Sort Of Like Chess: What’s Wargaming Actually Like?

Toy Story (c) Pixar.

In the first Introduction to Wargaming article, which lives here, I gave you the low-down on why wargaming exists, what it is, and why Skyrim’s existence depends on it.  I then promised that in the follow-up article, I’d get to talking about what it’s like to be a wargamer.  Let’s begin!

The first thing that you’ll notice if you want to pick up wargaming is that it’s expensive.  It’s cheaper than a lot of hobbies (arguably including video gaming), and the nice thing is that the stuff you buy lasts as long as you want it, but to build an army will set you back anywhere from £50 (for a small skirmish game, or a cheap naval battle title) to £500 (for a fairly large Warhammer 40,000 army). On top of that, the first time you buy miniatures, you’ll also want glue and other assembly tools, paints and brushes, dice, rulebooks and/or army books, and something to carry the lot around in without breaking them (although the latter can be improvised with bubble wrap and cardboard boxes).  That stuff adds price, and will probably set you back, oh, another £70 or so, possibly more.  Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to get miniatures for a lot cheaper, which I’ll get to in a later article.

The upside is that once you’ve spent your – let’s say – £300, which’ll net you everything you need to play a decent-sized game of most systems with spares/options to boot, that army is yours for the rest of time. Unlike card games, where cards go out of date or are superseded by more recent releases, and most video games, which run out of content at some point or fall by the wayside as people move on to the sequel, a wargame army gets updated along with the rest of the ruleset; each time a new edition of the rules comes out, updates to your existing Gaunts or Warpwolves or hoplites also appear, bringing them in line with the new rules. If you play realistic games, or aren’t fussed about having precisely the right models for the right games, you also have the advantage that your minis transfer easily between any number of rulesets that approximately match them (or are set in the same historical period).  They might become more or less effective in moving between editions and game systems, but they persist.

Chaos Land Raider (c) Games Workshop []
These things just do not go away.
Very occasionally, a company might discontinue a faction (the Squats, which used to be a part of Warhammer 40,000 a long time ago, are an infamous example), but the beauty of tabletop games is that they’re easy to modify.  You can always add your army of choice back into whichever game you prefer, with only a little work and your opponents’ consent.  In most cases, what you see on the table has absolutely no relation to the rulesets – the miniatures don’t have rules printed on them (and if they do you can ignore it), the rulebook isn’t a part of the battlefield, and there’s nothing to stop you easily inventing your own units, scenarios, factions or even entire games if your opponent agrees to it. It’s not even especially hard to do; I have no less than five wargame rulesets of various kinds sitting on my hard drive right now which I wrote (or in one case, co-wrote). They’re all incomplete, but all playable, and some of them are even quite good.

Once you’ve bought the models and the rules and whatnot, you’ll need to find an opponent.  Most people gather in gaming clubs.  These can be attached to a store (any miniature supplier worth its salt will have gaming tables to play on) or independent groups of locals.  If you’re a student, your university probably has one.  Other people play at Games Workshop stores, which always run gaming nights a couple of times a week, with the caveat that the games and miniatures being used have to be GW’s own.  (GW stores are also often overrun with ten-year-olds.)  Clubs are of course very much based on the people within, and run the gamut from extremely welcoming to almost cold.  Finding one is a matter of looking around local gaming stores (who will usually be appraised of the club’s existence) and the Internet (a lot of clubs have a website or forum).

The best way to wargame, though, is with friends.  Actual tables are not required; just sit on the floor, use books and whatever else is scattered around the room as scenery, and have at it.  If you have a friend willing to show you the ropes of a game you’re interested in, that’s great; not only can your friend teach you the rules, but they’ll probably also loan you their stuff to begin with, and generally be accommodating and helpful.

Kharn the Betrayer (c) Games Workshop []
"Friends?! Kharn needs no friends! I have a giant chainsaw axe!" "Wait, what?"
Actually playing a wargame is a fairly unique experience.  Most actions that you’ll perform on the field require dice rolls to resolve their results; some require the expenditure of some resource.  Typically, your goal is to either wipe out your opponent or fulfil some objective (such as capturing areas of ground) while engaging the enemy’s troops, like any RTS.  The similarities, however, end there.  Wargames rarely allow you to expand your force once the game has started, or use fog-of-war mechanics (both do exist, though), and units tend towards being more complicated or involved than they do in RTSs simply because you have the ability to read through an explicit list of a unit’s powers.  You come to understand a unit more; you can read about it and learn exactly what its capabilities are before it ever hits the table, then learn (in depth) what it does and how to use it separately, through experience.  Contrast strategy games, where in many titles it can take multiple matches to notice that a unit even exists, never mind what it does or when you should build it.

The explicitly turn-based setups wargames use invoke a fascinating metagame: what will your opponent do in reply to this action?  In which order should you move each unit?  Which of your opponent’s units do you need to kill before he next uses them?  In short – how much damage (or other tactical benefit) can you achieve in one turn, and after you’re done with your turn here, which situations can you present to your opponent so as to minimise what damage she can do to you in her turn?  It’s a very interesting setup rarely seen in videogames.  Since most turn-based videogames (in my experience) feature simultaneous turns or a grand scale, and rarely give you the same level of granular control over the situation that you get in wargames, this seems to be quite a unique selling point.  Even wargames which allow you to react to your opponent’s movements during her turn maintain this balance of precise setup, risk, and response.

Yu Jing Ninjas & Pan-Oceania Kamau (c) Corvus Belli []
Suddenly, ninjas. The best kind of response.
Wargames are also social.  Nerdy as the hobby is, it relies on face-to-face interaction with another human being, which is great.  In fact, there are plenty of games out there with simple or relatively uninteresting rulesets but which are great for having a laugh – the so-called “beer and pretzels” type of game.  This is – again – in stark contrast to videogames, where even if you’re playing a game with someone in the same room, it’s entirely possible for the two of you to get lost in what you’re doing and, if you’re not playing co-op, stop talking.  Wargaming requires you to tell your opponent what you’re doing, declare your attacks, ask him about his units’ stats, and so on – which keeps the two (or more) of you talking.  Finding people to play with can be a pain in the arse, but it’s worth it.

“But Adam,” I hear you cry.  “Which games should I even play?”

Well, I’ve written a pretty large number of words now, so that’s one for the next article of Sort Of Like Chess, methinks.  Enjoy your cliffhanger ending!



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  1. I majorly disagree with the £500 price point. As a historical wargamer, I’ve never spent more than £100-150 on my large armies, and most of my games can be bought for under £50, not just the skirmish ones.

    • Prices *can* go up to £500, was my point.  And, indeed, beyond that.  2500-3000 points of 40K will probably cost you somewhere in that ballpark depending on which faction you chose and how many transports you have.  But yes, most games will cost you a good amount less than that, especially if you’re careful.

      (For non-players, this is an army about one and a half times as big as you’ll ever play outside of deliberately oversized games, and you can happily get by on half of that; most wargamers of various kinds do build above and beyond the size they need though, to allow themselves access to a choice of units or simply to expand and modify their forces over time.)

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