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Monsters of War: Learning Complex Games

How do you eat an elephant? ~

Gary Mengle, 31 July 2017

Many wargamers can hear the quiet siren’s call of the complex monster, the game with a thousand counters and 50+ pages of rules… or more. For those of us who desire simulation over competitive gameplay the song can be particularly strong. Sure, that game of For the People is enjoyable for a long afternoon, but we still thirst for the big, deep, epic, massive game that takes weeks or months and hundreds of hours to play.

 

Even so, most of us have only so much mental space to be taken up with complex rules for multiple games, which I figure is why a lot of ASL players seldom touch other games with similar depth. “Complex” doesn’t equate to “monster,” of course — and ASL is again a great example of that — but in recent years many monsters have also been complex.

Advanced Squad Leader

So how do you approach a game like that? Having learned and forgotten a number of complicated games over the years, here are some time that might help you learn the great beasts of wargaming. These won’t guarantee mastery… but learn the rules and then play, and mastery will come.

1) Just Play. Some folks learn rules easily just by reading the rules, while others need to see the rules in action to absorb them. But the more complicated a game is, the harder it is to keep everything in your head without seeing it in practice. So set it up and play, looking up rules as you go. Take your time and be careful, and don’t be afraid to walk back mistakes or even restart from scratch. This process is faster if you have a partner who’s willing to hash through the game with you, but playing solitaire is almost as good for learning — better, in some ways, because you don’t have to fret about holding someone else up.

Roads to Moscow

2) Small scenarios are your friend. Most big games have some small scenarios that are intended as learning vehicles and don’t take ages to set up. Start with those. If your chosen scenario uses only part of the game rules, even better; but don’t hesitate to play your small scenario with the full game rules after a first crack. You may have to fudge some stuff, and you’ll probably break the scenario, but that’s okay, especially learning solitaire.

 

3) Print out a copy of the rules. Just about all publishers, with some notable exceptions, make online copies of their rulebooks available. This has two benefits: first, you may be getting a newer and presumably improved version compared to the book that came in the box; and second, you won’t feel bad about taking notes in the margins or highlighting key points. Some PDF readers also allow you to highlight and annotate (I use Foxit Reader.)

Paths of Glory

4) Use VASSAL. In addition to enabling linkups with other willing learners, VASSAL has a number of features that can help expedite the process. Many Vassal modules have setups built-in with the scenarios, which eliminates both setup and teardown time. Also, you can save your game at any point, so backing out of even catastrophic rules screwups becomes trivial. You can also take notes right in most modules, and get screenshots for later analysis.

 

The central point here is: don’t waffle, play. Even imperfectly, and even without an opponent. Some wargamers will find that combining rules-learning with actual gameplay is fun in and of itself, solitaire or not. Moreover, even some diehard rulebook-readers are likely to find that combining their process with pushing actual counters around will help them learn a tough game in less calendar time than reading the book alone.

La Battaille d’Aspen-Essling

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to push some counters around.

 

Gary Mengle is the author at Ardwulf’s Lair, a gaming blog active since 2007. He also operates a wargames-focused YouTube channel.


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