Bored of War…

… is the in-retrospect,-not-very-good title I picked for the short talk I am giving at the national conference of the American Popular Culture Association in Seattle next week.

Here is my abstract:

Board wargames, or manual military simulation games, are a form of civilian entertainment that peaked commercially in the 1980s but continue today as a small press, near-DIY activity. They remain one of Western culture’s most complex analog artifacts, rich in their ability to generate narrative and explore historical possibilities.

 However, only a very small number of published civilian wargames address the dominant modes of actual post-World War Two conflict: irregular war and counterinsurgency. This paper will explore the cultural reasons for this absent focus, explain the social and political utility of these games as a means of interrogating and critiquing contemporary conflicts, and present specific games in this field as examples of “critical play” (Flanagan, 2009).

The point I am trying to make is that there are few of these games not just because they are on an icky uncomfortable subject. It’s also because they are subversive – not only of the contextless and fragmented stream of simplified media interpretation of current conflicts, but also of how most board wargames are played.

I find it quite hard to articulate things like this, though I think about them a lot. I want to acknowledge Jeremy Antley, Matt Kirschenbaum and Mary Flanagan for the thoughts and inspiration.

The point may also be lost on the audience – this is a large conference, with a couple of thousand presentations to be made, and the Game Studies area is responsible for about 100 of them. Only a very small number of these are not about video games: a few about tabletop RPGs, someone talking about how the The Game of Life (Milton Bradley 1960) reflected the American Dream, and my thing.

I think they’re going to look at me like I have bugs in my eyebrows.  But it will be experience, and that is cheap at any price, as they say.


Mmm… yeah, probably as illustrated.

About brtrain
This blog is mostly devoted to posts, work and resources on "serious" conflict simulation games.

10 Responses to Bored of War…

  1. Jeff Rickman says:

    I think the title is fine. Adding a little humor to any “talk”, even a short one, can be a good thing.

    • brtrain says:

      Thanks for the vote of confidence Jeff.
      I manfully resisted the “cute alliterative title, colon, explanation of title” format so many academic papers and presentations use.
      I hate those.

  2. Neal Durando says:

    Communicating beyond the enclave is, or should be, a great clarifying exercise. It’s certainly worth blowing a bit of fog out of the cave so that we might kidnap more meeple fondlers via the COIN series.

    • brtrain says:

      Well, as I have often said, I have trouble articulating what these things are _for_.
      I can account for what I do and how I do it all right, but it’s hard to explain the overall purpose without sounding trite or worse, pretentious.
      I think as long as I have reminded people that these things even exist, I’ve done my job.

  3. “in the 1980s but continue today as a small press, near-DIY activity.”

    That’s a hugely inaccurate definition of the industry. By all reasonable estimates there are about 40% MORE professionally-printed war games released every year than at anytime during the 70s-80s. Then you had two semi-major publishers. Now you have at least two (maybe three, if you consider MMP major) publishers and a MYRIAD of 4-6 games a year publishers.

  4. brtrain says:

    I disagree.
    Referring to the chapter on “The Business of Wargaming” in the SPI produced book on wargame design, James Dunnigan notes wargame unit sales of 841,000 in 1976 (296,000 Avalon Hill, 420,000 SPI, and 125,000 other) (p.119).
    According to Greg Costikyan’s obituary of the hobby (, SPI sales started to decline in 1977; five years later they were sold up and TSR delivered the coup de grace.

    Who are your major publishers now?
    Strategy and Tactics had a peak circulation figure of about 36,000, around issues #83-85, and every issue had a game in it. Chris Cummins has never publicly released the circulation figures for the game edition of S&T but the best guesses I have heard cluster around 3,000 to 5,000 (this is included in the total circulation which must be published every year or two in the magazine, which includes the newsstand edition with much higher sales to chain bookstores and whatnot). The two other magazines have lower circulations, with or without games.
    The other stuff they sell – the boxed games and those folios that are multiplying like rabbits- don’t have huge press runs.

    This is the major game publishing company right now, and while they have about 200 to 250 titles advertised for sale on their website, they have been producing these for over 20 years, and I suspect total production for each title is in the low thousands (I base this on my knowledge that the COIN titles released so far, some of their best sellers, have had press runs of 3-5,000 each). But I never asked to see Gene’s books.

    You mentioned MMP, but they are exclusively suppliers to the strange subculture known as ASL.
    Dunnigan didn’t have ready access to a similar pool of junkies.

    Now, I won’t argue with you that the number of TITLES being produced every year, however by whomever, is as large or larger than it’s ever been.
    You can see that from the little summaries that Alan Poulter used to put together every year on Web-Grognards.
    A lot of these games look really good, thanks to advances in printing and computer technology.
    We’ve come a long way from the days of Letraset and shirt cardboard (though I am doing my best to revive them).
    But production per title is way, way down.

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