What is a Wargame?: A Case Study
What is a wargame? This is the perennial question from which none of us in the war/historical end of the hobby may ever escape. When I die and wake up in Hell, I will have to sit through an eternal debate with people who are absolutely sure they know what a wargame is, and who only get angrier as their definitions inevitably break down.
Why am I like this?
I want to preface this discussion with some background about me, which might help you understand where I am coming from. In my experience, definitions have never held up very well.
I love talking about religion so much that I got a Ph.D. in Ancient Christianity and teach New Testament in the summers. You could legitimately say I am an expert on ancient religion. But... good luck defining religion in a way that actually works. One of the first major seminar smackdowns we had when I started my Ph.D. program was a session in which we were asked to define religion. Go ahead, try it, and then find out how weird the edges of your definition actually are. If religion is about people having a communal experience and asking God to guide them... you might not even be able to exclude a college football game.
My department chair at that time, Katie Lofton, was a brilliant scholar who wrote a book about the Gospel of Oprah. (It's a great book.) One of the students who was nearly finished when I entered my program was Brent Nongbri, who later published a book about religion as a modern concept, not a natural phenomenon. When I was in college, I read Michael Allen Williams' Rethinking "Gnosticism": An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. I did, in fact, rethink Gnosticism—the thesis of the book is that "the Gnostics" as we know them are actually extremely hard to pin down. It seems obvious now, but at the time, my mind was blown.
I am sure you are getting my drift, here, so I will stop, but those were very enjoyable years of my life. They also taught me something important: Definitions are messy. They are so messy that overcommitting yourself to one can, ironically, distract you from having a meaningful conversation.
What is a Wargame?
This definition-related communication breakdown happens among wargamers now, and has been happening for decades. I did not consider myself a wargamer for a long time (there is a tweet from 2018 to prove it), but I do now—with some nuances that I think we are all in the process of negotiating together.
If you look at any BGG thread or set of cranky Facebook comments, you will see some slippage between three terms, none of which seems to fully cover the current collective understanding of "wargame." These are: wargame, conflict simulation, and historical game.
Wargames are typically understood as simulated battles, usually meant to realistically reflect setting, logistics, etc. This is why games like Summoner Wars are generally not considered wargames, although if you wanted to be difficult about it, you probably could. This is because sci-fi and speculative wargames are frequently recognized as, yes, wargames.
Conflict simulation is a term with a bit more slippage. This year's charter for the Charles S. Roberts awards acknowledges this, and explicitly states: "The CSR Awards recognize conflict simulation games, not general board games. However, this charter recognizes that this boundary is often blurry, and this definition includes simulations of non-military conflicts and related historical topics." So, a focus on conflict, but with a historical edge. Unless, again, you're in the sci-fi category which still exists.
Then we get to historical games--the area where I primarily see myself. Historical games focus on portraying conflicts, yes. But they can also depict historical settings without conflict, in ways that provide insight into other times and places. For me, this is the richest definition. I also think that as our hobby evolves, "wargames" and "historical games" are getting put into the same general category, and we should work with this trend rather than fight it.
The Case Study
This brings me to our case study. Two war/historical games came out last year that have the same underlying structure, but are perceived differently, and I find that very interesting. These games are Harold Buchanan's Flashpoint: South China Sea, published by GMT, and Tory Brown's Votes for Women, published by Fort Circle Games.**
On the surface, these are very different games. Flashpoint is two-player game about diplomatic and economic conflict between the United States and China as they try to exert control over other countries and island chains in the South China Sea. Votes for Women is a two-player game about Suffragists in conflict with a patriarchal Opposition as the United States decides the fate of the 19th Amendment.
However, both of these games have the same structural underpinnings. They are card-driven games, or CDGs, where players use cards that represent historical figures and events. In both games, the cards are used to place cubes and grapple for area control. Both have a common ancestor in Jason Matthews' Twilight Struggle, which has itself gone through the process of being acknowledged as a wargame, even though its war is cold. Both are about conflicts that stop short of actual war.
And yet, they are treated differently. Both of these games were nominated for the BGG Golden Geek awards this year, in the "best wargame" category. Almost immediately, comments appeared about Votes for Women from users who wanted to debate whether it was really a wargame. However, there has not been a similar outcry about Flashpoint: South China Sea. You can absolutely find press about Flashpoint that declares it "not a wargame," but most reviews call it one. Additionally, you will not find entire threads about the matter, or a heated debate about it on BGG. Votes for Women, on the other hand, now has its own special BGG thread. On BGG, Votes for Women is categorized as a political game, while Flashpoint is categorized as both a political game and a wargame. At the same time, Kevin Bertram, publisher of Votes for Women, just published a piece in which he convincingly argues that Votes for Women is a wargame, and it is his work that inspired this blog post.
Why this disparity in treatment? I think there are a few reasons, and that all of them are in some way true.
I won't lie. I do believe that part of the "problem" is that Votes for Women is a game by a female designer, about a topic that focuses on women. We are currently in an era where our discourse is highly polarized, and anything that seems to be "about diversity" is going to get some knee jerk reactions. That said, Votes for Women plays it very straight as a historical game, and I personally respect it for that.
I think another reason is that Harold Buchanan is an established member of the wargame community and designer of Liberty or Death, another major wargame (as long as you also consider COIN games to be wargames, which has also been a past debate). Buchanan also published Flashpoint: South China Sea through GMT, an established wargame publisher. It seems natural to categorize his creation as a wargame, because that is already part of his public identity. Votes for Women is a debut by Tory Brown, a new designer. It is also only the second offering from Fort Circle. On top of that, Votes for Women got a lot of press, which means that it was on a lot of people's radars, including people who might not be equally aware of the contents Flashpoint and therefore would not have thought to argue about it.
But the primary reason for this mismatch in treatment, in my opinion, is that our understanding of political/historical/war games is in flux and we are still figuring out what to do about it. That is naturally going to lead to some inconsistencies. And it's up to us, as a community of people who play wargames, to collectively decide where we want to go with this. I know there will always be a contingent of traditionalists who want wargames to indicate a specific type of conflict simulation, preferably including hexes, counters, and realistic detailing w/r/t equipment, logistical challenges, etc. But if you are one of them, I would ask: Are the boundaries of your definition really as solid as you think they are? I bet that we can find a lot of awkward edge cases. ;)
I personally would like to push for a more inclusive and, in my opinion, future-thinking understanding of what a wargame is. I will admit personal bias on my part, because I think that being more inclusive makes the conversation more interesting. It's not that I don't enjoy more traditional offerings--I do! However, by allowing different gaming formats and foci into the wargaming conversation, we give ourselves a chance to have better, more nuanced discussions about both games and history. As a critic, I want to talk about something more than how a game technically works and whether it is fun. As a new designer, I want my game to be evocative, not just mechanically functional. If we exclude historical games with political and social themes as "not wargames," we also dampen some of the most interesting conversations that our end of the hobby can generate.
A more flexible definition is also in line with the way our hobby is actually going. As I have hinted above, our definition of wargame has already changed. COIN games and Twilight Struggle were initially more controversial admits into wargame club, but they are now established members. We are now seeing a proliferation of games that aren't quite "hobby games," but also are not "wargames" in the traditional sense. It is also clear from BGG nominations, game reviews, and even wargame channels that these games do "count." It seems only natural to cover them alongside more standard fare. Pax Pamir and John Company are not traditional wargames, but they are some of the best contributions to the games + history conversation that I have yet seen. I am currently in the process of reviewing Stonewall Uprising, which is mechanically a traditional deck builder but is in its soul a brutal evocation of the struggle for gay rights. Amabel Holland sometimes makes traditional wargames, but it is works like This Guilty Land, The Vote, Nicaea, or Endurance that drive the most intense conversations, whether or not you agree with her artistic visions.
These are games by people who play and design wargames, and it doesn't make sense to try to separate them out into a different category. Instead, I believe that these games represent a vibrant future for wargaming, one that flies in the face of claims that the medium is dead, or only for old men who are languishing in God's waiting room. This is a change we should embrace in order to keep our hobby fresh, regardless of our games' mechanical particulars.
I also, as a historian, believe that everything we do, create, and care about says something larger about us and about the culture to which we contribute. I do not want to build a culture where we exclude games based on narrow definitions, while also using those definitions as a way to stave off change. Wargaming has already evolved. It is evolving. I'm happy to be along for the ride.
**Full disclosure: I've done work for Fort Circle, including the tutorial for Votes for Women, and I also am involved with SDHistCon and consider Harold Buchanan a personal friend. I know and genuinely like all of these people.
5/12/2023 04:37:22 pm
I totally agree with this. Over the years I’ve accepted that game design really is an art form. It has schools. It has trends. It’s has milieu and so forth. But that inherently means that being definitional and legalistic about something that is inherently fluid and evolving will always fail.
5/12/2023 10:44:12 pm
Thanks Liz. I appreciate your positive perspective on this strange little argument. The reason "the arguments are" so vicious is because stakes are so small. Also appreciate you mentioning my game in the same sentence as Votes for Women which is the right game at the right time by the right designer and is much more important to the hobby than Flashpoint.
5/17/2023 09:20:27 am
First of all I am a big fan of a podcast, your reviews and of both of the mentioned games. I am a late comer to 'classical' wargames as well. Sometimes it is hard for me to use a term wargame in context of some of the titles. I mean I love arguing if Twilight Struggle is a wargame or not. Even if I do consider it as one I am ready to admit that it is a stretch. And if my first reaction toward Flashpoint South East Asia was ‘of course it’s a wargame’, after reading your post I came to conclusion that there is no real reason to call it one.
5/30/2023 01:28:45 pm
Great read and thought provoking arguments. Yes definitions are messy, but fortunately for me COIN games remain as wargames. ;-)
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My name is Liz Davidson, and I play solo board games. A lot of solo board games...