Playing EuroFront II (and EastFront) at MonsterCon this year really drove something home to me, and this is the tension between “competitive” and “experience” games.
For me personally, one reason to play a game like EuroFront or Europe Engulfed is to experience the entire war. Each phase has its distinct flavors: the desperate early years for the Allies, the titanic mid-war clash of arms on the Eastern Front, the cat-and-mouse games in the desert, the logistics of the big amphibious assaults, and the Soviet late-war steamroller. If I play a strategic WWII game, I sort of want to experience all these different phases. Even if I just play EastFront, the whole war goes through a lot of different flavors (as I mentioned in my last piece), and I’d like to experience them all.
However, in a game of skill, we expect skillful play to matter, preferably a lot, and we would be disappointed if a brilliantly-executed Barbarossa didn’t convey a decisive advantage, or if mistakes in ’42 didn’t come back to haunt us. Between equally-skilled opponents, a tightly-contested game may well go right to the end, but it is far more likely that our own quality of play will derail the gaming experience at some point: the skillfulness of the game has made it more likely that we won’t be able to “experience” the flavor of the entire historical war.
Compare EastFront or Europe Engulfed to Here I Stand, which is a game that leans heavily towards the experience rather than skill end. In Here I Stand, skillful play is unlikely to pull you ahead because the other players will just beat you back. The system provides opportunities to thread the needle and come out temporarily ahead, but it also provides more than ample opportunity for the luck of the draw and the dice to dominate skill. And so everyone just goes along, hoping to make incremental improvements in their position, experiencing the flavor the game has to offer. A masterful Hapsburg player is not going to derail the experience of the game for everyone else by doing something so unseemly as quickly winning through his masterful play.
Like many of these hypothetical gaming trade-offs, calling it a trade-off is slightly deceptive. One can of course improve simulation value by removing rules and also improving playability, as games like Grant Takes Command and Breakout: Normandy demonstrate. And likewise, there are games that, it seems to me, manage to both provide a competitive environment while still giving you an excellent experience game: Paths of Glory, Barbarossa to Berlin, Hannibal, Republic of Rome, Middle-Earth: The Wizards – maybe that’s why some of the card-driven games are so highly-coveted.
Regardless, the take-away message for me here was simply to recognize EastFront and EuroFront as the skillful games they are. It seems like such an obvious thing, but so many big or more complicated wargames these days are non-competitive, either because balance was considered secondary to historicity, or because they are definitively experience games, or because playtesting was inadequate, or because they’re so long that very few people can ever really become skillful with them. EastFront, though, is not like these games. So when tackling larger games in the Front system (i.e., trying to play more than 12 months), it’s so easy to be sitting at the end of Summer ’42 and having a desire to experience ’43, but in reality, once you get behind the 8-ball in this game, it’s overwhelmingly likely that you’re done. I think the smartest thing is to take it 6 months at a time. Check the victory points; if it’s close enough to continue (and the ranges in EastFront are usually reasonably generous), press on, otherwise, call it a game. It would be nice if a lot more of these bigger games had checkpoints that you could look up after 4 hours of play time or so and do a sanity check to see if the game has decisively swung one way or the other.