The Analog Gamer: Death on the Battlefield
“The commander saw victory in his grasp, the greenskins had been pushed back and he knew the tactical elements of the Imperium would, Emperor willing, capture and rally with the help of the newly arrived Blood Angels. Five units. Five simple units of Cadian Imperial Guard had held against the green horde, the rampaging onslaught of Gretchin and Orks with their bloodlust flowing. Not even a regiment of defenders stood between them and the settlement of Cleric’s Hollow. The Cadian’s had held before the brunt of the overwhelming numbers. Today this bastion of the empire would not succumb. Today, the greenskins had been taught that even trying to take an insignificant clerical outpost would cost them dearly.”
How can you not enjoy a futuristic Gothic fantasy game? Littered with all the conceits of fantasy races, mystic forces and mankind corrupted by alien influences? Warhammer 40,000 (40k) is now a property well known in the PC gaming circles thanks to Relic Entertainment and THQ. A real-time strategy game where players build and command the forces of the Empire in a galactic future. A dark future in fact, where mankind faces constant war against all comers – from the green skin Orks to the mysterious Eldar. Years of backstory go into informing this rich and expansive universe with tomes and tomes of story enlightening gamers about each and every faction in the setting.
Warhammer 40k, and it’s partner series – Warhammer began life as simple fantasy miniature games. Tabletop titles where players purchased and built up massive armies of metal miniatures and simulated squad and even army scale combats using elaborate tables and charts and a couple of dice. While Warhammer might not be the 1st such game of this nature it is probably one of the most universally recognized tabletop wargames available today.
How does this relate to the digital gaming world? Well you may not have realized it but Warhammer 40k and similar tabletop games led to the development of the popular real-time strategy game (RTS). Despite a technological limitation in the original titles that limits it to turn-based mechanics, without developers and gamers looking for a way to simulate their often expensive and time consuming wargame hobby it is likely that games like Command & Conquer, Company of Heroes and even Starcraft or Warcraft would not have happened.
Thematically Starcraft and Warcraft owe a lot to miniature based wargames. Many point to the similarity in design between the Warcraft universe and its Warhammer inspiration as well as Starcraft and 40k’s Space Marines as proof but it goes far beyond the look and feel of these games. The unit balance and abilities from a mechanical perspective often have correlations with the pen-and-paper tabletop games.
Fortunately RTS games often can be seen as a superior version of the tabletop game. They can be played at any time with anyone, anywhere. They don’t require a huge investment of time and money (Warhammer 40k armies can cost upwards of $200 depending on the units and vehicles a player fields) and they are far more easy to store. That said there is nothing quite as exhilarating as setting aside a weekend with your buddies, going to a convention or game store or someone’s elaborately stocked basement and pounding away turn after turn on your foes until the last Chaos Marine is ground to dust beneath the advance of your Blood Eagle Dreadnought.
Video game versions can replicate some of the human competition thanks to voip-like services but throwing back a beer and trying to logically outmaneuver your foe is far more rewarding when you’ve planned and plotted each movement of your forces in an elaborate game of battlefield chess. RTS titles have never captured that emotion for me, they rely mostly on overrun and set techniques that don’t feel random enough. No dice hit the mat and roll oddly, no taunting or roars of laughter occur when a battle is turned on the whims of fate.
I invite fans of RTS and even more tactical strategy titles to visit their local gaming store. Spend some time talking with the die-hards and its hard not to be infected by their enthusiasm and knowledge of tactics and mechanics. Watch and you may find yourself drawn into the battle and the hobby before you know it.
Miniature games however are no longer ruled by expensive unpainted metal figures. The advent of pre-painted plastic miniatures has made the whole hobby far more approachable for the casual player. Huge properties like Star Wars, Battletech and Marvel Super Heroes have made wargaming a game for the masses. The strangest thing we’re seeing though is the move of video game properties back to the tabletop and Halo fans might be interested in trying out a few skirmishes using Halo ActionClix by Wizkid Games. I’m sure there are other games out there that cross between the digital divide but what are your favorite traditional wargames?
Here are just a few of the tactical miniature games out there with connections to video games: