Review: Empires in America

My last trip to the FLGS ended with an impulse purchase: I got myself a copy of Empires in America from Victory Point Games. What appealed to me was not only the theme – the French and Indian War – but also the fact that it was a solitaire game. Now gaming is a fundamental social activity for me. However, I thought that it would be nice to have something to play if my regular partners have no time and I fancy a game.

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Empires in America comes in a box with a couple of counters, dice, cards and a board. The design is very nice, although I would have prefered the board to be mounted on cardboard. This is a strategy game where you take the role of the French defending their colony against British attacks. It is card-driven: so-called ‘historique cards’ are drawn at the beginning of each turn and determine events as well as possible actions. The British are controlled by the game’s mechanics and basically advance towards your capital, Montréal. In your turn, you can attack the British armies to throw them back, build fortifications and trading posts and take a couple of other actions from cards.

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My first game in progress.

I lost my first game before the Seven Years War even broke out! There is a very clever timing mechanic built into the game, which escalates events after the Seven Years War cards is played. For the second game, I did better but still couldn’t hold out against the British – in the end, Murray’s army captured Montréal.

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Montréal is lost to the British.

It seems that it was evident how much fun I had playing those games, as K. asked to join in for the next game. We both like cooperative games, so it was natural that we would try to play Empires in America in that way. And it worked a treat! We pondered and planned together but still lost the first game. The second, however, we managed to win! One decisive event was a Battle of Ticonderoga, pitting the army of Wolfe against Montcalme. Both sides had a lot of action cards in the battle so we rolled buckets of dice, making it feel like an epic struggle. We managed to throw Wolfe back and he never really recovered from that blow.

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Victory!

Empires in America works great as a cooperative game. As there are no separate roles, like in Pandemic, it probably won’t work with more than two (or at a stretch three) players, but for those it’s great fun.

I am very impressed by the game. The mechanics are very clever and the narrative is captivating. The short paragraphs with background information printed on the cards are a great idea, as they give a succinct historical context to the event or action happening.The game is difficult enough to require good planning and some hard decisions. It may be more difficult to win than Pandemic, but due to the event cards and the dice rolling there is also more luck involved. Still it always feels as if it’s your decision that matters – for example, I lost my second game due to neglecting Murray’s approach along the St. Lawrence and realising too late that he was at the gates of Montréal. Our victory felt like a real achievement and had some dramatic and memorable events.

Empires in America is a fantastic game and highly recommended if you fancy a solitaire or cooperative board strategy game.

Review: Zones of Control

Zones of Control. Perspectives on Wargaming is an ambitious 800-pages volume published last year by MIT Press. It is a collection of 60 essays by a great variety of authors which covers a lot of ground. Hobby and professional wargames, board games, military simulations, computer games and miniature games are all discussed. Articles from designers are paired with articles by historians and people from the humanities who investigate the cultural impact of such games.

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Coming myself from the humanities, I found those articles the most fascinating. The historical overview on the development of hobby wargames by Jon Peterson is an excellent read. Bill McDonald’s vindication of Toby’s garden wargames as described in the novel Tristram Shandy is great fun, while Ian Sturrock’s and James Wallis’ short history of Games Workshop is quite enlightening. Unfortunately, it’s also the only text dealing explicitly with miniature wargames.

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Cpt. Toby Shandy, the original wargamer!

I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed when I discovered that the book’s emphasis definitely lies on board wargames of the hex-and-counter variety – not something I’m particularly interested in. Most of the designers’ texts are by people working in that area and many of the scholarly articles also cover them. This leads to a bit of tunnel vision, as the development of board wargames is treated as a pretty closed tradition. I’m sceptical about the claim that the concept of the ‘scenario’ (in contrast to ‘monographic’ games dealing with one specific battle) was invented by Avalon Hill in 1970 – the idea that rules are ‘War Engines’ which can be applied to different situations has been a part of miniature wargames since H.G. Wells’ Little Wars.

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Not really my cup of tea…

The book gives the impression that the most important innovations happen in board wargames design. However, while there is a lot of discussion about combat mechanics and Combat Resolution Tables, there is not that much on command and control. Concepts such as friction, which have become central in miniature wargames, are barely mentioned. It would have been nice to read a contribution by, say, Richard Clarke of TooFatLardies and get some discussion of innovative rules design in miniature wargames.

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C&C, Lardies style.

Still, due to the sheer amount of information in it, reading and browsing through Zones of Control is a rewarding experience. It’s fascinating to get so many different perspectives on wargaming and there are lots of surprising and inspiring discoveries to be made. Also, I felt like I could glimpse something like a big picture in the end. One thing I found especially interesting is the repeatedly uttered observation that there is a “strong manual and tabletop ethos” in wargaming – even in professional wargaming. Several authors stress that despite the availability of computers, tabletop games offer many advantages. One of the most important is that they are not black boxes: Design choices are immediately visible and can be discussed while rules can be changed and tinkered with – and all this without spending lots of time and money on employing programmers. The tenor of the book is that tabletop wargames still have a future – something I find rather encouraging.

Review: Tabletop Wargames. A Designer’s & Writer’s Handbook

Being interested in the design aspect of wargaming, I ordered the new book by Rick Priestley and John Lambshead: Tabletop Wargames. A Designer’s & Writer’s Handbook. It’s a nicely layed out volume of 157 pages that was penned by experienced designers, so what could go wrong?

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Let me start by stating that there is, indeed, useful stuff in there: Some of the discussions of rules architecture and probability are interesting, the presentation of different mechanics provide a good overview of what’s used by many game designers and there are practical hints on writing and organising rule books. Also, the book is well structured and written in a clear style.

I was, however, flabbergasted by the conservative streak that runs through the whole volume. In the end, the authors’ advice boils down to this: If you want to sell your rules, use “tried and trusted mechanisms” because you might “risk […] putting off players of a more conservative disposition” or publishers that “are somewhat suspicious of the new, fearing that it will limit the potential customer base” (all quotes from p. 44).

If you compare the book with a volume on board games design – such as the Kobold Guide to Board Game Design – designing wargames looks like an almost reactionary venture. If you play any modern board games at all, you know how contemporary game designers continously push the limits of their medium (for example with cooperative mechanics or the ‘legacy‘ format).

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Changes are permanent in a ‘legacy’ game.

But, you might wonder, aren’t there lots of wargames designers out there which do the same? Of course! To name just three examples: SAGA has very successfully introduced EuroGame mechanics in the form of resource management, Dan Mersey’s The Men Who Would Be Kings includes solo (i.e. cooperative) mechanics and TooFatLardies have been at the forefront of innovative rules design for more than a decade. And they all seem to sell their rules rather well!

As a look at the contemporary market in wargaming rulebooks show, wargames design is much more diverse and innovative than using “tried and trusted mechanisms”. Sure, you might not sell many copies of your uber-innovative rules with all their new-fangled mechanics, but then, on the other hand, if Alex Buchel had heeded that advice he might not have written SAGA, and he – and many others – have proven that the audience is interested in innovative rules design if the game is actually good.

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SAGA: Innovative and successful!

With its limited perspective, Tabletop Wargames. A Designer’s & Writer’s Handbook is a missed opportunity. It’s full of ‘don’t try that, play it safe’ – post-ancient naval wargames are complicated and boring, so keep away (instead of trying to find mechanics to make them fun, like Nick Wright or Dave Manley do), X-Wing might be innovative but is only a passing fad, games dependent on cards are not real wargames (Richard Clarke and Sam Mustafa might disagree there), skirmish games are a “niche” (I’d think they have become the dominant format…), and so on. And most of all: never push the boundaries (“don’t cross the streams”, as the authors say when they recommend to keep movement and shooting phases separate). The image of wargames design Priestley and Lambshead present is one of a conservative and timid enterprise, where you always have to look over your shoulders to make sure you won’t put off a single potential customer. It’s never about implementing and communicating your vision of the game.

This conservativism extends to issues like gender-neutral language: The authors dismiss it as “confusing”, warning to “avoid at all costs if you value your readers’ sanity”, showing again that they think that wargamers are basically dumb people incapable of grasping new (or not-so-new outside the authors’ bubble) concepts.

I guess this does represent the approach taken by some of the few large companies out there. When reading the book, it suddenly struck me that the original manuscript might have been an internal training handbook for Games Workshop or Warlord Games. The chapter on weapons ranges is especially telling because the authors advice weapons ranges to be shortened according to a ‘complicated sigmoid curve’ so as to sell models of assets that would normally not fit unto the table. What a cynical surrender of game principles to the dictate of the market!

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In short: If you want to become a rules writing drone for Games Workshop or Warlord, by all means buy the book. If you want to get ideas and inspirations for implementing your own vision, get a volume on board games design or listen to Richard Clarke or Sam Mustafa talk about games design on the Meeples & Miniatures podcast.

H.G. Wells: Little Wars

The 1913 book Little Wars by novelist H.G. Wells – whose 150th birthday we celebrate this year – rightly can claim to stand at the origin of wargaming as a hobby. I recently had the opportunity to get a cheap copy of the 1st paperback edition from 1977 (the original first edition is far beyond my price range!).

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I admit that my main intent was to have the book in my collection, but when I started to read it I was hooked. Having recently read that Little Wars has “little to offer the modern wargamer in terms of its rules” (in the disappointing Tabletop Wargames. A Designers’ & Writers’ Handbook, which in its conservativism reads like a design handbook for Games Workshop), I was surprised at how many interesting and modern ideas can be found in there. Of course, Little Wars is best known for its use of toy cannons to actually shoot at your opponents toy soldiers, and this is something modern wargamers are understandibly hesitant to do – although there is at least one fun looking game available which uses small rubber balls to shoot at MDF figures. However, apart from that, Wells introduced some basic mechanics that are still modern and not at all taken for granted in today’s rules.

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One of them is the element of friction. In Wells’ game, due to a strict time limit, players may not be able to move all their figures, leading to “bodies of men lagging […], to careless exposure, to rapid, less accurate shooting”. Decisions have to be made in a short time and under pressure. Now, most modern rules model friction as an intrinsic game mechanic and don’t force it upon the player’s actual behaviour; however, the idea is there, and this is more than can be said of many modern rules.

Wells also has an ingenious idea for hidden deployment: Just move the figures’ boxes until they are within a certain range of the enemy. Some boxes might only contain a small token force, enabling feints and tactical surprises. Wells just invented the ‘blinds’ mechanic that can be found in games such as TooFatLardies’ I ain’t been Shot Mum!

There are also several ideas for scenarios as well as a campaign system in the book. And, to top it off, I was flabbergasted to discover a points system!

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The book also features a nice battle report of a small engagement the author had fought against a friend, accompanied by photos. Incidentally, the book is illustrated by several photos, which are all great fun – especially the ones showing grown men lying about the grass and moving their figures!

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This brings me to another observation: I’ve had some discussion about the subtitle of Little Wars, namely: “a game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books”. I agree that this is very patronising; however, I think that in the context of the time, it was actually rather progressive to include girls at all in an activitiy that consisted of waging war and shooting cannons at toy soldiers. And Wells himself was a staunch proponent of women’s rights. It does, at least, signal the willingness to make wargaming a more inclusive activity.

Finally, Wells takes a clear stance regarding what he calls ‘Great War’ and sharply criticises “this prancing monarch and that silly scare-monger, and these excitable ‘patriots'”, making it clear that to enjoy a wargame does not mean that one enjoys real wars. On the contrary, for Wells the game shows that real wars are “blundering things” that bring only destruction and misery.

Little Wars is worth reading for more than nostalgic reasons. It’s written in a lively style that conveys the joy of having discovered a “limitless game”, and it is suprisingly modern in many aspects.

Little Wars is available as an ebook for free from Project Gutenberg. If you prefer a print version, John Curry's History of Wargaming Project offers a volume of Wargaming Pioneers which includes Wells' text. Or you might find a second hand copy at a used book platform such as eurobuch.com.

If you are interested in the history of female gamers, Jon Peterson has written an excellent article on the subject.