Reader Jay Dugger pointed me toward this essay, "The Golden Age of Wargaming is Now," by Eric S. Raymond, thinking I'd find it both interesting in its own right and in its possible applicability to the old school renaissance. Now, as I've said ad nauseam: I'm not a wargamer and never have been. I've played wargames in the past, even enjoyed them, and I've often thought I ought to make more time to delve into our hobby's forebear, if only to get a better grounding in its relationship to what came after. Consequently, it's hard for me to judge the truth of Raymond's suggestion that hex wargaming nowadays is "better than ever." I can only say that, from the perspective of an outsider, wargaming, much like tabletop roleplaying, certainly doesn't seem to be in a golden age, if by "golden age" one means "broad appeal." Nearly everyone I know who still plays hex wargames does so because they started playing back in the 70s or 80s, the years that, perhaps not coincidentally, were also the heyday of the tabletop RPG.
Of course, Raymond is using "golden age" in a different way, namely as a signifier of a time of great diversity and change, when wargames design has finally shaken off the "blitz of corroborative detail" that led to monstrously complex and/or barely playable games. Again, as an outsider, I can't really speak to the truth of Raymond's specific observations. I can only say that, reading his essay, he comes across as someone who's a bit more uncritical of the notion of "progress" in game design than I am. For example, he simply states, as if it were an incontrovertible fact, that "the average quality of presentation in games has improved spectacularly since the 1970s." I'd agree that presentation has changed a lot since the 1970s, but "improved?" That's a matter of perspective, I think, particularly if, like me, you believe older styles and methods aren't always straightforwardly superseded by those that come later.
In the end, I find Raymond's essay interesting and I think he raises a number of good points that are well worth considering when thinking about the future of old school roleplaying. However, I think it's a bit of a stretch to go from "I enjoy many of the wargames produced today using contemporary designs" to "wargames today are better than ever." My gut feeling remains that game design -- like a great many types of design, really -- is highly faddish and, while innovation isn't unknown, it's not as clear-cut as its boosters would like us to believe. A well designed wargame (or RPG) from 1980 is just as playable today as it was three decades ago. However, one's perception of what constitutes "good design" can often change, sometimes to the point where one can come to believe that something one formerly judged good is not in fact so, as anyone who's spent time arguing about character classes, demihuman level limits, or descending armor class can tell you.
This isn't to suggest that innovation is impossible or that it's never occurred, but I firmly believe that unambiguous examples of innovation in RPG design are rarer than those who criticize earlier designs might wish to admit. A lot depends on what one is used to and what one expects. For example, Raymond's assertion that table lookups slow play and encourage "tediousness" is, I think, tendentious. I certainly don't begrudge anyone who dislikes tables and finds other methods easier for them, but, again, I think it's a mistake to go from that observation to universalizing its impact on overall design. I've played many chart-heavy RPGs for years and, after a while, one can become quite adept at using them. Indeed, for me, tables and charts are frequently easier to use than other methods, particularly those that involve even relatively simple mathematical calculations. I am notoriously innumerate and so derive little benefit from game designs that eschew tables on the false assumption that having the players perform simple math is a "better" design.
In short, I think the notion of "progress" is a very slippery one and so, while I am intrigued by what Raymond suggests in his essay, I can't quite embrace it. I hope that doesn't sound dismissive, because I certainly don't mean it to be. I'm just skeptical of some of the assumptions that appear to be underlying Raymond's position and that skepticism prevents me from seeing its applicability to the old school renaissance. But I need to think more on the matter.