Writing about wargames for the Shut Up Show made me think a bit about my opinions on this particular section of the hobby. Strangely, perhaps, for someone who doesn’t identify exclusively as a wargamer and indeed finds the concept of simulation in games often leads to excessive baggage, I have some pretty strong opinions on the genre.
The first of these is that, unlike any other classification, I have a cast-iron definition of what makes a wargame. If it’s based in history or near-history and attempts a passable stab at realism, it’s a wargame. If it doesn’t, then it isn’t.
That means very war-like games made by wargame publishers such as Space Empires 4X are excluded. And to me this makes perfect sense. If Space Empires 4X is a wargame, what makes TI3 and Eclipse different enough to be not-wargames? Some people think that any game with conflict is a wargame, and that’s fine. My definition is fine. Anything in between fails.
The other thing I feel powerfully is that there’s a distinct group of “top” wargames for me. So while I normally think it’s cheating to list near misses when making these lists, I’m going to do it here for that reason: I felt they all needed naming because they’re head and shoulders above their peers.
So the also-rans, and the reason they missed the top five despite being excellent games are as follows. Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage (too capricious), Napoleon's Triumph (too much like hard work), Commands & Colors: Ancients (too much like a Commands & Colors game), Here I Stand (too long).
Finally, most of you know that Twilight Struggle is my favourite game, and that it would make the number one slot, so I’ve skipped it to make the list more interesting. Not everyone agrees it’s a wargame after all. Although it is under the definition I’ve already presented.
Before I make the list I feel compelled to note that none of them are traditional hex and counter games. I make no apologies for this, however much it might outrage dyed in the wool Grognards, because most hex and counter games are either too long, or feel lacking to me without the additional layer of interest provided by blocks of cards.
There are some very good hex and counter games: my favourites are the Standard Combat Series games from MMP and Victory Point’s Napoleonic 20 series. But the former suffer terribly from a lack of moderate length scenarios - most seem to either offer introductory or campaign games and nothing in between. I have no idea why. The Victory Point games are a little bit too small scale: I realise that’s a key point to their design, but it’s still a limiting factor.
So, with that out of the way, here’s what’s left after my savage winnowing of candidates.
#6 Phantom Leader
Although this is a top ten game for me, I almost rejected it from the final list due to its solitaire nature. The clashing of competing strategies for supremacy is a key part of the appeal of wargames, after all. But when I thought about it I realised this does something unique, that no other wargame ever has: it actually makes me feel like a commanding officer.
It’s easy to see why. You have to plan your mission in quite meticulous detail if you want to win, considering payloads, targets, defences and all the things a CO would need to think about. And once your planes are unleashed your control of what happens is realistically limited, but not so limited as to make it a mechanical exercise. Every moment over the target offers seat of the pants thrills.
I haven’t played any other Leader series games. But I’m happy to put this in the top ten because it’s entirely historical and not, like the other more modern entries, dependent on third world war or other potential future scenarios to give it enough replay value. I believe there’s a deluxe version in the works implementing some of the mechanics from the more recent games: really looking forward to that.
#5 Combat Commander
I’m not going to spoil this one, because it’s my next review for SUSD. But after ignoring Combat Commander for years because it didn’t have tanks, I got it, played it and fell in love with it. Screw strategy and tactics, this is simply the most astonishingly evocative re-creation of combat I’ve ever played. Better even than most films and video games. It’s the game on the list that’s newest to me, and so the least played, and it could well creep higher on this list after more plays.
#4 Hammer of the Scots
Like many people, this was my “gateway” wargame, the title that made me understand that wargames didn’t need to be absurdly detailed, or long, or heavy. It remains possibly the best introductory wargame that there is in spite of being over ten years old, not least because so many people saw Braveheart and loved the characters and the history, in spite of the factual garbage the film actually represents.
The game is better history, although still lacking in some respects. But much like the movie it’s hard to care when it’s just so much fun to play. The asymmetry between the Scots and English sides is implemented simply but runs deep, adding vastly to replay value. Combat is terrifyingly chaotic, but careful consideration of overall strategy tends to win the day. And larger-than-life historical figures like Wallace, Bruce and Longshanks loom over the board.
#3 Washington’s War
Twilight Struggle was my first ever card-driven game, and it remains my favourite. But once I’d played it, I became hooked on the idea of finding a maneuver based card-driven game that seamlessly blended both aspects of play into one glorious whole. I’ve yet to find it: most of the contenders are too chaotic or too long. But Washington’s War is the closest yet.
After about ten plays, I’ve started to see patterns in the strategy, but it’s still incredibly fluid for a map-based game. And I still bemoan a dearth of actual historical events in the deck, but all those ops cards do quicken the play time to an amazing 90 minutes. The simulation of the fearsome but inflexible British and their resolute but raggedy Patriot foes is done brilliantly and important battles are nail bitingly-tense.
Plus of course, I get to repeatedly change history and keep America where it belongs, as a British colony.
#2 Conflict of Heroes
So this is it, the game that takes second place to my beloved Twilight Struggle. And it’s a close run thing: it’s hard to know where to start professing my love for this game.
It’s in the gorgeous components that you get when you open the box: the mounted boards, the chunky counters with rounded corners and glorious art. It’s in the cleverly design rulebook and scenarios which allow you to learn a moderately complex game piecemeal, yet leaves the early scenarios as fun as the last. It’s in the four-player scenarios, in the pared-down way infantry against armour is simulated.
But most of all it’s in the play. The way every scenario needs a plan and calls on you to respond and adjust your plan when things inevitably go awry. The way nothing is every obvious and the game traps you between the powerful hammer of uncertainty and the vicious anvil of opportunism. The way dice and cards are incorporated to add thrills, but are used to add to the strategy and the simulation.
Magnificent. I’ve loved both games so far although Storms of Steel is my favourite simply because I find the history and the vehicles more interesting. But I’m still hoping there will be more, a western front version at some point. It’s long been promised, but has yet to surface. When it does, it may be a long time before I do.