What Matters In Wargame Reviews: A Checklist

As a preparation for my first real ‘serious’ game review I try to collate a topic list with subjects that the reviewer has to cover. A checklist. Even Han Solo and Chewbacca use checklists in the movies, so why not a simple miniature wargamer? I based this preliminary list on the writings of Nikolas Lloyd, useful comments in a discussion thread on Lead Adventure and the Deltavector game design blogs. This checklist is a follow-up to my earlier blog about do’s/don’ts.

  1. Short hard facts.
    • How many players, time to play a standard game, costs, scale, time needed to prepare a game, IGOUGO/other activation system, # miniatures needed, price of the core game, type: is it a points-based-list building-balanced tournament game or casual game
  2. Scale of the game:
    • skirmish: individual fights with single miniatures, small squads tactical: combined arms, different unit types working together, divisions with support, battlegroupsgrand tactical: larger battles with brigades, or several brigades working together.
  3. A brief description of the game.
    • With brief I mean only an overview. A very detailed description of game mechanics is often boring and just a copypaste of the rules. It can be useful to link to publisher, a how-to-play-video or other detailed blog about the game rules.
  4. Layout and background
    • Some rulebooks are gorgeous coffee table books, others are PDFs in a very simple style. I like it if the book gives a brief historical and military background – or a convincing fictional background, if fantasy/SF. Is the layout good value for money?
  5. Completeness of the book. Does it have scenarios and army lists? The best sets of rules have some mechanism for creating scenarios and include army lists. For other systems supplemental books are a neccessity. I don’t like that really.
  6. What is the goal of the game designer?
    • An important point. If the designer wants fastplay, the design should be judged for (not) attaining this goal. For example, many old rulesets are trivially criticised because they were too complex, too many tables, etc. Old designs however stressed historical realism and had a more granular approach than modern games. So the reviewer’s question is: is/was the design ‘historical’? The goal of GW, as my second example, is to sell miniatures. So AoS should not subjectively be reviewed as ‘the inferior replacement of the WHFB-game that I as older gamer liked so much’ but as a marketing tool to reach a younger age group in a challenging market. Personal opinions about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ games matter very much, but are not leading.
  7. Resource management system
    • Some wargames have a resource management system. The Conan miniature boardgame and the Fast Play Grande Armee Sam Mustafa rules have a dice pool that can be used to reroll or influence results. The DBA pip system is in fact a limited resource of commands that can be given to battlegroups. In Maurice and Dropzone Commander, the players draw and discard cards.
  8. Setup
    • Some games allow you to make choices before playing, like dropoff-points (Chain of Command) or a mini-campaign game (Blücher). Others rules just suggest to make groups within 6 inch /15 cm of your table edge. Setup scenario’s can allow or force choices.
  9. Initiative/momentum
    • How can a player force the other player to act or withdraw? Chess, the ultimate diceless wargame, is a positional combination game. A move can force a countermove and you can take and keep the initiative. Although we are talking dice, good tactical wargames should have a system to put and maintain pressure on the opponent and force him to countermove. DBA and Blücher for example use a zone of control. Some games dice for initiative and the winner can choose to play first or last.
  10. Speed of the game
    • A wargame must move reasonably quickly. Modern gamers often have an afternoon for a game. So a game should be playable in 2-3 hrs. A more complicated set of rules should have ways of combining the efforts of many troops, and of requiring some to run away. Related is the subject of unit management. A unit could be a single miniature, a squad, or a larger battlegroup/corps. Players can control about 5-12 units per turn, as a rule of thumb. If the rules allow the player to micromanage subunits, the game might slow down – or the game might feel unrealistic, the godlike CiC controlling every single sniper before his multiple divisions encircle a city. A turn shouldn’t take too long and have opportunities to be interrupted. Again, this should be regarded with the game as a whole in mind. A game mechanic can work quite well for a skirmish or a medium-sized battle, but when it comes to large battles, it might be slow due to the number or units that have to be moved or the number or dice that have to be rolled. Might be boring if you have to wait 15 minutes or more before you can do something.
  11. Dice mechanics/game mechanics
    • I don’t mean to make every review a complex essay about the dice statistics and the tables. But a reviewer should pay attention to the dice mechanics used and the effect on the game. Buckets of dice affects a game differently than a quick combat results table.What is the move-shoot-ratio? A game where you shoot 4 x further than you shoot (m1:4s) tends to favour shooting (unless you make the weapon fire deliberately inaccurate or weak); a game where move 4 x further than you shoot (m4:1s) tends to make movement and manueuver all-important.  What’s the effect on the game you play? And is it realistic for the period?Lethality is a factor. How quickly can you hurt your opponent’s unit? If you hit on a D6 4+ and damage on a second 4+ ‘to wound’ roll then the lethality is 50%x50%= 25%. Cover can decrease the chance to damage. In comparison, for Infinity cover is a lot more important than for Lord of the Rings. Do you like that because in SF highpowered long distance rifles should be more important than in melee-centered fantasy combat? Again, move-shoot-ratio plays a role. If a long-distance-weapon is very mobile and very lethal, it might change the balance of the game.Relative unit strength. How strong is elite compared to recruits? Is the quality difference reflected in strength or in a morale value? Consistency of the mechanics. How many different dice/game mechanics are used? Is is one clear procedure, or with many different tables, different interlinked dice rolls with sometimes 1, sometimes buckets of dice?
    • Does the game have/allow deathstar units? A ‘deathstar‘ is a unit that comes at a huge points cost, but with near invulnerability and massive damage output and some sort of exploitable weakness (so that it can be countered). Insanely powerful units with huge blast weapons add too much randomness: the deathstar will destroy all opposing units independent of tactics used, or it will be destroyed and, because it is the main and overpowered part of the army, the battle is lost instantly. In general the deathstar criterium is part of the broad question ‘is the game balanced’. That’s a hard question to answer, and maybe not fair, the mythical French guard was in real life harder to beat than other units, and so was the mythical Königstiger tank. If a game is obviously balanced badly, a reviewer should mention that, in particular if the stated goal of the designer is to make a balanced ‘tournament game’.
  12. Uncertainty
    • Wargame generals tend to act like the 1000ft general, they see all units and know all their stats. That works in chess, but a) if you somehow try to emulate armed warfare, surprise is paramount b) as you see in Stratego uncertainty can make a game very interesting.
  13. Luck/strategy balance.
    • Wargames are not much fun if they involve decisions which are too easy or too rare. To continue to be interesting, the game should require the player to make decisions, and these should be difficult ones.
  14. Easy to learn, hard to master
    • That means that the same goal can be reached in different ways, with different tactics.
  15. Is the game engine suitable to the period?
    • Players should be encouraged by the rules to use historical tactics, but not forced to. Stupid tactics should be penalized.
  16. How’s the quickref sheet?
    • Did the author summarise the key rules on a few sheets, and is it a good summary?
  17. Clarity
    • Are the rules clearly structured and worded, unambigous, does the book give enough examples of play which properly illustrate how the game works?
  18. Support
    • Does the author, publisher or a community support the rulebook? Can I ask questions about the rules?

I’m thinking about standardized situations to playtest a game, like attacking a high point, attacking with superior numbers, attacking with elite or attacking by surprise. I must work that out.

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