RockyMountainNavy’s influential #wargame from the 2010’s (h/t to @playersaidblog for the idea)

Grant over on The Players Aid blog laid out his 15 Influential Wargames from the Decade 2010-2019. In the posting Grant asked for others to give their list. Although I have been a wargaming grognard since 1979 in the early 2010’s I was focused more on role playing games. That is, until 2016 when I turned back into hobby gaming and wargaming in particular. So yes, my list is a bit unbalanced and definitely favors the later-half of the decade. Here is my list of ‘influential’ games arranged by date of publication along with an explanation of why the title influences me.

Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear (second edition) – Academy Games, 2012

pic1236709_mdFor the longest time I considered myself near-exclusively a naval wargamer. I’m not sure why, but in early 2017 I picked up a copy of Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear (Second Edition). I think at the time I was looking for a good tactical WWII game to play with the RockyMountainNavy Boys. I am glad I did, as along the way I also discovered the excellent Firefight Generator and Solo Expansion, and eventually other titles to include the latest Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel, Kursk 1943 (2019) where I have a small credit in the rulebook. This game, like no other, awakened me to the ‘new look’ of wargames and the positive influence the Eurogame segment of the hobby market can have on wargaming.

1775 Rebellion – The American Revolution – Academy Games, 2013

1775-header-v3In 2017 I attended the CONNECTIONS Wargaming Conference. There I met a fine gentleman, Uwe Eickert, of Academy Games. As we talked about his Conflict of Heroes series (I even helped him demo a few games) I mentioned my boys and our search for good family wargames. Uwe strongly recommended his Birth of America series, especially 1775 Rebellion. So I ordered it and the RMN Boys and myself sat down to play this lite-wargame – and we haven’t looked back since. We now own all the Birth of America and Birth of Europe series. 878 Vikings is one game the oldest (least gamer) RMN Boy will play with us. Most influential because it shows that there are much, much better ‘family-wargames’ than Risk. As an added bonus, I am working with one of my youngest boy’s high school teachers to bring this game into his classroom.

Next War: Poland  – GMT Games, 2015

569After attending CONNECTIONS 2017, I tried to become a bit of a wargaming advocate at my job. So I looked at more ‘serious’ wargames. One of the hot topics of the day is the Baltics and Russia. I looked for wargames that could build understanding of the issues, especially if it comes to open conflict. Sitting on my shelf from long ago was were several GMT Games ‘Crisis’ series titles, Crisis: Korea 1995 and Crisis: Sinai 1973. I had heard about updated versions but had been reluctant to seek them out. Now I went searching and found a wargame that is a master-level study into the military situation. This game influenced me because it shows that a commercial wargame can be used for ‘serious’ purposes.

Wing Leader: Victories, 1940 – 1942 – GMT Games, 2015

pic2569281Before 2017, an aerial combat wargame to me was a super-tactical study of aircraft, weapons, and maneuver. The most extreme version was Birds of Prey (Ad Astra, 2008) with it’s infamous ‘nomograph.’ I had all-but-given-up on air combat games until I discovered the Wing Leader series. But was this really air combat? I mean, the map is like a side-scroll video game? The first time I played the level of abstraction in combat resolution was jarring. But as I kept playing I discovered that Wing Leader, perhaps better than any other air combat game, really captures ‘why’ the war in the air takes place. Units have missions they must accomplish, and those missions are actually the focus of this game, not the minutia of flap settings or Pk of a missile hit. Influential because it shows me that model abstraction is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when done right like it is here.

Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection – GMT Games, 2016

582As I returned to wargaming in 2016-2017, I kept hearing about this thing called the COIN-series. I looked at a few titles but was not quite ready to go ‘full-waro’* so I backed off. At the same time, having moved to the East Coast, I was much more interested in the American Revolution. By late 2017 I was becoming more ‘waro-friendly’ so when I had a chance to purchase Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection I took it. I’m really glad I did. LoD is influential because it taught me that a wargame can be political and a real tool of learning. I understand that LoD is the designer’s ‘view’ of the American Revolution but I enjoy experimenting within that vision and seeing what I can learn.

Command & Colors Tricorne: The American Revolution – Compass Games, 2017

cctri_ar_lgPrior to my wargaming renaissance, I acquired Memoir ’44 for the RockyMountainNavy Boys. We also had Battlelore and in an effort to entice the oldest RMN Boy (an ancient history lover) into gaming had given him Commands & Colors: Ancients. That is to say, Commands & Colors was not new to the RMN House. As part of my American Revolution kick I picked up Commands & Colors Tricorne thinking I would try to get the RMN Boys to play this version. Instead, I fell in love with the game. Influential because it showed me that with just a few simple rules tweaks a highly thematic, yet ‘authentic’, gaming experience is possible even with a simple game engine.

South China Sea – Compass Games, 2017

scs-cover-for-web_1Remember I said I was a naval wargamer? Notice the lack of naval wargames on this list? That’s because I found few that could match my experiences with the Victory Games Fleet-series of the 1980’s. That is, until I played South China Sea. All the more interesting because it started out as a ‘professional’ wargame designed for a DoD customer. Not a perfect game, but influential because it shows me it is possible to look at modern warfare at sea by focusing less on the hardware and more on the processes of naval warfare as well as being an example of a professional-gone-commercial wargame.

Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777 – Hollandspiele, 2017

slar_wb_largeAt CONNECTIONS 2017, Uwe Eickert sat on a panel and recommended to all the DoD persons in the room that if they want logistics in a wargame they need to look at Hollandspiele’s Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777 game. I found the game online and ordered it (from a very strange little company using a Print-on-Demand publishing model..WTF?). When it arrived and I put it on the table and played I was blown away. First, it has ‘cubes,’ not armies or dudes. Second, it really teaches why certain locations were crucial for the American Revolution. Third, it’s challenging and just darn fun to play. Influential because this was the first game I recognized as a ‘waro’, and the first of many quirky Hollandspiele titles that I enjoy.

Pavlov’s House – DVG, 2018

pic5126590Solo wargames are very procedural, right? So procedural they are nothing more than a puzzle to be solved, right. Not Pavlov’s House. I was blown away by the strategy and story that comes thru every play of this game. This is a solo game that makes you want to play because it’s the strategy that counts, not the procedure. Influential because I showed me what a solo game can be as well as how a game that screams ‘Euro’ is actually a wargame.

Blue Water Navy – Compass Games, 2019

TYt4vmWiRnWl0MUjqKCZUwAs the decade came to a close, I had all-but-given up on naval wargaming. When I first saw Blue Water Navy I had thoughts of one of my favorite strategic WW3 at Sea games, Seapower & the State (Simulations Canada, 1982). The play length of BWN, 1-16 hours, kinda put me off at first as I prefer shorter games. As I read more I became more intrigued so I finally purchased it. Now it sits on this list as an influential game because it shows me how abstraction and non-traditional wargame mechanics (cards?) can be used to craft a game that literally plays out like a Tom Clancy or Larry Bond novel. 

Brave Little Belgium – Hollandspiele, 2019

5SEI37l%T5yLJJc7vRLX2wI have been a grognard since 1979. Why do I need a simple wargame that doesn’t even use hexes? I mean, this game uses a chit-pull mechanic (good for solo play) and point-to-point movement. In a game this simple there can’t be much depth, right? Hey, where is the CRT? Speak about a small war…. Influential because this game shows that simplicity can be a very high art. Brave Little Belgium is my go-to quick intro wargame for hobby boardgamers. 

Hold the Line: The American Civil War – Worthington Publishing, 2019

6HSa418vRrKP6Dyy%qokEgThis one is very personal. My Middle Boy is on the autism spectrum and when his younger brother started an evening program once a week the Middle one was a bit lost without his companion. So I looked around for a wargame we could play in a sort of ‘filler-wargame’ mode – short and simple on a weeknight. And play we did; ten times in 2019. He beat me seven times. Influential because this game – sometimes derided as a simplified ‘Command & Colors wannabe’ – connected me closer to my Middle Boy than any game before.

Less Than 60 Miles – Thin Red Line Games, 2019

Gi47YGXvSuiIL8pOfxkb3gThe folks from the US Army Command & General Staff College at CONNECTIONS 2019 had a copy of Less Than 60 Miles on their table and were singing praises of the game. I was fortunate enough to be able to trade for the game later on BGG. What I discovered was a wargame built around John Boyd’s OODA Loop. At the same time I was reading A New Conception of War: John Boyd, the U.S. Marines, and Maneuver Warfare. Putting the two of them together was like lightening in a bottle. This is a heavy, serious game that is also playable and enjoyable. Influential for no other reason than it shows me that OODA applies far beyond the cockpit; indeed, I need to look at OODA for many more games.

Nights of Fire: Battle of Budapest – Might Boards Games, 2019Nights of Fire: Battle of Budapest – Might Boards Games, 2019

nof_packshotBrian Train is a designer that often looks at lesser or different wars and always brings forth an interesting perspective in his games. He calls this game, ‘a militarized Eurogame.’ He’s right; this title is the full embodiment of a waro game. I often argue with myself if this is even a wargame; after all, you can play solo, head-to-head, teams, or cooperative. Hobby boardgame or wargame? Influential for that very reason as it represents to me the full arrival of the ‘waro’ to the hobby gaming market.

Tank Duel – GMT Games, 2019

zGtfgQKQQ+SJpwWwL2RlAwLike Nights of Fire, this can’t really be a wargame. It has no board, no dice, and no CRT. Instead it has ‘tableaus’ for tanks and (lots of) cards! You can also play up to eight players. There is no player elimination – tanks respawn! What on earth is this? Influential because it challenges all my traditional views of a wargame only to deliver some of the best wargaming experiences I have ever had at the gaming table.

There are many more games from 2010-2019 that influenced me. Games with the chit-pull mechanic are now my favorite to solo with, but I didn’t put one on the list. Maybe I should of….

Hmm…I see it’s also hard to pin down one particular publisher that particularly influences me. In this list of 15 games we have:

  • 4x GMT Games
  • 3x Compass Games
  • 2x Academy Games
  • 2x Hollandspiele
  • 1x DVG
  • 1x Mighty Boards Games
  • 1x Thin Red Line Games
  • 1x Worthington Publishing

Not a bad spread!


*’Waro’ – A combination of ‘wargame’ and ‘Eurogame. To me it is a wargame that incorporates Eurogame like look/components or mechanics vice a traditional hex & counter wargame.

Entering the matrix doesn’t mean exiting from #wargames

Over on Rex Brynen’s excellent PAXSIMS website, he posted a link to BEAR RISING, a Matrix game looking at the Baltic in the post-INF Treaty era. As a wargaming professional, I appreciate that Matrix games can be used to explore policy issues and generate greater insight into the issue. Matrix games are a part of wargaming, but apparently some out there want to distance themselves from that connection. Taking a look at BEAR RISING you find this:

What are matrix games? Matrix games are different to normal Wargames. In most of those games you will probably compare lists of statistics and peer at complicated books of rules containing someone else’s idea about what things are important, before making a decision, checking that it is covered by the rules and rolling dice to see if you succeed. It can take a long time, look really complicated and can be very difficult to explain to a newcomer. Instead, in a matrix game you simply use words to describe why something should happen, the Facilitator or the players (or both) decide how likely it is, and you might roll a dice to see if it happens (but equally, in the face of a compelling argument, you might not need to). If you can say “This happens, for the following reasons…” you can play a Matrix Game. The games themselves are not intended to be fiercely competitive, with obvious winner and losers. Instead they operate with the players working to generate a credible narrative. It is from examination of this narrative after the game that the player gain insights to the situation being portrayed. The player roles have objectives that will place them in conflict with other players, but it is perfectly possible for all of the players to achieve at last some of their objectives by the end of the game.

Let’s take a few of these sentences apart:

  • “In most of those games you will probably compare lists of statistics and peer at complicated books of rules containing someone else’s ideas about what things are important before making a decision, checking that it is covered by the rules and rolling dice to see if you succeed.” I guess you have only played wargames like Advanced Squad Leader, right? You totally have missed out on many “light” wargames like Brave Little Belgium or uncountable others? I hope you are consistent in your views and have the same disdain for heavy Eurogames out there and especially for anything designed by Phil Eklund, right?
  • “It can take a really long time, be really complicated and can be very difficult to explain to a newcomer.” I challenge you to try any of the Academy Games Birth of America-series or Commands & Colors (Compass Games or GMT Games) or a Hold the Line game (Worthington Publishing). If those games are too complicated for you and difficult to teach a newcomer then you have no place talking to anybody about a Matrix game.
  • “Instead, in a matrix game you simply use words to describe why something should happen, the Facilitator or the players (or both) decide how likely it is, and you might roll a dice to see if it happens (but equally, in the face of a compelling argument, you might not need to).” But you just disparaged rolling dice above….
  • “The games themselves are not intended to be fiercely competitive, with obvious winner and losers.” Ah…another bias. Wargames “must” be “fiercely competitive.” Let’s not talk anything about the learning that can come from exploring the situation; it’s war and war is automatically evil! To that I say si vis pacem, para bellum.*
  • “Instead they operate with the players working to generate a credible narrative. It is from examination of this narrative after the game that the player gain insights to the situation being portrayed.” I would argue that some of the best wargames, like the new Tank Duel (GMT Games, 2019) or Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid (GMT Games, 2018) generate a “credible” narrative during the game and don’t need a scribe to explain it to the players afterwards.
  • “The player roles have objectives that will place them in conflict with other players, but it is perfectly possible for all of the players to achieve at last some of their objectives by the end of the game.” Is this not the hallmark of a good game design? A good design will see all players work towards their objective, with the end result being a measure of how well they achieved those objectives. The objectives themselves do not have to the same (for example, who controls the most territory) but can be different like in Nights of Fire: Battle of Budapest (Mighty Boards, 2019) where the Revolutionaries try to save civilians while the Soviets try to control the city. Or maybe the designers of BEAR RISING are not familiar with a GMT Games COIN game like Colonial Twilight (see Grant from The Players Aid comments about terror) or the asymmetric Root from Leder Games?

I will repeat what I said before; Matrix games are useful to explore policy issues and generate insight. But they are one tool in the vast kit available to designers. To maximize that insight, I prefer designers and players to have open minds and to avoid/remove as much bias as possible. In the case of the BEAR RISING designers, they show me that they have deep biases that make me doubt the assumptions their game is built on.


* “If you want peace, prepare for war.” In my case I strongly advocate studying warfare to understand – and avoid – military disasters of the past.

Feature image courtesy BEAR RISING.

#Wargame Wednesday: First Play at First Bull Run in The American Civil War: A Hold the Line Game (@worth2004, 2018) #firstimpressions #boardgame

THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR: A HOLD THE LINE GAME (Worthington Publishing, 2018) or alternatively Hold the Line: The American Civil War is my first Hold the Line series game. I have missed out on nearly 15 years of this series that started with Clash for a Continent: Battles of the American Revolution and French & Indian War (2005) then to Hold the Line (2008) and Hold the Line: The American Revolution (2016). I have to admit I was a bit confused when I first saw this game as it looks very similar to a Richard Borg Commands & Colors series game. Well, Hold the Line is similar in many ways to Commands & Colors but C&C it ain’t. Much has been written on BoardGameGeek comparing the two systems and I am not about to step into the middle of that (unwinnable) fight. Suffice it to say The American Civil War is an excellent introductory wargame that sticks to proven classic wargame mechanics to deliver a historical-enough and very enjoyable play experience with little rules overhead.

Components

TLDR version – beautiful. The blocks and stickers in The American Civil War are all nearly flawless in shape and paint coverage. The stickers are strong but easy to apply. If I have a complaint it is that the colors are a bit muted; play this game under good lighting to see unit differences. The board actually lays flat when unfolded. At first I thought the dice may be too big but I found that, although a bit larger than I usually play with, they are light enough to roll directly on the board and not feel like they are destroying it.

Stickering units – it’s good therapy

The Rules

Dirt simple. The eight-page Rule Book does a good job of communicating the game mechanics in a direct yet easy-to-read manner. At least it did for this old Grognard. I can see inexperienced players picking this game up as their first wargame finding some ambiguity in the rules.

One of those ambiguous areas is the Flag Unit. One unit in each formation is the Flag Unit which tells you the morale level of that formation. The rules are silent as to which direction the Flag Unit should face. I automatically assumed it was towards the owner but the rules are silent. It makes sense to me; I can see the morale level of MY unit but my opponent will only be able to tell if they engage in Close Combat and force a morale roll.

Each Game Turn in The American Civil War is very simple. The first player rolls a d6 to determine how many extra Action Points they have for the turn. The die roll is added to the scenario AP staring total. Yes, that can create some very swingy situations where one gets six extra AP one turn and only 1 AP the next. Call it the fortunes of war! Each AP can be used to Move or Fire with Close Combat costing 2 AP. Every unit gets one action in a turn (so no moving AND firing).

As much as I wanted to avoid comparing Hold the Line with Commands & Colors the comparison is inevitable. First is the AP. Where C&C uses Command Cards to move or fight, in The American Civil War it’s the classic wargame AP that enables the commander. This makes the game more solo-friendly; no Command Cards to worry about just execute your AP. Hold the Line is also more abstract than Commands & Colors. In The American Civil War you only have three morale gradations of each unit type – Green, Black, and Gold (or inexperienced, veteran-standard, and elite).

Combat itself is simple dice-chucking. Roll your dice and see if you get a hit. The closer to a target unit the better. Dead simple. Retreat can only happen in Close Combat (adjacent hexes). When combined with the abstractions of only four types of units (Infantry, Artillery, Cavalry, and Leaders) and three morale levels there is little to define the differences in units. Maybe it’s enough for an introductory wargame.

First Game – First Bull Run

First Bull Run as seen by Confederate player at set up. Bull Run ford to the right, the Stone House and Henry Hill in the middle.

In this scenario, the first player to 6 VP wins. If no player has won by the end of Turn 18 then the Confederates win. In my game the Confederates got their sixth VP at the end of Turn 7; one turn before their reinforcements arrived. Apparently the dice were rolling hot for the Confederates as they destroyed three of four Union units at the ford (along with a Leader) for 4 VP. Not helping was an infantry unit on Buck Hill (north of the Stone House) that eliminated a Union artillery battery and infantry formation. Indeed, the Confederates never lost this hill.

End game – Confederates destroy Union units (and leader) crossing the ford and hold the line at Buck Hill

Final Thoughts

The American Civil War will not replace a Commands & Colors game in my collection. They are two similar, yet importantly different, games. I see myself playing The American Civil War for a quick, fun battle or to introduce a new player to the world of wargames. I might also hand this one off to the RockyMountainNavy Boys who can use this game as during the summer as an afternoon filler.

Ancient Lore – or – Why 2007 was a very good #wargame & #boardgame year

THE GOLDEN GEEK AWARDS FROM 2007 are very interesting to me, although it has taken 12 years for me to figure out why. Recall that I challenged myself this year to play all the Golden Geek Award winners in my collection. To date I have concentrated on the Charles S Roberts (CSR) winners in my collection and am a bit behind on the the Golden Geek. This weekend I pledged to make up for it. In the process I pleasantly discovered a very interesting crossover between the wargame and hobby boardgame communities.

In 2007 there was a tie in the category Best 2-Player Game. The co-honorees were Commands & Colors: Ancients (GMT Games, 2006) and Battlelore (Days of Wonder, 2006). Battlelore also won Best Artwork/Presentation (more on that in a bit).

At first glance these winners appear to be very different. After all, one is a wargame (gasp!) and the other a strategy boardgame (although not a Euro, tsk tsk). At first I was going to play both and write up two blogs about my experiences with each.

Box backs – even the form factor shows wargame vs boardgame

But then I remembered that Commands & Colors: Ancients (hereafter CCA) and Battlelore (BL) are essentially the same game!

Externally, both CCA and BL they certainly look very different. CCA is a hex-n-block wargame with cards. The presentation is, if anything, a bit bland. Really now; who puts stickers on dice! BL, on the other hand, is colorful with a richly illustrated rulebook and plastic minis (and custom inked dice…although the early sets rubbed off). It’s really no wonder BL won the award for Best Artwork/Presentation.

Under the hood, though, the two games are very closely related; more so than even kissing-cousins. To begin with they both use the same Commands & Colors game engine. Not surprising given that both credit Creation & Development to the venerable Richard Borg. Both also had Pat Kurivial for Development. There is even overlap in the playtesters for each game.

Rule Book – Commands & Colors: Ancients

That is not to say the games are identical (outside of theme, of course). The most obvious difference is magic in Battlelore. Both games are also different in how they approach components. It’s more than just the blocks vs minis. The big usability difference that jumps out at me is the use of a wargame-like Player Aid Card in CCA versus boardgame “hint” cards in BL.

Rule Book – Battlelore

Of the two, I personally like the wargame~ish Commands & Colors approach better. Then again, I am a dyed-in-the-wool grognard and am more comfortable in a wargame setting. Thus, you probably would understand my love for Compass Games’ Commands & Colors Tricorne: The American Revolution (2017). The RockyMountainNavy Boys went the other way and fully embraced Memoir ’44 (Days of Wonder, 2006) the WWII version published along at the same time a Battlelore.

Although I have my preference I will not pass on a game of M’44 or Commands & Colors with the RMN Boys. The fact that the games are so similar means the relearning-curve before a game is small; one just needs to refresh on special rules for that “setting” vice relearning an entire game system. This helps all these games get to the table more often.

At the end of the day, isn’t that the real reason to play games? Gather round a table and immerse yourself into a game. Whether your reason is to escape the grind of the week or learn a bit about history the most important part of the game is the social exchange amongst family or friends.

I doff my cap to the 2007 Golden Geek jury which showed courage by awarding a “wargame” the honor of a win outside of that category. I also respect them for giving a dual award and showing the hobby gaming community that wargames and strategy games might look different, but at heart can be very closely related. Doing so reminds us that although many might try to wall off your niche, the truth is that we are more alike then we are different. The 2007 Golden Geek jury embraced that message.

So should you.