Wargames are fun, but they can also be difficult to get into. While it’s generally not as daunting a hobby to pick up as tabletop wargaming, computer wargames can provide unique challenges. With their focus on historical accuracy, complex mechanics and sharp AI, accessibility is often a relatively low priority for wargame developers. And while as a relative newcomer to wargames I may not be qualified to give advice on how to be the next virtual Napoleon – that only comes with practice, I’m afraid – I can give a few general tips to get the most out of your wargaming experience.
First, the basics:
Read the manual. Wargames are one of the last bastions of this venerable tradition, and it’s not an opportunity you should pass up. Usually it comes in the form of a PDF, but if you do get your hands on boxed copy – a rarity, at least in the frozen northern wastes where I live – it might even come with an actual, physical book, made of paper and everything. There’s more to it than nostalgia, however. Tutorials are often limited, and while they usually allow one to get a feel for a game, they rarely give an exhaustive account of the mechanics and the interactions between different types of units. Some games don’t have a tutorial at all, and just expect you to jump right into the action. While you don’t need to memorize the entire manual word for word (you can always come back to it later if there’s something you don’t remember), it’s generally good practice to at least skim through it once before playing, as it can prevent some very avoidable frustration.
Take advantage of the community. One of the benefits of living in the internet age is that if you don’t know something, you can be assured that someone, somewhere does – and is willing to tell you about it. Between forums, AAR’s (after action reports) and Let’s Plays, there’s usually more information about a game than you’ll ever need, especially with more popular games. While you will run into the occasional self-absorbed twit (an unfortunate reality of any fan community), most people are more than willing to help and answer questions. If you’re stuck, there’s a mechanic you don’t understand, or if you’re just curious about how others play the game, be sure to take advantage of the resources provided by the community.
Don’t be too proud to turn down the difficulty. Seriously. For some of these games I struggle to imagine who the higher difficulty settings are for – extreme masochists, perhaps, or the sort of people who are too busy designing rockets to be playing games. As much as any other genre, wargame developers take pride in providing a challenge, and it usually shows. The AI rarely makes the sort of boneheaded mistakes that you might see in other types of games, and while that’s obviously a good thing, it means the learning curve can be quite steep. While easily winning every time isn’t much fun, losing over and over is much worse, especially as wargames can be quite time consuming. Apart from trolls (whose opinions don’t matter anyway), nobody is going to make fun of you for playing on a lower difficulty. As a general rule, if you find yourself just barely eking out a victory more often than not, you’re in the sweet spot. Once you start steamrolling your opponents every time, turn up the difficulty – unless you’re already at the highest difficulty, then please go outside. The world misses you.
If you’re not sure about a game, don’t pay full price. Over the last several years, the PC side of the PC vs. console debate has gained something of a trump card – the deals, which range from good to downright ridiculous. The age of the demo has long since passed, but if you’re willing to wait until a game goes on sale (whether on Steam, GOG, Humble Bundles or elsewhere) you can usually get a game much cheaper than you would otherwise. Paying for a game that you don’t like is never a good feeling, but if you only paid the price of a stick of gum for it, it tends to hurt a lot less. By all means, if there’s a game you absolutely must play right now, then take the leap at full price. Otherwise, if you’re not taking advantage of the deals available, you’re simply doing it wrong.
Read (or watch) a review or two. This might be obvious, but related to the point above; it’s generally a good idea to take in a review before spending your hard earned cash on a game. There’s no accounting for taste, but at the very least it will let you know whether or not you’re about to buy a piece of irredeemable shovelware. Any wargame worth playing will be reviewed on Wargamer (obviously), but there’s no reason not to find a second or third opinion, as different reviewers might pick up on different aspects of the game that may be important to you. It’s the reviewer’s job to play terrible games so you don’t have to – so don’t.
Take the opportunity to learn. There’s a lot of overlap between history buffs and wargamers, and while not all wargames are based on real events, many of them are. This to me is one of the great joys of wargaming. The focus on historical accuracy allows the player to learn about events and battles both obscure and well-known, with a unique perspective that you won’t find in a book or a battle map. It’s one thing to read about (for example) tactics in the age of pike and shot or carrier battles in the Pacific, and another to experience them in the immersive context of a game. It can work the other way too, as knowledge of historical events can inform how you play the game – if you know that Jackson’s flank attack is coming at Chancellorsville, perhaps you can take steps to avoid the rout that Hooker suffered, for example.
Hopefully these tips will be useful for those new to computer wargaming, or looking to make the leap into the genre, as I did. I look forward to continuing this journey alongside all of you, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for us.