By cruel fate you are the only board wargamer in Kankakee, Illinois. No, make that bored wargamer. You've set up all three poster-sized maps of Terrible Swift Sword and laboriously moved its 2,000 cardboard counters - by yourself - scrupulously following all 32 pages of rules - to explore alternate outcomes of the Battle of Gettysburg. It took you a month of weekends to complete the 50+-hour, 149-turn campaign game; the South won. Sure would have been nice to have an actual opponent playing Grant - or Napoleon in Wellington's Victory - or the Germans in Bulge, Battle of the Bulge, Battle for the Ardennes, Ardennes Offensive or Wacht am Rhein.
And now you, alone, Kankakee-kept, are staring dismally at your setup of Europa. It's, not to use the word lightly, awe-inspiring. It is the monster of monster games, the mega-monster that drove publisher Game Designers Workshop to its knees, a mad and grandiose attempt to simulate the entire European Theatre of World War II at (oh man! oh man!) DIVISION LEVEL. What with 11 linked games, 32 maps and connecting mapsheets, upwards of 11,000 tiny little counters in towering stacks, and assorted charts and schedules, you couldn't fit all of Europa in your two-car garage, so North Africa currently fills your living room. You have braced to devote 18 months of weekends to this more-than-simulation, this paper-and-cardboard lifestyle. You sit braced ... and waiting...
Is no one else in Kankakee willing? Can you not find someone to drop even four hours on a piddling little game of Third Reich?
For most historical board wargamers, the answer really is, "No, you're all alone." These graying hobbyists, who once numbered in the tens or hundreds of thousands, have dwindled to a total world population probably under five digits, and at best a few per city. But now, thanks to specialty software engines like Cyberboard, the VASSAL Game Engine and Aide de Camp, simulation fans can replicate their favorite games as electronic modules and play by e-mail or in real time with opponents worldwide, free.
These electronic "gameboxes" are simple scans of the paper maps and cardboard counters. Gamebox modules don't incorporate program code or artificial intelligence; they don't automate setup or enforce rules. Players must do that themselves.
And wargamers wouldn't have it any other way.
Truth Above All
Historical wargaming isn't just about the "game," but about simulation. A wargame can show you more about military history in two hours than a textbook can tell in a hundred pages. Whereas the book may make you yawn, the simulation grips. Players judge wargames as much by historicity as by "fun." Is a given Bulge game fun to play, but it neglects to dramatize the importance of German supply lines? Pfft! Does that Civil War game trivialize the influence of each side's generals? Then it's a mere "beer and pretzels" diversion.
A computer version might automate such effects into invisibility. Wargamers don't want automation, or at least not much. Wargamers seek understanding. Automation muddies the learning.
Traditionally, too, wargamers have been strongly categorical thinkers, or (to put it less charitably) rules lawyers. Even the simplest wargame has rules of harrowing complexity compared to, say, Risk or Stratego. These men - yes, they're all males - enjoy mastering voluminous rules and exploiting their superior understanding to triumph over poorly schooled opponents. In an MMOG, such people haunt forums and whine about nerfing in the latest patch. Board wargamers, channeling their mania to the cause of good, design variants and expansion sets.
Most of these old guys - "grognards," they call themselves, after the nickname for Napoleon's veteran troops - are holdovers from the Golden Age of Wargaming, the late 1960s and '70s. Ah, the giants in the earth back then! Avalon Hill stolidly produced one or two lavish games a year: Afrika Korps, D-Day, Stalingrad, PanzerBlitz and PanzerLeader, and many more, including the bestselling king of them all, John Hill's 1977 Squad Leader.