Quartermaster General: The Cold War (@PSCGamesUK, 2018) – a #wargame that isn’t about a war that wasn’t

I AM A CHILD OF THE 1980’s. No, I wan’t born in the ’80s but I came of age in that decade. As such, the Cold War had a very formative influence on my life. As a wargamer, the Cold War had a outsize influence on my gaming too. Reading books like Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising gave inspiration for wargaming out the ‘what-if’ of a ‘Cold War Gone Hot.’ Coming forward 40 years we now get games that are a retrospective look at the Cold War. This is where Quartermaster General: The Cold War (PSC Games, 2018) enters the conversation. This game, which BoardGameGeek users insist is a ‘wargame,’ barely meets the definition. More accurately, Quartermaster General: The Cold War is a card-driven strategy game of placing influence for control themed around the Cold War.

A war game that isn’t

Courtesy Mighty Boards

First, let me be clear up front that I don’t oppose the trend in wargame design that has delivered the waro to our shelves. I loosely define a waro as a wargame the uses many Eurogame-like mechanics. A supreme example in my book is Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777 (Hollandspiele, 2017). In this wargame, it is the cubes of supply that are most important. Another great example is Nights of Fire: The Battle of Bucharest (Mighty Board Games, 2019), which wargame co-designer Brian Train refers to as ” a militarized Eurogame.” Bottom Line: A wargame does not have to be the classic hex & counter with a Combat Results Table.

When I got Quartermaster General: The Cold War (QmG: TCW) and went to add it to my BGG collection I was surprised to see it ranked as the #420 War game. I looked to see what it’s Strategy game ranking was and didn’t find one. Even Root (Leder Games, 2018), a classic “it’s not a wargame but it is” title is ranked the #17 War game and the #27 Strategy game. Interestingly, the original Quartermaster General (PSC Games, 2014) is ranked #105 in War and #468 in Strategy. So what makes QmG: TCW exclusively a wargame?

BoardGameGeek defines the wargames subdomain like this:

“A wargame (also war game) is a strategy game that deals with military operations of various types” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wargaming). However many wargames cover political and strategic choices. They can simulate historical, fantasy, near future or science fiction themes.
A wargame can be played on a board with counters, with cards or/and with miniature figures.

In Quartermaster General: The Cold War, each turn supposedly represents between two and two-and-one-half years of time. Each turn, players play different cards to place or remove armies, air forces or navies on the map. In the Scoring Phase which occurs after every 2 turns players gain VP for each Army that is on the map and for each Army that occupies an uncontested space with a Supply symbol (or Supply token of the same nationality). Different Status cards (if readied) may also award VP if the conditions are met. Navies and air forces do not provide VP.

Courtesy BGG User @van00uber

The use of military units, be it an army or navy, as well as the powerful air force unit (the only unit that can attack from beyond a space) leads to a misunderstanding of what they actually represent. In Quartermaster General: The Cold War the various units don’t really represent military formations; they actually represent influence the owner has placed into that space. National power is composed of many elements, the classic definition being known as DIMEDiplomatic, Intelligence, Military, and Economic. That Army unit on the map is a combination of the result of DIME and are placed/removed or scored based on Status and Event cards representing many of the Diplomatic, Military, and Economic activities that happened during the Cold War or Espionage cards showcasing much of the shadowy Intelligence game of East vs West (or others). If we look at the game as a strategy game of placing DIME influence, then we are closer to the BGG definition of a wargame. The play of cards and placement of units of influence is definitely a set of ‘strategic choices.’ But what of the military operations?


Courtesy funnyjunk.com

Battle and Elimination is actually a major section of the rule book for Quartermaster General: The Cold War. The section is short and sweet:

There are two types of battles: Land Battles and Sea Battles. In order to battle another Bloc’s Army or Navy, you must have a supplied Army or Navy in the same space, and play or use a card that allows you to battle in that space. Then, barring some other reaction, the enemy Army or Navy you’re battling is removed from the board. If both enemy Blocs are in a space, you may only battle one with a single battle action. (p. 29)

Missing here is a key component of a wargame – a randomizer. Not all wargames need a die but to reflect a Clauzwitz component of war – friction –  some sort of randomizer (cards, dice, etc) is needed. However, combat in Quartermaster General: The Cold War is prescriptive and absolutely deterministic (save having a readied card that can counteract the battle effect).

At the end of the day, Quartermaster General: The Cold War is not a wargame but a strategy game of placement and removal of influence which is unhelpfully depicted as military forces.

The war that wasn’t

The Cold War is often described as a bi-polar conflict of East vs West, Capitalism vs Communism, or Freedom vs Totalitarianism. Quartermaster General: The Cold War breaks from this approach and makes the Cold War a three-way race between the Soviet, West, and Non-Aligned Blocs. This is a fair revisionist view of history which gives attention long-past due to the activities and motivations of countries and movements beyond Washington and Moscow.

Understanding the three-way race further reinforces the reality that the pieces in Quartermaster General: The Cold War do not represent military forces but the spread and influence of movements and ideas as much as military hardware. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than by the Nationalists. Take for example the Orange Espionage card Khmer Rouge (Use in your Begin Turn step. Eliminate all Armies in Southeast Asia that are not Nationalist.”). This card represents the movement, not the military forces. As a matter of fact, the Khmer Rouge never fielded large military forces but it was a powerful movement of ideas. In QmG: TCW this influential control of the movement is depicted using an Army.

Khmer Rouge Occupy Phnom Penh

Not a wargame? So what?

If you’re still reading at this point you probably think I don’t like Quartermaster General: The Cold War. Actually, I think it is a good game. To be sure, it is not a history or simulation of the Cold War, but it does offer insights. In many ways, it accomplishes the goals spoken of by game designer Mark Herman who wrote, “As a designer, I always strive to develop game systems that allow the players to compete in a plausible historical narrative that allows for the suspension of disbelief and offers insight into a period’s dynamics.” (Zones of Control, MIT Press 2016, p. 133).

Nowhere is the period dynamics of the Cold War better demonstrated in Quartermaster General: The Cold War than by Escalation and WMD Costs. WMD – Weapons of Mass Destruction – cards can be very, very powerful but using them comes at cost of VP. The more powerful the card, the more costly it is to play. But, the cost of using the card is reduced by the target Blocs Escalation Level against your Bloc which makes it less costly (easier?) to use if you have been in an escalating contest with that Bloc. It makes for a natural arms race and illustrates how easy it is to escalate; and how hard it is to back off.

To be honest though, the number one reason I bought Quartermaster General: The Cold War is to play with the RockyMountainNavy Boys. It is unusual to find a game that supports three-players from the beginning. The three-Bloc set up of QmG: TCW combined with the quick-play (90-120 minutes) nature of the game engine is a natural fit for our family game night. It doesn’t hurt that the game also covers a period of history that I lived but they only (barely) heard about in school.

Designer Ian Brody in Quartermaster General: The Cold War gives us a streamlined card-driven game system that creates a plausible narrative using historical events and conditions that offers insights into the dynamics of the Cold War. It’s a good, highly playable strategy game, not wargame, view of the Cold War.