZ, I naturally compared game performance of various major end items of equipment (e.g., battleships, planes, and tanks) to what I knew from reading popular and pulp histories. What drew the most criticisms were when we thought equipment silhouettes could have been drawn better or contained what we felt were inaccuracies, etc. When TOBRUK came out, we were simply dazzled and that game occupied our attention for quite some time. I laugh about this now. So fixated we were on the gadgets and toys and completely ignoring everything else. It was years before I realized my AH STALINGRAD game did not--I know, hold your breath--did NOT replicate the Russian Front in WW II very well. I think I must have been too busy researching late war anti-aircraft gun configurations on the Yamato and Musashi and wanting that reflected better in FAST CARRIERS.

THE FRICTION OF WAR PHASE: Game designers started to inject command and control aspects into their games and we'd moan about what didn't work all that well (e.g., those hated "panic" rules in SPI's TANK!, PANZER '44 and MECH WAR '77). And then there were those discussions about how much control we could or were willing to surrender. Made some of us crazy when playing campaign games of NAPOLEON'S LAST BATTLES when some of our pieces were beyond the command range of our leaders and thus were not in command and control (and suffered accordingly). A lot of us were doing our own tinkering with command and control rules, but we didn't generally know squat and so, in retrospect, some of our efforts were pretty funny. 

THE FOG OF WAR PHASE: One of the things I loved about MIDWAY and was glad to see in AH's 1914 and JUTLAND were the abilities to hide units. We'd wonder why more games didn't do that and would come up with double blind-game systems and umpired sessions to play with this. Some of these worked really well, many more did not. Games that had inverted counters or other devices to simulate limited intelligence got our attention (and applause). Some games got really good and sophisticated at this and reconnaissance actually meant something (NATO DIVISION COMMANDER and CITYFIGHT by SPI, AIR & ARMOR by West End). Some of us got entranced by the block games by Columbia Games for that very reason. 

THE LEADERSHIP PHASE: As soon as a game came out with leaders, it was only natural that grognards would obsess about them--were their ratings too high or too low, did they perform reasonably accurately in the games that used them, why did some sides in some games have them and other games did not (e.g., PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN), etc. Hours of arguing over leader capabilities as shown in the LA BATTAILLE series, in TERRIBLE SWIFT SWORD, and so on, coming up with rules and ratings more to our liking. Our games seemed to have LEADER in their title...SQUAD LEADER, FLIGHT LEADER, HORNET LEADER, TANK LEADER, etc. We loved the CIVIL WAR BRIGADE SERIES for their command system and watching some our pet personalities triumph or fail (often spectacularly).

THE LOGISTICS PHASE: Mercifully, this did not last long. We'd argue about how supply and other logistical functions operated in our games and--woe unto us--the designers listened. From the initial thrill at seeing a more detailed logistical system in WINTER STORM by Vanguard Games, it spiraled out of control to result in monstrosities like WAR IN THE PACIFIC and the unplayable CAMPAIGN FOR NORTH AFRICA. Well, we got what we asked for. Pretty soon, we were satisfied with toned down logistical subsystems such as seen in LONGEST DAY, GMT's EASTERN FRONT series...and even MMP's Operational Combat Series. But that's about as much detail as we can take!

THE JOINT WARFARE PHASE: As groundbreaking as PANZERBLITZ was for demonstrating combined arms warfare to board wargamers in a tactical setting (miniatures players had understood all this for a long time before this), Victory Games' GULF STRIKE did it for the operational level of war when it got published. There had been a number of efforts before this (BLITZKRIEG, THIRD REICH, EUROPA, etc), but here was a game that didn't give short shrift to anything. In fact, that title stunned us. Before that time, we wanted better portrayals of ground and air in our naval games, better air in our ground games, and operational level portrayals in our air games. After it, we were afraid of more to come because the system was so demanding.

THE PRODUCTION, RESEARCH AND DESIGN, DIPLOMACY, AND ALTERNATIVE HISTORY PHASE: This only happened in our strategic games--typically arising out of many playings of AH's THIRD REICH. We wanted more variety. German players wanted more fleets to invade England and didn't want the limitations in the Force Pool. How about mounting strategic bombing against Russia? All sorts of hypotheses and theories abounded, many fueled by our history (and alternative history) book reading. Designers rallied to the call. We soon got AH's ADVANCED THIRD REICH. WORLD IN FLAMES came out. KRIEG eventually led to TOTALER KRIEG. Bruce Harper carried his A3R modifications to their apogee in GMT's A WORLD AT WAR. Oh, we got exactly what we asked for--the ability to mess around with what countries built, what deals they could make with other countries, what technology the could pursue, and completely different historical possibilities. Oh boy. Yeah, we got that. 

THE "ELEGANCE" PHASE: Once we got everything we asked for in all these other phases, we simply got overloaded. Nobody had time for marathon sessions of WORLD IN FLAMES with SHIPS IN FLAMES, PLANES IN FLAMES, MECH IN FLAMES, and all those other modules. Our favorite monster games were admired, maybe a couple short scenarios played, but the campaign games weren't ever completed if they ever were even started. So, we began to groan and moan about achieving "design elegance" in our games so we could get historically "valid" insights for all these other phases at a far less cost in learning and playing time....

What stuff do you remember grumbling about? Why? Did your prayers get answered? Did that work?

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Comment by Eric Walters on January 11, 2011 at 9:42am

Russ, you remember the old RED STAR/WHITE STAR correctly.  Indeed it did have all those phases.  TOBRUK worked for us, although that game had so much wristage with all those damn die rolls.  It wasn't until SQUAD LEADER came out that I gave up on that game as "too much of a good thing."  Interesting, because TOBRUK was the ultimate "Hardware Phase" game for us.

There were a LOT of games that seemed okay when you read the rules and looked at the components but just didn't hang together well.  Lawrence, your observations of EPIC OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR are  spot on in that regard.  Some people even accuse ATHENS AND SPARTA of not really working either--at least, not representing that particular war all that well.  To me, both games--despite being on opposite ends of the complexity spectrum, fail due to "Elegance Phase" sensibilities. I think with more development, both games could succeed (of course, given the existence of HELLENES, I'd have to ask why make the effort with regard to ATHENS AND SPARTA).  

Comment by Lawrence Hung on January 11, 2011 at 12:23am

and even if the rules SEEMED ok, the game just didn't WORK as a game.


One example come to mind is CoA's Epic of the Peloponessain War...everything's fine on paper but when it was put to work, it falls through.


Comment by Russ Gifford on January 10, 2011 at 11:52pm

Perhaps in in with Joe's comment, I don't hear as much griping of 'this game doesn't work.' Seriously, sometimes the game got on the table, and even if the rules SEEMED ok, the game just didn't WORK as a game.


Was it the original Red Star White Star that had all those phases you had to work through, or am I thinking of something else? Scrimmage was NOT a game - even if you LIKED sports games, it was NOT a game - it was a short demo of... how a designer could go so far beyond useful that there was no reason to play. Tobruk was an ULITMATE example for me! We waited fo rthe game, and then got it... and spent days rolling dice to find out - 'oops - bogey wheel got hit.'


And thank you for the memory of the different colored inks coming back on the questions / letters. I used to enjoy the AH ones simply because you'd get all different takes from each person whose hands the letter passed through!


Comment by Brant Guillory on January 10, 2011 at 12:30pm
I think today I'm seeing a lot of grumbling about how designers aren't always answering questions to the satisfaction of the question-askers (regardless of whether they *should* be or not).  I think the internet has enabled such incredible access to people that at this point, everyone assumes that designers are always availalbe to always answer questions about everything that comes up.  And if they aren't, everyong grumbles that there's something wrong with the designer.
Comment by Joseph C. Beard III on January 9, 2011 at 9:02pm

Amazingly enough, years ago a game's designer and/or developer actually did methodically answer questions that had been mailed in by interested players.  I can remember one thirty-page batch of typewritten questions regarding DNO/UNT that we sent off to GDW.  It took a few weeks to get a response; but, when it finally came back,  every one of our questions had been answered.  Interestingly, the answers were written in several different hands and with several different colors of ink (did Frank Chadwick and John Astell take turns -- who knows?); nonetheless, the boys in Normal somehow found the time to plow their way through our entire list.

You are probably right, however, in that the 70s and 80s represented a very different, more insular period in gaming; on the plus side, though, I also think that there was a greater sense of shared community between gamers and designers than one usually sees today.  

Comment by Lawrence Hung on January 9, 2011 at 8:37pm

Of course, nowadays, rules questions and errata are both still with us, but because so many publishers now often produce multiple titles which use the same or a similar game platform, the problem seems less obvious than it was during the early days of the hobby.  


Probably more because of the internet age....people got quick fix more easily from the designer directly from email or websites than through postal mail.  In the old days, I couldn't imagine Mark Herman could answer Peloponessian War questions or Empire of the Sun or Richard Berg could reply to your questions.  Nowadays the wargaming community grow much closer. The amount of errata would be quickly known to others and people tend to move away from these games.  Perhaps this push the designer to think more comprehensively about their own design rules before publication.   

Comment by Lawrence Hung on January 9, 2011 at 8:31pm
"THE BEAUTY PHASE": When the age of PC wargaming come, boardwargaming was at the brink of annahilation.  No more crude 3W maps and counters could satisfy and catch the wargamers' eyeballs.  People demand for more graphics and colors from functional map to authenticity presentation; from advertorial box cover to computer-assisted drawing; from simple counters with 2 numbers to counters with information integrated or detailed tank profile.  We ask for them and companies like LnL, L2, LPS, Battles etc. come to them.         
Comment by Chris Gammon on January 8, 2011 at 3:12pm

I remember writing to AH after playing SL and watching an old war movie in which a single man accomplished super-human feats.  I asked if they would consisder some kind of SMC that could perform heroic feats.  We eventually ended up with Heroes, Tank-hunter heroes, and the like.  But I'm certain I'm not the initiator of this idea. 


However, while playtesting Paratrooper, one of my opponents kept generating three heroes per scenario.  He did this so often that I suggested AH add a third hero to the countermix, and that they did!

Comment by Chuang Shyue Chou on January 7, 2011 at 8:09pm
I just want to drop a note to tell you that I enjoyed reading your article.
Comment by Joseph C. Beard III on January 7, 2011 at 5:38pm
What?  No mention of the eternal bane of all gamers:  errata?  Although this problem is still with us today, I still occasionally think back to the "good old days" thirty + years ago, when -- as often as not -- what we players received for our money from the game publishers of the period (particularly the smaller, boutique houses) was really more of a clever "thought experiment" than it was a finished game.  I remember like it was yesterday, for example, I and my friends sending off thick envelopes full of type-written pages to GDW with rules questions about DNO/UNT or THEIR FINEST HOUR or THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY or TSUSHIMA and then all of us sitting by patiently until one of the boys in Normal finally summoned up the nerve to actually tackle all of our queries, even though he knew when he started to work his way through the reams of questions that we had mailed, that this would not be the last letter that he and his co-workers at GDW would receive with the dreaded "Portland, Ore." postmark.  Of course, nowadays, rules questions and errata are both still with us, but because so many publishers now often produce multiple titles which use the same or a similar game platform, the problem seems less obvious than it was during the early days of the hobby.  

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