The Tabletop gaming hobby is nothing if not an expansive milieu. If, sadly not yet in demographic terms, then certainly in the range of experiences on offer and the mindsets they attract. From the abstract to the thematic and all the myriad variations therein- it contains niches within subsets within niches. Each with a tightly bound cadre of adherents, cross pollinating at the fringes yet bound densely as dark matter at their core.
If one were to imagine them all as avatars attending some kind of fictional soiree – then perched in the corner, far from the dancefloor, puffing studiously on a ceramic pipe and casting a disdainful eye over the more frivolous revelry would be sat the bearded grognardian visage of the Wargamer.
Lifting an elbow-patched sleeve to sip thoughtfully from a tumbler of brandy, they share whispered asides of triumph on the eastern front, the perilous logistics of chit-stacking and the academic idiosyncrasies of dense rulesets detailing supply line integrity and waterborne deployment. Their cable-knit woollen jumpers akin to a hairshirt in which they take pride in their penance.
And maybe, just maybe, after a few fruit-laden cocktails you work up the courage to engage them in conversation – fumbling your way up to the GMT-heavy end of the shelf as you seek to decode this strange olde worlde of simulation. Where does one begin to form a common bond, a common language?
Well, with Twilight Struggle obviously. Thanks for coming to my TED talk.
Or maybe, if you don’t have three hours – with Judean Hammer, the debut release by Catastrophe Games and first entry in the proposed ‘Conflict of Wills’ series. In doing so you might also learn about the origins of Hanukkah and discover that like all religious celebrations-peel away the ceremonial trappings and you’ll find it steeped in blood.
It’s also a tale of guerrilla warfare, popular uprising and ‘divine intervention’, an almost perfect set of parameters to play out upon a paper map with cube and card, again reinforcing the truth that human history is as rich, terrifying and compelling a wellspring as any fictional inspiration on which to draw when exploring the many narratives of conflict, belief and empire.
And that’s an enormous part of the appeal, right? Real world, real stakes, real people. Really happened. A brief clamour passes through the grognardian ranks, as their leader picks a crumb from his beard in approval.
This particular chapter took place in around 200 BC, when during one of the endless ebbs and flows of the Hellenic empire, the land of Judea came under the control of Antiochus III, the Seleucid king of Syria. During his reign he was content to allow the local population to continue their religious beliefs and practices unfettered, but upon his death and the succession of his son Antiochus IV, this policy took an abrupt about-face that would prove disastrous for the Judean peoples.
Antiochus the younger outlawed the practices of Judaism and sought to enforce worship of the Hellenic pantheon, his soldiers descending upon Jerusalem in 168 B.C. in what devolved into a massacre of thousands that culminated in the desecration of the holy Second Temple, the erection of an altar to Zeus and the renewed practice of animal sacrifice.
If the history of occupying forces over the millennia has taught us anything its that as surely as day follows night, this kind of heavy-handed occupation would be met with resistance. And so – led by the Jewish priest Matthias, a devoted insurgency flared against Antiochus and the Seleucid Monarchy. Two years of rebellion and guerrilla warfare ensued before the death of Matthias and the ascendancy of his son Judah, who exhorted his followers to cleanse the Second Temple, rebuild its altar and rededicate the space. Within a further two years they had successfully driven the Syrians out of Jerusalem, and Judah had been gifted the mantle of Maccabee, or ‘The Hammer’.
Hammer of Justice Crushes You
The game inspired by these events, Judean Hammer, places two players in either the sandals of the Judean revolutionaries or the occupying Greek armies. Asymmetric forces with very different strengths and liabilities that play out this historical re-telling utilising an accessible card-based system redolent of the aforementioned Twilight Struggle but not bereft of its own additions to the formula.
Played out within a brisk 45-90 minutes, its victory and fail-states leave little room for dithering, especially when playing as the revolutionaries, who must make the most of every turn and every trick in the guerrilla playbook to usurp the might of the Greek forces and throw off the yoke of oppression. By contrast, the Hellenic player is gifted with initial dominion and has a freer hand in their path to victory, albeit one that can come very rapidly unstuck should the Maccabeans manage to undermine their supply centres, the Achilles heel of any occupying force.
Victory is tallied in points, which will be doled out based upon the dominance of six individual regions on the map. Whomever holds the most cities in each region at the end of each turn is declared victorious and gains a point, with the first player to reach twelve points taking the day. Consider that the Greeks start in possession of four of those regions and you’ll see that twelve points is not a lot of leeway. This is not a meandering and cautious affair, with the revolutionary forces in particular needing to be swift in bloodying their hands and forging an underdog’s come-from-behind momentum.
At the commencement of each round, players will draw a hand of four cards from a limited, and therefore highly gameable twenty-six card deck. (Side note – in one of its very few concessions to luxury, the game ships with a wooden card holder for each player that can comfortably hold…three cards). These cards – much like those in Twilight Struggle and similar card-based wargames – can be played for either their Operations Points or their depicted event. Play a card featuring an opposing forces event for the OP’s and they will have the option to trigger the event in their favour.
Due to the apocryphal nature of writings on the conflict, events are less singular than in similar offerings, and instead often take on the more generic guise of the likes of ‘Show of Force’, ‘Well Trained Cavalry’, ‘Inspire Locals’ or ‘Shock Troops’. If this shaves a little thematic depth from proceedings then at least the classical paintings and illustrations that colour the cards are arguably more aesthetically pleasing than say, a black and white photo of Leonid Brezhnev’s glowering face.
What ‘Judean Hammer’ adds to the mix is the combat modifier inked onto each card. This adds further weight to the decisions endemic in any ‘deck burning game’, as when you use the card for its special event, you not only remove the card from the game, denying yourself further access to those sweet, sweet OP’s, you permanently remove a beneficial combat modifier for your forces. Incautiously burn through your hand for short term gains and you’ll find your combat prowess wither as your modifiers are pruned and the odds start to irrevocably tilt in your opponent’s favour.
And in a game with a map-space this tight – conflict is crucial. If the likes of Cuba Libre have been likened to ‘a knife fight in a phone booth’ then Judean Hammer is similarly brutal, where forces are packed densely into a highly contested space, but where equal parts deliberation and decisiveness are paramount.
Combat unfolds thusly: attacking and defending forces will tally the number of units (cubes) engaged in the conflict, then a card is drawn from the deck that will add a combat modifier for either the Maccabean or Hellenic forces. The army with the higher value is then declared victorious-instantly eliminating one of their opponent’s units. Both sides will then roll for casualties using the included twin d6’s. The victorious army loses one unit on the roll of a 5 or 6 whilst the losing side does likewise, additionally rolling for every unit until one is declared safe.
It’s a simple system and easy to intuit, whilst also factoring in the winnowing of forces that befalls even a victorious expedition. Pyrrhic victories are definitely a thing here, and crucially- the odds are always tied to the deck. Those events are sorely tempting though. This simple quandary does a lot of heavy lifting here, rendering the decision space intriguing throughout, as pragmatism wrestles with opportunism and a strategy that must evolve to meet the ongoing contingencies of war.
It’s far from a fair fight, however. Initially outnumbered and outgunned- the Maccabean forces need to rely on their speed and their capacity to ambush if they are to prevail. Their units are more mobile than those of the Greeks, and (with some caveats) can be mustered from anywhere on the map – mirroring perfectly the whack-a-mole paranoia of counter insurgency. In contrast, the Greek forces start with a firmer dominion over the map, and the benefit of consistent reinforcements from their supply centres. Should the Maccabean player manage to disrupt the supply lines of the Hellenic interlopers however, the Greek Army units can rapidly find themselves isolated and cut off from aid, falling to the revolutionary zeal of the lesser force alarmingly swiftly- especially in the crucial central Jerusalem region of the map.
For them, defence of their supply routes is critical if they are to hold the line. As the incumbent, they are less compelled to capture new territory than to defend with every breath the cities they commence with, as this will be enough to grant them victory within the space of three turns. With a limited number of units on each side however, this incumbency renders them less flexible as units are stitched tightly to their encampments whilst the retaliatory insurgents are free to harry their fringes and pop up unexpectedly within their borders.
Cue Climactic Training Montage
At first glance, the task for the Maccabeans seems nigh-on insurmountable. They not only start with less territory but are placed at a minus one disadvantage on the victory point track. Unless they make the utmost of their hand and cleverly marshal their forces to disrupt those critical supply lines, then their revolution is in real danger of being suffocated in its cradle.
Your first few games are likely to play this out, as players come to grips with the speed with which they must enforce their will on the map as well as the possibilities inherent in the events deck. As mentioned previously, capped at a meagre twenty-six cards, this is a process that will occur sooner rather than later. By our third game the revolutionaries were absolutely putting the scare into the Greeks, drawing them into conflict on their northern borders, even as pockets of resistance popped up in the south within an alarming proximity of Jerusalem. The Hellenic armies found themselves split in defending multiple supply lines and the divine intervention of the draw deck saw their central column crumble as history repeated itself in the shadow of a flickering eternal menorah.
When it comes together in this fashion, Judean Hammer can be an immensely satisfying experience, however- just as often it can find itself in a bit of a quagmire, as troops ping pong off one other and regional control fails to be ceded, that twelve-point endgame looming swiftly to impose a limit on the horizon of possibilities.
As an introduction to the wider world of wargaming though? This is a fantastic primer. Whilst appearing somewhat dusty and desiccated to the untrained eye, there is a richness in these historical simulations that is absolutely worth investing in. Judean Hammer, with its low price-point, simple mechanics and brief playing time offers a low barrier to entry for those who may have previously been intimidated by the scale and complexity of other titles within the genre. And for old hands, in a hobby that routinely leans on the tri-partite pillars of World War II, Napoleon and the American Civil War, the fact that it mines a much less well-trodden furrow for its inspiration is also worthy of note.
Not only does it offer a fresh take on the accessible format of Card Based wargaming, it grants newcomers a fantastic opportunity to experience the strange alchemy that occurs when one is truly invested in the fate of their forces, the perfunctory paper map transforming within the mind’s eye into a valley filled with mud and blood, and those innocuous cubes or chits springing to life, vivified as living breathing footmen in the margins of world history.