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 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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 🙂