Chapter8.gif (959 bytes) Who Plays the Games

Wargaming is the hobby of the over educated. Nearly all the adult gamers are college graduates and most of those also have advanced degrees. Gamers are also eager and forthcoming when asked about themselves.

While at SPI, I developed a market research system that constantly monitored gamer demographics, new product preferences and existing product satisfaction. The questionnaires were (and still are) a regular part of Strategy & Tactics magazine, as well as several other wargaming periodicals. It became something of a tradition. I have access to much of the survey results for the twenty plus years S&T has been running these surveys. Through this period, due to these regular surveys of wargamers, a large number of interesting bits of information have been collected. Many of the questions asked were generated by little more than a sense of curiosity, but some of the questions and their answers should prove interesting to gamers as a means of defining who they are as a group. The answers not only tell us who current wargamers are, but how they got that way.

These trends were uncovered by using a correlation and factor analysis. Only statistically significant trends are commented upon here. In addition to periodic random surveys to validate the voluntary results, we also performed correlation analysis on new game preferences (before the decision to publish was made) and subsequent sales. It was a nearly perfect fit. Even I was impressed. Pity I wasn't publishing mass market items. But then, we probably wouldn't have gotten such thoughtful feedback in the first place.

Wargamers are an interesting group. They were relatively young ten years ago, when 52% were under age 22. Today, only a few percent are that young, although more people are getting into wargames at an older age, typically in their twenties. Wargamers are predominantly male, situation which, oddly enough, changed somewhat when computer wargames appeared. While paper wargamers are about one percent female, computer wargamers are two to three percent female.

When gaming was a relatively new phenomenon, most players were quite young. The fact that most of them were in school, where other students could easily find out about wargaming, certainly helped the spread of the hobby. When role playing games (RPGs) became available, the social networking of students worked against wargamers. The kids who played wargames were generally the brightest, if not always at the head of their class. RPGs are easier to get into and a much larger number of students were able to participate. Many of the wargamers became gamemasters, the one participant in an RPG who has to keep track of a lot of things simultaneously. Wargamers have a lot of skill and experience at that. Moreover, the average age of getting into wargames was twelve or thirteen years old. Wargames are, intellectually, an adult exercise and younger kids really can't hack it. RPGs, however, can be used and enjoyed by children several years younger than that. It's no wonder a lot of guys in their twenties, having seen nothing but RPGs for the past ten or fifteen years, were thrilled to eventually discover wargames, kept in the shadows by the greater popularity of RPGs. In many ways, the enthusiasm for wargames is similar to an enthusiasm for books. It tends to stay with you.

During the 1970s, when there were a lot of youngsters coming into wargaming, there were also a lot of them leaving it when they got older. College, marriage, a job all tended create an average six years spent wargaming. The positive side of a lot of teenagers not coming into gaming was that those who did get into wargaming tended to stay longer, with the average of duration nearly tripling. The majority of wargamers today have been at it for over ten years.

Another odd aspect of age is the lack of wargamers born before World War II. Now one can understand a lower range limit of entering wargames. But consistently, from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, very few potential wargamers who were born before December, 1941, become wargamers. There's a real generation gap situation there. It doesn't make much sense, but there it is.

The education profile follows the age profile. In 1980 13 percent were high school students, 9 percent high school graduates, 13 percent had attended college, 12 percent were college students, 16 percent were four-year-degree graduates, and 37 percent have either graduated from graduate school or are still attending it. When one separated the school-age population from the older folks one finds that more than 50 percent of the older gamers possess 17 or more years of education. This pattern held up through the 1980s and into the 1990s. In 1980, ten percent of wargamers were students, most of the remainder had graduate school or better education. In the early 1990s, less than five percent of wargamers are students, and more than half the remainder have more than sixteen years of education.

Considering their education levels, wargamers have, for the most part, predictable reading habits. For example, there was a question on magazine readership: nearly fifty percent read Scientific American, about a third read science fiction magazines and over half read computer related magazines. Nearly thirty percent subscribe to a news magazine and nearly as many read comic books.

Gamers read a lot. Over half percent belong to book clubs. An even greater proportion belong to, as one would expect, Military Book Club. A smaller percentage belong to a Science Fiction Book Club. Wargamers are way above average in book buying, and reading, habits. Considering some of the exquisitely detailed flak I've gotten over data errors in games, I've sometimes wished wargamers spent more time watching football. The fact that the first edition of this book stayed in print for over ten years, and led to a second edition, testifies to the book buying prowess of the relatively small universe of wargamers.

Older gamers and more educated gamers prefer less complex games and have fewer hours to spend playing the games. But at the same time, more experienced gamers have, well, more experience with complex game systems and are thus comfortable with complex games. As I always point out to aspiring game designers, the key to designing a game is thorough knowledge of all the design techniques used in the past. The most common way of getting that knowledge is playing and studying a lot of different games. Someone who has been playing games for ten or more years has a different concept of what is simple than someone who is new to wargames. Wargames have always been arcane, but now publishers are putting out "simple" games that are only regarded as such by the more experienced players. If a game that is simple in absolute terms is published, the experienced gamers who comprise the majority of the buyers, turn their nose up at it. This has caused problems in providing simple enough games for newcomers to hone their wargaming skills on.

The more educated gamer has always shows a stronger preference for games in the ancient and medieval periods. The less educated gamer leans toward more complex and large games, spends more hours playing them and for some reason has a strong preference for World War I games. I never could figure that one out. I make no claims as to what any of this might mean.

The gamer who has been spending more years playing games is older and more educated and owns a lot of games. He also shows a preference for Napoleonic games. Again, I didn't know why. It's just what the correlation analysis revealed.

One of the earliest shocks we obtained from these surveys was a casual inquiry about playing games solitaire. We ended up asking this question a number of times. Yet every time we asked whether people play the games with opponents or solitaire, we have consistently found that more than 50 percent of the games played are played solitaire. This is only partially accounted for by the fact that there aren't many gamers around. Another important reason is that players prefer to study the games without the hindrance of another person. In the 1990s, the number of games played solitaire exceeds sixty percent.

One of the principal reasons for all these surveys was to discover what type of game would be easiest to sell. Customers were continually asked about their preferences for complexity in games, their age, the education they have, the number of years they've been playing games, the number of hours they play a month, the number of games they own and the historical periods they prefer. In each of these characteristics we found different preferences at each end of the spectrum. For example, the gamers who prefer the more complex games spend more hours playing them, favor the contemporary period and like innovative, somewhat more complicated rules.

The gamers who spend more hours playing the games own more games and they too favor World War I games. And this may make some sense. The gamers who spend less time playing are usually older and more highly educated. The age related items were most important as, during the 1980s, the younger gamers disappeared and the average education and years in gaming increased.

Some findings were obvious. Those gamers who own a greater number of games usually have been at it more years, spend more hours playing, favor more innovative games and have a preference for pre-Napoleonic and World War I games. These two periods, by the way, are the ones which publishers paid the least attention to until quite recently.

Although we already knew that miniatures wargaming was a minority within the wargaming community, we were surprised to find that, at least in 1980, over 25 percent of wargamers had, at one time or another, tried miniatures. One sixth of those used naval miniatures, the rest land warfare miniatures. Most eventually got out of the hobby because of the demands on ones time and pocketbook. Many former miniatures wargamers noted that if you don't have the artistic skills to paint your own figures, you were at a disadvantage. Many also didn't want to spend that much of their gaming time only gaming tactical level operations (which is what miniatures gaming basically is). Finally, most wargamers were in it largely for the information published games contained. In miniatures, it's largely roll your own. Do your own research and be your own game designer. Not everyones cup of tea.

One of the enduring problems game designers and publishers are faced with is how complete game rules should be. There are so many possible things that can happen in a game that a truly comprehensive set of game rules could be (and some were) over a hundred pages long. Fortunately, about two thirds of gamers said that game rules should be a set of instructions that completely covers all but the most extreme cases of detail, while about one in five felt they game rules should be an exact set of laws and regulations that covers any possible case without any need for player interpretation. This is a nearly impossible task, even in computer games. The remainder of the respondees felt that game rules should be considerably looser. Computer wargame designers had the additional problem in that the more features they put in the program, the more likely that the program would fail completely. Thus the level of game complexity had settled down to a large degree by the early 1980s. Before that, there had been some attempts at truly encyclopedic game rules. These herculean efforts were, and still are, admired. But they are still virtually unplayable.

Following up on the questions of how extensive the game procedures should be, we also asked whether gamers preferred uniformity and standardization in the design of the games or more variety and innovation. Some 25 percent favored standardization or uniformity, 40 percent tended to prefer more variety and innovation, and 34 percent felt it depended too much on the game and could go either way. In any event, the trend has been more towards standardization, largely because this makes new games easier to get into. This has been a vital consideration for gamers who increasingly have less time to work with their wargames. It's case of what you need versus what you want.

Despite the increasing time constraints among wargamers, they have managed to devote about the same amount of time to wargaming in the early 1990s (sixteen hours a month) as they did in the late 1970s (eighteen hours a month.) One thing that has changed quite a bit is the time spent at any one time. In the 1970s, there were three or four sessions a month. Now there are a larger number of shorter sessions, indicative of the greater propensity to play solitaire or simply to study the games.

In terms of games owned, players tend to be collectors, much like book readers. The average gamer (somebody who's been playing five or six years) owns about 50 games. This usually includes a dozen or so games received in magazine format (at an average cost of $10) while the remaining games range in price from $10 to $100. This means an investment of between several thousand dollars. The average gamer spends about several hundred dollars a year on his hobby. On average a gamer will buy about a dozen games a year. Hobbyists tend to buy most of their games in stores. Even though many of the publishers go out of their way to make the games available by direct mail at more favorable prices, there is still a lot of impulse buying.

Which brings us to another subject. Why do people buy the games? We once ran a survey listing 28 reasons that someone would have for buying a game. We asked them to rate each of these factors on a scale of 1 to 9. What follows are the results (with the average 1 to 9 rating).

  1. The subject of the game (8.36). This was the single most important determinator in buying the game. This makes sense. People tend to be interested in the subject. When it comes to wargames the gaming element is simply a means toward an end.
  2. A firsthand examination of the components (6.56). This is probably one of the big reasons why most people buy their games in stores where they can handle the game. But again people are looking for what the game actually does and how it does it. And since games are so visual this naturally leads to the requirement for actually handling the game. In the last ten years, publishers have noted that graphic presentation tends to count for more and more, although it's unlikely it will displace subject matter as the most important consideration.
  3. Publisher's reputation (6.51). This is something unique. In book publishing the customer doesn't pay much attention to the publisher's reputation. It's the author that counts. In game publishing it's just the opposite. This may be because the publishing end of the hobby has not matured enough to have developed and recruited outstanding "authors." Some publishers did push noted designers for those authors games. The results were not definitive one way or the other. However, another and probably more pertinent reason is that the publishing process for games, unlike book publishing, is more of a team effort. It's more like making a movie where you have actors, directors and that unsung hero, the film editor, who puts the movie together after everybody else has finished his work. In a relationship such as this, much depends on the ability of the publisher to bring all of these people together and to get them working most effectively. Gamers apparently sense this, thus the publisher's reputation ranks highly.
  4. A review in a gaming magazine (6.21). People are always looking for a good opinion, or any opinion. Although there aren't too many gaming magazines available with reviews, they are becoming more important.
  5. The graphic design of the game (5.93). This is actually a subset of number 2, and is becoming more important. I attribute this to the greater cultural emphasis on graphics. The TV generation and all that.
  6. The initial perception of the game system (5.88). This means the ability of the gamer to perceive how the game generally works and how well he likes the way that it works. This element affords the publisher the opportunity to do some effective advertising.
  7. Price (5.87). The survey found that if apparent value in a game is given there will be no trouble selling it as long as the apparent value matches the price. This, however, represents a problem since some combinations of game components, which cost the same as other combinations, will actually be perceived of as more game. An example is the Quadrigames concept. The Quadrigame was first introduced by SPI in 1975 and was a set of four relatively small games in the same historical period which generally sold for the same price of a single, but larger, game. Now to a gamer that seemed like a pretty good deal. That means the individual games are costing him one quarter what one larger game would cost. However, it's actually cheaper to manufacture a Quadrigame (which has the equivalent of two full-size game maps and other components making it the equivalent of two "normal"-size games) than to manufacture many other games that appear to be smaller. Because of the use of special components or colors the "smaller" game costs more to manufacture. And even though the "smaller" game costs more to make we generally have to charge less since experience has shown that it is the perceived value that will weigh most heavily in a gamer's buying decision. In the final analysis, however, price is number seven on this list of factors that are considered when deciding to buy a particular game. Quadrigames reappeared on the market in the early 1990s, publishers noting that out of print ones were being resold at ever higher premiums.

    In fact, on the ratings given so far, the subject is by far the overwhelming determinant. I suspect that it is that factor plus a favorable score on three or four of the other top 10 elements that will prompt a person to purchase a particular game. The remaining factors in making the buying decision are:
  8. Description of a game in an ad (5.76).
  9. The physical size of the game (5.71).
  10. Whether the game is part of a "family" of similar games with which the gamer is already familiar (5.67).
  11. The opinion of a friend (5.67).
  12. Editorial description of the game-designing process in a magazine (5.67).
  13. The availability of the game by mail order (5.23).
  14. The reputation of the designer and/or developer (5.17).
  15. The scale of the game (5.14).
  16. The gamers ratings of the game, published in a wide survey magazine all publishers games (5.0).

The other 12 elements were so far down as to be considered relatively unmeaningful in the buying decision.

Getting back to the most important determinator of the buying, we have period preference. Now this is the critical element among gamers, since the primary thing that separates gamers is the different period preferences. We have arbitrarily (well, not that arbitrarily) divided the three major time divisions into nine periods. These are:

  • Ancient (Rome, Greece, Biblical, 3,000 B.C. to A.D. 600)
  • Dark Ages and Renaissance (600 to 1600)
  • 30 Years War and pre-Napoleonic (1600 to 1790)
  • Napoleonic (1790 to 1830)
  • Civil War/l9th Century (1830 to 1900)
  • World War I (1900 to 1930)
  • World War II (1930 to 1945)
  • Modern (1945 to the present)
  • Fantasy and science fiction.

During the 1970, certain trends became apparent. Generally speaking, the three major divisions in terms of periods are pre-20th century, 20th century and fantasy and science fiction. In the early 1970s, about a third of gamers were into the pre-20th century period. Practically none were interested in fantasy and science fiction games because there weren't any. This left about two thirds interested in the 20th century era. By 1980 this changed considerably. About 48 percent are interested in the pre-20th century age and 52 percent were interested in the 20th century. At the same time, 20 percent of the market for historical games had already disappeared into the fantasy and science fiction camp. By 1990, there had been a massive shift, with 63 percent now favoring pre-20th century and 37 percent the 20th century. Actually, much of that swing occurred after the political changes of 1989. With out the Russian armed forces as a potential enemy, interest in "contemporary" subject all but evaporated. At this point, about half the potential wargame audience had made off to fantasy and science fiction land.

In the early 1970s, 20 percent of gamers were mainly interested in World War II. By 1980 this was only 18 percent and by 1990 it was only eight percent. World War II was fast fading from memory. In the early 1970s, about 28 percent were interested in contemporary subjects, by 1980 it was only 18 percent. This was a curious result, as games on contemporary subjects were always good sellers. What was apparently happening was that a lot of non wargamers were buying the contemporary subject games (and probably going into shock when they broke them open). The regular wargamers were, even then, developing more interest in pre-20th century subjects. Through the 1980s, perhaps because of the political climate, wargamers expressed more interest in contemporary wargames. It went up to nearly 30 percent by 1989, after which it rapidly declined to 21 percent because of the demise of the Big Red Wolf. NATO/Warsaw Pact games passed into the realm of science fiction, for the moment, anyway.

This is something else to consider. Taste in games by period tends to vary from year to year. It goes in waves. For example, in the early 1970s 18 percent of gamers were interested in the Civil War. In the mid 1970s this declined to less than 10 percent. By 1980 it had increased to 16 percent and was growing. World War I was favored by about 5 percent of the gaming audience in the early 1970s and has stayed the same for the decade. Ten years later, it was up to eight percent.

Plotting the ups and downs of period popularity over twenty years clearly shows that periods regularly wax and wane. Periods are relatively hot for a few years, then they decline before becoming popular once more. Generally, periods have an average which varies a great deal from period to period. Some periods, in the long term, are more popular than others. The only dramatic change took place in the late 1980s, as, in effect, World War II finally ended with the collapse of communism and Russian military power (conventional military power, at least). This knocked the legs out from the popularity of World War II and post World War II games. However, post World War II games now have the relatively high popularity which World War II enjoyed for over forty years. You could almost hear the gears of history rachet forward one notch.

Periodically, I have also asked gamers which periods they liked the least, for marketing surveys indicated that while gamers would surely buy games they liked the best, they were also inclined to try games from other periods, except for those periods they liked the least. As of the early 1990s, this is the line up of periods liked the most and least.


% Liked Best

% Liked Least
Ancient 3000 BC-600 AD   20 10
Dark Ages/Renaissance 600-1600 AD   8 12
30 Years War/Pre-Napoleonic 1600-1790   12 7
Napoleonic 1790-1830   8 5
Civil War, 19th Cent 1830-1900   15 11
World War I 1900-1930   8 8
World War II 1930-45   8 8
Modern 1945-Present   13 11
Future/Hypothetical   8 33

And so it goes.

A number of things are happening here with these changes in period preference. First of all, older gamers are quite naturally improving their education and getting more interested in more historical periods they haven't covered yet, namely, the older epochs. At the same time younger gamers (particularly teenagers) who previously were more interested in World War II and modern topics (if only because they were more recognizable) were tending more towards fantasy and science fiction. However, because life is a circular process these younger gamers are also coming right back to the older eras as their education increases. In fact, there's a tremendous overlap and interest between fantasy and science fiction gamers and players interested in the medieval period. This is not as strange as it may appear, since much fantasy lore derives from medieval times (heroes in shining armor wielding blood-drenched swords while grasping the damsel in distress).

For a gamer to stay in the hobby for a long time, he must find the time to play, or at least work with the games as information sources. The younger hobbyists, the ones who have been in it for less than two years, generally play less than 12 hours a month, whereas those who have been at it for nine years or more will play 16 or 17 hours a month. An older person often has less time than, say, a student. He has more obligations, more pressures. Sticking with wargames requires a considerably greater investment of time and energy from an older person. This is probably one of the reasons why the games are so "serious," that is, demanding considerable fidelity to accuracy and research and presentation of the information. The games are addressed to people who are either already quite well established in responsible positions, or are on their way to that. Sometimes appearances can be deceiving. I once received a letter from a fellow in Tennessee who had visited me at SPI a month earlier. As was our custom (it was my turn), I had taken him on a tour of the place. He was dressed somewhat as I was, in shabby jeans and workshirt, and made reference to that fact in his letter thanking me for the tour and the hospitality. He had an M.D. after his name and noted that I should drop in and say hello whenever in Tennessee, although I'd probably never have occasion to use his services as a gynecologist. This is fairly typical. Many gamers are doctors. I often wonder where they find the time to play.

Speaking of occupations, wargamers cover a fairly wide range. Some of the things hobbyists do for a living are rather understandable. Many players are still students, nearly all age 22 and under are. Taking the entire gamer population, about twenty percent are in the military (including Department of Defense and CIA civilians). Some five percent are officers in combat units, another four percent are NCOs and troops in combat units. That means about ten percent of hobbyists are in combat related jobs in the armed forces. There's a always been a lot of commercial wargaming going on in the military. That's where I first encountered wargames in the early 1960s. When I ended up with an artillery battalion in Korea (1963-64), there were about half a dozen enlisted wargamers and three officer wargamers in that one battalion. While at SPI I was visited by a player who was an engineering officer on a nuclear submarine. He commented that one of their favorite games while they were on very long cruises was Frigate, a game of naval warfare during the 19th century. During the 1980s, many of these military people began designing commercial wargames. Gary ("Mo") Morgan, am F-16 pilot, has designed several games for Avalon Hill and one on the 1812 battle of Borodino for S&T. Larry Bond, a civilian analyst for the Navy, designed Harpoon. Several CIA analysts have had wargames published, usually on pre-20th century (or pre World War II) subjects. There are others and there will be more. Wargamers in the military are a growing group and they are the one group that has contributed much to keeping the hobby alive. I should note, however, that at West Point, through the 1980s, an increasing number of cadets prefer Dungeons & Dragons and other role playing games. What this means for the future of the US military, we can only speculate about.

Some 5 percent of gamers are employed by the government. This includes a lot of people in the foreign service, CIA, various national security agencies and similar operations. They consider gaming to be something of a professionally related activity, which, for many of them, it is. About ten percent of gamers are in blue collar occupations, ranging from in-flight food service worker and machine operator to farm worker, etc. This is an interesting group, including a mid-western pig farmer who has what is arguably one of the largest collections of World War II order of battle information in the world. I've know several bus drivers who were keen and knowledgeable wargamers, including one who had graduated from an ivy league college, but preferred driving a bus and studying history. A third of wargamers are in what we call professional occupations. These involve jobs such as systems analyst (three percent), programmers (two percent), corporate officers (one percent), lawyers (three percent) clergy (one percent), doctors (one percent) science (five percent) and so on. I'm never bored when I get into a conversation with a lot of hobbyists. Many of them are doing more interesting things than I am.

Given their income and training, it's not surprising that wargamers were among the first to get personal computers and by the early 1990s, most had them and the majority of those played computer wargames. Several have commented that computer wargames have made the hobby a bit more respectable. Which raises the long standing problem of wargames being considered mere games and their users mere gamers. Such is not the case, as we have seen, but the label sticks and causes discomfort at times. Playing a game on a computer has a somewhat more respectable aura about it, especially since the data displayed on wargame screens looks a lot like the professional wargames the Pentagon creates.

By most definitions, wargamers are a select group. Above average in education, income and, especially, diligence. Wargames are not easy to master. It requires unique mental skills to deal with all that goes on in a wargame and make the game work. Even computer wargames are considered a cut above average in complexity compared to most other games. But what most distinguishes wargamers is their desire to explore our past and not only find out what has happened, but details of why and how it happened. Considering the continued popularity of games on contemporary subjects, wargamers also want to apply those historical insights to the present and future. More experienced wargamers also learn that much of what is generally considered war is not combat, but politics, sociology and everything that defines the human experience. Which is why many wargamers wince at the term "wargame" and prefer to call them what they really are: historical simulations.

  Chapter 7 - Designing Computer Wargames

  Chapter 9 - Wargames at War

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