Wargame Thoughts and Commentary

Competitive or Cooperative?


In recent years there have been a number of somewhat different boardgames that are really great deal of fun-even for people that are normally not much for boardgames. I’m speaking of Pandemic, Forbidden Island, and the new Forbidden Desert. The characteristic these three designs share is that they aren’t really competitive in the same way that past games have been. They are games designed to require every player to cooperate with the other gamers to win the game. They either all win as a group effort, or they ALL lose the game.

In Pandemic each player is a member of an epidemic containment and elimination team- a scientist, lab technician, forward facilities administrator, etc. Each player has a special skill that, in itself, is not capable of halting a world-wide epidemic, but if they work together, using their particular skill to contribute to victory, then they can stop the killer virus and save the world! In Forbidden Island-each player is the member of a team that is trying to remove valuable artifacts from the island before it sinks beneath the waves. Skills range from helocopter pilot who can flit about the island, and is the only means to get everyone off the island when the artifacts are found, to a diver who can transit flooded areas, or an explorer that has “Jungle Skills”. There are six people in all on the island, and they either all get off the sinking island with the goodies, or they all perish. Forbidden Desert is a variant where a team of archeologists and scientists are trying to recover a strange flying machine buried ion the shifting sands of the desert, and fly it out of peril, or they will all die of thirst or be buried in the treacherous sands.

All of these provide for a great evening’s gaming, and are unique in that everybody can be a winner.

These games got me thinking about wargaming with miniatures on a table top. It is a truism that most war-games, since they are a game based on battles, are competitive. Ties are rare. One army and general will generally win, and, as in history, one will lose. That’s a given.

But competitive games can lead to some really outrageous behavior by some gamers, ranging from cursing, throwing dice across the room, arguing some minor point to impossible lengths, passive-aggressive delays and sniping at the rules and the other players, or rudeness, and even, on rare occasions, to fisticuffs. I’ve always thought that the gamers most prone to these extreme behaviors have some other unresolved problems or difficulties, and are using the game to release these stresses by projecting their anger and bad behavior into the game. I’ve often felt some concern for the worst offenders, but it is limited by the obvious fact that this destructive acting out affects every other gamer, and can in a few moments destroy an enjoyable experience for everyone else.

I have begun to see the play of a wargame as not really competitive at core, but cooperative. When you sit down at a wargame table you are entering into a contract to help everyone else at the table use their minds and energies to create a work of imagination and fun, a distraction-rather like staging a play, filming a movie, or playing music in a band or orchestra. This illusion is built by hours of work painting figures and building terrain, reading rules and investing time in learning them, and by joining other people that have contributed their time and money to stage this entertaining bit of performance art. Everyone then has to pull on their own oar-even if competing against each other for the “victory”- to energize this endeavor and help contribute to the fun, drama, and social experience. If, instead, you get so caught up in the competitive aspects of the wargame that you begin to work against the total group, even players on your side, and destroy the illusion, the suspension of disbelief is shattered, and often cannot be recovered again. The game is over. The bubble is popped, and everyone is a loser. Hours of preparation and play can be wasted for EVERYONE, because of one person’s lack of consideration.

So, in a very real sense, war-games should be thought of as cooperative endeavors,and the joy we get from them should not be some meaningless “win” in a game, but the social interaction with others, the laughter, watching the creative suspense and developing narrative of the game as it unfolds, and this should be the case win or lose! There is NO occurrence in a war-game that warrants being destructive to the imaginative effort of all at the table-not one. A discussion perhaps, a die roll if necessary, but nothing beyond that.

There is a saying about Academia that the arguments are so mean spirited and nasty, because the stakes are so low. This may be true of wargaming as well, if reading the postings on TMP, or even worse, the Blue Fez, are any indication. (Last week’s interminable thread on TMP about the number of decks in Longstreet was one more example of the stupidly destructive behavior of some wargamers) It may be that the hobby attracts an unusual share of people that are trying to compensate for disappointments in life, and, therefore, they cannot deal with any further set-backs even in the totally artificial, and ultimately meaningless, activity where grown men move toy soldiers over a green felt terrain. It may be that some war gamers are simply anti-social, maladjusted, victims of arrested development, or really bad losers, but I hope that many more war gamers come to see that a wargame is competitive only up to a point, and is ultimately cooperative, and demands a commitment to all the players at the table, not just half of them, or , even worse, only to yourself.

If the wargame is well done and well played, we are all winners, and if the spell is broken-everyone loses…everyone. The sea will swallow us up, the desert will cover our footsteps, the killer virus will spread, and our enjoyment of that day’s wargame is ended.