Sort Of Like Chess: An Intro to Wargaming

Toy Story (c) Pixar.

You’ve probably heard of or encountered tabletop wargaming at least once in your life, whether it’s by playing it, knowing someone else who’s into it, seeing it online, or walking past a Games Workshop store. There’s a good chance you’ve seen or played one of the several Warhammer 40,000 videogames, of which Space Marine and Dawn of War II: Retribution are the most recent. This here article being uploaded into your face-inputs is going to tell you what it’s all about.

Tabletop wargaming has been around for a pretty long time. It may or may not surprise you to find out that it originally developed from games played to simulate actual war – a practice that goes back a couple of hundred years. One of the most influential games from the days of yore is known today as Kriegsspiel, invented by one Lieutenant von Reiswitz of the Prussian army in 1811.  It, along with its contemporaries, made use of dice to simulate unpredictable battlefield circumstances, like the outcome of combat or fog of war.  The impact of games like this on warfare was considerable, and they’ve turned the tide of battles or, occasionally, entire wars, including successes for the Prussians in the late 1800s.

Wargaming gradually evolved to become a recreational pursuit.  H. G. Wells (yes, that H. G. Wells) published Little Wars in 1913, which added simple rules to the old art of playing with toy soldiers.  Clubs and games slowly formed; the first miniatures produced using rubber moulds (which made them vastly more affordable) appeared in 1955.  An explosion of popularity occurred in the 70s, and 1971’s Chainmail – a medieval-era wargame – included a fantasy supplement that eventually led to Dungeons & Dragons and the entire existence of RPGs, first pen-and-paper, then computerised.  That’s right: if it wasn’t for Chainmail, there’d be no Skyrim.  So there.

Skyrim, (c) Bethesda Softworks.
Slightly off-camera, someone just rolled a d20.

Other sci-fi and fantasy games sprung up in the 70s, and led to the diversification of wargaming into two major camps – historical/realistic, and fictional.  There are people who play both, of course, and the two sides generally exist harmoniously, but there’s a surprising amount of difference in the rulesets, and very few games seem to sit in between the two flavours (Stargrunt is the one exception I can think of).

Historical and modern wargames go for simulation first; they usually have very simple combat rules in exchange for much more involved morale and battlefield disruption rules.  As with reality, units will not always receive or follow orders properly, will hide rather than get shot, and don’t vary that much except in the level of training and quality of equipment they have.  Sci-fi and fantasy games, on the other hand, go for a very different feel.  The mechanics are often designed to make a good (or fun) game first and be realistic second, and there are usually rules that allow for the possibility of Cool Stuff (like giant robots throwing other giant robots around in Warmachine).  Suppression and fleeing are usually downplayed and left out in favour of magic missiles and laser cannons and the like.

Warmachine, (c) Privateer Press (also, awesome).
I dunno about you, but I'd rather have this guy than a bunch of scared musketeers.

Another difference is that realistic games don’t tend to come with miniatures.  Companies such as Perry Miniatures make large numbers of cheap, generically usable historical figures from a variety of periods, and players will pick their own ruleset and have at it.  Sci-fi rulesets usually have universes and storylines, and with that comes the need for specifically designed models to represent this setting’s particular brand of giant demon on the table, so companies like Games Workshop and Privateer Press supply both rules and miniatures, making and maintaining largely self-contained games for fun and profit.

So, now that you know the backstory, what’s it actually like?  I’m a sci-fi gamer myself, so I’ll talk you through what I play, what I’ve seen, and what the experience of being a wargamer is all about, in the next part of this series, coming soon to a near you!


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