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There Will Be Games

In the second of my series of wargames we're going to look, appropriately enough, at the second barrier that's stopped me from looking into to these sorts of games. The first, as we discussed in last weeks column is the high value many of these games place on simulation. This time we're going to be looking at player numbers and the serious lack of good, playable multi-player historical games.

See as I've said many times before, I thrive on multi-player games. This is partly a practical consideration - I usually find myself in a situation where there are more than two people at the table wanting to play. But there's more to it than that of course. I enjoy the social aspects of gaming, and as far as that's concerned the more the merrier. I also continue to enjoy the diplomatic aspects of multi-player games in spite of all the people who tell me that I ought to be getting bored of it because it makes all games the same. It's this fondness for table talk that puts me off one obvious solution, a team game. Team games have to be extremely well designed to stop them falling into a situation of either one player bossing the others about or of a general team-malaise developing where players become so focused on their individual objectives that they find a team victory unsatisfying. But there are amazingly few multi-player historical games to be found, and once you've put on my previous caveats about team play and agonizingly complex simulations (if it's hard enough learning the rules yourself, try teaching it to other players) it narrows the field even further. Why are there so few?

Well, the pat answer is that wars tend to be two sided. Long-term three sided conflicts get messy, quickly. That doesn't mean that there aren't multiple nations or factions involved of course - this is relatively common - but despite whatever differences there might be in terms of military thinking or overall objectives for a conflict or campaign it's long been recognised that in order to have an effective military, there needs to be some sort of inarguable chain of command involved. The practical considerations of forming and maintaining such a structure and the overriding need to implement it effectively usually trump the inevitably petty bickering that would rise up from the various parties involved. So, historically, we continue to look back on conflicts as being two sided affairs - they end with a winner and a looser, and we leave the fine point of analysing the knock-on effects of this down the centuries to less militaristic historians.

But it's exactly this finer grained analysis which presents us with an opportunity to design some multi-player scenarios for wargames. For it becomes obvious in hindsight that that are degrees of victory amongst the victories allied parties and, similarly, degrees of loss amongst the vanquished. Take WW2. Of the allies, debating whether the Russians or the US came out of the war in better respective positions to start the cold war is a tough question to solve, but it seems clear that one of them must have done. It is equally clear that Great Britain came out of the war in a worse shape than when it went in, so in brutal game terms it has clearly "lost" in spite of being on the winning side. It is also arguable that of the loosing Axis powers, Japan came out of the war better, at least in the short term, than Germany, which ended up being partitioned. So in terms of designing the victory conditions for such a game one needs to look at the various factors - land, economy, manpower - which became decisive in the aftermath of a conflict and base your individual conditions for the various powers on which one came out of the game "leading" on whatever factors you decide are paramount.

So at the operational - and possibly at grand strategic - level there is clearly the opportunity to design multiplayer wargames. And it comes as no surprise therefore that of the crop which exist, this is almost exclusively where the focus is. When you come down to tactical level, things become much more difficult. At this level that overriding concern for maintaining a chain of command becomes even more, well, overriding. You might imagine a scenario where there are rival officers competing to have the biggest victory, the fastest march or the lowest casualties and history is littered with such examples. Officers are only human after all. But further examination will reveal that for the most part, these rivalries took a backseat to the demands of officers higher up the chain of command and that the most successful officers were, in many cases, those who were able to put such rivalries behind them in the interests of getting the job done. The pressure of the overall success or failure of a campaign, and indeed the very real pressure that comes from knowing poor decisions might result in the unnecessary deaths of your own troops, both of which help force such rivalries under the surface, aren't present in a game. So although you might set up a situation in which two players on the same side were competing for the "best" victory conditions, the result would be unsatisfying historically.

Is the construction of a multi-player non-team game at the tactical level then an empty dream? Well no, in fact. One just has to cast the net wider and pick your historical scenarios more carefully. They key concept here is that the recognition that a strong chain of command is a vital tool in military effectiveness did not suddenly develop as a black-and-white concept. The idea has risen and fallen in favour through the ages in accordance with the thinking and social conditions of the time and it's status as an all-pervading pillar of military orthodoxy is relatively recent. Sure, most battles historically were two-sided affairs but there were battles in which a third party was involved and whose commitment to either side was, at best, debatable. For example during the culmination of the Wars of the Roses, the Battle of Bosworth Field, which decided who would inherit the throne of England many of the nobles knew that they might suffer a serious loss of prestige and power, and possibly even their lives, if they commited to the loosing side. And several dithered - the Earl of Northumberland refused a command to advance and engage, using the difficult ground in front of his forces to justify his decision and the Earl of Derby actually changed sides after battle was engaged, with the defection proving critical to the outcome. There are a few other examples, if one should care to look. So while difficult, it is not impossible to imagine a multi-player tactical game with individual victory conditions. It seems that so far, however, the challenge and lack of source material has put most designers off, or resulted in sub-par offerings.

So we've determined that, although difficult, there are most certainly viable scenarios for a historically accurate multi-sided scrap. Sadly, further difficulties await. For starters I suspect that people who have a strong interest in wargames develop their taste in games with an inevitable two-player mindset precisely because so many of the games that interest them are two player, making it a self limiting market. But from a design point of view there are further problems to overcome. Multi-sided games of conflict have their own inherent problems such as kingmaking, bash the leader and so forth which can't be solved simply by deciding to "leave it up to diplomacy". There has to be some sort of mechanics solution instead of/as well as the balancing aspect of letting the players negotiate to form alliances. This is a tough call even in open-ended Ameritrash multi-sided conflict games as I've discussed before. When you're in a historical setting, your design choices are further limited by the need to stick to some sort of historically plausable scenario. One solution is to pick a many-against-one conflict such as the Napoleonic Wars when most of Europe joined forces to fight the French, but there aren't too many historical examples of this, further limiting the places from which you can draw inspiration. This is tough country for designers indeed - no wonder so many choose to stick to two player titles instead.

This being an area of considerable interest to me, I've spent quite some time trying to research and identify any games which have run the gauntlet of design problems and come out the other end without monstrous rulebooks and play times. Thankfully for me, there are a very few left which fit my criteria. Some of them aren't very good, but I've taken the time to try them and weed them out, leaving just three titles. And here for your benefits are the fruits of my research which are - by fortuitous co-indcidence - all currently in print.

The first, and best-known, is Freidrich from Histogames. This is a simulation of the seven-years war in which Prussia, under Freidrich the Great attempted to survive attacks from France, Austria and Russia. Have you ever heard of the seven-years war? Before coming across the game I hadn't, and I'm a military history enthusiast living in Europe. Indeed I wouldn't be surprised to find that the conflict was largely unknown outside of Germany (where it took place). This limits the potential historical interest of the game which is unfortunate because, in the final reckoning, it's some damn game. It gives players all the basics of wargaming such as supply and a sort of zone-of-control rule in a paltry eight pages of easily digestible rules. The game is tense and sometimes demands some fairly serious strategic analysis to advance your plans. When battles erupt, as they do with surprising frequency, you're pushed into an exciting sub-game which demands its own skills and a good poker face. The game also steal a trick from the CDG genre and uses event card draws to teach the players some history as they play. The all-in-one setup where the other players all play against Prussia but with individual victory conditions introduce a level of negotiation which is often sorely lacking in these sorts of games, and under unusual circumstances too. In short, it taxes and satisfies almost every conceivable skill that a game could and if that were not enough for you it also scales to two player, looks gorgeous and features startlingly innovative game mechanics. The only real low point, aside from the fact it's the seven-years war, is the sop given to player elimination haters which means you can suddenly take over the position of another player. This is immensley annoying but thankfully doesn't happen very often, and you can always just play it as a straight-up elimination game anyway. By the time players start falling in this title the end usually isn't far away in any case.

The second, and largely unknown, is Battle for Germany originally a magazine game but now republished by Decision Games. It's a traditional hex-and-counter affair depicting the end of the second world war and features Germany facing the Western Allies on one front and Russia on the other. In the two-player game each player plays the Germans on the opposing front, but there is a three player game in which the Germans are controlled by a separate player and even a four-player setup where each German front is commanded seperately. To my mind the two-player setup is bizarre and ahistorical (even if it is fun) and the three player game actually works better even though it was designed primarily for two. Even though the German situation looks hopeless, balance is maintained through the simple expedient of giving the Germans a relatively simple victory condition - hold Berlin - compared to the Allied powers who need to capture as many cities as possible. In spite of being a hex-and-counter game and having all the usual trappings of that genre such as ZOCs and a CRT the rules are extremely simple and occupy only four pages. However it works extremely well as a very high-level simulation (the units range in size from corps to entire army groups) of the theatre. The CRT is very attacker friendly but makes it hard to inflict casualties, leading to the feeling of titanic forces slowly pushing each other back-and-forth across Europe and the simplicity of the rules belie the depths of the strategies involved. What's more, it's awesomely cheap, although the game you get is, unfortunately, pig-ugly, especially to those of use used to lavish FFG production values.

My final pick for the top multi-player war games is a cheat, because it is in fact a team game. But it's a team game in which the designer has apparently taken great care to avoid the usual pitfalls that can bedevil such games and created a setup which is not only very playable but historically accurate too. The game in question is Napoloen's Triumph by Simmons Games. It's another game which features highly unusual mechanics - so unusual, in fact, that it can be a tough cookie to learn in spite of having only ten pages of rules, and it's another looker being IMO one of the best visual designs to ever grace a gaming table. The meat of the team rules is that players take on different parts of a chain of command. One player on the team is designated a commander-in-chief and it's his responsibility to create a battle plan and assign units between his command and those of his sub-ordinates. The team meets to discuss the initial battle plan and then, once the game begins, discussion of the plan must cease. The commander-in-chied may issue a written order to his sub-ordinates each turn but - and here's the catch - they can only open this on the following turn of play, representing the difficulty of passing orders around before the advent of radio. If the players are playing the two-day scenario they may meet again during the "night" to analyze the situation and change the plan and, if necessary, the units assigned to the different commanders. The whole thing really forces the players to actually work as a team rather than as individuals - everyone has a stake in contributing to and finalising the initial plan for the battle and then those individual command decisions can sometimes win or loose the whole battle for you and your team mates. Not only is this an intensively co-operative experience, but it imparts a tiny sense of the actual pressures of battlefield command, especially for the commander-in-chief in whose hands success or failure ulitmately rests. I only wish more team games would pay this much attention to multi-player play instead of adding it as an afterthought - indeed for many team wargames the multi-player option is something spotted and implemented by fans instead of being mentioned in the rules.

If you're willing to break some of the other constraints then the list expands considerably. A F:AT favourite is the highly diplomatic CDG of the Reformation, Here I Stand although you'll need ten-hour slots to play face-to-face games and another ten hours spare to learn the game. Sword of Rome is another very interesting multi-player CDG which will tax your patience for play time and complexity, if not as badly as HIS. If you don't mind straight-up alliance rules without the flourishes that make NT so interesting then the block game simulation of the Waterloo campaign Napoleon plays well with three. If you're really not bothered about the simulation aspect then you could just about pass off Wallenstein as a simple, fairly quick, historcal game. There are plenty of other examples if you do a little research.

Finally, there is another title, currently on P500, that I did want to mention in passing, because it looks like it has the potential to make a fourth simple, quick, satisfying multiplayer wargame is Crown of Roses. Set during the Wars of the Roses, which have to be one of the best contenders for multi-player wargame scenarios, it's been described as having ..

... the chaos of Kingmaker, the fog of war of Hammer of the Scots, the CDG aspect of We the People, and a combat system reminiscent of Commands and Colors; all rolled into a single game.
There's no release date yet so if, like me, you want to see it on the shelves quickly, get on over to its page on the GMT website and pre-order!
There Will Be Games
Matt Thrower
Head Writer

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


Articles by Matt

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