The Minimalist Beauty of SPI
The following article was originally written for Espinete Wargamero in Spain, the original article in English is included here.
It is likely that as of 2019, we likely now live in the very best time to be a wargamer. There are multiple publications dedicated to the hobby servicing specific eras or operations. Multiple companies stepping in to reprint old favorites with modern updates. Websites dedicated to reprinting out of print components or collecting those for other players looking to complete a purchase. Let alone the impact of VASSAL making it possible for thousands of wargamers to play opposed games whereas for decades, many wargamers were relegated to playing solo or at a snail’s pace through the mail.
Amid all of these innovations in wargaming, why should so many find themselves pulled back toward, playing most often, and enjoying games from a company that hasn’t existed in about 40 years? I insist that it cannot just be nostalgia, as I was born in 1987, I vastly prefer SPI games to those of modern publishers (even Dixie!) and the thousands of fans that continue to post AARs and other content from SPI games showcase their lasting appeal.
That said, one could be forgiven for thinking that most of the modern-day love for SPI games was rooted in nostalgia. Compared to some of the beautiful maps, counters, play aids and other components, the SPI components are comparatively archaic with little more than the bare minimum of information, centered on the important information about a unit. In some of the more technical games, counters could just end up being a cryptic series of letters and modifiers that only someone familiar with the game could comprehend. Maps from SPI tended to be functional above all else, more often functional and clear as opposed to a work of art. Above all else SPI components were usually easy to look at, not straining one’s eyes or brain (with the exception of Sorcerer).
These issues are related. The simple reason that people love SPI games and keep coming back to them, is because they constantly did so much with so little and doing so, I would argue is the most effective way of creating immersion in a simulation, allowing for entertaining, meaningful games. Wargames are complicated endeavors on top of our normal everyday lives, they command critical thinking, analysis, and some capacity for foresight and that is before even dealing with the rules of a given simulation; most adults can only handle so much complexity or information before immersion loses it’s effect as the brain tries to corollate all the available information. That’s not to say people are too stupid for complicated games or that complicated games are unplayable, quite the opposite in actuality, but the point is that those more or less become games and less so simulations.
A perfect example of this is ASL (a game I deeply love and admire) when dealing with combined operations, meaning infantry, armor, support weapons, artillery, cavalry, airpower etc. While playing an infantry engagement can be fairly straightforward, the more layers of complexity add on additional considerations and time spent by both players analyzing a situation deciding what mechanics will give them the best chance for successes. This isn’t to say that this kind of min/max/gamey behavior is always a bad thing, but my point is that it takes away from the potential level of immersion on the part of the player by forcing them to think about mechanics.
Maybe I am repeating myself at this point, but wargaming to me is at it’s best when I forget that I am playing a game and my imagination takes over. It isn’t dissimilar to playing an old computer game with ASCII graphics or a Pen and Paper RPG in that your imagination fills in most of the abstract/ephemeral gaps, only wargaming is special because it is actually tethered to reality through history and research.
Anyway, I guess that my main point is this, the reason you still play those old SPI game is not because of pure nostalgia, if that were the case, a 31-year-old millennial like myself would find likely nothing to gravitate towards in these now 50-year old games. The real reason you play them is because they did a gargantuan amount with a minimalist approach, and as human beings we can only handle so much granularity until our brain changes how we perceive the world around us. The approach in my view is the correct way to approach simulations-gaming in that the experience should feel like what the simulation is portraying.
In closing, this is only my view, and I suppose the argument is as old as the “Rigid” vs “Free” Kriegspiel in the Prussian army. The former tries to achieve realism through probability and sequences of logic, while the latter seeks instead to place those participating in the same position as the historic or hypothetical subject of the simulation. As a designer myself, I have always felt that the “Free” approach is what SPI game managed to emulate so well, and all publishers should rethink their assumptions about why some 50-year old games see more play than recent ones.