Monday, January 21, 2008
Play the game, not the rules
All wargamers can, I would think, relate some story of an unpleasant gaming encounter that was marred by an opponent whose win at all costs (WAAC) attitude sucked any fun out of the occasion. What is shocking for me is how often this seems to occur. In wargaming as in any other fundamentally social hobby much of the enjoyment to be had is achieved through interaction with other gamers, exchanges of ideas and of course the challenge and excitement of the match itself. And indeed there is nothing wrong with competitiveness; it is a fundamental foundation of the whole thing. What I cannot understand is the attitudes of those who allow themselves to lose sight of the fact that it is just a game and should be fun and fulfilling for all parties involved. I think to a great extent much of the problem can be found in the nature of the rule sets we employ and the attitudes and habits that they encourage in their users. It seems to me that far too often we wargamers define our experience as hobbyists by those rule sets and that this can be detrimental to not only our enjoyment of all aspects of the hobby, from painting to playing, but also to our general outlook and attitude towards that most time consuming of our leisure activities. Let me be more specific, and in starting an example: the army list.
The army list, the force roster, the approved codex! The army list is a tool that is present in some form in many of the most popular wargames of our time whether you be contesting an ancient battle for the survival of Rome, hitting the Normandy beaches or crushing some orcs it is likely you will have a force roster to hand showing in great detail the choices you made for your army and therefore their legality in the often complicated restrictions enforced by the rulebook. The specific reasons put forward for the requirement of army lists by rules is varied, generally it is the creation of balanced opposing forces; though guiding the player towards a historically or thematically accurate force composition is commonly espoused too. The problem I find though is that in most cases the army lists fail on both counts, firstly as a tool for enforcing a balanced game and secondly for enforcing historical accuracy. The problem? their mere existence encourages players to attempt to distil the now limited choices available to them into ‘the perfect list’. You can see it every day in any GW shop you care to walk into, a young player enthused by the hobby has saved up enough cash for a box of his favourite little warriors and picks them up from the shelf for purchase – immediately the squawking starts and from all round the shop cries of “No mate don’t buy those, for the same points value you could get +1 leadership etc with a unit of these” or “Those guys are rubbish under the new rules” or “you’ll never make their points back in a game”. Very soon you find you are playing a game of lists, a game which if you are not careful can be won or lost on force composition alone. Unrealistic, unbalanced and downright unpleasant force compositions are so much more irritating to see employed when they can be smugly declared to be within the rules. In essence if someone does not want to play fair and have a game that is enjoyable for all they won’t and army lists are hardly a hindrance to them.
But anyway I digress somewhat from the initial thrust of this post and it is thus: over-adherence or unthinking deference to the tenets or affectations of a particular ruleset can be most detrimental to enjoying our hobby. Army-lists encourage us to build and paint an army which may not be so much of interest to us, constantly updated rules make our hard work in preparing troops an exercise in futility as unnecessary obsolescence is injected into the hobby, badly thought out rules or a reliance on a mess of special rules reduces our enjoyment by enforcing silly battlefield results or limitations or impelling us to employ questionable tactics to win. This combination of factors is in part why I have made a conscious effort to remove myself from that group of rulesets which is designed primarily around the competition or tournament wargame. There are many often less popular rulesets around that offer a very different experience to that which I am used to in the context of my personal wargaming history. These generally seem to fall into the historical category and emphasise either re-enactment of real engagements or the use of random army creation tables to construct a force for an engagement. Of course real historical engagements rarely involved equally balanced forces and I have found this to be in fact extremely conducive to a fun wargame. Real world generals are never able to select the quality of their forces – they must work with what they are given and very exciting it can be too when you find yourself in the final turn, clinging on with your army close to skedaddling.
All rulesets have their ups and downs though, no exceptions. I think the art comes in selecting those parts of a ruleset that you enjoy and that seem to you to create a good game and go with them. Far too often we take the rules as gospel when in fact we should be using them as a structure, to be diverted from or changed as necessary to above all make sure that what we are doing is at all times fun and never a chore.
In any case I have gone on about twice as long as I wanted to and said about half as much as I planned, such is life. Happy Wargaming - Have Fun!