Gatekeeper: When someone takes it upon themselves to decide who does or does not have access or rights to a community or identity.
Why bring it up? Well, the board wargaming world is full of gatekeepers. It’s not that unusual. In fact, I suspect every hobby has their version of gatekeeping. The term most commonly associated with “gatekeepers” in the wargaming world is: Grognard. These are the stodgy old-timers who can tell you all about when wargames were first getting started and how good they were before cubes and other nonsense got involved. There are even neo-grognards who want to gatekeep what is and isn’t a wargame just as vehemently as the old guard.
Why bother even bringing it up?
Simply, gatekeepers can have a chilling effect on a small community. Even a community that seeks to find new members and that has success like wargaming can turn folks off. I look at some of the nonsense related to Katie’s Game Corner and opposition she’s received to everything from playing solitaire, to being a woman, to calling Twilight Struggle her favorite wargame. Frankly, this kind of garbage is what turns folks off of wargaming and makes them want to shy away for fear of not liking the things other people like or feeling inferior in their enjoyment of the hobby.
This article isn’t really about people though. It’s about games. It’s about games that don’t get a shot because folks want to value their view of wargames over what the game has to offer. The central question I’ll try to get at today is: Can a wargame be FUN and have that be enough?
Maybe I should make you read a bit further, but why bother. The answer is unequivocally, yes.
The real question then is WHY is it okay for a wargame to be fun above all else? This requires a little more investigation into the nature of why people might play wargames. There are as many wargamers as there are reasons for why they love wargaming. There is bound to be overlap and it’s typically found somewhere in the neighborhood of enjoyment of history, competition, social interaction, and strategic thinking. That’s not an exclusive list, of course, but it’s a start and tends to be the reasons rolled out by folks explicitly in their forum discussions or implicitly in what their gaming preference.
If the causes for wargaming have some common ground, perhaps that explains the degree to which different aspects of a wargame are valued. I would argue that there are three critical components to the evaluation of a wargame that, while not exhaustive, tend to be cited most frequently in reviews as either an exemplar of excellence or indicator of poor design.
What do reviewers mean, in general, when bringing these things up? It’s hard to pinpoint, honestly, because without being the author of every review I have to rely solely on what they write or say. In fact, even that can be misleading. Often times I’m left wondering whether the reviewer played the game more than once, or took the time to learn the rules at all. As a result, I need to infer quite a bit from reviews. Let’s take a quick look at each element of a wargame review.
This is pretty straightforward. Compare all those “shrink tear” and “whats inside the box” videos with the number of videos that actually show the game being played or reviewed. There are FAR more folks showing off what they own than what they’ve played. I hate to admit it, but I fall into that category…in my defense, I have more wargames than I suspect I’ll play in my lifetime though so who can hold it against a person?
What a reviewer is really saying during a component overview is … “Do I like/approve of the items found inside the box.”
A good reviewer will note whether the complete Order of Battle is there, the level of detail for the units, and any interesting quirks with the game. I better hear all about those odd little circular units when someone reviews the components of No Retreat: The Italian Front. The stranger the component mix or individual components, the more I want to hear about them. After all, if the designers included non-standard components that should be a klaxon going off in a reviewer’s mind.
The underlying point here is that components have become a closely evaluated element of a good game. We expect digital counters with high resolution, perfect die cuts, and accurate information. We expect to see a nice map, mounted more frequently now than even 10 years ago, and above all, we want to see a well-written rulebook. These expectations aren’t necessarily about the tactile feel or look of a game. Instead, it’s the first blush with the fun of the game. How quickly can I go from shrink rip to gaming with a friend?
If we take for granted that folks who enjoy board wargaming are also interested, at least in some part, in the history of the topic they’re gaming, then historical accuracy is going to get some attention. This begs the question…upon whose version of history are we evaluating the game?
I would argue that we’re relying on the designer’s view of history. After all, many games to great lengths to provide a handy bibliography. I’ve pulled some great books from those lists over the years. More often than not, I see reviewers relying upon their own sense of history. I won’t even say their expertise in history because for every well intentioned and well-informed wargamer on the topic there are a dozen (or more) who are simply spitballing their interpretation of history based upon a survey level course in high school or college.
So, why bother with historical accuracy at all? After all, the game was designed, refined, playtested, refined some more, and published. It must have passed quite a few sniff tests before making it into our hypothetical reviewer’s hands right?
In the immortal words of Lee Corso, “Not so fast there…”
Historical accuracy is relativistic when it comes to each person playing the game. As such, the reviewer’s impression of the history of a game is critical to the opinion of their audience. I will admit to trusting a friend’s opinion of the history more than my own far more often than not. It’s not that I’m unwilling to speak up, but if they like or dislike the historical accuracy of our game based upon their interpretation of history…well…how would I ever overcome that? Would such a discussion end with my gaming opponent willing to play against me again? Perhaps.
The fun of a game can directly be tied back to a person’s perception of its historical accuracy. Since this is tied so specifically to each person’s sense of history…bias will undoubtedly show through here with all other elements of the game being equal. After all, if we enjoy the history we’re more likely to buy into the narrative unfolding on our table!
Finally, it falls to yet another wildly subjective topic: Gameplay.
When I hear or see something reviewing gameplay I immediately jump to the actual act of playing the game. Was it fun? Were there too many markers to manage and thus the game became “fiddly?” How long did it take to play a turn? Were the rules manageable?
You likely have your list of questions that pop into your mind as well!
If we consider the FUN of a game and have established that the game has adequate components, an adequate historical basis for the rules, then what’s left is playing the game. Here’s where games can fall apart, particularly in our age of the non-stop release cycle. Few games, especially three to five-hour wargames, get sufficient play to warrant what I’d call a fair evaluation of its merits. We are hard-pressed to find time to play these games and it can be equally challenging to find opponents willing to give up their time when your schedules both permit.
A lot is riding on that first gameplay experience and, as we’ve discovered, each player is going to bring baggage about everything from their opinion of the topic to the history to their understanding of the rules. That can leave players on different sides of the table feeling totally different even though they just played the same game. I won’t lie…I’m more likely to enjoy a game I feel competent playing as opposed to one where I’m totally lost in the rules.
Therein lies the heart of the question. Is it okay to like a game JUST because it’s fun? Does a game need anything more than that? Does it need to look a certain way? Handle the rules for historical accuracy in a specific way? What about play out on the map the way both players expect?
I would, again, assert that the answer is no. Fun for the sake of fun is what hobbies like ours are built upon. The more judgmental the hobbyist, the more distant from the spirit of the hobby they become. Every hobby hopes to sustain itself. Take quilting, the concept of the quilting bee is inherently social and attempts to bring others in rather than turn them away. Games, and wargaming can be profoundly accepting. It can, however, also show off a level of judgemental childishness that it’s no wonder the term Grognard has found a pejorative meaning.
So … have fun if only just to have fun with your games!