THE RHYTHM OF HEXES (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

All models are wrong, but some are useful. I think that first part goes double for games, because games carry the additional burden of needing to be interesting and engaging. I think that second part goes double for games too, because they speak the language of entertainment and art, things which connect to the human parts of us in ways that a more strictly mathematical simulation often does not. It's poetry, not math.

Much is made in some quarters about whether or not a game is an "accurate" simulation, which in some ways misses the point, because they can't be accurate simulations. (All models are wrong.) Some can have a higher degree of accuracy than others, some have a greater deal of verisimilitude, and some have something to tell us (but some are useful). And some don't have these things, so are less useful and also less engaging.

And of course I know that that is what is meant when someone says a game is not an accurate simulation, but sometimes the same someones clutch their pearls because this city is in hex 1018 instead of 1017, or because this river follows these three hexsides instead of those three hexsides, and so naturally the entire thing is worthless because they've distorted the geography to - gasp! wheeze! swoon! - make a game of it.

But the world does not have a hex grid draped atop it to regulate our movement and combat, and rivers do not flow and bend only at sixty-degree angles. The hex grid itself is a distortion. Or maybe it's better to think of it as a translation, an elevation. Words in metered poetry don't follow a natural rhythm, but are contorted through artifice to breathe in iambs or trochees; terrain in a wargame is artfully shifted to conform to the rhythm of hexes at the chosen scale.

Artfully shifted, and deliberately, thoughtfully, with an eye toward the desired effect, and just as it pains the ear when a poet creates clumsy word salad for the sake of a contrived rhyming couplet, it offends the eye if Paris found itself two hexes east of Berlin. But if Paris is southwest of Berlin, with the Low Countries is between them? Perhaps Paris should be nine hexes away and the designer has it at eight, or eight hexes and it should be nine, but at most scales in most games, eight's not really any more accurate than nine, nor vice-versa.

The more important question isn't, should it be eight hexes or nine, but rather, what does eight tell us that nine doesn't? Or, what does eight enable the game to do? Because I'm very much of the opinion that a game should have - well, not anything as prosaic as a point, exactly, but a point of view, a lens, a focus, an emphasis, a something. What is the game really about, and how is it about it?

Because if the game is about the accuracy of your hex grid or your order of battle, and only that, it's a poem without poetry. Utterly artless, utterly useless. It can only tell us mathematical things that we already know, and given the natural distortions of the form, it can only do a bad job of it.

This doesn't mean that simulation games aren't simulations, or that accuracy - to whatever degree that a model can be accurate - isn't important. Only that designing games (even and especially historical simulations) is more art than science, more magic than mathematics. A game that exists merely as a collation of pieces of information but tells us nothing about them is no game at all.

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