I’m not a timid gamer. I don’t shy away from complexity, and I don’t mind long sessions. But something has always scared me a little bit about wargames. There are a lot of reasons for this. Fair or not, wargames equal complexity in my mind. Historicity is always a key consideration in the genre, and that means that little exceptions will exist to make the game a little more accurate. Such detail also means that the game will might run for a while, possibly hours. But as I’ve said, complexity and length is something I can negotiate with. The real reason that wargames are intimidating is because of the subculture that comes with them. It’s a world that exists outside of Renaissance princes and Orcish invaders, one of military tactics and an insane knowledge of historical minutia. I like history, but it’s hard to see a paper map with stacks of chits and not feel just a little inadequate.
So it with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation that I sat down to play The Last King of Scotland, the new hex-and-counter game from Victory Point about the 1978-1979 war between Uganda and Tanzania. It’s not that this is a particularly complex game, nor is it very long. It runs about 90 minutes, enough to switch sides and play again. And when I strip away the bizarre mystique I sense around wargames, The Last King of Scotland shows me why people love this genre, and that there’s a much bigger world to explore out there.
The board shows a map of Uganda under Idi Amin Dada, with a player on each side of the conflict. Over eight months, the two countries fought a war that eventually resulted in Idi Amin fleeing the country. Each turn represents one month of time. As other nations like Libya and Mozambique join on one side or the other, new reinforcements come on the board. The Tanzanians come in through a narrow strip of territory at the southern edge, and need to capture a couple of key cities to win. Uganda needs to hang on long enough to keep Tanzania from overrunning them. Supplies are a constant factor for both sides, but since its their country the Ugandans rarely are without anything. The Tanzanians do have the numerical advantage however, and they have the resources to power through and take territory quickly.
Though this is clearly a hex-and-counter wargame, a couple of good design choices make everything more efficient. First of all, the variety of units is rather low. Any differences are expressed purely in numbers on the counter, making it easy to assess troops strength. Big units like armor and artillery roll special dice that hit on a lower number. It’s all very obvious and quick to learn. Another good move was that units are either on the board or dead. The only status to worry about is whether a unit is out of supply or not, which means it’s supply route is cut off and the unit will be severely hobbled if it fights. It goes a long way towards making the game less intimidating. If I can learn Mage Knight I can learn this, right?
This is not a game for those who don’t like dice. In some battles I rolled 11-12 of them to determine the outcome. Even stronger is the roll for initiative in each turn, meaning you don’t know who’s going to go first until you’ve rolled. That’s a particularly strong swing, but I’m alright with it because I just like rolling a bunch of dice. Here, it keeps things unpredictable and makes it simpler in general. I’m less sure how experienced wargamers will feel. Such diciness may be super-common, I don’t know. In a game this short it probably won’t be a deal-breaker for anyone.
One thing is for sure: The Last King of Scotland is a compelling, smartly-designed game. Despite my almost total lack of wargame experience, I was soon swept up in the conflict. I found myself naturally learning how to use terrain and my units. The map presented some choke-points that were a delight to discover. My biggest worry was that I would get into the game and feel totally lost, but I didn’t need to worry. Wargames may look about as flashy as a Wikipedia article, but they are, in the end, simply games.
And aside from developing a grasp for tactics, I found myself having a lot of fun too. This is partly due to the pace, which clips along really well. The Tanzanians feel like they need to race against time, and the Ugandans simply are outnumbered. There’s a good tension and pressure to each side, and while I might find such pressure a little exhausting in a four-hour game, in such a fast-paced 90-minute experience it works really well.
In some ways, this is the perfect wargame for me. I don’t usually have enough time to even play something like Twilight Struggle, let alone enough time to muddle my way through something much bigger. But this can be played without fuss, even as a solitaire experience where the player takes both sides. The simplicity and snappy pace means that it fits my personality and play style well. And I just had a good time, which is maybe what impresses me the most.
If you had told me a year ago that Victory Point would make a game that looks this good, I would have been shocked. But the new Gold Banner line continues to impress me with its quality. The mounted board fits like a puzzle, and feels really nice. Graphically the game is just great, clean and easy to read. It’s not at all hard to handle the chits, since they are thick and rounded. My biggest complaint in the production goes towards the rules, a particular bugaboo that I have with VPG. This time the problem is exacerbated by the fact that this is the first in a series of games on African wars. That means that the first half is rules for the whole series, the second half is specific rules for this iteration. That makes looking anything up kind of a headache, though it’ll be nice with future installments.
If you’ve always been a little curious about what this wargame thing is all about, The Last King of Scotland is a great place to begin. It’s intuitive, clean, and brisk, and looks a good sight better than most wargames. It’s also relatively inexpensive at about $30. And perhaps most interestingly, I now have some fascinating historical insight about a little-known war. I may never end up being a dedicated wargamer, but this game shows me the appeal of stacks of counters on a little map.
Nate Owens is a weekly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash. He drinks too much coffee and likes the Star Wars prequels. You can read more of his mental illness at The Rumpus Room.