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

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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.

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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?

 

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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.

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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.

#Coronapocalypse #Boardgame #GuiltyPleasure – Why AuZtralia (@StrongholdGames, 2018) is a game for real grognards

I DO NOT UNDERSTAND WHY THIS GAME IS NOT MORE POPULAR. The game I am talking about is AuZtralia: The Great Designers Series #11 (Stronghold Games, 2018). First off, it’s designed by Martin Wallace who is one of the star Eurogame designers out there.

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Courtesy Stronghold Games

A Eurogame? I can hear you asking now, “Hey, RockyMountainNavy, has that quarantine thing sent you batty? I thought you were a wargamer?”

Yes, I am still a grognard, but I always look for new and innovative games. That’s why AuZtralia ended up in my collection. According to the ad copy:

AuZtralia is an adventure/exploration game for 1-4 players set in an alternate reality 1930s. The theme is inspired by Martin Wallace’s A Study in Emerald. Following the Restorationist war, the northern hemisphere lands lay poisoned and starvation was the norm. Intrepid adventurers set out to explore and settle new lands. Little did they know, after the war, the surviving Old Ones and their remaining loyal human armies made their way to the outback of Australia to lick their wounds.

Build a port, construct railways, mine and farm for food. You’ll need to prepare for the awakening. You’ll need to fight.

Everything you do in the game costs time, which is one of AuZtralia’s most valued resources.

At a point in time, the Old Ones will wake up and become an active player. They begin to reveal themselves and move, with potentially devastating outcomes.

You’ll need to prepare wisely for the awakening and may have to co-operate with others to defeat the most dangerous Old Ones.

Military units will help you to locate, fight and defend against the nightmarish beings that may be lurking on your doorstep. As well as hardware, you’ll need to recruit some Personalities who have the skills and resources to help you.

Well, that pretty much sums up the entire game. The first part of the game is almost a pure Eurogame; build railroads, farms, mine resources, and recruit Personalities with special powers. The key mechanic is Time. Everything you do takes Time.

Then the Old Ones start to awake. They stalk you. They Blight your farms. You have to defend yourself before they destroy everything, especially your Port.

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Old Ones Card – Courtesy Stronghold Games

This is when the “conflict” game starts. For those squeamish Eurogamers out there you can breathe easy because you don’t fight another player – you fight the Old Ones driven by their own deck of cards. There are even no dice in this game; everything is resolved by another special deck of cards. Players will need to cooperate to defeat the Old Ones. To use designer Brian Train’s description of another crossover game, it’s a “militarized Eurogame.” I prefer the term Waro.

AuZtralia is designed for 1-4 players. I played the Solo Mode. My randomly drawn Solo Objective was Frenetic Farmer – Reward: 20 VP, Place at least TWO of each type of Farm and end with at least FOUR non blighted Farms. Uh…alot easier said then done!

I lost, but I had a good deal of fun. Playtime was a little bit under an hour. As always the real stressor is finding the balance in time and resources between building your infrastructure and preparing – then fighting with – your military. This is not a serious game by any stretch of the imagination but nor is it cheesy. Strategy choices are real and supported by the game mechanics and play.

Looking at the BGG Stats on AuZtralia, I guess the boardgame community embraces the game far more than grognards. At the time of this writing, AuZtralia is ranked #682 Overall and the #362 Strategy Game. This makes it the #47 BGG Overall ranked game and the #10 BGG Strategy Game in my collection.*

That’s too bad. I know grognards often like to focus on “the fight” and don’t always want to be involved in the “why” or “how” of the situation. Especially if the “how” involves logistics (resources). AuZtralia challenges those notions by combining elements of a Eurogame with a wargame. The resulting Adventure game is both fun and interesting – even for this grognard.


*My Top 10 BGG Ranked Strategy Games in collection

  1. Terraforming Mars (BGG #5)
  2. Scythe (BGG #11)
  3. Root (BGG #29)
  4. Raiders of the North Sea (BGG #71)
  5. Pandemic (BGG #98)
  6. Tiny Epic Galaxies (BGG #202)
  7. Pandemic: Fall of Rome (BGG #219)
  8. Trains (BGG #296)
  9. Settlers of Catan (BGG #344)
  10. AuZtralia (BGG #362)

 

RockyMountainNavy’s influential #boardgame from the 2010’s

I want to thank all of you who took the time to make my post RockyMountainNavy’s influential #wargame from the 2010’s my most-read article this year. Sensing a good thing and wanting to keep try and keep the bandwagon going, I now will regal you with my fifteen most influential boardgames that I own or played that were published between 2010 and 2019.

Sorta.

Late Start

Like I said in my wargames of influence post, I ‘rediscovered’ the hobby boardgame industry in late 2016. Sure, I had some hobby boardgames, but I had not seriously tried to get the family into gaming. In late 2016 we started playing more games and by late 2017 we had instituted a Family Game Night on Saturdays.

As a grognard wargamer, moving from wargames to boardgames was a bit jarring. I mean, you often times play with more than one opponent? Although they were not new to me, I really came to understand the Ameritrash vs Eurogamer battle and started looking at games from both a thematic and mechanical perspective. Along the way, I never gave up on wargaming and introduced the RockyMountainNavy Boys to the wargame niche. The challenge was finding good multiplayer wargames that could be played in an evening.

Here comes the Waro

I needn’t have worried, for in late 2017 a new ‘genre’ of boardgames was starting to be talked about. Here came the waro, or wargame-Eurogame. There is no single definition of what a waro is, but to me it is a wargame that incorporates elements, be it mechanical or component-wise, of Eurogames. In 2019 Brian Train used the term, “militarized Eurogame” which I find both very simple and highly descriptive. So the list you are about to see has more than a few waro games on it. That is because as a wargamer these titles often speak to me and have brought gaming joy tot he RockyMountainNavy household.

Unlike my previous list which was presented in order of year of publication, this one will be a vain attempt by me to rank them. Please don’t ask me to define my criteria; this is really a ‘gut feel’ of how I rank these games. Like before, the list is light on pre-2016 games because it was then that I turned hard into the hobby. I am sure some real gems from earlier in the decade deserve to be here; I either don’t own them or simply missed them as I took in the later-half of the decade.

My 15 Influential Boardgames of the 2010’s

15. Agents of Mayhem: Pride of Babylon – Academy Games, 2019

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Courtesy Academy Games

The ‘dungeon crawl’ is a very popular boardgame format. In the RockyMountainNavy house we tend to stay away from fantasy but the RMN Boys are Star Wars fans so we own and played Star Wars: Imperial Assault after it came out. I recognize that the game is very popular (currently #37 overall on BoardGameGeek) but as big fans as the Boys were the game never really clicked. Indeed, the entire dungeon crawl gaming genre (as well as man-to-man scale skirmish games in general) seemed kinda lost on the Boys and myself. That is, until I played Agents of Mayhem: Pride of Babylon.

 

Maybe its the 3D terrain. Maybe its the fact I am not familiar with the setting and therefore more open minded. Maybe I am more accepting of modern superpowers vice always fighting Star Wars ‘canon.’ Whatever the reason, I really enjoy the game. I really like the character and unit tableaus and how they enable handling them in a very easy manner. There is no need to lookup a table or chart; its’ all really in front of you.

Agents of Mayhem: Pride of Babylon makes my influential list because it shows me how a skirmish / dungeon crawl-like game can be made fast, fun and furious (to steal another RPGs tagline).

14. AuZtralia – Stronghold Games, 2018

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Courtesy Stronghold Games

According to BGG and Stronghold Games, AuZtralia is an “adventure/exploration game.” To me, I think they forgot “wargame.” To me, AuZtralia is a waro but in a slightly different sense of the word. In the first part of the game, AuZtralia is a Eurogame of building railroads and seeking resources. At some point, however, it switches over to a wargame where your armed forces (supported by certain individuals) are fighting the Old Ones. I like this schizophrenic design approach. It is certainly one way to approach a waro; in this case one I really enjoy.

 

AuZtralia is influential because it shows the very direct marriage of a Eurogame and wargame. 

13. Cataclysm: A Second World War – GMT Games, 2018

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Courtesy GMT Games

I think Cataclysm has an identity crisis. Thematically, the game covers the Second World War periods. Published by GMT Games, it just must be a wargame since that is what GMT publishes, right? To all of you I say, wrong! To me Cataclysm is not a wargame of military conflict, but a game of politics where military action is one possible tool in your kit. Yes, I declare that Cataclysm is a political game. Like the ad copy says, “This is not your father’s panzer pusher.”

 

Cataclysm is influential because it forced me to stretch my definition of wargame and give serious consideration to the politics of conflict, not just the military confrontation.

12. Pandemic: Fall of Rome  – Z-Man Games, 2018

zgLVeSk8Tn+CXkchMq7sMwThe RockyMountainNavy Boys and myself are not really into cooperative games. That said, we always have fun playing the original Pandemic and have used it to introduce hobby boardgaming to others. That said, we are not huge fans so have not sought out other Pandemic titles. That is, until Pandemic: Fall of Rome came out. At first I bought the game because I had dreams of enticing the oldest RMN Boy (the non-tabletop gamer) to play because he loves ancients. That didn’t work, but I discovered a new Pandemic, one that included ‘battles.’ Like AuZtralia, I categorize Pandemic: Fall of Rome as a waro because it very successfully mixes both Eurogame and wargame.

Pandemic: Fall of Rome is influential because it demonstrates the power of mixing a very cooperative ‘stop the spread’ Eurogame with key wargame (battle) mechanics.

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

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Courtesy GMT Games

As I really discovered hobby boardgaming (and wargaming for that matter) in late 2016 I heard about this thing called the COIN-series. At first I was not interested because professionally I tend to pay more attention to rogue nations and peer competitors and never really got into the counterterrorism or counterinsurgency areas. At the same time I also had moved to the East Coast of the US and was studying more Revolutionary history. I passed on COIN until I saw GMT Games getting ready for a second reprint of Liberty or Death. The approach of the game was intriguing; framing the American Revolution as an insurgency? I bought it and was confused at first. This is a complex game! But I persevered and eventually, after several plays, it started to click.

 

Liberty or Death is influential because this game showed me that games can be used to teach and explore very serious political topics.

10. Nights of Fire: Battle of Budapest – Mighty Board Games, 2019

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Courtesy Mighty Boards

Brian Train, co-designer of Nights of Fire: Battle of Budapest, writes in the designer’s notes how this title is a “militarized Eurogame.” I adit I bought this game at first because it is a Brian Train design and I like how he sheds light on smaller or less known conflicts in history. The topic of Nights of Fire is very niche, the Soviet invasion of Budapest in 1956. Nights of Fire, however, uses a very Eurogame-approach to model this battle with cards and area control and blocks and tokens. This is really a card game with hand/action management and block wargame put together. I also respect the designers that were able to make the same game play competitive, cooperative, or solo.

 

Nights of Fire: Battle of Budapest is influential because I consider it the best example of the ‘bleeding edge’ of waro design.

9. Root: A Woodland Game of Might & Right – Leder Games, 2018

 

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Courtesy Leder Games

Root is a wargame, right? Look at BoardGameGeek where as I write this it is the 19th-ranked wargame (as well as the #33 Strategy Game and #39 overall). With all the battling in the game it must be a wargame, right? As much as I want to agree, I see two games here, but neither of them are truly a wargame. On the mechanical level, I am in awe of the design of Root that incorporates so many different game mechanisms into a well integrated package. Every faction plays differently, be it set collection or action-selection or hand management. I am totally amazed that Cole Wehrle makes this all work together. But none of those mechanisms are ‘wargame.’

 

IMG_0084On the second level, I see Root as a political game. Each faction has a different way to victory and battling is just one lever of power a faction can wield. Once again, you can play Root as a ‘wargame’ but, like Cataclysm before, this is really a political battle where fighting is a tool that can be chosen.

Root is influential because it shows me how one integrates many different game engines into a political game that is vicious despite the cute and fuzzy animals. Truly a wild kingdom!

8. Queendomino – Blue Orange Games, 2017

 

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Courtesy Blue Orange Games

Spoiler Alert – you’re going to see Kingdomino a bit later in this list. As much as we like that game, the RockyMountainNavy Boys and myself also really enjoy Queendomino. That is because we view Queendomino as the ‘gamers version’ of Kingdomino. We really enjoy how the designers took the simplicity of Kingdomino and added jus the right amount of new mechanisms to make the game vastly more interesting yet still simple to play.

 

Influential because Queendomino demonstrates how to take a great simple game, add a bit of complexity, but still keep it easy and fun to to play.

7. Quarriors! – WizKids, 2011

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Courtesy WizKids

Finally, you say! A game from before 2016! I think I actually bought this game in 2011 from Petrie’s Family Games when I lived in Colorado Springs. I seem to remember the owner, Cameron, giving me a strong recommendation and, seeking a game to play with the RockyMountainNavy Boys, I purchased it. Then life got in the way and I moved to the East Coast for a job while the RMN Family stayed in Colorado. It was not until 2013 that we were all back together again, but then I was concerned that all the reading on the cards and how to put a strategy together would be too much for my middle boy who is on the Autism Spectrum. As a result, we really didn’t get this game to the table until 2017.

Suffice it to say I was stupid. The RMN Boys can handle this game quite well. They love it so much they both put their own money forth to buy expansions.

Quarriors! is influential because it is one of the most-played games in the RockyMountainNavy collection and often used by the Boys to beat up on old Dad because they are much faster at building synergistic dice pools than I am.

6. Rhino Hero – HABA, 2016

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Courtesy HABA

A yellow- box game from HABA is for kids only, right? Sure, the box says for ages 5-99 but we all just know its really a kids game. WRONG! I cannot even start to count all the hours (and I mean hours) of fun play this game has occupied int he RockyMountainNavy house. Not only hours of fun for the RMN Family, but Rhino Hero is a title we use to introduce others to hobby gaming.

Rhino Hero is influential because it has opened the eyes of many non-gamer friends to a different type of family game and shown them good family fun.

5. Kingdomino – Blue Orange Games, 2017

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Courtesy Blue Orange Games

When I pulled Kingdomino out the first time the RockyMountainNavy Boys were dubious. After all, how hard could it be to place dominos on a 5×5 grid? Years later this game is often the go-to when we need a quick filler game before dinner. Or when we want to introduce somebody to gaming. It is very easy to teach. I also enjoy watching a new player as they play their first game; you can literally see the lightbulb go on in their head as they realize what they can do when selecting a tile. You can see their eyes dart between the tiles and their kingdom, and eventually the other players, as the strategy develops in their head.

Kingdomino is influential because not only do we enjoy every play, it is our gateway game of choice to introduce others to hobby boardgaming.

4. Terraforming Mars – Stronghold Games, 2016

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Courtesy Stronghold Games

Somewhere I think I heard that Terraforming Mars was a good science lesson. Wanting to encourage the youngest RMN Boy to pursue the sciences I purchased this game. At first I was doubtful as the sheer number of cards seemed overwhelming. I also was concerned (again) whether my middle boy could handle all the reading and assemble a strategy. Well, the youngest was taken by the game (“See Mom, it teaches me!”) while the middle boy caught on (maybe faster than I did). Once we added the Prelude expansion that jump-starts your Corporations we find ourselves playing this game even more often than we did before. Now our neighbors have the game, making a inter-family game night a real possibility.

Terraforming Mars is influential because it showed that we all can enjoy a good middle-weight Eurogame and are not limited to simpler titles or wargames.

3. 1775: Rebellion – Academy Games, 2013

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Courtesy Academy Games

(Yes, another pre-2016 title!) Alas, I did not discover this game until I had a conversation with Uwe Eickert of Academy Games at the wargaming conference CONNECTIONS 2017. While discussing his excellent Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear second edition (Academy Games, 2012) I mentioned I was always looking for a good family wargame. Uwe immediately sold me on his Birth of America series so we soon had 1775: Rebellion on the table. We now own the entire Birth of America and Birth of Europe series and we will surely buy any new game in the future.

1775: Rebellion is influential because showed us that a lite family strategy/wargame does not have to be Risk; indeed, there is much better out there that not only is fun to play but also teaches good history.

2. Enemies of Rome – Worthington Publishing, 2017

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Courtesy Worthington Publishing

The lite family strategy/wargames of the Birth of America series (Academy Games) were such a big hit in the RockyMountainNavy house I went looking for more. Given the oldest RMN Boy’s interest in Ancients I chose Enemies of Rome as a good candidate game. Little did I realize how much the other Boys (especially the youngest) would be taken with the game. Enemies of Rome is one of the most-played games in the RMN collection and there is no sign the Boys are going to lose interest. Heck, even I will probably not lose interest because every play has been different. Just last week, I started out in Syria and halted my expansion across Africa because I was sure that card that brings hoards of ‘Enemies of Rome’ out across North Africa was going to come out next. It never did because it was one of the cards removed at setup. But I was so sure it was going to come I I followed a strategy that defended against a non-existent threat. Now the RMN Boys are looking to use this game for the Neighborhood Gaming Gang since it plays up to five.

Enemies of Rome is influential because it is our most-played lite family strategy/wargame that is simple to learn yet offers deep play time and time again.

1. Scythe – Stonemaier Games, 2016

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Courtesy Stonemaier Games

Another recommendation from Uwe Eickert at CONNECTIONS 2017. I had never played a Eurogame of this sort before and my first reading of the rules were daunting. I played it solo a few times then tried to teach it to the RMN Boys.

We all fell in love with it.

First it was the art. Jakub Rozalski is incredible.

Second is the game mechanics. Middle-Heavy Eurogames are not in our usual wheelhouse. Scythe was so different than anything we played before. But the asymmetric powers of the factions and economies makes no two games alike. The expansions are clean and add good flavor; the campaign is an incredible journey.

Scythe is influential because it opened our eyes to a whole new type of boardgame and it keeps us coming back with innovative expansions and endless replayability. I think we will still be playing this game in 20 years.


Feature image from teedep.com

A #wargame journey from hex & counter to waro through Tank Duel: Enemy in the Crosshairs (@gmtgames, 2019)

BARRING ANY UNFORSEEN CIRCUMSTANCES, Tank Duel: Enemy in the Crosshairs (GMT Games, 2019) is very likely to end up as my Game of the Year. As a dyed-in-the-wool hex & counter wargamer, I find myself equally surprised and ashamed when I make statements like that. Designer Mike Bertucelli (@Hobiecat on Twitter) has done what I thought was impossible – make an enjoyable tactical tank combat wargame without a hex board or dice.

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Courtesy BGG

Tactical tank combat games have a special place in my wargaming heart. Indeed, the first wargame I ever played was Jim Day’s Panzer (Yaquinto Publishing, 1979). In many ways, that game set my expectations of a wargame for most of the rest of my life. I believed that a wargame needed must have a hex map, combat results tables (CRT), dice-rolling, and detailed rules. At the same time, I fell into a very detailed, simulationist portion of the wargame hobby that focused on tactical warfare. Panzer or MBT or Squad Leader for ground combat, the Admiralty Trilogy (Command at Sea or Harpoon) for naval combat, JD Websters Fighting Wings (Actung: Spitfire or Speed of Heat) for air combat. I even took it to the science-fiction realm going all-in on the original Star Fleet Battles-series of games.

Over the years, my fetish for detailed simulations weakened, and in the mid-2010s when I really discovered hobby boardgaming with the family my wargaming perspectives also changed. I needed to find wargames that I could play with the RockyMountainNavy Boys in an evening. I needed wargames that were more than manual modeling & simulation designs. I needed games that would engage them with the history; building a narrative of history through play. This led me to waros, or “wargame-Eurogames.”

Which brings me back to Tank Duel Enemy in the Crosshairs. The GMT Games pages describes the game as follows:

Tank Duel: Enemy in the Crosshairs is a card-based game for 1 to 8 players that depicts tank-to-tank warfare on the Eastern Front of World War II in the early to mid 1940s. It attempts to convey the claustrophobia and urgency that tank crews experienced in this bitter conflict, utilizing a simple Action system to keep the action moving at a rapid pace. Players will issue commands with the use of Battle Cards and attempt to score Victory Points by claiming Objectives and eliminating their opponent’s tanks and crew.

….

The tank board will be used to keep track of information regarding the status of a tank and its crew.  Types of condition could include, tank on fire, damage tracks, immobilized and damage to the gun.

….

Each player will be managing a hand of cards. With these cards the player will be able to take actions.

There is so much here that doesn’t meet my classic (stale?) wargame definition; 1-8 players? Simple Action system? A tank board? Hand of cards?

But it works. I mean, it really works!

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Courtesy Inside GMT Games

A typical Tank Duel game will see four tanks (or more!) in a fight. There is no mapboard but only an abstract range from battlefield center. Lateral movement is through flanking cards. Terrain is also depicted by cards. The battle lasts only long enough to cycle through the deck several times. Best of all, if a tank is destroyed a new one replaces it next turn.

There are still several echos of my tactical tank games here. Panzer players will feel comfortable with the combat tables. But all that detail gets hidden by a set of very innovative Battle Cards. Many will claim that this has been done before in Up Front (Avalon Hill, 1983) and several other games since. That may be true, but in today’s hyper-competitive publishing market it is actually rare to find wargames that totally dispense with the mapboard or dice.

However, it’s not the “non-traditional” mechanics that make Tank Duel a game I enjoy. Few wargames have ever generated a narrative during play like I get playing Tank Duel. As I look over my hand of cards, I try to put together a plan. I try to dash up the hill (Move) so I can get into an overwatch position to shoot (Fire) only to be mired by my opponent playing a Mud card (Terrain) which allows him to flank me (Flank card). As my crew tries to unbog the tank my turret is hammered, killing my Commander and breaking the morale of the crew. As my tank brews up I reset my Tank Board to bring my next tank into the battle, swearing at the loss of my fellow soldiers and looking to avenge their deaths. The more I played, the more I came to realize that what I enjoyed was not the details of the battle (Hey, my 8.8cm gun penetrated your turret from 400 yards!) but the visceral tension of the combat (I have to close the range…I am going to play two move cards to close the range and go hull down to be ready to shoot after that…unless my opponent plays a mud card and bogs me down in something I cannot see!). The real tension of Tank Duel is not the details of the combat, it’s in the making of a combat story.

A combat story without hex & counter or dice or complicated rules but abstracted using a tableau and innovative cards.


Feature image by self

#Wargaming, it’s in the Cards – Challenging commentary on @gmtgames Washington’s War, For the People, and Paths of Glory

I AM STILL (HAPPILY) WORKING MY WAY THROUGH MY 2019 GAMING CHALLENGES. These past few weeks I was fortunate to arrive at a time in my challenge where I got to play three Card-Driven Game (CDG)* designs:

  • For the People (GMT Games, 1998) won the 1998 Charles S Roberts Award for Best Pre-World War II Boardgame
  • Paths of Glory (GMT Games, 1999) won the 1999 Charles S Roberts Award for Best Pre-World War II Boardgame
  • Washington’s War (GMT Games, 2010) won both the 2010 Charles S Roberts Award for Best Ancient to Napoleonic Era Wargame and the 2010 Golden Geek Award for Best 2-Player Game / Best Wargame.

In playing these three games, I gained a new appreciation for the range of complexity the Card-Driven Game mechanic can support and how each creates a insightful historical experience.

Complexity

I ended up playing these three games in order of the wars; the American Revolution in Washington’s War followed by the American Civil War in For the People and lastly World War I in Paths of Glory. Not only was playing in this order the same as the historical timeline, the sequence also reflects the increasing complexity of the games.

My copy of Washington’s War (2nd Preprint, 2015) is the “latest published” of the three games I played but is the simplest in terms of rules. Based on Mark Herman’s We the People (Avalon Hill, 1993), Washington’s War features a single deck of Strategy Cards supporting a very streamlined selection of actions. Having not played a CDG in a while this was a good reintroduction to the CDG meachanic as the game focuses on the basics with little frills. Using the BGG complexity or “weight” scale, I put Washington’s War as a Medium Light 2.0 given the simple, rather direct rules.

My copy of For the People is the GMT Games 2nd Edition from 2006. There was a Third Edition in 2015 and I am not sure what changed. Doesn’t really matter; I enjoy my version of the game. In terms of complexity, For the People is similar to Washington’s War in the use of a single Strategy Card deck. Beyond that, For the People is more complex with the designation of Divisions, Corps, and Armies. Victory is determined not so much by area control (ala Washington’s War) but through Strategic Will (more on that later). The added rules make For the People more complex than Washington’s War, but the new rules overhead is not onerous. In terms of complexity I rate For the People a Medium 3.0 on BGG but in reality it plays more like a 2.5.

Paths of Glory, originally published in 1999, is the game that has undergone the most development since its first publication. I have a 1999 first edition, far removed from the English Deluxe Edition, Sixth Printing (2018) that is now available. I have not kept up on this game although I see lots of support available on the GMT Games website. I played the game using the Rules as Written out of the box; maybe not an optimal playing but it’s what I had on hand. Paths of Glory is the most complex of the three games played, most readily demonstrated by the use of two Strategy Card decks (separate for Allied and Central Powers). The cards themselves are also more complex, going beyond the usual Event or Operations Card values and introducing a Strategic Redeployment value and Replacement Points. However, like Washington’s War and For the People, another more subtle mechanic outside of combat is the true heart of the game. In Paths of Glory (PoG) that mechanic is War Status (also more later). Of the three CDG games I played, Paths of Glory is probably the most complex. On BGG I see that over 45% of the people voting rate Paths of Glory at Medium Heavy 4.0. I think that’s overdoing it and a solid Medium 3.0 is more appropriate.**

The progressive complexity level of the games made learning (relearning?) how to play each a simple exercise. I have tried to jump straight into Paths of Glory before and struggled. This time I built a foundation before I started and it worked much better. I guess this means that one needs several games in their collection to build up to the big one, right?

Evocative History

Although nominally a wargame, each of these games goes far beyond depicting their given conflict by looking beyond the battles. Indeed, each of these games is equal parts, if not more, a political game than a combat game.

Looking at Washington’s War, the major pieces scream wargame and combat. The Generals are standee’s and there are many chits for depicting the number of Combat Unit (CU) strength points on the board. In reality, the most important chit in the game is the Political Control (PC). Victory in Washington’s War is determined by colonies controlled, and colony control depends not on your army but on the amount of PC spaces controlled. Generals with armies can “flip” a PC, but it is the use of Operations Cards to “place” PC that is actually the most powerful action in the game. This is highly evocative of the history; armies could certainly protect areas of political control and even changed it at times but it was the political actions of rabble-rousing and the like, often in the background of the fighting, that determined control of the colony. Washington’s War captures this factor of history to a tee.

In For the People, the most important rule is not 7.0 Battle, but 12.0 Strategic Will. As designer Mark Herman notes in the introduction to 12.0:

The Strategic Will model in this game should drive a player’s actions….It is the absolute and relative value of each side’s Strategic Will that determines the current state of the war.

12.0 Strategic Will, Design Note

Rule 12.0 gives the player’s of For the People (FtP) ten different ways that affect Strategic Will. Understanding all these conditions is important because if one plays FtP and just focuses on combat, they are bound to lose the game.

Of all three games, Paths of Glory (PoG) is the most wargame-like. That said, like For the People the most important game mechanic is not Combat, but War Status. As designer Ted Raicer’s Design Notes point out:

War Status in PoG has several elements. First, it represents the progression of each alliance towards a state of modern industrialized Total War….Second, through the rules for Combined War Status, it shows the various effects of such a prolonged and costly struggle on national morale, politics, and diplomacy….Finally, through the Armistice mechanism, the effect of war weariness outside of Russia is introduced.

Design Notes, War Status

Like Strategic Will in For the People, in Paths of Glory careful management of one’s War Status and not simply winning a combat is the true key element essential for victory.

a Waro Awareness

One of the new gaming terms I discovered in the last few years is “waro.” A combination of “wargame” and “Eurogame,” the term attempts to define a new sub-domain of tabletop gaming that mixes conflict simulation with Eurogame mechanics. The poster child games for this genre is the GMT COIN-series. However, after playing these games, I would argue that the Card-Driven Game mechanic, as exemplified by Washington’s War, For the People, and Paths of Glory, are among the first waro games out there. This is not a new argument to the gaming community; long have gamers argued if any of these titles are even a wargame. Regardless of how you think about the issue, for me just playing these games has grown my understanding of what a waro can be.

putting my cards on the table

In some ways I had put CDG designs on the back shelf. I usually play with the RockyMountainNavy Boys so we need three-player games. These games are solidly two-player. CDG designs also tend not to be solo-friendly given the hidden information factor of the cards. There are some attempts to work around this but I have not delved deep into them. However, my recent plays have shown me that these games deserve to be brought down off the shelf, even if played in a sub-optimal solo manner. There is still much to be learned about the history of the times represented and these are amongst the best models to do so.


*Per BGG, a CDG is a game where, “Cards or campaign text depict events, and the challenge is in making decisions and plan their usage to win.”

**I am well aware that my complexity ratings on BGG tend to track lower than the average. I beleive this is because wargames tend to be overrated in complexity by the Eurogamers who dominate BGG.

A Fifth of the Fourth – or – a day late and a bit short; playing Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection (@gmtgames, 2016) #wargame #boardgame #waro

AFTER A VERY FULL DAY OF WARGAMING ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, I was up early again on Friday. Lucky to have the day off, I pulled out Harold Buchanan’s contribution to the COIN-series, Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection (GMT Games, 2016). Knowing that today was going to be a bit busy, I set up the Optional Sprint Scenario of The Southern Campaign. I played the Patriots (of course) and let the ‘bots take the other players.

Earlier this year, I was able to experience Brian Train’s two-player COIN game, Colonial Twilight: The French-Algerian War, 1954-62 (GMT Games, 2017). Although I have played Liberty or Death for several years now, it was not until I played Colonial Twilight that I grokked the relationship of Commands, Limited Commands, and Special Activities. Now that I grok those relationships, it helped make this play of Liberty or Death go much faster and with more meaning as I am now able to better understand how to “pull the levers” of the game.

I don’t pull my COIN games out enough. Glancing at the Rules of Play, I am amazed that the core rules are delivered in the first 22 pages. When it comes right down to it, the mechanics of a COIN game are not very complex. Instead of “mechanical complexity,” COIN has “thematic complexity” as many similar actions are named thematically for each faction which makes it look like there is alot to learn, but in truth they are very similar (though not necessarily identical).

Familiarity with the terminology makes the game go faster; building familiarity demands more plays. I don’t know how I am going to get more plays of COIN to the table but I really need to as each delivers unique insight into the issue it covers.


Feature image GMT Games.

Taking Command – First Impressions of NATO Air Commander (@Hollandspiele, 2018)

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Courtesy BGG.com

I am a Cold Warrior. I came of age in the 1980’s in the Reagan-era of the Cold War. I read Red Storm Rising or Team Yankee. In my wargames I fought the Red Bear at sea using Harpoon (Adventure Games, 1981/GDW 1987), fought them in the air in Air Superiority (GDW, 1987), and on the battlefields of Europe when playing Assault: Tactical Combat in Europe – 1985 (GDW, 1983). I even played the Twilight: 2000 RPG (GDW, 1984). In the late 1980’s, I joined the US Navy and we trained for the Big One – going toe-to-toe with the Russkies.

Fortunately, that war never came. Which makes NATO Air Commander (Hollandspiele, 2018) a sort of alternate-history game. I acquired NATO Air Commander during the 2018 Hollandays Sale and took it out for a few sorties. NATO Air Commander is another “wargame” in my collection that challenges the classic hex-&-counter definition of a wargame. Instead, NATO Air Commander is yet another waro in my collection; a wargame using Eurogame mechanics in a highly thematic game.

Presentation

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Courtesy BGG.com

NATO Air Commander has a very small footprint. The map by Ania B. Ziolkowska looks just like so many air charts of the day with simple, believable graphics superimposed. The entire mapsheet layout is easy to understand. I do wish the Basing box was a bit bigger; at the size given one ends up with a big stack of aircraft piled high. The counters are typical Hollandspiele/Blue Panther; thick and punch cleanly with simple, easy-to-understand graphics.

Playability

NATO Air Commander is a solitaire game and like most solitaire games the rules are very procedural. The rules are 12 double-column pages and step the players through the turn sequentially. The rules themselves are not difficult to learn; I personally rate them  a 2- Medium Light on BoardGameGeek. After just a few plays all that is needed to reference is the Player Aid on the last page of the rule book.

Mechanics

At it’s heart, NATO Air Commander is a card game. Players draw Objective Cards that reflect their commander’s needs for the turn. The players then allocate their precious (and dwindling) air forces (resources) to Raids. Each Raid is resolved using Resolution Cards and the advance, or (very occasionally) retreat of Warsaw Pact forces along six Thrust Lines (Avenues of Advance) is determined. The success of missions and advance of forces affects the number of Resource Points (RP) available to repair or replace lost aircraft or “purchase” needed upgrades like Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs).

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Courtesy BGG.com

NATO Air Commander is also a dice-less game; instead everything is resolved using the Resolution Cards. Typically, the player compares the relevant factor to the card factor modified by a track. If the factor is greater than the modified card number it is a success. Once the player is familiar with what track modifies what card factor resolving an event becomes easy and almost instantaneous.

Historical Flavor

Starting with the map, the game feels very period-thematic. Although the different aircraft types are not marked, if one knows a bit of aircraft recognition it is easy to see. Some folks on BoardGameGeek forums have groused about aircraft ratings. I am with the designer here when he says if you don’t like it, change it yourself!

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Courtesy BGG.com

Speaking of the BGG forums, some folks have complained about the number of acronyms used in the game. Sure, the rules could probably use a glossary but the use of those terms actually help become more immersed in the play. Except for one acronym – DEAD. As defined in NAC this is “Destruction of Air Defenses” which I learned as SEAD (Suppression of Air Defenses). It make absolutely no difference to play, just makes me grin as I move the track marker.

Overall, NATO Air Commander immerses the player in the period. The map, the aircraft, the relentless Soviet hordes, all make for a very tense game experience. There is also just the right amount of chrome. For instance, there is one (1!) Stealth bomber unit and never enough Precision Guided Munitions.

Support

Both publisher Tom Russell (BGG user tomrussell) and designer Brad Smith (enragedbees on BGG) are very active on BoardGameGeek forums. Questions are usually answered very quickly.

As a repeat customer of Hollandspiele games I also feel the need to address the “stinky” issue. Hollandspiele games are printed by Blue Panther in a form of print-on-demand publishing. The inks used by Blue Panther give off a smell that Steve has assured is not dangerous. Yes, the odor can be strong when the box is first opened. I find that if I keep the box open for a day or two in a lesser used portion of the house the odor goes away.

Bottom Line

NATO Air Commander almost feels like a game module for a larger game. Indeed, in approach this “air war module” is not that different from systems used in the Fleet-series (Victory Games) or the Next War-series (GMT Games).

Some commenters have stated that the puzzle of NATO Air Commander lends itself to an optimal strategy. Well, yes, there likely is an “optimal” way to use your air force. However, the fickle hand of fate, as embodied in the Resolution Cards, will most assuredly throw wrenches into your “optimal” strategy. Those wrenches are a feature, not a bug. NATO Air Commander forces one to think about allocating precious resources against sometime impossible needs to turn back a relentless horde. If there is one lesson that NATO Air Commander teaches its that defeating the Warsaw Pact invaders was not going to be easy and there was going to be steep losses. Those thematic lessons make for a very tense, stressful game that NATO Air Commander allows one to play with minimal rules overhead and a quick, diceless resolution mechanic.

Featured image courtesy Hollandspiele

Dining on #wargames – First Impressions of Table Battles (@Hollandspiele, 2017)

Truth be told, I am a 20th century or modern-era wargamer. Most of the wargames in my collection are World War II or later. Knowing that factoid it would seem that Table Battles (Hollandspiele, 2017) should not interest me since the battles range from The Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 to The Battle of Brooklyn Heights in 1776. More importantly, the publisher’s blurb makes Table Battles not even really come across as a wargame:

Here is something new and exciting, something completely unlike any other game on your table. Table Battles is a thinky filler, a light dice game that nevertheless will have you scratching your chin and agonizing over your decisions. It reduces armed conflict to its essentials, to the absolute universal truths behind all battles: the threat of force and its application. It’s about leverage, about feints and counterfeints, threats and counterthreats, about creating openings and then going for the jugular, about leaving openings and springing a trap.

I picked up Table Battles in the 2018 Hollandays Sale and I am very glad I did. What designer Tom Russell claims to be a simple “thinky filler” and “light dice game” is actually a very fun, yet thematic, wargame of older battles that looks good on the table, is easy to learn and play, delivers a believable history of the battle, and makes you think really hard!

Presentation

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Set Up for The Battle of Marston Moor (2 July 1644) – Royalist in Blue and Parliamentarians in Red

To an old hex & counter grognard like myself, Table Battles appears heretical. I mean, it uses cards for formations, little wooden sticks for unit strength, and to attack you place dice on those Formation Cards instead of rolling them against a Combat Results Table. It doesn’t even use a map – you literally play on your tabletop. This os not a wargame, but a new-age wargame-Eurogame (weuro?).

Playability

The rules for Table Battles take up a whole four-pages of double-column type. The rules are easy to learn; most of what is needed is already on the cards. The rule book explains the Flow of Play (or Sequence of Play to this old grognard) and the definitions of what the iconography or text on the cards mean. The game can literally be taught in five minutes or less. Each game takes 20 minutes – or less – to play.

Mechanics

Mechanically, Table Battles has two parts each turn. In the Action Phase, a single unit (one Formation Card) can Attack. This might cause an automatic Reaction. Some units can take a special action, such as Bombard or Retire. For any formation to do anything, though, it needs to “be readied” with dice.

The “light dice game” is actually the heart of the game. Each side has six dice. In the Roll Phase players roll dice and can add them to Formation Cards. Each Formation Card has a Dice Area that show what dice can be added. Players can only add dice to one Formation Card in each wing (usually one or two wings).

As that old grognard I was looking for combat ratings and it took me a while to parse what the Dice Area means. It is truly amazing how designer Tom Russell uses the Dice Area to show how capable different units are. In Marston Moor, Cromwell can use Any dice to load up, but other units (often artillery) need a “Straight 4” – or four dice showing sequential numbers – to become readied. Obviously, this means it is much easier to get Cromwell ready while the artillery takes longer!

Once the unit is readied it can attack, but only certain other units. Once a unit is reduced (losses all their sticks-of-strength) it becomes Routed. When units Rout the player losses one of their precious Morale Cubes to the other player. If a player losses all their Morale Cubes, or enough of the enemy units have Routed that they do not have a formation able to attack any of your units, that player wins. Simple. Direct.

Historical Flavor

If one is looking for in depth analysis of warfare in this era then Table Battles will disappoint. However, if one is looking for a simple look at the units involved, their relative strengths and weaknesses, and a somewhat high-level take on a battle, then Table Battles will more than suffice.

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Royalist defeat at Marston Moor. An earlier Bombard by Parliamentarian Artillery took one Morale Cube and the Rout of the Whitecoats- brought up from Reserve when Tiller’s Right had to Retire – by Manchester completes the victory.

Like the historical Battle of Marston Moor my game resulted a Royalist defeat. Although my game ended pretty much as history did, I also see great replay potential in each game. Just because the battle goes one way does not mean it will always go the same, if for no other reason than the Dice Gods will play havoc with the rolls in the next game.

Support

Hollandspiele has two expansions for Table Battles for sale, Table Battles Expansion No. 1: War of the Roses and Table Battles Expansion No. 2: Age of Alexander. If you have the inclination, the base game and expansions are also available as print-n-play through WargameVault.com. Tom is also very active on the BoardGameGeek forums for Table Battles and questions are usually answered very quickly.

Bottom Line

Although designer Tom Russell likes to call Table Battles a light-thinky-filler-dice game he actually has designed a very simple, yet elegant, small waro/weuro that challenges players to focus on the fundamentals of combat. Although some might call the dice mechanic too swingy, it actually fairly represents the fog of war and reflects the different efforts it takes to get units into battle. Yes, Table Battles uses dice. Yes, Table Battles plays in as short “filler” amount of time. But Table Battles is very “thinky” and a legitimately challenging wargame for grognards old and new.