by David W.
| published Wednesday, November 11, 2020
War Never Changes. No, this is not another Fallout review. Although, New Vegas just celebrated its 10th (!) anniversary and wouldn’t it be lovely if Fantasy Flight released a New Vegas expansion for the Fallout boardgame?
No, today is Remembrance Day, when we honour the courage and sacrifice that millions of men and women have made over the last hundred-plus years, and continue to make today. We should honour them, even if the moral and ethical landscape is a great deal more complicated in 2020 than it was in 1919 (when the first ceremonies were held, a year after the end of “the War to end All Wars”). We no longer look at the world through Manichean good-vs-evil lenses; the whole concept of “just war” has become incredibly muddied. Nor do we look with unquestioning admiration and pride on those who ostensibly “stand on guard” to keep the peace–either at home or abroad. I for one believe both that many Canadian soldiers are honourable individuals–but also that there is systemic racism and sexism in our Armed Forces and RCMP which has yet to be rooted out.
Remembrance Day to me has always been about learning from the mistakes of history–something the human race doesn’t have a great track record on, unfortunately. My interest in and love for history was definitely fanned into flame by my introduction to wargames as a ten-year-old (you can read about it here and listen to me talk about it here). For me, it’s definitely not about the regalia and the weaponry but about time-travel: getting into the driver’s seat and reliving history. Getting a sense of why and how things happened–not only at the tactical level of the battlefield, but at the operational and strategic levels of supply and politics. I think these lessons are valuable to anyone who wants to not only learn from the past but also understand the present and advocate for a better future.
Unfortunately, most wargames (or conflict simulations) have a very steep learning curve. There is a language and jargon all its own and concepts–such as Zone of Control, supply, and line of sight–which can confuse and imitate a newcomer. Many are also quite time-consuming; there are infamous examples of games from the Golden Age of the late 70s/early 80s that in theory could take weeks to complete (Campaign for North Africa, Empires of the Middle Ages) but even today there is a market for “monster” wargames that can only be played if you have a dedicated play-space and multiple weekends (link, link).
So, for this 11th day of the 11th month (and you should really be reading this at 11am to get the most out of it), I wanted to assemble a list of 11 wargames that (a) are approachable to beginners; (b) have “educational” value (in the sense I was talking about above); and (c) are in print and/or available at “reasonable” prices. While their emphasis is more on gameplay than simulation, they all provide great jumping-off points to learn more about (and from) history.
Five of the games are for two players only–most wargames are–but three can be played by more than two and three of them are solitaire games. I tried to select games from a variety of eras, but even so five of them are set during WW2–probably the most-simulated conflict of all time–and therefore the pool of eligible games is that much bigger. I also wanted where possible to highlight games from smaller publishers; the “big boys” get plenty of ink/pixels already.
Woof. Enough introductory jibber-jabber. Here goes:
1775: Rebellion: The American Revolution (or Yankee Rebellion, as we in the Commonwealth prefer to call it) is also a popular wargame topic, and Academy Games’ Euro-ish take on it makes it a great introduction to the era. Up to four players take the roles of the British Army, Loyalists, Continental Army, and Patriots. Play order is randomly determined in each of the game’s four turns, with players taking actions by playing cards from hand to push cubes troops around the 13 Colonies, aiming for political control. You really get a sense of both Washington’s frustrations with his “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots” as well as the difficulty the British had fighting and supplying a motivated (if ill-equipped) counter-insurgency across an ocean. The same basic system is used in Academy Games’ 1754 and 1812 games, so if you’re into the period around the Napoleonic Wars you can really go to town and get all three.
1944: Race To the Rhine: As I said above, WW2 is arguably the most popular era for wargames, with hundreds of games covering everything from individual battles at the tactical level to the entire war at the strategic level. However, there are very few games (let alone wargames) that are designed for exactly 3 players, and this is one of them–it’s also playable with 2 or solitaire. And there are very few wargames whose focus is on the supply and logistical side of warfare, with combat playing a relatively minor role. Here players take the role of the three army commanders (Monty, Patton, and Bradley) on the final push to end WW2. This game really explains what “outrunning your supply line” means and why armies can’t just rush willy-nilly to their targets. Phalanx is soon releasing a sequel covering Operation Barbarossa (Germany’s invasion of the USSR in 1941) and I for one can’t wait to get my copy.
A Few Acres of Snow: Ignore the haters. Covering what the Americans call “The French & Indian War”, this Martin Wallace design has all his hallmarks, both good and bad. The first edition of the game betrayed a fatal insufficiency of playtesting: soon after its release, players found an uncounterable British strategy (the “Halifax Hammer”). After a couple of weeks of epic BGG-forum-threading, Wallace announced a simple fix which was implemented in all future printings–but by then the damage was done in terms of the game’s reputation. Which is a shame, and a lesson to all designers. But if you’re looking for a deckbuilding game that’s thematically embedded into a historical situation, you really can’t do much better than AFAoS.
Fog of War: Almost four years ago I wrote about this brilliant design by Geoff Engelstein which managed to do in two hours what many multi-hour strategic WW2 games couldn’t: model the bluffing, uncertainty, and subterfuge that both Axis and Allied commanders faced–as well as the long-term preparations needed to mount full-scale operations. Drawing on design elements from SPI’s classic monster game War in Europe and adapting them to a much smaller “canvas”, Englestein compresses all the drama and fury from 1940-45 into a simplified but still epic take on the European front.
Memoir ‘44: Originally published on the 60th anniversary of D-Day, Memoir remains one of the best gateway wargames available. Played on large-hexed mapboards with miniatures representing troops of infantry, tanks, and artillery, Memoirlooks like a wargame. The original box contained scenarios covering battles from the Normandy landings, through the Falaise Pocket, and on to the drive into Germany in the last weeks of the war. Over a dozen expansions broadened its scope to cover North Africa, Russia, and the Pacific, as well as two Campaign Books which allowed players to fight through a branching series of battles. Richard Borg’s elegant design is hardly a simulation–but it does give a basic feel for concepts such as command & control, line of sight, and the power of combined arms tactics. The system has proved so adaptable that it’s been ported or adapted to the ancient world (Commands & Colours: Ancients), the Napoleonics era, and even the planet Naboo in Star Wars: The Queen’s Gambit–surely the best thing to come out of Episode One. And if you can find a copy, 1999’s Battle Cry, which was the first game in this series, is also a great but out-of-print introductory game covering important battles of the American Civil War.
Quebec 1759/War of 1812/Napoleon: The Waterloo Campaign/: Any of these serve as great introductions to the Columbia Games “Block Series” which were way ahead of their time in terms of imposing limited information on players and therefore allowing for the same kind of bluffing and misdirection tactics which were used so effectively by the great generals of the era. Think of it as “Stratego on steroids” and you won’t be too far from wrong, although movement is point-to-point rather than on a grid and units have multiple steps to simulate battle attrition. (In point of fact, in 2015 Stratego released a one-off Stratego Waterloo edition to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the battle, which would be officially “on the list” if it weren’t so hard to find.)
Undaunted: Normandy is what would happen if Combat Commander married Dominion–really! This tactical-level WW2 game uses deckbuilding as the main mechanic to cleverly and elegantly simulate several aspects of squad-level combat of the era: the fog of war; command and control; morale and unit cohesion. It all works remarkably well even though it shouldn’t. The North Africa standalone sequel tweaks things and adds vehicles. You can read more of what I had to say about Undaunted here.
V-Commandos is like a Tabletop port of the old Commandos videogame series, except not in real-time. And I mean that with the highest compliments. You can read more about it in my review from 2018 here.
Agricola: Master of Britain is the other, much-less-well-known Agricola from the excellent small publisher Hollandspiele, which despite its name is US-based. You play as the newly-appointed governor of Britannia province in the first century CE. You can govern with velvet glove, an iron first, or a combination of both. Each tribe can be either Friendly, Unfriendly, or Hostile, and a chit-pull system determines their actions after you take yours. Each campaign season you have a higher and higher threshold to meet in terms of subjugated tribes and your military budget is never high enough, which forces you to levy taxes, which makes you unpopular…ah, uneasy is the head that wears the laurel wreath.
Hapsburg Eclipse/Ottoman Sunset are both from Victory Point Games, as is the final entry on the list. VPG have perfect a system they call “States of Siege” which they’ve adapted to many games from many eras. In States of Siege Games you’re defending a central hub location from which radiate several lines of attack from approaching armies. Every turn there’s an event which moves some of the armies toward you (as well as having other in-game effects, rarely good ones), after which you get to take a variable number of actions to fortify your position and/or push them back. If any of the armies reaches the middle it’s Game Over; your job is to outlast the Events Deck. HE and OS take place in World War One and focus on the lesser members of the Triple Alliance: Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. They are available separately but the real yumminess comes from combining them into a single game which really gives you an idea of the strategic difficulties. Simple rules and gameplay make these great introductions to the era.
Mound Builders is also a States of Siege game where you play first the Hopewell and then the Mississippian cultures centred at Cahokia (near modern St. Louis) that dominated eastern North America before the Europeans arrived. What sets it apart from all other States of Siege games is that for the first (pre-Settler) part of the game you are trying to expand your culture and trade network rather than conquer neighbouring states. Once the Europeans arrive you go on the defensive, trying to keep your people fed and alive for as long as possible. Mound Builders is a well-researched game that tells a story that deserves to be better-known.
It was really hard to keep my list down to eleven (well, sixteen really)–I could easily have added a dozen more. I hope you’ll seek out a game or two on the list and try them out. The philosopher George Santayana said it first and said it best: “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”
How appropriate for Remembrance Day. Lest We Forget.