Basic Training

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basic-trainingA long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music ... no, wait. A long, long time ago I did a short series of articles about wargaming but I planned one that I never actually got roud to writing about choosing good introductory wargames. This is actually a pretty serious omission in my view: although we've got quite a few experienced wargamers (more so than me) on this site, there's a lot of other people here who are quite clearly very interested in conflict games else they wouldn't be here - and it seems a shame that a perception of unapproachability might be stopping them from trying out some historical conflict games as well. So, having even said as part of that short series that I was going to write a piece about introductory wargames, it's about time I got round to it. There's a reason why this is timely which we'll come on to later.

To start with though I thought it might be interesting to spend a moment dwelling on why it is that wargames are seen as being so unapproachable. I think there are two reasons for this, one of which is valid and well-deserved although surmountable. The other is not so valid and the only people to blame for it's continuation are wargamers themselves. The valid reason is the reputation for complexity that goes with the territory. Things have certainly moved on a lot since the days of monsters like Campaign for North Africa and Terrible Swift Sword but there are still an awful lot of very complicated games out there. And it doesn't help that almost universally wargame rules fail to be intuitive in the manner that some of the more complex Ameritrash games like Twilight Imperium 3 manage to be. That is, of course, unless you're already well-versed in the common mechanical concepts employed in wargames: so to the new gamer the apparent wall to be scaled looks an awful lot higher than it does to seasoned veterans on the other side. Hence one need for carefully chosen introductory games. The second reason is that a lot of wargames and wargamers assume a familiarity with history and military terminology that a lot of people simply don't have. That's pretty much inexcusable in my opinion, especially in the simpler games - some well-written design notes and a more open minded approach among players would go a long way toward solving this problem.

So what qualities should we be looking for in the ideal introductory game? Well I've already alluded to the most important one which is that it needs to be relatively simple to learn and yet contain within in some of the basic rules concepts of whatever genre it belongs to. The corollory of this is that any list of introductory games needs to cover all the major wargame genres - hex-and-counter, card driven, block and area-impulse are the biggest ones that spring to mind. That way not only will a gamer get to learn the concepts for a variety of game styles but the exposure may well leave him interested in only a single genre: not for nothing are most of the breakout hits in wargaming confined to the block and card driven games.

Other desirable aspects are less important and thus harder to pin down. Many wargames are very long but this may or may not be a problem depending on the person involved - and it can be mitigated somewhat by the presence of a Vassal module or cyberboard gamebox to facilitate online play. So to have the maximum width of appeal our games ought to have reasonable play times but this shouldn't be an overriding consideration. Same goes for production quality an area where wargames have generally been sorely lacking, although a number of recent releases by small publishers have put the lie to the oft-repeated idea that wargame publishers simply have to keep standards down to make a profit. Perhaps less obvious but more important is that we need to try and keep unit density down. One of the games I played fairly early during my own learning curve was A Victory Lost, and whatever the merits of the game system I found sitting in front of a map covered in 100+ unit counters that I had to move and co-ordinate every turn utterly baffling. This is an aspect that I think a lot of Grognards forget when recommending introductory games and again, it helps to explain why the block games (which have a relatively low unit count out of necessity) are such common breakaway hits.

The final thing to consider in terms of the list itself is that it ought to comprise a variety not only of meta-game styles but also historical periods, scales and angles of simulation. Most wargames, especially the simpler ones, try and concentrate particulary on replicating one aspect of the conflict on which they're based - say command structure problems in the early days of the Red Army in World War 2. So we ought to cover games that look at aspects of command, aspects of combat, aspects of maneuver and so on. The historical one is a bit more difficult because whilst it's nice to have a spread of periods to cover the fact remains that many people are far more interested in certain historical scenarios than others. Ancient warfare, Napoleonics and (whatever MB says about their proliferation) World War 2 are probably the most popular and if someone is particularly keen on one of these then they're probably better off looking at games from that conflict alone rather than considering a spread. Scale is the easiet one to cover: we need games that span tactical, operational and strategic scales.

So without further fuss, on to the list itself. I'm not going to limit myself to a particular number but just quickly run over some recommendations that I think meet the criteria and cover the sort of criteria that I've identified as necessary. I'll do them in date order ... because I can.

So first up we have the ancients game which is almost inevitably going to be Commands & Colors: Ancients. Although good, this isn't a favourite game of mine but then again I don't seem to be quite as keen on the merits of the C&C system generally as most people are so it'd be churlish of me to leave it out for that reason. I'm also think it's simplicity is oversold - don't go into this thinking you're looking at another Memoir '44. Commands & Colors: Ancients has something like twenty different unit types compared to three in Memoir '44 and has about three or four times the weight of rules. But if you're familiar with one of the other C&C games the learning curve shouldn't be too difficult, and if you're not then a good player aid will work wonders for you. But for all my doubts there's no getting round the fact that this game captures the very essence of ancient warfare at the operational level and manages to cram in an astonishing amount of simulation for the weight of rules that it presents. And perhaps more importantly it manages that rare feat of being simultaneosly challenging, exciting and lots of fun.

We're then taking a leap of over a thousand years to the medieval period and probably the most touted introductory wargame of all time, Hammer of the Scots. Not only is it an approachable and thrilling game but interest in the conflict it represents remains widespread thanks to Mel Gibson completely murdering the history in Braveheart. The rules are fairly short and also pretty intuitive although don't be fooled into thinking all block games use the same basic system - the underlying concepts are the same but most block games are very much more detailed and complicated. The game is also helped immensely because it is strategically approachable yet deep enough to remain interesting: the relatively narrow map of Scotland makes the wider sweeps of manever reuqired for victory pretty obvious but there's plenty of devil in the detail to work out over repeat plays.

Moving on to what might widely be called the "age of muskets" which includes Napoleonic warfare and the American Civil War I'm going to do something debatable and pick an outlier: Friedrich. The focus of this game is the European theatre of the seven years' war which isn't high on most peoples' "essential history" list unless perhaps you hail from Germany. Also this is the most innovative game I've picked on this list, at least in terms of departing from wargame norms, so you're not going to lean a lot of essential rules conepts from playing it. So why pick it? Well, the majority of ACW and Naploeonics games I've come across simply haven't been approachable enough to make the grade in my opinion. A House Divided, a common pick for an introductory ACW game isn't actually that easy to lean in my opinion as long as you're going with the commonly-held belief that it's only worth playing with the advanced rules: the basic rules would certainy suit but they result in an inferior game. In terms of Naploeonics The Waterloo Campaign would suit but we already have one block game, and the other contender, the simple (and free) Napoleon at Waterloo I have never played. And I think Friedrich does teach new players a couple of important wargame concepts: point-to-point movement and the idea of a suppy train which needs to follow your armies around and be protected as you advance are both shoehorned into some easily digestible rules. Plus it's a multi-player game and that's going to make it easier to find table time for in some peoples' gaming groups.

Inevitably we then come to modern warfare and the great bloated specter of World War 2 that hangs over wargaming like, well like a great bloated specter. Having said that I make no apologies for presenting multiple picks in this category: there are so many games that it's almost inevitable that many of the most suitable ones will sit in here. And I think a slew of recent releases makes it clear that however many games there are there's still life in exploring this theatre. Such as the Conflict of Heroes series which has been specifically developed, successfully, as a bridge between Eurogames and historical wargames with a rules set which likewise reaches across familiar concepts from well-known games whilst gently introducing some important wargame essentials. It's also a tactical-level game, something we haven't as yet managed to cover. The other recent contender is the "Storm" series from IGS which consists currently of just one game: Storm over Stalingrad. But that game is the epitome of cramming all the fun of area-impulse games into an emminently playable package and I see nothing so far to suggest that the upcoming games Storm over Normandy and Storm over Dien Bien Phu (see, they're not all WW2 games!) won't follow in its footsteps. My final recommendation in this category though is a very old game which has weathered extremely well: Battle for Germany. In just four pages of rules it introduces you to pretty much all the essentials of hex-and-counter gaming. It supports up to four players, scales well, is dirt cheap and has scenarios that range from 1-4 hours. So what's not to love? Well, the graphical presentation is awful but don't let that put you off this excellent game.

You'll probably have guessed my final pick in advance because there's one big genre of wargames I haven't covered yet: card-driven games. And my pick is, inevitably, Twilight Struggle. Yes, many people think it's not a wargame but there exists no finer introduction to the world of card-driven games. The other nearest contenders for approachability in the genre such as Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage and Wilderness War take half as long again to play and have about three times the weight of rules. Plus Twilight Struggle is, in my opinion, the best game ever made. 'Nuff said really.

I'm going to close this by taking a quick look at the direction wargames have been taking over the past few years. Whilst there are still lots and lots of games released in the traditional mould there has been a pronounced and ever-widenning trend toward making games which are more and more approachable and in doing so, a lot of wargame designers have been finding some very clever ways to bridge the gap and widen the appeal of their games. This is, funnily enough, the reason that inspired this article because my first response to last weeks' The Ceiling piece was that if you want innovation in games, go look at historical wargaming. Recent years have seen a growing tide of really quite original games: Friedrich and Conflict of Heroes we've mentioned, Fast Action Battles isn't to my taste but is undeniably inventive, Here I Stand arguably redefined the horizons of card-driven games. Those games might be re-inventions of tried and tested ideas but they still feel fresh and new and besides, trumping them all are the games of Bowen Simmons for which I can find no mechanical precedent at all aside from a slight nod to the Columbia block games. If you want proof that The Ceiling is made of glass, this is the area to look.

This tide of innovation seems to be annoying a lot of wargamers, probably the same ones who are responsible for mainting the illusion of impentrability that surrounds these sorts of games. But frankly - who cares? I'd be interested to hear from the seasoned wargamers on this site what they think of my suggestions and what their own lists might be. For everyone else, reach out with your crowbar, find your niche through one of the games suggested here and lever your way in: a whole new world awaits.


Matt is the founder of Fortress: Ameritrash. He is also a regular columnist for Board Game News.

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Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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