A look at four of Columbia's block wargame offerings.
Rommel in the Desert
The progenitor, first released in 1984, is still going strong today. Rommel is scenario-based, in that several different versions of the game can be played unlike, say, Crusader Rex. Most of them emulate different stages of the North African theater, but solely between the Germans and the British. They all take place before El Alamein and the constant retreat of the Afrika Korps after that crucial battle. Each player has a hand of cards that he can use to determine what kind of overall actions they're taking on their turn: Move, Offensive, Assault, or Blitz. Move is just one move and combat; Offensive is two moves and then combat; Assault is one move and combat but with doubled attack dice for both sides; and Blitz is two Moves consecutively. The symbols on the cards tell you what action you can take. However, some are blank "dummy" cards used to enable bluffing. Also, hearkening back to those Avalon Hill days, there's a CRT of sorts, in that certain unit types are more effective against particular opponents. Like many of those older wargames, there are several levels of victory in Rommel, too, ranging from getting units off the opposite map edge to simply having more units left on the board.
One of the key elements of this game, as opposed to most others, is that of supply. Despite simplifying some aspects of the original design compared to exhaustively detailed hex-and-counter games, designer Craig Besinque still wanted to emphasize the often torturous logistics of conducting a modern war. Therefore, many actions are only feasible if the player can trace an uninterrupted line back to a supply depot or base. The other element that makes it stand out is the aforementioned bluffing. When the offensive player plays his cards, he plays them face down and the defensive player has to decide whether to engage or retreat from whatever is coming his way before any blocks are moved. He might have the superior unit composition, but if he doesn't, can he really risk double attack dice if what's coming is an Assault? Be aware, however, that because of the higher level of detail, Rommel can have a significantly longer play time than many other block games.
Things I like
First off, it's mechanized warfare, which is kind of unusual for block games. Secondly, you get a chance to play as Erwin Rommel, one of the more innovative commanders of the modern era (oh, yeah, and Montgomery, I guess.) I also enjoy the fact that there's greater effect to how certain troops are impacted by the attacks of others, instead of just fire rate/initiative as in many block games and that the "fog of war" aspect common to all of them is further heightened by the bluffing mechanic of the card play. Also, I appreciate the high number of scenarios.
Things I like less
Checking every move for supply viability can become a little tedious and occasionally feel too constraining. It can be a problem for the inexperienced player who lets an enemy unit behind his lines to suddenly find out that his grand plans have gone up in smoke. Conversely, the bluffing aspect doesn't work quite as well with two experienced players. Also, as Columbia's first block game release, the art for both block labels and map is a little less than games that followed.
Hammer of the Scots
Hammer is the other most well-known among Columbia's offerings, as it's also been out for some time (16 years) and has cinematic assistance. After all, who doesn't want to play Braveheart in (more historically accurate) game form? Hammer is, like the war it emulates, a game largely about loyalties. As you may recall, English and Scottish nobles would switch sides between the Edwards and whomever was standing for the Scottish throne based on whoever was handing out the biggest bribes. That's reflected in Hammer by nobles being captured or having their home territory occupied and immediately switching sides as a result. So, it's often possible for a losing side to have the advantage in the spring simply by taking hold of some key territories. This loyalty rule extends down as far as the Ulster and Welsh units, who can't be relied upon when facing the Scots (and imitating one of the more memorable moments of Braveheart.) Since the game is about loyalty, victory is also tied to that, as the winner of either scenario is that player who controls the most nobles.
In most cases, it's normal for the English to be on the front foot with their superior forces and archers until the Scottish side can hold out long enough to turn some heads (or remove them.) Like many of the ancient- or Middle Ages-based block games, how one handles the end of campaign season and surviving through the winter is key. Unlike Rommel, card play is more varied in Hammer, as there are events that can change the state of the game significantly when played at the right time.
Things I like
History geek that I am, I appreciate the deep attention to historical detail, including the particular circumstances for including both the French knights and the remnants of the Norseman regime that once ruled much of England. Hammer is a wargame that is less about quantity of victories than quality of them, so thinking on the long-term/strategic level at every point of the game is often the key to victory, rather than grinding out a bloody conflict simply to have it. I appreciate the simplicity that makes it an easy entry point to someone just learning about block games (only 8 pages of rules.)
Things I like less
That simplicity does mean that games can feel a bit same-y, at times. That situation isn't helped by the fact that there are only two scenarios to play. However, the fluctuations of the nobles do mean that even games that feel similar can still carry tension for both players, especially if a Coronation event comes in at the right time.
One of my all-time favorites, both for the game and the time period that it covers, Crusader Rex is about the third Crusade, pitting the Ayyubid sultan, Saladin, and the numerically superior Muslim forces against Guy I of Jerusalem, Richard I of England, Philip II of France, and Frederick I Barbarossa, among others, and the human tanks that were Western knights of the time. The key element of Rex is, in fact, time. The Franks (the collective name for the Western forces) are eventually going to show up whenever the Crusader reinforcement draw fills one of the three nations' areas (3 blocks of the same nation must be drawn.) When they do, the whole strategic picture will change, so it's up to the Crusader states to hold out until that point and, conversely, for the Saracens to establish a position that can best resist the onslaught of heavy cavalry.
Like Hammer, Crusader Rex has detailed rules about road limits and unit stacking limits in towns, but it also has movement by sea, which can occasionally radically change the board, and siege rules, as much of the warfare was about taking advantage of the fortresses that were the pillars that held up the Crusader states in the face of the Ayyubid conquest. Since victory is based on controlling the majority of seven particular cities (Aleppo, Damascus, Egypt, Antioch, Tripoli, Acre, and Jerusalem), it's important to know which battles to fight and which place to concentrate your forces, especially for the Saracen player when one of the Western nations is close to being filled and, thus, descending upon the coast.
Things I like
Rex requires adaptability in thinking, since the sudden introduction of a powerful new force for the Crusaders can seriously alter the strategy for both players. The tension created by the draw and it potentially unleashing steel upon the Saracens is a great aspect of the game. However, the more static elements of the game, primarily siege, also have their own kind of tension, since it's important to learn how long to hold a siege and when to abandon it, either in the face of uncertainty or simply attrition. Likewise, knowing when to sit and when to sally from a besieged castle is another thing that comes with experience.
Things I like less
There are no scenarios for the game, so it can potentially feel same-y after a few plays. However, I've found that the uncertainty created by the Crusader player's draw and the variety of approaches to the victory conditions give more than enough variety for plenty of plays.
Shenandoah: Jackson's Valley Campaign
Shenandoah provides an interesting contrast to games like Rommel and Hammer in that the time period is compressed into a few weeks, which makes rapid communication much more important, since coordination has to happen quickly, instead of over a full campaign season. But the forces involved still lacked the technology for instant communication. Thus, the idea of a command radius becomes an essential element of the game. HQ units can only order other blocks one town away (Jackson can command up to two towns away) and only blocks from their own division (Jackson can command any CSA unit.) So, each player has to coordinate what are essentially three separate armies that can only act effectively within a small radius of their respective commanding units. Said commanding unit also loses block steps every time it issues commands (representing the departure of staff and support personnel) and can't function when it reaches zero, which means that it will eventually need reinforcement before it can command (and move) again. Jackson's distinct advantage in command makes it seem like the CSA player has the edge but, just as in the actual war, the USA forces are generally superior to and more numerous than the CSA blocks.
As with Rommel, Shenandoah brings in the complication of supply, but in this case it's mostly connected to receiving reinforcements. That makes it still quite crucial because, bereft of command and/or supply, it's very easy for blocks to become stranded in corners of the board that make them serve no useful purpose, so each player has to consider how best to position its HQs in order to bring all of its forces to bear in the fight over the course of the game. Getting everyone into the fight can be important, not least because victory in Shenandoah is through VPs, which are gained from occupying major enemy towns, but also through eliminating enemy blocks. Just as with the Civil War, fights in this game tend to be bloody, so there are VPs to be had, if you can get your forces organized.
Things I like
The extra level of coordination creates short-term and long-term complications, because you'd like to get the free VPs at the end for simply sitting in major enemy towns, but being able to last there against frequent enemy reinforcements becomes the issue. As the Union player, being wary of the powerful units associated with Jackson and his ability to appear with force in key locations is the always lurking boogeyman to your planning. As the Confederate player, trying to keep your opponent on that knife edge of not knowing where Jackson could appear is important. In this game even more than most block games, subterfuge as to the makeup of your forces and exploiting the fog of war becomes crucial, (all together now) just like history.
Things I like less
The command radius factor, as interesting as it is, can be really difficult for newer players, even those experienced with block games. Games only last 16 turns and it's possible to go through more than one simply maneuvering to set up a future turn and not feel like you're accomplishing a lot until you get more experienced with how command and reinforcements work. Like Crusader Rex, Shenandoah also lacks scenarios, so the variety in plays is going to come strictly from the two players trying to solve the puzzle in a different manner from last time.