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The genre of wargame video games is derived from earlier forms of wargames. The games thematically represent the wargame hobby, although they tend to be less realistic in order to increase accessibility for more casual players. The amount of realism varies between games as game designers balance an accurate simulation with playability.
The computer gaming industry generally evolved with minimal reference to board games, so the term "wargame" is not traditionally used in the context of computer games. However, the wargaming community saw the possibilities of computer gaming early and made attempts to break into the market, notably Avalon Hill's Microcomputer Games line, which lasted from 1980 to 1987 and covered a variety of topics, including simple adaptations of some of their wargames.
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI) and Strategic Studies Group (SSG) were computer game companies that continued the genre by specializing in games that borrowed from board and miniature wargames. The companies enjoyed a certain popularity throughout much of the 1980s and into the 1990s. TalonSoft started in 1995 with a similar focus, until purchased and later closed down by Take-Two Interactive in 2002.
The popular direction of the current market is towards real-time strategy games exemplified by StarCraft and others. These games are strategic in the gaming sense, but tactical in the military sense. These are generally high-action games that include a number of conveniences that enhance gameplay, but ignore reality.
The primary gameplay mode in a wargame is usually tactical: fighting battles. Wargames sometimes have a strategic mode where players may plan their battle or choose an area to conquer, but players typically spend much less time in this mode and more time actually fighting. Because it is difficult to provide an intelligent way to delegate tasks to a subordinate, war games typically keep the number of units down to hundreds rather than hundreds of thousands.
Units are usually scaled to be disproportionately large compared to the landscape, in order to promote effective gameplay. These games usually use a much faster time line than reality, and thus wargames often do not model night time or sleep periods.
Comparison with traditional wargames
Many contemporary computer strategy games can be considered wargames, in the sense that they are a simulation of warfare on some level. The mechanics and language have little in common with board and miniature games, but the general subject matter is popular and provides a thematic link.
Tabletop wargames are usually categorized according to the scale of the confrontation (e.g., grand strategy wargame, strategic wargame, operational wargame, tactical wargame or man-to-man wargame). The qualifiers "real-time" and "turn-based" are not taken into account as all tabletop wargames are, by necessity, turn-based. However, sometimes video wargames are also described according to the scale of conflict.
While it has been argued that computer wargame video games lack the realism of traditional games, they may include features that are impractical for tangible games. One such approach is using fog of war, whereby players are unable to see the landscape beyond the simulating viewing distance of their units. This is made practical in digital games by the fundamental difference of competing against artificial intelligience or remote competitors with their own view of the playing field.
Notable computer wargames
- Panzer General - (Strategic Simulations, Inc., 1994) - probably the most widely popular computer game that is recognizably a traditional wargame next to Close Combat. It spawned several sequels, some of which explored different subject matter.
- Steel Panthers - (Strategic Simulations, Inc., 1995) - an early tactical wargame on the same scale as Squad Leader, which led to two sequels, and a complete revision of the title for free release.
- Close Combat - (Microsoft, 1996) - not the first wargame to break out from hexes, and still presented in a 2-dimensional format, Close Combat nonetheless uniquely addressed factors such as individual morale and reluctance to carry out orders. The original title led to five very successful sequels for the general public, as well as being developed into a training tool for military use only. Close Combat stemmed from an early attempt to translate the Squad Leader boardgame to the computer.
- Combat Mission - (Big Time Software, 2000) - not the first 3D tactical wargame (titles such as Muzzle Velocity preceded it), but a groundbreaking game series featuring simultaneous order resolution, complete orders of battle for numerous nationalities, with three titles based on the original game engine. As of 2006, a campaign layer is in testing as well as a revised game engine to be released before 2007. CM's genesis was also as a failed attempt by Avalon Hill to translate Squad Leader to the computer.