I must say I felt a bit depressed after reading a number of chapters. Not because of the content - which was excellent - but because I was asking myself "What the heck are we doing as hobby (miniature) wargamers - claiming to design wargames? There is this whole body of academic literature on serious wargames design, and we are busying ourselves discussing the relative merits of rolling a D6 over a D10, or whether a stone wall for cover should provide a +1 or a +2." My feeling after reading the book was that we as hobby miniature wargamers are a small freak sideshow in the spectrum of wargaming, and just noise in the bigger world of wargames.
Now, I am an academic myself, and I have published quite a number of academic journal papers to know the difference between "serious" academic work and "hobby" work (check out my Google Scholar profile :-)). My field is computer graphics, but in order to do some serious graphics research, you need to know about computer programming, algorithm design, algorithm analysis, integral and differential equations, numerical integration techniques, analytic geometry, applied algebra, user studies, perceptual psychology, etc. It is a far different world from the hobby enthusiast who is also doing computer graphics, drawing 3D models using a free 3D modeling program, using Photoshop to enhance his pictures, or perhaps developing a small plugin or mod for a game. Both activities are "computer graphics", but there is very little common ground between those activities. Academic research is a completely different beast, compared to the hobbyists who are discussing the merits of a specific feature in a graphics software package, as seen from a user's point-of-view. But the software package used by the hobbyists often is developed with insights and techniques developed in academic research. Ultimately, both spheres are interlinked.
So, after reading Zones of Control - Perspectives on Wargaming, I felt like the hobbyist who doesn't have a clue about the deeper understanding of wargames. This is not to say I didn't know about professional wargaming before. Years ago, I read Peter Perla's The Art of Wargaming, and I came into superficial contact with professional wargaming during my miltary service. I never bothered to read much about it after that, since I thought the aims are different, so there's not too much of a connection between professional and hobby wargaming. Hobby wargaming is a toy, an entertainment, a passtime for people interested in military history. Professional wargaming is there to train military officers, and is designed as a learning tool. Although both do share a common ancestry, ever since H.G.Wells published Little Wars in 1913, hobby wargaming has pursued a path of its own. Hobby wargame designers design games. Professional wargame designers design training tools.
But the book blew me off my socks. In some of the chapters, people make the explicit link between hobby wargaming and professional wargaming - although the hobby wargames mentioned in this context usually are the hex-and-counter type, not the toy soldier type. I have argued before in several discussions (e.g. on TMP), that there is not much of a link between both, exactly because the design aims are different. I never understood the wargamers who claim that a (board) wargame designed for entertainment actually is a serious tool to train for war. "Really? You can learn to command an army by playing Tactics 2?" Nevertheless, in various online discussion, this point is always made. I often think this is because the confusion people have about the name "wargame", and leave out the adjectives "hobby", "training", "miniature, "board" or "professional". After all, when discussing football, isn't it important one specifies whether one is talking about European or American football, or mini-football, foosball, or a football computer game? Sure, it's all football, but why discuss it as if it's all the same thing?
So, if there is indeed a strong connection between professional and hobby wargaming, and if we have professional wargame designers who clearly know their stuff, then what the hell on earth are hobby miniature wargame designers thinking they're doing? Shouldn't we leave the game design to the professionals? Or should we as gaming enthusiasts all start reading the academic articles and use whatever insights the professionals have developed? Are those insights even transferable to hobby games to begin with?
I lay awake for some nights pondering this very question. I do like writing my own rules for miniature wargaming, testing the game out with my friends, or sending in articles about our games to the glossy miniature wargaming journals. I like playing with my toy soldiers. On the other hand, as an academic, I know there's this world of difference between tackling a problem academically or fixing it at the hobby level. So how is a hobby like miniature wargaming perceived by serious wargame designers? Simple child's play? Noise in the wargaming universe? Should we - as miniature wargamers - simply stop pretending we are doing anything more than just playing a simple game? (In fact, I do think we are just playing a game inspired by military history - but there's this neverending discussion that it's always something more, and people get confused ...)
After a couple of days, I started thinking about the unique assets of miniature wargaming, that I couldn't see being present in professional wargaming, and I became somewhat more relaxed:
- The visual spectacle! For me, *miniature* wargaming has always been about the toy soldiers. Moving toys around the table is a large part of the attractiveness of the hobby, as is the modeling aspect that is linked to this.
- Elegant gaming mechanics! Miniature wargaming is a game, and games design is focused around designing elegant and playable mechanics using dice, rulers, cards, ... as well as around producing plausible results.
- History, not training for actual war! Miniature wargaming most often is involved with historic subjects, not something wargames designed for training the military are really considering.
- Fantasy and Scifi and Imaginations! Many popular miniature wargames explore alternate universes, and care little about training or historic plausibility.
- Storytelling! In the end, a good wargame is telling a story inspired by military history. One could even make a point this is the most important point of our hobby.
To conclude, I do think the book is an interested read - I am still not sure whether the connection between the pro's and the hobbyists is real, or artificial. Anyway, I'll have to make a final judgement once I've finished all the chapters :-)