Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Is the Golden Age of Tactical PC Wargaming Over?

This is a mirror of an article original appearing at this link: http://www.gamesquad.com/forums/blog.php?b=432

Tactical-level board wargames are back in vogue, and miniatures are in resurgence. Axis & Allies, Flames of War, ASL, Panzer Grenadier. Board wargame grogs got their hopes up with regards to computer games in the 1980s with M-1 Tank Platoon from Microprose, a mixture of sim and tactical level game that took everything oh-so-seriously, despite the vector graphics. At the time, they didn't look half as silly as they do in hindsight.

Tactical PC wargamers then got bombarded with a lot of mostly mediocre titles (which isn't to say they weren't fun) in the 1980s and 1990s, like Muzzle Velocity and M4 and Panzer Generals, finally got to the good stuff with Close Combat, Combat Mission and Steel Panthers...

...and then all three franchises shot their bolt.

After half a dozen successful titles and versions for the military, Close Combat tried to go 3D - at least two times, with GI: Combat and Eric Young's Squad Assault. The latest release by Matrix was a rehash of the 2D material in a special edition of the Close Combat franchise.

Combat Mission - had three successful titles, then tried to reinvent itself, broaden its fan base, and please everyone in sight from RTS fans to sim junkies to beer and pretzels grognards. They're still picking up the pieces over at Battlefront.

Steel Panthers - three successful games, and then ended up as not one but two freeware releases which really hadn't changed much from the original release, a fairly straight-forward IGO-UGO turn-based 2D tactical game.

The Holy Grail - the game that would become "Squad Leader on the computer" - has proved to be elusive.

On the Decline?
Multi-Man Publishing just put up a 10 scenario pack (with 3 mapboards) for their Advanced Squad Leader boardgame series up for preorder. It hit 700 credit card orders in less than 3 days. For a game with a 500 page rulebook, that you play with little cardboard pieces, in a room with some sweaty fat dude who wants to use your toilet and drop chips on your carpet. But there is obviously still appeal to this grand-daddy of all tactical games. Perhaps there will be nothing to knock it off its perch anytime soon.

The hopes of the old board gamers may not be driving the hobby anymore, but anyone who knows the difference between the two boxes pictured above still has a vested interest in the future of tactical-level PC games. Panzer Command has released its second title, and developer Erik Rutins has been busy on his own forums, at gamesquad, and other places around the internet taking notes, interacting with the gamers, and adding to his to-do list. Will he be the one to decide where the future of tactical wargaming on the PC goes? Will Panzer Command become "ASL for the computer" as some are intimating here at gamesquad's forums?

Or do we really need to have the ability for squad-sized units to be able to swim, ride horses, climb cliffs, rappel down buildings, interrogate prisoners, set fires, clear rubble, ad infinitum?

My Question To You
I finally found my first edition purple boxtop at auction, and though the contents were fourth edition, the box is pure 1st edition. What is the most prized possession in your boardgame collection? And why?

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Waffen SS in Tactical Wargames

The depiction of Waffen SS soldiers has been at times a controversial subject in the history of tactical wargaming. The controversy has stemmed not from the sensible dilemma of how best to portray their training, doctrine and actual abilities in combat - these problems are applied to all military forces that designers seek to depict in tactical wargames - but rather from the problem of how to reconcile their record of warcrimes with their military achievements. As most tactical wargames depict fighting at the sharp end, and most war crimes, even those committed by combat units, occurred away from the front line, that element of controversy, at least, ceases to be relevant to the tactical game designer.

Other Problems
In an age of increased sensitivity to issues of racism, equality, and hatred, and an increased ability for mere symbols to acquire power, exception has been taken in some quarters by the granting of special symbols or abilities to Waffen SS troops. Such uneasiness has even extended to German Army units.

For example, M. Evan Brooks, in two PC game reviews, stated online that:

(I-95 CD) Strategic Simulations, Inc.; Rick Martinez; 1998; ***
A detailed armor simulation of World War II, it only covered campaigns on the Russian Front. Infantry/combined arms operations still came up short, but the more objectionable aspect of the design was allowing the player to be a member of certain questionable divisions -- while Grossdeutschland was not a Waffen SS division, there is sufficient historical evidence to question its participation in war crimes. (emphasis added)

(A/C/Ap) Strategic Simulations, Inc.; Roger Damon; 1985; ***
A tactical simulation of armored warfare on the Eastern Front during World War II, it was marred by historical inaccuracy. Reconnaissance by fire was overemphasized, and opportunity fire was hit-and-miss. It lacked the panache and élan to yield an enduring game experience. Also, I found it somewhat disturbing that the game identified so closely with the "Grossdeutschland" Panzer Grenadier Division. Historically, that Division was not formed until 1944, and since game scenarios occurred in 1942, it would seem obvious that the reference is to the "Grossdeutschland" Panzer Division; while not a criminal organization like the Waffen SS, "Grossdeutschland" was not adverse to being escorted by Einsatzkommando extermination groups. The close identification with a "tainted" unit left me with an uncomfortable feeling. (emphasis added)
Similar comments have been made in most online forums for games ranging from Combat Mission to Advanced Squad Leader.

Cross of Iron - Special Rules
Of all the tactical games yet published, perhaps the Squad Leader/Advanced Squad Leader series has gone to the greatest length to impart on the Waffen SS unique capabilities. In general, SL/ASL has exceeded other game systems with its national characteristic rules.

Cross of Iron (Avalon Hill, 1979), the first sequel to Squad Leader, the successful squad-level game published by Avalon Hill in 1977, treated Waffen SS troops with an entire rules section. The Designer's Notes read:

The German SS units were elite formations by virtue of their superior training, and morale. They were not the supermen the German propaganda would have the world believe. On the Eastern Front, however, the Death's Head insignia meant just that for any SS trooper unfortunate enough to fall into Russian hands. Surrender was akin to suicide. As the war progressed and the front drew ever closer to Germany, the SS was composed more and more of desperate men.

From left to right; the original counters in Cross of Iron - a first line squad above a red berserk counter; the "casual" posed squad counters supplied in G.I.: Anvil of Victory; the blue SS from Beyond Valor; the return of the black SS in A Bridge Too Far; and the "purple" SS from Kampgruppe Peiper.

SS troops were depicted in COI by white on black counters, and were given special characteristics, applying only in Eastern Front scenarios. This included a lessened subjection to Desperation Morale penalties (i.e. a penalty on broken units attempting to rally if subjected to enemy fire in the preceding turn), a higher morale rating when broken (indicating that they were quick to rally, the only troops in the Squad Leader system so treated to that point in time), ability to use flamethrowers and demo charges, an exemption from being taken prisoner by Russian units, and a rule that all SS units were subject to the special Berserk rules of the Russians (which made a unit immune to morale checks and required it to charge the nearest enemy unit to engage it in close combat).

Whether or not the rules are particularly accurate, Squad Leader tended to exaggerate national characteristics to give a distinct "flavour" and in that regard, the SS rules were no more or less accurate than those recognizing all Americans as automatically proficient with captured weapons, or later rules that saw British troops treated as "cool under fire."

G.I.: Anvil of Victory
The final game in the original Squad Leader series released in 1983 replaced many of the original counters of the first two games to reflect updates to the rules. The SS counters were rendered in white and black once again, though the Berserk counters were deleted (Berserk status had been extended to all units of all nationalities in Crescendo of Doom (Avalon Hill, 1980), the third entry in the series, though Russian and SS units remained more likely to go Berserk than those of other nationalities.) No changes in capabilities were made.

Advanced Squad Leader
Four rulebooks later, the living game system was consolidated into one "Advanced" rulebook, and, controversially, the unit and system counters were replaced en masse. To those that were paying attention, the SS were replaced with blue counters, though the distinctive SS runes were added to the upper corner.

Capabilities in the new game system were similar to the original; broken-side morale was higher than normal (a capability now extended in the Advanced game to some other nationalities, most notably the Americans); SS units still did not surrender to Russian units, were permitted to carry out the new "Massacre" function - the rejection of an enemy surrender - and could not become Disrupted (a severe type of morale loss) when opposing Russians.

ASL should have been the final incarnation of the SS counters, but the Historical ASL module A Bridge Too Far (MMP, 1999) depicting the fighting at the Arnhem Bridge in September 1944 reintroduced SS units in black, "as a throwback to the old Squad Leader series." Some SS units had been included in Kampfgruppe Peiper, another HASL Module released in two parts, with counters (mis)printed in an odd shade of purple rather than the standard German blue. These additional releases also included German units with values other than the standard 6-5-8 firepower/range/morale, reflecting a more greater recognition that SS units in reality varied greatly in composition, training and equipment.

What Does It All Mean
As someone who went out and bought Cross of Iron in the autumn of 1984 at the age of 15 with hard-earned allowance money, the white on black counters always seemed stark and dramatic, highlighting the reputation that the Waffen SS had for no quarter on the battlefield. The stark contrast, the colour of death, all spoke to the fact that these characters were bad-asses. It was visceral.

Allied troops in the field felt the same way. One could ask the Canadians in Normandy whose unarmed friends were murdered shortly after D-Day, or the Americans after the Baugnez crossroads massacre near Malmedy in the Battle of the Bulge. One soldier in The Royal Winnipeg Rifles was reported as saying that after word of the murders by the 12th SS Division in the early days of the Normandy fighting, the Canadians weren't taking prisoners. "Any SS man we see, we just give him the works, now."

Canadian soldiers of Le Régiment de la Chaudière with an SS prisoner a little the worse for wear, Normandy, 1944. Public Archives of Canada Photo.

Allied troops genuinely believed the SS were badasses too and expected, and often gave, no quarter. The sight of those "evil" black counters is a subtle reminder of that - a history lesson achieved at a glance.

Master Gamers
Not to compare a game to what anyone goes through in battle, but even the over-confidence of a smug, arrogant gamer pulling out a set of black counters kind of matches that smug, arrogant over-confidence the Master Race had when they made their insane attempt to take over the world. I experienced a bit of that myself in 1984, and 1985, playing COI with guys who loved the black counters, who called their intramural volleyball team "Ball Waffe" and drew runes on their school textbooks. It made the games entertaining because you wanted to do nothing more than show them that a black counter didn't impart any special powers or ascendancy over the rules any more than runes or blood group tattoos had granted ascendancy over the realities of 25-pounder or 155mm HE, a company of Shermans, and a battalion of determined men set on doing them bodily harm. I suspect my buddies were equally keen to show me that regimental cap badges and archaic names like The Sherwood Foresters or Fife and Forfar Yeomanry or The Calgary Highlanders didn't make one's troops bulletproof either. The victories - whomever won them - were sweeter given the level of friendly rivalry that those little black counters inflamed.

Other Games
Up Front, billed as the "Squad Leader Card Game", not surprisingly, given its relationship to the board game, had special rules for SS troops, though these were minor. Rule 39.6 gives an SS player two discards if he has taken one, or no, actions during his turn. I'm not aware of other games that impart some special abilities on the SS, other than a reflection of the status of their first 10 or divisions in receiving an increased scale of weapons and equipment by higher attack factors in operational level games, or greater mobility reflected by additional movement factors in those same games.

My Final Word
If there is an argument that the black counters somehow "glorifies" the SS, I personally think it rings false, and loudly. In the end, it is a matter for personal interpretation. If one chooses to get offended by a game piece, that is their decision. There are many "legitimate" reasons to see the SS given a dramatic representation on the gaming table.

My Question To You
Have I missed any? Which tactical games out there depict the SS with special rules?

Saturday, April 5, 2008

A Rich Historical Tapestry

This is a mirror of an article original appearing at this link: http://www.gamesquad.com/forums/blog.php?b=424
Within the next few days, the first of what I hope will be many articles will appear on gamesquad under my name. The first is entitled Lessons From The Past and asks the question: what can PC game developers learn from their board game counterparts?


As a way of complementing the article and any follow ons, and to make them interactive, I've decided to also create a blog. I've never been a fan of blogs; the concept initially seemed to me to indicate a frustrated writer who couldn't get published by conventional means because of a lack of something significant to say. That may still apply in some cases, though my view is softening. Given the ability of people with nothing significant to say to actually get published in book form in today's desktop world, the distinctions between online and virtual publishing mean much less. But I think now that blogs are losing their 'newness', and the truly insignificant are moving to Facebook, the blogs are starting to gain in importance once again. It still bothers me that I will probably need to edit this to add an insipid smiley face to indicate that the previous sentence was intended as a joke. Sort of. What isn't a joke are some of the high quality writings of other blog writers here at gamesquad, and the calibre of the other article writers, whom I am honoured to soon number myself among.

Tactical Wargaming

My articles, and this blog, will focus on board wargaming, particularly from a historical slant. And I don't mean the history the games are covering, but the history of the games themselves. To be precise, my interests cover commercially produced board wargames depicting 20th Century combat at the tactical level. That may seem absurdly exclusionary, but by my reckoning includes about 135 titles up to the year 2000, and dozens more since then, and of course increasing every year. I also have an interest in PC games covering the same era and genre and I anticipate some crossover topics being of interest.

There are a lot of titles out there that haven't seen much public discussion in many years; perhaps for a reason. But tactical game development has progressed sufficiently that it would be relatively difficult to do anything, be it on the PC or in paper form, truly unique or revolutionary. Studying history has more value than simple nostalgia; it can help us understand our present and inform our future in addition to being entertaining and educational. These will all be goals here. My first article should illustrate what I'm talking about nicely.

I hope to go a little beyond the normal blog format of simple blocks of text; what I want to do is provide the articles with links back to the blog where supplementary information will be provided - references, supporting quotes, additional images to illustrate points made. One of the great appeals of tactical board wargaming from its beginnings in 1969 was the diversity in graphic design, and hopefully some of that can be captured here. Anyone who recalls the stark impact of the PanzerBlitz boxtop will know what I mean.

In addition to collecting, playing and studying these games, my research has extended to the magazine industry that grew up in support of them. There is a goldmine of information in the house organs, fan 'zines and hobby press that was the precursor of the Internet and was the way that information was shared in the pre-digital age. I hope to share some of that in this space as well. Many of the issues in PC and board gaming today - probably all of them, really - have been discussed in the hobby press for as long as there has been a hobby press.

I'm looking forward to the opportunity to share my thoughts with the community and to hear yours. The timing is fortuitous. Recent discussions at a PC game developers site regarding the state of development of their tactical game series has been strained recently. Many of us "old guard" there had noted there were a lot of lessons to be learned from nearly 40 years and counting of wargaming "history" - and the parentheses are unnecessary, as that is exactly what it is - history. Others remained unconvinced, and a certain obliviousness to history seems natural in all walks of life, so it seems only fair it would extend to our hobby.

My Final Word
And there would be no reason to expect the average board wargamer to know, or perhaps care, what a Tac Game 3 was, or to reflect on the origins of the Infantry Fire Table every time he rolled the dice in Advanced Squad Leader. So we won't try and change the world here, or lead horses to water, just cast a little bit of light on something I myself find interesting. And in the end, a friend of mine who produces books for a living said it best. He publishes what he would like to read, not what he thinks can make money, or what he thinks he can sell - or by extension, what he thinks will inflame, hurt, shock, annoy or disturb others. If others want to read it too, so much the better. I suppose I feel the same way.

Can anyone identify all the games that the counters in my header art are taken from?