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EDITORIAL - The Unbearable Ugliness of Wargames
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posted by: GF! Back Catalogue 10/2004 => 1995
date posted: 04:59 PM Sat Jan 1st, 2000
last revision: 04:59 PM Sat Jan 1st, 2000

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By Rick Fehrenbacher

Lately I've been spending a lot of time with my copy of Norm Koger's The Operational Art of War, and I have a lot of nice things to say about it. It's deep, it's fun, it's got a great interface,well, OK, it's just a great game. In any case, I was happily playing along in the spiffy 2D mode, feeling nice and comfortable with the familiar board wargame look of the game, when my son looked over my shoulder and suggested we try the 3D view of the game, "you know, the one where the tanks look like tanks instead of chits of cardboard." Figuring it wouldn't hurt to humor him, I switched over to 3D, and,Great Patton's Ghost!--we were confronted with a sight to freeze one's very soul,that of the ugliness that lies at the heart of wargaming. We witnessed wraith-like infantry, indistinct vehicles, Germans wearing green uniforms, Allies grey. It was like World War II on food poisoning.

"Dad," said my son, "that is one ugly game. Mind if I play a little Freespace?" After politely suggesting that he go buy his own computer, I got to thinking about something that's always puzzled me about wargamers,their unswerving ability to overlook a game's aesthetic shortcomings. Curious, I checked out the Talonsoft discussion board,and though I saw the usual lively discussions of game design issues and bug reports, an admittedly cursory examination revealed not one post that complained about the game's 3D butt-ugliness.

Actually, this came as no great surprise. In my experience, in many-- maybe even most--wargaming circles, it's just not cool to be concerned about graphics. In fact, it's even considered a bit of a virtue to be hostile towards anything that looks too good. Like St. Bernard closing the windows of his carriage so as not to seduced by the beauty of the Alps, wargamers turn a blind eye to games that are merely "eye candy." Case in point,a few years ago, one of the preeminent wargaming magazines published a rant about a certain set of miniatures rules because it was too, well, pretty. It had glossy pages and professionally done color pictures of beautiful miniatures, and these sins called down upon it the wrath of the wargaming gods, whose main concern seemed to be that gamers would buy these rules because they looked so darn nice. Back to the days of hand-cranked mimeographed rule sheets and blurry black and white illustrations and hand-drawn diagrams! Hairshirts all around!

Why this attitude prevails is probably inexplicable, but since I'm the type of guy who has way too much time on his hands, I've come up with a couple of theories. The first is that most wargames are based on a "zero-sum" game model,any gain you make results in an equivalent loss to your opponent. Perhaps this attitude has, in some perverse way, been shifted to the binary of historical accuracy/graphics,if it looks good, it must play ahistorically, and vice versa. (Actually, this "ugly is better" mentality does work sometimes, but only when it comes to pickup trucks, barbers, and dogs.) A really great looking game, therefore, is immediately under suspicion of being "historically unsound." Really great looking wargames are of course few and far between, but the scorn grognards heap upon games like Panzer General II, a beautiful, enjoyable and not immensely realistic game, almost always includes some sneering reference to just how good it looks. If only it were uglier, then maybe those Tigers would behave more realistically! Of course Exhibit A in this attitude's case is RTS games like Starcraft and Total Annihilation, games that are gorgeous but so historically inaccurate that they're set in, like, the future and alternate universes and stuff.

Another theory is that most wargamers began their careers playing the revered but hideous-looking Avalon Hill boardgame classics. I'd still like to know what ironic genius chose the colors for unit counters in those games. Remember playing Afrika Korps and rolling into Tobruk with those pink panzers? Grimly holding on to Bastogne with your powder blue 101st Airborne in Battle of the Bulge? And it took a long time for games to get much prettier,even after SPI took the revolutionary step of printing SS unit counters in black, many of the old, tired graphics conventions remained in place. Maybe ugly games are a proud and important part of our heritage that we just can't bear to leave behind, even in the face of change and common sense,you know, like the Scots and haggis. Or maybe we just wasted a lot of time on something that could have been a lot better, and are too proud to admit it--like, well, the Scots and haggis.

But whatever the origin of wargaming's anti-aesthetic, it is clear that game manufacturers have noticed that we just don't care all that much. In fact, it seems like wargaming graphics are getting worse. Case in point: the early Talonsoft games were a big step forward for wargames graphics,the original Gettysburg was revolutionary and beautiful, and the Battleground series more or less peaked graphically with Waterloo. Since then, though, Talonsoft's graphics have slowly deteriorated,East Front had some cool looking tanks, but the terrain could have used some work, and the infantry units were both difficult to see and and ugly. And now the Operational Art of War,an astonishingly good game with a good-enough 2D view,is graced with a 3D view that looks just awful, not to mention some truly uninspired box art. One last example: Interactive Magic's terrific Great Battles series looked OK when Alexander came out, but the graphics never got much better, and by the time Great Battles of Caesar came out, they were positively dated.

Frankly, I think this lack of interest in graphics is a problem, and a problem because my son wants to play Freespace instead of The Operational Art of War. Everybody else in the gaming industry realizes that graphics not only add to the gaming experience, but also sell games. Petty and venal a consideration as that may be, it's also one that we must take into account. If we want another generation to play wargames, we have to realize that we're competing for their time and money with a glut of computer games that look fabulous. Before you scoff, remember that a lot of present-day grognards got started way back when they thought lining up soldiers in the sandbox just looked really cool. Finally, let me make on thing clear; I'm not suggesting that we "dumb down" wargames; it's not a zero-sum propostion. As wargamers, we can have games that are graphically stunning and intellectually challenging, but not until we start expecting them.