Board wargaming healthier than computer wargaming

I was reading William Trotter’s Origins convention article at and thought this was funny:

SSG’s Roger Keating wasn’t there packing UPS boxes – he left on a business trip the night before Origins closed – but over a couple of cold beers the night before he’d told me to keep my eyes peeled for SSG’s first-ever boardgame. “Much as I hate to say it, the PC platform is struggling – again – for its place in the sun, so we have decided to hedge our bets by expanding the formats in which our games are available. The game in question will be a battalion-scaled simulation of the Italian campaigns. Excellent game, really.”

So the company currently making the best computer wargames feels the need to diversify because the PC is suffering as a wargaming platform? Ouch. I just think PC wargame design sucks. The PC is a great place to publish good wargames. The only problem is that almost no one is.

What is a war game?

Is BF2 a war game?
Is Panzer general a war game?
Is Act of War a war game?
Is Planetside a war game?

I think they are all war games and certainly by that defintion I can’t agree that PC wargame is suffering nor that anyone isn’t publishing good ones anymore.

So how strong is the board game market? No, seriously, I have no idea.

Wargamers/grognards usually identify hard-core, generally historical, generally turn-based strategy games as ‘war games’. The games you mentioned are largely other genres with war portrayed in them, or as the setting. (Panzer General might be considered a true wargame though…)

“War gaming” has been around since before computer games, and originated with hardcore strategy board games back in the day.

As a benchmark, Axis & Allies would be considered a very ‘casual’/lite strategy game for most true grognards.

(A grognard is an old wargamer. Perhaps someone else can shine light on where the term came from exactly.)

It’s not as strong as it used to be in the SPI days. If you sell a few thousand copies or go through your print run you’re doing pretty well.

Avalanche doesn’t announce press runs or numbers but it seems like their stuff sells pretty well, or they sell through a lot of d20 supplements that supports their wargames titles (Panzer Grenadiers being the better selling one). I’ve heard they do quite a few but that’s just rumors.

Frankly the boardgame industry currently is a very tight industry, where profit margins are small, component costs can be very high, and whether not a title succeeds or fails (let alone get published) depends on the number of pre-orders. Definitely not an industry for the meek.

Frankly I’m not sure what Keating is thinking here.

— Alan

Grognard = French for “grumbler” = what Napoleon called his old campaigners

I like the SSG wargames, but I am not among those who think they are the best out there. There are enough issues with the Decisive Battles games–the look, the gamey nature of the system, the devotion to game balance over historical fidelity, to name a few–that, while they don’t keep me from buying them, do keep me from viewing them as the be all and end all of computer wargames.

Ditto with the John Tiller stuff, the Panzer Campaigns games. I like these in many respects, but an aging game system, lack of modularity and flexibility, and questionable AI keep them from being the ne plus ultra as well. I own them all and play them (mostly PBEM), though I tend to play the SSG games solo more.

The problems with wargames on the PC are many:

People don’t buy enough of them–the number of people who bitch and moan about these games is far higher than those who actually purchase them.

The stuff people talk the most about is often the stuff they are least willing to pay for–a great example here is “innovative” game systems, heavy command and control realism, high fog of war, etc. Put that stuff into games and people get weirded out, or frustrated (“Why won’t that unit go THERE, damn it!”) Yet forums are filled with people clammoring for just this sort of thing.

Many wargamers like solo play, not because they are antisocial (PBEM is popular too) but because it fits the nature of the hobby–we like to pour over books and maps, using the games as supplements to our history. Boardgames do this very well, computer games don’t. The AI sucks, generally, or the game is made in a very ‘gamey’ way a la the SSG titles so the AI can deliver a challenge, but one that is usually grossly ahistorical. Also, computer wargames often lack the combination of apparent historical fidelity and transparency of modeling you get in board games.

While the PC is potentially a terrific wargame tool, we have yet to reap the fruits of the computer revolution. Originally it was all about data–the PC would alllow oodles of data and number crunching. Then it became AI. What was lost along the way is core design–the basis of any game. Board games with no technology whatsoever have always been based on design–you came up with a model and a concept, you did the research, you built the game around these things. With PC wargames, the need to create a reusable and easily portable game system outweighs the need to design a good game system, all too often.

A lot of this is interrelated. Lack of customers = lack of money = lack of incentive/ability to create new stuff. There is enough of a market to sustain low-end development, but that merely reinforces the “reload and reuse” cycle. Hey, I love the Panzer Campaign games, but they are in dire need of a code base revamp and design reconceptualization. My beef with the SSG games is somewhat different, partly aesthetic and partly conceptual, but the lack of sales certainly seems to be a factor in limiting development of more sophisticated (in terms of historical fidelity) simulations of operational warfare.

I’ve always wanted something like The Gamers OCS system on the PC. Hell, I always wanted ASL, too, though Combat Mission comes darn close in that regard. Then again, Battlefront isn’t exactly flooding the world with games, and the third party ones they are marketing are a decidedly mixed bag.

So we do have decent games, for several niches (PBEM, competitive game play, WEGO tactical) but nothing of the breadth and depth we could have. But then, if there is no one buying them, who will make them? And really, even with the best wargames you can think of, would there be enough wargamers willing to buy them? History indicates no.

Combat Mission.

One of the devs here at work (not a game company) runs a tabletop con in Boston every year (Total Havoc? One of those), so I periodically pester him for game suggestions. He’s partial to video games that are strategic or tactical, he prefers DAOC over EQ or CoH because of the RvR, for example.

So I get tips now and again on good games to try, and I figure out of all the stuff I played, the Combat Mission series is probably what people mean when they say ‘wargame’. Turn-based, detailed, good AI, historically precise, decent graphics.

I played Wargame Construction Set from SSI way back in the past, and they were really good at those kinds of games then, and they’re still making the same ones now, which can be like taking Pong 2: The Revenge to market next to Virtua Tennis.

Wargames were always a niche market. Since the computer game market was itself very much a niche back then, it looks like it’s been declining, but really I figure this genre appealed to the people who owned PCs back in the 80s, and as the rest of the population caught up, other kinds of games that appealed to mass audiences became popular.

I loved tabletop rpgs, and so the cons were exposure for me to the tabletop strats. I had never played Warhammer 40k or Epic, I had never played Seakreig, I had never seen the sort of time and effort old beardy guys would put into painting tiny Civil War miniatures and recreating entire battlefields (I think we played through…Wilderness? It was a long time ago.)

So I learned a lot about those games being around the guys who played them and I think you see the mindset that these guys are buying video games from, as well. Just as tabletop strats and civil war reenactment fans are pretty marginal but very loyal, very precise PC wargames called their fan base in early, did a lot financially to help the early PC game market and ultimately never got as popular as the more broad-appeal games that came later.


Would a computer gamer buy a ‘good’ wargame? Would it be too good for them to understand and play? Look at chess, the strategy and tactics are very complex but it’s ultimately a very easy game to know and play.

Would a computer gamer buy a ‘good’ wargame? Would it be too good for them to understand and play? Look at chess, the strategy and tactics are very complex but it’s ultimately a very easy game to know and play.

Meaning, would a computer gamer who does not normally play wargames buy this hypothetical “good” wargame? Good question.

Generally, attempts to sell games that grognards would call “true” wargames to a wider audience have failed dismally. Not to say that has to be true but so far it has been. Even Combat Mission has a very small audience, and most of them are pretty hard core wargamers who don’t play anything else.

Combat Mission did succeed in getting more mainstream coverage though and its graphics certainly drew in people that might have not even paid the slightest attention to it otherwise.

Wargame makers should concentrate on making their game look professional, coming up with a solid game system and then finding a way to make the user interface the absolute simplest it needs to be. Lots of people played games like Steel Panthers that weren’t real wargame fans at the time. Same goes for Panzer General. These games looked good, played great and had simple interfaces that people could grasp in a single play session.

I’ve never been convinced that any game style is too hardcore for mainstream success. You have to look no further than Final Fantasy Tactics to see that a hardcore strategy game (that plays a lot like a wargame) can be successful on a bigger scale. Just taking a board game design and turning it into a computer game won’t cut it though. While I love playing “board games” that masquerade as PC games, most folks just don’t.


I’m surprised that there dosn’t seem to be much of any of the “lite” wargames like Panzer General series. Easy to pick up, but enough depth to keep you playing and pretty well done historical stuff. It seems these days its just the hardcore stuff from places like Matrix Games and such or your out of choices. Unless there’s stuff that I’m missing

The “crossover” from Combat Mission is miniscule, though. Real, yes, but significant? I do not believe so.

And I take issue with the idea that you can expect mainstream success for “true” wargames simply because the mainstream has demonstrated a taste for hardcore RPGs. Wargames are sui generis, they are … different. Many more people are willing to min/max fantasy RPG toons than are willing to play games with their abilities limited to historical parameters, and where game balance is trumped by those same pesky historical realities. You can design a fantasy game to be incredibly intricate and balanced; it’s much harder to balance a historical wargame in a meaningful way. All too often it’s a case of “well, I stopped you cold but because the victory points are set such and such a way I lose.”

I love strategy games but I’m not a history buff, so Wargames don’t really interest me. I can see where it would be fun to command an army in 1942 Europe, but I have no interest in recreating specific battles. I mean, when I play Romance of the Three Kingdoms, I play on fictional because I don’t give a rat’s ass about historical accuracy, I want the game to play differently each time.

Cardboard & Lead wargaming is indeed thriving.

Thriving is relative of course, they wont be making millions any time soon. But I havent seen this much growth in miniature wargaming for years (and no its not just SF or Fantasy). I thank Phil Barker & DBA.

From my perspective my cup runneth over. Its hard to choose whether to finish painting some new Russian Civil War 15mm figs to play with homebrew rules, laying out Tunisia an OCS boardgame or booting up War in the Pacific all the time waiting for the Ango-German war to come out from Schwerpunkt…

Heady times.

WARGAMES are struggling in the boardgame market, but hobby boardgames are doing far far better than they’ve ever done before. I recommend www.boardgame.geek and or for places selling hobby boardgames.


Completely agree, that’s a fundamental problem with wargame design. Usually these games are complicated, hard to use, and fairly ugly compared to non-historical strategy games. Their selling point is historical accuracy, but that’s exactly what introduces massive balancing issues which are then counteracted by those artificial turn limits and bizarre victory conditions, making the gameplay even less enjoyable.

On the other hand, if you just want to simulate history on a computer, the system is usually too crude or too gamey for that purpose. The fundamental problem with computer wargames is, I think, that they can’t decide whether they want to be games or simulations, and end up failing on both counts.

An automated, detailed simulation of a major conflict where you just set parameters and watch the action unfold might be fun from a learning and research perspective. That would also put the resources of a modern computer to good use.

Don’t ask me who would want to pay money for that, though. :)

I see what you guys are saying, but someone has to explain why Steel Panthers got two sequels and seemed to sell very well. I know that was a lot of years ago now, but it did have a lot of historical accuracy while at the same time it looked good and played great. I haven’t seen another game like it since that I can think of.


I think Steel Panthers was sort of in the right place at the right time. It was the first computer tactical wargame which looked really nice graphically, and it was also the most authentic Squad Leader port ever (even if it wasn’t marketed as such). It also was released right about the time PCs were becoming mainstream. I’m not convinced that a game like SP would be that hot of a seller if it were released nowadays, because people have been spoiled by the Combat Mission games.

Personally, I’m really looking forward to Panther Games newest, and I’m also baffled as to SSG’s interest in the ultra-competitive board wargame market.

Steel Panthers was exceptional for a wargame. Looked great for its time, was easy to play, and the tactical scale allowed them to bypass the usual balancing problems. (They’d just dump enough units on both sides to make the game challenging… you see, the Japanese just happened to have their entire armored force concentrated on that one spot when you attacked… :) )

Panzer General is another example for a very popular wargame, and for the same reasons, although its apparent tactical scale was actually a highly abstracted (i.e. historically inaccurate) operational scale.

In general I think it’s easiest to combine fun & accuracy on a tactical level. That’s where you can properly balance scenarios without making them ahistorical, where you can mostly ignore grognard issues such as supplies and transportation, and where you can make the graphics pretty and intuitive. (How pretty can you make a NATO symbol?)