Thursday, December 19, 2013

What is a “sweep of history” game?

What is a “sweep of history” game?

I just started a community on Google+ for "sweep of history" games, so it's reasonable to work out a rough definition “sweep of history game” (also called “fast forward history” games). Sweep of history games are large-scale games, especially in time where the game covers several centuries to more than 1000 years. They are also fairly large-scale geographically, covering regions varying in size from Great Britain, Iberia, Russia, and China up to the entire world. They are historical, so games such as Risk, Vinci, and Smallworld do not qualify because they are so abstracted that there is no history of those games.

Another aspect of sweep of history games is that they are virtually always for more than two players. I cannot think of a two player sweep of history game although they may exist. Typically they are for four players, especially the Britannia-like games, or even more than four as History of the World really needs six (or less desirably, five) to work well. Civilization is another game that requires around six to work properly.

Could a game about a fictional history qualify as a sweep of history game? I don't see why not if the history is sufficiently detailed and well known. So your typical 4X space game (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) may cover centuries and certainly covers a very large area but probably isn't a sweep of history game because there's very little history, albeit fictional, in the game. On the other hand, what about a game covering the 3,000 years of the Third Age of Tolkien's Middle Earth? I think it would be hard not to call that a sweep of history game. There is no such published game, but I did once devise a Britannia-like prototype of that era and played the game once solo. It turned out that not only are rights expensive, but the rights granted by Tolkien did not include the appendices of the Lord of the Rings, and much of the information about the Third Age is in the appendices. The movies cheat more or less and use that material anyway, nonetheless it is not part of the official license.

We can also add that some sweep of history games are primarily wargames, while others involve a strong civilization building component. The wargames originate in the ancient Near East (Ancient Conquest I) and in Great Britain (Britannia), while the civilization component comes from Civilization (Mediterranean world). Britannia certainly covers an era when there was very little civilization building and a lot of warfare. Ancient Conquest I covers an era where civilization was built up and sometimes torn down, but that's not depicted in the game: the game is almost entirely a wargame, right down to hexes and numbered factors on the pieces. Civilization on the other hand - the original boardgame Civilization - is much more about civilization building than it is about warfare although warfare can be involved. Because many sweep of history games are based on Britannia there tend to be more wargames than civilization building games.
Most sweep games are “war games” rather than battle games, that is, there’s an economic production component, and warfare is as much about the economy as about the forces immediately involved.  Battle games have an order of battle but no economic component.  Many sweep games also have an order of battle (appearance of new invaders, for example).  History of the World is unusual in that it only has an order of battle, with no economic component.

Sweep games are frequently regarded as “epic”, usually in the sense of national epic rather than personally epic, and in the sense of an epic (noun) rather than “an epic game” (adjective).  (I’ve discussed this aspect of games in my book “Game Design”, excerpted here on GameCareerGuide.)

These games are never going to be very popular in the current market because there is no avatar-like role for the player, nothing the player can literally or even figuratively point to and say "that's me". Many wargames, for example, use a marketing pitch that “you are the commander and you can change history.” There is no single commander in a sweep of history game because nobody lives that long, not even close. And the history changes slowly on that scale, not the way it can change drastically in a single battle. Furthermore, sweep of history games tend to require lots of players and lots of time. It's hard for many gamers to get four players together for one of these games, let alone more than four, and that's exacerbated by the time required. Britannia is a 4 to 5 hour game, and as much as seven or eight when people play it for the first time. History of the World is even longer. Civilization is at least as long as History of the World. I have devised sweep of history game prototypes that have been played by ordinary players in an hour and a half, and these may become more common in time, but they inevitably lose some of the epic sweep of a longer game when they only take an hour and a half.

Board wargames are essentially a Baby Boomer generation hobby and don't attract nearly as much attention nowadays as they did 30-40 years ago. That's another reason why sweep of history games aren't likely to be as popular as in the past, unless they incorporate more civilization building elements and less warfare elements.

What about computer games? Civilization the computer game is certainly a sweep of history game, at least when played against other people. The limitation of computer games is that a single player game really doesn't provide the same kind of opposition as a game with several humans participating because the computer opponent cannot duplicate the guile and unpredictability of a human. There's also the video game industry tradition that a computer opponent is intended to put up a decent fight and then lose. Also, a player can go back to his saved game and try again when playing single player and so effectively he cannot lose. Large-scale turn-based computer games, though, often resemble boardgames in many respects, and that's certainly true of the computer game Civilization.

Computer real-time strategy games are more like sports than games because to be really good at it you have to be able to perform 200 actions per minute and practice many hours a day - I'm talking about competing in something like StarCraft tournaments. In any case the Google+ community is likely to be largely about boardgames - and cardgames if anyone devises a sweep of history card game, which I have not yet seen. (I have actually designed but not played a card game version of Britannia. But cardgames will tend to abstract so much history out of a game, if only because there's no board and little or no maneuver, that I'm not sure they really qualify as sweep of history games. Who knows.

Is Diplomacy a sweep game?  No, primarily because it covers only a single war, whether it lasts five years or fifteen.

What about some of the Middle-earth Diplomacy variants?  Many are intended to depict only the War of the Ring, hence too short a period.  But one intended to depict a much longer period, a significant part of the Third Age, would qualify IF you accept a fictional history.

Many years ago I began to design games that combined war and peacetime activities that we would now call civilization-building - and neither uses dice.  One or two of those may see print next in 2015.  One is Germania, a game about survival: civilization-defending as well as building.  It’s about the German tribes that brought down the West Roman Empire, then had to survive the depredations of invaders from the east, south, and north.  Another is a game about the Italian maritime states in the era of the Crusades (just before the Renaissance began), when they came to dominate the Mediterranean through control of the far eastern trade to northern Europe.  Both games fit the sweep of history definition but are much different from any of the games I’ve mentioned above.

Summary of definition:
●    Boardgame or boardgame-like computer game
●    Covers several centuries to more than a thousand years of history
●    Covers fairly large geographical region
●    Virtually always for more than two players
●    Warfare and (sometimes) civilization-building
●    Tend to be long games, often epics in themselves  I am @lewpuls on twitter. 
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