GIL Series: Never Ending War

Games I Love (GIL in the title) is an article series about games I sincerely love. Inspired by numerous "best 100 games of all time" lists, I initially sought to cover 50 games, as it's a nice number. However, upon reflection, I settled on a core group of 36 games. For each article I've grouped some of the games based on a label or quality I have deemed relevant.

I have always been a huge fan of military history - I still read a book on one topic or another every few books. War and conflict is one of the best premises for games and can be approached and abstracted from several angles. Richard Borg alone has gone from World War I to Waterloo to fictional space and mechs with a single system. Some games tackle logistics, others maneuver, some grand strategy, others planning, others just the sheer chaos of war. I've chosen three games that are probably my favorite war games. Games I've gone back to numerous times. This is the category for which I pained myself the most to be hyper stringer. I wanted to include the excellent Sekigahara. I wanted to include the fantastic Star Wars Armada. But, I held firm on the razor. For this post, I'm discussing Memoir '44, X-Wing Miniatures Game, and Combat Commander: Europe.

Memoir '44

I think Memoir '44 is a perfect balance of accessibility, abstraction, and complexity. Players take turns playing a single card to activate infantry, artillery, and tanks in one or more of their three flanks. Units move and shoot, rolling dice to inflict damage or causing infantry to flee. Some cards cause slightly different effects, but everything is intuitive. Terrain also acts in simply intuitive ways. You cannot cross rivers. Tanks are less effective attacking into a forest. Hills slow movement. Ultimately, you have an excellent toolbox with which to express arguably the greatest (in size) conflict in human history. 

And what a toolbox it is. The Memoir '44 system is as vast as the conflict itself. You can purchase additional terrain to add fuel depots and trains and different kinds of bridges. Perhaps you're interested in exploring the deadly bonzai charges of the Imperial Japanese army at Guadalcanal, or trying to take down a Tiger tank? Aircraft are seamlessly introduced and can turn the tide, but also outflank an opponent with beautiful little miniatures. If you can get them, the Campaign books add persistent campaign effects that let you explore multiple stages of a conflict. 

In a way, it takes the elegance of Advance Wars and the explosions of Battlefield V and merges it into a simple tabletop game. 

But, as you invest and organize your collection to explore the tense stand-off at Stalingrad or the effectiveness of Finnish ski troops, you also explore more and more nuance as it's gently doled out. Instead of normal infantry, post up with a machine gun squad, or anti-tank squad. See how mortars affect things, or barbed wire, or Nebelwerfers (aka "Screaming Mimis"). You can use the provided tokens, or buy the Equipment Pack with new miniature molds for each. Hell, I have Polish cavalry!

The best though is the Overlord mode. Gather eight people total. Each player takes one flank on each side, with a general on each team to dole out cards and handle the broad strategy. The game handles this robust extension beautifully, seamlessly. It is a broad social game and if you have about two hours it's a great way to spend an afternoon.

Over the years I've played with the Ancient Romans, the Napoleonic dragoons, mechs, and more. But, Memoir '44 is the perfect balance of complexity and exploring a broad topic. It's a really great game and one that has endured in my affections and my interests. 

  • 2 or 8 players (vanilla vs. Overlord) and about 45 minutes to setup and play
  • Designed by Richard Borg
  • Published by Days of Wonder
  • Large investment (over $50 - mostly due to the full range of content)
  • Core game is in print. Various expansions are in various stages of limited availability. 
  • Expansions: So many, and they're very good.

X-Wing Miniatures Game

Here are a few wild hot takes - I think everyone in their heart wants to play a miniatures game. It brings out our inner child of moving toys around and making noises with our mouths as spit flies out. Secondly, I think miniatures game companies have no clue what they have and often make lousy games walled off behind onerous entry points of great expense and great labor. Paint this, glue that. Yeck. And finally, it is shocking how Fantasy Flight launched a great solution to this about 7 years ago and everyone else is so hilariously bad at replicating it. 

Let me expound.

X-Wing Miniatures takes a beloved franchise and makes fantastic, pre-assembled, pre-painted toys to move around your table and make mouth noises why spit flies out. At one point, Micro Machines shifted form the tiny dinky cars to making bigger, meatier tanks, A-10 Warthogs, and eventually, Star Wars fighters. I loved them. We made countless games out of them. When Fantasy Flight launched X-Wing, my 13 year old self said "fuck yes" and began throwing money gleefully to acquire this. 

X-Wing is really simple. You get a fighter with various movement options. You both choose them secretly and surprise and the unexpected abounds. You have basic combat protocols of attack and defense with a few special powers. Again, a little surprise abounds. What's great about X-Wing is that luck helps, but a better pilot will win the day. It's a good mix, and it's a balance that is difficult to attain.

Most fun, though, is creating a list of fighters you love, or weird options. I love making A-Wing and B-Wing lists. These were always my favorite ships from the video game, and frankly, I love me some fighter-bombers. My friend Antonio loves to make fictional thematic lists from scenes in the movie. The point system does a fairly good job of keeping things reasonably balanced while still allowing for creativity. And, at $10-15 a pop for new ships, you can experiment relatively cheaply. 

A quick note: I love the 2nd Edition rules changes. I've said for years that the growing complexity of the game's action economy needed to be shifted. 2nd Edition really shifts the game in the direction I wanted. It brings the focus back to flying and simpler ships. Leveraging the app to re-balance tuning and keep the meta sharp and interesting is also a fundamental change that I love. 

If you want to play a miniatures game, but don't want to deal with miniatures nonsense, I think X-Wing is rich, well-crafted, beautifully presented, and a ton of fun. 

  • 2 players, about an hour to play (though this is the type of game you can expand as big as you want and play with as many people as you want as long as folks are "cool")
  • Designed by Jason Little
  • Published by Fantasy Flight Games
  • Medium investment (Between $20 and $50), but it will likely be large if you like it.
  • Easily Available
  • Expansions: So many, and they're really great.

Combat Commander: Europe

Combat Commander is a hefty meal. The game takes about three hours to play, which is not due to its complexity, which can vary, but because that's how long it takes for the story and narrative to develop. Combat Commander will tell stories, dynamically, using its beautiful systems. I don't mean the story in the sense far too many people think, which is an overly verbose piece of flavor text on the card. I mean that your squad of machine gunners will hold off an entire company of Germans, then suddenly a hero will emerge to lead a bayonet charge counter attack. I mean the fires from an artillery shell will slowly spread, causing a sniper to dislodge himself from his perch, which allows a beleaguered sergent to rally his men forward. 

The game will tell a story over time because of its dynamic event system baked into the cards.

The other thing Combat Commander does so well is present Von Moltke's theory that "no plan survives contact with the enemy." While some may play it once and think it's just random that a sniper claims your Lieutenant, or the German Hero stymies your advance, those who dig in will see that this is a very skillful game. It is a game of reaction, mitigating chance, and dealing with the unknown. You'd never hire a general who cannot deal with uncertainty, and Combat Commander expects no less of its players. 

I love this meaty, thoughtful game. It's built on a damn simple framework, but slowly expands and evolves into something rich and complex. This is the omakase of war games and I think it is brilliant. I haven't played it in far too long, so I shall end this post to get to that end. 

  • 2 players, about 3 hours to play
  • Designed by Chad Jensen
  • Published by GMT Games
  • Large Investment (Over $50)
  • Easily Available
  • Expansions: Yes, at a wide range of price points and premises, which is cool.