The best ideas are often those of others. For example, Dave from the Dude! Take Your Turn blog came up with this neat series to write about the top 100 games on BoardGameGeek – just some thoughts what the game is about, if he has played it and if so, what that was like, and if not, if he would give it a shot. You can find the starting post for the games #100-91 here. If you want to go straight for the crème de la crème, here are the top ten games on BGG, and if you still don’t have enough after 100 games, Dave has already started diving into the games #200-101, which I also read religiously.
These posts have been tremendous conversation starters about a variety of board games. Therefore, I asked Dave if I could borrow his idea and apply it to the BoardGameGeek war games list. He graciously agreed, and here we are! Here are the ground rules of this series:
We cover the top 60 games in BoardGameGeek’s war game category (as of August 19, 2020). Why such an odd number? – Originally I wanted to do the top 50, but there are so many interesting entries in #51-60 that I could not pass on them. Every post contains 10 games. What I write about each individual game can be what makes it special, my own memories of playing it (or if and why I’d like to or not), some more general ideas about its specific sub-genre or anything else that pops up in the mess of incoherent rambling which is my mind. If you think I should have written about something different, or if you just want to share your own thoughts, you’re more than welcome to use the comments section! I’d love to hear from you.
And thus, we go into the games – BoardGameGeek’s top 60 war games!
The Seven Years‘ War: Prussia faces an uneasy three-sided coalition. King Frederick’s hope rests on his operational brilliance just as much as on jealousies between his enemies.
And here we have already one of the major reasons I extended the series to the first 60 entries: I’ve played Friedrich more often than any other game on this list. After more than fifty games, I find it still a uniquely elegant design (its rules can be taught to a complete newcomer within 15 minutes). I’m equally impressed by its vertical integration: The tactical, operational, and strategic levels will all pose interesting dilemmata to you:
- Tactically, you’ll have to decide between attempting to force victory in a battle or withdrawing with minimal losses.
- Operationally, you’ll spend much time puzzling over how to position your forces to conquer or defend cities, threaten enemy supply and guard your own.
- Strategically, it’s a double game: Prussia will need to bend, but not break, and to all attackers equally. Said attackers will have to put enough pressure to defeat Prussia, but not so much that they exhaust themselves paving the way for another attacker.
In short, I strongly recommend the game. Give it a try. And invite people for it who haven’t played historical conflict games before – it was my first one as well, and it’s an excellent starting point for its design excellence and sheer drama until the very end.
A euro-inspired take on the Peloponnesian War: Two players fight as Athens and Sparta for Hegemony in Greece.
Would I play this? You betcha. I love Ancient Greek history, I love integrated political-military-economic-cultural conflict gaming, I come from a euro-gaming background and enjoy games that can be played in a leisurely evening (BGG lists play time at 90-120min).
That said, I’d also like to see games about subjects in Greek history other than the Peloponnesian War (and Alexander). The only reason it looms so large is that it is the subject of the very first treatise of history – Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War. It’s an excellent book, and so everyone is gushing over a conflict between two regional powers with not much bearing on anyone outside of Greece. Nothing wrong with that! I’d just love to see that with other Greek conflicts whose historiographers were not as insightful (so, Herodot and Xenophon): Give me more Persian Wars, and most of all, give me a game on the multipolar Greek order between the Peloponnesian War and the Macedonian hegemony! Sparta’s fragile preeminence, Thebes’s time in the sun, Athens‘ reemergence, and over it the shadow of Persian or Macedonian intervention…
A strategic-operational card-driven game (CDG) on the Spanish Civil War.
I’ve seen this game at Essen 2019 (I think), but didn’t get to play it. I think they only had a Spanish edition. Or something else. And the game for which I’d actually come to the booth (Rise of Totalitarianism (Luca Cammisa, 4Dados)) was not ready for playtest, so I walked away with my gaming purposes unfulfilled. The biggest takeaway from this jumbled story is: My memory is a sieve, and you should probably not believe anything I claim to know.
As for the game: Sure, I’d still try it out.
A regimental-level game of the D-Day landings in Normandy in June 1944.
Okay, we have our first contender from Holy Trinity of wargaming (World War II, American Civil War, Napoleonics). And it is from one of the most-gamed battles ever. The attraction of D-Day is obvious: First, it involves American troops, and most war game designers and players are American. Second, it involves Nazi troops, and those are popular in games for two reasons: They make excellent villains, and a substantial amount of war gamers have an unhealthy obsession with the German armed forces in World War II. Third, D-Day presents its players with very different challenges: The Allied player must force a difficult landing operation. The German player is vastly inferior in men and matériel.
Despite all that, I’ve never played a dedicated D-Day game. Could Normandy ’44 change that? Maybe. But I wouldn’t go out of my way for it.
GMT’s first take on a 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) game set in space.
The first game in the list which is not based on historical events! I find space exploration and technology quite interesting, and space makes for an exciting theme in books, movies, and games as well. However, I seem to approach them differently than historical games: The classic hex-and-counter look is fine by me for a historical game, but in a space game as this, it looks drab to me. Where is the bucket full of miniatures of Star Wars: Rebellion or Twilight Imperium? – And that’s coming from me, who usually defends games with little chits who at best have a little picture and at worst a NATO symbol and a few numbers on them against my miniature-loving friends (don’t get me wrong, I love NATO symbols, but I see how they don’t pack the biggest punch of aesthetic attractiveness).
So, I think I’d skip on Space Empires: 4X.
#55: Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel! – Kursk 1943 (Uwe Eickert/John Hill/Dana Lombardy, Academy Games)
Squad tactics on the Eastern Front of World War II.
World War II was big. Infantry squads are small. Thus, there is an immense amount of content you can put into a squad-level game. In fact, the amount is infinite – no one will be able to tell if your scenario („firefight“, in Conflict of Heroes parlance) is based on actual events or if you just made something plausible up. As a consequence, assessment of such games is less based on their content, and more on the game system. There is a never-ending debate which World War II squad tactics game has which flaws in its realistic simulation. Conflict of Heroes falls squarely on the side of easy-to-play over realism, and I’m entirely fine with that. After all, the benefit of added realism gets ever smaller with the scale: For a grand strategic game, including more factors and considerations that might make your head swirl maybe gets you closer in feeling to being the president-in-charge. But in a tactical game, no matter how much it tries, pushing a counter two hexes forward will be very different from running over a field hoping the enemy doesn’t spot you. And I know which of the two I prefer.
The COIN take on the American War of Independence.
Confession time! I’ve never played a game in the COIN series. Not for lack of wanting, though – COIN is in many respects very much up my alley: Political-military conflicts? Check. Flexible multiplayer options? Check. Playable in a (long) evening? Check. Variety of settings? Check. Liberty or Death‘s setting is one I find particularly interesting – I’m interested in decolonization conflicts, and the American Revolution is the ur-anticolonial struggle (albeit a very atypical one, given the absence of a racial perspective and the amount of liberty, equality, and prosperity the American colonists enjoyed before their insurgence). So, maybe this could be my first COIN game?
A deluxe edition of the original SPQR and a lot of its expansion material: The Roman Republic and its rivals duke it out in 14 battles from the 3rd and 2nd century BCE.
The Roman Republic was used to winning its wars. Thus, it existed long enough to create material for a bunch of scenarios in this box. It also lost a fair share of its battles. Thus, the scenarios are fun for both players, no matter if Roman or not. Speaking of fun: The game comes also with a plethora of ancient secret weapons, ranging from war elephants to flaming pigs. Yes, you read that right. This is something in which games on antiquity often excel: They capture the wild ingenuity of the ancients (and the liking of Greek and Roman writers for curiosities). That makes for a bit more rules reading (the flaming pigs have their own combat results table), but if you wanted clean, elegant, and a bit soulless, you’d play Azul instead. Yes, I said it. Sue me.
The United States and the Jihadists attempt to shape the Islamic countries to their world views.
I have a lot of thoughts about this game. First of all, I’ve played it a bunch with Dave from the Dude! Take Your Turn blog via the Playdek implementation (currently in open beta, but really good already) over the last months. Second, it is the first game on this list which covers events through which I’ve lived. No, although I sound like an old curmudgeon, I was not alive during World War II (for which I’m grateful, as my options would have been the Wehrmacht or desertion), much less at the time of the Roman Republic (which I regret, as I would have made an excellent Germanic slave). And third, Labyrinth takes on an incredibly hot topic, and handles it in an extremely thoughtful way – but only at second glance.
There is no doubt that the War on Terror is a sensitive issue for many gamers. GMT’s president Gene Billingsley convinced designer Volko Ruhnke with consideration to the sensitivities of their domestic market to include a bot – so that no one would be forced to step into the shoes of the Jihadists in order to play the game. On the other side, US War on Terror measures – at home, toward their allies, and in the Middle East – have had their own cost in money, civil liberties, and life. Reflecting on that really brings you back to early 2000s, to all those things like oil price spikes and al-Qaeda that were so important back then and are now all but superseded by more recent events.
At first glance, the game seems to have a clear affirmative perspective on US counterterrorism – that of the US neoconservative government. Military regime changes and subsequent nation-building are the best anti-terrorist measures. A hard stance on terrorism is the necessary prerequisite. But it’s not that simple. As designer Volko Ruhnke has said, he aimed to take the American administration’s perspective on the Middle East seriously – even though he thinks that the neoconservatives in the Bush administration had assumptions that did not operate very effectively. And both of that is in the game. Sure, you can go gung-ho about regime changing against Jihadism, but that will run you into military overstretch, not do anything against the recruitment potential of the Jihadists, and potentially estrange you from your allies. And those considerations of strategy in a complex world are among the best things a board game can achieve.
Mark Simonitch’s take on the American Civil War in its entirety.
The American Civil War is the second-most popular topic for wargaming (after World War II). Roughly a billion games have been dedicated to it, and many of them set out to cover the entire conflict. How would someone like me – generally interested, but uninitiated – choose which of them to play? And how would a designer, even a veteran like Mark Simonitch, go about designing what has been designed so often before? – Simonitch does not hide his inspirations. Many of the rules and concepts are borrowed from either The Civil War (Eric Lee Smith, Victory Games) or For the People (Mark Herman, Avalon Hill). The crucial question is what to leave out. For Simonitch, that is almost the entire dimension of politics, diplomacy, and war production. The game thus is less strategic and more grand operational in scale. That is a bit reminiscent of the Civil War games up until the 1990s in which the military maneuvers were mostly untethered to any political or social framework – as in one of Simonitch’s inspirations, The Civil War. Interestingly enough, the game to break with that tradition and usher in a new design paradigm for Civil War games is Simonitch’s other inspiration For the People! You know where I stand on war game design – I’m strongly for leaving the operational bubble and adopting a Clausewitzian perspective on military conflict. So, when I finally get into civil war gaming, I’ll probably do it with another game.
What are your thoughts on these games? Let me know in the comments!