Not too long ago, I was playing Kill Team with a friend of mine. The board had been set up with a fairly intricate set of terrain, and there were additional odds and ends like crates and so forth. It all looked pretty detailed and, as much as we could, fairly realistic.
As we continued to play, someone who was observing the game commented that what we were doing looked a lot like “a dollhouse.”
And, y’know, they weren’t wrong.
There are actually all kinds of similarities between wargaming and, well, dollhouses or other aspects of children’s play. On the one hand, the kinds of toys kids play with are meant in some ways to mimic the world around them. A dollhouse is a great case in point, but even G.I. Joes or Legos work to allow the child to create some version of reality and make it actually take place in front of them. The toy allows the story in a child’s mind to, in that sense, become concrete.
In a wargame, you’re doing something similar - you’ve created a battlefield that is meant to mimic some “realistic” place and time. Granted, that place and time could be on a post-apocalyptic battlefield of the 41st millennium, but you get what I’m saying. And your miniatures are supposed to represent “real” people or things. A wargame, no matter how crunchy the system or how strange and wild the minis, is still, conceptually, the same kind of roleplaying with action figures and other toys that we all did as kids to one extent or another. What you saw once in your mind is now made manifest on the miniature battlefield.
Which, I think, should really make playing these games freeing, rather than constricting. Too often, it seems like, players feel bound by the rules and the limits of the setting they’re playing in; some feel like it’s necessary to try and break the game as a means to circumvent the rules. This often comes in the form of armies that try to subvert the current meta by exploiting what are seen as loopholes in the rules.
But there’s another way to look at these games. Instead of a situation where winning is the end-all and be-all of the interaction with your opponent, the game itself is an opportunity for play – for storytelling. Certainly, there are consciously-created “narrative” scenarios for many games, but what I’m suggesting goes beyond that.
The games, in my conception, can be an immersive storytelling opportunity, similar to what you’d do with your character in a roleplaying game.
Consider this: How about, when your opponent makes a particular move, or attacks, or acts in a certain way, ask yourself how your individual miniatures, your units, would react. Rather than being the God-General standing above the battlefield and moving the miniatures, put yourself in the shoes of these warriors. Would they be able to see the move that the enemy is making? If not, what would they likely be doing instead of reacting to that move? If they’re raw recruits, are they anxious? If they’re besieged, are they hungry? Would a unit really gallantly charge into a machine-gun nest because the rules tell you they’re likely to succeed based on their stats, or, if they were real people, fearful of their own mortality, would they really seek another way around?
In a friendly game sometime, try putting your armies “in the dollhouse” like this, and try letting them, in this way, “think for themselves.” Let the narrative reach its logical conclusion. Let them make mistakes, let them have the opportunity for glory.
Let them play.
About the Author;
Peter Kuebeck is a writer, gamer and award-winning mini-painter living in the Midwest. He wages a constant battle against the ever-growing tide of unpainted minis in his basement, and occasionally GMs role-playing game sessions with friends. Catch his hobby shenanigans on Twitter at @popculturecube