To continue the Wednesday series on wargaming we will explore the question of what is wargaming like as a hobby: What is a Wargame? How is it different from playing other games? Why is it separated from other sorts of gaming? Who are Wargamers? How expensive is getting into Wargaming?
Wargames are strategy games of the highest order which simulate combat between different factions—I will be talking about hobby wargaming here which should be noted, as the military does run war games of a different nature and for a distinctly more imperative purpose than you or I; so do some businesses. These games can be categorized as historical, hypothetical, fantasy, or science fiction, with historical being by far the most plentiful. These games are considered related to games of stylistic conflict, like chess, backgammon, and checkers, and in general are not taken as ‘sports’— war is the focus, and these games can span from a few squads or individuals to full-scale armies pitted against one another on the tabletop. This is where wargaming separates itself from most other board games: It takes itself very seriously, marketing to a generally more mature audience partially in light of the general high level of complexity and the rewards reaped by experience and study, and also due to the subject matter as often individual models are killed and it is not abstract at all to have your soldier shot by that specific other soldier; it can be quite personal and emotional, especially for the imaginative. Some hobbyists paint their little soldiers and give them names, writing up each battle as part of a continued adventure or as vignettes. In many ways, wargaming is a commitment to a lifestyle and a pursuit of mastery and skill that is absent from, say Risk or Monopoly or Dungeons and Dragons. Each game is often viewed as an opportunity to learn or practice the theoretical, to sharpen and test yourself as a commander: Last time I lost four tanks and four units of infantry and the rest retreated— this time I still lost to this guy, but only on points and I lost fewer men.
This brings us to my favorite part of wargaming: Every specialized hobby and occupation has its own culture, its own distinct blend of flavors— customs and expectations, general appeal and market draw, forums and hangout spaces; tabletop wargaming is no exception. Universally, it is a way to spend time with people and a break from work into constructive play and the pursuit of victory in a friendly but fierce competition, like a game of basketball or flag football at the company picnic; in this way, wargaming is more like a sport than most board games. There is an assumption of competition that pervades all: Dice are bowed to as arbitrators in most wargames, much like the flip of the coin at the start of a football game. Fair play and clarity of rules and special effects are viewed as important by all and an unfair or a particularly luck-based win is often distasteful, a similarity to many Euro games. Play possesses an intensity of focus and a required presence, with all players expected to be active and engaged through the whole match, despite turns often taking thirty minutes or longer in some systems. Unlike a college football fan and a professional football fan however, different brands of traditional gamers typically encounter difficulty crossing the boundaries between what they use games for and the Other: Light family gamers typically view collectible games like Magic: The Gathering as only slightly this side of other addictions, while Role-Playing Game fans typically view other analog games as thin, unexciting computative acts, or gambling. Most often this is due to a form of confirmation bias, as I have had the pleasure of introducing many different types of gamers to new types of games and found that a little understanding goes a long way. Wargamers on the whole are generally humble people, typically cerebral but of the variety that values action rather than just theory. They tend to be people of hard numbers who accept chance and sometimes calculating those chances on the fly, willing to take a loss and a win each in stride, and just as happy to pay a compliment as to receive. They are often straightforward, and while few say much of substance before playing a match most will happily discuss odds and match-ups and how the battle may have hinged on this interaction, that piece of terrain, or a particularly lucky roll. Sportsmanship is a must in the hobby, and generally people are tried by fire first for both to get an accurate assessment of their skill and knowledge before advice is offered, and to see if they are worth getting to know; poor sports don’t typically stay in the hobby very long at all, and nobody likes correcting someone who is more skilled than they. It’s a game-first, introduction-by-experience culture that is different from the personality-driven Role-Playing Game or the casual, pickup-style board-game. Wargamers are typically also lovers of tinkering, studying their hobby and trying out new things—all the most successful wargames have lists of options and different small tweaks you can experiment with: Changing this infantry unit to spears or taking this special type of ammunition for this tank, this hero has such-and-such magical item or you can include an airstrike that can be called into play.
One trend I am very excited to see is the overall growth in popularity of wargames, especially with the introduction of more gateway games like Kings of War and Flames of War; the scenes are growing and the hobby itself is widening. One of the key reasons for this is the lower cost of initial entry: While wargaming can easily cost less than many other hobbies in the long-term the cost is all up front, unlike having a few drinks every week or buying a fifty-dollar video game every three months or going to see a few football games a year which come in smaller and more palatable installments. It will cost you anywhere from fifty to two-hundred dollars to begin playing miniatures games, often with a whole, proper army costing upwards of that, especially for the systems with titanic models or large numbers of units, but keep in mind that there are some digitized wargames, especially on the Vassal engine. Additionally, these newer miniatures games grasped that not everyone who would love to play wargames is also an artist, or wants to spend time learning to paint and decorate their figures; granted, for some this is a perk with artisans selling their talents regularly, but not something everyone enjoys. Further, the hobby is becoming mainstream enough that some manufacturers are starting to produce cheaper figures for these games, some of which have been thumbs-upped with enthusiasm by game design teams. Either way, most game shops I have walked into have an area with some tables that are recognizably wargame tables— large, standing tables with perhaps a few stools around them— as wargamers and their tournaments are often regular customers. As many shop owners are game hobbyists and enthusiasts in general, there is a certain kinship there and I recommend checking out your local shop if you have one: Most will be happy to run a demo of some of their products for you, or enlist the aid of some of their regulars to introduce you to their passion.
Wargaming is a little foreign, but if you enjoy games with a little more heft to them or are a competitive sort who enjoys a good match, this is a definite hobby to take a look towards. Whether it’s older Avalon Hill games or the newest kid on the block, painting and personality or theories from yesterday’s battlefields, this subset of gaming offers an incredible array to suit most game-approving palettes in one of its forms. As a personal note, you can see what I do when I play wargames below; I don’t get the chance very often and so I don’t have an army of my very own anymore, so I make paper fold-ups. Obviously they don’t let me into tournaments with them.