Overlapping interests among miniature wargamers

In The paradox of wargame design, I present the opinion that recreational wargames are a vulgar backwater of analog game design, because it’s hard to please a large audience in a game about war. This article describes a first step toward solving that problem on a local level, by having a conversation with your specific group of players to find out what it is that brings them to the hobby.

My starting point in this article is GNS theory, a model of gamers’ interests developed by Ron Edwards. A miniature wargame, like a TRPG, can be understood as a compromise between three major interests: Gameplay, narrative, and simulation. These are not mutually exclusive, but they are orthogonal: Having one of them says nothing about whether you have the others.

I assume that you already know people who are interested in playing a similar range of wargames, whether it’s your friends, a new gaming club, or any similar group. Your level of experience is not important. The ultimate goal of looking for overlapping interest with these people is to have a better time together, not necessarily by playing wargames. Because of the paradox of wargame design, you may discover that you are happier doing other things.

Contents

Archetypes

GNS theory was originally developed for role-playing games and role-players. It provides three archetypes that you can use to characterize both the games you play and the people you play with. It’s a sort of personality test to get wargamers thinking about what brings them joy.

This is not a complete model of player psychology. For example, GNS theory doesn’t say how a player feels about randomness, how much they enjoy painting versus playing, how important humour is to them, or how much time, space and money they are willing to spend on the hobby.

I assume here that people’s motivations come mainly from within. They are not easy to manipulate, and that is a good thing. Human diversity is also a good thing. We all contribute something different to one another’s experience of the hobby.

Gamism

To a gamist player, a miniature wargame is a contest that happens between players in real life. The main objective of the game is victory as defined by the designers, not by the players.

Your interests are gamist if:

Narrativism

To a narrativist player, a miniature wargame is primarily an opportunity to tell stories, using the “miniature” part of the hobby as an art form, the “war” part for dramatic tension, and the “game” part for imagination, not competition. The main objective of the game is to get people emotionally engaged and satisfied.

Your interests are narrativist if:

Simulationism

To a simulationist player, a miniature wargame is a lot like a professional wargame.1 The main objective of the game is exploration: To learn what would happen by working through it step by step.

Your interests are simulationist if:

The illusion of sameness

Before you start talking about your motivations, players are biased to assume that the rest of the group is there for the same reasons they are. They will interpret events accordingly. For example, when a narrativist or a simulationist makes a move that is not competitive, a gamist will tend to assume that it’s a mistake: A result of stupidity, stress, fatigue or ignorance, not a conscious choice motivated by a difference in goals. The non-gamist will see no need to explain their interests, and even if they do, the gamist will usually remain suspicious that their opponent is really just a bad player and ashamed to admit it.

For some players, it is painful to take in the idea that we’re not all the same. We all resist such pain. For example, I once saw a gamist make the interpretation that a non-gamist lost a particular game on purpose. In the same breath, the gamist speculated that the non-gamist was disappointed at having achieved their putative goal of losing. That gamist was on the cusp of accepting that people play these games for various reasons. They retreated from that painful realization to the safer-seeming rationalization that non-gamists are really just gamists in denial. It’s a seductive feature of that specific rationalization that it makes the gamist feel as though only conscious gamists know how to be happy, while other players are deluded and therefore inferior.

This illusion of sameness may seem like an asset, or even a solution. When a gamist hides their leader on the battlefield to protect them from snipers, a narrativist or simulationist can interpret that as a wise choice, not for player gain but because it makes sense in other ways, whether as a funny story about a coward, or a realistic case of caution. This kind of interpretation, even if it is actually a misunderstanding from hindsight bias and lack of empathy, looks mutually beneficial. It allows players with different interests to meet and have fun playing a game, which is undeniably good.

Do not tell players to wilfully misinterpret things this way. Do not expect bias to last long when the evidence stacks up, either. Gamists will feel that their time has been wasted when they realize their opponent is not competing. Narrativists will not be satisified trying to fit a game into a coherent narrative using only post-hoc justifications from rules-driven events, instead of purposes. Simulationists will be perpetually irritated by gamists and narrativists bringing placeholders, scratchbuilds and other “ridiculous” distractions to the table.

An open conversation

To discover your interests, you talk about them. Some players naturally reflect on what they want, but many just follow their friends into the hobby or see something cool. The idea of unpacking why a thing looks cool can be difficult to grasp, but it’s a useful excercise, like a doctor’s anamnesis. If nothing else, knowing your friends is better than ignorance and bias.

You can start the conversation with the archetypes. The worst way to do this is to distribute a questionnaire using a Likert scale (strongly agree — strongly disagree) for each of the bullets points above and then chart the answers. It is definitely better to just have a chat, since you’re dealing with a specific group of people.

The archetypes are not central. The really central question is “Why?” Why do you want to play this game, instead of doing some other activity? Every group, and every individual in the group, will mix the archetypes in its answers, along with various other features.

Honesty is important. If you picked your faction because you hate painting, or you’ve given up on getting better at competitive play, say that. The goal is not to convince other people, to build vibes, or even to come to an agreement, but to find a set of incidental overlaps that you can explore. At this stage, keep your mind open.

The social dimension is important to every one of the GNS archetypes. Do not shame others for their interests. It’s easy but useless to stereotype all gamists as selfish sociopaths, all narrativists as theatrical narcissists, and all simulationists as obsessive autists. In a diverse group, it’s more valid to view gamists as advocates for clarity, elegance and fairness; narrativists as entertainers; and simulationists as the only people making good use of the medium of wargaming. You’re all in that marginal medium. Your own goals are not better than anyone else’s, only different. Admit that your own taste is mixed and expect it to evolve.

Convergent compromises

Some things in wargames are genuinely attractive to players with different outlooks. This is your common ground. For example, everyone wants the outcome of a scenario to be uncertain in some way. Gamists want that uncertainty to come from a fair fight, where the outcome is determined entirely by player dedication, skill and luck. Narrativists don’t need genuine uncertainty, but they want the appearance of uncertainty as a source of tension, and they will usually tolerate a fair fight for that reason. Simulationists see nothing to learn in a game where the outcome is fully predetermined. Although they do not require a fair fight, they too will tolerate it. This is why fair fights are common. They get everybody on board.

Most miniature wargames are designed to unite players with somewhat different interests. For example, Chain of Command (2013) accommodates both gamists and simulationists, in that its rules encourage credible behaviour. Gamist players are more likely to win if they behave like historical officers. The converse is also true: Good simulationist play is more likely to lead to victory. Through such inclusive design, gamist and simulationist goals get more overlap. As an emergent effect, players voluntarily converge in behaviour.

Individual elements of design can also be convergent in this way. In many games, officers are harder to kill than regular troops, even if they wear the same armour. To a gamist, that design is good because without it, snipers would be overpowered. To some narrativists, the same design is good because the officers are heroes at the centre of the story: They are more important, larger than life, and should be harder to kill. To a simulationist, the same design is bad, but possibly justifiable if its ultimate effects are realistic; that is, if it stops the gamists and narrativists from unrealistically “spotting” the officer and aiming every gun at them.

Do not confuse convergent behaviour with convergent tastes. Making up a story can bring narrativists to a competitive scenario, but it will not make gamists want to risk a technical victory to make that story more funny or exciting. Conversely, assigning victory points to story beats will not make narrativists want a technical victory. If that sort of thing actually worked to make a good a story, then novels could be ranked by points value.

Conclusion

Because of the paradox of wargaming, it is hard to please everyone in this hobby, but you only have to please the people you play with. By talking to local players as individuals, you can probably find a viable group. You can also find games that work for your group—and better ways to play those games—while openly acknowledging that you want different things from miniature wargaming. How hard you should try for that outcome depends mainly on the size of the overlap in your interests.

If you’re all gamists, you would probably have more fun playing board games that are cheaper, faster, and more elegant than any miniature wargame. If you’re all narrativists, try a movie night for inspiration, or go directly to role-playing. It’s only if you’re all simulationists that wargaming has to be the medium for you.

If your interests are different but you find a small overlap, the process of thinking about your goals, learning to express them, and discussing them with others, may still lead you to other media. For example, if you conclude that you don’t enjoy playing a particular game together, you may still have plenty of fun painting together, sharing pictures, talking about the fluff, and so on.

The most likely outcome is that you all have mixed interests with a sizable overlap. When you know about your interests, you will have more fun picking and playing games that are suitable for that overlap. In Wargame customization, I discuss tweaking the rules as a deeper avenue of compromise and an extra dimension to the hobby.


  1. This is my adaptation of GNS’s simulationism to wargaming. There is no equivalent relationship between forms in role-playing.