The Amsterdam Acid Test for Wargames, Part VII: A Review Topic List

Inspired by topical review lists (Lloydian Aspects, Chasseur-a-cheval, deepfriedhappymice) I present my own laundry list for a war games review. This is the 7th blog in a slowly developing wargame review project.

General characteristics

  • author, price, publication data
  • scale of the game (combined arms grand battle, corps/brigade battle with tactical formations, skirmish)
  • historical period
  • activation (IGOUGO, turn per turn, card/counter activation, other)
  • recommended figure scale/basing
  • time/ground scale
  • estimated game length
  • summary of the purpose of the rules. Is the game mostly meant to be social, competitive, or a historical recreation? Multiplayer or 1vs1?

IMHO the reviewer should bear in mind what the goal of the design/ designer is. The GW rules for example are partly designed for competitive games, and partly as a tool for ‘collectible miniature games’ designed for a loyal fanbase. ‘Fluff’ or ‘innovative gaming’ is of lesser importance. Black Powder was designed for co-op wargame fun, not for competition. Art de la Guerre and Bataille Empire have a point system and competitions, but are suitable for casual play. Judgements like ‘too commercial’ or ‘not a competitive points system’ are unfair if that’s not the designer’s goal.

Presentation/publication

  • Background. How much military history/ background is included in the book?
  • Clarity. Sometimes the rules need editing. The language is complicated. Also, many rulebooks fail to give examples of play which properly illustrate how the game works. Terminology and concepts should be clear,
  • Visuals. Is it a coffee table book or a homebrew PDF?
  • Are advanced rules included or published separately?
  • Scenarios: the best sets of rules have some mechanism for creating scenarios. Always a disappointment if one has to buy several books before one can play the full game
  • Online/offline support: to which extent is the game supported by a community, the author, a company?
  • Reference sheet: is the game supported with a summary of the key rules on one side of one sheet of A4?

The Game In Short

  • A concise summary of the game concept. Typical concepts, phasing and mechanics of play.

As Peter Sarret once wrote: “The most common mistake reviewers make is to spend most of their words explaining how to play the game. It’s not a review’s job to teach (…) A review should touch on only those rules most vital to creating a sensation of the game for the reader. It shouldn’t concern itself with the minutiae of a game’s rules so much as with an overview of the game’s systems.

  • What makes this game special? Sarret: “Focus on what gives the game its distinctive character, generates tension, or produces interesting challenges.”
  • Command & control & fog of war. Also called friction. A conceptual problem with wargames is that players can oversee the whole battle while the historic general had limited information. So, how does the game limit the ‘1000 ft general’?
  • Originality: many systems copy older or other systems or are part of a ‘family’ of games. FoG, Art de la Guerre and Mortem & Gloriam are clearly related to ancestor DBA. It can be good and bad. A game that uses familiar concepts can play smoothly. Take Bolt Action, that is easy to pick up for 40K-players. Does the 40K-stamp make it an unoriginal 40K WWII game? Some think so.
  • Flexibility: can, must or should you adapt / change/ house rule the game to make it more specific for a sub-period or battle? Is that easy or not?

Gameplay

I refer to my earlier part VI of this blog, the Altdorf battle scenario. It’s a programmed battle scenario with movement, flanks, combined arms, generals with conflicting aims and personalities and varied terrain. I expect that if I try the same scenario with the same order of battle in different variants / programmed marching orders I should get an indication what the major strengths and weaknesses are. Topics that should be researched/ analyzed:

  • How do the mechanics, in particular dice mechanics work out? I don’t mean to say that all reviewers should make an MS excel-calculation with boring dice statistics. But if a certain game mechanic results in a lot of dice rolling without much effect, or an uneven spread, then that should be noted. Check Phil Dutrés Wargaming Mechanics blog.

For example: the popular Black Powder series has a Command Value test with two dice. Researching dice statistics with two dice, I discovered that the outcomes are not equally spread. So the question rises: is this procedure, played this way, a ‘good’ procedure? It’s something to analyze and try out in gameplay. I would mention it in the overview and later make it part of my final review.

  • Strategy/luck-balance. Even in chess, players are sometimes lucky. Luck should not dominate but give a manageable randomness to a complex wargame that would otherwise be a chess game. The game should require the player to make decisions, and these should be difficult ones. I like the risk/reward system: more risk, more reward.
  • Historical tactics: Players should be encouraged by the rules to use historical tactics, but not forced to.

Lasalle 1st edition apparently had the problem that the attack column was much stronger than the line, thus players stopped using line tactics. Bolt Action has the (in)famous Sigmoid Curve, weapon ranges are nonhistorical for game purposes. That might be good or bad, but give arguments!

  • Game balance. Is the game spoiled by ‘death stars’ or otherwise overpowered or underpowered units?

The 40K-code is always broken after a few years and the rules rewritten. Many British rules give mythical superhero powers to British infantry in line and to French Guard.

  • Logic. Clear game mechanisms have logical consequences: Lloydian Aspects: “The players should be clear about what question is being asked when some game mechansm is enacted (…) A game designer should make it clear what questions are being asked.” The key here is for example a clear distinction between phases in a turn and which results some choices might have (‘if you move you can’t shoot’)
  • Consistency: A good system will have a mechanism or two which can be applied in a hundred different situations.

Delta Vector wrote a positive but mixed review of 2FL Bag The Hun, a plane game. He criticized “a lack of unified core game mechanic. This latter can be good (in that specific rules are precisely tailored to the situation or the period) and bad (in that the books can sometimes read like a random collection of house rules thrown together.) All these are apparent in Bag the Hun.”

  • Related is depth: Easy rules that allow a maximum of strategy. Think chess.
  • Speed: a wargame must move reasonably quickly. A more complicated set of rules would have ways of combining the efforts of many troops, and of requiring some to run away.

With all this in mind, I think I can playtest a wargame. Comment if you have additional suggestions.

My older blogs about the art of wargame reviewing: part Ipart IIpart IIIpart IVpart V en part VI.

One thought on “The Amsterdam Acid Test for Wargames, Part VII: A Review Topic List

  1. Interesting. I think that is a good summary set of factors that I would like to see in a game review.

    One thing I think might be worth adding is ‘replay value’ – hard to assess, but is it going to be possible to play more than a few games without them all being very similar?

    Other possibilities are looking at suitability for solo play, and does it support asymmetric engagements? (Either via scenario or different victory objectives.) Finally, what are the victory conditions.

    Like

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