Area versus Hexagon Based Wargame Maps and Systems

Recently I got involved in a discussion between SPI's BATTLE FOR STALINGRAD by John Hill and AH's TURNING POINT: STALINGRAD by Don Greenwood. I was a playtester for the latter and can be fairly accused of bias, but I really did prefer that game to Hill's effort for SPI. That said, I was also involved in L2's 3d Edition of STREETS OF STALINGRAD, so I hope nobody will accuse me of being overly sold on area map/movement games.

But in the course of the discussion, I was asked about the pros and cons of area versus hex-based maps and movement/combat systems. So here's my take on that, for what it's worth.

First of all, I have to admit a bias against area movement games as a general concept. I have no rational basis for that, however. It's just that I always liked the fidelity of hex-based maps and movement/combat systems. Sure, I played RISK and DIPLOMACY; areas seemed fine for those games given their strategic focus. But for operational and especially tactical level games, I preferred hexes. Even squares in certain circumstances.

So when I was asked to playtest TURNING POINT: STALINGRAD, I was basically predisposed against it. I'd played SPI's BATTLE FOR STALINGRAD and the older version of STREETS OF STALINGRAD and didn't think I'd go for it.

But once I started getting into the game, I lost sight of my bias against area treatments. The game seemed to reflect so well the psychological perspectives of both combatants, better than any hex-based game I'd so far played. So I was sold. I've since lost my bias against area treatments.

It's worth trying to articulate why that is. I think strategic treatments are the easiest to defend, given the scale of these games. You don't need a lot of operational-level campaigning decisions regarding force allocation. So, given the choice between EUROPE: ENGULFED/ASIA: ENGULFED and Avalanche Press's JOHN PRADOS' THIRD REICH/GREAT PACIFIC WAR, I will naturally gravitate towards the former over the latter. Maybe this comes from too many playings of AH's EMPIRE IN ARMS on the Napoleonic Wars. I don't know. All I will say is that given the scale of the simulation at the strategic level, area treatments work well.

At the operational level, things start to get trickier. Certainly there are good area-based/point-to-point based treatments that seem to work. But I must admit I tend to play these games as an exception rather than the rule. There has to be something that makes such games better than their hexagon map counterparts. And there aren't many games that can lay claim to this, in my opinion. MONTY'S GAMBLE is one such game. It seems to work better than any hexagon-based game of comparable size for this particular operation. And I'd say the same thing about TURNING POINT: STALINGRAD and BEYOND NORMANDY. This approach has attracted interest in their "improved" efforts by MMP, STORM OVER STALINGRAD and STORM OVER NORMANDY.

What makes this work for me at the tactical level is that you aren't confined by the hexgrid to show how terrain operates at the tactical level. Certain tactical areas can be made to dominate merely by how adjacent areas are positioned next to them. Some are key terrain because they have a lot of areas that connect to them; others are more defensible because they have so few. While I wouldn't advocate this approach for every game, it's worth considering as a designer and as a player. In some cases, it works far better than a hex grid or square grid.....

But I realize this is all a matter of taste. So I won't claim the superiority of one system over another. All I will say is that I'm open to whatever design approach seems to capture the essence of the situation--and I've found some area games that do that better than their hex-based brethren.

It's worth asking why this is. For me, the successful designs focus on the essence of campaigning--why, where, and when should I fight and why, where, and when should I not fight. I don't get lost in tactical minutae. It just seems to work for me given the level of command the player is asked to perform. For those who like to jump between levels of command--operational to tactical--it's not going to be satisfying.

Tactical treatments are perhaps the hardest for me, but interestingly enough, we see a lot of area games here. From STORM OVER ARNHEM, THUNDER AT CASSINO (AH) to Spearhead's BLOODIEST DAY and THEY MET AT GETTYSBURG, there's been a good bit of area games on tactical battles. This idea has been catching on as MMP is putting a lot of effort into such type games with their STORM OVER DIEN BIEN PHU and KAWAGUCHI'S GAMBLE: EDSON'S RIDGE area games.

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Comment by Arrigo Velicogna on October 19, 2010 at 9:55am
good balanced take,

I would add that sometime the area approach allow yout to tie the grid to the terrain, in some situations it works much better, especially if you are clever in designing areas. Eagles of the empire was a good example, with the areas following countours of the terrain and forcing you to adapt to the lay of the land. On the other side sometime the designer intend the area grid simply has a grid and you got something more akin to giant hexes/square. Another good example is Thunder at Cassino, having been on the battlefield a couple of time I would say that the map is very good at forcing you to understand the lay of the land and to appreciate the topography.
Comment by brian s. b. on October 18, 2010 at 5:10pm
based on what you said i may give turning point stalingrad a try- in the last year i realized a lot that i took for granted is, well wrong. lol i'm a ww2 freak but i'm better at napoleonic games(my strength's are maneuverability and speed ( i think this is due to 30 yrs of playing chess) also i love panzerlitz/squad leader/tobruk but i'm terrible at tactical games lol and strategic games (except for risk) are not my forte either. i love ww2 tactical or barbarossa size games-i'm best at napoleonic operational games! huh..(?) so now i;m interested in ww2 operational level games-see if i can make a mark there. thanks for your input eric!
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on October 18, 2010 at 3:47pm
Excellent post, Eric. My personal view is that that, in the end, they really are quite the same. I see all games as area-oriented; the big difference is that hexes make the areas nearly identical in size and dimension. I saw nearly because everyone who's designed a game has to gerrymander terrain to fit the hexes, so some map distortion is inevitable.
Comment by Roger Morley on October 18, 2010 at 9:03am
Thanks for this, Eric. As always a good objective view, and I guess it is a matter of taste and also whether area movement works for 'a' particular game.
I will have to just dive in and try one and see how I get on with it.
Comment by Stephen G on October 18, 2010 at 6:42am
Battle for Stalingrad by John Hill is one that I am very keen to try...took forever to track down a copy.

As you say, area vs hex is a matter of taste...but for some games the area treatment seems to work well. Rather than having acres of hexes, which in the course of a game never get traversed, far better to use an area treatment and have a smaller and more focussed map, particuarly in these days when space and ability to leave monster games set up for months is a distant memory

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