King Philip’s War Controversy: Why Do We Play?

April 26, 2010

King Philip’s War, a forthcoming Multiman game by designer John Poniske, has generated a lot of press in the past month. This game depicts a little-known 1675-6 conflict in New England between European settlers and various Native American tribes. One player takes the role of the Europeans, the other the Native Americans. Players claim victory by raiding settlements and capturing enemy leaders to amass victory points.

The controversy surrounding the game began with a March 15th article in the Providence Journal (RI), in which various Native American leaders and historians were asked about their reaction to the game. In general, their replies indicate that they felt a board game about the conflict “trivializes it.” The story was then picked up by the Cape Cod Times on March 20. About a week later, the designer engaged in a roundtable discussion on the radio show Spooky Southcoast with Professor Jennings, a historian who organized a protest against the game. By Poniske’s account, it was an amicable discussion. Despite this, the Associated Press picked up the story April 15, and the article ran on Yahoo! News. This generated a deluge of comments (over 1600 to date) as various readers weighed in. If I could generalize the negative response to the game, it’s this: many people believe that making a game out of a war they believe had racist overtones encourages intolerance toward Native Americans.

I don’t really want to get into the middle of the controversy by writing directly about it; many others have done that, and their responses are scattered across Geek Do and ConSim World. However, I think that the rigmarole can serve as a jumping-off point for a reflection on the hobby: in light of these sorts of accusations that a war game, or war games in general, are politically incorrect, what are our reasons for gaming? I obviously can’t answer this question for everyone, but here are a few of my own thoughts on the matter:

History/Alternate History: I have always loved learning about history, and war gaming offers me a way to interact with a time period. I am a voracious reader, but a well-designed war game allows me to learn the particular difficulties and innovations of a particular war, campaign, or battle via simulation. In the past few years, I’ve gotten a lot of joy out of playing a game and then reading about the period, or vice versa. Also, beating an opponent in an “unhistorical” matter is exciting! I am driven to outdo the historical commanders in a conflict, testing different strategies to discover what might have been.

A Concrete Challenge: Unlike Euros, chess, or Risk, which are all very abstract games, historical war games are grounded in actual events. Their mechanics reflect certain historical realities, and this allows me to focus a bit better than when playing an abstract game.

Living Vicariously: When I was a kid, I was strongly attracted to the military. However, certain physical limitations prevented me from pursuing theĀ  career I dreamed of. I may never get to be a general or an admiral, but war gaming gives me an outlet for this. I’m not equating the pressure of actual command with the pressure felt by the gamer at the table, but the latter can be thrilling and/or mildly stressful under the right conditions. And heck, it’s safer than sending real soldiers into battle.

Mental Competition: I’m a sports fan, but have no athletic talent to speak of. However, I’d like to think I’m relatively intelligent, and war gaming lets me compete in an arena that requires vigorous mental exercise–analyzing the costs and benefits of a particular decision, calculating ratios, etc.

So, when I am gaming, am I on a power trip? Am I attempting to trivialize the brutality of war? By no means. Rather, I am learning about history, sharpening my analytical skills, and testing myself against fellow gamers in a safe and fun way.

So, two questions for you, dear reader: Why do you play? And do you see in the King Philip’s War controversy a legitimate criticism of this game and war games in general, or do you see an uninformed misinterpretation of the hobby?

Worst of scores, Best of scores

April 19, 2010

My wife and I recently played a couple 2 player games of Tobago with very different results.

Worst of Scores
In the first game I had all the luck. Everything went along fine with the first few treasures: I was able to score some of the bigger cards while my wife snagged a 5 and a few smaller treasure cards. When we finally dug up the treasures she had invested in heavily the curses showed up. The first curse had her discarding that 5 card. The second treasure she only lost an amulet, but at that point though it was clear that I would win the game. I spent all my amulets and dug up the last treasure to end it quickly.

Final Score
Me: 63
Wife: 30

30 is a respectable score in a 4p game, but it’s the lowest score we’ve seen for a 2p game. It was also the largest margin of victory in a game. She probably should have scooped up an amulet before digging up a potentially cursed treasure, but some times you just have to risk it especially when you are behind. We still had fun and just chalked that game up to really bad luck.

Best of Scores
A few days later we sat down again so she could exact some revenge. This time the play was much more even. We went back and forth scoring well on each treasure. My wife had a lead, but the curses still hadn’t showed up. On my turn I had a choice. There was a treasure that was ready to be dug up that I could reach. But my wife had 3 stakes in it and I had 1. I opted to pass on digging it up and hope that the first curse would strike. I guessed right, but it the curse didn’t show until after she scored a 6 and two other cards.

The next curse came out a couple of treasures later but it was the last card so no one was affected. A few turns later and the last treasure was discovered. It required a lot of cards so we shuffled in most of the discard pile. We each had a lot of cards and counted them up. I was feeling pretty good until my wife revealed her score.

Final Score:
Me: 61
Wife: 72

72! I couldn’t believe it. That’s the highest score we’ve seen in a game. The total combined score is pretty amazing as well: 133 points! There’s a total of 139 in the game. But with one curse affecting no one and the big last treasure, only three cards would be discarded and they were all 2s.

Two wild games. We’ll see what the next game and treasures hold for us.

Mechanics Mirror Reality in Wilderness War

April 13, 2010

Few games mimic the intricacies of a given conflict as well as Volko Ruhnke’s Wilderness War (2001). The designer uses several simple mechanics to good effect, elegantly showing the frustration players’ historical counterparts experienced in the French and Indian War.

Rivers as Highways: In early colonial America, thick forests and difficult mountain ranges necessitated the use of waterways as roads. Ruhnke emphasizes this by stating that units may move up to nine spaces via rivers, as opposed to the usual four by land. He even incorporates portages, allowing troops to move between rivers. Players quickly find themselves constructing fortifications at the confluence of two or more rivers to control these liquid highways.

A New Form of Warfare: The geographical and political circumstances of the French and Indian War ushered in a new era of warfare that confounded commanders who were stuck in their European ways. Wilderness War utilizes two types of troops, “drilled” and “auxiliary.” Drilled units need to construct fortifications to stay in supply, and suffer penalties when fighting in the wilderness without friendly auxiliaries–light, non-traditional fighters, including Indians, rangers, and French fur trappers.

Dilatory Generals: In this conflict, the British were plagued early on with slow-witted commanders who were unable to adapt to the new modes of warfare mentioned above. This is clearly mirrored in the game, as each general is assigned an activation rating. A higher rating requires players to play a high value card to activate him and his force. I’ve often sat staring at the board, gnashing my teeth as General Loudon and Abercrombie sit snug in their forts, afraid to march into the wild and take the fight to the enemy. No doubt British Primer Minister William Pitt felt the same when reading dispatches from the colonies.

Shifting Alliances and Unpredictable Events: Ruhnke also does an excellent job mixing on map realities with events on cards. For example, both sides’ Indian allies desired easy access to European goods. Thus, if I want an Iroquois Alliance (card #28), I’d better have my troops build a stockade/trading post near their villages! Likewise, if I want to Ambush (cards #11-12) my opponent, I need to have a greater number of auxiliaries than he does. Players find themselves working to maintain control of certain on-map elements to they can access card events later on in the game.

War is Hell: As I stated earlier, the French and Indian War was truly a new kind of conflict, which surprised its European participants with its unpredictability and brutality. This is also reflected in the design. Cards such as Ambush, Massacre, and Coehorns & Howitzers are powerful but rare. When they are used against me, I am surprised, but I never feel “robbed.” Likewise, leader loss is pretty high compared to most other war games, but again, this is in keeping with the historical realities of the war.

Montcalm was one of many generals who met his fate on the battlefield.

In short, these few elegant design choices serve to immerse players in the conflict in a way few other games do. When I’m playing Wilderness War, I don’t feel like a board game player, but a general, tired, bruised, and dirty, urging my motley forces through the forest to victory.

Pacific Typhoon: Strategy or Fun

April 12, 2010

When John first explained Pacific Typhoon to me I was excited. It sounded like 500 (a game my family loves to play) but with a cool combat mechanism to it. The first couple of games I played was with 4 people. It was OK, but it just seemed like there weren’t enough cards out to generate big battles. A few games later with 5 people still seemed lacking. I really wanted to like this game, but I find myself avoiding it.

My main criticism with the game is the way it limits your options each turn. In the game each player starts the game with 6 cards. Each card has a date, time of day and combat rating for each of the four suits: air, surface, sub, and combined. The first person each round chooses a battle. That player will decide the year, time of day and suit for that round. Obviously the first person will choose the battle that will allow him to play his biggest or best card. The rest of the players will need to look at their hand and first determine which cards are eligible and then choose a side to battle for.

The year and suit greatly limits your options. For example, if the player chooses to fight the 1941 battle of Manila at night and calls the submarine suit, only 6 cards of 150 are eligble and have a combat rating greater than zero. Chances are the first player will win the battle without opposition. OK, so this is the extreme case, but several of the combinations only have 10-25 cards. All the 1941 battles will have a good chance that some players won’t be able to participate in the battle. Strategically, the battle chooser should pick the earliest year battle that they have a good card. Also, if they have a decent sub card (day or night) or night aircraft cards they should choose those suits. Thereby reducing the opportunity for opponents and increasing their chances to win the battle. But is this fun? Playing the combined suit each time always opens up your options (~85 of 150 cards are available in 1945 at day). Everyone will play and there will be a big battle which is fun, but its strategically risky.

The next limiter is the big gun cards. The battleships such as the Yamato and New Jersey have surface combat ratings of up to 8 and 10, respectively. With the average surface combat rating of all the cards being just under 3, it would take 3 other players to gang up to take down one of these ships. Let’s say we’re playing with 4 people: the first player has the Yamato, and the next three have the cards to take it down. However, at the end of the battle, there would only be 2 cards to distribute as spoils among the 3 people who teamed up. This means someone is getting left out. You can negotiate a deal, but no deal is binding. Players can do what they want at any time. So the person who plays last is likely thinking “They say I will get a spoil, but I’m not garaunteed one. However, if I play an Axis card, I garauntee myself one of the Allied cards as spoils.” This ‘backstabbing’ is fun and will score you points, but the negotiations won’t last long.

It seems after a few rounds, everyone picks up on the strategies to score the most: play your big cards when you have them and sit out the other rounds. At that point the game loses all interest for me. Sure everyone is playing ‘strategically’ – they are scoring points when they know they can – but the fun factor is gone. Your chances of victory are purely determined by the luck of the draw.

Is the game terrible? No, I will play it again and I think it could still be enjoyable. With 6 or 7 players, the chances of cards available increases. With the right people negotiations could be done well and throughout the game. I’m also interested in trying one of the variants that allows for team play: one team draws and plays only Axis force cards, the other plays Allied. If 4-5 people want to sit down to play the base game, though, count me out.

I’m interested in your take: Am I playing with the right strategies? Is it really fun or strategy and not both?