The Next Generation of Wargames: Part One

Wednesday , 11, November 2015 5 Comments

Sharing a hobby with your kids and grandkids is a time honored tradition practiced without shame by everyone from fly-fishermen to game hunters to ball players…the local park even has a few hipster dads teaching their sons how to walk slack lines, wear man-buns, and walk with an air of inexplicable smug superiority. Compared to that silliness, playing board games with your kids is downright banal, even if the board in question is covered in hexes and cardboard squares.

On the other hand, board and chit war gaming can be a hard sell at the best of times. You already know how the deck is stacked; the flat and fiddly parts, the esoteric maps and rules, the lack of flashing lights and instant gratification. Wargaming is a tough concept even for many middle-aged guys with more than a passing interest in military history, enough education to understand and 40+ page rulebooks, and the brains to implement plans at the strategic and tactical levels.

Now try selling the idea to a ten year old girl. That level of challenge is referred to in the video game community as “Nightmare Mode”. It is a challenge. But it can be overcome, and there are plenty of ways to do it, but those are a blog post in its own right.

Before we get to the “How?”, let’s establish the “Why?” You’ve got two good reasons to do it; it’s good for her, and it’s good for you.

That wargames give kids hands-on practice with things like math, statistics, history, and reading is so obvious that it would be an insult to your intelligence to lay out arguments and examples of each. Instead, let’s look at a few of the more subtle ways that wargaming acts as a positive experience for kids.

But first, let’s lay to rest the idea that kids can’t handle wargames.

Wargames are too hard for kids. Meanwhile, in 1860 South Carolina...

Wargames are too hard for kids. Meanwhile, in 1860 South Carolina…

The current crop of video games primes kids for wargames in a host of ways. Ever try your hand at a game of Minecraft? In the classic game, you start with limited resources, and to accomplish anything – to even survive the night – you have to build your way up scratch. Literally. You start by literally scratching holes in the dirt and it is only through clever resource management and strategic thinking that your character can build his way up to crafting powerful artifacts, constructing elaborate buildings, and engineering other complex marvels. The entire process involves countless decision points and juggling an endless stream of trade-offs – you don’t really want to use a shovel as a weapon, but you might have to in order to survive a skeleton attack. You have been saving the only sheep around while hunting for the right sort of dye, but slaughtering that sheep right now would give you the ability to bypass either a long walk or long periods of grinding work. If you’ve ever sat down to watch a child play through Minecraft, you know that their brains are capable of holding and utilizing enormously complex systems and rulesets. You just need to turn that ability on to the idea of commanding Roman Legions or the German blitzkrieg.

Cutting out the essentially invisible rules moderator of the CPU and replacing it with the explicit rules of a wargame is a subtle transition that places new demands on the player. The learning curve is steeper, and leaves no room for experimentation to learn rules. The experimentation is now limited solely to strategy and tactics. More importantly, learning and applying the rules yourself instead of leaning on a CPU places the onus of driving the action and the fun forward squarely on the shoulders of the participant. In a small but important way it gives responsibility to the player. The game doesn’t play itself, and it won’t entertain you unless you commit to putting in some effort. That proactive requirement serves as a powerful lesson for kids in taking responsibility for their own fun in ways that video games don’t. It’s the difference between gym class and open play. In the former, as in video games, the fun is set-up and kids react to the rules set by the gym teacher. In the latter, the kids have to set up the game and approach it in a much more proactive manner. A valuable skill to have once freed from the restrictions of gym teachers and principals and other busy body authority types.

Speaking of skills of great value in the adult world, wargames give kids a chance to digest and internalize a set of rules, and then try to apply those rules in a ‘live fire’ situation. The importance of that skill in the real world cannot be understated. Learning and applying a ruleset is one of those skills that is so all pervasive in today’s society that, outside of the legal realm, you rarely hear anyone talk about it as a skill – it’s like two fish talking about how wet they are. It’s not something you think about because it happens in every aspect of your life. Day One of every corporate job in the civilized world, you are handed and told to read a thick rulebook called, “Corporate Policy”. Before you can drive, you have to read a book detailing the “Rules of the Road”. Every website you sign up for has a long section of rules text that you have to scroll through before you “Accept the Terms and Conditions”.

That said, we all know how easy it is to ignore just about every one of these rulesets. When is the last time you actually read a website’s “Terms and Conditions”? Cracked open your state’s Traffic Regulations lately? Probably not. It’s not something anyone thinks to do…until there is a problem. But the rulebook is the first thing you reach for when you are accused of misconduct at work for innocuous statements or cited for running a stop sign that was completely obscured by low hanging foliage. Learning how to find the relevant rules, decode the many ways they intersect, and then present your findings to others, those are all skills that are strengthened by wargaming. That’s to say nothing of knowing how to find the loopholes, exploit them, and even how to understand the difference between the written and unwritten rules of a system. These are all skills that everyone needs to get through every single aspect of adult life, and there is no better tool for sharpening that skill than a hobby explicitly dedicated to understanding and exploiting rule systems.

Better living through effective exploitation of complex rule systems.

Better living through effective exploitation of complex rule systems.

The innate positive effects that wargaming has on kids are all well and good, but as a wargamer it is in your own self-interest to grow the hobby. What sort of commander would you be if you didn’t take time to maintain your lines of supply?

Like so many other masculine hobbies that had their heydays prior to the internet revolution, board wargames are maintained by a graying old guard. If the old guard fails to pass the torch on to a new generation, then wargames won’t just vanish with a pop upon the death of the last grognard, the market itself will wither and surviving wargamers will find the games themselves in increasingly short supply. What producer would enter a market composed of stodgy old timers content to spend their dotage pushing cardboard around increasingly frayed and faded boards? A market composed of people who have everything they need and no interest in new titles is no market at all.

Even if you own all the classic titles you’ll ever need, you are just one fire or flood away from needed a fresh supply of wargames. Consider introduce a new breed of generals to the hobby as a form of insurance – a way to create a sort of market reserve-battalion for use in the event that your first tactic (hoarding old games) does not survive contact with the enemy (time and entropy). A reserve force provides financial incentives for producers to both maintain the old titles, and experiment with new twists on the old ways. It may not be possible to recapture the mass market appeal or numbers of the early days of the wargaming hobby, but maintaining a solid number of core hobbyists is all it takes in these reduced barriers to entry, streamlined production processes, and low cost marketing through the internet.

If that isn’t enough, there’s another even bigger reason to spend time pushing cardboard around the table with your kids – it’s good for society. Healthy families with heavily involved fathers have always been a bulwark against societal breakdown. Study after study proves that the more time fathers spend with kids, the better the outcomes for those kids, and the healthier a society becomes. There is enormous value in just sitting down at the table for an hour with one of your kids and, free of all distraction, just showering them with your attention. For that hour you are acting as a guide and instructor and authority. You help them untangle logical and tactical knots. You can even expose some vulnerability and demonstrate how to be vulnerable without being weak, and how to let your emotions guide you without controlling you. You push them gently in a controlled environment, so that when the world pushes them hard in an uncontrolled environment, they have the tools and experience to push back even harder.

So no more excuses. You know they can do it. You know it’s good for them. So get out there and make those kids play wargames.
Of course, if you want them to enjoy wargames, you can’t just force them to sit down and grind through a few turns of The Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, or demand they study and apply the rules for Advanced Squad Leader. That’s a punishment, not a treat, and it’s a good way to drive your kids away from the hobby for life. The real trick is introducing the hobby to kids in a way that sparks their interest and causes them to start chasing down old copies of Warpwar or Circus Maximus on their own time. Next time we will look at some ways to plant those seeds in a way that feels more like a reward than a punishment.

– Jon

5 Comments
  • Jeffro says:

    Excellent tabletop games that 11 to 14 year olds will play:

    Commands & Colors: Ancients
    Ogre: Designers Edition
    Federation Commander
    The Awful Green Things From Outerspace

    Some kids have the gamer gene. Some don’t. If you find the one kid that is on fire to play the heck out of this stuff, the other ones that are more on the fence about it will get drawn in.

    Also: conventions that are focused on board game tournaments (ie, Prezcon in Charlottesville, VA) are a great place for kids to try dozens of games in a short period without having to buy and learn them all on their own in succession.

    Cooperative games like Pandemic can go a long way toward accommodating non-gamers. Girls and socialists are just not that into direct conflict. Boys will come back again and again once they figure out that they can destroy their peers.

    One thing about Commands & Colors: Ancients– the imbalanced scenarios mean that dad can play his best and the kid still has a chance. Nobody likes to lose repeatedly, but the satisfaction that comes with real mastery is addictive once someone gets over the hump.

  • Cirsova says:

    The biggest issue is finding people with the time, patience and space to commit to something that can take days to play. Close family and loved ones are the best place to start, because they’ll have the most patience for figuring out all of the complexities of a game with a 20 to 60 page manual that will require being left set up for at least a couple days (if not weeks).

    Ogre is definitely a good “introductory” game, because you can sell someone on the whole hex n chit wargame in a package that can take 20-30 minutes to play easier than asking them to devoting a month to recreating the Yom-Kippur War or the siege of Velikiye Luki or something.

  • Scott says:

    Vote #3 here for Ogre! Small and easy enough to serve as an intro while fun to play.

  • Adam says:

    My father introduced me to gaming when I was ten years old with Avalon Hill’s ‘The Russian Campaign’. We played it to death until he couldn’t beat me any more. A great introduction to gaming and one that is more than adequate for quite young children.

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