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TIME DISTORTION IN WARGAMES (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

The scale of my Shields & Swords II titles has always been somewhat fungible. Hexes don't represent a specific, consistent distance from one title to another. The units do not represent a set number of men (especially as, for some battles, nailing this down with any certainty is next to impossible, given the exaggerations common in the source material). And each turn does not represent a given, defined period of time.

There are some folks for whom this kind of thing is a supreme abrogation of a wargame designer's solemn duty to ensure the unity of, and historical accuracy within, the game's chosen scale. And certainly there are designs where I'm more careful about this - the hex, unit, and time scale in the forthcoming Shot & Shell Battle Series is defined at the outset - but a number of them where I'm more cavalier. (In my High Speed Hover Tank, a game that maybe five people played and I know four of them personally, and I'm married to the President of the Fan Club, I tweaked these sort of expectations by stating that each turn represents between 4.63 and 7.88 seconds.)

This ambiguous scale in my medieval games is probably exacerbated by the fact that the players are usually limited to activating only one of their two to four Wings. Because I'm seemingly obsessed with things like tempo and leverage, it's not uncommon for things to flare up on one side of the battlefield for several turns, while the others stay quiet. What are those other guys doing? Picking their noses?

Well, no. Those guys are doing something, maybe even something important. Maybe even something that we're going to see them do three turns hence. Just because it "happens" three turns later doesn't mean it isn't happening at the same time. It just means that right now, we're concentrating on what's happening over here, and we'll catch up with what's happening over there in a hot minute.

This kind of time distortion is normal, and it's actually part of pretty much any wargame. Even the tried-and-true traditional model with defined hex, unit, and time scales deals in this sort of distortion. First, I move and fight with all my guys, then you move and fight with all your guys. Both of these segments - my player turn and your player turn - are "really" happening somewhat simultaneously. (Though some of what you do on your turn will be in reaction to what I do on my turn, so it's not precisely simultaneous and is a little bit messy.)

Beyond that, I think there's a natural tendency in wargames for the focus to narrow in the final turns. If there's two turns left to go, and my victory is going to hinge on control of one or two hexes, I'm probably not going to spend much time moving and fighting with the guys elsewhere in the line. The story the game is telling becomes the story of those one or two hexes, the four pieces of cardboard you have defending it, and the three pieces of cardboard on my side trying to take them away from you.

And it's not like those other guys aren't making attacks, or that they didn't make them historically. It's that right now, we're focused on these handful of characters - we've found our protagonists and we're sticking with them.

This is a technique that you'll see a lot in movies or books. You see it a lot in games, too, but it's more accidental, more "emergent", more driven by the players and their actions. Some game systems just have turn structures and activation mechanisms that put more emphasis on this, and create more opportunities for this kind of thing to happen, not just at the end of the game, when it's all down to the last couple of hexes or die rolls, but throughout the whole experience.

In The Grunwald Swords, tensions will flare up on either the left or the right for a few turns, then switch to somewhere else. While this "happens" sequentially when playing the game - this thing happens on turns 1-3, then this thing on turns 4 and 5 - it's likely happening simultaneously as far as the "simulation" is concerned. We're just cutting from one part of the story to another, like chapters in a book, or scenes in a movie.

For me, this increases the "ludic value" of the game, the competitive tension, and the sense of narrative. Does it mean this is right for every game? No. There are several topics where I would find this kind of thing vastly inappropriate. But it's a useful arrow to have in one's quiver.


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