Card Driven Games and Block Games--"History Lite" Run Amok?

I've seen a recurring thread in some postings, both here and elsewhere, over the years about how wargaming seems to be migrating further and further towards these kinds of games.  I can't recall where I first read it, but some grognard appended the label of "history lite" to these designs.  Is it an accurate appellation?  

I like a lot of these kinds of games, but then again I don't expect the same depth of insight from them as I do games using more traditional design methods.  But occasionally I am surprised by something.  WILDERNESS WAR was perhaps my first "wake up call" regarding what CDGs could accomplish--it remains the best CDG I've experienced in terms of creating such fidelity to what I'd read about in history.  TRIUMPH OF CHAOS is another--if you can handle the complexity and resultant immersive richness of that playing experience.   

Regarding the block games, ROMMEL IN THE DESERT seemed to replicate the North Africa experience better than the more "hard-core" titles I'd played at that time.  Many die-hard Russian Front players will say similar things about EAST FRONT/EAST FRONT II.

Now, there's no argument that certain "History Lite" games are meant to be fun and competitive games and you don't hear much argument about "realism."  I have yet to run across a die-hard PATHS OF GLORY player or even FOR THE PEOPLE addict who is insistent that these are the most realistic strategic games on their subject.  No, what attracts players to the games is the narrative experience and high levels of tension and uncertainty when playing the game.  These games are exciting.  People who have been playing HAMMER OF THE SCOTS, RICHARD III, and now JULIUS CAESAR all say the same things.  So there's little argument there.


But are there block games and CDGs that seem to do a better job in providing deep historical insight into their subjects than their hex and counter/traditional design brethren?  Which ones are they?  Why is this the case?


My own hypothesis is that the "deep historical insights" aren't in the details of the game pieces, tables, or mechanics--it's more in replicating the psychology of the opposing commanders regarding the dynamics/problems of the situation being gamed (vice "simulated").  I think that is why I am so taken with WILDERNESS WAR, TRIUMPH OF CHAOS, ROMMEL IN THE DESERT, etc.  It's not that I'm getting a lot of information regarding the weapons, organizations, or logistics of the belligerents.  It's that I very much feel I'm posed the "essence of the military problem" in a particularly compelling way and the solutions that work in the game are closely aligned to the workable solutions in history.  


But isn't this still "History Lite?"  And are we losing ground in "serious simulations" to titles that do such a great job at providing such illusions/vicarious experiences?


What's your perspective?

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Comment by Joseph C. Beard III on January 12, 2011 at 9:07am

I remember the first time I saw a copy of QUEBEC 1759 back in the early 70's; a long-time friend and fellow gamer had ordered a copy from a hitherto unknown Canadian company named Gamma II Games and he was eager to show the rest of us his intriguing new discovery.  I also remember the initial, somewhat dismissive reaction of one of the other gamers in our tight-knit little group of regular players:  "Congratulations," he commented to my friend, "you have found a 'jeu de guerre' that manages to combine STRATEGO with RISK.  Why didn't one of us think of that?" 


Of course, neither I nor my friends could have begun to imagine where the Gamma II 'block' concept would ultimately lead; that games like ROMMEL IN THE DESERT and EASTFRONT/EASTFRONT 2 from Columbia Games would become wildly popular and would -- even among some long-time gamers -- supplant the more traditional hex and counter designs as their favorite game system.  On one level, I completely understand the current popularity of these games; on another, however, I remain unconvinced of their real value as detailed simulations.  The reason for my skepticism, of course, undoubtedly has more to do with me and what I look for in a simulation than it has to do with the peculiar strengths and weaknesses of the 'block' game system, itself.  In EASTFRONT 2, for example, there are only a handful of different types of units and, except for the RUSSIAN CAMPAIGN-style air units, their functions are only vaguely differentiated.  In DNO/UNT or FIRE IN THE EAST, on the other hand, there are over thirty different types of ground units (alone), and each of these different unit types plays a unique and historically plausible role in the overall architecture of the larger game design.  Flampanzers, railroad artillery, Luftwaffe, and NKVD units are not all present in the game just to add color; instead, they are included because their different capabilities all contribute something to the simulation value of the larger game.  This, for me, is the main appeal of monster games:  it is not their sheer size but, instead, the complex interplay of the different elements of the game system that make these "super" games both challenging and appealing.  As one of my Russian team members once observed about mid-way through the first summer of 1941:  "There is a special sense of satisfaction, and even accomplishment, that comes from surveying a DNO/UNT map once a well-crafted move has been completed; one that just isn't present in other types of games."  I couldn't agree more.


Mark Herman's FOR THE PEOPLE, even I have to admit, has a lot to recommend it.  As CDG games go, it is probably one of my favorites.  Nonetheless, whenever I play this game -- which I still do, occasionally -- It always has a little bit of A HOUSE DIVIDED meets FORTRESS AMERICA feel to it.  Don't get me wrong:  it is a great game, and I know why otyher players like it.  However, for my own part, I can't help but view it as a 'game' more than as a simulation.  Thus, call me old-fashioned, but when I am in the mood for a serious treatment of the whole Civil War, I still prefer THE CIVIL WAR or THE WAR BETWEEN THE STATES.   Both of these two games have their flaws, but for me, at least, the historical narrative that they deliver (in game form) is just more convincing than that of FOR THE PEOPLE


In the end, of course, we all take away from our hobby the tings that matter most to us individually; for me, the challenges of effective force organization, doctrine, planning, logistics, and command and command and control, all tend to take precedence -- in my view, at least -- over the so-called 'fog of war.'  In the end, I guess what I am saying is that I would rather be surprised by my opponent than by the capriciousness of the game system.    

Comment by Roger Morley on January 12, 2011 at 5:05am

I have never played a block game or a CDG, but after reading your hypothesis, I certainly do understand your view on this.

"History Lite" is a very interesting term, and would suggest to me that if a game is labelled as such, it is a game that contains less simulation detail and dispenses with numerous results tables etc, allowing the game to flow easily. Also, I would say it is a game to be aimed at maybe the less experienced players or players who are after a quick and easy game to play.

The way I look at it, every game should be taken on it's own merit as to what it is trying to achieve, what system it employs, what level of players it is trying to target etc etc, and each of these games will create their own amount or level of tension and uncertainty when playing them.

Whether these levels meet or exceed a players expectations will be down to the individual, and if they are open minded enough to embrace what the game is trying to create in way of atmosphere, tension, game play etc then they will clearly enjoy the game they play.

In the final answer to your question about losing ground in serious simulations? Yes - because I think the less serious simulation can appeal to a wider audience, and, unfortunately make more financial sense

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