The Road to Hell is Paved with Wargames
Matt Thrower
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In many ways I'm natural Grognard material. I'm a gamer - which is a pretty good start. I'm interested in history and military strategy which is ... pretty much all that's required alongside the gamer thing. Yet apart from a brief dabble in my teenage years I'd never really played any wargames.

The reason was twofold. First is the matter of my usual gaming company - there's normally more than two people around who want to game and none of my gaming friends have even a passing interest in military history. For that matter I usually prefer multiplayer games over two player titles. And all this is a problem if you want to persuade other people to play fairly long and complex historical games which are usually two player. The second is that although I'm interested in learning history, I'm not overly interested in playing something designed more as a simulation than a game. My primary interest is in setting up a game as a social situation and in pitting my wits against my opponents and coming up with clever strategies to beat them. I dislike the idea of learning complex rules just because they make the game more realistic without adding anything to social interaction or strategic play.

However, spend enough time on a site like BGG with a passing interest in a genre of games you've never played and you will, eventually get suckered in. This is the story of what happened next ...

PS - if any of the people I've mentioned in passing on this list want to come forward and identify themselves, feel free. I didn't mention names in case you didn't. But you'll know who you are! And thank you to all of you for your time and patience in helping me to get to grips with these often-difficult games.
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1. Board Game: Hammer of the Scots [Average Rating:7.56 Overall Rank:306]
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It's all the fault of Columbia Games.

The Scottish Wars of Independence are one of the few areas of military history that I can claim to know a bit more about than the average schoolchild. Since this is an area of continuing interest for me, I'd always been interested in this game but the combination of its 2-playerness and the scarcity and high price in the UK put me off.

Then, as an "apology" for some customer service blunder or other, Columbia had a weekend of post free delivery on all their games. That's post free - anywhere in the world. So I bought HotS. I wish now I'd bought a couple more games, as Columbia titles aren't easy to get in the UK.

At the time my baby daughter was only tiny and there was no way I was going out to play games, so I figured I'd look for some PBEM opponents over ACTS even though I'd done very little PBEM before. I found some, and played some games.

Little did I know it at the time but the twin seeds of my destruction had been sown - the availability of play-by-email clients of various sorts and the large army of willing and enthusiastic people who play wargames by email and teach others how to join in. No longer was "I can't find people to play two player games" a valid excuse.
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2. Board Game: Twilight Struggle [Average Rating:8.34 Overall Rank:5]
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One of the people I'd played a few games of HotS against suggested that we check out Twilight Struggle. It wasn't a game I'd really considered before as the theme didn't really interest me and it was another two-player only title. However he explained that there was an ACTS module to handle the cards so we wouldn't need to do much mucking about with Cyberboard - a program about which I knew next to nothing so I thought I might as well give it a go.

It became my second ever "10" rating. I'm now a veteran of ACTS, Wargameroom and face-to-face play and verging up on forty plays of this most excellent title. And I still can't figure out how to win as the US.

In retrospect this was clearly a cunning plan by an experienced wargamer to get me hooked. Not only was this a gripping and brilliant introduction to CDGs but it also gave me a gentle introduction to cyberboard, since all that was required here was to keep track of the game by dragging influence markers around. So I no longer had the excuse of being unfamiliar with the program as a defence to wheel out when the offer of playing more intricate titles was on the cards.

The game instilled in me a huge thirst to try some other CDG titles because I loved the system. The event/ops choice seemed to offer some agonizing choices (I didn't know at this point that some CDG titles separate the two) and the event effects seemed to teach you history as you play.
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3. Board Game: Memoir '44 [Average Rating:7.54 Overall Rank:119] [Average Rating:7.54 Unranked]
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So, before moving on to bigger things I had a request for my new PBEM friends. I wanted to try Memoir '44. I'd never played a C&C game, largely because of the whole 2-player only thing, so PBEM seemed like an ideal way to try it.

In fact, it's very far from ideal. As I was later to discover M44 plays best when it's fast, furious and face-to-face. Playing via PBEM slows it down too much, so it wasn't the best introduction.

Anyway, the wargamers weren't keen, it not being a "proper" wargame after all, but they indulged my whim. A number of games later I have to stand against majority opinion and say that in spite of its shortcomings it makes a better historical game than many give it credit for. After all, if you boil down WWII tactics to their very basic essence, it's really about making best use of terrain. And M44 does manage to capture that - and what more could you expect of a conflict game where the rules are boiled down to their very basic essence?

It's also worth noting that I discovered that my conception of M44 as a super-light game were violently dispelled by a PBEM player who repeatedly handed me my arse on a plate. There's more to this game than meets the eye.
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4. Board Game: Paths of Glory [Average Rating:8.00 Overall Rank:101]
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At this point I got cocky. Such was my desire to play some more CDG's that I just picked the second most popular one of the 'geek, read the rules, and tried playing on wargameroom which is full of very experienced PoG players.

It was a disaster. I really struggled with the rules - just "reading through" is no substitute for actually learning. But there was just too much here to learn. I bumbled about achieving very little except making my opponent very bored.

This game gave me a salutary lesson that "complexity" can mean different things. A game like TI3 is "complex" in a completely different way to the exception-happy and situation-dependent "complexity" of a game like PoG, even if the rulebooks look like a similar size. I just wasn't really interested enough in the game as a detailed simulation to put in the effort required to get to grips with it. I made a vow to steer clear of any future wargame that had more than ten pages of actual rules (not including diagrams, intro text etc etc).
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5. Board Game: Friedrich [Average Rating:7.56 Overall Rank:471]
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I'd actually owned this game for a while before I got to play it. After all, given that it's multiplayer and has something like eight pages of entirely straightforward rules it neatly circumvented my usual objections to buying and playing wargames. It was unfortunate the the conflict it depicted was something I knew nothing about and wasn't really interested in, but in the end it's the game that counts, so I snapped it up.

I was very pleased with the result. The game mechanics are unusual and, best of all, it balances various play factors very well offering exciting battles, good history, a smidgen of negotiation and some cold, hard analysis.

Unfortunately playing the game didn't make me any more interested in the seven years war, which has slightly limited the appeal of this title. The system looks to me like it'd translate brilliantly into a Napoleonic game but the last time I suggested that I got treated like a heretic, so I'll stay quiet.
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6. Board Game: Commands & Colors: Ancients [Average Rating:7.78 Overall Rank:97]
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After grudgingly agreeing to play M44 against me, it was suggested that we play the other C&C game - the one that's more generally seen as being a step toward a simulation. I readily agreed.

Having now played quite a number of games of this, I have to voice the opinion that I don't find it "superior" to M44. The essential problem is that the C&C system seems better suited to a fast, simple game like M44. C&C:A seems overburdened with rules for the relatively light nature of the play. Although that doesn't stop me loosing continually

However the important thing about C&C:A is that with it's wargame-esque rules it helped prepare me for tackling slightly more in-depth titles later down the line.
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7. Board Game: Target Arnhem: Across 6 Bridges [Average Rating:6.50 Overall Rank:3484]
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I figured it was about time I took on a proper old fashioned hex and counter game. This seemed like the ideal introduction - free, of limited scale, very simple to play and relating to another area of history I know a little bit about (the late Western Front in WWII). Only trouble was that I didn't have a copy and had no real prospect of getting one from the USA. However a kind fellow BGG user who'd tired of his copy offered to send it on to me, and we were good to go.

I liked this game. As an introductory game it's possibly beyond par. But the most important thing I gleaned from it was how much potential interest you can get from playing out what-if scenarios. It seems to me that in this game the chances of success or failure are often determined almost solely by the choice of initial allied drop zones and at first I viewed that in a poor light. But then I tried a couple of solo sessions trying to figure out the logistics to maximise the chance of an allied win. Before I knew it, I was completely hooked on doing this and it mattered not a hoot that I was just effectively winding up the game, letting it go and watch the results. Because doing so became absolutely fascinating.

This taught me the potential interest in a wargame as a conflict simulation and not just a meeting of minds across a game table. I guess there are quite a lot of wargames where you just position your initial forces with a strategy in mind and then watch them go. And that's okay because I guess that's rather like what military command is like too. I recall a story about Eisenhower simply going to bed early the night before D-Day because he'd made his plan, briefed his commanders and there was nothing more he could do to influence the result.
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8. Board Game: Memoir '44: Eastern Front [Average Rating:7.94 Unranked] [Average Rating:7.94 Unranked]
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I suggested to another PBEM opponent who was keen on M44 that we check out the Eastern Front expansion. We went right in at the deep end and played the Stalingrad scenario.

And what a difference it made!

I was really impressed with this expansion - it seemed to answer all the various issues that people had with the original. For one thing the Commissar rule forces the Soviet player to think ahead making the game more strategic. But the big difference is in the scenario design. The bigger, longer scenarios like Stalingrad raise the game well above the level of a dice fest because the random factors have more time to balance out. It also puts an end to "sudden death" victories where both players are one medal from victory and it's down to whoever rolls well first. Best of all the higher medal count means getting medals from scenario objectives becomes vitally important.

In short, it makes M44 feel much more like a wargame. I doubt I could have appreciated that were it not for my previous exploration of more in-depth games.
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9. Board Game: A Victory Lost [Average Rating:7.66 Overall Rank:962]
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So, armed with a passing familiarity with Hex and Counter games and my newfound knowledge that wargames could be interesting just from the point of view of setting up a strategy and watching the consequences unfurl, I approached AVL, another commonly touted introductory wargame.

And was rather disappointed.

This is by no means a bad game but I did find several problems with it. Firstly I thought the emphasis placed on having a unit activated by multiple HQs was both gamey and resulted in absurdly fiddly play as you attempted to position your various units and HQs precisely to get maximum activation attempts. Second the STAVKA chit causes vast downtime. Thirdly, and the one most down to personal taste, I found the number of units to keep track of somewhat overwhelming, and I know this isn't a terribly big game.

So the lesson is - yes, simulation is interesting to me, but only when there's not too many units to look at! Seems as though monster wargames are well and truly out of the question.
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10. Board Game: Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage [Average Rating:7.82 Overall Rank:140]
 
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When the guilds feature came out, I signed up for the ACTS guild in the hopes of playing Twilight Struggle and Titan. I also mentioned - in my ongoing quest to check out a maneuver based CDG - that I'd like to learn Hannibal. I was surprised by the speed with which someone volunteered to teach me

Hannibal pushed the envelope on my 10-pages-of-rules vow. It's got about ten pages once you take out the index, setup, card manifests and diagrams. And it really taxed my patience for bothering to learn a game.

My reaction to it was strange. For a game at this level of complexity it seems annoyingly capricious. But that same quality also levers a minority of games into realms of extraordinary excitement and brilliance. I was inspired to write quite a long review of this title which explains my feelings in more detail if you care to seek it out.

After playing the game a couple of times I went away and read some history about the Punic wars. I'd reached another milestone on the road - being inspired to learn history by a game, rather than being inspired to play a game because of the history.
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11. Board Game: Here I Stand [Average Rating:7.94 Overall Rank:172]
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HIS was a game I'd hooked on as being a potentially brilliant buy for me when it first came out. One trawl through the thirty-page rulebook and some horror stories of ten-hour games later I decided it wasn't for me.

And I thought it'd stay that way until the staff writers at F:AT set up a game. I really couldn't resist joining in, although when struggling through the rulebook I started to regret my decision. One cool thing about PBEM is it gives you lots of time to check rules before you make decisions, so it's a pretty good way of learning a game.

I realised afterward that I'd broken my 10-page rule for the first time. Another Rubicon crossed. But not one I feel like I'm going to break regularly. This has proved a tough one to digest - and I started out playing the Papacy who have one of the smallest footprints for the special rules in the game.

But it *is* a delight to play - at least PBEM. The way the designer has tied the very complex history of the period to the cards is just fantastic and really highlights the strengths of the CDG system. The way those same cards are used to promote diplomacy and negotiation amongst the players is also very nicely done. However, in the final analysis it's too complex and too slow for regular play for me - and the same is probably sadly true of any multiplayer CDGs.
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12. Board Game: Napoleon: The Waterloo Campaign, 1815 [Average Rating:7.34 Overall Rank:1038]
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At this point I arrived at another critical juncture on the road to hell. I started buying wargames I'd never played PBEM before. Okay, so I picked up a second hand AH edition of this game, it cost me next to nothing and, in hopes of actually getting it to the table, it was a multiplayer title but I felt that somehow a dangerous line had been crossed. How right I was.

From the little research I've done I'm pretty glad I got this edition. It's got a mounted board and half the units of the Columbia edition without - it seems - a whole lot less strategy. So I'm not going to be overwhelmed by unit density when I play this. I *am* tempted to see if I can get a few replacement blocks and add the leaders from the Columbia games edition. I might also try the alternative victory conditions suggested here:
http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/297899
Because the game as it stands is apparently horrifically imbalanced.

This is the only game on the list which I've not actually played. I'm not sure why. I just seem to find that newer games arriving always seem to capture more of my interest and make it to the table first.
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13. Board Game: Napoleon's Triumph [Average Rating:7.99 Overall Rank:389]
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Because this arrived shortly afterwards. I'd initially rejected this game because it's multi-player setup was a team game. But then I discovered that this is actually the highest rated multi-player historical game on the 'geek. And on a second look it turned out that the team setup was unusual and interesting, creating a devolved chain of command and and overall battle plan which looked like it might require some teamwork to implement instead of the standard loudest-player-bosses-everyone-else that plagues team and co-op games. And the final clinchers were that there was a fan-made solo scenario and the game looked so lovely that I thought it was worth owning as a display piece.

Unexpectedly I struggled big time with learning to play this. That hasn't been my experience with wargames so far - even the very complex ones have some sort of reference point I can use to base my learning on so it's just a question of digesting the sheer volume. But the design here I found so unusual that I had a hard time figuring out how the relatively simple rules actually related to on-board play and tactics. I took a number of solo run-through before I grasped it, and the game has proved a real beast to teach too.

Although the game proved much heavier than I expected, and generally enjoy - it has a real chess-like sense of maneuver - it proved worth the effort to learn. The maneuver aspect is deep and interesting but what really makes it is the psychological edge from the hidden information. It's another game where bluff and mind-games really pay off. I was also impressed by the way the team rules offer a tiny insight into the pressures of command - as the overall commander the success or failure of your team hinges on your plan, but overall success of failure can come down to the tiniest decisions made by your or your subordinates in unit command. Everyone truly depends on everyone else.
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14. Board Game: Battle for Germany [Average Rating:7.09 Overall Rank:2268]
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And not long after, this turned up in the post. I'd actually spent money on a hex-and-counter game. Ok, so it's not a lot of money and it's a fairly simple game (4 pages of rules) and it has my much-beloved multiplayer option. But still. It felt somehow shameful ... dirty ... to have such a cheap looking game nestling in amongst my shiny FFG collection. In the end I sandwiched it between Twilight Struggle and Napoleon, hoping it wouldn't feel so lonely.

But it's some game. Given the high scale (some counters represent entire Army Groups) I was hugely impressed by the way the strict ZOC effects on movement and the attacker-friendly but not overly destructive CRT really gave the feel of huge forces clashing across Europe. And the strategy was also really very interesting. The shorter Eastern Front and fantastical US vs USSR scenarios were just a bonus.

I'd said before buying this game that I thought I would prefer a paper map to the flimsy cereal-box boards that came with some "high production value" wargames. That assessment was based on the one-fold map for Target Arnhem which behaves itself very well on the table. The map to this game is horrible - it won't lie flat and it's visually repulsive. I'd love to mount it, but I can't find the time. I'd love even more to actually redesign it, but am hampered here not only by lack of time but a complete lack of design skill. I know there's plexiglass, but ... I'm just not going there.

The other thing that I found playing this game was that the tufts on the edges of the counters catching each other as they moved around was really annoying. So I clipped them - the image on this entry is my very first snip. Now that might turn out to be even more of a dangerous precedent than the first time playing or buying a wargame!
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15. Board Game: Rommel in the Desert [Average Rating:7.52 Overall Rank:1061]
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I pitched into this one and actually asked a fan of the game to play, because I'd seen it listed frequently as a good introductory wargame and the theatre interested me. Turns out, once I'd got the rules, that it was rather more complex than I was expecting, but since I'd actively asked to play I felt I had to go on and plough through.

And as it turns out the game is at least a bit more intuitive than I'd expected. It certainly seems easier to get to grips with than Hannibal, despite having more rules. Which rather underlines how pointless a measure the number of pages in the rules book is as a yardstick for complexity. Still, it's beyond what I'd, personally suggest a beginner should try.

The game - which is still going on - proved to be interesting and rather odd. I'd not come across a title in which such a huge focus was placed on maneuver and bluff. Combat takes a backseat - it seems that the threat of fighting is often more important than fighting itself. I also found the way in which combats to can go on and on and on for game-month after game-month to be rather silly. But the maneuver aspect of the game is challenging and engaging, even if it does present me with a rather larger decision tree than I usually like.
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So where now?

I've decided that I'm not interested in the following aspects of wargaming:
* Extremely detailed simulation (and attendant complexity).
* Moderate-to-high unit density.
* Long playing times.
* Games with huge decision trees of open movement.

I've also drawn the following conclusions about wargames:
* They have a puzzle like quality which is absent in the sorts of games I usually pick. But it's a good puzzle - one with history and people with weapons instead of numbers in squares.
* They're intellectually more challenging than I expected.

Given my tilt toward multiplayer games, when I first started exploring the world of wargaming I made a list for other to post some examples for me to try. I've actually now played most of the games on this list that I found most interesting. However, I'm still pondering over the following:

The Napoleonic Wars - I like CDGs but this looks to push the complexity envelope further than I'm comfortable with.
Sword of Rome - Ditto.
Britannia - A friend in my gaming group owns a copy of one of the older editions of this game. I really must try it. I've been put off by the people who describe it as overly scripted because I usually hate that in a game. But I still ought to play it - just once - to find out.
Hitler's War - Looks very interesting. But since it's OOP and I can't get a copy of the rules anywhere it's hard to find out more about it. I'm also a bit concerned that it just goes over the same ground as Battle for Germany.
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Matt Thrower
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Somewhat later on I made a list that collected votes from other lists on what were the best introductory wargames. These were mainly two player and so of less interest to me. Nevertheless, I have played several and have a vague interest in playing some more. After all, none of the game on this list are likely to break my comfort zone for wargames.

A House Divided - I have no interest in ACW and I know next to nothing about it. Nevertheless, this does sound interesting. And you never know - I might be inspired to learn some history after playing a game for another time!
The Russian Campaign (fourth and fifth editions) - I've a bit of a thirst for Eastern Front games after reading a book on Stalingrad. AVL didn't manage to quench it - this might.
We the People - I've tried Hannibal, and it piqued my curiosity about battle card games. And besides, it's about the only other CDG which is comfortably in my complexity/time constraints and I do love CDGs

I also have checked out the demo version of Lock 'n Load: Band of Heroes from this list. But the rules beat me.
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18. Board Game: Richard III: The Wars of the Roses [Average Rating:7.44 Overall Rank:1250]
Matt Thrower
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I thought I'd finish up by listing a few games which interest me purely because of the history.

First is Wars of the Roses. Although this is a two-player title it looks very likely to sit happily within my usual time constraints. As such I probably will pick this one up when it's released. Although I'm sorely tempted to wait and see if Columbia will do another "free postage anywhere" offer like the one that kicked off this whole sorry mess. Do that, and I'll pitch in for Rommel in the Desert and Crusader Rex as well. If anyone from Columbia Games is reading this, do we have a deal?

Second is Unhappy King Charles!. I'm fascinated by the history of the ECW and the way in which it forged many aspects of British Society which still resonate today. Sadly I think this is going to be well outside my complexity envelope as well as being 2-player and pushing the boundaries of my time constraints as well.

Thirdly I'd love to play an operational level Western Front WWII game. The candidates are Against the Reich and Fortress Europa. The latter looks to be more manageable in terms of complexity, but less interesting. Both are 2-player only, both will likely push my time constraints and both are out of print. But I can dream

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