Wednesday, August 24, 2005

What is it good for?

As promised, a further look at fantasy and sci-fi wargaming.

Fantasy and sci-fi wargaming have often (if not always) been seen as the poorer cousin to ‘proper’ or historical wargaming. Now if the point of contention is that historical wargaming is backed up by history, which the former lacks, then there is no need for argument because all the arguments in the world is not going to make Starship Troopers or Middle Earth something which ‘actually did happen’. We can attack the accuracy of the history behind historical wargaming, but we cannot deny that however scant the evidence, history has more basis in reality than fiction.

My question then is this: are fantasy and sci-fi wargaming good for anything then? Are they good? In the context of this discussion let’s define something as good which does what it’s supposed to do. So a sweater that keeps you warm is good, a pen that writes is good, and a die that always rolls a six is good. (OK, the die is supposed to roll a six one time in six, but we all know we wouldn’t call it good.)

I believe that fantasy and sci-fi wargaming can be good, from a few points of view.

Good Gaming

As I have argued in a previous post, there is nothing intrinsic in a set of rules which makes it historical or not; historical wargaming rules are supposed to base their parameters on known facts from history or recreation, but this in it self does not always make a good game. Conversely, a set of wargaming rules can still be technically sound and interesting even if it is not based on history. On a more abstract level we have games like Mahjong and Go, and on a more military level we have games like Steve Jackson’s Ogre and Battlesuit. The latter games are not based on any historical occurrence, but have interesting premises and mechanics which are balanced enough to provide a challenge to the players.

The lack of historical basis does not mean a set of rules cannot be technically sound and tactically challenging to the players.

Good Fun

robartes called wargaming a 'figurine-mediated shared illusion'. The subject of the illusion is a matter of taste, and certainly dedicated fans of a fantasy or sci-fi background like Middle Earth or star Trek will enjoy a shared illusion based on their favourite background. (Of course, the Trekkies would prefer to have a Holodeck, but we can’t all have what we want, can we?)

Given a sound set of rules, and a set of agreed parameters regarding the world which is the subject of the game, there is no reason why players in a fantasy or sci-fi wargame would not (or should not) have as much fun as historical wargamers.

Good Simulation

Perhaps the least relevant angle, and more applicable to sci-fi wargaming than fantasy wargaming. Now even though sci-fi deals predominantly with the future (and occasionally a galaxy far, far away and a long time ago…), the genre usually has to be more grounded in reality than fantasy wargaming does, in that science as we know it today forms a large part of the genre.

If the science behind a set of sci-fi rules are sound, and the rules themselves sound, then it may be argued that the games played using these rules may in fact have a predictive value in the outcome of future combat using the systems described in the game.

Take for example we postulate that in the near future we can develop body armour that is practically impervious to all modern small-arms but yet lightweight and thin enough to feel no different from the current battledress uniforms. To investigate the effect of such armour on combat we can take a set of modern rules which is acknowledged as good, and simply apply a higher ‘save’ factor for the side possessing the armour, while letting the players’ responses account for the morale impact of such protection/difficulty in causing damage to the opponent.

So if you leave aside the fact that ‘it didn’t actually happen’, there really isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with fantasy or sci-fi wargames.

Yet it is undeniable that a certain perceived divide exists between the two genres. I myself play both but must confess to feeling that historical wargaming is a higher form of pursuit, even if I cannot give any reasons as to why.

Perhaps we can look at this issue in another post?


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