Here there be monsters: Empire in Arms and the dream of mega-wargaming

So, you’ve spotted a brilliant deal; on Steam, online or right in front of you and just snapped it up. We’ve all been there, there’s no use denying it. I do it more than myself (and my bank account) would care to admit. Most of the time there’s at least some purpose though. A new game to play with friends, perhaps, or a new set of figures for an existing hobby…

But sometimes, the only purpose  is to own.

Usually, you try to buy games that have an inkling of potential. With a whole lot of pushing and shoving (and pizza), you just about might be able to get a group of friends around for an evening to play this shiny new purchase you happen to have acquired. Online gaming is even easier: Just wait for a summer sale and badger everyone about how awesome [Latest Indie Darling] is.

But getting anyone to put their time into the monstrous Empires in Arms is a scientific impossibility. According to ye olde BoardGameGeek, Empire in Arms will take the player “6000 to 12000 minutes”. In less obfuscatory language, that’s 100-200 hours. It’s hard enough herding gamers into one day of play, but two weeks? That’s another matter entirely. Small wonder then that the most recent print run for the game was in the 80s.

Still, it remains highly regarded: Imagine a proper hardcore wargame overlaid with the negotiation of Diplomacy. It’s not hard to see why people would be so excited by the idea of such an experience. Criticism does crop up however, and it really doesn’t make the job of bringing together enough players any easier. There is a good chance, since not everyone will be at war all the time, that certain players will have hours (even days!) of sitting about with nothing to do, whilst the minutiae of fighting is sorted out. How am I with a straight face supposed to put on a wargame where half the people will sit around doing nothing whilst two players duke it out for the afternoon? And what if that happens the next time we come together? All that on top of trying to synchronise the schedules of seven players who all have lives, responsibilities and other nonsense. It can only end in disaster, there’s no point in buying such a game.

I bought the game. Now, fair’s fair, the deal was ridiculously good. I could probably have made a profit, if, in ‘inspecting’ the package, I’d not managed to poke out one of the counters. So much for: “new, unplayed”. Not that I’d think of selling it on.

It’s the dream more than anything. In a world where people seem to be further apart than ever (I blame the internet), the idea of sitting down for multiple sessions to play the same game with the same group of people is a wonderful fantasy. I should place strong emphasis on the term “fantasy” here; the people who talk about the good old days when they’d play these monster games at college over a semester didn’t have PCs, mobiles, nor apparently college to distract them from their enjoyment. No such luck nowadays.

Gary Grigsby’s line up of highly detailed WWII simulators might well be regarded as the heirs to the traditional monster game, the kind that is honeycombed with hexes and simulates the extra water used by Italian troops to boil their spaghetti. All well and good for the military side of things, but where’s all the diplomacy?

Well, there remains the actual game of Diplomacy of course, which even has the advantage of being doable in an afternoon (just). The mechanics are easily explained, simple and the arbiter of victory being not die rolls or chance, but that timeless human trait – lying. Yet the combat mechanics, where everything is known in advance, leaves the commander in me cold.

So back we come to Empires in Arms, and one man’s dream of the ultimate wargaming experience. Now, as it happens there is a PC version of the beat. Our review, now almost a decade old, tells us how the mechanics have been faithfully reproduced by the game’s designers. This should solve all problems, right? I’m unconvinced. The point of these games is the diplomacy and the human interaction. Otherwise you’re left with an inferior AGEOD clone. Whilst Play-by-Email has its advantages, it does not do the human interaction thing well either. If it’s a Friday evening and the mates you have collected are all on voice communications, Play-by-Email makes the exercise pretty bleak (trust me, I’ve tried).

My copy of Empire in Arms will probably sit in its box in a cupboard, the single counter I pushed out glaring up at me every time I open it. I will show it off often – the map will be opened up and I am sure many of my wargaming friends will be impressed, express admiration, maybe even make polite noises about how we should all together sometime for an epic session with this dinosaur of a game.

But we are not John Hammond, and this is one T-Rex that will not be resurrected no matter how much DNA manipulation we do.

But there is still hope – in learning about the game and the world that surrounds it, and of the loyal following it still maintains, I am convinced that the only thing that needs to be changed about these creations is time. The magic of PC gaming means that all the calculations are done for us, allowing us to spend more time playing and less time acting as our own arbiters. The praise that these monster games, long out of print, still manage to receive suggests that their brand of detailed, human competition is not a passing fad. The resurgence of board games shows that human interaction is never out of style. It is a great shame that a large number of modern PC wargames make little attempt to take advantage of this.

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