On Geekery, Part Two: Wargaming...sport of geek-kings?
Wargaming. On the plus side, less controversy, media attention, and scandal. On the down side? You're painting toy soldiers.
In a role playing game, each player takes on the role of a character, for the duration of the game (see how that works out?), with several players and a game-master assembling a cool narrative together where good triumphs over evil, the cops catch the bad guys, Robin Hood avoids the Sheriff for another day, or what-have-you.
In a wargame, by contrast, there are generally less players -- two, in most instances -- and each of them is running an army instead of one dude.
With historical wargaming, you can be Napoleon at Waterloo, Custer at the Little Big Horn, Harold Godwinson at Hastings, or...or...uhh, hmm. I guess rattling off the losers isn't the way to sell it, huh?
Well, regardless, that is kind of the point. You and your buddy square off over an epic historical battlefield, and you can try to rewrite history. What if Hannibal's elephants hadn't disrupted his left flank and given Scipio an opening at Zama? What if the artillery prelude to Pickett's Charge had been effective, and taken out that Union artillery or worn down Union morale?
Historical wargames are often meticulously detailed in how they should be painted (you're trying to match the real thing, obviously), you'll often be given the "right" number and type of troops prior to setting up a battle (history tells us how many ships were at Midway, after all)...and your job is to try and -- potentially -- think of something the real historical generals didn't think of, all while hoping for some good luck when it's time to roll dice and handle the actual combat.
Fantasy and sci-fi wargames are, of course, a little more flexible. I don't remember anyone riding a friggin' dragon at the Alamo, but I bet that would'a maybe made up for Bowie being sick, huh? Most fantasy games take place in their own fantasy worlds, and then go on to include all sorts of wizards, special rules for knights, all kinds of magical weapons and gear, monsters and mythical creatures you can include, and stuff like that. Because, well, they're fantasy! Look at how popular the Lord of the Rings movies were, and at some of the fantastic huge battles (Pelennor Fields in the last one, for instance), and you can understand a little of the allure of this sort of thing.
Likewise, science fiction wargaming will have, well, science fiction stuff in it. Giant humanoid tank-robot thingies, powered armor battlesuits, orbital bombardments from your spaceship overhead, hovertanks, light sabers-- uhh, I mean non-trademarked laser swords -- all that cool stuff that makes sci-fi sci-fi, right? Tactics will still matter, you'll still want to get your jumppack armored infantry to flank his laser cannon emplacements and blah blah blah, but you're doing stuff that can't (yet) be done in real life.
Similar to wargaming, all these units will have rules to them. An Indian with a bow doesn't shoot the same as a cavalryman with a Springfield, so different infantry guys will have different shooting abilities. A Panzer isn't the same as a Sherman, a Zero isn't the same as a Mustang, a bronze xyphos isn't the same as a Scottish claymore, a powered armor suit from the year 2100 isn't the same as a Centurian's armor from the year 0. Rookies don't fight like veterans, snipers don't fight like spearmen, archers and heavy cavalry don't do the same thing -- alllllllll this stuff has to be accounted for, somehow, when you're creating a wargame, figuring out how to make the rules work, creating the statistics for each type of unit. You've got to decide how far a guy on a horse can move in one "round" or "minute" or "turn" (or however you break down the rate of play) compared to a guy on foot, you've got to figure out how well you want your anti-gravity jump packs to work in a sci-fi game, or what exactly a Cloak of Invisibility might do in a fantasy game...
It can all get pretty complicated, and it's easy for a game company to sell the sizzle and not the steak -- by focusing on the cool miniatures, great artwork, interesting fiction (psst, that's where I come in), or whatever, instead of the rules.
What it all boils down to, though, is an attempt to create, or to recreate, commanding troops in battle. Some games have rules for the "fog of war" (so you can't see where your enemy's troops are all the time), almost all of them I've played have rules for morale, for giving and receiving orders clearly, they have rules that give bonuses for penalties for flanking someone, for being behind good cover, for all kinds of stuff. Historical games, in particular, go out of their way to bring in as much realism as they can, as much history, to try and get it right.
Fantasy and sci-fi games still get surprisingly complex when dealing with that sort of thing, but often the drudge-work of combat can get mitigated by the technology or magic of their fictional setting -- is every battle robot can see in the dark, it doesn't matter if you attack in the middle of the night or not, right? If the enemy is flying around on the back of a griffon, your row of well-disciplined pikemen can't stop him from just going right over your heads to kill your general...or whatever. The examples can keep going, trust me, but the fact remains that these games are often a mixture of real world tactical ideas, and fantastic applications. Your pseudo-Celtic army from a magical world might not have artillery, but you might have druids that can call down lightning (or something), that would fill the same tactical role -- it's up to you to read the rules for whatever game you're playing, and try to grasp how these things interact.
The most popular wargame in the world, and one with the most complex and rigid set of rules, with a terrific variety of miniatures -- some remarkably detailed and expensive, some simple and spartan, some with fantastic themes and some with traditional -- is chess. You've got kings running an army, knights at their beck and call, castles for unique defensive opportunities, a row of simple spearmen with limited tactical flexibility that front each army...chess is a wargame, and maybe the greatest the world has ever seen.
If anyone's got questions about other wargames, though, or any of the stuff I've mentioned has piqued your interest, feel free to just ask. I've worked for a couple, I've played dozens, and I'm happy to share my thoughts on any good "starter games" of different types, to anyone who's interested.
The more the merrier!