Welcome back to the second part of the series on the top 60 games in BoardGameGeek’s war game list! The first part has generated a lot of replies from you on the blog as well as on Twitter – and that’s exactly what I set out for. So, thanks for all your responses, and I’m looking forward to more comments as the series goes on! Without further ado, here are games #50-41 of the list.
World War II platoon combat as a deck-builder.
In my previous post, I’ve talked about the abundance of material for World War II tactical games (in regard to Conflict of Heroes: Storm of Steel). Consequently, games turn into game systems, and it is those rather than the individual games that compete. Do you prefer Conflict of Heroes or Combat Commander? Would you rather play Advanced Squad Leader or Memoir ’44 or Undaunted? All of these game systems have to find their niche. Undaunted goes for leaving all simulationist trappings behind. Instead, you get the very eurogamey mechanism of deck-building. And I think that’s an excellent idea. It has crossover appeal for people who don’t usually play historical conflict games and might be turned off by tiny numbers on drab plastic counters and rulebooks written in a procedural 220.127.116.11 style. And then, when they’re hooked, they might move on to other war games. Or not, and stay with Undaunted. Both of which sound good to me.
Block war game set in the war between England and Scotland during the 13th and 14th centuries.
My wife and I sometimes do theme days. This year, we had a Scotland day – we ate haggis, watched a movie set in Scotland (Calibre, on Netflix), and we also planned to play a board game. As we did not have any Scotland-themed board game (if you don’t count Here I Stand where Scotland typically ceases to exist as an independent nation after the first turn), I weighed new purchases. In the end, I opted for Isle of Skye – I’d played it before, so its quality was assured and the rules only needed to be refreshed. Still, Hammer of the Scots was the strongest rival. A block classic with a concise ruleset (and the opportunity to practice a Scottish accent), what’s not to like? Maybe there will be another Scotland day in the future.
Miniatures combat game about small ships from the Star Wars universe.
Speaking of theme days: We once did a Star Wars theme day. The board game of that day was Star Wars: Rebellion. So, apparently I like Star Wars and small plastic ships. X-Wing therefore seems right up my alley… but it isn’t. That’s because it is a collectible miniatures game. Two things about that put me off: First, I’m not a crafts person. Painting miniatures is not a thing I’d do in my precious free time. Second, as X-Wing is collectible, the base game only includes one X-Wing and two TIE Fighters. If you want anything else, you’ll have to buy additional models; and that’s not a thing I’d do with my precious disposable income. Bottom line: Should I ever become very rich and very idle at the same time, I might give X-Wing a chance. And even then, I’d likely rather dedicate my time and money to other games.
The air war over Britain in the summer of 1940, for two players or solo as either side.
The first air game on the list! Air and naval games are the weirdos among war games. They often have much more in common with other air or naval games from different eras than with land games from the same era. Especially their relationship to the spatial dimension is different from land games: Taking or holding territory is irrelevant in the air or at sea. Supremacy in a geographical area is always a means to influencing what is going on somewhere else – in the cities on the ground where your bombs now fall or in the ports that do not receive supplies anymore. And often, supremacy is not even expressed by being in a particular area, and rather by being able to go there (or just denying the same to your opponent). RAF is no exception: Sure, there is a map (although, like many air or naval games, it does away with hexes), but your forces raid or intercept lightning-fast here or there. You are not constrained anymore by space, only by your planning, logistics, and strategy (should I oppose the German attack here or hold my squadrons back for a possible follow-up attack elsewhere?). So, if you haven’t yet, I encourage you to try out one of these air or naval weirdo games for that quite different experience. Maybe RAF?
The Commands & Colors system of accessible battle gaming goes fantasy.
It’s remarkable how versatile the Commands & Colors system is. It works in antiquity, it works for World War II, and it works outside of history as well. As you might have noticed from this blog, I am much more into history than into fantasy or sci-fi settings, and yet BattleLore sounds more enticing to me than many of the historical settings. Why is that? – History has the bigger promise, and thus I am also more disappointed when it does not contain exactly what I crave. And many of the C&C base games are about battles that aren’t the most exciting thing in a given era to me: The C&C Napoleonics base game focuses on the Peninsular War, frankly the least interesting part of the Napoleonic Wars to me. The C&C Ancients base game is about the Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome – where are my Greeks? And so on. BattleLore, on the other hand, just has a generic (feel free to disagree in the comments) fantasy setting, and so my expectations are limited (and would likely be met). Plus, it has miniatures, which is not a big deal to me, but always helps me bamboozle unsuspecting nerds into gaming with me. That sweet, sweet plastic.
Block war game on the Eastern Front in World War II.
Take the biggest war ever, and then take its most important piece. There you go, you have the Eastern Front, one of the most-gamed war game subjects of them all. If you want your game to last all the way from 1941 to 1945, it will follow a strict narrative: Axis forces will be on a rampage 1941, still pack a lot of punch in 1942, the Red Army takes the initiative around 1942/43 and then overruns the Axis in 1944/45. That means that for most of the time one of the players is taking a pounding. How do you make such a game entertaining for whomever is playing the losing side? – There are cheap answers to that. One of them says that it evens out, that the Axis player enjoying an offensive blast in the beginning must be willing to bear the Soviet onslaught in the end game and the other way round. Another says historical games are tools for understanding, that they don’t need to be fun. I think those answers miss the uniqueness of games. If it was only about the fun, as in the first answer, you could just play another game. If fun doesn’t matter to the historical learning, as in the second answer, you could just read a good book instead. EastFront’s way out of that conundrum is uncertainty: Thus it avoids the arithmetical grinding down of games of full information in which the attacking party is trying to scrap together another combat factor from somewhere so that they can attack with 6:1 instead of 5:1 odds. In EastFront, you don’t know what you’re getting into. Sure, there is an enemy block. But of which kind and strength? Is your opponent’s perceived weakness a bluff to lure you in and counter-attack you ever the stronger? Or are they desperately trying to appear at least moderately solid, but when you attack, their whole defense in that sector will come crashing down? And in setting these traps and bluffs, the defending player finds their purpose.
Mark Simonitch’s take on Operation Market-Garden.
I like to think of myself as original. Thus, I want to have a fresh idea to write about for each and every one of these games. What makes that particular game special? Its choice of mechanics or subject matter, some memorable stories of playing it, something about its sub-genre or era depicted? With Holland ’44, I tried to think of something. I couldn’t. I read reviews of it. Still, no inspiration struck me. And while that’s 95% my tired brain’s fault, I blame Holland ’44 for the rest. Its mechanics are pretty common – you know, hexes, counters, combat results tables. Its subject is pretty common as well – maybe not on a Bulge or D-Day level, but likely among the top 10 campaigns in World War II, which itself is the most popular era for historical wargaming. Even the publisher (GMT) and the designer (Mark Simonitch) are as standard as it gets. And the community’s reaction to it was, well, regular. A lot of people like it. Some don’t. As per usual, there is debate over how accurate a portrayal of the historical circumstances and outcomes the game offers. So, maybe that’s the special thing about Holland ’44: It is so extraordinarily common in all respects. That does not have to be a bad thing. But Holland ’44 does not call my name.
Card-driven strategic game on the American Civil War.
For the People was a bit of a revolution – not because of its mechanics (card-driven games were relatively new, but For the People is the rare Mark Herman CDG which does not introduce a novel twist), but because of its content. Heretofore, Civil War games dealt with the military developments of the war in the narrow sense. Much rulebook ink and many player brain cells were spent over the ability of individual commanders or the battleworthiness of this or that regiment, only very little about the political dimension of the conflict. For the People changed that. Suddenly, things like the Crittenden Compromise or the New York Draft Riots became important parts of wargaming the ACW – as did slavery and emancipation, represented on a plethora of card events. And thus, even though For the People had a much simpler ruleset than many of the Civil War monster games published in the decades before, it offered a more nuanced and complete look at the Civil War. Most ACW games published since then have followed For the People’s lead and included these aspects of the war. That’s quite an accomplishment!
Block war game on the struggle between Caesar and Pompey during the Roman Civil Wars.
Julius Caesar is one of the most captivating people from history to me. As a politician, general, and writer, he achieved lofty success. The odds were often against him – but Caesar knew when to gamble, and fortune favored him. At least until he was murdered. But that falls out of the scope of Julius Caesar, a typical Columbia Games block war game (the third one in this post!). Despite all my fascination with Caesar, I haven’t played it. Yet. In fact, I’ve been toying with the idea of buying this game for several years by now, but have somehow never pulled the trigger – there is only so much space for big two-player, ancients-themed games in my collection. Someday I’ll right that wrong.
Re-implementation of We the People – the very first card-driven game, set during the American War of Independence.
When I talked about For the People before, I mentioned that it was a mechanically not very innovative card-driven game. You know which card-driven game was innovative? – We the People, because Mark Herman invented the entire genre with it. Washington’s War is the slightly sleeker re-implementation of this groundbreaking design: Players have a hand of cards (either events or operations, this was before the era of the choose-between-event-and-ops cards) which they use to place political control markers and activate generals in their struggle to control the American colonies. I’m a big fan of card-driven games, but I haven’t played this one yet! Obviously, that’s something I’ll have to fix someday.
What are your thoughts on these games? Let me know in the comments!