Heads up: If you like deep, strategic gameplay, and have no/little idea what a wargame is (or have never heard of it), you’re in for a nice treat with this series of articles.
Wargaming has a very long, very rich history. I’m going to deal with just the hobby-level aspects of it.
What is especially fascinating about it is following its progression of being a form of gaming that existed before Personal Computers were even around, to not really being a thing that PCs could properly handle, right on up to the modern day where they actually play better on the computer.
In my own personal life, there are a few things that are better on a computer than their real-life counterparts:
1. Pinball machines. These things are not exactly easy to collect; the maintenance on them is atrocious; etc. (see my previous post on pinball machines)
2. Trains. Model railroading specifically. Yes, this is a very personal decision, and totally a matter of taste. But, for my reasons, consider this: I have a friend who is building a model railroad in his basement. It occupies his entire basement; it is expensive; it is a whole hobby unto itself; and once it is complete he is stuck with just the one track layout forever. With programs such as Auran’s Trains 2012 I can spend $50, lay-down endless tracks, raise mountains, cut rivers, and plop-down builds as easy as 1-2-3. And then the locos move, sound, and act all on their own (or I control them), with real sounds, schedules, and cargo. I can build entire 100-mile long routs, etc. Wives can certainly appreciate this program compared to the basement-occupancy version.
3. Motor sports. Again, just my personal taste. But watching NASCAR, or Formula 1 on TV loses everything to me. An ultra-realistic sim, such as GTR 2 by Simbin is so true-to-life, plus I’m in total control – so much better to me than just watching all the cars drive endlessly on a track.
4. Wargaming. You’ll see why in this article. But to summarize: Far easier to locate an opponent. Your opponent plays well. No need to occupy an entire bookshelf with bulky game boxes that require 30+ minutes of setup; a shake of the table doesn’t jostle and ruin the entire playfield; and, most importantly to me: The computer does far more complex calculations than your calculator or mind can hope to keep up with. Oh, and you can save the game to resume later!
Don’t get me wrong: When a friend came over, several months back, I broke-out my old copy of Steve Jackson’s OGRE, and I had a LOT of fun playing face-to-face. I love going to dirt-track races at the local fairground (and then washing 5lbs of dust from my hair afterwards…); and I love a good, solid pinball table under my hands… but …
But now that he’s no longer here, OGRE just sits there.
It needs another person before the game comes to life, you see?
So, onto the history of wargames, what they are, and why you should take a look at them. And, yes, there will be free old wargames bundled with this as I go along.
THE FIRST HOBBY WARGAME
There are undoubtedly other wargames, deeper in history, than came before H.G. Wells wrote-up a little booklet of rules, called ‘Little Wars’, but he has the singular distinction of being the first to document rules for such a game that hobbyists could play and enjoy.
It employed little toy soldiers, wooden buildings, and mocked-up terrain. It had a simple turn-by-turn structure, with a simple measuring stick to regulate movement. And it was a popular hit for its day.
The cannons and such fired actual little pellets, so that if a pellet hit a solider it was dead. In this way the game appealed (as it says on the booklet, “A Game for Boys from Twelve Years to One Hundred and Fifty and for that More Intelligent Sort of Girl Who Likes Games and Books“) to a wide audience.
A nice reconstruction of his 30ish page booklet is available in the PDF that somebody thankfully assembled. You can click here to download it and read it. Old English spellings and everything.
He set-off a firestorm of imagination with this simple book.
People now sought to re-create all the world’s great conflicts, and to play-out theoretical battles.
Wargaming at this time was time-consuming, and expensive. It also occupied a lot of space. Rules were kept simple in order to keep things moving, but over time people added more and more complexity to them in order to more fully-simulate and get deeply immersed. You also had to use buildings and props that were most likely hand-crafted, or from just a handful of actual manufacturing companies at the time.
In fact, during this period (up till 1953 in fact) you had to purchase the entire set of miniature army figures, get paints and such for it all, and then painstakingly paint each and every one. Thus, a sub-hobby of the actual hobby was born.
THE PAPER AND CARDBOARD REVOLUTION
Up until 1953, wargaming was restricted to those with the available cash (and time) to hand-paint and assemble entire metal armies, along with the 3D props and battlefield, necessary to make even a modestly-sized little battle playable.
Due to the size of the miniatures, the terrain, etc. Even the largest battle was only maybe a few miles in size.
But, as I said, in 1953 a young man from Baltimore got an idea and managed to publish the first cardboard and paper wargame. His name was Charles Roberts, and the game was simply called Tactics. It used a paper board with numerous cardboard pieces (called “counters”) that had military symbols printed on them that indicated the type of unit, as well as numbers indicating strength, defense, movement, etc. It was a theoretical/mythical war between two post-WWII powers, and it was an immensely popular success.
It also managed to cover a larger scale of space whilst simultaneously occupying less space – the paper map had a square grid overlaid onto it that regulated movement on such a large scale with ease.
Admittedly, the map was very sparse on color – it was, as you can see from the scan of the back of the box – mostly white space. But it was more than sufficient.
Another thing that came-about with the publication of Tactics was that a lot of gamers found that when no opponent could be found, they enjoyed playing the game solo.
I understand that solitaire gameplay strikes most people as odd – even ridiculous. But, like I said with traditional wargames: Finding opponents was always the number 1 obstacle to proper gameplay. Solo players would just play both sides of the game and either see who won, or would force themselves to play the opposing side with a somewhat pre-calculated series of moves.
AVALON HILL MAKES A PROPER FULL-SCALE HOBBY OUT OF IT ALL
Avalon Hill was the name of the company that Charles Roberts formed in 1953 in order to publish his Tactics game, which was then followed by Tactics II, and a large number of other wargames. An entire hobby briefly flourished, with numerous top-selling wargames of a large range of topics.
Hobbists could now re-create how WWII started with games such as The Origins of WWII, which simulated conflict, diplomacy, and other things.
Another big innovation that AH did was the creation of games designed specifically for solitaire play, such as the famous game called B-17 Queen of the Skies. Large dice rolls simulated German aircraft attacking your B-17 as you attempted to fly over to a target and bomb it. At last, with a few games such as this, complex wargames could be fully enjoyed when no opponent could be found.
In fact, the search for opponents was always an issue for some people, so newspaper ‘want ads’ for opponents, listings in hobbyist newsletters, and more methods were used to try and find somebody to play these games with.
THE CLEAR NEED FOR A COMPUTER ARISES
As gamers got more into the hobby, they demanded more complex games, and larger scales of coverage for the wars.
This led to some serious problems, and the invention of what was called a ‘Monster Wargame’.
Take 1980′s The Longest Day – a game that really could only be played and enjoyed on a computer – but the power of computers back then was not even a consideration. The Longest Day started with the Allied build-up and subsequent Normandy breakout, and had full coverage for the attack of Cherbourg, the Cobra Offensive, the Mortain Counterattack, and the Falaise Pocket. The maps were huge, there were 1,600 cardboard playing pieces, and setup alone took 8+ hours! Actual playtime was something in the range of 100 hours total.
This is a very impractical game, even for its time. I personally never even saw the game being played, except for one magazine at the time that did some coverage of it, and most people just avoided such a bloated monstrous “game”.
Avalon Hill didn’t have an easy time of things – they went bankrupt once the Vietnam War hit, and everything military was regarded as a product of Satan (that rather killed their sales), but they re-formed under different ownerships and actually published their last game in 2001.
Another boost (and one that I highly recommend and personally subscribe to) was a magazine formed back in 1969 called Strategy and Tactics. Not only was the magazine rich in articles and photos on actual wars and conflicts – from all ranges of history – but an entire cardboard and paper wargame (of nice, playable size!) is tucked into every issue.
It can be an expensive subscription (a single issue with the full game is $30, while just the regular magazine is $7 per issue. Thankfully you can just get the magazine and order the game separately as it grabs your budget and interest!) They nowadays have three magazines: The original Strategy and Tactics covers all forms of conflict and history; World at War covers just WWI and WWII topics; and Modern War is for modern-era topics. All three are top-notch quality.
THE STATUS OF WARGAMES TODAY (AND FREE WARGAMES!)
They are still a thriving hobby. Sure, the miniatures are still around, but also the cardboard and paper map ones are doing well. None of it is cheap, mind you. A good wargame can easily cost $50.
My favorite current company for the games is Avalanche Press, who’s Panzer Grenadier series of games is superb. It uses the same basic set of fast-playing rules for each box (about $50 per box), and the map boards and counters can either be used for just the box they came in, or can be inter-mixed for a larger scale of scenarios. Almost all of their games are worthwhile.
As a really nice bonus, they have offered this for the longest time: You can download the entire set of rules for free, a sample map, two scenarios to play, and all the needed counters. Click here to jump over to it.
To do this you’ll want to print the rules out and bind them somehow, print the map onto either simple paper or heavy cardstock; and the counters you’ll need to glue onto heavier cardboard and cut out. Once you have done that you have a mini-sized wargame to try and sample.
Also, years ago, the famous wargame designer Jim Dunnigan published a handbook on wargaming, and within it was a free mini-sized wargame (40 minutes to play) called Drive on Metz. This is a superb way to experience traditional cardboard and paper wargaming, and it has not been lost now that the book has.
A company called Victory Point Games offers the game for a mere $14.95 – a professionally made version with all components zipped-up nice in a polybag.
As a special bonus to readers of this blog, I’m also offering the original game as a print-and-play kit. It has all of Jim Dunnigan’s original notes and comments even.
In order to create this great introductory small wargame you’ll need regular paper to print the rules and such out onto (recommend double-sided if you can, and then bind-up all the papers into a booklet via staples or some such).
The mapboard can be printed onto heavy cardstock (110lbs is best). Or even printed onto regular paper and then glued onto a section of foamcore or such.
The counters need to be mounted into THICK cardboard.
The entire map should fit exactly onto a regular US-sized piece of paper. No shrinking should be required. And don’t re-size the counters either.
The entire kit can be downloaded here. Enjoy!
(Also, the entire text of the original Wargaming Handbook by Jim Dunnigan can be read online here. The original black-and-white version of Drive on Metz is even included in it. For those totally new to wargaming it is a worthwhile read.)
And finally, another one called Napoleon at Waterloo – this one has the famous distinction of actually having been given away by SPI (back in the day) to anyone who wrote them and asked! Yeah, that was rather cool of them. It was there way of introducing interested parties into the world of wargaming, so it’s only fitting that it still remain free for such a purpose. Again, mount and print everything just as I’ve said above. Click here to jump to the site.
NEXT: THE COMPUTER ENTERS THE WARGAMING ARENA
Now that the holidays are done, I’ll try and get a new post up for you all. Happy New Year. =)
This is such an amazing collection of 100% totally legit FREE games … I’m just going to get right down to it.
a7xpg: The name of this free Japanese shooter really doesn’t even tell you anything, but you are a ship inside of a small arena, and piles of gold appear which you must collect. Enemies spawn, getting progressively faster and more numerous, as you use skills (and a limited boost) to slink between them and rack-up a higher score. For a brief video of me playing it, click here.
Every Extend: Totally abstract. You are a falling bomb, and there are swarms of enemy ships coming all around you. You must skillfully place your bomb, and then explode it, in order to cause as large a chain-reaction as you can. As soon as you blow up, another bomb drops right down, so you have to keep doing this to rack-up a massive score. For a brief video of me playing this, click here.
Noiz2sa: Another free Japanese shooter with a name that is meaningless. This one is quite abstract in looks, but rather traditional in gameplay. You are an abstract-looking ship, flying over a minimalist cityscape, and shooting down even more abstract-looking enemy ships. Very well-designed. For a brief video of somebody playing it, click here.
Parsec 47: Abstract Japanese shooter (yes, there is a pattern here), that is very much traditional in gameplay – just like Noiz2sa. Waves of enemy ships vs. your own. Solid little shooter. For me briefly playing it, click here.
rRootage: Yup, another free shooter from Japan. Gotta love this. This one is also available for free over in the iTunes store, for iPhone and such (perhaps Android? Dunno). This is what is called a ‘bullet hell” game, and is a very challenging type of shooter. Bullet hell games absolutely FLOOD the gameplay area with wave after wave of streaming bullets – just totally inundating you with sprawling patterns, almost in a hypnotic way. While this sounds like only something that a kid hopped-up on sugar (and with a bit of ADD, such as myself) would enjoy, they are not actually that bad. In this game, a series of alien motherships will appear, shoot streaming patterns of bullets at you, and you must blast the crap out of them. It’s very fast-paced and extremely well done.
Tip: The bullets in this game are much larger than their point of impact is. This is so you can more easily keep track of the bullets. You only have to dodge the central point of each bullet.
For a brief video of me playing the game, click here.
Warning Forever: A very unique shooter. You only face boss enemies in this one, and they adapt to how you destroyed the previous one. What this means is that if you just blast the front part of the enemy ship, and just blow it right up, the next one will have thicker frontal armor. Going around to the backside will mean probably more guns on the rear in the next ship, etc. You’ll never really play the same game twice.
Somebody uploaded a video to YouTube showcasing the game, and I noticed that it has English subtitles – no clue where that version is at. I have just the original Japanese one. For the video, click here.
Torus Trooper: A beautifully retro combination of racing game and shooter. You zoom down a pipeline, blasting enemies, and trying to get to the finish line before time runs out (you’re actually supposed to blow up every single enemy before you reach the finish line – missing one means you need to hit the brakes to bring it back before you). Absolutely a joy to play. Click here for a brief video of me playing it.
On September 27th, 2013, I uploaded a ready-too-play archive of all of the above shooters. Check the downloads tab for the link.