It hasn’t been quite a full twelve months since I started on with Wargamer, but I feel as though I’ve managed to easily draw a year’s worth of experience out of the deal. It hasn’t been anything like what I thought it would beI’ve seen games you wouldn’t even believe exist, reader, and they’re terrifying. But I’ve also been challenged in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I hadn’t imagined my own few years in the enlisted service would ever come to bear on my career as a games writer, and yet I’ve been pushed into sharing and examining that part of myself more than I ever thought possible.
So instead of a traditional “top five” year-end list, I thought I’d compile a list of my top five most surprising experiences as a newly-minted strategy- and war-games writer. These are the games and moments that made me reconsider what “wargame” means, where I found the most surprising bits of humanity, and the ones I’ll remember most going forward.
Gettysburg: The Tide Turns
I’ve never been a huge grognard or even well-informed casual observer of the Battle of Gettysburg. I’ve studied the politics and logistics of that crucial battle well enough, but the tactical concerns have never been as clear to me as they are to the parts of the wargaming community that have devoted themselves to re-fighting this crucial, knife-edge battle time and again. The assignment to review Gettysburg: The Tide Turns this summer struck me as an opportunity to correct that blind spot.
What I found instead, rather than being an opportunity to play out Gettysburg the way it happened or might have happened, was a game that used tabletop mechanics to play with the notion of battle plans and command omniscience.
From the review:
The Tide Turns isn’t hanging its cavalry Stetson on historical verisimilitude and instead is focused on presenting the fog of war in an interesting new way using what are essentially board game mechanics.
Between the decision to decide turn order and deployment using a chit-draw system and The Tide Turns‘ beautiful representation of 1880s-era engineer maps, I found the game to be a surprisingly rewarding and thought-provoking experience.
My tactical blind spot regarding Gettysburg remains unhealed, unfortunately.
Dawn of War III
It wasn’t reviewing Dawn of War III that surprised me so much: I had already had a chance to play it at PAX Prime last year, and I’ve been following the series since it’s existed. I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting by the time I got my sweaty grubbers around a review code. But early on, I did run into a significant clash between my personal desire for the game to be good and my enthusiasm for the Warhammer 40K property, and the realization that what SEGA had ultimately published was at best a flawed gem.
I gave it four stars, and I stand by that score. Here’s what I said at the time, attempting to split the difference in a way I’m not proud of now:
If I sound hesitant or left-handed in my praise for Dawn of War III, it’s because I recognize that it’s going to be a divisive game. This is an RTS that tries a lot of big, new ideas at the same time, and not all of them work properly, at least not yet.
It’s one of those things you say that eventually makes you regret saying them. I spent a lot of time in the subsequent months trying to write strategy guides for Dawn of War III, and sometimes I wouldn’t even get the chance to finish one before a new balance patch would land that would make all my work and study obsolete.
I’m still more bullish on Dawn of War III than I think most players are, but I recognize now that SEGA shipped a busted product and that their attempts to balance it post-launch belie a fundamental problem with their understanding of the genre and what they made. I can’t help but love it, but I learned a valuable lesson with this game: as a critic, and as someone who has a chance to try a product out first, never pull punches or mince words.
Returning to ArmA III
Despite getting the chance to kick around these parts on a regular basis, I wouldn’t say I’m primarily a war or strategy gamer. I’m an omnivore, and I spend as much time in first-person shooters as I do poring over hex maps and armor tables.
That’s why I jumped at the chance to write about ArmA III this year. I’ve loved Bohemia’s military sims since Operation Flashpoint, and armed with a GTX 970 in my cobbled-together gaming PC, I was thrilled to dive back into the military sandbox world.
There were highs, like writing about some of the amazingly adventurous mods the community has created over the years. And there were lows, such as the disappointing Tac-Ops Mission Pack DLC released in November.
But with PlayerUnknown’s Battlegroundsa mod of an ArmA modboth sweeping up mainstream awards and taking up a lot of hours of my time this year, it felt great to jump back into the janky, duct-taped-together world of ArmA prime. Yeah, my idiot squaddies would sometimes stand in front of tracked vehicles and get run over, and it’s next to impossible to get a HOTAS configured for both rotor AND fixed-wing vehicles, but there’s an earnestness and granularity to ArmA III that you can’t get anywhere else.
The Korean War
This isn’t about one particular game so much as a chance to write about a lack of games. What with one current-events thing and another, I felt strongly about the way the situation on the Korean peninsula was developing, and Joe here encouraged me to publish some thoughts about it. What I wound up sending him was a post called The Korean War: The Conflict That Games Forgot, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of writing this year.
Let’s face it: Americans in particular and Westerners in general don’t really know how to talk about the Korean War or have a firm grasp on what it means. It sits in this weird historic period between the end of World War II and the start of Vietnam that involves a lot of complicated issues surrounding the collapse of colonialism and the proliferation of world-destroying nuclear weapons, as well as the bifurcation of world politics into the “West” and the Soviet Bloc.
But even absent an understanding of what happened, we’ve never really expressed much curiosity about its results, either. From my story:
(W)e’ve failed on a basic (level) to demand a broader cultural explanation for, or even a rational accounting of, why this bipolar version of the world ever existed, let alone prevailed.
I didn’t have answers then and still don’t, but I’m thankful for the chance to write about this kind of thing for an ostensibly apolitical gaming publication. I think games, and wargames in particular, have the chance to do more than sit on the sidelines and are as-yet-unrealized vectors for education.
Steel Division: Normandy ’44
As much time as I spent learning the ropes with Order of Battle this year, with trips to the Burmese jungle and Eastern Front, it was Steel Division that rekindled my love for WW2 hardware and the scale of total war in the modern age. Something about Eugen’s Wargame series, remastered into a more immediate and approachable format, grabbed me and felt genuine in a way a lot of RTS and wargames don’t.
Thinking about it after a whole year of talking about wargame mechanics with experts, listening to other critics, and reading expert analysis about the whole concept of “gamifying” war, I think what sticks out to me most about Steel Division is the way it approaches the actual experience of war. Sure, men in an infantry squad can be picked off by running out of cover, but you’ll see your men shrink away from combat if they hear a powerful machine gun close by. They’ll hide instead of charge if they’re scared. It put me in mind of the Close Combat games of the ’90s, but with Eugen’s modern 3D polish on the works.
I wish there was more to Steel Division. The single-player experience is still lacking, and they still need to fix the fonts in the unit cards so they’re readable on a 1080p monitor. But I got to write about artillery thanks to this game. I got to bot-stomp Germans with a couple similarly-inclined pals. And most of all, it made me love RTS again, in a way that I had hoped Dawn of War III would, and didn’t.
And that’s my year at Wargamer. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my contributions as much as I’ve loved making them, and I’m looking forward to what the next year brings us all. I’ll leave you with this probably-apocryphal Officer Evaluation Report bullet, commonly passed around among enlisted soldiers while I was one of them:
“His men would follow him anywhere, but mostly out of curiosity.”