To Arms, Brothers!

ddc5c7bcce8b11c31e88a4c646f5c634 Painting by N. C. Wyeth

Board game pal Ben Bruckart asked about gateway war games on Twitter after having a fun experience playing Richard Borg's outstanding Memoir '44 at Prezcon. War games are my favorite board game experience and gateway board games reside at the top of my personal list. Basically, this topic was like candy for me.

War games are an incredibly old genre, and an interesting one. Whereas the rise of Euro games is only about 20 years old now, people have been abstracting war since about the 1950s (if you exclude games like Chess, and if my memory of the Ludology podcast is correct). However, as an elder genre, they've really gone off the deep end at times to precisely abstract and simulate every tiny detail of every tiny element of a battle. As a result, when you go to Board Game Geek's top war games list, you'll see a lot of games that look far too complex for most people to really enjoy. 6 hours for 2 players and a 90 page rule book? Eesh.

The Virgin Queen by GMT is a great example, hilariously depicted by Shut Up and Sit Down.

That makes gateway war games all the more important to me. When someone finds a way to distill a complex subject in a way that preserves the intent and spirit of the experience, I'm intrigued. That's good game design AND arguably more importantly, those are the games that are most fun to play. For me, at least. And this is my blog, so I get to say things like that.

Therefore, I found the notion of recommending a war game very exciting and interesting. It also seemed like good fodder for a post. Where to begin...

The Definition

For me, a war game is a game whose focus is to represent an armed conflict between two more more entities, be it historical or fictional. It is interesting that this genre is defined thematically, not mechanically. Drafting, worker placement, trading -- all defined by mechanics. Perhaps in that sense, war games are the original Ameritrash?

The Right Theme

I have found that theme is very important for one's appreciation of a war game. The conflict that is the topic of the game is very important to your enjoyment. For example, I love Richard Borg's Command and Colors system. Many people look to C&C Ancients as the best title. It focuses on the conflicts of Ancient Rome (ex: Punic Wars), which just doesn't interest me as much. When I read the rules, I found them overly complex and tedious. However, C&C Napoleonics is a huge hit with me. Why? It puts the system to use in the period of Napoleonic warfare. Fun tip: The rules are about the same level of complexity as Ancients.

Your first step in finding the right war game for you is finding the period or theme that interests you. If you like World War II, the infamous charge of the light brigade, commanding huge armies in the 7 Years War, or commanding a squad on the moon, you need to figure that out. Once you answer that question, you know the right direction for your needs.

The System

One thing that is interesting about war games is that many of them adhere to an established framework or system to represent conflicts. Some examples include the COIN System (ex: Andean Abyss) to represent counter-insurgency, the Command and Colors (ex: Ancients), or Conflict of Heroes (ex: Awakening the Bear 2nd Ed).

What makes this compelling and worth noting is that once you find a system you enjoy, you are able to purchase or experiment with other games without having to learn a new game. Games within the systems aren't mere copy/paste jobs with a new theme slapped on. They make changes where appropriate to properly represent the warfare of the time. This keeps the experience fresh and exciting without requiring the initial learning curve.

A similar comparison would be a worker placement game. Once you learn one worker placement game, you have the gist for how another one will work. Are there changes? Of course. But, you know that typically when you place a guy, something will happen and you'll block a space.

Some Starter Suggestions

My first recommendation is always a game from the Command and Colors system by Richard Borg. Within it, you're able to find a breadth of experiences that represent numerous conflicts. Many war gamers have a favorite Borg game, and it's often the one that is about their favorite conflict.

These include:

Ancients

Command and Colors: Ancients: Ancient Roman warfare, defined by melee oriented infantry (spears, swords), and fun things like chariots and elephants.

This one is well supported with expansions.

Napoleonics

Command and Colors: Napoleonics: Napoelonic warfare, defined by a variety of mass infantry formations (skirmishers, elite lines, militia), cavalry, and artillery.

This one is well supported with expansions.

Memoir

Memoir '44: World War II. With the expansions, all theaters are represented. Most scenarios focus on small scale infantry battles with armor and artillery included.

This one is well supported with expansions. My personal collection is shown below.

Memoir

Battle Cry

Battle CryThe American Civil War. Mass infantry formations are key, with slightly higher caliber weaponry than Napoleonics.

BattleLore

Battlelore 2nd Edition: Fantasy warfare with the full minis treatment and some neat custom scenario tools.

Abaddon

Abaddon: MECHS! Do you like Mechs? You should. This one techs you to the future where mechs duke it out using really fun, custom dice.

Samurai

Samurai Battles: In case  the title wasn't self-explanatory, this game focuses on ancient Japanese warfare in feudal Japan. Really cool minis with this one, though it's a bit of setup work.

If I had to pick a Borg to recommend, I'd choose Memoir '44. Days of Wonder are masters of great production values and accessibility. This is a smooth game to learn with 15 scenarios in the base game. Memoir has fewer exceptions with unit types than his other games. Furthermore, World War II is a popular conflict to study and is familiar to a wide range of people. Finally, the game has a great deal of awesome expansions, though some are out of print and a tinge difficult to find. Nonetheless, if you want lots of cool World War II content, this game has it in heaps.

1775

In addition to the Borg title of your choice, I also recommend 1775: Rebellion by Academy Games and designers Jeph Stahl and Beau Beckett. Or, if I may be so bold, I'd recommend this INSTEAD of a Borg title. Why?

For one, it plays with 2-4. Most war games only play with 2 players, which can make them challenging to get to the table. Secondly, 1775 supports team play, which is just outstanding. Finally, it's just a great piece of design. The core actions and content are so simple, yet the game is so full of depth. It's an outstanding example of design to which I aspire.

If the American Revolution doesn't interest you, consider its sister game, 1812: The Invasion of Canada. I own and love it as well (and it plays with up to 5). A third game in the series based on the French and Indian War is also on the way.

Where to look for more War Games

War games are an odd breed. They gather and hang out with themselves. Really, it's no different than other publishers. If you see a game from Queen, chances are it's a euro. If you see a game from Iello, well, it'll be something awesome and probably French.

Here are some dedicated war game publishers who just might have a game for you.

Thoughts? Comments? Share them below!

Comments

I'd certainly mention Twilight Struggle here - it's the top-rated game on BGG, and many of the people playing it will be able to remember at least some of the events it references, so the familiarity helps with learning. The rules aren't too bad, and it can serve as a strong gateway into the extended family of CDGs. It's a shame that We The People is out of print, as it can also serve as that gateway (and I don't think Washington's War is as good or as easy to learn, unfortunately).

I'd argue the depth and time commitment of Twilight pushes it way outside the realm of gateway. I've owned it for two years and haven't had a chance to play it.

It's not really that long, even for a first time, as I remember it. I came to it having played CDGs before, but it moves along pretty crisply. It certainly fits into an evening, which certainly helps for introducing folks.

For a couple more suggestions, War of the Ring is a great time, and for folks interested in the theme would be a ringer. And a lot of people cut their teeth on Axis and Allies, and the recent iterations (A&A Europe, for instance) are still strong gateway games for strategic gaming.

Paths of Glory.