2011 – The Year in Hobby Games, Part III: Wargames

Trying to take the pulse of the wargame zeitgeist once a year, while entertaining to try to do, may not be the most productive use of time.

For one, it’s a small market. There are only a few publishers who reliably publish a few games a year (GMT, MMP, Columbia) supplemented by a wide variety of players that range from inconsistent to not-yet-proven to low-volume single-man operations (OSG, Academy Games, Compass, L2, Clash of Arms, and Simmons being a few that I buy from occasionally). While what to me seems a rather surprising number of wargames get published each year, a lot of it is clearly game-designing/publishing-as-hobby or labor-of-love type stuff.

Secondly, wargame companies have tried pretty hard, with significant success, to isolate themselves from the brunt of market forces. The widespread use of pre-order systems (as pioneered by GMT with P500) has allowed publishers to make a lot of games, but also to offload a lot of downside risk, with all the moral hazard associated with that. While GMT has been a great asset to the hobby, producing many games of very high quality, at the same time they’ve also been the poster child for preorder funding gone wrong, churning out a shocking amount of absolute dreck – games that aspire to be as good as Fantasy Flight’s biggest misfires. Far too many of their games still have an underdeveloped, unfinished feel.

Two years ago, I was pretty depressed about the state of wargames. GMT had just gone through a bad patch of printing a bunch of junk (PQ-17, Pursuit of Glory, 1805: Sea of Glory, Fields of Fire), MMP had recently published The Devil’s Cauldron with its interesting system married to a spectacularly bad rulebook and set of scenarios, Columbia was coming off the badly underdeveloped Athens & Sparta, and outside of ASL things were looking really grim for medium-to-high end wargames.

Then within two years, we’re getting Sekigahara, No Retreat! The Russian Front, Breakthrough: Cambrai, Battle Above the Clouds, Normandy ’44, and Bataan!, just to pick a few recent top-tier type games. So I’m out of the “where are we now” business. I’ll take what I can get.

My game of the year for wargames has got to be Sekigahara. I have a review on my blog here, cross-posted to BoardGameGeek here. It’s by far my most-played wargame (almost my most-played game of any kind in fact), has been well-received by everyone I’ve played it with, and is a brilliant game design by any standard. It has what’s been missing from the vast majority of eurogames of late: attention to detail and real artfulness. There are still a couple rough bits – Tokugawa may be favored significantly until you find the rhythm of the game and slightly after that, and it doesn’t seem to have quite as much range as one might, ideally, like. Still, it’s one of the most striking wargame designs in many years.

Let’s not stop there, though. There was a lot of good stuff this year, including many games that are playable in an evening and have 12 pages of rules or thereabouts.

No Retreat! The Russian Front is easy to underestimate both because it’s not that novel, system-wise, and because of its Victory Point Games heritage. It’s a really terrific, compact game that packs a lot of punch though, and like Sekigahara it gets a top recommendation from me. I think the key thing that I like about it is how well the card deck seems to have been designed. The capabilities of the events provide uncertainty, tension, and the occasional nasty surprise without being generally overbearing – all of which give the game some drama and make it a lot more than just a chit-pusher. Skip the always-uninteresting ’41 game and start with the short ’42 and ’43 scenarios, which are great and highly playable. I’ve played over a dozen times, had a ton of fun, and am yet to attempt a full-on game. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the GMT version has an unfortunate and unreasonable amount of errata, and you’ll need to get updated rules and play books from GMT’s site, as well as make a note of one card (General Mud) with an unfortunate mis-wording. Yeah, I wish they had done a better job and normally this would be a huge red flag. In this case, though, No Retreat! still plays very well and I hope later entries in the series will jump from VPG to GMT and get professional treatment.

Breakthrough: Cambrai is the latest entry in the area-impulse game genre from Mike Rinella, the current torch-bearer for this system. I like Mike’s games and am a fan of both Monty’s Gamble: Market Garden and Shifting Sands, even though both have a couple minor rough edges. Breakthrough: Cambrai feels like his best effort yet. It plays quickly, in 3 hours or less, and gives a really good feel for late-WWI-era battles, which feature a strange alchemy of lightning blows which rapidly gain a lot of inertia. The British player has to know when to chip away and when to use the sledgehammer. The battle is undeniably a British show and the pressure is on them to win, but available local artillery means the Germans will actually do more counter-attacking here than they do in Breakout: Normandy, or the Soviets do in Turning Point: Stalingrad. There is a pretty nasty one-game learning curve on this one, the British may well not get much past the start line the first time, but after that games are tense and go to the wire. This is another top tier game.

Nightfighter is a niche game as it’s a game where one player moderates and one player plays. I like it because it sets out to do something interesting, capturing the flavor of the air war at night both in terms of a cat and mouse tactical game and its technological back-and-forth. It works, it’s fast-playing, it’s quite playable. I have a review here.

Conflict of Heroes: Price of Honour restored my confidence in this series. Like Commands & Colors (and unlike Squad Leader, ASL, or ASLSK), Conflict of Heroes has a somewhat narrow range of types of scenarios that are going to work. With limited turn counts and punishing system-level penalties for destroyed units in both gameplay (command points) and in victory points (dead trucks count the same as dead King Tigers), the force disparities, scenario sizes, and unit quality ranges have to work in a somewhat constrained design space. Which is fine, but you do have to live in that space, which in previous games the scenarios have not always done. Price of Honour seemed to me to do a better job and brought me back on board with the system.

Speaking of C&C, Commands & Colors: Napoleonics was a really nice addition to the system, if you can get past the truly horrible rulebook and terrible player aids. I like the force asymmetries (the French powerful in melee, the British at range), I like the variety of units, and the way it models combined arms is as good as anything. Like all the C&C games, though, it’s hugely dependent on well-designed scenarios, something that every C&C game ever published has struggled with. There is a limit to what you can do with the meeting-engagement victory-by-body-count format. If you live within that format, you’re fine. Try to break out and it’s a slippery slope to boredom, frustration, and the flea market. C&CN is good, but the second scenario – Rolica (French Second Position) – is truly terrible and if you just run through the scenarios in order you can get a pretty bad impression. The recent The Spanish Army expansion is good too and has new and better – but still not good – player aid cards.

L2 reissued Breakout: Normandy this year, and while the quality of the reprint isn’t as good as it could be, this is still one of the best wargames ever made and it’s great to have it back in print. I like that they added color-coding to the counters, but the huge footprint on the new map isn’t great and the plastic X’s for disruption seem a little cheesy. I think I still prefer my original Avalon Hill edition. The rule changes are fairly minor but all to the good, I think. I still wish there were scenarios starting in week 2 or 3, though. Unlike the games I’ve mentioned so far, Breakout: Normandy is meatier and probably takes 5-6 hours to play to conclusion.

War of 1812 is a fun, nicely-flavored Risk-derivative team wargame. It runs a touch long for what it is, and operations have a lot of inertia once they enter enemy territory (admittedly faithful to the history), so the risk of drawn games is non-trivial. But, it’s got well-done asymmetric sides and the team aspect works. Not likely a lot of staying power, but fun for what it is.

With all that, I still have a large to-play pile, and some of it I’m really optimistic about – particularly FAB: Sicily, Birth of a Legend, No Retreat 2, Rommel’s War, Shenandoah Campaign, Strike of the Eagle, and The Last Success. There were also two new monsters that I’m actually going to try to play in 2012, Decision Games’ Axis Empires: Totaler Krieg! and Dai Senso!. I rarely buy Decision’s stuff, and don’t have much room for real monster games like this anymore, but I got sucked into learning these games because of their intriguing take on allowing the early days of the war to develop in different ways, and because they seem to have found a good scale. There are red flags, but I hold out hope.

Of course, not everything that came out this year was great.

A Few Acres of Snow is a bubble game for me. It’s clever, and I like the concept of wedding the popular deck-building idea into a wargame as a planning/command-and-control engine. A Few Acres of Snow just hasn’t really grasped the limitations of deck-builders, which can have problems when decks either get too small, or too large with respect to the complexity of the actions they are required to perform. Once your empire gets too large, it gets much too hard to get things done, and conversely the game is vulnerable to deck-pruning strategies. It also doesn’t have much to say about the period. This is an idea that if further developed has promise. As it is though, it shares the unfinished feel of most of Wallace’s games, even with the major rules revision released late in 2011.

I was excited to try King Philip’s War after getting a lot of value out of the designer’s Hearts & Minds, but it couldn’t get traction like the previous game did. An obscure topic that isn’t cleanly presented, gameplay that was surprisingly static, and some odd gamey tactics all combined to sap the energy of the game. It was fun for a play or two but didn’t live up to hopes.

Storming the Reich from Compass was an odd game. I kinda liked Red Storm Over the Reich but it was too large and there were some odd ways the various movement phases played out. I thought Storming the Reich might find a sweeter spot with a system I found fundamentally interesting. But too much seemed out-of-kilter. The Germans field units of wildly varying quality in this campaign, but their good divisions (like Panzer Lehr) oddly lack any staying power. There is a bunch of clunky design-for-effect stuff like Monty’s Blind Spot that constrain the game. This whole campaign is one that is really fought on three different scales: tactical for the breakout from the beachhead, an operational race game to the German frontier, then a strategic supply-driven slugging match for the final battles. No game I’ve yet played has managed to put all three phases comfortably under one roof.

Case Yellow was classic Raicer: a couple clever game mechanics which neatly capture important bits of the campaign, weighed down by a hugely excessive playing time. This would have been fun at 3 hours or so, but at the easily 6+ it runs, not so much. When combined with Storming the Reich and Stalin’s War, I think Raicer has finally burned through his stock of goodwill from Paths of Glory and Barbarossa to Berlin.

Space Empires 4X is a totally mystifying game. The designer has repeatedly said on various forums that he understood the problems this genre of games has (do I really need to list them all again?), and then proceeds to design a game which still clearly has all those problems. This is a frustratingly bad game because it it seems like it just couldn’t have been played outside of the designer’s game group, seems to have never really been in front of a critical audience. Tediously long, painful bookkeeping (which is also hidden and unverifiable), attritional combat that leads to endless indecisive slugathons, inability to accomplish anything … I really wanted to like it and gave it every chance to work, but it just doesn’t at a fairly basic level. Everyone I played it with was even less charitable than I. There is absolutely no reason to play this instead of Eclipse.

Fighting Formations will almost certainly appeal to you if you are a Combat Commander fan. I’m not, but it had a chance to suck me in, but it didn’t – the order system is too abstract for my tastes, and the game doesn’t really have anything to say about platoon-level combat that hasn’t been said.

Sun of York would be fun I think at half the game length. It’s cleverly evocative of period combat, but I just don’t think it offers the players much of anything in the way of interesting decisions. Given that, I think it needed to play quicker.

Looking Back

Looking back at my 2010 piece, I’m pretty happy with my picks. Normandy ’44 has probably gotten more table time than Battle Above the Clouds or Bataan, but I attribute that more to topical draw than game quality. Julius Caesar and Stronghold have retained their pull and held up well.

Hearts and Minds is an easy game to like but a tough game to love. I’ve played it in 2011 but the feeling of problematic pro-NVA balance persists. The game plays very well but it’s hard to resist the feeling of inevitable NVA victory, not just on the battlefield but also on the victory point track. I still like the game, but will try starting in later years if I play again.

The outlier is Labyrinth. Apparently it got 5 plays this year, not bad for a game that isn’t “current”. On the other hand, it hit a wall after that. I am still fond of the gameplay, which is interesting in a lot of ways. I am less fond of how it treats its theme. For example, preemptively invading Iraq is a really good idea for the US, almost a no-brainer. The more I played the game, the more I got the impression it was an ex post facto rationalization of US policies and not a nuanced view of a tricky topic or a game with anything of its own to say. Then, the Arab Spring fully revealed the game’s fundamental misunderstandings, consigning it to being more of a historical curiosity that tells us more about the people who created it than about the topic it covered. And yet … it’s still an interesting game, mechanically and narratively. I still rate it pretty highly on BoardGameGeek. You just have to get past the theme.

Finally, from 2009, The Caucuses Campaign is still going strong, with another 5 plays this year. In retrospect, this is easily my best wargame from 2009.

Wrapping Up

I felt really positive about wargame releases this year. We didn’t get any great medium-heavyweights like we did in 2010, but in terms of highly playable games 2011 was terrific, and there are (as always) several rather promising games I haven’t even had a chance to try yet. If we’re lucky, maybe it’ll be a trend.

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