Sunday 11 December 2011

The Epic Fantasy Wargame: Survivals

Not only did the hex-and-counter game suffer a sharp decline in the 1980's, but the medium was not that well suited to depicting a fantasy epic. There's a limit to how much information a counter or map hex can hold, and most of these games creaked under the weight of a mass of special rules that had to be constantly looked up.

There is also a kind of first-kiss syndrome that paints a halo around these old games. I think a lot of the positive feelings old-schoolers associate with them are residue from anticipating how cool it might be to try them, as well as a much less critical outlook when actually played. Not by coincidence, gaming companies in the 70's and 80's also seemingly chose to produce games largely on how cool they sounded. They had a naive (by today's standards) outlook on usability, play balance, elegance, replay value, and other factors that have come to gamers' awareness in the Internet decades. Again and again in comments on BGG - and in some comments on previous posts here - we hear that the rules are incomplete and baffling, the gameplay either simplistic and obvious or swingy and random.

And still ... there's something about the topic of an epic war highlighted by individual adventures and quests that sparked that anticipation in the first place and keeps gamers coming back for more. If Homer had been a game designer he might have separated his war game (Iliad) from his adventure game (Odyssey). But since then, writers of epic fiction have found that adventures make a war more interesting, while war gives adventures more meaning. In Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, Astolfo journeys to the moon on a hippogriff to get the magic potion that can restore the sanity of Christendom's paladin Roland in the fight against the Moors and Saracens. Later, the model of the Crusading romance was picked up by Tolkien for The Lord of the Rings, the course of the war profoundly altered by the adventures of the Fellowship.

The epic spirit has persisted, then, in different game media even after the collapse of the hex-and-counter game. Below is a brief and not at all comprehensive overview.

* Figurine-based boardgames. There's something about the tactile weight of figures on a board, despite the production expense, that made this kind of game outstrip the counter-based equivalent sometime in the 1990's. While not suited for division-level simulations of the Eastern Front, the figure game has been used for a number of army-and-adventure games, from Fantasy Flight's Runewars to Wizards' D&D tie-in Conquest of Nerath.
Nerath. Photo by Lance Hobday, BGG.

* Computer games. I spent many an unproductive hour in the 1990's with SSI's Warlords 2, a straightforward game that played like the old Empire but with fantasy units and leaders that could go into rather generic locations, fight rather generic creatures rather generically, and get generic magic items, treasure or super-powerful troop types. Warlords 3 improved gameplay and graphics enormously. Although that series was pretty much an epitome of the epic genre, Heroes of Might and Magic also gave it a go, culminating in the exquisite storybook graphics of HoMM III that were never bettered by the two versions afterward.I don't think there's been a successful computer game title in this vein for a while; it would seem like a perfect extension of the Total War series, for example.

* Collectible card games. It would seem a natural move to take the wealth of detail required of an epic wargame and put it all down on cards ... but the lack of a map, with its epic sweep, means the epic genre was hardly attempted at all in the CCG medium, apart from one abortive game based on the above-mentioned Warlords computer game.

* Tabletop roleplaying games. You could argue that products instructing high-level player characters on how to raise armies and manage kingdoms represent a very different route to the same merging of adventure and war games. But instructions on how to wage war as lords of a domain in the various versions of D&D have usually been spare, and certainly not as well-regulated as any hex-and-counter game. To be fair, the fraction of campaigns that get to that point is probably tiny.

* Play-by-mail games. I mention these out of completeness although I've never played in one. Richard, he of the Dystopian Pokeverse, tipped me off to one such called Serim Ral, still going strong. No doubt a steady perusal of 1980's gaming magazines would exhume many others that didn't enjoy the same longevity.

Mighty armies, mighty quests; even with the near-total demise of hexes and counters, the urge to take in both in a panoramic sweep continues to fascinate game players to this day.


  1. roger,
    i'm enjoying this series of articles. i have to completely agree with your opening. the one thing i recall appreciating about some of the early hex games, when i perused them at the hobby store in the late 70,s and early 80's, was their seeming portability and minimalism. they came in little baggies or small boxes with cool images on the covers that conjured up ideas of epic events and mystic worlds. i always assumed these games spawned from the more complex large box historical wargames that occupied shelf space nearby them. the other thing that was alluring about them was their affordability. i'm not sure that the osr could reproduce all the elements that made these early games attractive at that time period. though, i'm sure there is still a nastalgia among many of us early gamers that would pique our interests if someone would attempt it.

  2. oh and might i point you to web-grognards site for wargames. you're prob aware of this site already.

  3. Thanks dd, I haven't checked that site in a while but i sure do remember trying to puzzle out the games in the banners!

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  5. umm. Rather - check out for a computer game that tries to resurrect the epic fantasy wargames of the 80s.