Year 2000 Introduction for the Wargames Handbook


The first edition of the Wargames Handbook came out in the Summer of 1980, arguably the high point of the golden age of board wargaming. In that year, there was peak in the number of titles published, and the number of copies shipped. The second edition came out in 1993, a far different time for wargames. I felt fortunate that I was able to convince my publisher to go for a second edition. They looked at the numbers and noted that a few thousand copies were sold each year. What the publisher didn't know, and what I was not fully aware of, was that most of those sales were to military organizations, to be used as a text book for the teaching of wargaming. Even though the second edition paid more attention to computer wargames, it wasn't enough. For through the mid and late 1990s, board (“manual”) wargaming was completely overtaken by computer wargames. As a result, the Wargames Handbook went out of print in 1998. Board wargaming was shrinking throughout the 1980s, largely because of the competition from fantasy games and the early computer wargames. But in the 1990s, computer graphics became good enough to cancel the visual advantage of board wargamers. Personal computers now had larger screens, and the ability to put more and more information on those screens. It was easier to use a computer wargame, as set up was automatic and you could save your game with a mouse click and come back to it later.

Board wargames still had advantages, the major one being that you knew exactly what the game was doing, but many wargamers knew that had a downside in that you had to master a lot of rules and procedures to make a manual game go. But those with the right combination of skills, determination and interest in historical what ifs did play the games and thus became capable of designing games. Most of those gamers were not aware that simply playing manual games turned them into game designers, although over time most of them realized it. Not all of these gamers had the urge to design their own, but most eventually realized that they certainly knew enough about how the games worked to do so if they wanted to. Unfortunately, this proliferation of game designers came at the same time, the 1980s, that computer wargames began to take over. While computer wargames had many advantages over manual games, they had one major minus for game designers. Computer games did not reveal their internal workings. Oh, sure, some computer game designers, and publishers, often former board wargamers, went out of their way to provide thick manuals showing all the details of what was going on in the game. And many gamers appreciated this, but many just took the buzz from knowing all that stuff was there and otherwise ignored it. With board wargames, you could not ignore the details of how the game did what it did. With computer wargames, you could, and most gladly did. You could get into computer wargames a lot more quickly when you were relieved of the need to master a lot of the games mechanics. Moreover, the easier access to computer wargames meant there were far more people able to enjoy wargames.

But there was a dark side to this proliferation of wargamers. While computer wargames sold five to ten times as many copies as a similar board wargame, they did this by concentrating on simpler games that cost 20 to 50 times more to develop than manual wargames. Even with a computer taking care of all the bookkeeping and the complicated routines, a traditional computer wargame was still a complex beast. There were a lot of playing pieces to look after and complex decisions to be made. Publishers soon realized that the former board wargamers comprised a small, and ever shrinking, portion of their  customer base. Most of the new wargamers were more comfortable with simpler games. Moreover, the most popular genre of computer games were what people in the business called "twitch games." These first showed up in arcades, then on game consoles and eventually on PCs. Simple games, with an emphasis on eye-hand coordination (thus the "twitch" nickname), this popular style soon showed up with more frequency in PC wargames. Moreover, arcade games outsold PC games by about two to one. Although most arcade games were too simple for the PC market, many features of arcade games were transferable to PC based games.

The best known example is DOOM, which rose to popularity because of it's explicit first person perspective and 3-D like graphics. It didn't take long for computer wargame designers to realize that if some of the arcade elements were added to a computer wargame, you could sell a whole lot of wargames. Soon there were examples like Panzer General to validate this theory. Panzer General sold so well because of another popular arcade feature; continuous action. Manual wargames had relied on turn based systems. One side moved, then the other. But more powerful PCs in the 1990s provided enough computing power to have the action be continuous. This had long been a feature of aircraft simulators, although this was possible mainly because there were very few "playing pieces" in action at one time. Land based wargames could have dozens of playing pieces on the screen at one time. The more capable PCs of the 1990s allowed for continuous movement of these many items simultaneously and wargames like Warcraft became enormously popular. While these new features sold lots (millions of some titles) more computer wargames, there were also some serious downsides. The most serious one was the decline of the wargame as simulation. Wargames were now mainly games. Often good games, but there weren't as many that accurately portrayed a historical battlefield. There were still some realistic and detailed computer wargames, and these were mainly for contemporary warfare. No mystery on how this happened. The military professionals noticed  manual wargames early on, and it was the encouragement of the pro's that got publishers to produce the first "historical" wargames on historical battles that had not happened yet. But this was not much comfort to all the historical gamers. History has always been a niche market, and manual wargames, with its small but dedicated audience of gamers, who tended to be a well read lot, provided a fertile market for games on many different historical subjects.

You could easily see how this was working by looking at what the best selling games were from 1993 (when the 2nd edition of the Wargames Handbook came out) through the end of the decade. Keep in mind that throughout this period, wargame was considered a success if it sold 40,000-50,000 copies. Some hit 100,000 and above and generated lots of sequels (games using the same system, but on different battles.)

The top seller for 1993-99 was Myst. Now this was not an arcade game, but it did use extensive graphics to move things along. Myst also sold 4.2 million copies. Naturally, there was a sequel, Riven, which sold another 1.3 million games. Myst and Riven are considered “Adventure Games.” There’s a plot line and a lot of puzzles to be solved. Dungeons & Dragons was the first mass market adventure type game, coming out back in 1974 as a manual game. Very popular. When personal computers came along five years later, many of the first games you saw appear were adventure games. They were all text, which worked with adventure games. But once PCs acquired sufficient graphics capability to make graphic adventure games possible, adventure games really took off. In the 1993-99 top 20, there was also number 13, 7th Guest, which sold 927,000 copies. Adventure games are steady sellers, even if few of them become big hits.

The number two best seller was Flight Simulator, a game that first appeared in 1980, was bought by Microsoft shortly there after and continuously upgraded ever since. Sold 2.8 million copies. Flight simulators were the original real time games. They had to be. For years, flight simulators were held back by the lack of computing power. Ironically, just when PCs became powerful enough so that developers could do flight simulators right, along come the real time strategy (Warcraft) and arcade action (Doom) games. It’s been hard times for the flight sims ever since.

The number three seller was Doom II, with 1.5 million copies. But if you include all the Doom clones, you have millions more. For example, in the top twenty best sellers, you had similar games like Doom I (number 8, at 1.1 million sold), Star Wars: Dark Forces (number 11, at 952,000), Duke Nukem 3D (number 12 at 950,000), and Ultimate Doom (number 20 at 788,000)

Fifth place went to a classic that finally came out in an authorized version. Monopoly sold 1.3 million copies No one was too surprised that a simple, classic game like Monopoly would sell well, especially if it was well done as this one was.) After all, there had been unauthorized computerized versions of Monopoly floating around for years. But another simple game came along and really shocked the game business. Deer Hunter, a simple game of deer hunting, selling for twenty bucks (less than half the price of other computer games) and distributed in mass market outlets like Wal-Mart, came in at number 12 and moved 947,000 copies. There were many sequels and clones and most did well. Games like Deer Hunter were cheaper to develop (there was less to them) and, at twenty dollars, were considered almost an impulse item and was easily sold in places where you don’t expect to see computer games. What Deer Hunter exposed was the fact that the games business had been missing a large segment of the gamer audience. This was done by designing too many games for the core, hard core, gamer audience. That meant more and more complex, and harder to beat, games. This put off a lot of people, while the simplicity of Deer Hunter did not. The meaning of all this is still being digested. But meanwhile, some publishers did find ways to capitalize on the simplicity angle. Microsoft collected a lot of old arcade (as in arcade, not PC) games and put out the Return of Arcade collection. Came in at number 15, selling 910,000 copies. Number 16 was another simplicity concept, computerized Lego (Lego Island). Aimed at children, a number of adults have been caught playing with it. Sold 909,000 copies. Using the same simple approach, there was finally a breakthrough game for girls; Barbie Fashion Designers (again, women have been caught playing with this) was number 19 and sold 826,000 copies.

Number six was Warcraft II, one of the first, and certainly the most famous of the Real Time Strategy (RTS) games. Basically simple wargames, all the units are operating all the time (“real time.”) Sold 1.3 million units, and Warcraft clones sold millions more. For example, in the twenty best selling games of 1993-1999, there were many RTS types. Number 24 was Starcraft (science fiction Warcraft) selling 916,000 copies and number 17; Command & Conquer selling 876,000 copies.

Number nine was another distinct genre, the “build things” simulation SimCity 2000 sold 1.4 million copies. The original SimCity was at number 18, selling 830,000 copies. Many popular games in other genres use this “build things” element, but in games like SimCity, that’s all you do.

By the late 1990s, many of the new games were RTS. The constant action was immensely compelling, although some RTS games had a pause feature (that allowed the player to issue new orders) and decent AI (Artificial Intelligence) for friendly units so that players did not wear themselves down to a frazzle. Players would often do that anyway, for the constant action was addictive, more so than any previous turn based computer game (even the highly addictive Civilization series.) While accurate in portraying tactical operations, RTS gave a very inaccurate sense of how things were done at the operational and strategic level. This particular issue irritated a lot of history minded wargamers.

The 1999 best sellers showed that there was no reversal of trends in favor of wargames. The top two games were sims (RollerCoaster with 719,535 units sold and SimCity 3000, which had   657,513 units sold in the year.) The closest thing to wargames in the top 20 were number 4 (Age of Empires II: Age of Kings with 469,376 units sold), number 12 (Rainbow Six Gold Edition with 321,340 units sold), and number 14 (StarCraft: Brood Wars with 311,299 units sold.) Three of the top 20 were deer hunting games, and so it goes. The highest selling wargame (or game wargamers would recognize as such) was Close Combat III: Russian Front  with 45,438 units sold for the year. There were also two combat flight simulators that put up good numbers (Janes F-15 moving 122,000 units and Falcon 4.0  selling 209,000 units.)

One can make the case that wargame sales are better than ever, if one simply changes the definition of a wargame. That’s what the market has done in response to market demands. But that’s like saying that historical fiction should be reflagged as history books because few people will buy and read real history books anymore. No, the problem is that historical wargames were always a small market because they emphasized information and analysis at the expense of entertainment. Any gamer who was not a wargamer immediately saw that. Now that computers have made it possible for many more people to play wargames, you should not be surprised that most of them want to be entertained, not put through a training course. There is a new type of wargame available, and this includes the science fiction and fantasy games that involve combat. It has been noted that some of these gamers will move up (over or down, depending how you look at it) to historical wargames. That’s the best one can hope for, as there has never, ever, been broad appeal for realistic combat simulations.

Manual games were relatively cheap to develop (often under $10,000), so publishers could afford to put out a lot of different titles. Computer wargames went the other way. It wasn't that way at the beginning. Initially, computer wargames were actually cheaper to develop than manual games. One programmer/designer was about all you needed. A publisher was still needed to dupe the disks, pay for the packaging and take care of marketing and distribution. But manual games also required a publishers services.

As PCs developed more powerful sound and graphics capability, there inevitably arose a consumer demand for more eye and ear candy. Flashy graphics and specially written sound tracks became the standard. By the late 90s, less than five percent of a game development budget went into the game aspect, the rest went to create the pretty pictures and cool sounds. Manual games devote about 25 percent of their development budget to the game mechanics. Computer wargames became big business, something manual wargames never achieved. Through the 1990s, computer wargames have largely replaced manual wargames as the principal outlet for wargame publishers, and players. That is a classic good news/bad news situation. On the bright side, the wargames market is larger than it’s ever been and the games are easier to use.

But there are a lot more negatives. There are fewer wargames being published. And those that are published tend to be simpler and less accurate. Unlike manual games, you can’t see what’s going on in computer games. You cannot do much with the basic mechanics in a computer wargame. Manual wargames were quite different. While the rules may have sometimes been unclear (or worse), most players adapted by (intentionally or otherwise) changing the game procedures to suit their own tastes or opinions. I was quick to make the most of this problem by doing what many computer game programmers did, I turned a bug into a feature. Players who regularly mucked about with game mechanics, I noted often, were performing one of the more important tasks performed in game development. No prototype of a game went far without a lot of tweaking. Computer wargames go through the same process. But once the code is closed and the gamma version is shipped, the users cannot further tweak the game. This has caused a significant divide between those players who played a lot of manual games and those who have known only computer wargames. In effect, there is software generation of gamers and a mushware generation.

Mushware is my term (borrowed from a programmer who worked for me years ago) for what people do with complex procedures in their brain, without benefit of a computer. Mushware was also the reason why the market for manual was never that large. Only a small portion of the population comes equipped to handle mushware. The ones who were exposed to manual wargames became, whether they wanted to or not, wargame designers. The mushware gamers could not avoid understanding how the games worked, and in excruciating detail. It did not surprise me that many of today’s (middle aged) programmers were manual wargamers. The grognards were the first geeks. If you could handle manual wargames, programming was no great challenge. When PCs first came out, I took it for granted that most wargamers would glom onto that new toy. Our surveys indicated that wargamers were much quicker to acquire PCs than the general population.  And it didn’t surprise me that so many wargamers who were not programmers, were soon eagerly learning BASIC or ASM. In my last two years at SPI, the many PCs we had around the office were soon taken over, later during the weekly Friday night playtest sessions, with gamers using or developing software to play, develop or analyze wargames.

Many manual wargamers went on to develop computer games (wargames and games in general.) But in the 1990s, you saw the emergence of developers who had no manual wargames experience. This trend will continue, meaning more and more wargames will be designed by people with no mushware experience. This may not be noticed for quite some time, if ever. The mushware generation grew up with games that emphasized accuracy and historical realism. Manual games kept the designers honest, as the players could see how the game worked and figure out for themselves if they thought the designers approach was on target or not. Computer wargames plunged the games inner workings into darkness. Most gamers don’t care, the games are easier to use and that sells games more than anything else. The mushware generation will pass from the scene

The number of complex computer wargames published (increasingly by small outfits, who distribute via the web and mail) has been shrinking. And those that do get done have less glitzy and less elaborate interfaces. Much lower budgets than the mainline computer games. Those few gamers who still sought out complex, or simply realistic, computer wargames were willing to forego a lot of the glitzy graphics. Many of the gamers who prefer the historically accurate computer wargames started out with, or still play, manual wargames, and actually prefer their computer wargames to look like manual games, complete with the hexagon grid.

But increasingly, all wargames use a variety of more abstract, but more impressive looking, interfaces. Some of this is a step in the right direction, if the new interface resembles more accurately what battlefield commanders actually see when in action. At the lowest tactical level, squad leaders or platoon commanders may look at a map from time to time, but mostly they just look around at their troops, and where the enemy is, or might be. Higher up the food chain, you spend more time looking at maps and talking to subordinates and staff officers. The military has been adapting and using these vivid graphical techniques for their own simulations. Wargamers who are military professionals are, increasingly, designing their own games. The easy to use and powerful programming tools available now enable these officers to write the software for their games as well.

It is ironic that as manual wargames disappear, the last place where they survive is in the military. The irony is that the military had largely abandoned wargames after World War II. It was commercial wargames that attracted the troops attention in the early 1970s and led to a renaissance of military wargaming.

Wargaming has had a remarkable four decades. Commercial wargames first appeared in the late 1950s, although commercial miniatures and naval gaming date back to the end of the 19th century. Board wargaming had something of a golden age in the 1970s, before being replaced by fantasy role playing games (RPGs) and computer games in the 1980s. In the 1990s computer wargames were covered in glitz, simplified and made into a mass market product.  Many of the 70s era grognards don’t recognize these games as wargames, but they are. And simple, glitzy wargames are the future. Not entirely, of course, there is also developing a via web based market for lower budget, but more accurate and detailed historical wargames. We’ll never get back to the 70s, but with wargames established as a permanent part of the commercial gaming landscape, we can expect an unending stream of new and innovative ideas. Especially from those equipped with mushware.


Jim Dunnigan

March 22, 2000



Original 1993 Introduction

This second edition of the Wargames Handbook is back by popular demand. This in itself is encouraging. Twelve years have passed since the first edition was published. A lot has changed in the wargame world since then. The most visible development has been the introduction of personal computers on a large enough scale to allow a substantial shift of commercial wargaming activity from manual (on paper) to computerized (on PCs) play. A less obvious change has occurred in professional wargaming, as the Defense Department gamers increasingly adopted the techniques pioneered by the "hobby" gamers. Overall, there has been a lot more gaming within the military since 1980 and the story behind that is a fascinating one that is detailed within these pages.

While computer wargames became a major element in the computer games market, they did become an overwhelming factor in the wargames market. The growth of computer wargames occurred at the same time (late 1970s, early 1980s) that many gamers were drawn away from wargames by the broader appeal of fantasy and science fiction subjects. Accelerating the shift to computer games was the appearance of increasingly realistic and appealing computerized military simulators, "wargames" that put the player in command of a jet fighter, attack helicopter or warship. So appealing were the simulators that they became more popular than your typical strategic wargame. Another interesting angle was the reluctance of many potential computer wargamers (largely manual wargamers with a personal computer) to buy computer wargames that didn't bear some resemblance  to their familiar manual wargames (hexagons and all that).

The net result of all these changes through the 1980s has been a sharp decline in the market for conventional ("paper" or "manual") wargames. Yet wargaming is more popular than ever, it's just that most of the action has moved to computers. Twelve years ago, the average manual wargame sold about 10,000 to 20,000 copies. Some sold a lot more, but the bottom line was that, on average, a wargame sold twice as many copies as the average book on the same subject. Paper wargames were relatively cheap to produce and during the heyday of manual wargames in the 1970s, nearly a hundred titles a year were published. Today, less half as many titles a year are published and sales per title is less than half of what it was in the 1970s. It can still be a profitable business, but most of the action has shifted to computers. The average computer wargame sells over 20,000 copies per title. Simulator wargames currently sell over 100,000 (and sometimes over 250,000) copies per title. One of the effects of the shift to computer wargames is that, relative to the 1970s, a much larger group of gamers now play a smaller number of games.

Much of this book still deals with manual wargames. This is because even computer wargames start out as a manual game. Perhaps a crude manual game, but it's a fact of programming computers that you can't make the computer do something that you haven't first worked out manually.

While I considered devoting the entire book to computer wargames, I quickly realized that readers would not obtain as deep an understanding of wargames as I wished unless I went back to the beginning: to manual wargames. All wargames derive from that earliest and simplest of wargames: chess. Manual wargames are the plateau of realism and complexity chess evolved into before wargames took off into the ever expanding future of computerized wargames.

  Table of Contents



  Chapter 1 - What is a Wargame