Video Games vs. Tabletop Wargames

This post exists mostly to create a space for some pictures of a recent game of Flames of War, a tabletop wargame set during World War II. I have a few friends who might be interested in seeing what the game looks like while it’s being played, and I don’t really have anywhere else to post them!

But I also realized, through the course of playing this game, why it is that I love video games so much better than card, tabletop, or board games: predictability of systems. Video games are a truer test of skill, in my mind, than these other kinds of games, and so they play into my competitive spirit much more closely.

Read on for neat pictures of World War II miniatures, and/or some of my thoughts along these lines.

Miniature wargaming is as much or more about building and painting the models as it is anything else. Sometimes the games are pretty good, like Flames of War, and other times the games are terrible, like Warhammer 40,000, terrible as in not very balanced, not enforcing even teams, and rules that don’t always make sense.

To be fair, miniature wargaming is usually complex. The basic rules themselves can fill a textbook-like space, replete with pictures and diagrams to explain core concepts, and all the different armies usually have their own, special rules, and special sorts of units within armies have their own, unique rules, as well. These are not games for the impatient. They take a while to learn, much less master.

The Germans' left flank. Panzer IV H tanks (upper left), Hummel mobile artillery pieces (bottom), and in their halftracks, Panzergrenadier Second Platoon (middle-right).

The Flames of War rules are pretty well-written. The game plays out like one would expect. Infantry is good for holding positions but fairly shite at most everything else. They get pinned down by machine-gun fire easily, are really difficult to dislodge once they’re dug in, and can be very dangerous to tanks up close.

The Germans' right flank. Jagdpanzer IV tank hunters (middle), Panzergrenadier First Platoon in their halftracks (middle-right)

Artillery easily pins down infantry and can lay smoke barrages to obscure the enemy’s vision. It has to range in before it’s allowed to fire, which means observers need to be in position to spot enemy targets. Artillery guns are deadly when fired directly upon tanks. It’s all precisely how one would expect artillery to behave, with one exception: artillery would probably not be “on the board” if Flames of War were trying to be more of a simulation.

The British left flank. A Commando Platoon, a machine-gun platoon, and an anti-tank gun platoon.

Tanks are easier to kill when you shoot them from the side versus the front, and just because you hit a tank doesn’t mean you’ve killed it. That goes for any vehicle. Sometimes the crew just bails out, if they are afraid the vehicle is going to explode, and when it doesn’t, they can jump back in provided their morale holds.

Flames of War isn’t a game of just killing things. It’s much more about tactics and strategy than other miniature wargames I’ve played, and it’s tactics and strategy that to a point reflect what happened in the real world, which is kind of the point of a historical wargame,

The British right flank. Sherman tanks (left) and another pair of British Commando platoons (right)

Unless we’re talking about video games that use virtual die rolls under the hood, video games provide us with systems that reflect the direct consequences of our actions. Either we’ve lined up the target properly or we haven’t. Either we’re in cover or we’re not. Either we make the jump to the next platform or we don’t. The challenge, then, is one of mechanical mastery first, i.e. mastering the controls, and intellectual mastery second, i.e. learning how to employ the mechanics properly to overcome challenges.

The Panzers IVs, Jagdpanzers IVs and Hummels destroy most of the British Sherman tanks (they have little fake fire and smoke on them, see?)

Randomness is not something I associate very closely with video games. Perhaps I just don’t play those type of games! But I have more of a feeling that I’m in control of what’s going on, and that if I win or lose it’s my fault, and not the fault of factors outside my control. In tabletop wargaming, in order to really get the results you want sometimes you have to stack the odds preposterously in your favor, and other times you get stupidly lucky.

In the picture above, I’ve used all eleven of my German tanks to shoot at the four British Sherman tanks. I had eight shots, and needed to roll 5’s on a six-sided die to hit. I hit five times. My opponent only needed to roll 3’s to shrug off the hits. He failed to roll high enough with three of those dice. I’m pretty sure I beat the odds by a large margin with that turn of firing, and his loss of the Sherman tanks might have been the single loss that determined the rest of the entire game.

Second Panzergrenadier platoon unloads from their halftracks to assault the British left flank.

Competition ought to be about pitting one’s skills against another in a fair fight, because that’s the only way to truly measure which competitor is “better.” No one likes mismatches, because they’re boring as hell. Video games don’t do very well at providing fair matches, but I think it’s in large part due to how difficult it is to provide matchmaking for teams whose members have widely varying levels of skill.

I have a friend of a friend from Texas who is amazing at FPS games. If and when I’m in a group with him on Xbox Live, if we were matched up with competitors who could take said friend of mine, I wouldn’t stand a chance in hell! I’m good, but he’s amazing. A team of players at his skill level will wipe the floor with me, every time.

This is why I’ve always praised Halo for its effective use of TrueSkill in multiplayer matchmaking. Bungie took something very difficult, and did it right.

Second Panzergrenadier platoon has flanked the British with their halftracks. It looks like the Germans have the advantage. The entire German platoon failed a morale check and ran off the table shortly after this picture was taken!

Even when an FPS doesn’t have skill-based matchmaking, matches are short, such that people can get into practice relatively quickly. Tabletop wargames, on the other hand, can take three hours to play. It takes much, much longer to get good because it takes longer to learn from repeated mistakes. You don’t make them as often because you don’t play as often.

Not only are wargames more random owing to dice and their vagaries, and more difficult to learn owing to how long they take to play, it’s often difficult to provide for fair games because all the armies aren’t balanced very well against one another. Without some kind of agreement between players to provide “fair” armies, tabletop wargames can be extremely one-sided on a regular basis.

With Second platoon retreated on the right flank, First Panzergrenadier platoon races across the middle of the battlefield in their halftracks, exposing themselves to a very dangerous Firefly Sherman tank with its 76mm cannon (upper-left)

It takes a while to build and paint armies in tabletop wargames, and they’re not cheap. Flames of War is pretty affordable compared to other games, where it might cost only $300 to put together a decent army. But if you wind up making choices that aren’t competitive, you often have to choose between losing  – a lot – or buying new models and then building and painting them at the added expense of both money and time.

This is why tabletop wargames are as much or more about the building and painting of models, because if you approach them as a game first and foremost, things can get really frustrating, really quickly.

Second Platoon survives the drive across the table and, backed up by the two surviving Jagdpanzer IVs, launches a second assault against the British left flank.

In the case of this Flames of War match, my friend Leland loves British Commandos, so that’s the army he bought, built and painted. I love German halftracks – they’re just so iconic of World War II – and so I bought, built and painted a Gerpanzerte Panzergrenadier Kompanie (mechanized infantry company). That means infantry loaded up in halftracks backed up by lots of armor and mobile artillery.

Leland seems to think that all our games go like this: I think I’m losing, but I’m actually not, and then I always win. And he might be right, because if you’re mostly infantry with only four tanks and a few anti-tank guns, and you’re facing an entire company of tanks and vehicles that can reposition around the whole table quickly, you’re at a real disadvantage. Leland would have to buy some new stuff which might only be there to counter what I have at the table, but which he might not need against other players. That gets expensive.

The British right flank advances, in an attempt to capture an objective (the downed airplane in the lower-right). Believe it or not, with smoke cover from mortars, they could actually take that line of Panzer IV H tanks in assaults.

One of the things I love about video games is not only that you can get into competitive matches that are quick, and thus can get a lot of practice, but there’s lot of room for experimentation. You can try different character classes, different types of equipment and skills for those classes…there’s lots of room for play in its purest sense. You can take risks and not have to pay heavily for them.

In tabletop wargaming, you pay in the money it costs to buy units and armies that might not work well on the table, you pay in the time it takes to build and paint those units and armies before you’ve discovered they don’t work on the table, and you pay in the time it takes you to make that discovery, losing all those games without much satisfaction from wins to show for it.

Second platoon finally dislodges the British Commandos from the wrecked scout car they were defending, which means the Germans take the objective and win!

I guess that’s why tabletop wargaming is best left to hobbyists who just like building and pushing toys around on the table. I enjoy it, too, don’t get me wrong, but it’s so much less satisfying than playing video games. When the game of Flames of War these pictures were taken from was over I felt a little bad, as I always do, because I knew it probably wasn’t a fair fight, or because I knew the dice either favored me or screwed Leland, or a myriad of things that got in the way of savoring the victory. Whereas when I win a video game, I don’t usually feel like luck had much to do with it.

All photos copyright me, by the way. 🙂

1 Comment

  1. Kukuruza says:

    Nice topic and beautiful pictures. I play video games since I am 5 years old – i.e. round about 26 years. And I play tabletop wargaming for round about 18 years. For me both types of gaming are completely different.

    Video Games are more competitive. You want to reach the best performance even if you play just for fun.
    Tabletop wargaming is more collaborative. You want to play with your self-made models, show them and have a nice game/talk with your friends.

    just my 2 cents 😉

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