Welcome back to the fifth part of the series on the top 60 games in BoardGameGeek’s war game list! It’s the second-highest rung of the ladder, and there are truly some excellent games in here. Maybe even better than the top 10? You know the drill from the first, second, third, and fourth 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 #20-11 of the list.
Zero-luck block war game on the battle of Austerlitz.
Ah, Austerlitz. Possibly Napoleon’s most important battle. (If you say it was Waterloo, I will block you.) Everything was on the line – Napoleon’s new empire (the battle was fought exactly a year after his imperial coronation) needed to prove itself before the old empires, and so, of course, did the emperor himself before the tsar of Russia and the Holy Roman Emperor. As we know, Napoleon passed the test splendidly. Would you? – Two things make the Napoleonic era so attractive for war gaming: One, its intriguing combined-arms warfare of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, and two, its striking visuals (a time when colorful uniforms increased unit cohesion instead of just hastening soldiers’ demise). Napoleon’s Triumph delivers on both. Despite its not-too-long rules, there is quite some tactical depth in its bombardments, attacks, and feints, and the wooden blocks, the metal corps markers, and the detailed map all have an eye-catching beauty.
Tactical, card driven, block war game set in antiquity.
Whatever I say about this, you probably shouldn’t listen to me, and rather to my blogger friend Michal from The Boardgames Chronicle. Michal has played this game (and many of the other Commands & Colors titles) hundreds of times and frequently writes about it. I, on the other hand, have never played any Commands & Colors game. I came close to trying Commands & Colors: Medieval (Richard Borg, GMT Games) at the 2019 SPIEL in Essen, but the table was taken and then my friend and I played Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea instead. A mistake, maybe! So, Commands & Colors remains on my gaming bucket list. And with my professed love for antiquity, this might be just the instalment with which to start.
Card-driven and hex-and-counter finally fully embrace each other in this strategic Pacific War game.
A bit more of a personal story here. Pandemic edition. I don’t know a whole lot about the Pacific War, and I’ve never played a game about it. Both should be amended, and I thought Empire of the Sun might be just the way to do it. So I did what I usually do before buying a game and started reading the rulebook. That’s where my foray ended, because I just couldn’t get through the dense language, got no idea how the game was supposed to work, and then just tired of it and left it be. Now I don’t blame the rulebook – GMT’s style of procecural rulebooks made for referencing has served me well in other games, and I know that the learning-the-game part is often better done by going through the example of play. Yet while I crave new gaming experiences after a year of limited social contact, I have lost the freshness of mind to actually engage with them. I hope things get better with summer – my mind fresher, the virus rarer, gaming more usual. And then I’ll give Empire of the Sun a try again.
Highly asymmetric counter-insurgency game set among woodland creatures which are equally cute and vicious.
The general consensus holds Root to be a very good game (how else would it be ranked so highly?), but besides that, opinions differ. Sure, everything that is not a simulation of a historical military conflict is scrutinized if it is a war game. But with Root, the question lies deeper: Can a game about a fully fictional conflict offer insights on real-life conflicts? After all, if you understand how the Woodland Alliance operates, that will not enhance any knowledge of yours on the real conflict in which they fought – because there is none, not even a fictional conflict on which the game is based, just this game. Maybe we need to take a step back from the specifics and see the arguments of the game in a broader form: The Woodland Alliance does not teach you how these specific irregular forces operated, nor how irregular forces generally operate, but how they could operate (given the circumstances presented in Root). See it as a refreshing experience for the mind to engage in a more freewheeling setting than history. And maybe the next time you look at the Vietcong, the FLN, or the Patriots of the American War of Independence, you’ll remember the Woodland Alliance and see the similarities – or the differences.
Card-driven multi-player struggle for power in Europe in the second half of the 16th century.
Virgin Queen is the sequel to one of my very favorite games (Here I Stand (Ed Beach, GMT Games)). I’ve had a great time every time I played it on the table or online (there is an amazing rules-enforcing implementation at wargameroom.com), and so did my fellow players. Would I try out Virgin Queen then if I happened to come across a table of it at a convention? – Of course I would. Will I buy it and try play it with my regular gaming friends? – No, at least not for now. The reason for that is simple: Virgin Queen and Here I Stand scratch the same itch – multi-player, card-driven, political-military-religious struggle in the 16th century. And there’s still a lot to explore in Here I Stand – I haven’t even played all factions yet! So, before I dive into a new experience (with the added burden of learning at least some new rules), expect me to play some more Here I Stand first.
Card-driven political war game on the Second Punic War.
Clausewitz is always in fashion. Heck, I’ve even given half a thought to offering “Clausewitz for Executives” weekend seminars to those whose MBA prepared them for a lot of things, but not for going through a thousand pages of text, especially if it is written in this pesky dialectical style. I’m sure doing the hard humanities work to pass on these strategic insights would be worth a fine reward. After all, not all that many people have understood even Clausewitz’s basic tenets. Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage does, however. Campaigns and battles are not a goal unto themselves, but only the military tools to force our opponent to comply with our will. Every military move needs to be undertaken with a political goal in mind. This integration of military means and political ends is achieved in a very elegant and comprehensive way.
Card-driven political war game with one scenario for the First and the Second Punic War each.
More on above’s themes, I guess – this time, both “I can’t wrap my head around rules” and “I feel like I haven’t got enough out of the base yet”. I own Hannibal & Hamilcar for almost three years now. I’ve played full Hannibal (Second Punic War) scenarios a few times, and the Iberia regional scenario from that war twice. Yet I’ve never broken out the Hamilcar (First Punic War) scenario. There have always been long breaks of several months (sometimes more) in between plays, and so I’ve wanted to brush up on my Hannibal rules and strategy knowledge first before I’d dive into the a bit more complex Hamilcar. Similarly, I’ve always put reading the Hamilcar rules off until I’d actually play it (it doesn’t help that the rulebook of my edition is a bit confusing). A vicious circle! But maybe this is the year in which I play Hamilcar?
COIN goes Vietnam.
The Vietnam War is the grand example of winning against all established metrics – until the United States withdrew their forces, the Vietcong did not hold much ground and suffered tremendous losses. Unsurprising, given the relative access of combatants and their allies to wealth, technology, and manpower. And yet, the US were forced to withdraw. Games about the Vietnam War have always had to account for that, and thus they have often been unconventional – from early examples like Vietnam 1965—1975 (Nick Karp, Victory Games) to more recent ones like Hearts and Minds: Vietnam 1965—1975 (John Poniske, Worthington Games). Fire in the Lake follows this path and looks at Vietnam fully through the prism of counter-insurgency and strained relationships between allies that are so typical for the COIN series. And, of course, the victory conditions follow Basil Liddell Hart’s dictum that the goal of war is to attain a better peace: US success is based on bolstering support for the South Vietnamese government while getting as many American soldiers out of Vietnam as possible.
The most famous war game of them all – tactical World War II combat.
ASL is a “lifestyle game”. It has enough breadth and depth to last you a lifetime, and ASL aficionados can probably talk about it for days without repeating themselves. Yet I have never played ASL, and still already written three entries in this series on it (for the starter kits #1, #2, and #3). Thus, I’m out of things to say about ASL. Instead, I’ll talk about other war games that could be lifestyle games for me: The war game I played most is Friedrich (Richard Sivél, Histogame). It only has one real scenario, so maybe I’d grow tired of it at some point, though. My favorite game is Here I Stand, which offers a lot of variety, but its demands in time and player count would make me hope it’d be the lifestyle game of five others as well if I wanted to get it played regularly. So, my best bet for a lifestyle game is Unconditional Surrender! (Salvatore Vasta, GMT Games) – lots of scenarios ranging from thirty minutes to over fifty hours of playtime, accommodates two or three players just as well as solo gaming.
Tactical, card driven, block war game set in Napoleonic times.
More Napoleonics – and more Commands & Colors! Now I said above that Commands & Colors: Ancients might be the game for me to start Commands & Colors. Commands & Colors: Napoleonics, on the other hand, is unlikely to gain this distinction. Now why is that? After all, my interest in the Napoleonic era had me write a two-part board game biography of Napoleon (to be found here and here). Yet one aspect of the Napoleonic Wars does not particularly attract me – the long-drawn-out campaign in Spain. Sadly, that is the focus of the Commands & Colors: Napoleonics base game. I suspect putting British forces in seemed like the best way to get a predominantly Anglophone war gaming audience’s attention. Which, frankly, is a shame – a base game with French and, say, Austrian forces would have offered a much broader portrayal of the Napoleonic Wars. But hey, that’s why I don’t work in board games marketing. I would not want to disappoint my audience’s expectations (like Commands & Colors: Medieval gave a lot of gamers grand dreams of the Crusades or the Hundred Years’ War or anything with English/French/German knights and then turned out to be about the much less popular conflict between the Byzantines and the Sasanids).
Which of these games have you played? Have you liked them? Which would you like to play? – Let me know in the comments!