Chris' Introductory Wargame List
Chris Farrell
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The question of "I'm a eurogamer (or other gamer with no wargame experience), what wargames do you recommend?" has now become the most common question I get in my inbox, so in order to avoid my retyping a lot of stuff ... you get this GeekList.

Wargames, as games, do have a definite appeal. They are far more open-ended than most eurogames. I often think of eurogames providing you a number of "levers" that you can manipulate, choosing what values to input to what gaming subsystems. Wargames tend to be far more flexible, allowing you to use tools to solve certain problems. Tanks, infantry, archers, whatever all have different properties and behave in different ways, to be used on a wide-open playing field to achieve your objectives. Also, the head-to-head competition, the feeling of struggle, is appealing sometimes after the friendly, non-confrontational eurogames.

What this list is after is the wargames that will probably appeal to the gamer, i.e., the person to whom the historical situation or feel is not paramount, but who is drawn to good and challenging games. In most cases, the historical context is still facinating, but if you would be upset if a Roman legion contained Triarii in 64BC, this is not your list.
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1. Board Game: Rommel in the Desert [Average Rating:7.52 Overall Rank:1084]
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It should be no surprise, given what I've written elsewhere, that Columbia Games will feature prominantly on this list. Although I've made no particular attempt to rank these games, Rommel in the Desert has to be considered one of the best crossover games for a lot of reasons: the playing time is very moderate for many small scenarios (90min), while the full game covers the entire dramatic sweep and ebb and flow of the historical campaign. While I wouldn't call it a bluffing game, despite all the hidden information, the game has great tension due to all the guessing you have to do about your opponent's intentions, supply situation, strength, etc. While the rules are not teriffically well-written, the game is still quite straightforward and not dramatically more complex than, say, Puerto Rico (once you've factored in the implicit rules complexity of all the buildings). It's also highly playable, with a low unit density and a small map, while still presenting the player with myriads of tough decisions from strategic (do I attack or do I hoard supply) to operational (where and how do I attack, when do I break off, what is my tolerance for risk) to tactical (which units are best for which tasks). This is a top-10 wargame *and* game by any measure. This game is out of print unfortunately, but if everyone reading this preorders the reprint on Columbia's site, it will be reprinted in short order Or, you can just track down a copy on eBay, where last I checked it was still fairly available and not rediculously expensive.
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2. Board Game: Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage [Average Rating:7.82 Overall Rank:145]
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We the People has now spawned an entire genre of games, of which I have mixed feelings about many. We the People was tremendously innovative, but elements of it (like, the battle cards) simply didn't quite work. Later games from GMT have ranged from the very interesting but complexity-heavy (For the People, Napoleonic Wars) to the excellent but grognard-centric (Paths of Glory, Barbarossa to Berlin) to the good but somehow lacking somthing (Wilderness War) to the more or less completely dysfunctional (30 Years War). Although some 10 years old, Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage towers over all its siblings. Now, it is more complex than your average eurogame by a not entirely trivial margin, but it's a "good" complexity - the systems are streamlined, and each bit of complexity serves an important purpose in the overall game which makes the whole thing easier to internalize (the hardest rules to remember are the ones you rarely use). The card system is great and serves a dual purpose of game (providing uncertainty about your opponent's actions, and giving you a lot of information with which to make strategic plans) and simulation (reflecting the difficulties of getting your units to do what you want them to). The battle card system is much maligned as being ahistorical, but it manages to capture certain historical tactical realities (the Romans really do favor Frontal Assaults) while still being fun & interesting. All-around great game. On the one hand, it is out of print and becoming hard to find; on the other hand, I saw copies at Origins going for $75, and while that's a lot, it's a game that is absolutely worth it (heck, Thirty Years War was $50 new and that game was - out of the box at least - completely broken).
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3. Board Game: Napoleon: The Waterloo Campaign, 1815 [Average Rating:7.35 Overall Rank:1039]
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Another Columbia game, this one scores by being fast, simple, and fun. It doesn't have the same great depth as the best Columbia titles, but it is at an excellent balance point - not much more complex than Quebec or War of 1812, but with much more interesting play, and significantly simpler than EastFront or even Hammer of the Scots. The playing time is quite moderate, less than two hours in the Avalon Hill version, a little more in Columbia 3rd edition, which is again more accessible than even Hammer. It has a neat dual-layered design, with an operational game (where to focus your attack, which routes of advance to use given the terrain questions) layered on top of a tactical subgame involving breaking your opponent's line using the correct combination of infantry, artillery, and cavalry. Lots of interesting choices, and it has a friendly "roll lots of dice" feel. A classic, great game.

Once again, there are some edition questions. For the eurogamer looking to become a convert, probably the edition of choice is the Avalon Hill and Gamma Two printings, which are identical and long out of print but fairly available on eBay. This version is a little sparser, easier to play, and shorter. The currently in-print Columbia edition features a divisional rather than corps-level order of battle, and so a lot more units, but is otherwise more or less the same fundamental game. It has the advantage of featuring more incremental play; one mistake can doom you in the AH version (as in Puerto Rico ... did I mention the game is short?), while the Columbia version is more textured. Both are excellent.
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4. Board Game: Storm over Arnhem [Average Rating:7.17 Overall Rank:1605]
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Back to WWII, this is another game that spawned off a whole genre of games. While prior to this most wargames had an "I go - you go" format (a la Tikal - you move all your units, take all your actions, etc., then I do all my stuff), Storm Over Arnhem was the first big-time game to go with an impulse system, whereby the players alternate taking small, incremental activites - a platoon runs across the street here, an artillery blast there. This was combined with a much more abstract approach to modelling than had been used before, with city blocks traslating to areas on the map rather than being mapped out as individual hexes. This leads to a much more intuitive, high-level, and arguably more accurate feel of the ebb and flow of the battle than previous tactical games.

Storm Over Arnhem has two minor flaws - firstly, it's a little more complex than it needs to be. It still falls comfortably in the simple end of wargames, but it's still a little complex, mainly since it doesn't leverage as many concepts players are likely to be familiar with. Secondly, it's a bit long, on the order of 4-6 hours to play. Still, it's a great, tense, game.

I said I wouldn't focus too much on theme, but part of the appeal of this game is that this is such a great battle. Frost's battallion, which was expected to have to hold out against light opposition for hours, ended up holding Arnhem bridge against heavily-armed Germans and overwhelming odds for days. It's not hard to imagine a situation in which a small fraction of the bad luck that plagued this operation is reversed, and Frost and his men's valor result in British tanks driving across the Rhine into Germany in September 1944. Alas, it was not to be.

Storm Over Arnhem is also out of print, but used copies are not hard to come by on eBay. There are two editions, boxed and folio; I like the big, friendly counters in the boxed edition.
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5. Board Game: Wizard Kings [Average Rating:6.72 Overall Rank:1787]
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Wizard Kings is a personal favorite of mine. Columbia's games tend to fall into two categories. Firstly, the operational/strategic games like the Front games and Pacific Victory, in which you not only plot your operations, but also choose your tools, in spending money to build up an army to suit your needs. Secondly, there are the tactical games, which are much simpler, but tend to present you with a specific situation and set of units with which to accomplish it.

Wizards Kings succesfully finds a very nice balance between these two. You get to build your own army from scratch, and in this case each army has a wide variety of units to choose from, so you get great choices in this regard. You then get to apply it to a more tactical problem which, while it results in a less-grand game than EastFront, it also means the game is much less complex. This is, in my opinion, a very nice combination.

Another nice feature (depending on how you look at it) is that this is a game kit as much as a game, with lots of geomorphic maps and lots of different armies; so you can experiment with all kinds of neat stuff. The downside is that there really aren't as many scenarios as there should be; I have a few on my site that I've become fond of, but I wish there were quite a few more.

At last, a game that is in-print, no question. You can get it quite easily direct from FunAgain or Columbia Of the expansions, I like all the non-Island maps, and most of the expansion armies are very nice too - in terms of game interest, I'd rank them Undead, Dwarves, Barbarians, Amazons, Ferkin. The last two are a little borderline, but the first three are definitely worth getting. A pack of Chaos creatures or maybe two are recommended, and the Werebeasts are funky and neat (and include some decent aquatics, which most armies are a bit short of) but not a necessity.
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6. Board Game: Breakout: Normandy [Average Rating:7.65 Overall Rank:989]
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Breakout: Normandy manages to do a great job conveying the realities of operations in Normandy, but it does it in a way that makes a tremendously playable, accessible game. While it's a little more wargamey than the *most* accessible wargames like Hammer of the Scots or Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, at rules that weigh in at a fairly verbose 9 pages, it's not that far beyond the Euros in raw rules complexity. However, it has an amazing depth of play beyond simply understanding the rules, which is why the best wargames still have so much appeal to me - while it's true they are more complicated, the bang you get for your buck is tremendous. Breakout: Normandy is also interesting for a wargame because both sides have significant strengths and can attack and counterattack, unlike many wargames which cast players into an "offensive" or "defensive" posture for the entire game (although not many of the games on this list fall into this category).

Breakout: Normany is, I believe, officially out of print now, with MMP no longer selling copies. However, this game has never been in short supply and while I haven't checked out the eBay market, I can't imagine copies are fetching a huge price.
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7. Board Game: A House Divided [Average Rating:7.09 Overall Rank:977]
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A House Divided is a very good fundamental game with one rather significant issue - it takes a long time to play. The whole war is probably 6-8 hours, which will be a challenge and probably will end up being broken up into two sessions. Unfortunately, none of the shorter scenarios are quite satisfactory; you really want to get the the sweep of the whole war for best results, rather than the final years of the Union simply dismantling the Confederacy or the early, less decisive years.

However, if you can get past that, this is a fine and very interesting game. Interestingly, it isn't that "strategic" per se - it's not so much about choosing the historical Anaconda plan, or an Eastern strategy, or how to use your economic clout, as it is about the process of the Union destroying the Confederate army and the Confederate attempting to prevent this. There are, however, a lot of interesting tactical details - from how to improve your army by gaining experience, to favoring quality or quantity, to how to cope with the vagaries of the movement system which grants you only a limited number of moves per turn. This presents the player with lots of interesting choices, the game does have a good historical feel, and the system is fundamentally clean and simple, on par with the alea games for the most part. Unlike many of the games on the list, A House Divided is not a "highest recommendation"-type game, but it is worth checking out, especially if you are interested in the American Civil War.
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8. Board Game: EastFront [Average Rating:7.67 Overall Rank:1391]
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EastFront is not truly a simple game, and probably the most complicated game I would consider recommending for a first wargame. While my judgement is that complexity will not be a serious issue for someone who is a serious fan of alea's games, on the other be aware this going beyond the realm of euorgames in complexity. However, it is - along with Rommel in the Desert and Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage - one of the best "wargames for gamers" and one of the best games going, period. It shares with Hannibal a sense of truly streamlined complexity - everything in there has a purpose, and no rule is "chrome" or of marginal utility, which makes the game feel much less complex than many games with the same raw quantity of rules. Like Puerto Rico, every decision the player is asked to make is important - no fiddling ZOCs or getting CRT columns to add up right, it's all about choices of how, when, and where to attack/defend, what tools to use, and how to spend you scarce resources between building up units (and which units in which proportions are best) and supply. Not only is this one of the best games there is, but the system can be applied with only a few new rules to WestFront, MedFront, and EuroFront - none quite as good as EastFront, but all very good nontheless.

EastFront is in-print and available from Columbia. If you buy it and like it, spring for the VolgaFront expansion which will significantly improve the 1942 & campaign scenarios and give some interesting alternate history games also.
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9. Board Game: Squad Leader [Average Rating:7.48 Overall Rank:491]
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When most people say "Squad Leader" these days, thoughts turn to SL's behemoth successor, Advanced Squad Leader. ASL is a great product, but more of a lifestyle choice than a game and a little out of the scope of this discussion.

Classic Squad Leader, though, has a lot going for it. It was utterly revolutionary in many ways in 1977, and like many games that changed the way we think about things, is still good. It features "programmed instructions", a way to get into a modestly complex game fairly painlessly, by introducing the rules in playable subsets. It features interesting tactical gameplay that is unique - very much a matter of managing chaos, as units are fragile and firepower prolific, so you need to make your own opportunities and take advantage of them. Like many of the best wargames, it can be as much about player morale as the morale ratings of their cardboard troops, as the ability to persevere through the inevitable runs of bad luck makes a huge difference. All this is in addition, of course, to the wealth of tactical details that WWII squad-level combat provides - utilising terrain, coordinating different weapons systems, and using working with morale and leadership.

This is a great game, and there is absolutely a reason why it is, I believe, still the best-selling board wargame of all time. It isn't complex, it's comparatively clean until you get to some of the later chapters in the programmed instructions, and while it isn't true in all the details, it gives a good, historical feel.

Every later module (or "gamettes", as they called them at the time) has issues of some sort; Crescendo of Doom and beyond should be avoided. Cross of Iron is worthwhile if you like the basic system, but resist the urge to get the Brits; as tempting as it is, the rules got seriously out of hand later on.

Squad Leader is out of print, but copies are not hard to come by. Alas, now that ASL has come to dominate tactical wargames, players are not as easy to find as they once were.
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10. Board Game: Pacific Victory [Average Rating:6.91 Overall Rank:2894]
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Whenever anyone says they liked or have fond memories of Axis & Allies, this is the game I would point them to these days. In some ways, Pacific Victory is a distant cousin to A&A, but it is a much superior game. Build your armed forces up from a pool of infantry, air, carriers, cruisers, battleships, subs, etc., deploy them to face the enemy, roll lots of dice ... The rules to Pacific Victory weigh in at about 12 pages, which is non-trivial, but which is still not a lot and once you've grasped the overall concepts, the details are not hard to master, putting it not to far out of the realm of the most complex euros. This is also one of the tenser of the block games, with the hidden units providing a lot of drama over who is deployed where. With quite a few strategic options for both the Japanese and the Allies, and a lot of tactical details to consider, this is a very rich game. Another nice feature is that the Japanese in the game are non-trivially stronger than they really were, which makes the game a little more balanced; like American Civil War games, WWII Pacific games can often seem like an exercise in the Americans simply dismantling the Japanese. In this game, the Americans will face more tough choices.
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11. Board Game: Ambush! [Average Rating:7.40 Overall Rank:694]
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This game is absolutely a blast to play, and it overcomes one of the main difficulties in wargaming - finding opponents who want to play the same game you do. This game is modestly complex, and it does take a while to play (you've got to look up every hex you enter in a fancy sleeve, which even if it just says "NONE" for the paragraph lookup is not swift), but it can be very rewarding. It's got a great Indiana Jones WWII action-adventure feel, the missions are frequently well-written, interesting, and exciting (definitely pick up the Purple Heart expansion), and you get really attached to your squad as they gain experience and become battle-hardened, which makes the opening rounds of the game gruelling as you sneak towards your objectives and wait for the German LMG to open up. Great game, and tactically interesting too - taking out nests of Germans is actually kind of tricky, and those tanks really put the fear of god in you as they are totally devestating, but can be beaten by gutsy play.
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12. Board Game: Fallschirmjaeger [Average Rating:7.78 Overall Rank:3360]
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I am in general not a huge fan of The Gamers/MMPs Standard Combat System, but it definitely bears mentioning because it is in fact a very simple series of games - just 6 very straightforward pages of standard rules, plus a few extra pages of specific rules for each game in the series. Fallschrimjaeger is, in my opinion, the best of the SCS series of games because it's fairly modest. Ardennes is probably the most popular, but that is a huge and time-consuming game; Fallschrimjaeger is a much quicker, sharper action, for which small scenarios can be played in an hour and even the big campaign scenario is not out of hand. Another advantage of SCS is that it is largely designed as a stepping-stone to bigger, traditional wargames so if you like it, what you've learned will come in handy when you move on to The Gamers/MMP's OCS, one the best wargames ever (see below). This is the only entry on this list with a true "classic" wargame feel, with hexes, ZOCs, CRTs, and little interaction in the sequence of play. Unlike most of the games on this list, it doesn't earn my "classic game" tag but it is interesting, is very simple, will serve you well if you move on to bigger games, and is fun and action-packed. And still in print. The SCS series rules should be downloadable from MMPs web site (www.multimanpublishing.com).
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13. Thing: N/A
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Now, I'll mention a few recent releases that I don't personally have a lot of experience with yet, but are worth doing some research on. Recent games are good in the wargame world same as in the euroworld, because people want to check them out

Liberty is the latest release from Columbia, and a cousin of Hammer of the Scots. It looks promising for two reasons: firstly, it's a little simpler and less chrome-laden than Hammer of Scots, which while it was a simple game was burdened a bit with special rules for Kings, Celts, Norse, etc. Secondly, it's got hexes instead of areas, so it should be a little more wide-open, with less of the constricting channeling that eventually stereotyped play for me in Hammer. Also, it's a bit shorter; Hammer is not long, but it felt like it was a little longer than it wanted to be. Anyway, definitely one to check out, and the rules are available online at Columbia's web site.
 
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14. Board Game: Lock 'n Load: Forgotten Heroes – Vietnam [Average Rating:7.41 Overall Rank:2482] [Average Rating:7.41 Unranked]
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Another recent release from a computer wargame company turning to boardgames, this is a promising effort which goes against the recent grain of ever-more complex wargames. Will in return to the promise of Squad Leader? I don't know, I haven't played yet, but I have downloaded the rules (which are on Shrapnel Games' web site) and it is now on my list of games to purchase. Again, it probably will be easier to convince people to try than classic Squad Leader, and probably has the same appeal.
 
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15. Thing: N/A
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This is a new Operational card game from Lost Battallion games, with cards representing Battallions. Players struggle for control of Stalingrad, either in the fields (Drive on Stalingrad) or in the streets (Streets of Stalingrad). Behind a massively opaque rulebook is a fairly straightforward game with some nice elements - there is a little more than just playing the cards you've got and seeing what happens, you've got to plan your attack and judge the risks. The tactical play is often not hugely compelling, but as you link multiple hands together you get a nice level of resource management. Where this game really scores, though, is in the nice level of historical feel it provides without a great deal of complexity. The Panzer and Infantry divisions behave differently, and use appropriate tactics. The Soviets and Germans have a different feel to them. And the game plays quickly. I almost think of it as a land-based cousin to Modern Naval Battles, but with much better attention to historical detail. The flavor text on the cards does define a new floor for the genre, though.

The game is still a bit pricey for what you get, and a couple of games has not been enough to entirely sell me. But, it does show promise and is worth checking out. Again, rules are on Lost Battallion's website.
 
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16. Board Game: Monty's Gamble: Market Garden [Average Rating:7.06 Overall Rank:3104]
Chris Farrell
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Monty's Gamble: Market Garden is in the hands of a few people who went to WBC and is being shipped as I write this. This game is, in the main, identical to Breakout: Normandy in rules, which is a plus (get 'em both for the price of learning one). As I mention in Storm Over Arnhem above, this is a great campaign, and it has the advantage of giving both sides the initiative in different sectors so it's not a strictly attacker/defender situation as in most games. The only glitch with Breakout: Normandy is the playing time, which could be a little long at 6 hours; Monty's Gamble is shorter at only 4 days for the main game vs. 7, so playing time should be a little lower. Unfortunately, the rules are not posted online anywhere and MMP does not always do this, so you might have to check out the forum on talk.consimworld.com.
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17. Board Game: Grant Takes Command [Average Rating:7.89 Overall Rank:2563]
Chris Farrell
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I'll close here with 2 medium-complexity games, games that I don't exactly recommend you check out as your first wargame, but games which are both only modest complexity, comparatively, and amongst the absolute best wargames going in my opinion, and which might be interesting to think about. Plus, these three are all series games, which means you can invest the energy to learn them once and then play them for many years.

If you're at all interested in wargames, even if you're not a Civil War geek, you're really missing a treat if you haven't played the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War series. It's a rare wargame that can combine modest complexity, tremendous playability, and solid historicity all it one package, and GCACW is one of those games. Grant Takes Command is probably the best entry in the series, with an awesome set of scenarios and campaign games that capture the grand sweep of the bigger games while still being quite playable (the larger campaign game should be doable in two long sessions, the smaller one in just one full day. The longer one is better though, I think). Grant Takes Command is a tremendous game and was my pick for best pre-20th C. wargame in 2001, but the slightly more accessible but rather less impressive Wilderness War swept the awards. The only knock on the GCACW games is that unlike many of the big operational/battle games (The Gamer's Operation Combat, Civil War Brigaide, and Regimental Sub-Series, GMT's East Front Series and Great Battles of the American Civil War), GCACW just doesn't scale at all beyond two players unfortunately. Not a drawback in my book, but it depends on what you like.

Series rules are available at www.gcacw.com.
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18. Board Game: Korea: The Forgotten War [Average Rating:8.11 Overall Rank:2302]
Chris Farrell
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OCS is an awesome system, currently my favorite "big" wargame. It packs a huge amount of decision making and planning into a comparatively modest rules volume, as well as being tense and exciting. Although many entries into the OCS are top-notch, Korea is an excellent place to start. Both players in this game have a wide variety of capabilities, from tanks and elite infantry (for the Koreans) and Marines, jets, and beefy US Infantry divisions (for the UN) all the way down to conscipt infantry on both sides. Both sides take their turns as attackers and as panicked defenders, and the campaign has a great sweep to it. Plus, Korea has a lot of different scenarios, as well as a very interesting campaign game.

OCS may actually be easier for players without an extensive wargaming background to learn, as it can whack experienced wargamers by several rather non-traditional approaches to traditional problems (very weak ZOCs, highly variable and rather defender-friendly CRT, variable turn order, and of course the emphasis on supply), as well as the fact that OCS focusses on managing operations and pacing and choosing how much force to apply, rather than the traditional model of being given a certain amount of force and deciding how to use it. Anyway, this is an amazing system and actually in my judgement significantly the most realistic operational wargame, certainly the best tradeoff between playability and complexity (compared to some similar games such as the Piercing the Reich games, Barbarossa, etc., which often do far less with more), and well worth the effort to understand.

I believe the 3.0 version of the OCS rules can be downloaded from The Gamers/MMP web site.
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19. Thing: N/A
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