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Wargames Design: Some Thoughts on the User Experience


As a designer and developer of computer-assisted miniatures wargames, I am always interested to know how other historical miniatures gamers react when they play such games. For many years I was a very active member of an historical miniatures wargaming club in Tucson, Arizona, and ran many games there - we met once a week (sometimes more) and we played all sorts of different games. Of the ones that I ran, many were using computer-assisted systems which I had developed. In the same way that I happily played paper-and-dice games, my fellows seemed to readily accept games where the computer was moderating. They were perceived as neither particularly better nor worse - just another type of game. The only person who complained (and it was tongue-in-cheek) was an individual who had been genetically modified to have obscene dice luck. (No - I am not joking. And I know it was genetic because his son had it too! Both of them were statistically improbable, to say the least.)

I have had a similar experience when I have run games at conventions using these systems. Computer-assisted games tend to be incredibly easy to learn for players, because the mechanics are largely handled by the computer. Once a player understands what orders he can give, and what they mean - an explanation which takes about 5 minutes, tops - they are able to play. And if they know military tactics for the period in question, they can be immediately successful, too. It is the referee running the game (and the software) who needs to deal with the more complicated stuff.

As a participant at computer-assisted games being run at conventions (usually Carnage & Glory) I have noticed the same thing. Most players seem to go along happily with the game, even if it is something new to them. (Of course, at a convention players sign up for the games they play, so presumably they would have avoided the game if they had formed a negative opinion previously.)

As is sadly too often the case, when I look at topics related to computer-assisted games on The Miniatures Page I sometimes find negative opinions being expressed by people who seem to have little or no experience of the subject. (Whether they have ever even tried playing computer-assisted games, of course, is not always something you can easily determine.) Alongside these you also find posts made by gamers who are obviously experienced. This is normal for TMP. Despite the noise factor, I pay attention to the posts on such topics because they raise the issues and perceptions/preconceptions which a computer-assisted miniatures game designer needs to take into account. A few themes seem to come up regularly - I will address some of them in the paragraphs below.


"I don't like games where the computer rolls the dice."

I don't really have a problem with this argument, because - as a person who also enjoys (and writes) games which involve rolling dice, I can appreciate the fun of doing so. I used to play a lot of Tactica, a game which involves the traditional handfuls of six-sided dice, and still play many games which feature the same activity. As long as I am not playing against the genetically-modified father-and-son team, I am perfectly content (and even if I am, I do my best not to be a sore loser, even though my dice luck usually sucks...)

I also own a copy of H.G. Wells' Little Wars, a box of plastic spring-loaded cannon (the metal ones are expensive collectors items, and the springs are mostly played out), and lots and lots of 54mm toy soldiers. H.G. Wells - the father of our hobby - didn't believe that dice were useful, because any form of randomization undercut the skill involved in playing a wargame. (Of course, the skill he was talking about was the ability to nail a 54mm toy soldier with a matchstick from across the living room, so I'm not sure I agree completely.)

What I'd like to know, though, is why anyone would refuse to play a game because it didn't feature the rolling of dice. Closed-mindedness? If rolling dice is so important that it must be a feature of every game you play, maybe you should consider taking up Yahtzee or Craps. That way, all of those miniatures and terrain and stuff wouldn't get in the way of your favored activity.

"I hate all the data entry - it slows the game down (etc.)."

This is a valid argument, assuming that the game you are playing involves a lot of data entry. Many - and most, I think, since there are very few DOS-based games left out there - use a GUI designed such that during play there is little or no typing at all - only pointing-and-clicking. All the games I develop involve no keyboard data entry other than at scenario design time, and since I have switched to using web-based technologies which run on my tablet, the pointing-and-clicking is done on a touch screen, making it very easy indeed. As for scenario design, I have done this a lot over the years, and in every case the activity involved typing the names and characteristics of units into a computer. For paper-and-dice games, I wanted to be able to print them out and give them to the players. For computer-assisted games, they are needed for the program to function during play. The difference between the two is effectively zero. (Actually, I lie. Most of my computer-assisted games provide GUIs for doing scenario design, and the only things you have to type are the names of the sides and the names and strengths of the units - everything else is a pick-list. Preparing a paper-and-dice scenario involves typing everything, so it takes a lot longer.) Many of my recent games require no computer set-up at all, making them the same as paper-and-dice games (although I haven't seen any other systems which use this approach).

The argument that pointing-and-clicking will slow down a wargame given the current state of the art is spurious. Compare the time it takes to look up all the modifiers, find the right chart, and roll the dice in a traditional system. In my experience, using the computer is faster, since it does all the looking up for you. I agree that the existence of a referee who knows the game system and how to use it is a big plus, but in what way is this different from playing a paper-and-dice game? If you have questions about the rules, you still need to look up the answers regardless of whether the game is computer-assisted or not, and since you are responsible for doing all the mechanics of play in a paper-and-dice game, these questions tend to arise more frequently. Having an experienced referee and/or experienced players is always to be desired when it comes to speed of play, computer-assisted or not.

The core issue about data entry has been accurately described in some posters' comments: because the battle is physically on the tabletop, and not inside the computer (like in a video game), there has to be some way to input the tabletop details needed by the program. Otherwise, the program cannot function. Yes, reducing this input to pointing-and-clicking helps, but it cannot remove the need for some interaction with the computer program, in order to describe the tabletop. Think about it, though. When games are conducted with a referee or an experienced player acting as one, all computer input is done by one person - the referee. Other players don't have to deal with the computer program at all - they just have to give orders to their units. Complaints about "data entry" need to be understood in this context - the core requirement for a minimum of data input will never go away, but it can be very effectively minimized. Part of the solution is not up to the system designer at all, but to the way in which players decide to use the system - having a good referee to run the program will help ameliorate these issues.

Ultimately, the data-entry argument is a good one, but one which most computer-assisted game systems have an answer for. If you are still playing a DOS-based game (like the older versions of Carnage & Glory and Computer Strategies games), maybe it's time for an upgrade.

"When they develop games which use laser pointers/visual recognition/hand-held scanners (etc.) then maybe these games will be worthwhile."

Nice idea, like a lot of fantasies. Like most developers of computer-assisted miniatures wargames, I am one person doing all the development of my games software in my own time - it is my hobby, not my day job. This is already a tall order. When I look at the effort it took to develop some of the games systems available today, I am really impressed at how much work they represent on the part of their creators. And I have worked for software companies, large and small, professionally. Developing software takes a lot of effort, and is almost always done by teams of several people. In our hobby, this is, I think, not the case. If we want to add to this the development and manufacture of dedicated hardware, then we can just forget it. There's not enough money in the industry to make such endeavors worthwhile commercially, either. When the DOD develops wargames, maybe they can afford to use dedicated hardware systems to do it (although I'm not sure they use this type of approach anymore - I have heard they did in the 1990s.) We don't really have that option.

As for visual recognition using smart phones, I challenge anyone to get a high enough confidence rating from a cell-phone camera to positively ID a unit from the average wargames paint-job on a 28mm figure. If you can do this, move to Silicon Valley and become a billionaire! The closest thing I've seen is the use of web-cams in the Panzer Combat II system, which is admittedly pretty cool. (As a bird-watcher, I am familiar with smart-phone apps that can help you identify a bird photographed in the wild with such a camera. Those apps have the option of suggesting possible matches, and even then they don't perform all that well. When your smart-phone mistakes your Old Guard grenadiers for Moscow militia armed with pikes, because both wear busbies and greatcoats, see how happy that makes you! The solutions to such problems would require immense amounts of work to implement, and might well prove to be counter-productive in the final analysis, requiring more time to use than simply picking "Old Guard Grenadiers" off a drop-down list, the way you would do today.)

I'm not saying that such approaches will never become possible - I am just saying that given current technology, amazing as it is, a lot of these ideas are pie-in-the-sky. That people should dismiss all computer-assisted miniatures wargames out-of-hand because they do not leverage these types of technology is risible, especially since - for the time being at least - they are very unlikely to solve the problem.

"When I look at the interface I get frustrated - it is just too complicated."

Here is a comment that I can appreciate. I remember the first time I looked at one of Clinton Reilly's games (this was many years ago) and realized that I would be spending some time with the documentation before I was ready to start playing. There is also a learning curve associated with many paper-and-dice games, although some fast-play rules are incredibly easy to learn (I recently bought The Pikeman's Lament and it only took a quick read-through before I felt able to stumble my way through my first game.) I think that the designers of computer-assisted historical miniatures games should take this issue to heart.

To be fair, good interface design is a difficult thing to achieve - many commercial software packages of all different types have complicated interfaces with a steep learning curve, too. Developers/designers tend to have a particular type of interaction between user and software in mind when they are developing a system (the "user paradigm"). As a user, getting to the point where you understand this paradigm can take some work. It is a known problem with software creation generally - big software companies have people whose entire job is to address these issues.

Even so, as software developers we should know that 'no one reads the documentation,' and that the best interface is one that requires little or no effort to understand. Simple is good. The audience for computer-assisted wargaming software consists entirely of wargamers, who already come equipped with a lot of generic knowledge (everyone knows what a morale check is, etc.) This common knowledge can be leveraged to produce interfaces which are simpler for our intended users. When you consider the design of smart-phone apps as compared to the standard computer applications of a decade ago, you can see that the entire software industry is heading in the same direction - toward simplicity. For us, this will be a difficult challenge: the more complicated your subject, the more complex the interface. Our subject is a complicated one, making good interface design all the more important.

Not all software systems for miniatures wargaming are the same. Some are better-designed than others, and some may appeal to some wargamers and not to others. Generalizing on the basis of experience with a single system is a mistake. Generalizing on the basis of pre-conceptions, in the absence of any actual experience, is also a mistake.

"I want to know exactly what the game mechanics are doing - when I play computer-assisted games, the mechanics are hidden."

True - exactly the way the mechanics are hidden from a real commander on a real battlefield in a real war. In an actual army, there may be barracks-room lawyers, but there aren't any rules lawyers (arguing with the laws of physics tends to be pretty futile). While I understand that most players are used to being able to follow the minutiae of a wargame's workings during play, I would argue that this is inherently unrealistic. Warfare, like any other human endeavor, is informed primarily by experience. Events take place, and it is by observing them that we learn to influence them. Because of this, computer-assisted miniatures games are inherently more realistic than paper-and-dice games. They make rules-lawyering impossible. This, of course, frustrates rules lawyers. We have to rely on what we know of historically effective tactics rather than on knowledge of the game mechanics in order to win.

The down-side of this is that, if a game is poorly conceived, historically effective tactics won't be effective on the tabletop, because the game itself is a poor simulation. This makes becoming good at the game very difficult, because you don't have access to the game mechanics to manipulate them, and you can't rely on good tactics, because they won' t work in a poor simulation. Ultimately, this places the burden of producing games which accurately reflect the historical reality of warfare, or at least a plausible model of it, on the game designer. Of course, the goal of creating a good simulation exists for all wargames systems, computer-assisted or not. In a computer-assisted system, however, success or failure becomes more obvious, because players cannot rely on knowledge of the game mechanics to win, despite the quality of the simulation. They are forced into the model of reality which the game uses, and to learn from their experience of it. If the game feels unrealistic, when compared to knowledge gleaned from historical accounts, that may be because it is.

For the developers of computer-assisted miniatures wargames, this is an important issue. Computers give you a powerful set of tools for creating a model of how warfare works - one that is potentially much more powerful than the toolset available to the designers of paper-and-dice systems because it does not shy away from computationally intensive tasks and record-keeping. This not only gives you the potential to create more realistic wargames, in some ways it demands it. (There will always be design trade-offs, of course, because the information required to create a more exact simulation may require more input from the players, which can become burdensome. What else is new?) It is yet another design challenge, and one that must be considered.

What some wargamers might say is a downside to computer-assisted systems, I see as a definite advantage - they are inherently more realistic. This will make some players uncomfortable, especially the rules lawyers. If you look at these games as a slightly different type of experience, and approach them with an open mind, you may find that you agree with me. As always, it is a matter of taste.


There are certainly more themes I could address here, but I think my main point is clear - you should form your opinions on the basis of direct experience. The ways in which a computer can be applied to a tabletop wargame are many. Don't dismiss the entire genre out of a negative experience with a particular system - you are only cheating yourself out of a new and possibly worthwhile type of gaming which many of your fellows enjoy. Be open-minded about it.

For the designers of computer-assisted miniatures games, I think that we face many challenges, but that interface design - and attention to users' reactions to the designs we produce - is central to making good game software.

Computer-assisted miniatures wargames have a lot of advantages - discussed elsewhere on this site - which make up for the fact that you don't get to roll dice. But if you need to roll dice that badly, you can always go home afterward and go online for a game of Yahtzee. (Oops! That's computer-assisted....)

As a final note, in no way should this be taken as a criticism of The Miniatures Page. I am a fan of TMP, even though strong opinions sometimes get expressed by posters who aren't necessarily qualified to hold them. (This makes TMP different from other online forums how, exactly?) I often find answers to some picky questions for my current wargaming projects on TMP, and I do appreciate the effort it takes to run the site and to contribute to it. It adds a lot to our hobby.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Arofan Gregory. All rights reserved.