I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how time and space create meaning. That probably sounds really highfalutin, but it’s actually really simple, and boils down to the fact that differences in time and in space can profoundly alter your experience of something. To start with time, and an obvious example: I’ve been married for twelve years and some change, and that’s a lot different than being married for six. Affection and esteem are deeper; the happiness we share is happier, and our sorrows more heartbreaking. All other things being equal, or at the very least set aside, there’s a whole wide world of difference between reading a 300-page book and one that runs a thousand pages, or between spending ninety minutes in a cinema and four hours. Ebert once said that no good film is too long, and no bad one too short, and so, again, assuming all other things equal (i.e., a good film as opposed to a bad one), a four hour film in my experience is a more beautiful, more profound, more absorbing thing than one that merely diverts my attention for ninety minutes. Television and radio are both predicated on a variant of this principle; you get attached to the people who share your living room once a week, and that attachment deepens with every season, inspiring fandoms to obsessively debate and document the show’s mythos, and leaving them utterly exhausted and sobbing when, at last, the series finale rolls around and it’s time to say good-bye.
And, of course, like all other forms of art and entertainment, games work much the same way. As any grognard can tell you, a ten-hour game can be far more engrossing than one that “only” clocks in at a couple of hours. And the television principle applies here, as well: the ritual of revisiting a game again and again, week after week, creates affection, deepens appreciation, and inspires a passionate fanbase. I had the pleasure of commissioning an article for Yaah! from Wendell Albright about his “lifestyle game” World In Flames, probably the definitive grand strategic treatment of the Second World War, a game which has had its own conventions, mailing lists (long before internet forums were a thing), and even a “short” version, Blitz!. And though that epitome of WIF used many of the same concepts as the original, the experience of it, the texture of it, and the attachment to it, is of course completely different. The general consensus is that, for all the things that make Blitz! commendable and admirable, WIF provides a deeper and richer experience.
But here’s the thing though: I’m probably never actually going to play WIF. It’s not that I don’t want what it has to offer: I do. It sounds great and compelling, especially as Mr. Albright described it. I just plain don’t have the time to play it, or rather, to play it enough times and with enough frequency to even begin to fully internalize and comprehend the rules, to peel back the layers and expose its depths and subtleties, and to progress to the point where I can say that I’m “merely” terrible at it instead of “flailing-in-my-own-stupidity-awful”. Even sitting down with experienced players to guide me through the rules, I’m likely to make some seriously boneheaded decisions which, given the butterfly-effect nature of long multiplayer games, will probably skew the whole thing in some screwy direction, which is probably not what a bunch of WIFficiandos want out of a hundred hour multi-week session of their favorite game. Don’t get me wrong: I love butterfly-effects, and I love the tensions that arises in games where everyone is challenged to be really sharp, as the decisions I make in those games are freighted with consequences. I just don’t want “ruin the whole thing for everybody” to be one of those consequences.
WIF is an extreme example, in that it requires a humungous time and brain investment to play through it just the first time. But there are games that, while they don't take as long to play through, take a long time to fully understand and to play well. These games seem to have an irresistible draw to me, and more than once I’ve plunked down my cash to give this game or that one a try. It’s a sort of an aspirational purchase, the idea being that I’ll grow into the game as I stumble my way around in its perfectly realized world. (In turn, by playing more complex games, I’ll be able to design more complex games.)
The Cat Pack
Typically I set them up in my (cat-free) garage, playing a turn or two on a crisp autumn morning, or making morale checks between turning sausages on my grill on a hot summer afternoon. Last year, my big garage game was Saints in Armor, the sixth volume in GMT’s venerable Musket & Pike series. It’s a topic I find absolutely engrossing, and I marvel at the intricacies and texture of the command mechanism, and I admire the interplay of the different kinds of hits. “You take cohesion hits moving through certain types of terrain? Genius!” It absolutely is, and one day, I’m going to steal that concept for one of my own designs. But the fact remains that I’m rubbish at it (which, okay, that’s nothing new for me and wargames), and that as much as I admire the game’s engine, I’m not really any closer to understanding it in any meaningful way, and I don’t really have the time to get there. I’m not sure if I ever will. I ended up trading it away.
Like time, space creates meaning. To come back to my marriage example, living with my wife in a house is very different than living with her in an apartment. The space we share changes the experience of one another’s company, just as seeing a film on a forty-foot screen is quite different than seeing it on a TV monitor or, God forbid, a cell phone (seriously, who does that?). Likewise, the space a game takes up in our physical lives corresponds with the space it takes up in our heads. A big game can be more satisfying than a small one. I won’t say that it’s more satisfying to buy a big game than a small one, but it’s certainly more satisfying having bought one, as I really feel like I got my money’s worth. (It’s kinda like that old chestnut about hating to write, but loving having written, only that's never actually made sense to me: I love writing.)
But “big” is relative. I would never be able to find the table space for something like WIF, for example. Or something like Frank Chadwick’s hotly-anticipated ETO. In terms of mechanics and complexity, I think it would easily fit into this Battle for Moscow veteran’s wheelhouse, but the map is slightly larger than my living room. The biggest table I have is that one in my garage, which is barely large enough to fit a “standard” 22-inch-by-34-inch single-mapper. Being fully cognizant of this, I’ve been very careful to steer clear of any “monster” games.
It was with this in mind that I carefully made my most recent purchase from my FLGS. I’ve long been interested in naval games, because they’re maneuver turned up to eleven, and also I get to make jokes about poop decks, so really, everybody wins. But I never actually bought one until I settled on Blue Cross, White Ensign. Lots of scenarios, simple rules, critically acclaimed: okay, I’ll take the plunge. As I read the rules, I thought, yes, this is something I can definitely handle. Let’s go out to the garage and set up one of the scenarios. That’s when I realized, to my horror, that even the smallest of the scenarios on offer used two 22x34 inch maps: that is, that it would take twice as much space as I had available. “Great,” I said to Mary. “I bought a game, I punched out the counters, read the rules, and now I’ll never play it. I guess I’m officially a wargamer now.”
To bring this back to something approaching my point: if time and space create meaning, then longer, bigger games can and often do create a deeper and more fulfilling experience than their shorter, smaller brethren. However, that’s only going to work if the gamer is willing and able to invest the time and dedicate the space that they need to enjoy the game. A shorter, smaller game might not have the same depth and breadth, but it’s more likely to see my table and probably yours, and that’s not a bad thing.