We’ve made it! We’ve reached the very top. These are the games the Board Game Geek users deemed the best war games out there (at least they did so in August last year, when I took the snapshot of the top 60 that has been the basis for this series). You know the drill from the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth part – I give a few thoughts on each of the games, and then you add yours in the comments. Let’s go straight at it!
A game of maneuver and sang-froid on the War of the Austrian Succession.
I think I’ve treated Maria unfairly. It was a rare insta-buy from me – rarer still given the times (twelve years ago, when I had much less disposable income than now). The reason for that insta-buy was that Maria’s predecessor Friedrich (Richard Sivél, Histogame) (read about it in the first part of this series) was the most-played game in my group back then. Maria looks similar, but is a different beast – subtler, a bit more complicated, and much less forgiving. That never quite flew in our group, and we reverted to Friedrich. Soon after, I left for university, and regular gaming in that group stopped. Within the last years, though, I’ve rediscovered Maria. It has qualities that eluded me at first: Its two-player, one-theater scenario is a tight, focused struggles of operations – simple enough to teach, but a rich experience for the veteran gamer as well. I haven’t played the full three-player, two-theater version for many years now, but when the situation arises, I’ll grasp it more quickly than you can say “Hussars!”.
Card-driven tactical combat in the European theater of World War II.
Combat Commander is the prime example that simulationism and realism are two different things. Purists may wrinkle their nose at the game’s use of cards to issue commands – but the seemingly artificial constraints imposed by the random card draw constitute a powerful element of friction, one of war’s characterizing features. Guns jam. Commands are misheard. Soldiers panic. You do not draw the one card you totally needed. And thus, your perfect plan does not work. Now your true value as a commander is revealed – can you think on your feet, adapt, and overcome, using whatever cards the cruel gods of fate dealt you? There is something in your hand. You just need to use it right. And remember what Clausewitz said: “Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult.”
Intersecting political and religious struggle for the future of Europe at the outset of a new age.
Here I Stand is great fun to play. That’s true for a lot of different forms: Six players or three, on the table or online. Recently, I found a new way to play it: Six people are ambitious, but lazy monarchs. Six Twitter users lent their energy to these roles. For the implementation of their policies, they rely on their chancellors. That’s where I came in, acting as the chancellor to all six of them and reporting on their successes and misfortunes. We’ve been doing this for three months and just wrapped it up. It’s been a dramatic game in which almost everyone has been on top of the pack for some time. You can find the Twitter thread here:
Card-driven tactical combat in the Pacific theater of World War II.
Fellow blogger RockyMountainNavy has recently written about CC:P over at Armchair Dragoons. RMN outlined how a few subtle rule changes – most notably the “Japanese troops don’t surrender” rule make this game very different from Combat Commander: Europe. That is, I think, a game design grail: Changing a game in small ways (so that the players of the original game have a minimal rules learning effort) with big impacts (so that buying and learning a new game is worth it). I haven’t played either Combat Commander, but to me it sounds like Chad Jensen has been very successful in that regard. What are some other games which are similar enough for easy transition but different enough to truly scratch different itches?
Three-sided, sand-boxy block war game on Europe on the eve of World War II.
Three players seems like an awkward number for war gaming – reputed to either lead to two players teaming up to destroy the third or a perpetual balancing act in which neither can become too powerful. Thus, there is a dearth of war games optimized for three players. (For euros, three often happens to be the sweet spot between too little interaction at two and crowdedness/downtime at four and up.) Triumph & Tragedy makes it work, though. Instead of seeing the run-up to World War II as having strictly two sides or treating each country as a power of its own, it groups them into a fascist, capitalist, and communist camp. How and when these camps will ally or make war on each other is left to the players.
Three players is a common-enough group size (both during high school and college, I was one of the three “core” members of a larger gaming group, the latter of which transformed into a three-only gaming group after college). So, here’s my bold prediction: Three-player games (which are already picking up steam) will be the new mini-trend in war gaming. Hold me accountable in a few years.
Deception and questionable loyalties loom over the struggle for the unification of Japan in 1600 in this block war game.
I play historical games for two reasons: Either I’m into the history and would love to see it depicted in a game, or the game itself sounds mechanically interesting. In this case, it’s decidedly the latter – not that I’m not interested in early modern Japan, I just know next to nothing about it, and thus there’s nothing to attract me from my previous historical knowledge. Yet, as I hear Sekigahara is very good for a variety of reasons – clever bluffing, tense battles, reasonable resolution within two or three hours – I’d be totally up for playing it. And then the game would work its historical magic, teach me a thing or two about early modern Japan (probably way more), and would get me more interested in the region and period. I might even pick up a book on the subject afterward. That’s one of the things I like best about historical games – that they can spark an interest in a historical topic.
Detailed solo game on the first day of the landings on Omaha Beach, Normandy, 1944.
Solo gaming is a trend. That most of us are home for over a year now, bereft of our meetings with friends, family, and gaming groups, has accelerated it. GMT Games now has its own subdivision GMT One dedicated purely to solo games and solo rules for games originally designed for multiple players. Just as well, dedicated solo games have blossomed (I, for one, should know, given how many games of Pavlov’s House (David Thompson, Dan Verssen Games) I have played recently). D-Day at Omaha Beach was a bit ahead of this trend (published in 2009). It proved that solo gaming a complex war game (instead of just “playing-both-sides”) was possible, and that it could be an interesting experience. Its success paved the way for solo war gaming since then.
Card-driven, strategic World War I game.
Paths of Glory was published in 1999, just before Board Game Geek was launched in 2000. Back in those olden days, things on BGG were a bit different. While I am too young to remember, I am a historian, so I ought to know anyway: Far from being the domain of eurogamers as nowadays, there was a relatively high number of active war gamers there, and active they were. Many of the first games added to the database (so, those with the lowest numbers) were war games (Paths of Glory itself is #91, by now we are beyond #300000), and from August 2001 to February 2002, it even sat atop the general rankings. Yes, a complex-ish war game with cardboard counters and a combat results table, a game that takes eight hours to play was deemed the best game by the users of Board Game Geek. It was a wildly different world back then. Would the fans of Gloomhaven, Pandemic: Legacy, or Brass: Birmingham, to name only the current three top-ranked games overall, enjoy this game? Most of them probably wouldn’t. But I’m sure I would.
Epic struggle between the Free Peoples and the Shadow for the future of Middle-Earth, based on Tolkien’s novel.
War of the Ring is a gateway game. There, I said it. Yes, I know as well as you that it takes three hours (often longer) and has a 48-page rulebook. You know what else it has? – A gorgeous, immensely large mapboard, hundreds of finely sculpted miniatures, and art by John Howe, a celebrity in Tolkienist circles. All of this visual appeal is dedicated to an epic game on a well-loved intellectual property. Thus: When non-gaming Lord of the Rings fans (and there are legions of them) see this game, they want to play it. The obstacle of rules complexity can be overcome (provided that at least one person at the table knows the rules): The game is surprisingly straightforward, and learning-by-doing (with the teaching player outlining what is possible in every step) works pretty well. It helps that the game does an excellent job transferring its intellectual property into a game – the players’ ways, means, and ends are intuitive to anyone who has read the Lord of the Rings books or watched the movies. (I, for one, have successfully taught the game to someone who’d last played a board game as a child, about fifteen years before picking up this one.) The last problem remaining is the time requirement – but compared to the nine hours the movie trilogy takes (thirteen in special extended edition), or to the dozens of hours for reading the books (my audiobook version takes almost 50), this game is the most accessible rendering of the Lord of the Rings.
Card-driven Cold War. When playing an opponent-associated card, the event triggers!
I’ve written about Twilight Struggle elsewhere, and that love letter still stands. Thus, I will not lose many words here over the game as such – and instead, rather befittingly for the last game in this series, I’ll talk about the Board Game Geek ratings. Twilight Struggle is not only the top-ranked war game on Board Game Geek, it also was the top-ranked game overall on the site for an imposing five years (until December 2015). That alone is remarkable, but let me remind how extraordinary it truly was:
BGG was by then already firmly a eurogame-dominated site with only a handful of war games making it to the top 100 at all (currently, there are three, of which only Twilight Struggle is history-based (the other two are War of the Ring and Root).
Dedicated two-player games have a limited player base (most gamers meet in groups), and thus they also don’t do very well (currently, there are only four of them in the top 100: Twilight Struggle, 7 Wonders: Duel, Android: Netrunner, and Patchwork). For comparison: There are also four games from the Pandemic franchise alone in the top 100 (Pandemic, Pandemic: Iberia, Pandemic Legacy: Season 1, and Pandemic Legacy: Season 2).
On top of that, BGG uses a Bayesian average for their rating which rewards not only the quality, but also the quantity of individual user ratings – not good for a war game with a much smaller print run than other games: A bit over ten years into its existence, Twilight Struggle had sold around 100,000 copies. That’s less than Gloomhaven had within its first year. A smaller, more accessible game like 7 Wonders: Duel has sold over a million copies within ten years of being released.
Lastly, here’s maybe the most astonishing thing: Twilight Struggle did not have a big hype behind it. It took five years after its release to climb the greasy pole – turning from an obscure war game to an insider tip to “the best board game on the planet”. The two games that followed it at the #1 spot were very much games whose popularity made sense: Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 combined two of the hottest board gaming trends (co-op gaming and the newest hotness at the time, legacy gaming). Gloomhaven is the Kickstarter game par excellence: Lavish production value and the maximum amount of content one can fit into a (admittedly large) box. Either game reached the #1 spot within half a year of its release, surfing the wave of its hype.
So, despite all of that, how did Twilight Struggle reach that elusive spot and keep it so long? The answer is simple: It’s a very good game.
These were the top 60 war games on Board Game Geek! Which one is your favorite? Which one do you think is overrated? Which one deserves more love? Let me know in the comments!