Welcome back to the fourth part of the series on the top 60 games in BoardGameGeek’s war game list! We enter the upper half of the top 60 games, and there are some excellent games in today’s package. You know the drill from the first, second, and third part – I give a few thoughts on each of the games, and then you add yours in the comments. Without further ado, here are games #30-21 of the list.
Democrats and Communists fight over power in central and eastern Europe at the collapse of the Eastern Bloc.
1989 is a curious game. It features on a list of war games, and yet is set in peacetime (shots might or might not be fired at peaceful protesters, though). It borrows liberally from the rules of a previous design (Jason Matthews’s Twilight Struggle), but gives its gameplay a distinctive feel. Much of that comes from the zoomed-in perspective – a card event might reference the Bulgarian environmentalist movement, your struggle over Hungary might get decided by control over a single hard-to-pronounce working-class city of whose existence you’ve only been vaguely aware before (if so much). 1989 puts together a fine mosaic of all these small things which together formed a big thing – the collapse of communist rule in central and eastern Europe. I’ve written much about it in the early years of my blog. If you are interested, check out the posts here:
Why did Communism fall in Eastern Europe – was it the peoples of Eastern Europe, Western governments, or the leadership of the East that made it happen? What were the space and the time of the revolutions? How did dissent and repression play out? How Clausewitzian is this war game (it’s on this list of war games, right?) in which no war is waged? – Finally, I also wrote a post about 1989 as a game about the Cold War.
COIN’s first foray into a contemporary conflict – Afghanistan.
Most of the games on this list are set in history. A Distant Plain is, too, but its history is so recent that it is my lived memory. Not that I’ve ever been to Afghanistan in any capacity, but the war in Afghanistan (ongoing for almost 20 years now) has made headlines countless times when I grew up, and it has played a large part in shaping my views on military intervention (together with the Kosovo and the Iraq Wars). Beyond political socialization, Afghanistan is also personal for me. I’ve come of age when there was still conscription in my native Germany, and while I objected to armed military service, I’ve served in a civilian capacity. I will still be eligible for being called up in case of war or national emergency until I turn 60. At the beginning of my service, the minister of defense resigned over the bombing of two fuel tankers in which over a hundred Afghans died. At the end of my service, a firefight with insurgents marked the bloodiest day for the German armed services since World War II. The soldiers who died that day were not much older than me.
One of the starter kits for the maybe most famous of all grognard games – the one with artillery.
The evolution of this game reflects that of the war gaming hobby as a whole: From simpler beginnings in the 1960s and 70s, the games became ever more sprawling and convoluted, ever less accessible for new players. After the crash of tabletop war gaming, publishers in the 90s and 2000s realized that there needed to be a new approach to reinvigorate the player base with new converts.
In Advanced Squad Leader terms, the simpler times were the original Squad Leader from 1977, being upgraded to the awe-inspiring monster that ASL with all its numerous large and small expansions was. And then, twenty years after ASL was released, it got a do-over in the form of these three starter kits. The idea of the kits is simple: Keep the attraction of the most famous grognard game – but make it digestible. Instead of the three-ring binder for you to file the dozens (hundreds) pages of rules, this starter kit comes with a rulebook (20 pages). Instead of the base “game” just being this binder of rules, the starter kit also contains the counters, maps, dice, and everything else you need to get going.
One of the starter kits for the maybe most famous of all grognard games – the one with vehicles.
Another ASL starter kit! I guess it befits the fame of the game to be represented more than once. I understand why kit #1 is the most popular one – it seems natural for most people to just start with the lowest-numbered kit. But why do they then prefer #3 over #2? – I think it’s because of the tanks. Artillery is all fine and dandy, but it’s so impersonal. The gun might be standing several kilometers away from you when you call for its support. The tank, on the other hand, has to get up close, with all the opportunities and risks that provides. And then the tank is – to many people, even when they have nothing to do with wargaming – an intriguing piece of technology. Two classmates of mine in high school had tank models and could not stop chattering about them in class, so the teacher assigned them seats far away from another. The result? – They yelled the merits of their respective model (“The most powerful MBT in the world! Yours wouldn’t stand a chance!” – “My superior gun range would destroy it before it even closed in!”) all over the classroom.
Another Bulge game on this list. But let’s not talk about that. Let’s talk about maps. “Why maps?”, you ask. Three reasons:
First, maps are an integral part of immersion. If you sit at a table, looking at a map and deciding where to send your troops, that feels very close to what an actual commander might have done. (Conversely, sitting at a table furiously clicking on enemy sprites does not feel very close to what an actual infantryman might have done.)
Second, maps are very educational. And by that I don’t only mean that seasoned war gamers usually have a lot of knowledge where small places in remote countries are, say, Bastogne. Playing a game on a map also makes you realize things. It might elude you reading about the Battle of the Bulge why Bastogne was so important, but play a game on a map like this one, and you’ll see that literally all the roads in this area run through Bastogne. Whichever men, tanks, supplies you want to transport to one place or another, they go through Bastogne or not at all.
Third, this map (like any done by Knut Grünitz) is gorgeous. ‘Nuff said.
One of the starter kits for the maybe most famous of all grognard games – the one with infantry support weapons.
And thus for another ASL kit! Let’s talk about ASL in itself. It’s not the game in which I am most interested, but I’m still grateful for its contributions to war gaming. In detail:
ASL has explored the deep end of war gaming. How detailed can one go and still be reasonably playable (for people who know the system well)? This is no experiment like the infamous Campaign for North Africa, but a game that many people have brought to its conclusion.
Still, ASL has proved adaptable. The reboot with its starter kits makes it much more accessible and thus ready for players who haven’t been playing it since the original Squad Leader.
I’m thankful for those latter players as well. ASL has a very devoted following, and thus war gaming has always had a loyal core that remained when many of the more casual players broke away in the late 80s and early 90s.
Last, but maybe most importantly, ASL has given us the valuable Vassal tool (originally VASL as Virtual Advanced Squad Leader). If you’ve ever played something on Vassal, thank ASL for it. If you haven’t, start now.
24: Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear! – Operation Barbarossa 1941 (Uwe Eickert, Academy Games)
Tactical combat on World War II’s Eastern Front at the lower end of the complexity scale.
Let’s look at some World War II systems – and who they are for:
Advanced Squad Leader: The Purist, who wants a game in which the most obscure combat situations can be rendered in a convincing fashion.
Combat Commander: The Strategist, whose planning aptitude is only matched by their equanimity over the cruel fate the cards have dealt them again.
Conflict of Heroes: The Balancer, who wants a little bit of everything – simulation, playability, production value.
Memoir ’44: The Aesthete, who loves to push little miniatures over the board.
Undaunted: The Eurogamer, who plays this twenty times and suddenly realizes they’re a war gamer now.
Intersecting political and religious struggle for the future of Europe at the outset of a new age.
My favorite part of the hobby is playing board games. That sounds trivial, but it isn’t. I don’t care much for many things that other board gamers regard an integral part of their enjoyment – I don’t really feel a thrill when purchasing a new game, I’m not a collector who likes just owning games, and to me, unboxing a new game and learning its rules are necessities for playing it, not enjoyment by themselves. Thus, I only buy new games when I have a clear plan for how I am going to get them to the table. Yet once, I made an exception. After over two years, my M.A. thesis (on the Cold War in board games) came to a close, and I felt like I deserved a treat – the biggest, baddest board game I could think of, no matter if it got played or not. I decided for Here I Stand (the 500th anniversary edition had just been released), and while I was writing blog posts about Martin Luther and the Reformation, my appetite had been whetted.
Joke’s on me, though – since then, Here I Stand has gotten a lot of table time (recently, in the metaphorical way playing it online). It might take a day, and the rules might be complex, and it works best with six players, and yet whenever I tried to schedule another game, I found five friends who were eager to play it. It’s just that good.
Strategic treatment of the European theater of World War II.
Have I played Unconditional Surrender! a lot? Nah. Only twice. Two “Main Event” campaigns, that is, each taking easily over 50 hours. And how different they were!
First one: Germany attacks Poland in 1939, takes France, the Low Countries, and Denmark/Norway in 1940. Italians and Turks join the Axis and threaten the British Middle East from two sides. Germany finally conducts Sea Lion in 1941 while simultaneously invading the Soviet Union. The Brits collapse in late 1941 and have to take their country back in 1942 while Germany puts the USSR at the brink of collapse. The Brits land in Greece in 1943 and advance through the Balkans while UK and US troops are taking back the Middle East. They advance to Italy in 1944 as the Eastern Front entirely collapses and the Soviets make their way to Königsberg and Vienna. Yet, with Overlord only occurring in 1945, there is not enough pressure to defeat Germany in time. Axis victory.
Second one: Germany goes for France in September 1939. Italy joins the Allies in early 1940 and invades Germany. Germany barely so defeats France in fall 1940 and then conquers Italy in spring 1941. While Germany is busy in the Soviet Union from summer 1941 on, the Brits sneak back into Italy, sucker-punch the Wehrmacht and stand at the borders of Germany by early 1942. Germany embarks on an ill-advised invasion of Norway and is kicked out by UK forces while the Americans land in Hamburg, the Brits break through the Alps, and the Soviets pulverize the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front and march all the way to Dresden. The Germans can deal with the first two threats, but have to concede an Allied landing in Antwerp. By summer 1943, Germany is occupied. Allied victory.
Unconditional Surrender! will end similarly every time – Germany occupied or being close to it (the latter being an Axis victory). Yet within that framework, wildly different processes can unfurl. Gives you food for thought about the certainties and contingencies of history. It’s also a lot of fun.
Tactical World War II game aiming to be fast and playable.
I could talk about tactical combat in World War II here, but as I’ve written three entries on ASL and one on Conflict of Heroes in this post already, I’ll skip on that. Instead, let’s talk about the cover and the story behind it – how this cover got made between the artist (Rodger MacGowan) and the publisher (Avalon Hill). The cover is striking – that is one set of piercing blue eyes of the SS man in the center! – but it was not MacGowan’s first choice. Instead, he had originally proposed a design featuring American instead of German soldiers. Avalon Hill, however, asked him for a re-design with Germans on the cover as they assumed Germans would sell better. So MacGowan made another cover – the one pictured above – based on a German propaganda painting. Avalon Hill was content with it (though later when they faced criticism for the prominent display of a SS man, they assigned responsibility for the cover to the artist). MacGowan’s original cover design is not lost, though: Two decades later, he came back to its core element – a US sergeant looking equal parts vigilant and weary – and put it on the cover of Combat Commander: Europe. We’ll get to that game in a future post.
Which of these games have you played? Which would you like to play? Let me know in the comments!