I’ve done a lot of talking about numbers and satisfying mechanics and accuracy and all manner of game components in this space, but almost nothing about the fluff. Does it matter whether a Wargame is set in the grim darkness of the far future or the chivalric past, whether a world of magic or hard scientific bullet-pocked realism, whether dragons or tanks or strange forces or men do battle? Would Stratego be the same if the pieces were simply numbers, or would Ogre be improved if it was actually about a mythical ogre instead of a futuristic war wagon?
I posit to you that fluff is the single most important element of a Wargame, full stop. Who has heard of Rithmomachy, and what veteran Wargamer enjoys a relatively-fluffless game like checkers the same way as the most popular wargame of all time, chess, with its strong allusion to classical European socio-legal structure? But enough rabble rousing: Why is fluff so important?
Fluff is context. Having clear objectives that make martial sense requires multiple paths to victory or defeat, and how severe these aftermaths may be. Whether it’s controlling the bridges of Operation Market Garden or warring for the supremacy of tribal gods, it is the fluff that provides the tactical background, the explanation of the choices and skills you make for your troops, and further allows a system’s player to adopt a good-and-evil opinion, a sense of belonging and place, and to form the mindset to play the system and help the player find a working play style.
Fluff is also the heart. The mind may do war one way, but the hearts of both men and commander matter a great deal. It is difficult to be passionate about red tokens versus blue ones, but even simple historical context such as French and English, or better yet one which reflects the disparity in training, skill, organization, supply, morale, or campaign goals of the two armies. It is often this passion that makes close games so exciting and memorable: One infantry squad taking down a whole tank platoon in a heroic spree to save the game means more if you know your side’s allegiance, and the visualization of the conflict ignites our passion for the simulation to the point where seeing the fluff results in sales!
Fluff is most importantly of all a critical design constraint. Without some guidance, a designer is left floating in a sea of options that are at best paralyzing and at worst, slapstick and slapdash and full of clashing elements. Art from adversity is a concept that expresses how sincere difficulties often bring out the best of our minds’ unification of theme and mechanics and aesthetic, and of course it helps to sell the games as well to have clear fluff from which to draw. Fluff communicates to the intended audience, drawing those who like models to games with models, figurines to those who like miniatures they can paint and customize, and the introverted to their tokens. Fluff nods to a designer when they wonder if a mechanic fits or works properly, and fluff inspires deeper complexity and nuance as it guides the designer in their simplification of a world down to its expression in a game, supplying interactions between the units that reduce the scope of options for designers.
Fluff is the true essence of a Wargame. Wargames without fluff are hard to find and the more complex the less likely they are to be fluffless, esoteric mannequins which can be twisted completely at a designer’s whim. A good portion of this I attribute to the importance of the making of art from adversity — and nowhere more essential than the art of war. The context, who is fighting whom, what manner of claws and bullets and mental magics are reaching towards the enemy, is essential to a satisfying conclusion. I find that with mere numbers marching about, the winner does not matter so much to me at all while seeing a ragtag band fighting to hold out for allies against a monstrous assault makes me engage fully.
What are some of the benefits and drawbacks you have seen come from a Wargame’s fluff? What parts of fluff most excites you? Do you prefer simulations to have context, or to be a strictly mental exercise?