The future of Solo Wargaming

Solo Wargaming in a 300-Channel World

(‘Bowling Alone’ and Implications for Lone Warrior)

By Bob Stewart and Graham Empson

Overview

Like many a conversation among friends, this article started out in one direction (“How do we avoid a decline in readership of Lone Warrior?”), and then it morphed into a slightly different topic (“How do we keep ourselves motivated to pursue Solo, when there seem to be so many other attractions competing for our limited free time?”).

Part 1 — The General Decline in Participation and Membership

The first thing we wanted to explore was the general decline in participation and membership that a lot of periodicals, clubs, and organizations have experienced. To give a couple of examples, one of the local professional clubs (an industrial security group), has seen their usual turn-out go from about 20-30 people (5 years ago) down to around 5-7 people, on average, today. The underlying need to share what’s happening, locally, and the benefits of talking to peers hasn’t changed, but every member moans about more and more demands being put on their available time.

There’s no question that over the last two decades, we’ve seen a lot of change in the social dynamics of the American way of life. As part of the background reading, we can explore the general topic of stagnation in printed-word and magazine subscriptions and by extension, for publications similar to Lone Warrior. This doesn’t include e-books and web-based magazines that are referred to later on.  There are several interesting well-researched books on the topic. “Bowling Alone” (note 1) is one of the most-referred-to titles, and it traces the decline in active participation over a number different kinds of organizations, including such diverse groups as the Parent Teacher Association (note 2), philanthropic organizations (such as the Rotary or Scouts, note 3), professional organizations (for everything from doctors to labor unions, note 4), specialty magazines (and newspapers in general), and even organized religion.

While there are different dynamics at work that create subtle differences within the various groups mentioned, they all seem to show steady declines from the height of their active memberships (occurring somewhere around the early 1960s) trailing off towards 2000. Even Bill Cosby has had to cancel some performances, because of “soft” ticket sales, and it’s hard to blame all of this on a sluggish economy. Although the research of the trends in “Bowling Alone” ends around 2000, there is no particular reason to think that the general decline in participation-trends has changed direction. It’s a brave new 300-channel world out there, and it’s increasingly more difficult for the printed word to try to keep its relevance. (We ALL live in communities where libraries are cutting back, and e-book sales have taken off.)

At first, this seems a rather gloomy topic, because it nails with hard documentary evidence that anecdotal observation that we all have commented on. Structured group meetings (wargame clubs) seem to be in decline (5); newspapers (and arguably many wargame magazines, have a readership in decline, and even active participation at many wargame conventions is marked and stratified by age group (6). Every figure manufacturer seems to complain about weak sales volume — and also, “Where have the younger wargamers gone?”

Passive Versus Active Participation

Many of the counter-trends (the massive increase in memberships to PETA or Greenpeace or similar, 7) are really essentially passive payments to easy groups that profess to promote our ideals — groups that don’t require (or even accommodate) any kind of active-member participation in the organizations themselves (which is to say, “No meetings”). “Send us your money, but don’t expect to ever have to get out of your chair.” The vast majority of these “new” organizations are Washington-beltway advocacy groups that try to influence government laws.

We are reminded of Faith Popcorn (the marketing guru who proposed “Cocooning” in her book published back around 1992, and who forecasted some of the hottest “cycles” in trends — stay at home; insulate yourself). This has been borne out in spades, with TV watching way up (8), at the expense of almost anything else — such as participation in recreational leagues like baseball, curling, darts, or even bowling (9).  It’s as if people converted their homes into safety-conscious pleasure-castles, with video-fun-factories, and mini-spa-resorts, all rolled into one. (Pass me the universal remote, will ya?)

Graham adds, “This is really typifying the couch potato — television-watching, non-participatory, somewhat apathetic, usually mute, and growing-more-silent majority.  If one cannot provide the info-tainment in a snappy 30-second sound bite, then many “Internet-surfers” lose interest and click to go elsewhere. Or if it involves any form of commitment beyond fetching another pop from the fridge (or heaven forbid) if it requires their thinking about it long and hard, or solving any problems, then you have lost them.”

Putnam (the author of “Bowling Alone”) doesn’t spend a lot of time musing about the Internet.  He notes that “viewing” may be up, but “constructive participation” is generally down. (His main thrust is that the decline in face-to-face social networking is a detrimental thing for America, and that less face-to-face interaction leads to less caring about our neighbors.)  Internet hours and Facebook and Twitter hours are presumably up, but we may not be benefiting as much from this generalized impersonal connectivity.  For example, as a society, we used to play cards on an average of just under 16 times per year back in ‘83, and that average was halved to 8 times per year in 1998 (10).  Similarly, we don’t go over to visit with neighbors or even go out to the local pub (11). We prefer to stay in and watch TV — passive participation, again.

A good part of the problem seems to be the 110% work-focus, where we are asked to give more, focus more, do more work with fewer bodies, multi-task, take stuff home with us on weekends, be “on-call” on our off-days, and get the job completed faster, under more and more pressure.  And that just leaves us drained of the least will, or of any extra energy, to devote to any other endeavor.  And if we DO have any extra energy, then school work has been sent home with the kids, with the expectation that Mom and/or Dad is going to spend another three hours per night, tutoring and supervising Junior.

Graham adds, “This has been an apparent trend since the early ‘90s and seems to continue to build.  The problem is that it actually becomes counter-productive.  From my own personal perspective this was presented as ‘work smarter, cooperate, help the team, build esprit de corps, earn our team bonuses based on team productivity’ which surfaced in the late 1990s. There is no doubt that the troops were putting in more hours, even to working weekends, and that the workforce had shrunk by 25%.  But when we examined the resulting projects carefully, we often found that it was taking significantly more man-hours to actually produce work-results that were of a lesser quality.  Plus the knock-on effect of that was the new recruits only lasted from a few months to about two years, then they woke up, realized this was nuts, and went looking elsewhere.”

Part 2 — How This Relates to LW and Solo Wargaming

The net effect of the 300-channel universe is that wargaming providers (manufacturers, magazines, merchandisers) seem to have to spend twice the effort, just to maintain the same mind-share space (and not fall behind). Which is to say, the Lone Warrior magazine has to be that much more appealing, and the LW Blog has to be that much more accessible and entertaining. There are lots of competing Internet forums, each targeting a small, specific audience.

So Where’s the Breaks?

It’s not all gloomy-Gus out there.  There is some good news in the “Bowling Alone” study that we should acknowledge.  First, several African-American church organizations have shown remarkable resistance to the steep membership declines, in part because they adopted a “whole life-style” approach. You are encouraged (beyond just attending the Sunday sermon) to also support their groups for a wide variety of family-life issues, and this acts as a self-reinforcing cluster-mentality.  That doesn’t mean that these church groups are ALL growing, but their holistic approach is bucking the overall trend, and showing that it is possible to build a levee against the seas of erosion all around them.

By extension, the more connections we can make and maintain in our wargaming (in our battles, and in the articles in print), the more enticing for any potential of active membership in Lone Warrior.  Put another way, Solo Wargaming is a collective of parallel hobbies — wargaming, research, painting, reading historical fiction, strategy and tactics, and so on.  The more we build upon that “weave” of inter-related elements, the stronger the attraction to Solo Wargaming.

Second, the bell-curve age for active membership in most groups presented in “Bowling Alone” is pretty high, and pretty staggered towards older people (40-year-olds are usually active in 2 memberships, but even out to age 80, they are still active in 1.5 memberships).  Now this is a fuzzy data trend which doesn’t identify or qualify the KIND of group they belong to, and it’s hard to relate that to other areas or memberships (in other words, oldsters may belong to AARP or some similar retiree-oriented group, but they may not keep up their reading of most wargaming magazines they still subscribe to), but it DOES suggest that Lone Warrior isn’t going to hemorrhage memberships any time soon.

Third, as people tend towards more “cocooning,” that doesn’t mean they no longer want to be involved in wargaming, just that they don’t feel like making the effort to go out to the local club, or the regional tournaments, or maybe the big convention.  Or perhaps they don’t feel like compromising “their” vision of how battles were fought in “their” special period, so they choose to putter around with their own set of rules, rather than game “the latest, hottest, most glitzy” new rule set that has just been published (in 10 volumes).  It could be argued that ALL wargaming is a sanitized, idealized, rose-colored-glasses version of the truth.  However, the ability to “tailor the flavor” to YOUR taste may be exactly the reason that a stay-at-home cocooning wargamer MIGHT be interested in pursuing Solo Wargaming, if its presented to him in the right way — making it easy to use the same troops, and easy to convert from a favorite Face-to-Face Wargaming rule set (plus a few mods), and emphasizing the fun factor.  All we really have to do is recruit a small subset of active tournament gamers, and we could easily double the self-confessed current Solo community.

We say “self-confessed,” because there are a lot of wargamers that go through the rules, with their favorite 2 armies set up, who would never see themselves as Solo Wargamers.  They are just learning the ropes.  And there are others who like to see what variations they need in their armies (whether in terms of optional units, or different deployments when facing some specific kind of cavalry-rich opponent) who set both sides out on the table, but who would (again) never consider that they are truly Solo Wargamers.  And who hasn’t plopped a couple of units down on some scenery, just to try and puzzle out some arcane bit of their wargames rules?  Yet few consider this to be Solo Wargaming.

Fourth, there is a definite pattern showing that social connectedness is related to our own sense of happiness.  In other words, sharing solo ideas and/or AARs (After Action Reports) in some sort of social way (in LW, or as part of e-mails, forums or blogs, for example) gives us a sense of being more connected and thus “more happy.” (Score one, for the SWA blog!)  And printed media (like Lone Warrior) has a strong role as part of the prescription, as a “happiness-generator.”

Walking (as exercise) seems to be one of the few areas that have bucked the trend — walking for exercise is way up, while club memberships at that fancy gym are faltering. (While health clubs are struggling with an average of 4 visits per year, going for a walk is 3 times as prevalent at just under 12 times per year.)  Where’s the connection, you ask?  Well, thinking through some Solo Wargames quandary is the natural co-hobby with things like walking (or waiting for the Doc, or whatever).  

Graham adds, “Use every odd moment by doing something active with your brain as opposed to aimlessly staring at the mind-numbing waiting-room local-network TV and its brain-sucking advertising.”

 Caveat

“Bowling Alone” is a monster tome of a book, and takes some work to absorb it.  You don’t “read it” so much as you “chew it” in smaller bites. (That said, it’s quite a good read, and well-recommended for anyone interested in this topic.)  The summary above is just a tiny taste of the whole thing, and nowhere near as elegant or exhaustively-detailed as the original book.  However, hopefully this synopsis does present food for thought, and “Bowling Alone” is a good textbook to refer to, in as much as it has a lot of graphs and references to memberships in other groups to back up its thesis.

 Part 3 — Other Activities that Have an Impact on Solo Wargaming

Let’s have a look at some competition for Solo Wargaming time (and by extension, for magazine subscriptions).

Gaming consoles and PC games tend to siphon-off many younger people interested in war simulations, but they only offer specific narrow ranges of interest.  Faith Popcorn labels them as “Indulgence, without the Consequences.”  No question that the gaming consoles feature some pretty amazing graphics.  That encouraged me to add more description to MY AARs.  But if we don’t want to play 1st person shoot-‘em-up combat, then the range of experiences offered goes away down. (There used to be a lot more strategic games back when PCs with DOS were around, but that side of wargaming never seemed to hit the mainstream).  If we are looking for a specific odd-ball period (something like Bronze Age Babylonians, or Italian Colonial Wars), then we may be out of luck, entirely.  Solo Wargaming is much more flexible, letting us choose ANY period, ANY scale, ANY time.  And we can immerse ourselves in any mix of combat, diplomacy, and/or logistics that we choose.  We can go simulation-lite with maps, or highly detailed with one-off scenery.  We can try a couple-of-hour Solo battle, or plan to start an 8-month Solo campaign.  It’s our choice in Solo Wargames.  But we create our own customized worlds, where console wargamers are for the most part, consumers of other people’s creations.  And we rarely hear any console game user raving about the story of their wonderful exploits last weekend — there are no great AARs here.

Reading novels or military history texts (especially ones that deal with OUR chosen area of interest) can always absorb a lot of our time.  Yet I don’t see that kind of research as “replacing” Solo Wargaming in that period, but rather, reading tends to fuel our imagination, such that we want to include new aspects we’ve discovered, into our next Solo foray.  Reading doesn’t usually put us in command … we follow other protagonists and their adventures, one removed.  The action happens to THEM, not really to US in the first person, so it seems less intense somehow. And if our novel is set in a slightly different period than our favorite Solo Wargame, we can always extract the essence of the novel, and then apply the parts we like to OUR campaign.  There is a level of “suspension of disbelief” (where we really “get into” whatever we are doing) with Solo Wargaming that can NEVER be matched by some other person’s construction (whether that’s another guy’s novel, or another guy’s gaming console).  At its best, Solo Wargaming really gets the blood pounding, and lets us feel we are truly living in and experiencing our own unique story.

Watching HDTV and high-definition (Blueray) movies can be quite addictive — especially on a widescreen TV with a decent surround sound system.  I admit to sitting like a zombie, watching some documentary on feral cat populations, entranced with the “new reality” we can get with HDTV.  Even the ads look better.  Over the years, I’ve accumulated lots of wargames-related DVDs, and I like to go back and rewatch my favorites periodically.  And it seems that all my favorite DVDs are always being re-issued as “New Super-Final Director’s Cut 14” or whatever.  And there are always “special” TV presentations on the History Channel (or similar), that are extremely absorbing — they suck the will to get up and turn the TV off right out of you.  Why watch a little ant-sized Bill Cosby from the cheap ($75) seats, when you can watch him on High Def from the comfort of your own chair?  And sorry Bill, but the latest special on the War of 1812 trumps memories of your youth any prime-time-evening of the week (at least, for me).  However, that little nag in the back of my head always says “Do something constructive with your time!” and, after an hour or two of TV, I head for the wargames room, all fired-up with new-found determination and creative energy.

Internet Addiction, ah, there’s the latest (modern) devil!  The only surprise is that it’s taken so long for the medical community to formally recognize the disease.  I “just” want an update on my latest project (“What battles didHannibalfight in Espania, before he crossed into France?” — such a simple question, and so many hours pumped into Google, without a definitive answer.)  And that Tablet computer makes it so-o-o easy to pick it up during commercial breaks, and surf for related content.  I admit, I have at least a dozen projects on the go, and there is always SOME new crumb of information that has to be knitted in to the right spot.  But at some point, on page 14 of my Internet search, the call-of-the-little-guys comes through with enough of a (6-mm-sized) trumpet-call, and I have to shut the computers down and respond to the wargame siren.

It’s so easy to succumb to the need to check our mail-box (or similar points of connection) on a too-regular basis — any new posting on the Solo blog?  How about our e-mail?  Maybe Facebook?  Anyone comment on my reply to someone else’s comment?  Perhaps I need a second computer, used exclusively for e-mail and Facebook, just to keep in instant touch?  Everyone else seems to be building their own blog, becoming curators of their own Internet-content, with lots of photos or YouTube links. (I’m falling behind!)  It’s easy to sink a lot of hours into just learning how to DO any of this, ostensibly with the aim of “being better in-touch,” where in reality perhaps we aren’t really adding to constructive-Solo-Wargaming time. (And before I forget, a heartfelt “Thanks” to the guys who run and maintain the great LW Blog site, so that I don’t feel pressured to create a blog of my own!  The LW Blog leaves me with more time to devote to pursuing my own Solo Wargames campaigns.)

Third Screens and Social Gaming

Arguably, Steve Jobs did a number on a whole slew of industries — he “re-imagined” old institutions and the disruption to the old business model, probably set many of them onto the slippery slope into bankruptcy.  Targeted businesses included bookstores (with the whole e-book thing), music (with iTunes) and indirectly, even wargaming (although wargaming was one of those unintended consequences). “Wargaming!?” you ask?  Yes, because another compelling drain on our free time (time that used to be put into Solo Wargaming, one supposes) is the smartphone and all the related gaming and social-networking apps.  It is easy to sink all kinds of time into learning the various programs, chiming in just to be seen as part of the crowd, and otherwise trying to be “with it.”  Touchy-feely for 2011 and beyond. When used in moderation (ha!) smartphones do let us keep in touch with extended family and friends. (Although I don’t need quite so much chatter about Aunt Tillie’s latest brood of ugly lap-dogs.)  Some of the largest corporations (from insurance companies to McDonalds) have recognized the social-networking trend, and are actively using new promotions to embed their marketing.

Again, at the end of the day, I don’t hear avid smartphone users bragging about the storyline of their day. Perhaps they have substituted fleeting Action with long-term Creativity, and (for many of us) the satisfaction isn’t the same.  Facebook and Tweeting are (perhaps) the latest form of Internet addiction. Many users report that they can’t even shut down their phones to get a good night’s sleep.  They need to feel that they are connected 24/7, perhaps so they don’t feel so ALONE, or so ADRIFT.  There is some innate fear that they will miss out on the latest thing to go viral, that life won’t be complete if they don’t “see” the latest YouTube clip FIRST.  And then comment on it and be the first to forward it to their on-line friends.

Long-term Solo Wargamers, by contrast, seem to almost embrace the occasional silence (periods with nothing to do, no phones or Internet to distract us, and a block of unstructured free time to fill), and long-term Solo Wargamers seem to have this deep drive to DO something constructive with their time — to create something that has a more enduring and structured story.  Perhaps to look into nooks and crannies (different ways of doing things) that they haven’t tried before.

Cyclical Hobbies

Like many long-term-wargamers that I’ve talked to, I have a lot of other (semi-competing, semi-interchangeable) “cyclical hobbies.”  I go through cycles, both in terms of the sub-components of Solo Wargaming interest (Solo play, research, painting, landscape, revising AARs, working on articles for Lone Warrior and so on), and also cycles in terms of going through different non-Solo-related interests (hobbies like chess, photography, HDTV over-the-air antennas, shortwave, piano music, biking, and so on).  I mention these because it is quite easy to get into a narrow focus with ONE hobby for a while, to the exclusion of most other things.  For me, some of these other (non-Solo) hobbies have long dormant-cycles (chess); some are seasonal (biking); and some (like Solo Wargaming) keep drawing me back on a relatively short cycle, regardless of the season.  I think in part, that’s because Solo Wargaming is almost like a group of inter-related hobbies, and so many other things (like picking up an historical novel), just seem to trigger or invigorate the need to experience the whole Solo Wargaming environment all over again.

We ALL live in a society with short attention spans.  But Solo Wargaming is something that I drift back into, on a regular basis, because for me there is just no other thrill like it.

The Resurrection of the Cynic

Let’s face it; there’s something nouveau-chic about the new-age cynic.  Which is to say, the young urban intellectuals who are busy occupying Wall Street seem to have an underlying mistrust of government, financial institutions, and most motivational mentors who previously encouraged them.  They were promised that if they dig in, learn to be analytical, get some higher education, then the world will beat a path to your door to offer you immediate elevation to upper-management jobs, with all the gold-plated perks.

That just hasn’t happened.  And my nephews and nieces of that certain age are quite vocal about the disconnect.  And that in TURN means a lot of those young cynics feel they can do just as well without any kind of formal (or old-school) councilors or management.  They may do fundraising for their favorite cause, or support a local food bank, but they want to do it independently, almost anonymously, and certainly outside of any formal management or supervision.

We live in a funny world, where late-night comics (bolstered by teams of writers) are paid enormous amounts of money, to come up with one-liners that zing our latest boogeyman.  The ability to put down social targets with a quick sarcastic comment has been adopted with a vengeance by a lot of the younger generation.  That’s given rise to the relatively-recent Internet-related scourge that affects us all — the semi-anonymous hyper-cynic.  And that has had a direct impact on Solo Wargaming, too.

To put it in its kindest light, because the Internet is almost strictly a written medium, it’s easy to misunderstand or misconstrue the intent of some posts (and the same can happen even in magazines).  One poster’s light-humor can be seen as another’s sarcasm; some criticism can seem overly sharp or possibly even be viewed as a personal attack, as opposed to constructive comment. (Which is to say, we can ALL probably be more careful on our e-post etiquette — I AGONIZE over my posts, and re-write them lots of times before hitting “send.”)

Most web-sites or blogs (or small magazine endeavors, like LW, by extension) are the result of a handful of hard-working participants, who put extraordinary efforts into creating and maintaining their “baby.”  No one gets any big pay-out for their writing.  Many of the articles we read take 20 hours per page (or more) to create, write, revise, and polish.  When that kind of time is invested “for free” by some author, then I can see where they might be a little bit touchy when they receive what they perceive of as off-the-cuff snap-criticism.  Or that when they are the recipient of some quip, they find it easier to just turn off, tune out, and go pursue some other hobby-cycle.

Over the last couple of years, some of the best and brightest wargaming voices have faded away, in part because they were easy marks for cynical zingers.  As examples, two regular posters on one of the other wargaming sites (from a couple of years back) had some rather brilliant and innovative ideas, (one poster was foreign, one was self-taught).  Another poster had a handful of new ideas, some really quite clever, mixed in with a few that were not as useful.  In all three cases, these posters received criticism about spelling, sentence structure, and complaints about rehashing old ideas.  So eventually these new posters must have become disillusioned, because they disappeared from the scene.  As another example, the website Warflute had some amazing PhD-level historical research on over one hundred different armies.  Although the site supported Armati army lists, the basic research was transposable to any rule set.  Anonymous hyper-cynicism contributed a lot to its demise, too.  Sadly, there isn’t any other similar venue out there, now.

We ALL need to be more tolerant and supportive of any creative talent that gets applied to Solo Wargaming.  There is an amazing abundance of material that we can “borrow” or adapt for our own interests, from other wargame periods (periods other than our own favorites).  We ALL need to look for (and stress) the things that we value in common, as opposed to nit-picking the little stuff, or taking exception to another contributor’s legitimate point of view.

Changing Times, Changing Media

Few hobbies (or periodicals) can survive for very long without embracing some sort of membership-input-directed changes (and the Solo Wargamers Association has certainly been very progressive and open to considering such changes).  There was a time (not that long ago) when the Solo Wargames Association (of which, Lone Warrior is the official voice), was centered around services like its lending library, access (by “snail-mail”) to advisors, some extensive Play by Mail forums and related AAR reports, PC games reviews, and similar activities.  There were figure reviews in almost every issue (because we didn’t have the range of periods, and figure size varied so much from one manufacturer to another).  So the content reflected the needs and interests of the SWA membership of that time.

The SWA has actively explored the changing trends in the general wargaming public and has encouraged an ongoing dialog among the regular contributors as to how best to adapt to meet the emerging needs.  Are we still in the stream?  There is more to do, of course, but the great work done with the LW blog reflects these efforts to adapt to change.  For the moment, it looks like the combination of hard copy journal and the LW blog better meets the expressed needs of the readership/membership.  Members can choose to play an active roll in the discussions, or just sit back and meander through the presentations, as they see fit.

Moreover, it’s very encouraging to see new subscribers who are signing up for LW (and the blog), as well as having several new contributors stepping forward, and these new “voices” (with different views) are always very welcome. (One of the key things that most long-term Solo Wargamers profess to have, is the drive to tinker — to always experiment with something different, and not to repeat the same-old same-old.  Perhaps one of the ways to keep it “fresh” is to constantly try to re-invent at least SOME parts of how we pursue the hobby.)

There will ALWAYS be something new, something flashier or more of the latest fad, but I need my “happiness fix” that I can only get by marshalling the little guys into columns of march, and heading off to face the dastardly enemy.

Part 4 — How Do We Get More People Interested in Solo Wargaming?

Perhaps one way to get others interested in Solo Wargaming, is to take a leaf out of the integrated church organizations as detailed in “Bowling Alone.” They have buildings with a church, several large meeting halls, lots of conferences and workshops going on, and some even have a bowling alley in the basement. They aim to become “lifestyle” centers.  So as Solo Wargamers, perhaps we have to first promote the “gestalt,” the whole camaraderie and the romance of the thing.  How do you picture yourself being summed up (or remembered) by friends?  Perhaps we need to broadcast the vision of the Lone Warrior pacing around in his gaming tower in the middle of the night, plying his meticulous craft, standing firm and resolute in the face of long odds, like some sort of necromancer of old.  And the allure of his writing up the ensuing saga and the “lessons learned” (sort of like his tome of sacred knowledge) for a possibly-yet-to-be-born posterity.  Perhaps we have to adopt more of the regal trappings and the romance of that lifestyle. (“The boy stood on the burning deck, when all around had fled ….” )

Think about the recruiting posters — “Be all that you can be.” “The only limit is your imagination and your will.” “Are YOU man enough to take up the challenge?”  Be revolutionary; be individual; make your own way; go beyond the known.  It’s the whole experience — you gain character at the cost of facing adversity alone — that you remember as Solo Wargamers, not any of the individual elements — the inert stuff needed to duplicate the scenario.

There’s a reason that some magazines publish a pic of the author — they are trying to draw you into the whole lifestyle thing.  “Look at him — he doesn’t LOOK like he’s an extraordinary strategist, does he?  The one man who can hold back the Huns?  He looks just like YOU.  YOU could command armies and write memoirs as well as he could — you could BE him.”  If we embrace this approach, we could run more biographic stuff (“How did you get into Solo Wargaming?  What was it like Solo Wargaming in the ‘80’s?  What gets you excited in looking at some new Solo Wargame project/period/ruleset?”  (That sort of thing.)

Graham adds, “this is good stuff for the LW web-site.  A bit like “Lone Warrior needs you and your talents,” “Does this sound familiar,” or “Just looks like an ordinary guy – but he’s a Solo Wargamer and a published writer.”

Second, we should tell people how Solo Wargaming is really therapeutic — when we come home all wound up from a hard day of giving 110% at the office (and we don’t need “Bowling Alone” to figure out that happened!), then some Solo Wargaming helps to deal with all that “bottled-up repressed feelings” stuff.  We can’t vent our frustrations in an office environment — a bit too antisocial — but we can always take it out on the little-guys opposing us on the wargaming table!  It’s the heady brew of risking it all that gives Solo Wargaming that smell of ecstasy.  We are not sure if we are going to get out alive, but while we are caught up in the scenario, we just don’t care — Give me Freedom!  Lots of my worst ex-bosses, and thorny co-workers who were less-than-empathetic or supportive, are captured (albeit in a suitably disguised and cloaked persona) in some of the worst characters (that have met the most grisly ends) in my wargames campaigns!  And lots of other life-trauma that I’ve had to deal with (death of relatives or close friends) have equally become woven in as threads, and are a part of AARs.  It makes the writing more powerful, while it helps us to deal with the reflected tragedy that was involved.  Perhaps not every Solo Wargame is going to be an unforgettable epic; but when it DOES gel, when the elements come together in the RIGHT proportions, then the Solo experience can be truly profound.

There’s something about long-time Solo Wargaming that lets us better cope with modern life.  More and more people are ending up living alone (although they mostly claim it’s not by choice, and often they are not all that comfortable nor happy about it).  Whether we are single, or the wife is just away for the week visiting distant relatives (or even if they just abandoned us for the evening to go baby-sit the grandkids), there is always something in the current Solo campaign that can be tweaked, given a snippet of free time.  Solo Wargaming isn’t predicated on friends or family showing up (or allowing us to be off-leash!) for some pre-arranged block of time, nor does it require that others be “in the mood” for wargaming in our chosen period.  And Solo Wargaming draws out the angst and helps to push back the darkness (12). There’s something innate in the makeup of Solo Wargamers — they don’t collapse under normal stress like many others might.  They are comfortable multi-tasking, working on several fronts at the same time, and coping with change.  They just seem to fall back to their next well-prepared defensive position, and get ready to fight on.

Third, Solo Wargaming is like a set of complex interconnected puzzles, and puzzle-solving is one of those pastimes that keeps the mind nimble, and staves off general mental decay with age.  While I’m at it, I want to emphasize that “set-of-puzzles” concept, because the richness and diversity of the Solo Wargaming hobby — the very thing that keeps us coming back to it — is the fact that it encompasses so many other sub-hobbies (history, painting, research into organizations, simulations and rules, reading novels of the period, and so on).  That mental-exercise and acuity of thought, well into old age, should have a lot of appeal. [Graham adds, “Absolutely it’s what keeps us old gray-beards alive and kicking.  The day I surrender is the day they nail the lid shut!”] May we all live as long (like another Donald Featherstone or Andy Rooney) and prosper (if only on the Solo battlefield in our mind’s eye).

Fourth, Solo Wargaming encourages us to take charge of projects, to really “make a project our own,” to manage the workload and our resources, to review options and set realistic goals.  In short, it is a perfect learning tool for those critical middle-to-upper management skills, the so-called “soft skill set.”  There’s quite an appeal in that comparison — Solo Wargaming is a hands-on management tools seminar.  And the experience is great fun, to boot.

Graham adds, “What we have just described could have come straight out of a project management book.  It is about taking ownership, doing feasibility studies reviewing our viable options, doing a risk assessment, setting goals, and implementation.  It will provide an excellent means of expanding our management skill set.”

Fifth, Solo Wargaming is a kind of Secret Pleasure Retreat — on the one hand, I write about it a lot, and share ideas with friends, while on the other hand, I rarely wax luxuriant, going on and on about Solo Wargaming whenever I’m in a family get-together.  I can stand there at the sister-in-law’s and smile at Uncle Joe’s banalities, occasionally nodding my head sagely, while I’m reviewing the traps inherent in the latest battlefield, in the back of my mind. Graham says, “That is called escapism you know.  Terrible thing but I do exactly the same sort of thing.”

You can always find slivers of time in which to advance your latest Solo Wargaming efforts.  I don’t begrudge it when the doctor is running late. He may not know it, but while waiting, I was just off in the wilds of farthest Kurdistan!

Sixth, Graham points out that Solo Wargaming doesn’t need young muscles and a young mind.  In fact, the more detail we have accumulated from things we’ve done or read about over the years — with the input from a broader range of experience — then arguably the better the resulting Solo Wargaming presentation becomes, and the better the AAR is likely to be as well.  The more experience we have, the greater number of landmarks on the Solo battlefield we will recognize, and take into account in our Solo Wargaming generalship.

Solo Wargaming integrates the various elements of our individual life-long experience, and knits them into a tapestry that is quite rich in texture, and uniquely our own.  The day of the great Victorian romantic adventure may have passed, and there is less and less room in modern business for those bold and colorful characters, larger-than-life, complete with their flamboyancy and flaws.  In a world that emphasizes team efforts, where individual efforts and relevance seem suppressed for the company’s betterment, Solo Wargaming keeps us sane.  It is a beacon of satisfaction, win or lose, where we dared to take a chance, and make the effort to hold back the darkness.  We may choose to blend into a modern politically-correct and diplomatic society, but we can get a lot of happiness by escaping to our own Solo Adventure, where we can live as legends forever.

Notes:

Note 1: “Bowling Alone” by Robert D. Putnam, © 2000 Simon & Schuster NY, 541 pages (414 of text).

Note 2: PTA peaked in 1960, when they had 45 members per 100 families with kids, but plummeted to 17 members per 100 families in 1980. Although there was a very small recovery around 1990, that seemed to have melted away by 2000.

Note 3: Boy Scouts and Girl Guides peaked around 1970, and although they had a sharp dip, the numbers are clawing back upwards.  How that was engineered might well be worth a bit of research.  By contrast, leadership for these groups is in stronger decline, and Eagles (the follow-on group once you graduate from Scouts) peaked back in 1950 and never really recovered.

Note 4: Union membership peaked around 1953-54 at 33% of the non-agricultural labor force, but suffered a long, uneven decline to around 13% in 1998.

Note 5: Down by 50% or worse, from the height of their numbers in the 1960s.

Note 6: Down roughly 10% from 80-year-olds, to 60-year-olds, to 45-year-olds, to 28-year-olds.

Note 7: From 2 members per 1000 in 1960 to 43 member per 1000 in 1995.

Note 8: 4.5 hours/day in 1950 to 7.5 hours/day in 2000.

Note 9: Which peaked at 84 participants in a formal bowling league per 1000 eligible men and women, to almost nothing in 2010 terms — bowling had to re-invent itself as a kiddies’ game with flashing lights and more “fun” (less technical bowling).

Note 10: And arguably, cards was one of the bellwether indicators for other kinds of boardgames, and wargaming is sort of a subset of that — whither goes interest in card games, there goes wargaming in general.

Note 11: 14 visits per year in 1975 vs. 8 visits per year in 1998.

Note 12: I may know of a dozen or so somewhat eccentric people who are long-term Solo Wargamers, but I can’t remember ANY (off the top of my head) who aren’t articulate high-level functioning members of society.

* * *

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7 Responses to The future of Solo Wargaming

  1. Rich Barbuto says:

    Bob, Graham, thank you both for a ‘tour de force.’ When we started this dialog two years ago on the future of Lone Warrior, I perhaps expected some f’ood for thought’ that we might share with the larger wargaming community. You two have delivered a veritable banquet!

    I am hopeful that the decline in active participation in organized groups suggests growth for solo wargaming. This phenomenon explains why the Solo Wargamers Association (SWA) could no longer support services such as the lending library, advisors, and play by mail. I have also lamented the diminishing of letters to the forum.

    The quandry for me in my role as editor of LW is this. If more and more wargamers choose ‘passive participation’ in organized groups of solo gamers such as the SWA, then where will our contributors come from? When contributions fall short of some ‘critical mass,’ (e.g. 50 pages quarterly for LW) then the journal goes away and the solo community loses its major network and its ability to share ideas widely.

    Our Lone Warrior contributors share some admirable characteristics. They are creative; they have ideas and are willing to share them. They see the goodness in strengthening the network that draws the solo wargaming community together. Finally, they particularly enjoy being connected to a group of like-minded hobbyists.

    Well, let me stop here and please allow me to invite all who have read Bob and Graham’s thoughts to throw in their thoughts as well. If you have read this so far, let me invite you to make our hobby more satisfying for all of us.

  2. Bravo !!! Well done my fellow compatriot’s. This article is well researched and is inspirational. The new Call of Duty war game comes out on Remembrance/Veterans’ Day and the young folk including my 2 sons will be glued to the X-Box. Do I care? No !!! Our hobby appeals to a certain crowd and it has grown. I see more and more people out there tired of gazing at a computer screen. There are a ton of Bloggers like myself who solo war game and who knows who will join our little niche’ … Jeff

  3. George Arnold says:

    Bob and Graham’s article has prompted one response so far over on the SoloWarGame message board (registration may be required), where I called it to their attention. Here’s a copy:

    “Re: Article of possible interest

    “Interesting article and I certainly agree people are less involved than they use to be. Not sure that I buy the hypothesis that people “cocooning” themselves will kill solo gaming though. I think it is a stretch to link the health of solo gaming with the health of the lone warrior. I have nothing against LW just not sure it is a great baromator.

    Joe”

    To give credit where due, here’s a link to the original:

    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/SoloWarGame/message/7378

    Comments on Joe’s comment?

    • Chris Hahn says:

      Checking my e-mail at this ungodly hour (unless one is a morning person), I see that there have been a couple more responses to the “dissertation” written by Bob and Graham. These reference the advance/increase in computer gaming, which needs to be distinguished from the XBox or Playstation “shoot-em up” games that will be another big seller this holiday season. The “fluidity” of American society is also referenced.
      I think Joe has a point re linking the health (commercial, I am guessing) of LONE WARRIOR to the health and or longevity of solo wargaming. If anything, I think it is the latter pursuit that promotes or allows the former to exist. I don’t think that any of the British publications appeared before the hobby took root or was large enough to support a monthly magazine.

      At the risk of making a premature statement or announcement, I have been in touch with Mr. Eardley of The High Ground (Miniature Wargames), and he has mentioned the possibility (emphasis possibility) of writing about solo wargaming in one of his forthcoming columns. In our exchange of e-mails, he has remarked upon the fact that solo gaming tends to be regarded as a “red-headed step child” in British wargaming circles. This, I find rather interesting, as I wonder if there’s a cultural context at work here.

      At the acknowledged risk of going off topic completely, in my Internet wanderings, I stumbled across a thesis/dissertation title written in 2007 by a student from Emerson College. Quoting the summary, at least partially: “2 inches tall is a documentary short which examines the hobby of miniature wargaming to ask the question: Why play with war? Through their motivations and practices, the film’s four profiled wargamer’s construct a response to that question expressing both a cultural romanticism of war and a psychological need to perform mastery over past traumas.”
      I have been unable to track down a copy of either the version of this paper.

      George references the Yahoo Group/Forum dedicated to solo wargaming. This online group is just over 12 years old (founded in late September of 1999) and has a membership of 1586.
      One would think that members of this online group would be members (subscribers as well as contributors) to a publication like LONE WARRIOR. My guess is that there are not 1586 subscribers to this niche publication. Strikes me as a little ironic or at least contradictory.

      If I may jump off topic again (sorry, attribute to the effects of coffee and the early hour), and address Dr. Barbuto’s concern about the “critical mass” issue/concern for the traditional version of LONE WARRIOR. Noting that Wargames Illustrated has an online supplement/version and that wargaming blogs (written by individuals as well as by groups) seem to be growing in number, would the evolution of LONE WARRIOR into strictly an electronic format be such a bad thing? Phrased another way, is it better to have some version of LONE WARRIOR in existence rather than have no version of LONE WARRIOR in existence? The concerns about postage and having enough material would, in all likelihood, be replaced by other worries. And there would no longer be a quarterly publication. These “old-fashioned” procedures would be replaced by the freedom of Internet publishing. Color could now grace the electronic pages of LONE WARRIOR. This way, contributors could also choose what type size and font (within reason) they wanted for their articles, reports, etc. Like Joe, I have nothing against LONE WARRIOR. As a regular contributor – and an appreciative one at that – it would not make sense for me to “throw stones at this glass house.” I do find myself agreeing with Joe on his barometer comparison, however. Perhaps an electronic version of LONE WARRIOR would be a better way to measure/gauge the status/health of solo wargaming (if linked to other sites and forums)?

      In closing, and at the admitted risk of being subjected to critical comments, I wonder about Dr. Barbuto’s invitation “to make the hobby more satisfying for all of us.” In some circles, and I acknowledge that these are probably rather small circles, the word solo can be equated to selfish. Granted, it’s hard not to think of selfish in negative terms, but I think some of the reasons why we do solo stem from a certain amount of dissatisfaction with commercially published rules, rules lawyers, poor sports, boorish/childish gamers, time constraints and so forth. I think, in large part – and here I may very well be mistaken – we solo wargame primarily to satisfy our own wargaming needs, however serious or silly these may be.

      I believe that I would still be a solo wargamer even if I had no access to WI, MW, LW and this or that forum. Granted, my wargaming would be a little less flavorful – for lack of a better word, but it would still suffice. I wargame and write about my wargaming for my own satisfaction. (Over the past few years, however, I have started to wonder if I my writing has come to drive my wargaming.) If other gamers are inspired or forced to rethink their approach because of an article of mine, well, I guess that’s OK. It’s not the primary reason why I wargame and write, though. (Based on the number of replies I’ve received over the years concerning my material, it appears that my contribution has been less than marginal. This should not be taken as a complaint, but as an observation.) I wargame and write about wargaming because I (emphasis on the I) like to. I enjoy it. I don’t write for the greater good of the hobby. I have no larger purpose than challenging myself to see if I can reconstruct this or that historical battle on my tabletop, express my opinions about this set of rules or that perceived direction of the hobby. If I am tarred and feathered with names like “Scrooge” or worse (Scrooge was selected as we are, given the almost constant stream of nauseating commercials on TV, heavily into the holiday season), then so be it. I would think that wargamers have better things to do with their limited time.

      Chris

  4. A most interesting article.

    I remember that a Strategy and Tactics (SPI) study concluded most of their board games were played solo. I reprinted the 6th edition WRG Ancients rules (complex, detailed, slow) and I have been suprised to find many of the buyers are playing these rules solo. They seem to have permanent wargaming tables, so they can set up and play a game with these rules over more than an evening. They apparently enjoy the puzzle element to the challenge of the complexity of the WRG 6th edition rules.

  5. Lone Wolf Warrior says:

    There is currently a discussion taking place on SoloWarGame
    http://games.groups.yahoo.com/group/SoloWarGame/ regarding the subject of who is or is not a subscriber to LW it may or may not provide some smallfood for thought.

  6. GCBisset says:

    In my professional work as a behavior analyst, I am aware of the law that states people will will spend their time on the behavior that brings them the most pleasure and reward for the least effort or work.

    Traditional wargamers are very hard working folk, but the rewards are great. Computers can reduce the amount of work needed to create and run campaigns and battles.

    More pc games are available that have an input battle results feature, that makes them
    useful for solo wargaming campaigns. I have alot of these listed on my website here: http://gbisset.bravesites.com. Also, any PC game that allows you to edit force strength and position in its saved games can be used for a miniatures campaign game.

    Recently I talked with Micheael Kennedy of white dog Games, who will add an input
    battle results button to his upcoming pc games, to make them useful as campaign games for miniatures.

    So I think the computer will save the hobby and increase its numbers, thru software for campaign and tactical games, and of course excellent blogs and other web pages such as this one!

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