What makes for "Realism" in board wargames? And why?

For me, so-called "realism" is defined purely by the psychological state of the player--how close is it to that of his historical counterpart? This means I tend to classify "design by effect" games in the realistic category just as much (if not more) than games that seek to explicitly model what actually happens. I am probably in the minority here, but that's just how I see it.

Tactical games are the hardest to be "realistic" in that sense, because it's that level that the smell of cordite and blood is the greatest and this is impossible to replicate in games. Not to say I don't enjoy tactical-level games. I do very much. But I don't kid myself--games like J.D. Webster's FIGHTING WINGS and AIRPOWER series--as seductive as they are with all their aircraft stats and cool game procedures--are really built for artificial drama and entertainment than for realism. Planes get shot down in those games. Planes don't get shot down so much in reality. The same goes for the squad-level games; they are basically cartoons. Extremely entertaining cartoons; I love playing ASL/ASLSK, ATS, COMBAT COMMANDER, and the LOCK 'N LOAD "Heroes" games as much as anybody, but I don't kid myself about how representative they are.

For me, the most realistic games start at the "grand-tactical" level and up. Typically games I think are the most realistic are at the operational and strategic levels. For "grand-tactical games, titles such as AH's old TURNING POINT: STALINGRAD was a favorite because both players felt very much like their Sixth Army (German) and 62nd Army (Soviet) counterparts when playing the game. But it was rare to find a grand-tactical game that did this so well. PANZER COMMAND and THE DEVIL'S CAULDRON are some of the rarities. MMP's/The Gamers' Tactical Combat Series comes close for some titles. But I tend to find the best games to be at the operation level when it comes to realism. There are too many titles to list, but I confess a bias for MMP/The Gamers' Operational Combat Series (OCS) and a number of Europa titles, to say nothing of GMT's Eastern Front Series, ROADS TO LENINGRAD, and others. Strategic games also do well, but they typically can't capture the dynamics all that well. First of all, multi-player games are better than those strategic games that aren't. I'd rather play GMT's NAPOLEONIC WARS or even AH's old EMPIRES IN ARMS than AH's WAR AND PEACE for that very reason.

What makes for realism in your games? What games do you consider more realistic?

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Comment by Eric Walters on November 2, 2009 at 5:35pm
Jim, I still remember with great fondness Charlie Sharp's article way back when in THE GENERAL magazine about the ultimate in realism--the game IT! As in, this is IT! Individual man-to-man combat--covering all of WW II. Had to buy a gymnasium with catwalks installed to play it. Yup, I'm with you on the level/scale of command aspect. As for the rest, I'm unabashedly into the role playing aspects. You get the command level right, the roleplaying aspect naturally follows.
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on November 2, 2009 at 3:39pm
For me, the basic question of "realism" is whether the player makes decisions roughly at the level of the historical figure whom he is simulating. If it's a grand strategic game he should be deciding things on a level, and commensurate with the duties of, a head of government or commander in chief. If it's a micro-tactical game, then he should feel like the stand-in for a lieutenant or a sergeant.

The rest of "realism" should support what I'll admit sounds like a roleplaying aspect of the game.
Comment by Gunnyhighway on October 31, 2009 at 10:14am
The concept of realism is based upon your personal experience combined to what you believe is realistic. What someone think is realistic actually talk about his/her experience in the real world combined to other factors that his/her imagines could be in comparaison to someone else's perception. Remember, the map is not the territory!

Does Guderian, Rommel, Napoleon, Patton, Clark, etc... would think that some of the games are realistic?...If so, to become a good Commander, all that would be required of you, would be to play very well certain games, yet it does not work that way. Some actual Commander MIGHT play well some games, to play well some games does not make you an actual Commander.

Some intellectual calculations and perceptions of signs on a map might certainly be similar to your reality. Moreover, some aspect of a game might feel realistic based on your experience of the Battlefield. So you need to be a commander to perceive some aspects as realistic because in reference to your own experience as a commander of troops.

In short, if you never palyed golf how can you say that a PC based golf game simulator is realistic?...It is only a theory of a representation of a certain reality, and this is your theory of what that the representation of that reality is!....Keeping in mind that your perception of the world is only your perception of it, it is not the world!
Comment by Dan Stueber on October 31, 2009 at 12:11am
I think the only way to have a realistic wargame is to have some sort of Chain of Command involving several people controlling different parts of the game. Say a division commander would have his S-1, S-2, etc sections and his various brigade commanders. However they would all be in different rooms and would receive orders through various ways. As the division commander you may need a certain artillery unit to get to point A but it doesn't get there for several hours, which causes brigade B to delay its attack; causing friction all down the line.

This is something that can't be done very well due to how many people you would need to play, size of the game etc. But it would definately simulate the friction and realism of war.

OCS is a great game system, but it takes an eternity to play. I don't have that kind of time anymore. I enjoy games that have fairly simple rules but numerous strategic and operational choices. The Struggle for Europe is good for this. Simple rules, numerous choices, easy to digest.
Comment by John Kantor on October 30, 2009 at 6:16pm
I also agree with Jon. Wargames give a specific perspective on warfare no matter what the scale. That's why it's interesting to play different games on the same situation.

But some things have traditionally been left out of or glossed over in wargames - most obviously supply. After playing OCS I can no longer bring myself to play operational games that don't model supply (or command) in a significant way.
Comment by Jon Compton on October 30, 2009 at 11:22am
Interesting. The whole realism debate has always been a bit of a mystery to me. There's nothing really "realistic" about any of these games. I suppose your spin on it is as useful as any, but the truth is that these are competitive experiences under similar constraints as some historical counterpart. The realism, I suppose, is in those constraints. But what we're trying to capture is, in my opinion, some framework to understand why decisions were made the way that they were, and to have some framework for experimenting with other possibilities. But wargaming certainly means different things to different people. It'll be interesting to see what responses you get on this.

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